Movie Review: Arrival

I took a trip to my local picture house recently to view one of the talkies. I’ve not reviewed a movie before but as this one touches on linguistics I felt like it wouldn’t be too out of place on this blog. 

There will be **spoilers** below. 


You have been warned. 





Arrival is a sci-fi flick in which Aliens come to Earth and humans try to communicate with them. The hero is a linguist. Predictably this has linguists very excited. Ben Zimmer, for instance has written that the film “does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work” and Rob Drummond made a similar point on ‘Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review’. David Adger noted thatThe linguistics was very good“. 

I can understand the excitement at having a linguistics prof as a hero and I have to agree that it was a well made film. However, the contrarian in me wasn’t able to look past some of the linguistics and just enjoy the film. In fact, the whole central premise of the plot falls to pieces because it just isn’t backed up by what we know about languages.  Yes, I’m being a kill joy. Yes it’s just a movie. But here’s a list of the three things that bothered me in the film. The first two peeves are relatively minor, the last one was a clanger. 

The parts that rankled were the following (apologies if I’ve mis-remembered any parts). 

*peeve 1: linguist means linguist means linguist. 
Our hero was introduced as a linguist. If you’re not sure, in academia that means ‘someone who studies languages’. It doesn’t mean ‘someone who speaks a lot of languages’. Those people are usually called polyglots. Our hero is a linguist and a polyglot, speaking Mandarin, Farsi, Sanskrit and is shown giving a lecture on “romance languages”. 

OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn’t that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she’s just insanely talented and that’s how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:

Coon unsuccessfully lobbied the filmmakers to change a line describing Louise, arguing that it misrepresents what linguists do: “You’re at the top of everyone’s list,” Forest Whitaker’s Army colonel says to Louise, “when it comes to translations.”

So well done and bad luck to Jessica Coon. By the by, The Guardian, rather densely asks why Chomsky wasn’t a consultant on the film:

Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex

Putting aside the fact that Chomsky’s work has, in fact been funded by “America’s military-intelligence complex” and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of ‘deep structure‘ would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of. 

*peeve 2: The white board scene 
Our linguist hero is trying to convince the army that her method is the right way to go about things. She writes on a white board:

What is your purpose on Earth? 

She attempts to explain that in order to ask the aliens questions, she first needs to make sure they know what a question is. She goes on to make other points concerning things like vocabulary. This is all fine and quite sensible but there are a few clangers here. first she says (paraphrase) ‘we need to make sure they understand the difference between you singular and (crosses out the ‘r’ in ‘your’) you plural.’ In English there is no difference between singular and plural you (I -we, s/he -them, you you). 

She then says ‘we need to make sure they understand ‘why questions‘. Now I’ve heard of ‘wh’ questions, but ‘why questions’…? The sentence on the white board seemed to be lacking an essential item in what could be defined as a ‘why question’…that is, a ‘why’. Perhaps the script originally had the question as ‘why are you here?’ who knows. 

Next, (and this is really nit picky), if we’re talking to aliens, do we really need the words ‘on Earth’? I mean, are these aliens going to get confused by ‘what is your purpose’ and think we might be asking what their plans for Sunday afternoon are? 

*peeve 3: Eskimo’s and their many many words for snow. 
All of the other issues I could have happily put aside. However, when the words Sapir-Whorf were mentioned I tensed up. It’s hard to imagine something annoying me more than learning styles…but here it is. With this in mind, why have I never written about it before? It’s such an attractive and widely believed idea, that I really felt I needed quite a powerful response to it…and I’m really quite lazy. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an excellent book on the topic called ‘the Language Hoax’ and even he was reluctant to criticise the movie: 

If you’re not familiar with Sapir-Whorf I’ll present a very reductionist overview here. Basically it can be divided into two version. The first (which is the most attractive to click bait headlines) postulates that the language we speak allows us to think certain thoughts. It’s also known as linguistic determinism. The second is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. This is known as linguistic relativism

There’s a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it’s very hard to resist.  

Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for ‘he’ and ‘she’ in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true. 

The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for ‘snow‘. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic ‘The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax‘. This even led to the creation of the term ‘snowclone‘ which describes “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists” such as “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.“. 

The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old ‘snow’. It’s an attractive theory and the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Sapir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being ‘primitive’ these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:

“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Sapir


 It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true. 

