Sticking with social and political change, what is going on with climate-change denial in the United States?
The Republican party now has its catechism of things you have to repeat in lockstep, kind of like the old Communist party. One of them is denying climate change.
Why is it happening?
It happens that there's a huge propaganda offensive carried out by the major business lobbies, the energy associations, and so on. It's no secret, they're trying to convince people that the science is unreliable, that it's a liberal hoax. Those who want to be funded by business and energy associations and so on might be led into repeating this catechism. Or maybe they actually believe it.
The Republican-dominated House of Representatives is now dismantling measures of control over environmental destruction that were instituted by Richard Nixon. That shows you how far to the right they have gone. Today Nixon would be a flaming radical and Dwight D. Eisenhower would be off the spectrum. Even Ronald Reagan would be on the left somewhere. These are interesting, important things happening in the richest and most powerful country in the world that we should be very much concerned about.
The media has been one of your big interests over the years. Are new and social media really changing the way we do things?
I'm probably the wrong person to ask. I'm kind of out of the Stone Age, I don't use any of these things and don't know a lot about them, but they are doubtless effective. For example, Occupy Wall Street could not have developed like it did without social media.
Are they affecting other things very much?
I think that is open to question. For one thing, by their very nature they have to be fairly superficial, there isn't a lot you can say in a tweet or even an internet post. Almost by necessity, I think it is going to lead, or has led, to some superficiality. So like most technology, there is an upside and a downside.
You argue that the United States is in political and economic decline. Is that also true of the intellectual and scientific worlds?
Well, there are some who do claim that, but I'm not convinced. For example, if you look at the journal Science, the editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts has a series of editorials in which he is deploring the way science is taught in the U.S. In the federally funded schools and the universities people are being taught factoids; they are taught the periodic table to memorize when they do not understand what it is about. Alberts says this totally misleads people about the nature of science and that it is driving kids away from science. If what he is describing does overwhelm the education system it will presumably lead to a decline in scientific competence and capacity as well.
Looking back on your long career, if you were to start all over again would you still choose to study language?
When I was a college student and I got interested in linguistics the concern among students was, this is a lot of fun, but after we have done a structural analysis of every language in the world what's left? It was assumed there were basically no puzzles.
In the 1950s, there was a serious attempt to address the core problems of language and it was immediately discovered that everything was a problem and we did not understand a thing. Now a great deal has been learned and we understand a lot more about the nature of language. The contemporary field is still very exciting. It is a living field. If you're teaching today what you were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead or you are.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.