Closer to home, I think I can attribute some of my collaborators’ impatience with me to this attitude of mine. I want to do good, solid, robust computational science, as well as relevant biology; my schtick is, at least at the moment,computational methods. Since my collaborators tend not to be computationally focused, they don’t always get the point of all the computational work. Some of them are either more patient or more relaxed about the whole thing — if you’re wondering why Jim Tiedje is co-authoring papers on probabilistic de Bruijn graphs, well, that’s why . Some of them are less patient, and it’s why I would never recommend a bioinformatics analysis position to anyone — it leads to computational science driven by biologists, which is often something we call “bad science”.
What’s the bottom line? Publish your methods, which include your source code and your parameters, and discuss your controls and evaluation in detail. Otherwise, you’re doing anecdotal science.
For example, he claims that children have an innate grasp of the psychic continuity of persons, and his basis for the claim is that his grandchildren enjoy a story in which a baby donkey gets turned into a rock. It is surprising to see a point this feeble published even once, but Chomsky has now put it into print at least three times.
McGilvray invites Chomsky to explain how “Merge” brought humanity the gift of arithmetic.
The attempted exposition is a train wreck. Chomsky confuses the empty set with zero, binary operations with unary ones, functions with the sets on which they are defined, the natural numbers with their set-theoretic construction, and both with the theory of arithmetic. McGilvray drinks it all in – and appends a commentary note that unfortunately elaborates the second of Paul Benacerraf’s two celebrated non-equivalent set-theoretic reconstructions of the natural numbers, when Chomsky was struggling to outline the first. It is embarrassing – like overhearing a conversation between two undergraduates about a mathematics lecture that neither has understood.
Following the 141 pages of transcribed chunks of conversation are some lengthy appendices and commentary notes, mostly just pedestrian restatements of Chomsky’s increasingly eccentric linguistic doctrines, and together with the glossary, bibliography and index making up 56 per cent of the whole book.
At least half a dozen “interview” volumes of Chomsky’s unrehearsed musings have been published since Mitsou Ronat created the genre in 1977. This one is McGilvray’s fourth book-length homage to Chomsky by my count. He is entitled to his view that anything Chomsky can be induced to say should be typed up and distributed. But why are university presses publishing stuff like this, devoid of carefully framed ideas, results or scientific data about language?
Presumably the guaranteed sales from having Chomsky’s name on the cover are too tempting to resist. Buyers should beware.
As John Hawks has titled his post, this is chomping of Chomsky!