Field of Science

Brazil issues warrant for scientist's arrest

The government of Brazil recently ordered the arrest of the well-known linguist and anthropologist, Dan Everett.

Everett has been both famous and infamous for his study of the Piraha people, a small tribe in Brazil. He has made a number of extraordinary claims about their culture and language, such as that they do not have number words or myths.

These claims are important because they undermine a great deal of current linguistic and psychological theory, and so they have been hotly debated. Some of these debates, however, have spilled over from arguments about data and method to personal attacks.

Just before Everett spoke at MIT last fall, a local linguist sent out an email to what amounted to much of Boston's scientific community involved in language and thought. It looked like the sort of email that one means to send to a close friend and accidentally broadcasts. Language Log describes it better than I can, but the gist was that Everett is a liar who exploits the poor Piraha for his own fame and glory.

This was just one instance in a series of ad hominem attacks on Everett over the last few years. I am not going to weigh in on whether Everett is exploiting anybody, because I simply don't feel I know enough. I've never met a Piraha -- not that any of Everett's detractors have either, to my knowledge. If this means anything, I am told by friends who have visited the Piraha that they really like Everett.

A couple weeks ago, I heard from a friend who has collaborated with Everett that all further research on Piraha language and has been essentially banned. A warrant is out for Everett's arrest on charges of, essentially, exploiting the Piraha. I have no idea how much this has to do with the controversy the aforementioned linguist has been raising, but I suspect that it is not unrelated.

On the topic of language, my Web-based study of how people interpret sentences is still ongoing, and I could use more participants. Not to exploit this post to further my own academic fame and glory...

1 comment:

coglanglab said...

In my post above, I was interesting in how politics was spilling over into science in a way that doesn't usually occur in the US. I of course don't know what Brazil was thinking. Maybe it felt used. Maybe it felt exploited. Maybe it just felt no scientist should be making news in Brazil except Brazilian scientists.

In trying to write an interesting story, I was unfair to the unnamed linguist mentioned above. This is ironic, since I was writing about him being unfair to Everett, and quite possibly for the same reason. (I also previously wrote about William Saletan being unfair to Amodio at NYU. Saletan wrote me a note in response saying something to the effect of "it's hard to let clarity get in the way of making a good read." He's right.)

Mea culpa.