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The specific question that has been the subject of must discussion that inspires this post is the following one:

What are the current fronts of the linguistics wars?

Now, this is a question that was perhaps worded too combatively (I suspect the response it got would have been all but absent had the question been called "What is the nature of contemporary comparisons between UG and Generative Grammar" with non-incendiary body copy), but I look at the theme of the question and have these thoughts.

  • I am personally interested in knowing more about this debate.
  • This question will drive search traffic in the future to the site.
  • This question is likely to pop up in the future, and we should weigh whether it's better to close it every time or have a canonical Community Wiki to direct people to.

I would like to propose that allowing for these sorts of questions and their answers to be Wikified adds a significant amount to the site.

For comparison models, some of the top (and in my opinion, most interesting and also most useful) posts on StackOverflow are open-ended Wikified questions, whose answers have been collaboratively assembled into very valuable collections:

While I'm not at all equipped to answer the specific question about the current state of grammar debates, I am more than happy to take the time to compose detailed and user-friendly responses to common and possibly open-ended questions. I hope that my albeit brief answering history can be a testament to that (example 1, example 2). I suspect that many of my contemporaries feel the same way.

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    If this weren't Meta, I wonder if people would be pressing me to Community Wiki this question. – Steven Sep 16 '11 at 2:08
  • I'm not an expert on most of what was covered by the question in point but to me it doesn't look open. It seems to ask for a fixed number of current controversial topics between two camps of linguistics. It could be that the war is over and there are no fronts. Or it could be that points X, Y, and Z are now accepted by both camps but points A, B, and C are still controversial. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 2:09
  • I'm all for "good" community wiki questions as discussed by the Jeffs and Joels where they contrast them with "bad" community wiki questions. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 2:11
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"Too combative" has very little to do with the argument against this question. Community Wiki has been largely phased out specifically because of these types of discussions.

The Future of Community Wiki

I can appreciate that the "Linguistics Wars" probably make for interesting discussion. The real issue is that we specifically forgo those types of questions for this type of Q&A.

Whenever someone suggests that making a question community wiki somehow "fixes" a question or makes it acceptable, that is a huge red flag that the question itself simply does not belong. Really. Huge red flag.

You said it yourself in the comments: "What is wrong with chatting along for fun?" Simply stated:

That's not what we do here

The linguistics Stack Exchange is supposed to be a professional community asking specific questions that represent real problems you encounter in your day-to-day work, not just imponderables, debate points, on-going discussions, or requests for opinions. We're not a place for conversation, opinions, or socializing.

You asked about the "Linguistics Wars" outlined in Wikipedia, reiterated all sides of the argument, and left us with "What happened since?" What problem is being solved? What purpose is being served except to start a chatty discussion or pick up where the debate left off.

It's not what we do here. This type of water cooler conversation is better left to a threaded discussion forum even the Linguistics Chat Room.

  • Yes I agree with you that chatting along for fun is not right here, but I didn't see that as the only way to make use of the question at all. Rather I read the question as "what are the current divisive linguistics topics or theories, if there still are any?" Whether some issue is divisive or not is usually clear cut. Things are seldom "a little bit divisive", either the two sides take potshots at each other or there is only one side. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 16:04
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    @hippietrail: Technically you are correct, but that's a bit of red herring. If I go to a computer forum to ask what are the current arguments for Windows vs. Unix, it would be specious to say I'm not starting a debate or religious war; I just want to know the arguments. Regardless, I'm advocating against using community wiki or "rescuing" questions like this by playing semantic games with wording so it skirts just under the bar of discussion or debate. This community is ripe with more constructive questions. – Robert Cartaino Sep 16 '11 at 16:48
  • It seems we are then trying to avoid controversial topics because we don't trust ourselves not to turn them into flamewars? Shouldn't we assume we are capable of mature answers? Imagine if this were to take hold in philosophy or christianity SE. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 16:57
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    @hippietrail: Read my post again. I'm talking about the broader issue of discussion, not controversy. – Robert Cartaino Sep 16 '11 at 17:13
  • Yes I said I agreed with you about discussion but it seems that you then go on to say that any topic asking about Unix and Windows or Chomsky and non-Chomsky at once must by definition be a discussion question in disguise. That's the part I don't agree with, not the broader issue of discussion. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 18:32
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In the case of this particular question (which I voted to close), I feel that it should be closed because (in addition to not having a single correct answer) because it is tendentious and not reflective of how contemporary academic linguistics is practiced. "Linguistics Wars" is a term belonging to a particular historical period, and it is reflective of the sometimes bitter contention to define the character of a field in its infancy. It is not relevant to the current sociology of the discipline. Much as some academics would prefer that their view be given exclusive appreciation, linguistics today is a big tent which encompasses a variety of theoretical approaches. Furthermore, it is becoming more rather than less allied with disciplines like computer science, psychology, evolutionary biology (etc.).

I will admit to being biased by my background – that of a graduate student at an institution (Penn) where the culture is heavily biases towards cooperation across disciplinary boundaries as well as traditional rifts such as those evoked by the term "Linguistics Wars." Chomsky and Labov (widely regarded as being generals of two warring armies) gave the two keynotes at a conference here last year. Chomsky was a little down on (of all things) computational linguistics, and a few computational linguists replied. This is far from a war, however, and I think that a large majority of professional linguists would concur in that view.

