Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and the Need for a Linguistics PR Team

I could spend this article picking apart or promoting Pinker’s Conceptual Semantics, but what’s the point? There’s not enough room in a blog post to do either. So instead I’d like to devote this post to how much the field of linguistics needs a PR team.

The gap between linguists and the public is no more evident than in the crap people believe about language despite the truth linguistics has to offer them. More often than not, the public’s belief and the linguistic fact are polar opposites. They are so far apart that it inspired me to invent McVeigh’s Law, which states that the probability of an answer or explanation being true is directly proportional to how boring it is. This means that the most boring answer or explanation is usually the correct one (compare the etymology of fuck to what you probably heard about the king and his consent).

Fortunately, other more capable and respected people in the linguistics field have also noticed the need for a Linguistics PR team. Language Log has been fighting the good fight for a while now, as have Language Hat and Stan Carey. But last week saw the introduction of Popular Linguistics Magazine, which aims to do for linguistics what Scientific American has done for physics. Here’s hoping.

There is, of course, danger in getting the public very much involved with an academic field. It’s not that the public is dangerous to academia, it’s just that their general knowledge tends to muddy the scientific waters. For all the zeal and interest people may have in a particular academic field, there’s a point where they go from member of the public to professional in the field. The crossover usually requires a degree, which is all fine and good, but the Internet poses and interesting dilemma. With the ability of anyone to write anything about anything, professionals that attempt to educate the public in their field may find themselves with a new-found appreciation for Dr. Frankenstein (autism, anyone?).

I bring this up because there are competing theories in linguistics, theories that aim to explain the most basic principles of language. Scientific American may have been able to bring physics to the people, but physics come pre-packaged with an organized set of basic equations and principles. There may be debate on topics such as astrophysics, but no one is calling into question the equation that explains gravity. Linguists, on the other hand, can’t even agree on the purpose of language, let alone how or why it developed. <

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole of science I don’t understand, I'll bring it back to Pinker because The Stuff of Thought is his attempt to explain the very nature of language and how it offers us a window into the human mind. It’s a noble goal and it places Pinker in the class of hip authors, who are trying to bring science to the masses. Fortunately, he isn’t a journalist tying a bunch of common sense ideas together and calling it revelatory. No, Pinker at least knows his stuff (even if his writing style is poor).

And if there is one thing that is good about Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, it’s that it pulls linguistics away from philosophy and toward science. Linguistics has only recently undergone the change from armchair philosophic theories to actual, provable, and evidence based theories. The debate among linguists about the basic nature of language may always be a very philosophical debate, but Pinker aims to back up his theory with scientific research, unlike some linguists who develop explanations for language that by their very nature can never be proved and therefore allow the linguists to never be backed in a corner. They can just deny, deny, deny.

I enjoy the shift linguistics is making away from philosophy and abstractions. I imagine that if this trend continues, Pinker’s book will be viewed positively, even if his theories are later proven wrong because it was a step in the right direction. I think the first step for the Linguistics PR team should be to explain the basic debates surrounding the major theoretic fields, as well as to squash the old wives etymology tales (Best way to do that? Make everyone aware of McVeigh’s Law). Keep it simple, people. If the PR team is able to do that, I think they really can bring linguistics to the people in the way that Scientific American brought physics to the masses. Here’s hoping.

Up next: City of Thieves by David Benioff


The Lemmy Kilmister Diet Program

Fuck a bunch of raw food diets. Screw that no carbs bullshit. What you need is some straight up whiskey and speed, bitch. The Lemmy Kilmister Diet Program will not only make you thin and attractive, it will also make you the coolest, most badass motherfucker on the planet. You will be fucking nails. Just look at what it did for Lemmy.

Photo courtesy of Eamonn McCabe/Guardian

The recent exposé of Herr Kilmister, which is sofuckingawesome that you should buy it right now, has inspired me to invent the Lemmy Program. The Lemmy Program is a dieting revolution. It already has a 100% proven track record. 100%! That’s more than any of those other bitch ass diets can claim. Word.

The Lemmy Program couldn’t be easier. There’s no schedule, no checklist, and no pansy ass diet diary. There are only two ingredients in the Lemmy Program – speed and whiskey. By restricting your daily intake to these two groundbreaking supplements, you will force your body to sink or swim. Your respiratory system will work together with your liver in a live-or-die scenario, ensuring that your body makes it through the day in the most high octane way possible.

But it doesn’t stop there, fatsos. For a limited time only, I, Dr. Joe McVeigh, inventor of the Lemmy Program and sole licensed practitioner of Japanese Eyeball Poking in the US, will come to your house and blast some serious fucking metal to enhance your Lemmy Program experience. My choice of the most shred-worthy songs will boost your immune system by causing you to want to rip the face off the next person you see (not me, though – don’t even try it, punk). Then I will leave the music at your place, so you can blare it any time you engage my patented Lemmy Program revitalization.

