March 21st, 2006

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Linguistics; what, if anything, are linguists good for?

On February 28th, in the context of medical language and the "discovery" of diseases like "hypoestrogenemia" and "perimenopause," I said: "The problem is that the process of disease 'discovery' is so much more easily and economically done by Invocation-and-Translation than by long years of dedicated labor in the research laboratory, and that laypeople are defenseless against its abuse, and that multi-billion-dollar-a-year industries are highly motivating.This is not a problem of science; this is a problem of language."

Elizabeth Barrette responded with:
"...[D]efining it as a problem of language pretty much means that it is the responsibility of linguists to solve, as they are the language scientists. You have previously highlighted the problem of hostile language, and made considerable efforts at teaching people how they can thwart that. What, then, do you -- with you being a linguist, and having experience in giving defenseless people defenses against other language problems -- suggest as a solution to this problem?"

And Anna Phor [anonymouslypunningly] responded to my recent complaints about the stuff coming out of Lakoff's Rockridge Institute with: "Here's what I've never been able to get my head around with respect to Rockridge. Presumably the ability to frame the terms of a public political debate is part of the facility that some individuals have with language. Some folks are extraordinarily talented musicians; other folks have a way with words and rhetoric and fancy-footwork in keeping the debate on their own terms. I can see the point of linguists studying *how* some individuals are able to accomplish this kind of neat trick... What I don't get is why linguists think that they are going to be good *practioners* of this art, just because they can take it apart and see how it works."

And I once chaired a conference on bilingual education at which a Washington bureaucrat got up and made the following statement: "The reason bilingual education has failed in this country is because the linguists have refused to help."

There seem to me to be two hypotheses floating around in this bowl of wordsoup. One is that if linguists have useful knowledge about language they are morally obligated to put it into a form that will work for the public good. The other is that there's no particular reason to believe that linguists -- just because they're linguists -- will have the skill(s) necessary for doing anything useful with what they know.

I'm inclined to endorse that first hypothesis, because my personal worldview includes the proposition that all scientists are morally obligated to do everything possible to make their knowledge useful for the public good. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the idea of "knowledge for knowledge's sake" unless there's a reasonable probability that the day will come when that knowledge will turn out to be useful for the public good.

I'm not certain how I feel about the second hypothesis. I lean toward the idea that if linguists do their work with sufficient rigor -- no lazy sloppiness -- they will be able to present what they know in a form that at least has the potential for being useful to humankind. Notice that Anna Phor sees the construction and presentation of compellingly persuasive language as an art rather than as a science; if it's an art, then rigor isn't going to help. I don't think it's an art; I think it's a science.

But there's still one factor missing from the discussion, and that is the extraordinary resistance people have to information constructed and presented by linguists. All the other sciences have to be learned from scratch; nobody is born with an innate ability to extract from raw data in the environment the body of knowledge that astronomers and physicists and chemists and biologists and botanists work with. But almost every human being, because he or she is a native speaker of at least one human language, is an expert in the body of knowledge that linguists work with. When an astronomer tells the ordinary citizen that a particular star is of a certain size and shape and character, the ordinary citizen doesn't argue; when a linguist tells the ordinary citizen that it would be more effective to shape a sequence of language in a certain fashion, the ordinary citizen feels perfectly free to say "Oh, I don't think that's right." Linguists in most of the science fiction I read get the sort of respect for their pronouncements that astronomers and physicists and chemists get; in the real world, this rarely happens.

Theoretically (maybe meta-theoretically) linguists should be so linguistically skilled that they would be able to get past this barrier of resistance; they should be able to craft their utterances in such a way that they would be overwhelmingly persuasive. Perhaps -- because that's a genuinely scary possibility -- non-linguists have a blanket rule of verbal self-defense that goes like this:

"Never believe a linguist."
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Recommended link; science and popular culture....

Recommended: the Lablit website at http://www.lablit.com . Described on the "about us" page this way:

"LabLit.com is dedicated to real laboratory culture and to the portrayal and perceptions of that culture – science, scientists and labs – in fiction, the media and across popular culture. The site is intended for non-scientists as well as scientists, and the goal is to inform, entertain and surprise. "