LINGUIST List 13.1375

Thu May 16 2002

Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Everett, RE: 13.1367, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness
  2. Dan Everett, falsifiability vs. usefulness: two addenda

Message 1: RE: 13.1367, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Date: Wed, 15 May 2002 23:50:01 -0300
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: RE: 13.1367, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Martha McGinnis says about my assertions on usefulness that: "(I take it
that Dan isn't talking about linguistics being useful for passing the
time pleasantly, or for allowing linguists and their publishers to make
a living.)"

Oh, I am not so sure, actually. Usefulness in the Jamesian sense does
include an obligation for science to have some positive social role. I
think that passing the time pleasantly is quite a useful way to spend
one's life. And making a living is a good thing too. I wouldn't say that
these exhaust my sense of usefulness. But they are closer to capturing
my motivation than 'getting closer to the Truth' is. The rainbow is too
long to go in search of that pot of gold. I want to be able to figure
out why people, say, structure their phrases the way they do. I want to
be able to make good bets about where the tones go in a Piraha word. And
I have other little incremental goals along the way. But I don't think
these lead into the Truth. 

Martha also recounts as an example of someone admitting that their
proposal had been falsified that "Chomsky gazed silently at the
blackboard for a full minute. Then he turned, grinned, and agreed it was
a problem. He spent the few remaining lectures hastily demolishing and
rebuilding his theory." I have seen Chomsky do this too. He is a careful
linguist and a model to follow in some ways. Many others are too. I
don't take this lightly. But really all it means is that at that point
Noam couldn't think of a good answer. The answer might have been to
change a definition, to alter a proposal, or to reject the example as
'acceptable but ungrammatical'. (These are all possible responses. The
latter one, by the way, is great falsifiability insurance.)

To take a much more modest example, when I am working on a new language
for the first time and I think that I have figured out how to form a
phrase of one type or another, I try it out on a native speaker. I get
laughed at a lot. I say embarrassing things. One take on this is that my
analysis has been falsified. But in fact, as in Chomsky's lecture, I
have simply been shown that what I tried didn't work the way I expected
it to. Was my analysis wrong or are there other variables coming into
play? In fact, the possibility of other, undiscovered variables can
never be ruled out.

Martha concludes by saying "In my experience, linguists do this sort of
thing constantly, if not always quite so publicly. So I don't accept
Dan's pessimistic view of the field. On the whole, I think we are
searching for the truth."

Let me say this: I am not pessimistic about the field. I love
linguistics. It is the most interesting field of study I can imagine
undertaking. The field is great (though it had better find a
contribution to make to the undergraduate curriculum or we are all going
to be back in English departments). But it ought not to think it is
after Truth. Cause that ain't a reasonable goal for primates. We don't
even know what that would be. But that doesn't make me pessimistic. No,
not at all. 

Dan Everett
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Message 2: falsifiability vs. usefulness: two addenda

Date: Thu, 16 May 2002 06:51:01 -0300
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: falsifiability vs. usefulness: two addenda

1. A theory which explicitly excludes Truth-seeking from its goals may
nevertheless seek greater and greater empirical coverage and
justification for every proposal made. This is another reason I can be
optimistic about the health and development of linguistics, in spite of
a rejection of the idea that we are getting closer to the Truth.
2. In some postings I have said that this or that individual's posting
was more or less useful than other proposals. I did not intend to give
offense by this. I did, however, find some proposals more useful to me
in refining my thoughts. That is all I meant and if offense was taken I
apologize for that.

Dan Everett
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