Monday, March 20, 2017

Lexical items and "mere" morphology-1

This was intended to be short. I failed. It is long and will get longer. Here is part 1. Part 2 sometime later this week or next.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am in the process of co-editing a volume of commentary essays on Syntactic Structures (SS). The volume is scheduled to be out just in time for the holidays and will, I am sure, make a great gift.  Nothing like an anniversary copy of SS with a compendium of essays elaborating its nuances to while away the holidays. I mention this because the project has got me thinking about how our theories of grammar have changed over time. And this brings me to the topic of today’s question: are all morphemes created equal?

Interestingly, GG theories answer this question differently. SS and Aspects sharply distinguish, at least theoretically, between two kinds of morphemes: those that enter derivations via lexical insertion, and those that enter transformationally. In this way, these theories make a principled distinction between grammatical vs non-grammatical formatives and track their grammatical differences to different G etiologies.

Later theories (take GB as the poster child) distinguish lexical vs functional morphemes, but, and this is important, there appears to be no principled distinction here. The latter more closely track important G features, but both types of formatives enter derivations in the same way (via lexical insertion or heads of X’ projections) and are manipulated by the same kinds of rules. The main difference (which I return to) is that some lexical items require specific grammatical licensing conditions (e.g. reflexives, pronouns, wh-elements) while others don’t (there is no grammatical licensing condition for ‘cat’ or ‘husband’). Functional elements are also often designated “closed class” items, but this classification carries no obvious theoretical import, at least within the theory of grammar. Rather, the designation is descriptive and adverts to the statistical frequency of these elements. Grammatically speaking, it is unclear what makes an expression “functional” beyond the fact that we designate it as such.

Minimalist accounts fall roughly on the GB side of these issues. This, I believe is unfortunate for the earlier distinction between lexical and grammatical formatives is, IMO, worth a modern investigation. Before saying a few words why I believe this, let me indulge my penchant for Whig History and illustrate the distinction contrasting the older Lees-Klima binding theory with the more modern GB view. Readers be warned, this will not be a short excursus.

Let’s start with the Less-Klima (LK) (1963) account.  The theory invokes the following two rules.  They must apply when they can and they are ordered so that (1) applies before (2).
            (1) Reflexivization:
X-NP1- Y- NP2 - Z --> X- NP1-Y- pronoun+self-Z,                               (Where NP1=NP2, pronoun has the f-features of NP2, and NP1/NP2 are in the same simplex sentence and).
(2) Pronominalization:
X-NP1-Y-NP2-Z --> X-NP1-Y- pronoun-Z                                                             (Where NP1=NP2 and pronoun has the f-features of NP2).

As is evident, the two rules have very similar forms. Both apply to identical NPs and morphologically convert one to a reflexive or pronoun. (1), however, only applies to nominals in the same simplex clause, while (2) is not similarly restricted. As (1) obligatorily applies before (2), reflexivization will bleed the environment for the application of pronominalization by changing NP2 to a reflexive (thereby rendering the two NPs non-identical).  The rule ordering effectively derives the complementary distribution of bound pronouns and reflexives. 

An illustration will help make things clear. Consider the derivations of (3a).  It has the underlying structure in (3b). We can factor this as in (3c) as per the reflexivization rule (1). This results in converting (3c) to (3d) with the surface output (3e) carrying a reflexive interpretation.
(3)       a. John1 washed himself/*him
            b. John washed John
            c. X-John-Y-John-Z
            d. X-John-Y-him+self-Z
            e. John washed himself
What blocks John likes him with a similar reflexive reading? To get this structure requires that Pronominalization apply to (3c).  However, it cannot as (1) is ordered to obligatorily apply before (2).  Once (1) applies we get (3d) and this is no longer has a structural description amenable to (2). Thus, the application of (1) bleeds that of (2) and John likes him with a bound reading cannot be derived.

This changes in (4). Reflexivization cannot apply to (4c) as the two Johns are not in the same clause. As (1) cannot apply, (2) can (indeed, must) as it is not similarly restricted to apply to clausemates. In sum, the inability to apply (1) allows the application of (2). Thus does the LK theory derive the complementary distribution of reflexives and bound pronouns.
(4)       a. John believes that Mary washed *himself/him
            b. John believes that Mary washed John
            c. X-John-Y-John
            d. X-John-Y-him
            e. John believes that Mary washed him
There are other features of note:

