LINGUIST List 4.368

Sun 16 May 1993

Disc: Linguistics in the media

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  1. Lyle Campbell, Scientific American/Linguistics in the media

Message 1: Scientific American/Linguistics in the media

Date: Tue, 11 May 93 13:43:25 CDScientific American/Linguistics in the media
From: Lyle Campbell <SLCAMPLSUVM.bitnet>
Subject: Scientific American/Linguistics in the media

 Given recent interest on LINGUIST in linguistics in the media, I report
here events involving SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (Nov. 1992) & the Greenberg & Ruhlen
article, "Linguistic origins of Native Americans."
 Since Greenberg's classification of American Indian languages has been
rejected for legitimate reasons by nearly all specialists, many linguistis
thought Sci. Am. should not have published this piece and that in any event
the highly controversial nature of the claims should have been acknowledged.
However, there was not even a hint of the controversy, misleading readers to
think this is accepted fact in our field. This precipitated the following
events. (1) Several American Indian linguists jointly wrote a response; they
sent 2 letters, a longer one to Jonathan Piel (editor) explaining the problems,
 and a shorter one intended for publication in Letters-to-the-Editors. Pre-
liminary versions of these were sent out on e-mail for comments. I had
declined participation based on the belief that I was already known to Sci.
Am. staff members as being in opposition and therefore my name among the
signatures would not help achieve the desired results. My e-mail comment to
the compilers of the letter was that I thought it too long to be published
effectively in Letters-to-the-Editors; this was mistakenly taken to mean I
was to be included, and my name was added to the list of signatures. (2) In-
stead of responding to William Poser (Stanford U) who had compiled and mailed
the letters on behalf of the group, Jonathan Piel wrote me the following
(Dec. 17, 1992):
 Your views, and those of your posse !| are not unfamiliar to us.
 Although we respectfully decline the opportunity of publishing your
 extended commentary we would be happy to print the "letter to the
 Editor" ...
Needless to say, I found this both insulting and shocking.
(3) Meanwhile, before this response, I decided to send my own letter. That is,
I reasoned that perhaps Sci.Am. is like my congresspersons, where it is not the
 individual letters but the aggregate weight of the stack to which they
respond; my letter was intended just as added weight for the protest pile.
(4) Ultimately, portions of my letter were published, not the group letter.
Moreover, in the editing process mine was purged, I feel, so that the
sentiments and arguments are unrecognizable. The full text, which can be
compared with the "version" in Letters-to-the-Editors (p12, May issue), is:
 Dear Mr. Piel:
 I must protest the publication of the Greenberg & Ruhlen article ...
 The Greenberg classification of Native American languages has been
 fairly evaluated and rejected over and over in peer review. By
 Greenberg's own account, 80% to 90% of specialists reject his
 proposals, but it is presented in Sci Am with not even a hint of
 controversy or of the overwhelming rejection it has received. Your
 readers have a right to hear that this is far from mainstream
 linguistic science. Greenberg & Ruhlen attempt to achieve through
 publications such as this what substantive argument within their
 profession could not -- an end-run around the normal checks and
 balances on scholarship. When the vast majority of specialists in
 a field work towards the same goal but reject Greenberg's
 interpretation, even the non-specialist will realize that there is
 something wrong with Greenberg's conclusions.
 Criticisms of Greenberg's work include the stunning number of
 errors in his data, languages classified on the basis of little to
 no data ... and his methods have been disproven. Greenberg stops
 after assembling similarities among compared languages -- this is where
 other linguists begin. Similarities can be due to chance, borrowing,
 onomatopoeia, sound symbolism, etc, as well as to inheritance from a
 common ancestor. For a plausible proposal of remote family relationship,
 one must eliminate other possible explanations, leaving common ancestry
 the most likely. However, Greenberg's method merely catalogues the raw
 similarities and assumes them to be evidence of relationship. It groups
 such accidental similarities as French -fue-/German -feuer- `fire' dif-
 ferent IE sources|, or Spanish -di'a-/English -day- different IE sources|,
 while at the same time it misses such true cognates as French -cinq-/
 English -five-/Russian -pyaty-, not apparently similar, but all easily
 derived by normal changes from original Indo-European *-penkwe- `five'.
 The publication of this article in Sci Am is equivalent to an
 endorsement of alchemy! Please print a piece more balanced and
 representative of our field, or at very least print an apology to your
 readers with some indication of the genral status of the Greenberg
 hypothesis within its own field. Moreover, Sci Am has of late in
 general misrepresented historical linguistics, as in Philip Ross's
 "Hard words" (April 1991 issue) -- a shameful distortion of our field
 which in the interest of spectacle over substance has spotlighted the
 radical fringe, missing entirely what the field really does. If
 linguistics can be so misrepresented, one can only wonder about the
representativeness of articles on other areas of science in Sci. Am.

 All suggestion was edited out of my letter that Sci. Am. was not
representative of our field or that it owed an obligation to its readers to
let them know how controvrsial Greenberg's work is.

Sincerely, Lyle Campbell
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