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Yoon Ha Lee wrote:

><wry g>  From what I can tell the history of mathematics is filled with
>examples of speculations and ideas that did indeed turn out to be
>"rubbish."  Theoretical math involves a lot more intuition and guesswork
>than I realized

You get this in linguistics as well. If you read material from the early
days of linguistics, there is quite a lot of rubbish in it. There is also
quite a lot of insight that was simply formalized is wrong, so imcorrectly
dismissed by later researchers.

>To my knowledge calculus stayed around 'cause it worked, and because
>later mathematicians were able to find a much more solid theoretical
>foundation for it.

In generative linguistics, this happened with what is called the
A-bar-trace. The theory stated that when you move a topic or wh-pronoun to
the front of a sentence, it leaves behind a "trace" - a footprint in the
structure, if you will. The evidence was weak but the intuition was good.
During the late 70s or early 80s, they began running tests on brain
activity during speech. Brainwave patterns seem to corroborate the
existance of traces in a very dramatic way. Once the "moved" word has been
pronounced, the brain goes into a flurry of activity which only goes away
once the speaker reaches the point where the trace was hypothesized to be.
That is actually very startling, and I really doubt any syntactician
expected evidence of this kind. Similar evidence of the A-trace is lacking,
but syntacticians ignore that fact.

>A couple years ago I read an article about
>how mathematicians today are still working on *proving* conjectures that
>Ramanujan made, and while some of them turned out to be rubbish, some of
>them were mysteriously correct, even though Ramanujan himself never
>apparently offered any proofs!

Lots of linguists today love to discuss the Sanskrit grammarian Panini.
Apparently, he was very modern in his thinking for someone who was working
thousands of years ago.

>You'd think math would be an example of a discipline where "rationality"
>would prevent "rubbish" from appearing, and it isn't true.  Personally,
>I'm not surprised this kind of thing shows up in linguistics (or history,
>or the field of your choice) as well!

I have read linguists who never have anything reasonable to say. And yet
they are quite famous in the field. They point out interesting and
troublesome facts, but the way they account for them is non-sensical. Or
rather, they are possible according to the technical capabilities of the
theory they work under, but they are counter-intuitive as to why that
should be the proper analysis. For me, Chomsky falls into that category
most the time.


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Marcus Smith
AIM:  Anaakoot
"When you lose a language, it's like
dropping a bomb on a museum."
   -- Kenneth Hale
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