The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world. 

How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It’s hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like ‘we bring a tool’ there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. ‘We bring a tool’ is a lot different from ‘a tool brings us’ or ‘Bring us a tool’. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance ‘I’ is the subject in English but the same word is ‘me’ when it’s the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish. 

Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don’t tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in? 

To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of ‘time’ disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn’t speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn’t. Best not to think too much about this. 

In short the language can’t do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn’t lead to mind altering powers. But really….who cares? It’s a good film go and watch it! 






The myth of neat histories

Pure evil!

You’ve probably heara version of this story of before.


A long long time ago in a place called the 1950s there lived an evil wizard called ‘Skinner’ who lived in a castle with his many adherents. Skinner was a cruel man who practised a version of dark sorcery called ‘behaviourism’ which generally involve torturing animals and turning men into machines all in the name of science. His worst torture device was the Skinner box into which he put all manner of creatures including his own children. 

Skinner believed that people were really just machines and so if you wanted some kind of response from them all you needed was stimulus. Something like an electric shock would probably do the trick. 

Poor misguided TEFL teachers were caught in the hypnotic gaze of Skinner and developed a ridiculous  style of teaching called the Audio-lingual method. This involved forcing students to sit in a classroom listening to recordings of conversations for hours on end all the while repeating  mantras like so many zombies. Skinner enjoyed this depraved form of torture. In fact it helped him stay young.

One day, a brave young hero called Noam appeared and with a swish of his sword of logic he defeated the evil Skinner. Chomsky showed that language was innate and that people didn’t have to be robots. On this day pair work was born and since language was innate no one needed to teach grammar anymore. Native speaker teachers everywhere rejoiced. 

OK I’m exaggerating but this is the way the history of these events often seems to be presented. For example:

…Behavioralist accounts of language learning became popular in the 1920s and 1930s… (64) In Behaviorist theory, conditioning is the result of stimulus response and reinforcement (51)…In a book called verbal behavior, the psychologist Bernard [sic] Skinner suggested that much the same pattern happens in language learning (52)…Behaviorism was directly responsible for audiolingualism (52)” (Harmer 2007)


And Harmer is by no means alone. Wherever you look, from Richards and Rogers, Ellis or Lightbown and Spada, the story is made up of more or less the same building blocks. Behaviourism? check,  lab animals? check, habit-formation? check,   Skinner? check, Chomsky? check? The pattern of events is clear and well-known by most teachers, but is it true? 
Something about the story niggles and my own personal dislike (not very evidence-based) of everything Chomskyan led me on a journey into the odd world of one of the most famous academic debates in history. Unfortunately this project continues to sprawl horribly out of control but I would like to share with you a few interesting things I’ve managed to find out. So here are the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate and its aftermath:

https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/I_ctJqjlrHA&source=uds1. Chomsky’s review was a forensic deconstruction of Skinner’s verbal behaviour 

Well…it was an attempt deconstruction of ‘something’ – though it wasn’t Skinner’s book Verbal Behaviour. In fact all the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn’t read Verbal Behaviour or didn’t understand it. The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner, whereas Skinner wrote about ‘operant condition‘ which was a different beast altogether. 

MacCorquodale, in a comprehensive review, notes, that Chomsky’s review didn’t receive a reply from Skinner or any other psychologist, not because they were ‘defeated’ but rather because …Chomsky’s actual target is only about one-half Skinner, with the rest a mixture of odds and ends of other behaviourism and some other fancies of vague origin.” Chomsky’s review has also been criticised for misquoting Skinner and taking quotes out of context. Skinner himself said of the review:

let me tell you about Chomsky…I published Verbal Behaviour in 1957, in 1958 I received a  55 page type-written review by someone whom I had never heard of named Noam Chomsky. I read half a dozen pages, and saw that he had missed the point of my book and read no further. (see the second video 5:50)
https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/FlyU_M20hMk&source=udsAlso interesting is that most of the other reviews of verbal behaviour at the time were positive. This by itself doesn’t mean Chomsky was wrong, but it might make us pause for thought. 

