Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why Lakoff matters   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2006 10:12:00 AM

Here is a snip from Chris' updated conclusion from his post smacking Lakoff every which way:
When I first started writing this post, I used the title The Devil v. The Devil, but that seemed a bit too silly. It was meant to indicate my distaste for both Lakoff and Pinker...I point this out to make it clear that my only real stake in the debate between two people I sincerely dislike (at least professionally; I don't really know either of them personally, though I've met them both) is the science, and in this case, Pinker is right on the science, and Lakoff is wrong. Furthermore, instead of presenting intellectual arguments to convince us that he's right, Lakoff just makes shit up.

Here is a comment from my other weblog:
You also ignore what is the vast majority of the post: countering Pinker's mischaracterizations. Lakoff takes the time to do extensive citing of his positions. I know that 's not convenient for a lot of good "shocking" and "thrashing," but it does make a convincing argument. Not that it matters anymore.

I don't know much cognitive science, so I wasn't familiar with a lot of the terminology and literature that Lakoff tossed out in the second half of his argument, so of course I wouldn't address that part of the essay! Now, I did strongly suspect that Lakoff was trying to bullshit us though. I am not totally ignorant of cognitive science, and I didn't think Lakoff's characterization of the "new" vs. "old" model was correct, and I also was skeptical of his citation of Kahneman and Tversky as supporting his ideas as I am familiar with their project. Chris laid out in explicit detail the shit that Lakoff was pulling, and basically confirmed my sense that he was trying to "dazzle" us with terminology (for whatever you think of Pinker, his essay was at least an attempt to communicate in plain English!).

I wanted to highlight the comment above because it elicited in me a sense of deja vu. Where else have we heard the "you haven't refuted all the citations!" or "you haven't addressed all the arguments!" canard? This is the sort of thing that crops up in the Creationism/I.D. debates all the time, "you haven't refuted all of Dembski's arguments based on information theory!" Or, "well, the second law of thermodynamics refutes evolution!" Or, "well, evolutionary biology is a mover philosophy, not a science." And so on. Now, I know a little about evolution, so if someone tries to show how Fisher's Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection refutes the long term possibility of evolution because of the exhaustion of genetic variation due to selection, I can respond in a quick & compact manner. It isn't hard to respond to the thermodynamics talking point, and Creationists don't even know what they're saying so it isn't a big deal when you point out to them a close vs. open system distinction (quite often they expect you to be dumbfounded and they've won the point since you couldn't respond, but they have lots of other gibberish so they aren't totally dejected with that miss).

I am not hinting at an analogy between Lakoff's form of cognitive linguistics and Creationism to simply attack Lakoff because I feel he is condescending to the Right. I never really cared much about framing until I read Chris' weblog and understood that Lakoff wasn't as revolutionary or mainstream as he presented himself as (I had gotten hints of this before). Cognitive science is a new field, and there aren't as many established models and paradigms, so in terms of the magnitude it is out of line to call Lakoff's ideas in relation to mainstream cognitive science similar to the relationship of Creationism to evolutionary biology. But, the vector points in a similar direction insofar as Lakoff's ideas are out of the mainstream, and, he attempts to present his own viewpoint as accepted orthodoxy, or the "new wave" which is marginalizing the older models. From all I can gather this is false, Lakoff works out of the mainstream, so no matter the quality of the science he is fundamentally mischaracterizing the nature of the scientific debate by framing (for lack of a better term) other cognitive scientists as the dead past (and his characterization of the ideas that emerged out of the cognitive revolution as being traced to Descartes is a bit idiosyncratic, though I think I can understand what he's trying to say and where he's getting this from, I think it is giving the audience a fallacious impression, the primary aim of which reinforce the perception that Lakoff = new, other guys = old). This is very similar to Creationists who argue that evolution is the past and that Dembski and Michael Behe are the theorists and researchers who we have to focus on for the future. No matter the nature of Dembski or Behe's work, the idea that they are the researchers who are revolutionary and the wave of the future is a total falsehood. I specifically demand anyone who promotes Intelligent Design to concede this point, or I won't talk to them, because there's not point in having a debate where one of the parties commits themselves to a false perception of the nature of scientific culture as it is. Paradigm shifts do happen, but until they do we must give appropriate respect to the orthodoxies of the day. Science is a system which depends upon acknowledging the accumulated body of knowledge of the present to build bridges into the future. You can reject biology as it is now, but, I do not accept individuals attempting to recast the state of the debate in biology by inventing pure fictions. This is also a point I bring to the fore in other debates; e.g., as to whether the Indo-European languages are indigenous or exogenous to the Indian subcontinent, when I have engaged brown nationalists who enjoy entertaining fantasies on par with Creationists I grant them the right to indulge their fantasies, but I reject their attempt to assert that the state of the consensus in philology is in flux or different from what it is. In other words, I give them the right to reject philology as a scholarly field, but I don't allow them to simply reinvent what it is. Similarly, I am not worried if Lakoff and his acolytes reject all of cognitive science, but, I will not accept them attempting to characterize the state of the consensus as something it is not. That is poison for the scientific spirit, and it isn't as if there isn't enough bias, politics and error in science already.

Moving specifically to Lakoff's ideas and their relation to the liberal/progressive camp, as Chris points out it is precisely liberals who have the most to lose from espousing his ideas as if they have scientific validity. I think that is also Pinker's central point. Science can not become engineering if it is not valid science, and Lakoff's ideas are precisely attempting that translation, turning scientific models into social engineering. Young Earth Creationists have a "water canopy" hypothesis, but attempts to model it unfortunately always run into the problem that it predicts runaway greenhouse and turns the planet into Venus in short order (water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas). Similarly, attempts to use Lakoff's models to shape the public discourse are likely to have disasterous consequences if the science is shaky in the first place. Fundamentally I think the appropriate analogy to liberals using Lakoff's ideas about cognitive linguistics is when conservative Protestants justify their public policy prescriptions via the Bible (e.g., a "Biblically base society"), or when conservative Catholics appeal to Natural Law reasoning. Though the Bible and Natural Law are convincing within your own camp, trotting out these arguments to those who don't share your presuppositions is likely to induce laughter and hilarity (e.g., as when congressmen mocked Clarence Thomas for entertaining Natural Law). In conservative Christian circles "because the Bible says so!" is a very powerful talking point, but once you move outside them using this is likely to weaken your position and render you less credible. Rather, one must find a common ground, primarily via a sort of utilitarian argument. Through these debates one can flesh out differences in values and perceptions of what the "Good Society" is, but the argument still serves that purpose even if it doesn't resolve the disagreemants. Liberals and conservatives can argue whether the median, variance or skewness of income important, but through argument they can get a better model of how the "other side" conceives of the world.

In short, I think the problem with Lakoff's ideas are two fold: 1) the science is probably wrong, so it has little utilitarian value aside from enriching Lakoff 2) the false perception that the science is correct and can be used to persuade people basically leaves liberals totally vulnerable to being laughed at (a lot of the stuff that Lakoff acolytes say about the Right is giggle-inducing! Pinker is describing a real phenomenon, as I've chuckled myself). If I was a particularly partisan non-liberal I would probably let it rest, as it is good for the Right for the Left to hold to Lakoff closely, just as it is good for the Left for Christian fundamentalists to continue speaking like raving Bible-thumpers outside of their own circles. But in the end politics is epiphenomenal, the truth shall outlive us all, and only one culture has spawned science in the history of our species. That demands our reverence (at least mine) far more than who will win in 2006, or 2026.