Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anti-Gingrich Linguist Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?

"Gingrich's patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking," the linguist John McWhorter opines in the New Republic ("Words, Mere Words: Newt Gingrich Speaks Well. But Is He Smart?") Why does McWhorter say that Gingrich's patterns of speech" are "very often" lacking? Why not simply "often"? I am suspicious of a linguist whose use of "very" is so manifestly hackish.

And just what does it mean for speech patterns to be "substantively lacking"? An assertion or claim can be "substantively lacking" in several ways. A partial catalogue: (1) The claim is a tautology; (2) The claim cannot be falsified; (3) The claim involves circular reasoning; (4) The claim asserts that something is the case, when it is patently not the case; (5) The claim is a contradiction. But in what sense are "patterns of speech" substantively lacking? Speech patterns can be annoying, confusing, pedestrian, varied, pretentious, repetitive, etc. But "substantively lacking"? What's substantively lacking is that which is being patterned, not the pattern itself. (Here I'm speaking with McWhorter, granting him his distinction between "substance" and "package," or what would more standardly be called "content" and "form." In fact, the distinction's meaning and application is far from clear.) 

McWhorter continues: "Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas." That one can use many words to say little is evident. But does Gingrich characteristically say nothing? Or is it that he says plenty of things, many of them objectionable? Does he have no ideas? Or does he have bad ones? I suspect that McWhorter wants to have it both ways. 

McWhorter is right to say that slangy talk may contain "sober reasoning." But the example that he gives (taken from W. Labov) does not establish the point. Far from containing "clear formal lines of logic," it's a morass. Consider the reconstruction:  

1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2. Therefore nobody knows that God really exists.
3. If there is heaven, it was made by God.
4. If God doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.
5. Therefore heaven does not exist.
6. Therefore you can’t go to heaven.

(1) is questionable on two grounds: (a) That "everyone" has a different idea of what God is like is not plausible. Suppose there are multiple ideas.  But one per person ("everyone")? There are 6.8 billion people on the planet; there are not 6.8 billion ideas of God; (b) It's not even clear that there are multiple "ideas of God." There may be ideas that purport to represent God. But are they actually ideas of God? Or are they ideas of something which is taken to be God, but which is not God (rather, some idol)? I am inclined to say that properly speaking, there are no "ideas of God."

(2) is a gross non sequitur. To begin a sentence with "Therefore" has no tendency to ensure that it follows logically from the prior sentence. Even if (1) were true, (2) would not follow. Why should everyone having the same idea of God be a condition of knowing that God exists? Not everyone has the same idea of Newt Gingrich, but we know that he exists. In fact, there are plenty of people who have no idea of Newt Gingrich at all.

(3) is problematic, since it assumes that heaven is a "thing," something akin to an artifact. More seriously defective is the antecedent of (4). The claim "God doesn't exist" is flown in, as it were, with no justification at all. Even if (1) were true, and (2) were to follow from (1), the claim "God doesn't exist" is independent of (2). Why? Because (2) is a claim about the status of our knowledge, not about existence. What's needed is an additional claim about existence. Something like:

 (4a) God doesn't exist.

If (and only if) this is granted, then what follows from (4) and (4a) is (by modus ponens):

 (4b) God couldn't have made heaven.

Now we can use (4b) or an implication thereof, e.g. (4c) "heaven wasn't made by God" to perform modus tollens on (3), proving (5). But (4a) is crucial. Its gratuitous assumption shows that the argument does not operate along the "clear formal lines of logic." It is not, as it stands, an instance of "sober reasoning." On the contrary, it is both unsound and invalid. 

Back to McWhorter. He is clearly upset about Gingrich's disparaging comments on bilingual education. That Gingrich's comments on this topic might be unsubtle or ill-informed is entirely possible. I suspend judgment, at least for now; McWhorter himself acknowledges there is room for critique ("bilingual ed programs in the United States have not always been good"). But what explains McWhorter's willingness to perform induction on a sample of one? Suppose Gingrich is wrong about the particular issue of bilingual education. Does that establish that he generally "interprets his academic training as a way primarily to burnish his own ego—to confuse supporters into following him, rather than to clarify matters of importance"? It does not. My impression is that Gingrich commands an impressive amount of substantive knowledge in a range of policy domains, foreign and domestic. In my own observation, he's deployed that knowledge in attempts to clarify matters of importance, more so than most politicians. Do his attempts succeed? That's another question. But how should we react when a writer who uses his academic training to make a name for himself in popular journals of opinion presumes to accuse another person of using his academic training to "burnish his own ego"? My own reaction: laughter.

Laughter aside, a serious question remains. Is Gingrich ultimately just another ego-ridden demagogue who cares nothing for truth? Perhaps. I've been depressed about the leading lights of the GOP for some time now. But McWhorter's smug hit piece is poor evidence for the claim that Gingrich is "not smart."