Monday, October 31, 2011

Off the shelf...

This may come as a surprise to some folks (I know it did to me) but Noam Chomsky is not just a card-carrying Wobbly and pinko editorialist, but he's also one of the foremost experts on linguistics on the planet. If you want to learn something on the topic, it's hard not to bump up against his studies, and so you just have to filter out the wacky and drive on.

On a similar note, I'm currently enjoying my copy of The Greatest Show on Earth, which is a wonderfully informative and entertaining book and recommend and two thumbs up and so forth, but it would be ever so much more enjoyable if Dawkins would stick to his specialty, which is evolutionary biology, and not make a parenthetical aside once a chapter to blame the Chixculub crater on George W. Bush and Pat Robertson...

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Really?
I thought people knew him first for his linguistics studies and then for his nutty political positions.

In any case, the Beauty (my wife), who had to study his work in grad school, can't stand him in any field he writes in.

Terry

Heroditus Huxley said...

Pretty much what Terry said. And, while Chompsky is a brilliant linguistics expert, it's turned him into a total arrogant @$$.

LabRat said...

You and me both. I have several of Dawkins's earlier books, and he was possibly the most lucid writer on evolution for the layman out there, ever. That he's descended into full time believer-bothering is a tragedy.

Robin said...

Noam Chomsky was indeed a foremost expert in linguistics.

But in an analogous situation to Freud, almost all of Chomsky's original hypotheses have been dropped on the side of the road since.

Kristopher said...

WTF?

http://tinyurl.com/zombiemax

Just dropped in my mailbox ....

Anonymous said...

I read some Chomsky while in college.
He seemed to be the most unreadable writer I had ever had the misfortune to be assigned to read.
He's still the same.

Life is too short to Chomsky it up.

Suz said...

I can't read Dawkins anymore;it's become difficult to keep track of all the tangents. I thought it was my shrinking attention span...

Graybeard said...

Reading the comments reminds me of the famous author's rejection letter,

"Your work is both original and brilliant. Unfortunately, we cannot accept your manuscript for publication because the parts that are original aren't brilliant and the parts that are brilliant aren't original".

Old NFO said...

Never knew Chomsky was an expert in linguistics, I just knew he was an off the wall editorialist...

CGHill said...

Fields of expertise are not infinitely extensible: the man who knows A better than anyone else doesn't necessarily know jack about B through Z inclusive.

wv: "archoon." A Greek official with a tendency to drive like a maniac.

Anonymous said...

As Vox Day put it in his book, "The Irrational Atheists," "[Dawkins] writing style remains as approachable as ever, but what he no longer possesses is a firm grasp of the very Reason of which he believes himself a champion."

For those of us who believe schadenfreude should be savored like fine wine, Vox uses logic and facts to point out the simple errors of Dawkins et al.

If you're too cheap to buy TIA as a book, it can be downloaded at Vox's blog. His book on our continuing Depression is recommended too.

Anonymous said...

What, no mention of the Chomskybot from this group?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomskybot
http://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl

Anonymous said...

My question being; if a man shows that he is insane in one area of his thinking, why do we trust his thinking in other areas?

-Kresh

Tam said...

Kresh,

Because the reverse of Doctoritis is also a fallacy.

Cond0010 said...

Hmmm... lots of bloggy goodness here. Aside from my curiosity peaked by the fact that Chomsky was a linguist expert, there was Graybeards quote (that is going in my archive), and Annoying-Mouses (11:14) pointer to Vox Day.

...and here's a pleasant Dawkins' speech to enjoy (along with nice music and pleasant video):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOXMjCnKwb4

(Yes, I am a Catholic and an unwavering Christian, but even an atheist has some cool stuff to say. Almost Carl Saganistic... Enjoy!)

Thanks everyone!

Jim said...

>>>foremost experts on linguistics on the planet. If you want to learn something on the topic, it's hard not to bump up against his studies, and so you just have to filter out the wacky and drive on.<<<

Precisely.

It parallels all sorts of people brilliant in one field, simply mouthy in others. Rickover, for instance. If you wanted to know about nuclear propulsion plants, you asked him. When he drifted into how American citizens must live their lives, you could nod off without loss.

And, OT, thanks for the trackback a couple of days ago.

montieth said...

For someone who supposedly understands language, he has an awfully tortured view of what certain words mean and what certain events entail.

Like for example, this gem...."Pol Pot saved Cambodia".

That must be some other meaning of the term "saved" that I was previously unaware of...Like MANY liberals, he seems to subscribe to the Humpty Dumpty school of language and meanings.

