January 29, 2005

What is explanatory adequacy?

There's a nice post at Tenser said the Tensor on distinctive lexical features of the linguistic subculture. The point is that the common language of a scientific subculture is not just a simple sum [the standard language of scholarly writing]+[an explicitly or even ostensively defined technical vocabulary]. In addition to the clearly technical vocabulary there is likely a huge grey area of semi-technical or non-technical quirky turns of phrase which, having been infiltrated into our community by a single linguist, pass virus-like from one paper to the next.

Tensor's examples are X motivates Y (with the meaning X provides motivation to accept Y), and standardly assumed. I would guess that it is standardly assumed by linguists that standardly assumed is not at all particular to linguistics, but would come up whenever there was something that was standardly assumed. Apparently not. Tensor points out that googling "standardly assumed" produces about 800 ghits, whereas "standardly assumed" -linguist -linguistic -linguistics -syntactic -phonology -phonological -morphology -morphological -grammar -grammatical -phrasal -clausal -indicative -subjunctive -raising produces only 67.

This is really suggestive: just how large are the differences in frequency profiles of the languages (midiolects?) of different scientific subcultures, and how rapidly do those frequency profiles change? Can we observe a Kuhnian paradigm shift in action by looking at frequency data alone?  And if we can observe changes in this way, then to what extent would the changes reflect new understanding, and to what extent a desire to act different?

The first thing I could think of to test Tensor's method is the Chomskyan phrase explanatory adequacy. which I compared with adequate explanation to provide a control on the method, and also on those weird and whacky Google counts we have been worrying about lately. Here are the searches and their Google frequencies:

"explanatory adequacy"
"explanatory adequacy" (non-linguistic)
"adequate explanation"
"adequate explanation" (non-linguistic)

The phrase explanatory adequacy is usually not surrounded by quote marks. For explanatory adequacy is something that we linguists like to present as an obvious shared goal of scientific investigation, and we generally assume that any educated reader will know just what we mean. Perhaps they will. But if that reader is not a linguist, the table above shows that the chances are that the reader will never have seen the component words organized in that way, since at least 85% of uses of the phrase (more if we look at the actual search results) are in the linguistic literature.

Maybe the compound explanatory adequacy could be regarded as a technical term in linguistics. But I had not thought of it that way, and nor do I want to now. I personally had assumed that the meaning is derived compositionally from the meanings of explanatory and adequacy, and that neither of these were technical terms in linguistics. I had thought that anyone who knows what an adequate explanation is also knows what explanatory adequacy is. Yet, at the text level, adequate explanation is distributionally quite unlike explanatory adequacy, and is clearly not peculiar to linguistics. The vast majority of hits for adequate explanation appear to be outside of linguistics.

When we use explanatory adequacy, we use words that an educated person would know, and the semantics is intended to be clear. For that reason, I've said I do not want to call it a technical term. So what is it? Well, what we are really doing when we use it is conjuring up a web of associations. Blah blah blah explanatory adequacy blah blah standardly assumed blah blah, I say, and you might almost think I have an MIT PhD. It's not so much a technical term as a term of art, or artifice, designed to tell you who I am. Or wannabe. A lexical meme, yes, but one I use with an intention to say something about who I am and what enterprise I am engaged in.

What is explanatory adequacy? I regret to have to tell you that explanatory adequacy is now part of my identity.

Posted by David Beaver at January 29, 2005 03:24 AM