On different kinds of evidence

I rediscovered a nice blogpost by Angelika Kratzer on her semantics notebook that discusses (the press realease of) an article in PNAS. In short, the study reports to finally have found evidence for the fact that theta roles exist, i.e for the fact that in a sentence like ‘Mary hit John’ (yeah, I know, gruel linguists, but we’re not creative enough to come up with nicer examples that clearly demonstrate our point) you’re able to find out who did the hitting and who’s on the receiving end – I know, shocking, who could’ve known. The relevant quote by one of the authors is here:

This has been a central theoretical discussion in cognitive science for a long time, and although it has seemed like a pretty good bet that the brain works this way, there’s been little direct empirical evidence for it

This is a perfect demonstration of the fact that people simply cannot perceive linguistic data as relevant evidence (or linguistics as a science with a worthwhile subject of study). I mean, it’s just talking, and everybody can do it, amirite? The reason why I am writing this post is that I loved Angelika’s analogy that should make you stop and rethink your life (even without Jedi mind tricks) :

This quote makes it appear as if the idea that the human mind systematically represents agents and themes/patients has had the mere status of a bet before the distinction could be actually localized in the brain. That the distinction is systematically represented in all languages of the world is not given the status of a fact in this quote – it doesn’t count as  “empirical evidence”. It’s like denying your pulse the status of a fact before we can localize the mechanisms that regulate it in the brain.

I think this is an amazing way of putting it. The behavioural data is unequivocal on that issue and ignoring it is negligent. It’s like saying that it’s just a good bet to say that chemistry exists until you find the underlying physical theory (i.e. quantum mechanics, not Newton) that can explain it.

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