May 25, 2006

Public competence, linguistic and otherwise

In response to my call for "broader common-sense discussions" of language-related issues, Ryan Miller wrote:

I just wanted to note that if your hope for public knowledge of linguistics is that it reach the level of public competency that "automobiles, computers, investments, or court cases" have revealed, then you may well be disappointed with your results. Marginal Revolution had quite the head-shaking over the inability of economics graduate students to pass a multiple-choice test on opportunity cost, and I don't gather that most people have any idea what habeus corpus means or what diesel fuel is or the difference between documents and applications (if the latter seems improbable to you, ask any help-desk technician). So I suspect you will either be easily satisfied or easily disappointed.

I recognize that not all public discussion of opportunity cost, habeas corpus, diesel fuel or software is well informed, but at least some of it is. And I continue to believe that weblogs and other social media can provide a sort of inverse Gresham's Law, which I formulated this way: "[O]pen intellectual communities intrinsically tend to generate a virtuous cycle: if there were an order of magnitude more science writing in blogs, there'd be less than an order of magnitude more crap, and more than an order of magnitude more good stuff".

(I'm sure this idea is not original, but I don't recall where I've seen it before. As an idea about rational inquiry in general, it surely goes back at least to Roger Bacon.)

Based on this virtuous-cycle perspective, I'll be satisfied if the amount of discussion increases, and the rate of growth of bullshit is significantly smaller than the rate of growth of sensible and informed stuff.

Ryan cited the infamous Tuttle Software Correspondence as evidence for his view that the "level of public competency" in the computer area might be disappointing to me. On the contrary, I see this as a pretty favorable case -- a large community of well-informed people have been shaking their collective heads over one individual's stubborn misunderstandings. And as far as I can tell, the issue wasn't picked up by the AP or AFP newswires (much less the NYT or the Guardian) and presented by technologically-ignorant reporters under headlines like "Software company defaces town website". If language-related issues and events generally came out this well, I'd be ecstatic, not just satisfied.

[Update -- Mike Albaugh comments:

In the discussion about "Licensed Linguists", you quoted Ryan Miller in re: how the great unwashed don't seem to grasp the difference between applications and documents. Perhaps their guts sense that the diference is not as clear-cut as the Ryan Millers of the world think it is. Perhaps he was one of the ones confidently assuring his friends that there was no possibility of an email virus, on the eve of "I Love You".

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you get very far into any subject, you find yourself sounding like a lawyer, or Rabbi: "It depends".

Well, I'm sure that Ryan knows about rogue email attachements and word-processor macros, and was just waving a hand at the numerous faulty presuppositions that help-desk folks have to deal with every day; but Mike's point is also a valid one. It's a strength of vigorous civic discourse that assumptions are always getting questioned, and compelling questions have a reasonable chance of reaching a critical mass of people.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 25, 2006 09:06 AM