Does the network of journalistic credulousness still follow the connections established during the glory days of the British empire? I'm not sure how else to explain the diffusion pattern of Mark Pagel's little jokes about his estimates of cognate-replacement rates in language change.
In my post a couple of days ago ("Scrabble tips for time travelers"), I linked to a calvalcade of foolishness that included coverage in the Times ("A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age"), the BBC ("Oldest English words' identified"), the Guardian ("Word facing extinction: 'Dirty' will be scrubbed from the English dictionary"), and the Daily Mail ("Revealed: The world's oldest words… and the ones that will disappear"). And a Google News search yields a cornucopia of other giddy idiocies in British-empire media.
There's the Globe and Mail ("No surprise: 'I' is our oldest word"), the Scotsman ("Three is first among equals in oldest words in English"), the Times of India ("I, we, two: Oldest words in English"), Pakistan's The Nation ("Oldest English words identified").
My favorite is the Daily Express ("The World's Greatest Newspaper"), whose version rises to a level of delirious fatuity that only a picture of the page can do justice to:
The only non-British-Empire outlet to run a version of the story, as far as I've been able to discover, is Agence France Presse, perhaps because the English did conquer parts of France at one time: "British scientists uncover oldest words in English".
But two days after the press release, two days after the stories in the Times and BBC News, two days after a prominent segment on the BBC News Hour (widely broadcast by public radio stations in the U.S.) not a single U.S. outlet has picked this up. Not the New York Times, not the Washington Post, not the Baltimore Sun, not the Deseret News, not even the National Inquirer. Now, there's ample evidence that American news media are not immune to bullshit. So I guess that this is telling us that information in the modern world still flows along lines laid down a century ago.
Note that in the preceding paragraph, I've used the word "bullshit" in its technical sense, following the definition proposed by Harry Frankfurt:
What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
Though I still hold out some hope that Prof. Pagel is being systematically misquoted, I'm afraid that I'm now reluctantly coming to believe what a colleague of his told me in confidence: "He knows better, but he just doesn't care".
[Update: Further research turns up an outbreak in the Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos ("Identifican las palabras más antiguas del inglés), and another isolated case in the Austrian Die Presse ("Das älteste Wort: „Ich“").]