LINGUIST List 13.1279

Wed May 8 2002

Disc: New: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


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  1. Dan Everett, Falsifiability vs. usefulness

Message 1: Falsifiability vs. usefulness

Date: Mon, 06 May 2002 08:16:45 +0000
From: Dan Everett <dan_everettsil.org>
Subject: Falsifiability vs. usefulness


Many linguists claim that theoretical statements should be strong and
falsifiable. As I read someplace recently "Needless to say, whether
they are right or wrong, our theories should always make strong,
falsifiable claims." But let's think about this. For example, what
could falsify this very statement? If there is no way to falsify that
statement, is it still worth making?

Let's consider an old alternative to falsifiability, 'usefulness'.
Usefulness may not be *ultimately* incompatible with falsifiability,
but it often is in practice. According to this alternative, the more
useful statement is better than the more falsifiable statement. This
is because the statements of a theory are just tools to perform a
task. Now, to be sure, being clear about what we say usually helps
communication. I like that aspect of falsifiability. But other aspects
of it worry me. What does 'strong' mean in the statement cited? It
means narrowing down the world as much as possible, e.g. as the
phonological statement that "No syllable is ever greater than three
moras in length" narrows down the prosodic world. And yet this
statement is really neither here nor there. Its significance depends
on how useful it is in accomplishing certain goals.

To see this more clearly, consider the following two statements:

(1) Sentences of natural language never surpass 1,173 letters in length.
(2) Agents, more often than not, but not always, are expressed as topics.

Statement (1) is explicit, strong, clear, and falsifiable. Statement
(2) is clear, not very explicit, somewhat weak, and difficult to
falsify. Still, though, (2) seems eminently superior to (1) as advice
for a new linguist.

Just as falsifiability is most associated with Karl Popper, so
'usefulness' is most associated with William James. As I understand
him, James would urge linguists to first ask what it is they want to
do and then how this or that statement or condition,
e.g. falsifiability, helps them to achieve their goal. Pursuing this,
asking whether a statement is falsifiable is like asking whether a
hammer is falsified when I fail to tune my guitar with it.

Falsifiability is, in practice, like snipe-hunting. Pick your favorite
theory. Can you really imagine any circumstances under which its
founders would admit that enough of its statements had been falsified
to warrant chucking it? The typical response of the clever person in
the face of counterevidence is to argue that the counterevidence is in
fact evidence *for* their theory. And I think this is quite a
reasonable response - because it can be useful to hang on to your
theory. If this is true, then falsifiability fails to account for
theory maintenance in the face of apparent counterexamples, even among
those who espouse it.

But it also fails to account for theory shift among its proponents in
the *absence* of counterexamples. For example, as some Topic/Comment
pages in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory have pointed out of
late, a major recent shift in linguistic theory seems to have been
undertaken not because a particular set of hypotheses was falsified,
but, rather, because the founder of the theory decided to do something
else. In neither of the two kinds of cases just reviewed is
falsifiability very useful. And one can imagine other cases, e.g. (1)
vs. (2) above.

Having a 'strong, falsifiable claim' is like owning a well-crafted
shovel. Sometimes it can be useful. But sometimes it gets in the
way. An article or analysis chockablock with strong, falsifiable
claims is not necessarily a better or more useful article than another
lacking them. Each article and each claim must be judged on a
case-by-case basis according to our goals.

Dan Everett
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