I can hear you wondering if the Lemmy Program is too much for you. “But Dr. McVeigh, aren’t speed and whiskey bad for the body?” you ask. Let me tell you something. If you’re wondering these things, you’re a sissy and you need to man up. You think some punk ass vegetables are going to cure you of being a fat, lazy slob? Get real. You’re so far gone that nothing short of speed and whiskey is going to get your ass in motion. And that’s what the Lemmy Program is – speed and whiskey. In. That. Order. Bitch.

Call now.

How to Win Any Argument

Are you having trouble winning arguments? Are people constantly telling you that you don’t have any “facts” or “research” to back up your claims? What are “facts” and “research” anyways?

Well suffer no longer, my fellow uninformed individual. I have developed a foolproof way for you to win any argument, no matter what the subject or how little you know about it. Follow these simple steps and you’ll leave your opponent with their head shaking.

The main idea is very simple. All you have to do in any argument, no matter what gambit is thrown your way, is just deny, deny, deny. Many of you do this already, but there are ways to make your denial even stronger, compounding it until you’re be able to deny the denial that you’re denying – the ultimate goal in my Denial Spiral Plan.

So you’ve got the denying down, right? You’ve been doing it since you could talk, but where can you go from there? There are lots of smart people out there who know lots more about things than you do, aren’t there? How are you supposed to beat them in an argument when they know all kinds of big words and technical terms? Worry not, my dear fucktards. All you have to do is deny them in a certain way.

Since you’re gullible and dumb, I want you to go ahead and convince yourself that there are only three types of people that don’t agree with you. There, that feels better, don’t it? Now, let me tell you how to beat them (remember: deny).

Situation #1 – You vs. Captain Obvious

Let’s say a superhero tells you that his eyes are blue. You look at his eyes, and they are clearly blue. How are you to deny this? Easy. Just tell him that they are only blue to people who aren’t colorblind. And that to colorblind people, his eyes are actually shades of gray. Boom! Denied. Whaddya think about that, Mr. Fancypants Superhero? It seems you weren’t giving us all the facts when you said your eyes are blue, were you? No. No, you were not.

Situation #2 – You vs. The Fact Checker

So some doctor has just called into question your claim that people can leap tall buildings in a single bound. You show Dr. Knowitall the facts, but he says comics from the 1930s were notoriously profit driven and prone to exaggeration to sell more issues. It would seem that your argument is at a standstill. But wait! What’s that? Look, up in your head, it’s a revelation, it’s common sense. No, it’s denial! All you have to do is tell this doctor chump that your child has shown you the truth, that looking at your child’s belief is all the “facts” you need. Then overtly imply that being a doctor and all probably means he’s in the pocket of Big Pharma. Boom! Denied.

Situation #3 – You vs. The Researcher

Picture this: You’re at a party telling someone how Japanese Eyeball Poking completely cured your fear of heights when you overhear one of them university researchers say that studies show you can’t polish a turd. You swoop in to put the smack down, but this pencilhead’s not having it. Apparently believing that your shit don’t stink isn’t enough for him. What are you to do? This man won’t listen to reason. He’d rather believe research about what other people’s doo doo don’t do instead of what your doo doo does do. Well, there’s an easy way out of this log jam. Guess what it is? Tell this turd burglar to piss off. Denied!

Introducing the Ancient Healing Art of Japanese Eyeball Poking

Japanese Eyeball poking is an ancient technique that has been practiced in Japan for 40,000 years. This medical miracle has never before been known to the West until now. Have you ever wondered why Japanese people always look so young, healthy, and vibrant? Do you want to use acupuncture but have a fear of needles? Well, wonder and fear no more because Japanese Eyeball poking has arrived.

In the antique practice of Japanese Eyeball Poking, fingers are inserted into the eyeballs at specific, traditionally predetermined points and then wiggled around in various motions. This practice has been known to relieve pain, boost the immune system, increase fertility, and alleviate depression among Japanese people for centuries! Don’t wait, call for a free, no-risk sample eyeball poking today.

The art of Eyeball Poking was first developed around 1400 B.C.E. in the Gugli-I region of Japan. The Ancient Shamans who invented this amazing technique were looking for physical medical treatments to go along with their spiritual healing sessions. What they discovered was the single most important medical miracle in the history of man.

Thousands of years later, the Japanese doctor and poet Lari-Mo Kurli recorded the art of Japanese Eyeball Poking in his classic work NYuk-NYuk. The techniques he described are still used today! Call now and reserve your free eyeball poking consultation!