·      *LK Grammars code for antecedence: Anaphoric dependency is grammatically specified. In other words, just as the antecedent of a reflexive is determined by (1), the antecedent of an anaphoric pronoun is determined by (2). If one understands “NP1 = NP2” to mean that the two nominals must (at least) have the same semantic value (i.e. that NP1 semantically binds NP2) then what the equality expresses is the idea that the grammar codes semantic binding and semantic antecedence.[1]  This has two consequences. First, that the grammar codes binding dependencies, not (co-)referential dependencies.[2] Second, there is no analogue of GB’s Condition B, which grammatically states an anti-binding restriction. (1) and (2) together determine the class of anaphoric dependencies. There is no specific coding for disjoint reference or anti-anaphora.[3]
·      *Some operations have priority over others. A key feature of the LK approach is that reflexivization obligatorily applies before pronominalization.  Were the operations either freely ordered or not obligatory then John hugged him would support the bound reading of the pronoun.  In effect, the LK account embodies an economy conception wherein reflexivization is preferred to (is obligatorily ordered before) pronominalization. Absent this preference, locally bound pronouns would be grammatically generated.  This point is made evident by considering a slight alternative version of the Pronominalization rule. Assume that we added the following rider to (2): NP1 and NP2 are not contained in the same simplex clause.  This codicil is analogous to the restriction in (1), where Reflexivization is limited to clause-mates.  Interestingly, this amendment allows (1) and (2) to be freely ordered. The clause-mate condition in (1) restricts application to clause-mated nominals and the one in (2) to non-clause-mated NPs. This suffices to prevent the illicit pronouns and reflexives in (3a)/(4a).[4]
·     * The LK approach is dependency centered not morpheme centered. (1) and (2) primarily code antecedence relations not morpheme distributions. A by-product of the dependency (in English) is the insertion of reflexive and pronominal morphemes. These are clearly surface morpho-phonological byproducts of the established dependency and can be expected to differ across languages.[5] Stated more baldly, one can have reflexive and bound pronoun constructions without reflexives or bound pronouns.  This gives the LK theory two distinctive characteristics when viewed with a modern eye. First, it distinguishes between morphemes that enter derivations from the lexicon and those that do not.  Second, it endows this distinction between morpheme types with semantic significance. In the context of the Standard Theory, the LK background theory, bound pronouns and reflexives are semantically inert. Here Deep Structure exclusively determines semantic interpretation. Consequently, as reflexive and bound pronoun morphemes are not in Deep Structure but are introduced in the course of the syntactic derivation they must be interpretively impotent.  There is one more interesting consequence, the LK conception rejects a central feature of later accounts: that morphological identity is a good guide to syntactic or semantic categorization.  In other words, for LK theorists, the mere fact that bound pronouns and deictic pronouns have the same morpho-phonological shape in many languages is at best a weak prima facie reason for treating them as a unified syntactic class.
·      *The binding rules in (1) and (2) also effectively derive a class of principle C effects given the background assumption that reflexives and pronouns morphologically obscure an underlying copy of the antecedent.[6] The derivation, however, is not particularly deep.  By stipulation, the rules retain the higher copies and morphologically reshape the lower ones into pronouns and reflexives. This has the effect of blocking the derivation of sentences like Himself kissed Bill, He thinks that John is tall, and (if the rules are ordered before WH-movement (aka Question formation) Who1 did he say t1 left. There are two noteworthy features of this account of principle C effects. First, as noted it is not deep for there is no reason for why the rules could not have been stated so that the higher copy (optionally) gets morphologically transmogrified. Were this possible all the indicated unacceptable sentences would be fully grammatically generated.  Second, this version of principle C effects only holds for bound anaphors. It does not extend to co-referential dependencies, which fall outside the purview of this version of the binding theory.  This is not, in itself a bad thing. As has been noted, there are well known “exceptions” to principle C where co-reference is tolerated. On the LK account, this is to be expected.[7]

In sum: for LK the syntax outputs antecedent-anaphor dependencies. This is explicitly and directly coded in the relevant binding rules.  The proposal has two central features: an economy condition in the guise of the preference for reflexivization over pronominalization and a distinction between formatives that enter derivations via rules like Lexical Insertion (e.g. words like cat, dog, the, this, deictic pronouns, etc.) and those that are the morphological by-products of rules of grammar (e.g. words like himself and certain bound hims that are morphological residues of established anaphoric dependencies).

[1] It must code more than this however for otherwise (2) could apply to the output of (1). It would suffice to block this to assume that some kind of syntactic identity is also required, e.g. that the two be tokens of the same type. For further discussion c.f. Hornstein 2001 and note 3.
[2] Figuring how to make this clear led to problems with the original LK account. For example, how exactly to code (i)?  It does not semantically express (ii).

