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Mismodeling Indo-European Origins: The Assault On Historical Linguistics | GeoCurrents

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Published on Dec 20, 2012

Presented by Martin W. Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig, from http://www.GeoCurrents.info

Can language spread be modeled using computational techniques designed to trace the diffusion of viruses? As recently announced in the New York Times, a team of biologists claims to have solved one of the major riddles of human prehistory, the origins of the Indo-European language family, by applying methodologies from epidemiology. In actuality, this research, published in Science, does nothing of the kind. As the talk presented here shows, the assumptions on which it rests are demonstrably false, the data that it uses are woefully incomplete and biased, and the model that it employs generates error at every turn, undermining the knowledge generated by more than two centuries of research in historical linguistics and threatening our understanding of the human past.

The talk presented here was originally delivered at Stanford University on December 13, 2012, sponsored by Stanford's Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and co-sponsored by the Department of Linguistics. After a brief introduction by Kären Wigen, chair of the Stanford History Department, the presenters jointly deliver an address that lasts for some 50 minutes. A fifteen- minute period of questions and answers rounds out the video presentation.

The talk begins with Martin Lewis providing a brief examination of the media coverage of the issue. As he shows, not only the New York Times but also a number of other major news outlets, including Scientific American and the BBC, unreasonably portrayed the Science article as constituting a major scientific breakthrough. He then moves on to consider the significance of the topic, arguing that Indo-European origins and expansion has long been one of the most ideologically fraught issues of the human past, and that politically charged preconceptions continue to muddle scholarly interpretations. Asya Pereltsvaig subsequently explains the model used by the Science team, and then goes on to outline its linguistic failings, examining matters of vocabulary, grammar, and phonology. Martin Lewis then outlines the geo-historical problems of the Science paper before offering a few observations on the creation of ignorance. Asya Pereltsvaig concludes the presentation with a discussion of the languishing condition of historical linguistics and a warning about the possibility of generating "lodged fallacies" in the public imagination.

Further elaborations of the critique of the Science article can be found in a series of articles on the presenters' blog, GeoCurrents, located here: http://geocurrents.info/category/indo...

Abstract of the Bouckaert et al. article: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337...

NY Times piece referenced: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/sci...

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