Eyeball poking has come a long way since its first inception and now it is being introduced to the West by the amazing Dr. Joe McVeigh, Ph.D., D.O.A., D.U.H. As the only licensed practitioner of eyeball poking in the United States, Dr. McVeigh is the only person that can cure you without the need for any kind of medicine at all. Dr. McVeigh is so well versed in Japanese Eyeball Poking that he has been certified by the Eyeball Poking Institute of Tokyo to use all eight of his fingers and both thumbs in his practice!

This is the day you have been waiting for. Don’t wait any longer. Call today to have Dr. Joe McVeigh poke you right in the eyes.

Here’s what the good doctor has to say:

“As the only fully-trained and professional eyeball poker in the West, I am uniquely equipped to treat all of your medical conditions, including but not limited to whooping cough, gout, baldness, blindness, deafness, tooth decay, hangnails, kidney failure, dandruff, broken bones, cancer, AIDS, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and gas with oily discharge.”

Call now!

Crack Rock the Vote

Or, a lesson on narcotics and how, if properly applied, they can be a benefit to our great nation.

The deficit is spinning out of control. We’ve all heard the bad news about how much Congress is spending. Many of us think that they’re wasting our money away. The more intelligent among us know they are. But what are we as concerned citizens to do about it? Well, my fellow Americans, I have a plan. It may be rather eccentric, but after giving it much thought, I think it’s just what this country needs. I ask my readers to bear with me until the end of this article. I believe you will see my reasoning. I ask you also to remember who else was once considered eccentric – the Founding Fathers.

My idea sprung from the life of one of my dear friends. About a year ago, my friend started experimenting with chemically intoxicating himself. After trying a few different narcotics, he landed on one that really struck his fancy – crack. Crack has an interesting history in this country or so I’m told by many of its users. I think that their fervor is what drove my friend to try it – crack is all that crack users want to talk about. He told me later that their stories and one hit was all it took. As soon as my friend tried it, he knew he wanted more.

But what was particularly interesting about my friend’s ventures with crack – and what really piqued the interest of my analytic mind – was the extent to which my friend would go to obtain more crack. He washed my windows with just his spit and his t-shirt for more crack. He reshingled my neighbor’s roof for more crack. He picked each and every hair out of my carpet for more crack. And he performed a host of sexual favors for the elderly woman living upstairs – just for more crack. Once a fervent capitalist who believed spending money was essential to a healthy economy, he now rarely spends even a single dollar, unless it is on crack.

And then it hit me. Why not get Congress on crack?

Congressmen and women can’t seem to stop their spending. They have no problem allocating and exhausting our hard-earned tax dollars on themselves and their districts. It must be stopped, but so far, every single plan to do so has failed. Congress spends more and more each and every year [see graph below]. But what if they were all using crack? The way I see it, they would all be like my friend, the crackhead. They wouldn’t be able to spend a dime on anything but crack.

Now, you may be worried that instead of spending money on pork projects, all that money would go to congressional crack expenditures. But I have thought of that too. Remember that my friend would perform almost any task to get his hands on more crack. I can assure you that balancing the deficit would be no problem compared to some of the things my friend has done. All we have to do is tell them they can have some more crack when the country is out of debt.

Problem solved. You’re welcome, America.

Source: My ass

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The main character gives up his life completely to travel Finland with an injured hare in his pocket. And somehow he’s the sanest character in the book.

I have to hand it to Paasilinna. He has taken the old picaresque story and made it interesting with this book. You don’t often see that done anymore.
But here it is. Vatanen, our main character, decides to leave his life behind after his coworker hits a hare with their car. This may sound crazy, but Vatanen isn’t exactly leaving much behind – a loveless marriage, a job he has come to despise, and no friends.
A story like this in the hands of another writer would seem ludicrous at best and amateur at worst. But Paasilinna’s wit is here to save the day. When Vatanen’s wife calls him crying because he ruined her life (not because he was leaving, mind you), he tells her, “Cry quicker, or the call’ll get too expensive.”
Yes, if you’re going to read a Huck Finn-like story, you might as well read one by a writer with a dark wit. Paasilinna’s humor takes a bit to kick in, but when it does, it hits right in the teeth. The chapter where Vatanen and his hare meet the priest is brilliant.

But The Year of the Hare is not all fun and games. Some of the most poignant scenes in the book come when Paasilinna doesn’t give the reader what they want, like when Vatanen goes up against the vacationing drunks in the cabin next door. At first the outcome was disappointing, but the more I thought about it, the more it showed Paasilinna’s guts as a writer. It was this scene that turned The Year of the Hare from a good read into a great read.
As a side note, the translation I had could have been better. It didn’t ruin the book, but it was noticeably lacking in some parts. I mean, who knows or uses words like “nous” and “baborborygmi”?
Next up: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Photo courtesy of Alexander Parsonage.

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