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So, I asked a question about Etruscan quite a while ago. And I received an answer which is telling me I was misled about the Etruscan grammar by reading bloggers instead of academic literature. It is an interesting answer, however, when I asked in a comment why exactly they think academic sources are more reliable than bloggers, the moderators have removed my comment and told me to ask that in a meta discussion if I wish.

So, why are academic sources about Etruscan better than non-academic ones? Historical linguistics is hardly a science. It rarely uses math, and, when it does, it is almost never calculating the p-values of the scientific method. I fail to see how is academic historical linguistics more rigorous than bloggers are.

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  • Thanks for bringing this up! This is a good thing to discuss, also for future reference.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta Mod
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 19:51

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Joonas gave a very thorough answer, but I'd like to address a couple specific points.

Historical linguistics is hardly a science. It rarely uses math…

It sometimes does, in fact. But math is not a requirement for something to be a science.

…and, when it does, it is almost never calculating the p-values of the scientific method.

P-values are absolutely not a requirement for something to be a science! The rule of thumb that "p < 0.05 means it's true" is unfortunately common, and unfortunately very flawed.

One of the more popular definitions of "science" is that it has to make falsifiable hypotheses, and attempt to falsify them. Historical linguists generally do this in the same way archaeologists and academic historians do—come up with theories about how things used to be at some point in the past, figure out what predictions those theories make, and try to test them.

For example, the answer that prompted all this mentions the theory "the locative ending in Etruscan was -i in most cases, but -e when the stem ended in -a or -e". This theory leads to the prediction that we should see, say, mutne (from mutna "coffin") in specifically the contexts where "in the coffin" makes sense. If we see mutne in nominative contexts, or mutna in locative contexts, then that implies our theory is wrong, and should be updated. If we wanted, we could do a corpus search, find all instances of mutna and mutne, look at their contexts, and calculate a p-value—p-value analysis just tends not to be especially useful for this purpose.

I fail to see how is academic historical linguistics more rigorous than bloggers are.

Peer review, mostly. Academic articles and books will be examined by many other Etruscan scholars, who will hopefully search for (and point out) flaws in them. Blog posts generally don't get this same attention, so errors can go unquestioned and unremarked on.

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I am no expert on the topic, but perhaps these initial thoughts are of some value to you or someone who might want to write a better answer.

A spectrum of rigor

It seems to me that implicit in your reasoning seems to be a dichotomy: A subject is either perfectly rigorous and logical or nothing but make-believe tales. We all agree that historical linguistics is not perfectly rigorous field of science with reproducible experiments; it simply cannot be due to the nature of the subject matter. But where we disagree is the conclusion: It does hold value and esteemed scholars are a far more reliable source of information than bloggers.

There are a number of "historical sciences" that look back on what was without the ability to do experiments — other than using and developing new tools to look further back in time or with more details. Many disciplines fall in this category: historical linguistics, archaeology, cosmology, and the historical aspects of geology, to name a few. Experimentation is impossible on the relevant timescale, but these are still topics we would like to understand as well as possible.

If you see science as the attempt to thoroughly and critically understand a topic, then these are all sciences. (You may also use a different definition of science, in which case they are not. But do notice that a very strict definition easily turns cosmology into a non-science despite hardly anyone contesting that cosmologists are scientists.) It's just that scientists of different fields have different tools at hand, and mathematics isn't all that useful with all topics. We would much like perfect rigor, but in many fields we have to do with less — but that less is very far from no rigor at all. (In case it makes a difference, I am a mathematician and some of my work concerns cosmology.)

Value of non-mathematical literature

What is the value in historical and non-mathematical scientific literature, then? The reasoning and results in a scientific article have been through peer review. In science we want the conclusions to be reliable, and therefore many scientists refrain from making strong statements. But those strong statements are appealing and we would much like to make them. Bloggers are less subject to scientific rigor — they typically do not have their professional credibility at stake — and they have a lower threshold for jumping into conclusions. Etruscan is a poorly understood language and a translation like the one you sought simply cannot be given with certainty; a full translation needs filling in gaps in what is known for certain, and that filling is a departure from rigor. We can make informed guesses, but they will not be much more than guesses, and that is not a great basis for anything worth the name "translation".

Also, the academic tradition builds on centuries of knowledge and corrected mistakes and crucial insights. Operating outside that tradition often means letting go of this tradition, and I cannot see how that would make anything more reliable. This traditional aspect applies well to mathematics as well, so it is not only a feature of less rigorous sciences.

Be nice

Finally, when you claim that some field is not a science, beware of the social consequences. This site is populated with folks with interest in linguistics, historical and other, and suggesting that their topics of interest — and in some cases, areas of professional expertise — are of no more value than a random blogger will seriously rub them the wrong way. Antagonizing others is not very productive, and statements causing that are best avoided. I recommend mentally extending the "be nice" policy to cover not only people but areas of scholarship: Be nice to other academic fields and accept that they have fundamental differences to yours without needing to be of any less value.

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