Dec 21
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Mavericks. People showing great independence of thought*.

Some of the greatest discoveries in science have been made by mavericks. Nonsensical untruths have been promulgated by those very same mavericks. Mavericks stimulate the imagination – they lend themselves naturally as protagonists in a stimulating narrative, generating public interest. Heroes like Galileo and denialists like Duesberg all share one thing in common: going against the grain.

As a layperson in an unfamiliar field, how should a skeptical reader interpret the ideas of these controversial figures? I have been pondering on this problem because I recently attended a lecture by Daniel Everett, perhaps the most controversial linguist in the world. Then I read his book. I even attempted to read some of his original peer-reviewed literature and academic criticism of it, with less success.

My interest in Dr. Everett was originally piqued by this New Yorker article, which I recommend as a good lay summary.

Dr Everett started as a missionary with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, attempting to convert an Amazion tribe called the Pirahã to Christianity by translating the New Testament into their language. After many years, he succeeded in translating one of the gospels, only to find that they weren’t interested. The experience resulted in his loss of faith, and eventually, the breakup of his family. Along the way, however, he became a well-known academic linguist and came to appreciate the culture of the Pirahã people for what it was.

He claims that Pirahã is an exceptional language and culture. The cluster of features he describes certainly seem remarkable to foreign ears: no numbers, no colours, no left/right/up/down, no recursion. The ability to communicate purely through musicality – whistling, humming or yelling, all without consonants (even when used, the consonants vary). Only 12 phonemes (distinct sounds). A cultural constraint against discussing things which one has not observed directly or heard from someone who observed it directly (Dr Everett’s so-called ‘immediacy of experience principle’). Seeing invisible spirits without consuming hallucinogenics.

Dan Everett

Some of the linguistic claims fly in the face of Noam Chomsky’s ideas, particularly the lack of recursion. Dr Chomsky is a linguist and philosopher who founded a school of thought that underlies much of modern theoretical linguistics.

Much of the problem with interpreting Dr Everett’s work as an outsider is that he is perhaps the only linguist who speaks the language with a high degree of fluency (other than his ex-wife Keren Everett). While some of the work that he has done can be repeated independently (for example, on phonology, the study of the sounds of the language), much of the work that he has done is harder for non-speakers to confidently repeat. He responds to his critics, and they might find it hard to then counter-riposte, simply through a lack of data available to them and knack for understanding the language in context.

Whatever one makes of Dr. Everett’s claims, he certainly makes interesting point about the scientific approach in linguistics. There is a surprising dearth of study of some of the most diverse ecosystems of language – in the Amazon, Papua, and Australia (perhaps not coincidentally, also areas of great biodiversity). The least-studied languages are in fact to be found there – and are probably the most interesting. This means that there could be a sampling bias the size of Mount Etna in our present data on languages. It is as if zoologists hoped to study frogs without going to the Amazon, or geneticists ignoring organisms in the sea.

So what was the result of my attempt to understand a controversial expert in a field I have an amateur interest in? Well – I have to admit, I will have to keep to the humble limits of my knowledge and say that I haven’t the faintest idea whether any of Dr Everett’s claims are sensible.

1. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. Daniel Everett. Profile Books. ISBN-13: 978-1846680403.

2. The Interpreter – Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? John Colapinto, New Yorker, April 16 2007.

3. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã. Everett. Current Anthropology 46(4) August–October 2005

4. Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment. Nevins, Pesestky & Rodrigues. Language 85(2) June 2009. DOI: 10.1353/lan.0.0107

*thought to come from the 19th century Texas Politician Samuel Maverick

Nov 05
Posted by: colinhockings  

Enter Academician

Academician: Welcome, one and all, to the 123rd meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle. Hat tip to one of the most important men ever to stand up and say ‘Er…hang on’ for tonight’s theme: Galileo Galilei. He wrote his thesis on the shape of the solar system in the form of a dialogue between two philosophers and a layman, and my script on the musings of my fellow bloggers will follow the same format. I’ve managed to persuade my friend Simplicio to join us – unfortunately my other friend, the layman, is taking a holiday to enjoy the beautifully redesigned Lay Scientist website so it’ll just be the two of us. As many skeptics are keen debaters wielding high quality arguments, I must inform you up front that Simplicio lists ‘Straw Man’ as his only hobby on Facebook.