(i)            Everyone hugged himself
(ii)          Everyone hugged everyone
Interestingly this problem for the LK theory has an answer in contemporary minimalist approaches if we take binding to be a chain relation.  In effect, the difference between the underlying form of (i) vs (ii) is that the latter has two selections of everyone in the numeration while the former has one. In other words, if we treat (1) and (2) as morphological spell out rules defined over chains, this problem disappears.  C.f. Drummond 2011, Idsardi and Lidz 1997 and Hornstein 2001 for discussion. We return to this point again later on.
[3] Lasnik’s 1976 proposal for an anti-co-reference rule is built around the problems regarding “accidental” co-reference that this fact entails.  Contemporary attempts to return to the LK vision have roughly followed Reinhart  in assuming that the possibility of grammatical binding restricts extra-grammatical co-reference options.
[4] We must still assume that they are obligatory, but this is to block principle C effects (e.g. John saw John, and John said that Mary like John) rather than assure the complementarity of reflexives and bound pronouns. 
[5] This is very much a Distributed Morphology conception, though in earlier theoretical guise.
[6] Recall that this assumption creates problems for quantified NP antecedents as remarked in footnote 3.
[7] C.f. Evans and Reinhart among others.  Note, in addition, that there are virtually no extant cases of inverse binding, i.e. where a pronoun is anaphorically dependent on an antecedent it c-commands.  Furthermore, even WCO configurations would seem to be underivable given the actual rules proposed.  Nice as this is, it is worth recalling that this empirical success arises from codifying the stipulation that it is the higher/leftmost copy that is retained and the lower rightmost copy that gets morphologically altered.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Elite science

So much for standing on one another's shoulders and science being a community exercise. It seems that there is real panic among the "elite," so much so that it is becoming important to make sure that everyone understands that all the good things we have in life are thanks to the hard work of the precious few who really are intrinsically better.  Here is the latest salvo in this direction. Scientists are under siege for being elitist. The hoards are at the gate.

I would feel a lot better about this blather were it not so evidently so self-serving. Here scientists are being pulled into service to protect the status of experts with dubious expertise.  Economists are all aflutter because nobody shows them any respect anymore. I cannot imagine why, can you? Experts in politics, polling, terrorism and more are just being dissed endlessly. Oh my!

Sadly, some of this also hits real science. Yes there is global warming and yes it is caused by human burning fossil fuels. However, when one looks at what is discrediting this kind of research, it is not the masses rising up with pitchforks to pillory scientists. It is large powerful groups (indeed elite organizations) organized to with the agnotological agenda of spreading doubt, confusion and ignorance.

Elitism is the view that the betters ought to rule. It really has no place in science. Ideally, it's ideas that should lead. Who has the good ideas changes and the fact that someone had one good idea does not imply that that person's current idea is good as well. Ideally, things should be organized so that influence follows the good ideas. Nobody knows how to make this happen exactly. But that is the ideal. What we don't want is deference. That is terrible. But that's what elites want: deference. And the fact that science and scientists are being recruited to the cause of elitism by pundits indicates that some people must really feel that the world is shaking beneath them. Something to celebrate, IMO.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What's going on?

I was flying to Montreal on Sunday reading a recent issue of Science and came across a new piece that shocked me. It deals with the dismissal of Allen Braun from the NIH (here). His group in the NICDC was investigated by the NIH for violations having to do with the processing of subjects for fMRI experiments and were found wanting. The consequences of this investigation include dismissal for Braun and an embargo of all of the data collected in his lab for the last 25 years. Yes, you read that right. 25. The NIH is not allowing any data collected under Braun's supervision to be used for new publications. This includes not only his own work but also that of Post Docs, Grad students, colleagues, undergrads; whoever did any data collection in his unit.

Now, you may be thinking that this is because the data was fraudulently concocted, just another case of manufacturing bad data. But nope, that's not it at all. Rather, the problem seems to be that Braun may have not been punctilious in processing subjects. Apparently, the NIH has a protocol that requires subjects to get medical oks to participate (a reasonable enough requirement). Braun is accused of being sloppy wrt to signing off on some of these. Here's what the NIH audit found:
The audit, which is dated February 2016 and which Science obtained, noted that Braun had not signed off on histories and physicals for 206 of the 424 volunteers whose records the audit examined. But the audit also noted that of those 206, all but five had received a history and physical elsewhere at the agency, because they were participating in other NIH studies, too.
There were other, what appear to be, paperwork issues as well, but as the Science piece points out:
 There is no evidence, they have argued in letters to NIH officials, that the violations compromised the bulk of the data or the safety of study volunteers.
Nonetheless, the data collected cannot be used by anyone, thereby derailing a lot of basic research, and, I might add, suggesting that there is something tainted in the data and/or that Braun did something fraudulent and/or immoral. Note I say "suggesting." Importantly there is no hint of evidence supporting this conclusion, but the severity of the punishment and quiescence of the NIH in responding to objections invites the suspicion that there is more to the story than is being reported.