Anonymous said...

According to a language history professor I heard once, Chomsky's "problem" was taking an aspect of the human capability for language and turning it into a basis for politics and economic systems. Yes, almost all human children can learn at least one language. That does not mean that all philosophical doctrines are equal and that Israel is the source of all evil (Yes, I'm exaggerating a little). That's where Chomsky sailed off the deep end. And as Robin said, a great deal of Chomsky's work has been either dis-proven or found to be unprovable and therefore more or less useless.

LittleRed1

Anonymous said...

"Because the reverse of Doctoritis is also a fallacy."

What is your recommended amount of time that I should listen to the bum, rambling incoherently away on the subway, before I recognize that I'm probably not getting any pearls of wisdom this session?

-Kresh

Tam said...

If he's telling you about the intricacies of surviving on the subway as a bum, Kresh, you should give him your undivided attention. He might know a thing or two about it. ;)

Anonymous said...

I think that Howard Zinn scarred me after struggling to get through two chapters of his ranting that claimed to be a history book. I now have trouble trusting anything an author with lefty/ socialist tendencies writes. I have a book on Hirohito I would love to read, yet the author stated that he received advice from Noam Chomsky (on how to present the WW2 aspect) which makes the author's academic work suspect in my mind. I'm also torqued about being out the $28 bucks because I didn't bother to read the forward.

Am I afraid of intellectual ghosts that I can only see due to my inherent right-wing bias (Zinnaphobia)? Am I over-reacting?

I ask this with no malice, no intent to troll, or to mock. I am genuinely curious as to how readers can trust the work of people who hold beliefs in obviously flawed philosophies that tend to get people killed in numbers large enough to require new terms to describe the amount of carnage?

Oh, and yes, I'll agree about the bum... until he tells me Stalin was misrepresented, then I'll wonder who's slipping him food on the side.

-Kresh

AMB said...

I actually ran into Chomsky's work the other way around. Chomsky, despite his wacky politics and conspiratorial world view, has done some, frankly, brilliant work with languages.

The Chomsky Hierarchy, for instance, is an incredibly useful tool for describing languages and grammars. It explains why, e.g., computer programming languages are different from natural human languages like English.

So after learning quite a bit of Chomsky's professional work in college, I ran across one of his books bitching about US Hegemony and had a moment of cognitive dissonance as I realized that Chomsky was both a brilliant linguist AND an incoherent raving conspiracy looney.

Newsflash: one can be both brilliant and crazy. Film at 11.

bedlamite said...

Clicky

mariner said...

Once I can see what a Space Cadet Chomsky is when he talks about things I DO understand, how can I have faith that he really understands things that I don't?

Gell-Mann, anyone?

Tam said...

mariner,

Not applicable.

The modern educational system guarantees that one learns more and more about less and less.

There are brilliant mathematicians who think Jews aren't really human. I've known MD's who knew everything there was to know about, say, the circulatory system, who had some pretty wacky ideas about guns and crime and taxation. There are brilliantly successful businessmen and inventors who think that the god of a Middle Eastern tribe created the universe in 4,004 BC.

And socialism isn't counterfactual in the way that, say, "2+2=5" or "Nazis are on the moon". Or even crazy. It's a perfectly valid way to run a country given a set of base assumptions which you (and I) do not share.

Sigivald said...

What Robin said.

Chomsky earned his initial academic credibility, but none of it's really panned out.

Which is not an indictment, because that's how Science! works, but it does mean he can be safely ignored if you're not doing history-of-linguistics.

(And agreed contra Mariner; one can be legitimately brilliant in one field while completely wacko in others.

Take everything Einstein said about government or foreign policy or "peace", for instance.)

Moriarty said...

My undergraduate adviser was the editor-in-chief of Behaviorism, so I got a fair dose of Chomsky.

Skinner read Chomsky's critique of Verbal Behavior and thought he was a harmless crank who missed the point entirely. (Skinner never responded with a detailed refutation until many years later.)

Chomsky is often credited with sparking the "Cognitive Revolution" in psychology, but it was well underway by the time he came along. While he made a number of good points, his academic body of work was looking threadbare by the mid-1980s, even to cognitive psychologists.

I think once Chomsky realized that his linguistic star was setting, he parlayed his academic capital into credibility as a political commenter. I suspect he'll be remembered far less for his nativist linguistic theory than high-grade nutburger polemics.

Maybe old B.F. was right about him after all.