Enter Simplicio

Simplicio: Ladies and Gentlemen! Hello. At least, I assume that you’re ladies (points to women in the crowd) and gentlemen (points to men). I mean…I don’t need to see any evidence, right? Am I right?

Academician: Well, yes, in this case you can probably believe the evidence of your own eyes to decide whether they’re male or female. However there are many cases where ‘common sense’ intuition is entirely wrong, as shown by Andrew Bernadin of The Evolving Mind. You should always be aware that your mind may lead you astray.

Simplicio: Your mind might. I’m perfectly sane and don’t need to worry about that sort of thing.

Academician: Well you may need to consult The Evolving Mind again, as Andrew describes three fascinating experiments where the silliest of things affect the decisions people make. Everyone who claims to know anything has to be aware of his or her natural ignorance.

Simplicio: But people keep talking about how to make a “good” argument with “sound evidence” and it’s all really boring!

Academician: Are you sure? You haven’t taken a look at Anthropologist Underground’s guide to solid argumentation. It’s set to the tune of ‘How To Avoid Your Children Dying On A Mountainside’. A novel take, to say the least!’

Simplicio: I don’t agree with novel takes. I learnt everything I know as a child and that’s how I like it!

Academician: I’m afraid you may be onto something there. Luckily Kylie Sturgess at PodBlack Cat has a very interesting discussion about the value of science fiction as a teaching tool in the science classroom.

Simplicio: Good idea, but not good enough. I prefer when people just simplify things for me, preferably without recourse to evidence.

Academician: Skeptics can do that too, when they feel like being snarky. Runolfr will gladly tell you of the story of the Tin-Foil-Hat wearers and their mortal enemies, the lead-lined-baseball cappers. I think he’s making a very pointed jab at something, but I’m not sure what…

Simplicio: Hehe that’s funny! I’ve got a parable like that too! There was once a little bird who died of herd immunity. The end

Academician: Um… that’s very sad, but I don’t think you quite understand what herd immunity is. Why don’t you ask Mike, he of the Weekly Skeptical Rant? He has an explanation involving bras and basketball!

Simplicio: Yea…that’s all a woman’s body is good for really: explaining concepts in epidemiology!

Academician: Well that sort of misogyny is running rife on the interwebs, especially in the anti-vaccination camp apparently. Amy Wallace had some unpleasant experiences with them following her Wired article, but as our local Goddess, Isis, will tell you, its fairly common. Not content with re-awakening nearly extinct diseases (see this post of gold at the end of the Rainbow of Chaos), the anti-vaxxers feel they have to be ‘colossal cockweaseldouchemonkeys’.

Simplicio: But the anti-vaxxers have a point! Pharma companies are simply ‘discovering’ new viruses so that they can force a new vaccine upon us!

Academician: Short answer: ‘er…you what!?!?! Um… NO!’. Long answer: ‘you’re thinking about the newly found (and, as far as I know, unconfirmed) correlation between XMRV infection and chronic fatigue syndrome? I’d ask Richard Hughes of Young Aus Skeptics‘.

Simplicio: But how about the Swine Flu vaccine? Swine Flu’s gone and they’re still trying to stab us with their evil needles of evil!

Academician: What do you mean Swine Flu’s gone? Tell that to Steve Thoms‘ students, half of whom are ill at the moment. Luckily for you there’s lots of good information about H1N1 on Skeptic North. They’ve even started a Facebook group that the entire audience (yes, that’s YOU!) should join to fight back against the reams of mis-information being spread elsewhere. Kimberly Hébert has a little bit of background information about the group and ‘Using Facebook Powers for Good’, which seems a very strange concept.

