Songbirds Sing Beautifully and Cats Go Meow: A Reply to Sperlich (2016)

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.”
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7 Responses to Songbirds Sing Beautifully and Cats Go Meow: A Reply to Sperlich (2016)

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi

    i just wanted to comment on whether the “terrible prose” is due to possibility that Sperlich’s English is not his first language? i read the pdf and although the constructions may be unusual they did not seem to impede my understanding of the text?

    also is there somewhere to read up on the anti-lexicalist position for a layperson? i started reading your pdf [http://www.biolinguistics.eu/index.php/biolinguistics/article/view/375/362] but must say it is heavy going!

    ta
    mura

    • murphyblog says:

      Hi Mura,
      I wasn’t referring so much to the stilted syntax as I was to the bizarre turns of phrase. But to be sure, it was ‘terrible’ for multiple reasons.
      Boeckx’s Elementary Syntactic Structures is an excellent overview of anti-lexicalism, the 2011 draft of his book can be found online.
      Elliot

  2. Wolfgang Sperlich says:

    Hi Elliot, sorry for having offended you but lets face it, you started it by writing in your academic piece (let’s disregard your blog entry) that the B&C book ‘struck me as moderately comprehensive in its interdisciplinary scope (including good critical commentary on recent work in comparative neuroprimatology and theoretical biology) but severely impoverished in its range of linking hypotheses between these disciplines’. If I’d use the same adjectives ‘moderately comprehensive’ and ‘severely impoverished’ when characterizing your latest book, would you be happy about it? BTW I did not classify you as a ‘younger wannabe’, if anything it was directed at Marc Hauser who found fault with parts of the B&C thesis. And BTW thanks to your correspondent Mara who did understand my text despite the terrible prose. Yes, English is my second language (I have a few more) and I like to mix academic with colloquial styles. I see that you have a certain sympathy for anarchism, which is great (and that you have a picture of Chomsky on the wall just as he has one of Bertrand Russell) and so you may forgive me for not playing by the rules.
    Wolfgang

    • murphyblog says:

      This response is far from adequate. You should be ashamed of yourself for treating people like me and Hauser the way you did, with your aggressively ironic, unprofessional and demeaning language. I find it beyond belief that you can use phrases like ‘you started it’. I repeat: ‘you started it’. My statement about the book was a sensible, well-formed (and back-up) opinion, which so far hasn’t been rebutted by either Berwick or Chomsky via email, and you also fail to rebut it, choosing instead to brush it aside with a childish ‘Wow!’ and ‘We are grateful’.
      The phrase ‘younger wannabee’ is clearly meant to apply to all the authors you discuss, me included – not least because I’m the youngest. If you meant Hauser exclusively, why on earth did you use the plural? As a linguist, this is an elementary no-no. Why didn’t you explicitly say ‘younger wannabees like Hauser’? And do you really think it’s acceptable to use phrases like ‘younger wannabees’ at *any* time, especially in an academic journal like Biolinguistics? I would appreciate it if you actually answered my questions and comments this time rather than just digging yourself deeper with yet more obscure, hyper-personalised and offensive language.
      So, to answer your bizarre question, I would be happy for anyone to make judgements about my books which were related to the actual content. That’s fine. Serious scholars have objected to some things I’ve written in ‘Unmaking Merlin’, for instance, and they did so in a professional and constructive way – something I found illuminating, even when I disagreed with the ultimate judgement. You make it sound like nobody, ever, at any point in time can criticise something written by Berwick & Chomsky. Why? Is it out of some kind of religious devotion? In case you need reminded, there are no gods in science, and anyone (of any age) can critique and improve on the work of anyone else. So please don’t sound shocked when I say that B&C’s book is only moderately comprehensive etc – that’s simply my opinion. Big deal. If you disagree with it, fine, but you’re going to have to present some evidence against it if you’re going to convince anyone, and not just use scandalous language.
      Do you also really think it’s mature to object to my ‘double authorship’ in the current Biolinguistics issue? Why are you shocked at this? Do I not deserve it or something? Are the papers not peer reviewed and edited and thoroughly referenced and put together? Or am I missing something? Besides all this, is this the kind of topic which should be discussed in an alleged (that is, failed) attempt to defend B&C’s book (as I say in the blog response, you actually fail – repeatedly – to even defend the book you claim to sympathise with).
      I really couldn’t care less if English is not your first language, so don’t give me that ‘poor Wolfgang’ nonsense about you not knowing any better – mixing academic and ‘colloquial’ styles is fine in *non-academic* environments, as I’m sure you know but probably don’t care. And I’m not sure in which language/dialect it’s considered ‘colloquial’ to discriminate against someone’s age and informal writing style for the purposes of an academic paper. Maybe you’re from some different planet in which universities are filled with ‘Introduction to ad hominem’ classes and libraries are populated with edited volumes like ‘Towards a libelous theory of language evolution’.
      Finally, I can’t make any sense out of this peculiar non-logic: ‘I see that you have a certain sympathy for anarchism, which is great (and that you have a picture of Chomsky on the wall just as he has one of Bertrand Russell) and so you may forgive me for not playing by the rules’. Firstly, you surely didn’t know these facts *before* you wrote the paper, so the alleged defence is void. Secondly, why on earth would my personal interests in anarchism change anything? If I was a BNP supporter, would you not deem me fit for criticism? If I told you I also had a poster of Drew Barrymore riding a purple motorbike made of licorice, would you still ‘play by the rules’? You seem to think of yourself as some kind of rebel, but in the end you’re only rebelling against civil, professional academic engagement, something – for all my gross anarchist tendencies – I think is worthwhile defending.

