February 04, 2004

Attributional abduction strikes again

In this post, Language Hat mildly rebukes linguist David Harrison for the recent press coverage of David's work on Chulym, saying that David "claims to have discovered a new language in Siberia," and that "if it's Turkic, it's not some amazing new language with a unique worldview".

I asked David about this, and he responded:

Thanks for this, I will respond to the author.

In his 'blog', he has misquoted both me and the press release: The words "new" and "discover" do not appear anywhere in the press release, nor would I ever make such a claim. Unfortunately several of the news reporters who interviewed me (or their editors) could not resist putting in those particular words in the headline, or even attributing them to me in the body of the article. It's unfortunate, but the alternative of not talking to the press at all is also not so great.

Middle Chulym (native name = ös) is definitely Turkic, and most Turkic languages are fairly closely related. It was previously wrongly lumped together (both in Russian bureaucracy and in Soviet era ethnography) with Shor, and later with Xakas, two neighboring but quite distinct Turkic languages. The Middle Chulym were even dropped from the census as a distinct ethnic group for over 40 years. They recently regained their ethnic status and registered as a 'tribe' with 426 members (35 people still speak the language fluently).

The Middle Chulym language is unique and distinct enough from Lower Chulym (the next closest language) enough to warrant its own Ethnologue entry. I will be communicating with the SIL folks shortly to make the case for this and to send them exact statistics on the number of speakers and the advanced moribund state of the language. I'm also going to publish the first book ever in the language later this year, a collection of hunting stories told by Middle Chulym elders and illustrated by their grandchildren.

Thanks again for noticing this. The full press release (and links to stories) may be found at http://www.swarthmore.edu/news/releases/04/harrison.html/

In further correspondence, David observed that

I've really been struggling with the press on this issue. I've been so careful in what I say, and yet they consistently produce headlines like "linguist discovers new language".

Sometimes I get the reporter to agree in advance of an interview not to use such words, and then the editor comes along and tacks on a headline, which the reporter has no control over.

It's discouraging, but all in all I think it's more important to get the word out there about language endangerment.

I agree entirely with David's belief that "the alternative of not talking with the press is also not so great", and that "all in all it's more important to get the word out there." When our colleagues take their misrepresentational lumps for getting linguistic research out in the popular press, we all need to apply a bit of charity, and withhold judgment for a while about the responsibility for implausible or exaggerated headlines, paraphrases and even quotations.

In earlier posts I've referred to this as the problem of "attributional abduction" -- reasoning to the most likely explanation for some piece of reportage that doesn't make sense. As I've written before, we can't tell: was the journalist or news release writer misled by the source? did the journalist misremember, misunderstand or invent something independently? was the piece subverted by an editor, accidentally in the course of hasty re-writing, or on purpose due to conceptual confusion or some independent agenda? Some earlier remarks on cases of this kind are here, here, here, here and here. And as I've also written before about such cases, in my experience it's a good rule of thumb to blame the journalist -- or the journalistic process, including the editor(s) and the headline writer -- before blaming the scientist. Though Lord knows, scientists are not always blameless.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 4, 2004 11:02 PM