April 12, 2006

Hackery, Quackery, Schlock

With an apparent million entries in his (or his PR person's) Rolodex, Paul J. J. Payack has once again managed to get media attention for his loopy claim to have determined the exact size of the English vocabulary, this in an article by Christine Lagorio at CBSnews.com.

The article does contain criticisms from language experts and lexicographers like Jesse Sheidlower, whose more extensive debunking of Payack's claims appeared a few days ago in Slate. (See also Ben Zimmer's post of a couple of months ago). But the piece is written in the "evenhanded" he-said-she-said style that journalists fall back on when they're either too lazy or too timorous to check their facts (Sheidlower is described as belonging to the "skeptics camp," for example, as if there were any other). The effect is to leave the reader with the impression that Payack is a participant in a legitimate scientific controversy, rather than simply an opportunistic charlatan. (As I put the point in a "Fresh Air" piece which I'll post after it runs in a week or so, "trying to count the words of the English language is as idiotic an exercise as trying to determine exactly how many socks Americans lost in 2005.") When the media cover stories about global warming or Intelligent Design that way, it's accounted a sign of the brainless irresponsibility of modern journalism; when the subject is language, nobody seems to care. Cue the Bee Gees' "It's Only Words."

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 12, 2006 04:08 PM