Noam Chomsky elicits a lot of emotional reactions. I’ve talked with some linguists who think Chomsky’s been a real roadblock to research in recent decades. Other linguists love Chomsky, but I think they’re the kind of linguists I wouldn’t spend much time talking with. Many people admire Chomsky’s political activism, but sociologist blogger Fabio Rojas distinguishes “the Chomsky’s of the world who sit around and speechify about the man” from the good guys, “the academics whose work leads to tangible improvements.”
When Thomas Basbøll sent me this note,
I [Basbøll] wonder if you react in the same (sympathetic) way to these remarks by Chomsky [text here] as I do. I think he’s right that something happens to research when “applications” come into view. I like his distinction between two conceptions of science, one of which is based on “big data” in which patterns are found by brute information processing, and the other which requires the construction of simple, elegant models that represent the underlying principles that explain what is going on. There’s an important difference between the sort of science that mapped the genome and the sort of science that discovered DNA.
I replied: My linguistics colleagues whom I respect very much think Chomsky is wrong and annoying about many things.
Surrounded by admirers and haters
Chomsky seems to be surrounded mostly by admirers or his haters. The admirers give no useful feedback, and the haters are so clearly against him that he can ignore them. As with others in that situation, Chomsky can then make the convenient choice to ignore the critics who are non-admirers and non-haters. From an intellectual standpoint, those are the people who require the most work to interact with.
I agree with that interpretation of Chomsky’s situation, both in linguistics and politics actually. But I think he’s onto something in this particular case, perhaps not about the state of AI research, or even its prospects, but on the choice that can be made between two different ways of doing science.
The lazy left meets the grasping right
This all made me think of the political aspects of the scholarly criticism that Basbøll and I have been doing in recent months.
The question came up in our discussion of sociologist Karl Weick, who tells poorly-sourced stories to audiences of scholars and business executives: I see some sort of alliance there between the lazy left (who, I think, secretly believe in the inevitability and scientific correctness of right-wing economics and embrace anti-scientific thinking as a way out) and the grasping right (who are always on the lookout for stories that justify inequalities of wealth and power). What to do with this political angle? I don’t know. We can blog on it, but I don’t have any ideas right now about how to think about this more systematically.
P.S. This post really isn’t about linguistics, but some commenters requested that I link to some specific criticisms of Chomsky’s linguistics work, so here’s something from Bob Carpenter and here’s something from Dominik Lukes.