Academic Cults and Chomsky

Norbert Hornstein doesn’t like Gary Marcus’ recent piece on Noam Chomsky in The New Yorker, and it’s interesting why.

From the comments (in this comment Hornstein is responding directly to a comment left by Marcus):

To be evenhanded (at least in the New Yorker) it is essential to uncover character flaws of various types (extremely competitive, bad listener, dismissive) “that must be reported honestly” so that one can praise the achievements, which I have no doubt you do admire.

Actually, to be fair, that isn’t the main thrust of Hornstein’s criticism. His main line of argument is to say that Marcus makes it sound like Chomsky’s outsized reputation has more to do with his character flaws than it does with the force of his arguments, and Hornstein believes the opposite. But it is this criticism that I found interesting.

Let’s say Hornstein’s right, and that the New Yorker has in its editorial culture a kind of reflex that causes it to cut larger-than-life figures down to size just because they’re larger-than-life. Let’s further say that this isn’t an explicit policy, it’s just that the working environment at the New Yorker is such that reporters don’t feel they’ve been appropriately even-handed if they haven’t reported equal measures of good and bad, and that this is true even when there’s more good than bad to report.

If I’m accurately characterizing Hornstein’s criticism, and if Hornstein’s criticism is on point (two ifs, I freely admit), then I would have the following three things to say.

First, I think this is unlikely to be specific to the New Yorker. In fact, I notice it throughout the American media, and I agree it’s sort of unfortunate. The pretence of objectivity is the American press’ Achilles Heel – because it leads, alternately, to inaccuracy of exactly this kind (not of facts, per se, but of emphasis), and to shallowness in reporting. I much prefer the British and German press, where authors have opinions and state them plainly. Rather than leading to a lot of cherry-picking, as one might expect (and OK, sometimes it does at that), I find that this kind of culture allows journalists who have given up the pretence of objectivity to report the full range of facts and then tell their audience directly what to think of them. The upshot is that we get a full array of facts, even if we disagree with the author’s commentary, and of course we’re always free to look up the competition’s response if we want to get a “balanced” account. Balance, in the UK press, is calculated over the press as a whole, not over individual articles in microcosm, as it is in the American mainstream press. Well, the New Yorker is part of the American mainstream. It doesn’t seem fair to criticize them in isolation for something that is characteristic of the press as a whole.

Second, I think there is social value in tearing down larger-than-life figures, and Chomsky is a case in point. Of course, how well you receive the previous statement will have a lot to do with whether you believe that there are larger-than-life personalities in the first place, so let me go ahead and lay my cards on the table there: I don’t think there are, at least not to the degree that a lot of people do. No, we’re not all created equal: some people are more capable than others, and that’s just a fact. But I think the range is a lot more limited than is generally believed, and that even people who do have extraordinary abilities suffer from the same human flaws the rest of us do. There aren’t angels and insects – there are just people. But more to the point in the academic case, I think the romantic version of Chomsky’s career in particular is wrong. By this I mean the idea that he single-handedly cut through the fog and saw the weaknesses in the foundations of accepted orthodoxy on behaviorism. I tend to think things rarely happen that way, and that in any case they didn’t happen that way for Chomsky. More commonly, a certain academic orthodoxy holds the day for a while, but opponents continue to toil in obscurity. Eventually, evidence mounts against the orthodoxy, and at some point it breaks down. When it does, it may often look like one fearless researcher spoke truth to power, but the reality is that there were a lot of people waiting in the wings to endorse that person. Chomsky certainly got credit for destroying Behavorism, but none of it would have worked if there weren’t a lot of people ready for someone to destroy it.

Chomsky is a person like any other. Therefore, Chomsky will have character flaws, and these characters flaws will have come out over the course of his 60-some years in the public eye. They will also have had something to do with the character of his work. So, it’s really a matter of what we choose to focus on – and I don’t think on that front that Hornstein has any greater claim to authority about which traits are definitive in Chomsky’s case than Marcus. Hornstein is nevertheless making a factual argument here: that Marcus has emphasized negative character traits out of proportion to the role they played, and underemphasized the strength of Chomsky’s arguments. I’m not in a position to decide between the two – but I do think that the best antidote to a personality cult is precisely the reporting of negative character traits, and that there can be little doubt at this point that there’s a kind of academic personality cult around Chomsky. Now, like Hornstein (perhaps), I prefer accuracy to social value, so if Hornstein’s assessment is on point, then sure, I’d rather Marcus had just written his honest impressions. But let’s not pretend that there is no social value in what Hornstein is alleging that Marcus is doing. Think of it this way: if you had to fall off one side of the balance beam, wouldn’t you rather err on the side of overreporting things that cut a cult figure down to size rather than things that build him up? I think we’re all better off when our human tendency toward hero worship is mitigated, and whether Hornstein wants to admit it or not, a lot of people do worship Chomksy as some kind of hero.

