Friday, November 02, 2007

Open Letter

Via Language Log, check out this brilliant open letter by "eternally stressed semanticist." An excerpt to whet your appetite:

Dear [□ Sir / □ Madam / □ Representative / □ Journalist / □ Idiot],

I know you believe you know a great deal about [□ linguistics / □ children's literature / □ law / □ psychology / □ other (please specify)]

simply because you [□ use language / □ read Harry Potter and Goodnight Moon / □ watch Law & Order / □ have a mind],

or because you've read a newspaper article about [□ the lack of numbers in Pirahã / □ Dumbledore being gay / □ some Supreme Court decision / □ Prozac].

Besides being funny, the letter makes an important point - there is something to these fields. In fact, there is something to most fields, and you could write this letter about any of them.

Depending on the person's attitude, it is either annoying or an interesting opportunity when someone makes a pronouncement that is not just wrong, but wrong in some fundamental way, in a field about which one knows something. I find this happens to me with linguistics a lot, possibly because the combination of "I know something about it" and "People like to comment on it a lot" is so high.


Sally said...

Oh, there is worse than linguistics, literature, and psychology (and perhaps even law, when you think about it): the vast ignorance of the populace about fundamental economic principles combined with the power to vote makes me kind of insane. People who have never taken even an introductory economics course, or read any kind of book on the subject, (but perhaps have read a Krugman column in the New York Times) and have basically zero knowledge whatsoever, believe it is perfectly appropriate to not only have an almost completely robust opinion about, e.g., taxation, and to be willing to argue with some other equally ignorant person about it, but to vote accordingly. In the final analysis, what difference does it really make, except to the egos of various linguistic professors, if people have silly ideas about language or the subject of linguistics or think there isn't anything "to" the field?

Sally said...

Although I admit that I have known multiple people who were surprised to find out that abnormal psychology was only one aspect of psychology and that psychologists spend a lot of time and effort just trying to make sense of the normal human being. That fits well with the whole "psychology is not just schizophrenia" element to his form letter.

Sally said...

I sort of envy physicists for being spared this kind of thing. Nobody finds out that someone is a phyicist at a party and then goes on to tell that person own version of a grand unifying theory or bloviate about what's "really" going on in the double slit experiment.

Of course, it's possible that they say, "Oh, that's interesting" and move on until they find a social scientist they can lecture to.

rvman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rvman said...

The economics issue that drives economists insane is trade - not only does virtually every non-economist have a theory on trade, and not only are they all misleading or wrong, virtually all of them are 180 degrees wrong.

1) The Chinese are purchasing and holding large quantities of US Dollars, to maintain their current exchange rate. This is:

a) Favorable to the Chinese, because they get the privilege of making and selling us goods at a favorable exchange rate.

b) Favorable to the Chinese, because they are trying to undermine our industrial base as a form of economic warfare.

c) Favorable to the American industrialists, who can continue to import Chinese goods to undercut US wages.

d) Favorable to American consumers, who have the opportunity to purchase Chinese goods at a very low price.

2) When two nations trade goods on a voluntary basis:

a) The poor one exploits the rich one, by undercutting the rich country's wages.

b) One wins, one loses, depending on how cunning each nations' traders are and what import tariffs they charge.

c) The rich one exploits the poor one, because of the inevitable power dynamic.

d) Both nations benefit by the exchange on aggregate.

3) Why is it beneficial to export goods?

a) Manufacturing exports creates jobs for people who would otherwise be idle.

b) Exports increase GDP, which is the scorecard by which economic power is measured.

c) Companies in export industries profit more than other companies, (or workers receive higher wages in export industries, if unions are strong).

d) Exporting goods and receiving foreign currency allows us to do what is really beneficial to the domestic population, which is importing more goods to increase domestic welfare to a higher level than would exist if we didn't trade.

If the average person even got 2 of 3 right, above, it would be a minor miracle. The entire People's Republic of China gets all three above wrong as a matter of policy.

(All a's - Isolationists, b's - trade warriors, c's - socialists, d's - economists.)