Simplicio: Sorry…didn’t quite catch that. What was it that I should do again?

Academician: Join the “H1N1 Vaccine – Get the Facts” Facebook group. NOW! Joining it is like getting the vaccine: you will help protect the people you love (or at least your “friends”) by promoting it in your news feed!

Simplicio: I’m sorry, I appear to going deaf. I think you’re going to have to repeat yourself in bold, underlined text to attract the attention of all the ’skimmers’.

Academician: Good idea! Join Skeptic North’s Swine Flu vaccine Facebook group NOW!

Simplicio: But there must be something to this vaccine-autism thing. Didn’t you hear that AutismOne is having their conference in the Medical Sciences building at the University of Toronto, being funded by reputable medical charities?

Academican: Well that’s not entirely the story I heard, but you’d have to head over to Skeptic North again to read Scott Gavura’s excellent post. So excellent, in fact, that Scott had to follow up with a few comments on the media coverage it’s received on his own blog, Science Based Pharmacy.

Simplicio: I think it’s all a pro-vaccine conspiracy. These scientists are waging a war against our freedom to believe what we like about our bodies, and they’re also targeting good Christian values!

Academician: What on earth are you talking about?

Simplicio: The HPV vaccine! The prospect of an increased risk of cervical cancer is the only thing stopping young people from having orgies in the streets! Take that away and our moral fibre will melt like a witch on water-throwing day!

Academician: Ah yes, SkeptVet did mention something about that: the strange union of the conservative Christians and New-Age hippies on this issue. There is also an evidence-based discussion of the further correlation between being a CAM proponent and being religious.

Simplicio: Why are you smirking?

Academician: Well it seems that as soon as you put your faith in faith, rather than evidence, you open the door for all sorts of silliness. Take prayer-healing, for example! Luckily Melany Fulgham, again of Skeptic North, was willing to demonstrate the use of the Skeptic’s Toolkit® to dismantle some recent claims. Over at Scientifica Phenomena, Carver has a nice, succinct essay explaining why creationism (or creation science, or ID, or whatever new packaging it’s acquired today) is not, and will never be, science.

Carver has also written a somewhat revealing post showing that some CAM-pushing quacks are not content to simply lie to you about efficacy in the hope of making some money, but will actively try to scam you.

Simplicio: Back up a bit there! Of course creation science is science! It says so in the name!

Academician: No I’m afraid you need to follow the scientific method to be a scientist. If you have a conclusion and are cherry picking evidence to support it, that’s not science. Just as cryptozoologists (people who search for mythical creatures but want a better job title than ‘fool’) can’t claim the recent discovery of the Bald-Faced Bubul in Laos as their own – ask the Mad Skeptic for more. The Mad Skeptic also has two cents worth to share about #No God Tuesday, an event that will go down in history as the day of the theological Fail Whale. I definitely recommend a read because a) it’s funny, and b) it further weakens the idea that believing in God makes you a nice person.

Simplicio: Well are scientists necessarily good, upstanding people?

Academician: Yes! Well, actually, no, of course not. One example is Dr. David Suzuki (a very famous scientist in Canada, by the looks of things) who is apparently giving the keynote at the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors’ annual conference according to Naturocrit. And that with all of his 23 Doctorates!

(turns to audience)

Ladies and Gentlemen! We’re nearing the end of the scene. All that is remains is the review section. This is also known as the ‘These Noble Men and Women Took One For the Team by Reading a Pile of Absolute Tripe So That We Don’t Have To’ section. Simplicio, if you would be so kind as to read out these cue cards..? (hand over a small stack of cards)

Simplicio: Homeopathy!

Academician: Some of you will have seen the beginning of a video on YouTube last week where a homeopath stands up and ‘explains’ how homeopathy works. I say ‘beginning’ because I personally couldn’t make us much further than “Steven Hawkings invented string theory”. Luckily no-one ever needs to see it again since IBY had a go at deconstructing it!

