Noam Chomsky on Language and the Study of Biology


Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics, MIT

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (6:34) Reductionism? Not so fast

Listen (3:10) How does a scientist come up with better questions?

Listen (2:54) Do we need new metaphors in biology?

Listen (5:29) Are data scientists getting enough basic science?

Listen (5:13) Does science have a PR problem?

Listen (2:07) How does a culture go about solving ethical issues?

Our guest today is the intellectual giant, Noam Chomsky. He is widely known as the "father of linguistics," and joins us for our Philosophy of Science series.

If linguistics is the scientific study of language, the purpose of today's interview is to talk about the language of scientific study.

We begin with the question of reductionism and whether the study of biology is being limited by a method of inquiry developed with physics and chemistry. (See earlier interview with John Dupre.) Chomsky urges caution.

"If you look at the history of the hard sciences, it has not been consistently reductionist by any means," he says.

Using examples from the history of chemistry, Chomsky points out that though there were attempts to use principles of physics to study chemistry, it often didn't pan out. By the time you get to the twentieth century, there was a real break between chemistry and physics. With the work of Linus Pauling came about the unification of physics and chemistry. But "this is not reductionism," he insists. Chomsky says it may turn out the same for biology. That biology must be studied in its own way "with an eye to unification" and this unification may or may not be reductionist.

What about our overly gene-centric notion of biology which is now being replaced by systems biology?

"What should be done in science is to pursue all directions and see which ones work out," he suggests.

Chomsky is surrounded at MIT with data scientists. Does he think that "code writers" who are increasingly taking over biology with their ability to mine huge data sets are trained enough in basic biology?

An outspoken activist, Chomsky doesn't shy away from a discussion of the politics of science. Is science suffering from a PR problem in the US? And if so, what can be done about it?

We conclude with a discussion of the murky area of bioethics in which Chomsky says "there are no algorithms to tell you how to proceed."

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."