December 4th, 2006

ozarque figure

Scientific mass fabulation, oh my.....

Here's Mark Liberman, quoting himself [that's "quoting his own self" in Ozark English] at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003855.html#more :


"As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that 'scientific studies' like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would [various journalists] say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story."


I'm terrified by my immediate suspicion that Liberman is right about this, because although the analogy is hilarious the consequences aren't. The consequences are massive misunderstandings and confusion about things that really do matter. Things like global warming. And stem cell research. And whether women have brains enough to find the bathroom alone. And asteroids smashing into the Earth. And what causes [insert your disorder of choice here]. And so on, madly, into the nevernevers.

I used to believe that the massive public infogap in science was confined to linguistics, and that it was a gap that could be filled, given a respectable effort on the part of linguists. (Like Language Log, for instance.) It never crossed my mind that perhaps the condition was spreading into all the sciences, and that it was the result of a New Rhetorical Principle we might formulate like this:

"As long as it's sort of like an Aesop's Fable or a bible story, it doesn't matter whether a science account is actually true."

"Lighten up, man, it's just a story?"

It's a whole new genre of horror.