Very short comments.

H.M. Hubey wrote:

  1. Larry Trask, Re: 14.1825, Media: NYT: Celtic Found to Have Ancient Roots

authors reject this approach.  Why?  Because, they say, appealing to
cognation automatically implies a particular tree, and a tree is what
they're trying to find, so working with cognates is "circular".

It is circular because after the cognates have been chosen, as they say, it's all over except
the shouting.

What they do is to appeal to an unexplained and wholly subjective
notion of "similarity".  Two items are assigned to the same state if
the authors judge them to be similar, but to different states if the
authors judge them to be dissimilar.  Let's see what that means in

They may have practiced it badly but "dissimilarity" is used synonymously with "distance".
One cannot get too far in science  without a concept of "distance". And indeed the concept
used by linguists is also a "distance" concept.

Trask should take some time out and read my book.

At this point, the work under discussion abandons the discipline of
linguistics altogether, and in fact it ceases to be anything
recognizable as serious scholarship.  Linguistics cannot be done in
terms of subjective notions of similarity. 

What makes the linguists' notion of similarity any different except that it cannot even
be measured? Probability theory is implicit, and so is the notion of dissimilarity.

Unfortunately I cannot get at the original article despite having a subscription the
Science. Damned PNAS.

5. Drawing the tree

The authors draw their tree by hand.  Their first step is to throw
away all the characters which, in their opinion, produce results
results that are too messy -- that is, insufficiently tree-like.  Of
their 35 characters, they throw away seven for this reason, and those
characters are not used at all.  Well, I'm exceeding my competence
here, but this doesn't look very principled to me.  Is it really OK to
throw away all the data that give you results you don't like?

Why not? Historical Linguists invented it and codified it. Check the Swadesh list.

By the way, having jettisoned seven of their 35 characters, the
authors announce that they have 29 left.  This is a trivial point, of
course, but it does nothing to intill confidence in the care and
attentiveness of the authors.

Throwing out bad data is sanctified, AFAIK, in stats. Let's ask Richard.

Only one tree is drawn.  There is no searching of tree space, and so
this is not a "best tree" method.  

Why would they do that?

Mark Hubey