Third, I disagree with Horstein’s factual assessment anyway. In fact, I think it’s naive. I’ve seen too many examples of bad arguments and half-finished research chasing out solid work to think otherwise. More to the point, I’ve seen it happen on the basis of the reputations of the authors. It is sadly not infrequent for articles to get published, or not, for reasons that have little to do with their content. Personalities and reputations play a role in academia, and that’s just how it is. It’s naive to think that every piece of Chomksy’s reputation is earned. Certaily a lot of it is, but at some point Chomksy, like every enthroned academic, started moving the market rather than trading value against value. Like so many others before him, he finds himself in a position to ignore inconvenient truths and cause others to ignore them with him. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious effect – it’s just sort of the way things tend to work in a system like academia. Once Chomksy’s reputation is huge, then his influence has a kind of ripple effect. People who get his recommendation get good jobs, driving out the people he doesn’t know, or doesn’t agree with. For this reason, people curry for his favor, and for the favor of the people who got their jobs based on his reputation, etc. So it goes. Academia isn’t exactly a free market environment, and competition for slices of its limited pie isn’t always entirely merit-based. There is academic politics, as any academic well knows. I think it’s obvious to any objective observer that Chomsky has benefited from academic politics as much as anyone. So, to be blunt, no, a lot of Chomksy’s reputation is NOT based on carefully reasoned arguments. A lot of it is based on the bandwagon effect. And indeed, I note with some irony that Hornstein himself admitted as much in an earlier entry:

First, my default strategy is to agree with Chomsky, even if I have no idea what he’s talking about. In fact, I often try to figure out where he’s heading so that I can pre-agree with him. Sadly, he tends not to run in a straight line so I can often be seen going left when he zags right or right when he zigs left. This has proven to be both healthful (I am very fit!) and fruitful. More often than not, Chomsky identifies fecund research directions, or at least ones that in retrospect I have found interesting. No doubt this is just dumb luck on Chomsky’s part, but if someone is lucky often enough, it is worth paying very careful attention (as my mother says: “better lucky than smart”).

Whatever you think of this as a strategy – and certainly it is a sound career strategy to identify people who move your particular field and follow their careers carefully! – it’s right there in print that Hornstein makes a habit of publicly agreeing with Chomsky even when he doesn’t understand the arguments. No doubt Hornstein would respond that he has never found Chomsky to be grossly in error in any of these instances – that indeed the general case is that with time he comes to see the wisdom of Chomksy’s approach (presumably even in cases where Chomsky’s position turns out to be incompatible with his – as in the cited movement theory of control; I assume Hornstein would say that Chomsky is nevertheless insightful, and that the movement theory of control question is in any case not resolved to anyone’s satisfaction anyway). Be that as it may, it is certainly safe to say that he does not give other researchers the same benefit of the doubt, even though many other researchers are no doubt also pursuing lines of enquiry that turn out to be fecund, or which are correct but not immediately obviously so. This is, in short, precisely the “first mover” effect that Marcus mentioned: Chomsky doesn’t get second-guessed in the way everyone else does because his reputation is already secure – and this perversely serves to secure that reputation further.

In sum, I think I’m more comfortable living in the New Yorker‘s world than Hornstein’s, and that’s because I think rockstar reputations – and not just in academia – are more often made than earned. This is not to say that Chomsky isn’t brilliant (he is), and it is certianly not to say that I don’t find his ideas persuasive. I am, after all, a pretty partisan Minimalist, and while I don’t buy all the specifics of Chomsky’s theory of UG, I’m right with Chomsky in believing that it’s simply undeniable that there is a lot of innate linguistic knowledge, and that making that assumption from the outset is the right way to study language. I am, in other words, a fairly orthodox Chomskyan. All the same, I think Chomsky’s reputation is larger than it needs to be. Chomsky is frequently wrong about things, his writing is often vague, and, pertinent to the issue at hand, his positions are often insufficiently supported. A lot of people in this field take things that they hear from Chomsky on faith, and that is not entirely healthy.

In the end, Marcus should present an accurate version of Chomsky and his influence. So, on the basis of merits, I decline to judge Hornstein’s argument. Hornstein obviously knows this field a lot better than I do, in particular where Chomsky is concerned. If he thinks that Marcus was unfair, then I guess I’m not really in a position to say he wasn’t. All the same, there is something in Hornstein’s argument that reads like we should only say nice things about Chomksy in public, and that makes me nervous. There is a lot about Chomsky that isn’t nice, and I think it’s healthy to say so.

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