- The application of statistics to vocabulary to determine the degree of relationship between two or more languages and the chronology of their splitting off from a common ancestor.
Or, as its conceiver Morris Swadesh hypothesized, “[i]f we can show by means of comparative linguistics that various people spoke similar languages sometime in the past, we can infer the identities of those predecessor languages, and thus even more intimate connections between all human cultures … arriving eventually at an original tongue” (quoted in About a Mountain, 126)
Vic was in a safari hat and sandals an white athletics socks, and as we spoke in his office one late fall morning he looked over my shoulder into lamp without a shade.
“People have this really weird conception of science,” he said. “They think that it’s the one reliable source for information that we have. They think that even if their public leaders and not to be trusted, and their newspapers are inaccurate, and cultural and religious morals are treacherously shifting, that science, at the very least, will provide a stable compass. But the problem is that science can’t do that. Science is alive, it evolves. It occasionally establishes a fact, but, if given enough time, it’ll probably refute that fact. Remember when the Earth was flat? Remember when the sun and all the other planets spun around the Earth? Remember when humans became sick because the gods were angry with us? Science just uses a kind of rhetoric that sounds authoritative. Just like any other form of communication, however, science is susceptible to abuse, inaccuracy, and just bad interpretation. And that’s what’s wrong with Yucca. The public wants o have some assurance that all this waste that we’re producing is going to be safe in that mountain. So the Department of Energy creates all these computer models to try to prove that that’s the case. They measure and measure and measure and measure till they get the results that they want. And then whammy: Surprise! Their computers predict that everything will turn out fine at Yucca Mountain. Phew!”
He pulled the left sock on his left foot up.
“Well, I’m sorry,” said Vic. I’ve got news for everybody. Our descendants are going to live in a reality in the future; they’re not going to live in a computer simulation.”
And then the other sock.
“The problem with wanting unwaveringly definitive results from science is that whenever we say we have an ‘answer,’ we also tend to believe that we’ve revealed some sort of ‘truth.’ But real scientists don’t settle so firmly into answers. They always leave a little wiggle room for new evidence to change their minds. The very fact that we still even have something that’s called ‘geology’ is an indication that we admit that we don’t have all the answers. That we’re still investigating.”
From D’Agata’s About a Mountain (W.W. Norton, 110-111).