Now note: it is agreed that nothing untoward happened due to this alleged "sloppiness." There is not even a charge that the sloppiness was deliberate. Indeed, it seems that the biggest charge had to do with 206 histories and physicals Braun did not sign off on but of these 201 were done and signed off on in other NIH labs. So, we are looking at wrecking or, at least, seriously damaging many careers for what appears to be trivial reasons. The reasons may be more serious, but the NICDC is not talking. They are taking the CYA position that a legal proceeding is pending so they are staying mum.

And, the NIH (more exactly, the NICDC) will not back down. It seems that they really don't care about the consequences for young investigators of their embargo. Interestingly, the NIH doesn't seem to want to antagonize published authors for the NICDC is not asking that papers using the same data be retracted if already published. So the data is good enough if out there but not good enough to be put out there. I am having a hard time understanding what justifies the invidious distinction the NICDC is drawing here between the two kinds of data. Unpublished data, bad. Published data, ok. Same data, different judgments. Why?

I have known Allen Braun for quite a while. He is not a close friend but he is someone that I talked to quite a bit over the years and I find it hard to believe that he and his collaborators deserve any of this. I have no idea what the real cause for this extremely harsh (and from what I can tell from the Science piece, unprecedented) treatment is. But it would be nice to know. Scientists like to tell themselves stories that the enterprise is driven by the noblest values and passions: the desire to know, disinterested curiosity, noble urges towards the truth. But we all know that this is junk. Individual scientists are like everyone else, motivated in many different ways. Scientific bureaucracies are like all others, sometimes self-serving and protective and political. Science is supposed to be built to withstand these motives, not eliminate them. However, science like all pastimes can have a less pleasant side. This sure smells like one of those cases. The NIH should examine this and make public what really happened. It's hard for me to believe that the reported infractions justify such a brutal and heavy handed response. One had better have very good grounds for ruining people's careers.

Friday, March 3, 2017

In case you were wondering

Online education was, IMO, always intended for others. You know as ways of expanding opportunities for the lower classes to advance (and to milk them in the process). Elite schools aiming to establish brand names to allow them to compete with Phoenix University to bring education  to the masses. Well, it seems that this is running into problems (see here). The products stink. Now there will be calls to monitor their quality and improve them. But really, don't expect much. The goal of the MOOCosphere was to make money. The money would come from bringing Hahvahd educations to those that could not afford the price tag. San Jose State (and, one day, UMD) could become satellites campuses where the best and the brightest would remotely teach the unwashed at arm's length. I wish I could say that I was surprised that the enterprise has hit another big bump in the road. Thank goodness.


Is saying that something is interesting cognitively valuable? I ask this because I recently read a piece (here) suggesting that the term is more emotive than cognitive.  Or, as the piece (author: Corey Powell (CP)), puts it “[c]alling something interesting is the height of sloppy thinking. Interesting is not descriptive, not objective, and not even meaningful.” Thus, thought use of the term may carry information, it is subjective information about the user (denoting, perhaps, something like entertainment value (CP: “In practice, interesting is a synonym for entertaining”)) rather than an objective judgment about the intellectual content of the subject matter. Here’s the CP article’s take:

…if someone tells you ‘this is interesting’, remember that they aren’t describing the thing at all. They are describing the effect of that thing on them. Even though we hear it a lot from the would-be Vulcans around us, interesting is a subjective, emotional word, not the objective, logical word we want it to be.

I disagree. Here are some reasons why.

First, I doubt the claim that interesting is merely evaluative. What I mean is that it is perfectly reasonable to ask why someone considers something interesting, while it is far less clear that it is equally apposite to ask why someone considers something entertaining. Entertaining is a more like tasty in that it is a matter of mere taste.[1] Someone’s tastes may be perverse, but they are what they are. Asking someone why they find something entertaining is less asking for information than asking for justification (as in: that is no laughing matter and so not entertaining, and so you shouldn’t be laughing, unless you are a pervert). Interesting is different. Unlike tastes, interests can be defended, criticized, and reasoned about. In particular, it is legit to ask for a defense of one’s interests in polite company. In this sense, then, interesting aspires to cognitive content in ways that entertaining does not.

