Posts Tagged ‘Naom Chomsky’

Roll on midnight – or why the Doomsday Clock is an abdication to cowardice

August 10, 2014

August 6th is Hiroshima Day and it is now 69 years since the Enola Gay dropped its bomb and the nuclear weapons age began. In 2010, there were about 227,00 hibakusha (被爆者) still alive. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki met their Doom. But such is the resilience of man that, today, less than 4 generations later, both are thriving cities. Hiroshima has a population today of 1.2 million compared to the 340,000 before the bomb. For Hiroshima and Nagasaki their Doomsday Clocks reached midnight and moved on – into yet another day.

The Doomsday Clock was “invented” in 1947 and, of course is purely symbolic. It is “set” by a group of alarmists to represent the time left before a human induced catastrophe (nuclear war, global warming, genetic modification, disease …) strikes at the “symbolic” hour of midnight. But this symbolism is flawed, rather stupid and just plain wrong. They use midnight as a symbol of the end of things whereas – certainly for me and, I suspect, for most people – midnight is just the start of another day. And when that day ends there will be yet another one to come. When it was first set in 1947 the alarmists of the time reckoned that humanity was 7 minutes away from their “midnight”.  In 1953 the clock was set to 2 minutes to midnight. The time to catastrophe has gone up and down over the years and reached 17 minutes in 1991 when the Berlin Wall fell and optimism ran high – even among the professional pessimists. Currently pessimism has taken over again and we stand just 5 minutes from catastrophe.

Doomsday Clock - Wikipedia

Doomsday Clock – Wikipedia

The Doomsday Clock is nothing more than a subjective – and less than qualitative –  assessment of the state of the world by a group of alarmist pessimists.

Naom Chomsky has a new article in The Unz Review – “How many minutes to midnight”. I’m afraid I do not have the same high opinion of Chomsky – even on language which is his own field – that others seem to have . But on the concept of the Doomsday Clock and the time left for impending disaster, his article is little more than well written drivel. He looks down on most of humanity – apart from himself of course – with a great deal of contempt when he writes

…. August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but — so the evidence suggests — not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst instincts.

Chomsky’s article is not particularly insightful but it serves as an example of the cowardice that alarmists exhibit. Cowardice is the subjugation of actions to fear whereas courage is the subjugation of fears to actions for a purpose. Alarmism and the Doomsday Clock pander to fear. Catastrophe theories never – ever – come to pass. But raising false alarms gets headlines, gets funding and usually provides lucrative opportunities for some. Fending off Doomsday rather than working to some objective becomes the priority of the hour. Political action is diverted to avoidance rather than to achieve goals.

Roll on midnight – and the start of another day!

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Marc Hauser (et al including Chomsky) is back on language evolution

May 1, 2014

The rehabilitation of Marc Hauser continues and he along with many others have just published a review about language evolution in Frontiers in Psychology.  Links to the Abstract and the paper (provisional) are given below but they argue that the “explosion of research in the last 40 years” has made little progress. Essentially, they say (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) :

With regard to the biological evolution of language, we don’t know much and we don’t even know what we don’t know. But now we can at least list some areas that we know that we don’t know. 

Hauser is the lead author and gives his affiliation as Risk Eraser which is engaged in brain training for kids at risk.

Marc D. Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael Ryan,Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky and Richard Lewontin, The mystery of language evolution, Front. Psychol., doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

Abstract: Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, 1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; 2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; 3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; 4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.

Not knowing something we don’t know at least moves it into the realm of things we know we don’t know and as such is quite valuable. 
The very readable paper (provisional) is available hereHauser Provisional Evolution of language

Marc Hauser’s lobbyists get to work but only end up excusing scientific misconduct

August 9, 2011

Marc Hauser’s friends have started on the process of repairing some of the damage to his reputation brought about by his own misconduct. He has “resigned” from Harvard but – with a little help from his friends – he will no doubt pop-up with a fancy title at some other institution soon.

 The Harvard Crimson reports that a group of academics have written a “letter” criticising the investigation of Hauser’s misconducts by Harvard. The letter was written by Pierre Pica, a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research, Bert Vaux, director of studies in linguistics at King’s College in the University of Cambridge, and Jeffrey Watumull, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. Watumull previously worked in Hauser’s lab. Eight other academics including Naom Chomsky have added their signatures.

But they protest too much about one of their own. I felt on reading their letter that while they accuse Harvard of a witch-hunt and express concern about the undermining of scientific inquiry they actually end up trivialising ethical behaviour and excusing scientific misconduct. Their concern does not ring true. The letter talks about a media frenzy against Hauser but ignores the fact that nothing came up in the media until after the 3 year investigation had shown the misconduct and Hauser had taken a year’s gardening leave.

Harvard Crimson: Monday, August 08, 2011

The letter—which was signed by MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky, one of Hauser’s mentors—criticizes the scope of the inquiry into Hauser’s research, the media frenzy that followed the release of Harvard’s findings, and insinuations that Hauser’s body of work has been thrown into question by the investigation. ….

Eight academics from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil signed the letter, including Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Florian Engert. It has been circulated among top academics.

The Crimson obtained a copy of the letter—titled “Could the Process of Investigating Scientific Misconduct Undermine Scientific Inquiry?”—from the authors.

Following allegations that Hauser falsified research data, a three-year investigation into Hauser’s research found him “solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith wrote in a letter last August. Reports attributed the source of those allegations to his graduate students.

In the fallout from the investigation, Hauser took a year-long leave of absence, was then barred from teaching for another year, and ultimately resigned from his tenured position this summer.

Related: Hausergate posts


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