Monday, August 11, 2008

Realm of the Coin

A direct hit, and a new, good word:

It is sometimes difficult when reading [linguist, progressive, and "Don't Think of an Elephant!" author George P.] Lakoff to know where his political advocacy ends and his cognitive-linguistics scholarship begins. When I ask him about that, he acknowledges that his political celebrity has put a strain on his scholarly work, but he insists that he has not abandoned linguistics for politics: "The work I do in politics is linguistics, it is linguistics about political subjects — it is advocacy linguistics." That means, he says, "I do a simple linguistic analysis, and then I say based on that analysis you should do this, this, and that. But it all rests on doing the linguistics."

Owen Flanagan, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University, is even more skeptical than [Steven] Pinker, declaring Lakoff a member of the "neuroenthusiasta," his term for cognitive scientists who overstate the implications of their research, and the journalists who breathlessly hype their findings. According to Flanagan, brain science is only helpful to the extent that it tells us something we don't already know. To illustrate his point, he offers an analogy: When children learn how to ride a bike, something changes in their brains. If a scientist offers parents a detailed description of that neurological transformation, it might be interesting, but it won't help children learn to ride a bike.

At one point, Lakoff makes Chomsky (an academic arch-rival) looks reasonable by comparison. He also wants to take credit for Obama. Take a number, George.