Second, there are many things worse than being entertaining. Indeed, I would go further, at least when it comes to intellectual matters the best ideas are vastly entertaining. There is nothing quite like the feeling of delight that accompanies ingesting and digesting a really good insight. It has a palpable taste and the better the idea the rounder the experience. Think wine, but a whole body experience. Think sex, but the high lasts longer. Good ideas are entertaining and that is one very good reason for relentlessly pursuing them.

Let me harp on this. I was recently discussing the emotional vicissitudes of academic life with a grad student. The major downside is that research is deeply unfair. Reward is not guaranteed to the just or the hard working. Lazy shits can, and do, succeed. The reason is that there is no unity to the good: bad people can be smart, beautiful humans can be lazy, lazy people can be lucky, virtuous people can be dumb. Thus, the fact that you have done everything “right” and have lived a righteous research life does not mean that you will ever run into a good idea. But, and this was what we discussed, the possibility of doing so is what drives many of the academics I know. Once you’ve tripped over one, or one has snuck up and grabbed you the sensation is so fantastic and intoxicating that the (often hopeless) pursuit of others of the same ilk (ideas that will generate a similar visceral sensation) becomes addictive. So, never let anyone tell you that intellectual work should not be entertaining to be serious. Truth may or may not be beauty, but deep ideas really are entertaining, which is one good reason to look for them.

Does this mean that everything that is entertaining is a good idea? No, there is such a thing as cheap entertainment (and I don’t reject cheap entertainment either, but it’s not the same thing) and its joys are different. But, I do think that being entertaining in the right way is a mark of a serious idea and, hence, a useful symptom of one.

Third, evaluations of interest serve an important function in research. Interesting is a predicate mainly of ideas, as opposed to facts. This is not to say that facts might not be interesting, but I think that their interest is at one remove.  They are interesting for what they might tell us or suggest about theories, ideas, hypotheses. In and of themselves, facts are, well, facts.  Being interesting lies not primarily in what there is, but in why what there is is the way that it is. And this requires explanations. Theories, hypotheses, guesses, conjectures, thought!! And that is why interesting is an important adjective and not, as the CP article claims, just so much “linguistic connective tissue.”

Again let me elaborate. As I’ve lamented many times before, linguists tend to undervalue theory. There is a “just the facts ma’am” attitude abroad in the land where corralling a stray data point is taken to be most important thing research can hope to achieve. Interesting is the adjective of choice for the anti-attitude to this. We don’t have nearly enough questions of the following sort: Why is what you are doing interesting? Why should anyone be interested in this? Why should I care? Questions like these force explanatory concerns onto the table. And as the aim of research is to explain (with description being in service of explanation) asking why a proposal is interesting is asking for the proposal’s explanatory oomph. And, sad to say, many advancing a proposal have little idea of why or what makes it interesting. The problem is not then with the term. Asking for interesting is asking about/for a real, abstract but objective, facet of ideas. The problem is that too many people have no idea how to explain why and how a proposal is of interest. Many would rather dwell on the data coverage and forget about the stories that make sense of them and that the facts should be in service of. Many think that data speak for themselves, or at least should do so. Many think that data, especially Big Data, will make interesting superfluous. Many hope that we can mechanize thought and eliminate imagination. Many many many hate theory and think it pretentious. These same many distrust interesting because it adverts to theory. IMO, that is too bad.

So, do I think that CP has gotten it wrong? Not entirely. Part of what CP says seems right to me. It is that we have lost grip on how the term ought to be used. Ideas are objectively interesting or not. Proposals can be ranked wrt their oomph scale. Science amounts to more than collecting, cleaning, and arranging facts. Science aims to explain, which is why we prize it. When done well it provides cognitive kicks with their own special flavor. When done well, it is interesting and entertaining. The hollowing out of interesting is yet another sign that the explanatory aims of science (and intellectual life more generally) are under data siege. It is a leading indicator of the rise of a pernicious Empiricism, one that takes theory and hypothesis to be little more than a way of summarizing the facts, and hence something once removed from what is real. And one main problem with this view is that it is so uninteresting.

[1] I say mere here deliberately. Taste is often worth debating. So de gustibus disputandum est. In fact, it is often the most important thing to debate. But, this is less true for low level tastes (maybe better termed preferances). I like vanilla you don’t. What’s to debate. But, I like theories that shed light on FL and you don’t, THAT I am happy to debate till the cows come home, and then some.