For an example of one of the most ridiculous and unconstructive cases of academic fisticuffs, look no further that Wolfgang Sperlich’s paper published today in Biolinguistics, which attempts to criticize some recent papers of mine. Sperlich finds no irony in the mind-boggling claim that he is supposed to be defending Berwick & Chomsky’s (B&C) recent book Why Only Us from an allegedly homogeneous horde of rabid insurgents while simultaneously pushing a hocus-pocus ‘quantum linguistics’ theory (quantum effects rapidly fade away once you reach the level of dynamic, mesoscopic neural computation, i.e. once you reach the level most respectable neurolinguists agree is relevant for linguistic computation).
Firstly, the piece is written in terrible, obscure prose (“as a modern Shakespeare would have to say”; “a metaphor Chomsky the sailor might appreciate”; “so let us hit back ad hominem, one more time”; “songbirds sing beautifully”; “our cat meows in a way that annoys my wife”; “The Cartesian proposition of cogito, ergo sum may be the best evidence for equating language with thought”; “The great communicators of our day, from Hitler to Reagan”; “the publishing industry … makes a good living out of selling all manners [sic] of dictionaries”; “Why do the English say ‘tree’ and the Germans ‘Baum’?”), claiming to review and even falsify some of B&C’s views without doing either at any point (to repeat: Sperlich claims to defend and also improve on B&C’s work but does neither). It’s even more bizarre that he seems to classify me as one of the ‘younger wannabees snapping at [Chomsky’s] heels’ (this is meant to be a serious academic journal, remember) and amazingly even cites as an urgent point of discussion an informal blog post of mine. This is weirdly offensive – my work is designed to progress our understanding of the neurobiological basis of language, making virtually no reference to Chomsky (I have a poster of him in my house, but I also think his influence on the neurobiology of language has actually been fairly negative in recent times).
Sperlich is right in only one sense: Vyvan Evans’s New Scientist review was indeed atrocious, being concerned more with caricaturing B&C’s positions than engaging with their arguments. Evans even claimed that because “some of the precursors for language do exist in other species” (by language he is, as usual, not talking about what B&C explicitly focus on, namely the computational system, but rather those faculties recruited in the service of it, namely what he happens to be interested in), B&C’s evolutionary scenario for a completely different component of language must be false. The logic seems to be as follows: “B&C claim X about P, but I believe Y about Q, therefore B&C are wrong”.
Sperlich reacts to my blog post (again, I’m not sure this is ripe discussion for an academic paper, but let’s indulge him) with “Wow!”, but for the wrong reason: His passive aggressive, needy sarcasm is not even worth engaging with. I’m genuinely amazed that he can condemn me for using my blog as “merely a vehicle to launch his own theory”. I think I reserve the right to use my blog for whatever reason I want to (as if that needs stressing). Sperlich doesn’t (read: cannot) make a judgement of my actual theory, though. Strange, considering he seems to think that my citing and referencing relevant papers amounts to “name dropping”.
This is the closest Sperlich gets to critiquing my work, being much more concerned with surreal attempts at offending me: “So, what could thoughts generated by Merge possibly be made of—biologically speaking? Murphy invokes ‘brain oscillations’ which still sounds like Newtonian physics to me (as alluded to by B&C before) and so I am somewhat surprised that none of the protagonists reviewed here (B&C included) have delved into higher-level quantum biology which now can explain, amongst other complex biological systems, navigation in some migratory birds.” His claims regarding ‘quantum linguistics’ only arise to the most general, semi-metaphorical statements: He admits, for instance, that “Obviously, I lack the technical expertise in these matters”. Well why engage with the topic, then?
After this, he moves on to attack the Biolingusitics journal itself, being amazed “that Murphy is elevated to double authorship in the current volume”. One might even speculate at this point as to why this piece was actually accepted for publication. He only quotes the opening paragraph of a recent paper (using the same sarcastic phrase “We are grateful” twice in one page) and then speculates about me (or rather, the “much maligned Murphy”) changing a phrase from this blog to the paper “maybe in an attempt to get his articles accepted by Biolinguistics”. Firstly, like 99% of Sperlich’s piece, this is clearly not suitable for academic discussion. Secondly, I clearly wanted to make the language less informal when translating parts of the blog into a paper – because, unlike Sperlich, the “much maligned Murphy” is concerned with writing in sensible academic prose, not blurting out whatever thought happens to come to mind. So if I change my phraseology from an informal context to a formal one, I hope Sperlich can forgive me. Remember, this is the person who used the phrase “so let us hit back ad hominem, one more time” in a serious, straight-faced way. He even writes at one point: “listen to Hitler’s speeches and wonder how such a terrible voice could enthuse millions of Germans, lest they were hypnotized”. Sperlich’s lack of concern for wider socio-economic, imperial factors is about as impressive as his concern for academic professionalism more generally. Indeed, instead of engaging with Marc Hauser’s not-too-crazy views about songbirds, Sperlich simply brushes them aside with the dismissive phrase “Hauser’s songbird obsession shines through” – yes, in the same way that Einstein’s space-time obsession shines through clearly in his work.
Towards the end, Sperlich (tellingly) confesses that “I agree with everything that B&C have to say, with the exception of various sections I do not really understand due to lack of technical knowledge”. He later comes out in favour of my anti-lexicalist position, but then makes vague objections to it before failing to say exactly how he’d improve it (I’m also puzzled by his claim that Fujita expresses “the strongest anti-lexicalist claim to date”, a record surely set in Boeckx’s most recent book).
Overall, Sperlich should listen to his own careful, wise words: “These people, as the proverb goes quite succinctly, do not think before they speak.”