Simplicio: Anti-Evolutionists!

Academician: Bing McGandhi of Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes reviews a review of Richard Dawkins’ new book. I know, very meta, but that’s just how McGandhi rolls! If the anti-evolutionists are confusing you with their crazy, this is a good source of arguments.

Simplicio: Anti-Vaccinationists!

Academician: Halvorsan’s book ‘The Truth About Vaccines” is, of course, anything but. James Cole of Stuff and Nonsense (previously jdc325 of jdc325’s Blog) is seriously taking one for the team, analysing it chapter by chapter. For this service to humanity please visit his blog and shower him with comments, money and underwear. Any acquaintances that turn up on your doorstep clutching Halvorsan’s book should be similarly referred. (P.S. James, in retrospect, I disapprove of the name change. The stark contrast between the really bad name and the excellent content made the blog very memorable)

Simplicio: Realism!

Academician: What? Oh, yes! A review of ‘The Last Superstition’ by Dr. Edward Feser on Life, The Universe and One Brow morphs quickly into a treatise on realism that goes way above my head. I recommend any philosophers to take a peek. Maybe you can review the review for us in the comments?

Simplicio: 9/11 ‘Truthers’

Academician: Richard Hughes says ‘Farewell‘, he’ll be sorely missed I’m sure. Don’t worry, he’s not stopped blogging or anything. He’s finally quitting the fight with 9/11 truthers with this memorable quote: “it seemed as though in continuing to debate, we were doing little more than attaching jumper cables to a dead horse as an excuse to beat it some more”. The post is a very interesting account of his time battling the movement, something that I, as a European, hadn’t head much about.’

That, I’m afraid, brings us to the end of yet another Skeptics’ Circle. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show, you’ve been a wonderful audience, and I hope to see you here again soon!


Before you leave, I hope you’ll consider buying season tickets to this theatre. They can be purchased at this ticket booth and remember that you can speak to the actors after the show on @BlueGenesNews!

H1N1 Vaccine – Get the Facts

Oct 03
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

***Edit 04/10/2009 – added more to this post***

I’m attending TAM (The Amaz!ng Meeting) London this weekend, and I thought I’d write a minipost about today – there’ll be more later.

Today’s speaker’s, in order of appearance, were:

Brian Cox – particle physicist, writer and TV personality. He discussed the Large Hadron Collider and the cutting edge of particle physics, and why he won’t be destroying the earth anytime soon.

Jon Ronson – befriends psychics, extremists and people with weird beliefs to better understand and investigate them. His book, The Men who Stare at Goats, is now a motion picture starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.

Simon Singh – popular science author. He discussed how he went from writing about codes and mathematics to pseudoscience, and about fighting the notorious libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association.

Ariane Sherine – writer and Guardian columnist promoter of the ‘Atheist bus campaign’ which raised £150,000 and spread worldwide. There is now a book of essays by various well-known freethinkers, called The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.

Ben Goldacre – Guardian columnist and writer of bestselling Bad Science. He discussed themes from his book and columns in condensed formed. He also made a more informal appearance at the comedy evening.

James Randi (via skype from US) – stage magician and pseudoscience debunker, founder of JREF, the foundation organising the event. He took a number of questions from the audience and received a standing ovation.

Other writers, like Mil Millington, and blogosphere personalities such as Crispian Jago and Jack of Kent (his post on today here) were present in the audience.

Simon Singh with his award (right) and his wife Anita (left)

Simon Singh with his award (right) and his wife Anita (left)

Most exciting event of today:

Simon Singh receive the TAM Award UK 2009  – presumably for his courage in battling his legal case. He received a standing ovation. Upon receiving the award, he announced the happy news that he and his wife are expecting a child. We here at blue genes wish him all the best. Apologies for iPhone photo quality!