Feldmann’s “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital?”: Rebuttal is better than suppression.

There is a move afoot to have Kyklos retract “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop”, by Prof Horst Feldmann of the University of Bath. This move is due to the fact that Horst Feldmann has used faulty statistical reasoning to make an argument that language structure is influencing economic wealth.

There are two main flaws: 1) The assumption that pro-drop languages are categorically different from non pro-drop languages in the first place.  I have never seen a formal language model that suggest such a thing, though functional models likely allow for the possibility. (*Edit, a colleague privately told me of a formal model that does categorize pro-drop and non-pro-drop languages differently, but will not discuss further as they do not want to discuss the issue publicly.)  2) The assumption that languages are equally independent from each other.  This is definitely wrong: It is obvious on many levels that English and French are, for instance, more similar than English and Japanese by both lineage and organization.  Taking the second one into account might seriously alter any statistical model used to analyze the word language data used in Feldmann’s article.

However, I do not support this effort to demand Kyklos retract his article. It is much better to write an article that reexamines the data, using properly applied and properly reasoned statistical analysis, and rebuts Feldmann’s points if they are shown to be incorrect.

Once you go down the road of demanding that articles be retracted, not due to fraud or utter falsehood, but instead due to what you consider bad analysis, you’ve gone too far. I am morally gutted that any of my fellow linguists believe they can fight bad argumentation through suppression rather than effective counter-argument, and I repudiate such efforts.

Now, to be honest about myself and my limitations, I mostly ignore Economists when they talk about Linguistics in an Economics journal.  Just as they might do were I to talk about Economics in a Linguistics journal.  However, if any of my readers feels strongly enough to want to see the article retracted, here is my advice:  It is much better to simply argue against the ideas, preferably using better statistical models, and write a great article while doing so.  And if you do it well enough, you’ll really help your own career as well. 

If your reanalysis shows Feldmann is thoroughly wrong, say so, and say it as forcefully as you want. But, be prepared to end up possibly agreeing with some of what Feldmann had to say. This outcome is possible as you don’t really know what a thorough analysis would show in advance of running the data.  And if you think you can know in advance with certainty (rather than just strongly suspect) you might need to improve your scientific acumen.

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