And rather than ‘forensic’, Chomsky’s review was just really really mean. MacCorquodale, described the review as “ungenerous to a fault; condescending, unforgiving, obtuse, and ill-humoured“. I urge you to read a few pages and see what you think. I’m not one to be overly concerned with comments about the ‘tone’ of someone’s argument, but Chomsky actually seems to be personally offended by Skinner’s book. Skinner often commented that he couldn’t understand why Chomsky seemed so angry. A sample of the language can be seen in  Virues-Ortega 2006‘s review:

perfectly useless,” “tautology,” “vacuous,” “looseness of the term,” “entirely pointless,” “empty,” “no explanatory force,” “paraphrase,” “serious delusion,” “full vagueness,” “no conceivable interest,” “quite empty,” “notion,” “no clear content,” “cover term,” “pointless,” “quite false,” “said nothing of any significance,” “play-acting at science” (from )

The tone isn’t so much the problem as the chilling effect this kind of academic writing can have on others. When a writer’s work is discussed in such a dismissive tone it can give the impression to the uninitiated that the matter is settled, -which in this case, was very far from the truth. 

2. Skinner’s Behaviourism led to Audiolingualism 


This is a tricky fish to fry. In order to answer this you need to be able to authoritatively identify Skinner’s behaviourism, Audiolingualism and then the link between them. First we should examine the timeline. Skinner was born in 1905 and published Verbal Behaviour in 1957. Chomsky’s review came out in 1959. The first mentions of the audiolingual approach were in the mid 1950s. But it starts to really get mentioned in the early 1960s. This would mean that ALM became popular AFTER Chomsky’s review. 
Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the audiolingual method actually was. When reading Lado’s 1964 book entitled ‘language teaching: a scientific approach’, ALM is describe simply as the approach where (in contrast to grammar translation) speaking and listening are taught first. Yet others, like Cummins and Davidson conflate the audiolingual approach and the ‘scientific approach’. 

things get more confusing as many others like Hall (here) and Lacorte suggest that ALM was synonymous with or grew from ‘the army method’ in 1945 (certainly before both Verbal Behaviour and Chomsky’s review). While Coady and Huckin suggest that ALM is also known as ‘the structural approach’ by those who created it. They pin this honour on Fries in 1945. And Harmer, suggests it came from the Direct Method (p.64) There are also mentions of contrastive analysis being an important component by some authors while not being mentioned at all by others. 
As  Peter Castagnaro* notes neither Brookes, Fries or Lado (three names often associated with ALM) make much mention of Skinner at all in any of their books. True they use language associated with stimulus and response, -but why could this not  be inspired by Pavlov, rather than Skinner? (Harmer does link to earlier behaviourists Watson and Raynor). The only person who actually draws a direct link between Skinner and ALM was a critic of ALM, Wilga Rivers in “the psychologist and the foreign language teacher” and Castagnaro believes that Rivers’ book is the cause of much misunderstanding, noting that it was Rivers who “saddled Skinner with being ALM’s theoretical parent”(523).

So, if we believe the literature on ALM the approach came from the Army Method, the Structural Approach, Contrastive Analysis or the Direct Method and was big in the 40s-50s (lightbown and Spada), or the 50s-60s (Richards & Rogers, Thornbury). It may or may not have been based on a book written in 1957 and then undone by a review written in 1959…even though, according to Richards and Rogers, the term Audiolingualism wasn’t invented until 1964 -that’s five years after Chomsky’s review. Am I the only one feeling confused? 


*More than anyone else Peter Castagnaro (thanks to Harmer for this link) has attempted to unweave the knotted misunderstandings surrounding ALM. I would direct anyone to read his article for a much more concise examination of this topic.


3. Chomsky’s review lead to the death of Audiolingualism 

In his ELTJ review of reviews, Alan Maley describes Chomsky’s review as ‘destructive’ and one that ‘changed the course of events’. Now while it is undeniable that Chomsky’s review was influential and made his name, did Chomsky kill off Audiolingualism? 

After reading the previous section it becomes clear that this is unlikely. Not only does the timeline not work, but simply put methods and approaches are fashions and as such aren’t killed off by logic of any kind. If methods are killed off, who killed off the silent way and suggestopedia? 


Almost certainly ALM just withered on the vine. In education, as Swan among others has noted, fashions rule and these fashions are often polar opposites. With Grammar translation reading and writing was paramount. Next came methods that banned reading and writing and translation of any kind. That an approach where people mechanically practiced  artificial sentences while worrying greatly about making mistakes should be replaced by an approach which allowed free ‘authentic’ conversation with little care for errors, should surprise no one at all. 