The question could be re-asked constructively as (e.g.) "what are current trends in linguistics research?" (Edit: which I see Mitch suggested as an alternate formulation in the comments for the linked question; I probably inadvertently calqued my suggestion from his.) There are interesting things to be said about this (new trends in computational linguistics, the "experimental syntax" movement, large-scale analysis of sociolinguistic data via social media...). But this is a fundamentally different question than the one linked, especially given the bulleted lists which tend to canalize rather than stimulate discussion.

Side note: there are non-single-answer questions that I do think are appropriate, like this one and this one. These are soliciting examples of phenomena, which is an important part of linguistics, pan-Stack Exchange advice against non-single-answer questions notwithstanding.

  • I think a version of this answer here would've been the best answer for the closed question. Something like "Your question is built on a false premise", followed by the debunking/showing that the war no longer really exists. I don't think the asker was asking about current trends in linguistics but only about current controversial/divisive issues in linguistics - which I think is also a lot less open an answer. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 8:06
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As someone who is just getting in the field of linguistics through self study, I feel like this would be immensely helpful. Wading through all the information (and in this case, it seems, often misinformation!) about Chomsky vs. whoever else is an incredibly daunting task for those of us trying to truly understand the issue.

I agree that this specific issue, along with others, will probably appear repeatedly in the future. I feel like this is the best time to start developing answers to these questions because this is the most crucial time to pull users in through search engine traffic. I also feel that it is in the best spirit to provide a solid roadmap for approaching such a complicated and contentious issue. I think this will help to bring forth a wider breadth of more targeted and answerable follow-up questions.

In conclusion, I think that we should have this question as a community wiki and should begin thinking about other questions that would be helpful.

  • I would you to counsel you not to frame your study of linguistics as "Chomsky vs. others." That paradigm of thought will not give you the resources to communicate inside the parameters of the discipline of linguistics. – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 6:43
  • If you are interested in the history of the discipline, there are resources like the book "The Linguistics Wars" that address this issue. (I have not read the book myself, so I cannot vouch for its quality.) – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 6:52
  • I have read it, am firmly on the GS-side and wanted to know how things were going as it was discussed as late as 2006 when I handed in my Masters thesis. – kaleissin Sep 16 '11 at 19:38
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Community wiki has proven to be a very useful tool in some instances elsewhere on StackExchange or related sites, e.g. in MathOverflow, CSTheory.SX, and TeX.SX. I would advocate its usage here.

What makes a good "community wiki" question? A question is a good candidate for community wiki if it does not have a unique answer — but that doesn't mean that any question that doesn't have a unique answer is a reasonable community wiki question.

If a question has room for multiple, parallel (as opposed to, well, opposing) answers, then it is a good community wiki question. And why wouldn't we encourage that? For a topic such as the "linguistics wars", good answers would be statements as to the points of contention with neutral descriptions of the leading theories, without editorializing about those theories. A good community wiki question is one which has no unique answer, but which does have good answers — ones which are short, and not extremely contentious.

What problem does such discussion solve? It's high-density expert-level information! And if properly done, i.e. objectively and in good faith, it can be invaluable. That to me is what StackExchange does best: it should not be mistaken for exclusively "solving problems", but the somewhat more general function of providing high-quality answers. The question should always, and only, be whether at least one good answer exists to a question; and CW is the tool for those cases when it is clear that the question happens to be one for which there will not be a "best answer".

To reject one variety of answerable question just because it has sometimes been abused is not unlike stopping StackExchange because not all proposals are well-moderated. We should pay attention to using the tool properly, rather than abolish its use.

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I agree about going the community wiki route. These sorts of questions wouldn't always be open ended or poorly made, but they still need a great deal of care to succeed, both from the asker and the answerers. Specifically, questions about the "partitioning" of the field and the history of different theories are of great importance to people at all levels of linguistics, and, not surprisingly, I suspect they will be some of the biggest search engine draws as well.

While I do agree with Steven's opinion in the On closing "questions asked in good faith" discussion, I think it may be too much to expect someone asking one of these heavy-hitting questions to revise their answer to the extent we'd like. Perhaps we should consider collaboratively writing some of these questions and seeding them? This way we can make sure the questions cover the issue in an organized (and impartial) manner, and ask in a way such that reinforces everyone's ability to add to the content in the wikified answer.

Drawbacks? Is this "planned questioning" standard? Frowned upon?

  • Note - I don't mean to draw any distinction between "us" (meta browsers) and the "average user" when I suggest seeding questions (i.e. as if we weren't asking our own). I just believe that the process could benefit from the input of multiple people beforehand, as the lack of a wiki form for questions makes major edits a little difficult once the question goes live. – tdhsmith Sep 16 '11 at 6:31
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    I don't think "planned questioning" should be frowned on – nor is it what we would be necessarily engaging in. Someone asked a question, which the community rejected. Now, that person is asking for feedback on reasking the question (and why it was closed the first time, etc.). So we are simply working as a community to have appropriate questions and answers. – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 6:41
  • @tdhsmith: Note that Stack Exchange already specifically allows for collaborative writing of questions and answers via suggesting edits to each others works, accepting/rejecting edits, commenting to clarify or get permission before and edit, and best but most overlooked of all - the chat room. Talking about it here on Meta also works. – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 8:10

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