Wednesday December 5, 2007

Everything2 You Know is Wrong!

Taking potshots at Wikipedia is a popular sport these days. I've indulged in it myself, and probably will again.  However, in all fairness, Wikipedia's a pretty good first reference for many topics.  It could certainly be much, much worse.  How much worse?  Well, it could be Everything2.  To see what I mean, consider a sample article about a famous semanticist.

Richard Montague was a professor in the Philosophy Department at UCLA in the sixties and early seventies.  His work on formal approaches to linguistic semantics, appropriately known as "Montague grammar", is an important part of some computational approaches to semantics and theories of the syntax-semantics interface.  For a good introduction, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about intensional transitive verbs (especially the section Montague's semantics).  Less detailed, but still quite good articles can be found in Wikipedia about Montague and Montague grammar.  But for a hilarious bad article about Montague, check out his entry at Everything2.

After the brief but reasonable couple of paragraphs summarizing Montague's work and career, the author of the Everything2 article concludes:

There has always been a certain measure of controversy surrounding the details of Montague's death, which today remains an unsolved murder case.  In the early seventies his followers and he had clashes with other linguists (among them, followers of Noam Chomsky, with his Chomsky hierarchy) who did not agree with him on various subjects.  Also, around this time, there were rumors of misconduct with other male students.  It is generally suspected that one of these issues led towards his death.

Montague was beaten to death by an unidentified assailant, early on a Sunday morning, in his Los Angeles home.

Here, then, are the key "facts" the Everything2 author wants you to know about Montague's murder:

  1. It's unsolved.
  2. Montague had followers.
  3. Chomsky also had followers.  In fact, Chomsky had a whole hierarchy.
  4. Montague and his followers clashed with Chomsky's followers. (It's not made clear whether Chomsky himself took part in these linguistics rumbles.)
  5. There were rumors of misconduct.

Finally, and most importantly, it is generally suspected (by whom?) that one of these issues (the clashes and the misconduct) led towards (but not necessarily to) Montague's death.  Get that?  It's like the Oliver Stone/Loose Change version of the history of linguistics.  Montague was murdered, he disagreed with Chomsky, and Chomsky has a posse.

Do I have to draw you a picture?  WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!  Who had the most to gain?  Follow the money!  Oh, sure, the corporate media will try to tell you that people are murdered for non-academic reasons all the time, but that's just what They want you to believe.

The brave author of this article has opened my eyes, and hopefully yours too.  If we band together, we can change the field of linguistics!  Someday soon, linguists will no longer have to live in fear of the running street battles, the dreaded Sunday-morning knock on the door, and the murderous reprisals ordered in Cambridge.  The 4/7 Truth Movement will never rest until the MIT Death Squads are unmasked and brought to account!  To the barricades!  Who's with me?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Chomsky also had followers. In fact, Chomsky had a whole hierarchy.

*cracks up* I think that might be the funniest thing I've read today.

The day is still young, but it may well turn out to be the funniest thing I read all day.

Posted by: Rachel at Dec 5, 2007 6:06:14 AM

I think the author of that article is trying to establish that his murder wasn't context-free.

(Okay, I should really get to work.)

Posted by: Rachel at Dec 5, 2007 6:11:05 AM

The entry for Chomsky is also pretty ridiculous. There are a couple posts that seem to not be done by insane people, but the rest are just bad bad bad... I think Everything2 should change their slogan to "YouTube comments meet Wikipedian scholarship - the worst of both worlds." Or maybe, "Be as smart as the crowd" (perhaps that is too subtle).

Posted by: Jason Adams at Dec 5, 2007 6:51:46 AM

I would be with you...but now I'm afraid the Barzini family will come after me.

Especially since I didn't sign this anonymously. Crap!

Posted by: who else would? at Dec 5, 2007 7:05:22 AM

The streets will run black with the ink of the bourgeoisie. (It's spelled bourgeoisie? Firefox, I'm trusting you.)

Posted by: Zaratustra at Dec 5, 2007 10:44:28 AM

Why do you think I blog pseudonymously? The Cambridge goons have been after me for years!

*looks nervously over shoulder*

Posted by: language hat at Dec 6, 2007 6:58:11 AM

[Points at Language Hat and howls like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers]

(That's at 1:52 here, for those of you who haven't seen it.)

Posted by: The Tensor at Dec 6, 2007 12:27:09 PM

For my entire linguistic career, I have been taught to be suspicious of Chomsky but I thought my teachers were just a bit paranoid. Forgive me!

Posted by: Chris at Dec 7, 2007 8:44:47 AM

OTOH, there are Wikipedia articles that cite Everything2 as a reliable source... including the original odd couple, Robert Rankin and Pope Adrian VI.

Posted by: mollymooly at Dec 7, 2007 3:52:10 PM

Richard Montague, beaten to death?? News to me. The LA Times story reporting his death simply said that his nude body had been found in his house, apparently strangled to death with a silk scarf. Nothing that I can recall about a beating, I think I'd have remembered that. Maybe that came out in a later report that I missed. If he was just strangled, not beaten, then it doesn't seem all that clear that it was a murder case.

Posted by: Fred Galvin at Dec 8, 2007 11:05:52 PM

Brilliant. (Especially Rachel's second comment, which was the funniest thing I've read all day.)

It's nonsense, of course. My degree's from the MIT linguistics department, and I can assure you that no follower of Chomsky had anything at all to do with Montague's death. This was made very clear when I started there. No one. Not even Barbara Partee. Why, she wasn't even in the state at the time.

Posted by: Lance at Dec 11, 2007 2:18:30 PM

Maybe they confused Montague with the Friulan linguist and filmmaker Pasolini? I hear that the Chomsky hierarchy and P2 were both involved in that one.

Posted by: zmjezhd at Dec 13, 2007 5:21:14 AM

Of course, the Chomskians had nothing to do with it. Montague had been using his linguistic powers for evil, and was killed in an epic battle when ANTONIO SMITH, FORENSIC LINGUIST caught up with him.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Dec 18, 2007 2:03:17 AM

I know I'm late to the party here, but I had to share this quote from Ian McDonald's River of Gods (Pyr, 2007) set in 2047 India that I came across shortly after reading the above post:

"I like to think I'd have been tough and noble under persecution, like Chomsky in the Bush Wars, but I'm a complete pussy cat when it comes to authority with guns. What I was scared of was being ignored. Writing and speaking and talking and not one blind soul paying attention to me. Locked in the white room. Shouting into your pillow. That's worse than death. That's what did Chomsky in the end. Smothered by inanity."

I'm tipping towards recommending the book, but I still like MacDonald's early Out On Blue Six much better. I should mention that he's focussed on AI in both books. Linguistics does not really come up even when he presents sentient Rastafarian racoons.

Posted by: Mertseger at Dec 21, 2007 9:17:43 AM