LINGUIST List 14.2022

Sun Jul 27 2003

Disc: Re 'Celtic Found to Have Ancient Roots'

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


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  1. Sally Thomason, Re: 14.2016, Disc: Re 'Celtic Found to Have Ancient Roots'

Message 1: Re: 14.2016, Disc: Re 'Celtic Found to Have Ancient Roots'

Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 11:28:07 -0400
From: Sally Thomason <thomasonumich.edu>
Subject: Re: 14.2016, Disc: Re 'Celtic Found to Have Ancient Roots'


In Linguist 14.2016, Pier Marco Bertinetto makes an excellent point in
response to Peter Forster's comments on Larry Trask's devastating
critique of the Forster & Toth article. It all depends, though, on
which linguists Forster & Toth might decide to consult: the late
Joseph Greenberg and his followers (primarily Merritt Ruhlen)
believe(d), as Greenberg said on more than one occasion, that mistakes
in data didn't matter because his, Greenberg's, powerful statistical
method would take care of any minor effects from such errors.
Bertinetto's sarcasm in his remark about Forster & Toth's
error-ignoring methodology as a new and impressive tool for research
would be lost on anyone with such an attitude toward accuracy. (Of
course, it'd depend on the level of error. Specialists in several
Native American language families have calculated error rates of
60%-100% for some of the data sets in Greenberg's American
classifications.) If Forster & Toth consult linguists who hold
Greenberg's views, then they, like at least one Nobel Laureate in
physics and a few other eminent non-linguists, together with Nicholas
Wade and other ignorant but self-confident reporters, still won't
achieve any useful results. As Bertinetto says, it is remarkable how
widespread the belief is that credentials in, say, physics or biology
qualify someone to make authoritative pronouncements on matters of
linguistic science. And as Bertinetto also says, this is too bad,
because collaboration between competent historical linguists (rather
than the non-historical "formal and computational" linguists who were,
we hear, the PNAS referees for the Forster & Toth paper) could be very
fruitful. Many historical linguists will surely be eager to explore
new methods; the overwhelming objection to Forster & Toth's effort is
the ancient "garbage in, garbage out" problem, which no statistical
techniques, no matter how sophisticated, can overcome.

 Sally Thomason
 University of Michigan
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