It’s also difficult to properly perform an autopsy on the undead. As authors, like Scrivener note, many of the the techniques of ‘ALM’ “continue to have a strong influence over many classrooms”(38)

4. Chomsky’s review led to the death of Behaviorism


Again, not true, Behaviorism carried on and continues to this day( see herehere and here). Skinners’ book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky’s response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology

Behaviorism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you’ve ever had any kind of therapy, it’s likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which is another.

5. Chomsky’s new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today

Absolutely not. Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by ‘stimulus‘. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it. 

A recent scathing review by Behme describes Chomsky as not seriously engaging with criticism, misrepresenting the work of others and providing little or no evidence for his claims. She highlights, as many others have, his tendency to “[ridicule] the works of others”. These claims are not surprising since they are pretty much the same claims made about his attack on Skinner 50 years earlier. 

Behme also lists Chomsky’s other tactics, such as claiming his opponents are ‘irrational’ or have mental issues. This may seem shocking until we read papers by his former student Paul Postals who writes “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it...It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.” Postal also suggests Chomsky has written “the most irresponsible passage ever written by a linguist in the entire history of linguistics”. 

An interesting note for all your corpus fans out there is that Chomsky has been a consistent critic of Corpus Linguistics considering them pointless and the data worthless. Rather, he suggests, Native Speakers should just sit around and think up examples: 

Chomsky: the verb ‘perform’ cannot be used with mass word objects: one can perform a task, but one cannot perform a labour.

Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb perform?

Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language. (source)

One can ‘perform magic’, of course. This extract I think sums up Chomsky perfectly; unassailable arrogance.

Reality is not the neat history presented in so many EFL histories. In truth, almost every chain in the link is broken. Skinner wasn’t the behaviorist he’s painted as, he didn’t inspire audiolingualism -whatever that is, and he wasn’t overthrown by Chomsky, who isn’t quite the ‘hero’ we might imagine. We should not be surprised that the facts about Skinner are often wrong in ELT as he is often misunderstood by psychologists too

As Hunter and Smith note ELT tend to package complex history into convenient bundles. This packaging may make digestion easier but it often involves cutting the corners off to make things fit. Sometimes the facts are fudged to give us a pleasing narrative where ‘traditional’ (read: dull and wrong) methods are superseded by all the great stuff we’re doing these days. It’s a nice story to tell ourselves but reality is more messy. 



When nothing is better than something

 
 
Dr. Duncan MacDougall found that after humans die their weight changes by exactly 21 grams. He carried out his research on terminal patients and weighed them before and after death. He also carried out the same tests on dogs and found no weight change. No one can explain this strange phenomenon and the religiously minded as well as the New York Times wasted no time attributing it to the weight of the human soul.

An incredible and disturbing finding, were it true. 

Which it isn’t. 

 

While it’s completely true that what this experiment was carried out and that those were its findings, it’s equally true that it was a naff experiment. It’s easy to think any research is better than no research but bad research is often pretty useless; it tells us nothing and worse, sometimes it can even be dangerous. Dr. MacDdougall’s experiments were conducted on 6 people which is a horribly small number to warrant such extravagant claims. And that’s not all, quoting here from the blog “rationally speaking” the research had a number of other problems:

Not only was the experiment never repeated (by either MaDougall or anyone else), but his own notes (published in American Medicine in March 1907) show that of the six data points, two had to be discarded as “of no value”; two recorded a weight drop, followed by additional losses later on (was the soul leaving bit by bit?); one showed a reversal of the loss, then another loss (the soul couldn’t make up its mind, leaving, re-entering, then leaving for good); and only one case actually constitutes the basis of the legendary estimate of ¾ of an ounce. With data like these, it’s a miracle the paper got published in the first place.

Second, as was pointed out immediately by Dr. Augustus P. Clarke in a rebuttal also published in American Medicine, MacDougall failed to consider another obvious hypothesis: that the weight loss (assuming it was real) was due to evaporation caused by the sudden rise in body temperature that occurs when the blood circulation stops and the blood can no longer be air-cooled by the lungs. This also elegantly explains why the dogs showed no weight loss: as is well known, they cool themselves by panting, not sweating like humans do.