  3. Wolfgang Sperlich says:

    You keep telling me that I use ‘aggressive irony’ and ‘scandalous language’, etc., so how would you characterize your own language when you write in your academic article:

    Pointing to a relatively dense, large regional structure like the middle temporal cortex and stating that it is where “the lexicon” is housed is similar to if Stephen Hawking sat under a dark star-filled night sky, pointed very roughly somewhere up at space, and claimed, “There’s a black hole over there somewhere”—a statement which tells us nothing about black holes nor anything about space. In fact, Hawking would be on much firmer ground than B&C, since at least he can provide a theory of his object of study which can be embedded within a larger framework of quantum effects.

    This might be classed a funny put-down but a put-down it is. Are you not saying, putting it bluntly, that Hawking would be a lesser idiot if he were to say such a thing compared to B&C’s statements about the ‘lexicon’? I mean you are welcome to say whatever you want to say, in fact I don’t care but why can’t I return the favour? Obviously B&C don’t need me to defend them – it’s just my hobby-horse. Your proposition that B&C agree with your assessment of them because they haven’t e-mailed you to the contrary, is of course laughable. Maybe my brand of wicked sarcasm is unpalatable for you but you should still not misinterpret what others like Mara actually wrote, i.e. he understood my prose however unusual but he found your text ‘heavy going’.

    Allow me also to state that in terms of academic linguistics you are obviously very well informed, that you are highly literate and that I would have had no argument with you had you only desisted from making disparaging remarks (as above) about B&C’s WOU. Will have to read Boeckx’s Elementary Syntactic Structures and get back to you about the lexicon.

    • murphyblog says:

      Once again you prove yourself incapable of responding to questions and rebutting my criticisms. Are you genuinely pretending not to see my questions or is it just apathy that forces you not to bother responding? My Hawking statement was *not* directed at personal qualities, was it? No. It was directed at B&C’s *proposal* (you know, the content of the book) and so was actually a *constructive* way to expose their bizarre logic (notice that you’re the one immediately invoking offensive language like ‘idiot’, not me). Now compare this to any number of your comments, quoted exhaustively above. You say, for instance, that Evans is ‘a ‘commissar’ … uphold[ing] the reactionary paradigm’. I clearly don’t agree with Evans either, but wouldn’t dream of using this kind of offensive language. What theory of linguistics does comparing Evans to a reactionary commissar aid? Does it enlighten us about the principles of theta-role assignment or long-distance agreement? It may well do, but you’re yet to elaborate on how. You’re absolutely right to claim that B&C don’t need you to defend them, but then you go and spoil it all by saying something barely coherent like ‘Your proposition that B&C agree with your assessment of them because they haven’t e-mailed you to the contrary, is of course laughable.’ I *never* said this, you’re just misreading me (again). B&C *have* emailed me but were unable to rebut my criticisms, hence my comment. This is indeed ‘laughable’, but not for the reasons you’re suggesting. And Mura’s (not Mara – again, you seem to look at one word and just replace it with your own invented one) comment about my paper being ‘heavy going!’ (you omitted the ‘!’) was clearly meant to mean ‘interesting but hard to read due to lack of background knowledge’, hence why Mura asked me to provide some text which would introduce the topic. So that’s a very simple case of someone being polite and asking a sensible question. You could learn something from Mura. Finally, I really find it pathetic for you to say that the only reason you ‘came after me’ (so to speak) with your deeply offensive, pointless and childish language (you are a grown man and a paid academic, right? And yet you use such insolent language as ‘younger wannabees’ and ‘much maligned Murphy’ and ‘Wow!’ and ‘We are grateful’) was because I dared to criticise the biolinguistic gods. You really are acting like linguistics is a religion, not a science. If you would have successfully rebutted (or at least attempted to) my criticisms of the book, instead of just quoting them and saying ‘Wow!’, then I’d have been more than happy to engage with you. But you don’t do that, do you? You don’t seem to care about this fact, either. My remarks that you quoted were not ‘disparaging’, as I’ve said. Not praising B&C does not necessarily equal offending or disparaging. You need to take a good, long look in the mirror and get your academic priorities sorted out immediately, because you have simply wasted a lot of my time over the past few days and angered a lot of senior academics and some of my colleagues (not to mention family and friends). You should be ashamed of yourself for ever considering publishing something like your alleged ‘defence’ of B&C – and Kleanthes should be ashamed of himself for accepting it, too.

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