Ah, you may say, this was a long time ago before we had proper research. Well, while it’s true that scientific techniques improve all the time, research now, like research then is carried out by humans. So could a badly designed study get newspaper headlines these days? Over to Andrew Wakefield who ‘discovered’ a link between vaccinations and autism, research which led to, and continues to lead to parents not vaccinating their kids and thus the return of previously controlled diseases, such as mumps and measles as well as occasional deaths. Wakefield, who was eventually struck off the medical register, conducted his research on exactly 12 children so, twice as many as MacDougall’s study.  This didn’t stop theDaily Mail and other papers creating huge panic with this information.
 
Now small studies are not always problematic, but newspapers tend to have an undue influence on what people think and a story which might not get much (or any) attention in academia because of problems, such as its sample size, could have considerable influence if published in a newspaper. I wrote here about Memrise the amazing new technology which mean you can learn a new language in only 22 hours (disclaimer, for “language” read “some words” , for “22 hours” read “three months” and for “amazing new technology” read “flashcards and mnemonics”). Memrise is a good example of how the media can create excitement about something that really isn’t all that exciting
 
Recently there was a TEFL article in the guardian making the claim that the “argument was over, the facts were in” and that explicit grammar teaching was a must for EFL. Catherine Walker’s bold claims were marred by a couple of issues. Firstly the article wasn’t in a peer reviewed journal, it was in the Guardian (though even journals can get it wrong, and do, regularly, and spectacularly) and journalists are not experts and are therefore much more likely to let things slide that academics would probably pick up. Being a newspaper Walker didn’t have to provide any evidence for her claims, but when prodded by commentators listed the following:

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor.
Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. Interactions between type of instruction and type of
language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. 2008. Form-focused instruction: isolated or integrated?
TESOL Quarterly 42: 181-207.

To be fair to Walker, meta-analysis are the creme de la creme of research and are positioned at the very top of of the hierarchy of evidence pyramid. However there are still some problems with the piece. The first flaw is that the headline for the article is misleading. Articles from 2010, 2008 and 2000 can’t be run in 2012 with the headline “the evidence is finally in”, without stretching the “finally” beyond recognition. Secondly the headline makes the claim that evidence shows that grammar teaching is effective, yet later in the article this is watered down to:

 



However, evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

That is, if you are using the Communicative Approach, it is better to have grammar taught explicitly. So this is not so much a debate about the value of grammar teaching but a debate about the value of teaching grammar explicitly within a certain method. The title of the article may have had us all rushing back to the oft mocked (but pretty widely used) Grrammar Translation method.  Another possible problem is the conflict of interests. Walker has a written a number of grammar textbooks and while this doesn’t mean she’s wrong, the possibility of bias is there; “shock! grammar teacher claims teaching grammar works!”. 
 
So language articles are often annoying because they get tweeted and retweeted when the findings may be problematic or in some cases nonexistent, like a story doing the rounds  at the moment. Apparently, English is not a Germanic language but a Scandinavian one. For years linguistics have been wrong and this new research shows conclusively that English comes from Scandinavian not from Old English. Except it doesn’t because, as far as I can discover, there is no research. Yes, there are researchers and yes there are news articles and yes there is even some evidence of conference talks but I can’t seem to find a paper published in a major peer-reviewed journal (please someone link to it if you can find it).
Now, I’m out of my depth with the argument as to whether English is or isn’t a Scandinavian language perhaps it really is but what I can say is that a massive claim like this, if correct, would make the careers of both the authors. I can also safely state that a claim which has such large potential, needs a equally large amount of evidence to back it up. To use the Sagan Standard “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Judging by the comments on some of the blogs that have reported this, I’m going to tentatively suggest that that evidence will not be forthcoming.
  
The king of getting media attention with little research is of course, Chomsky. Slayer of the evil behaviorists, discoverer of the mysterious UG, Noam wins the prize by virtue of having done exactly 0 research to test his theories. His ideas, which have held sway over linguistics for 60 years, were thought up by him, and then left for others to argue about.  People who actually took the trouble to look into and test Chomsky’s claims found him to be wrong, wrong and more wrong.*  Geoffry Sampson writes:

Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’

Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (2005:47)


References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum

*I’m really really out of my depth on Chomsky but if someone wants to come and put me right I’ll be happy to listen.