Monday, October 25, 2010

Have we lost sight of everyday wisdom?

Barry Schwartz is an American pyschologist, author and professor of social theory and social action. In this TED Talk he makes a passionate call for practical wisdom as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Manipulation of the Media

Just to prove that manipulation of the media is as old as the media itself, here are a couple of quotations I read recently. The description is taken from a wanted notice, purportedly signed by Pontius Pilate and later quoted by the Jewish historian Josephus:
"At this time, too, there appeared a certain man of magical power, if it is permissible to call him a man, whom certain Greeks call a son of God, but his disciples the true prophet, said to raise the dead and heal all diseases.
His nature and form were human, a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits high [about five feet], hunch-backed, with a long face, long nose and meeting eyebrows, so that those who see him might be affrighted, with scanty hair with a parting in the middle of the head, after the manner of Nairites, and an underdeveloped beard."
This piece was later altered by Christian historians to read:
"... ruddy skin, medium stature, six feet high, well grown, with a venerable face, handsome nose, goodly black eyebrows with good eyes so that spectators could love him, with curly hair the colour of unripe hazel nuts, with a smooth and unruffled, unmarked and unwrinkled forehead, lovely blue eyes, beautiful mouth, with a copious beard the same colour as the hair, not long, parted in the middle, arms and hands full of grace..."
Taken from A Criminal History of Mankind, by Colin Wilson (Parragon, London, 1993).

At least both of the original authors agreed that Jesus had a centre parting. Other than that, I'm still undecided on his real appearance.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Dor Yeshorim Organisation

Sat at home over the holidays, watching the television as usual, I came across a documentary about the Jewish Community in New York. Its probably common knowledge, but I personally wasn't aware of a system of genetic testing which is carried out on young Jews of high school age. These tests are administered by the Dor Yeshorim Organisation which was set up by Rabbi Josef Ekstein in the 1980s after he lost four of his children to Tay-Sachs disease (a genetic disorder caused when two recessive genes come together, one from each parent) and has expanded to cover other areas, including Israel.

Recessive genetic disorders are very prevalent in the New York Jewish comunity as it is a relatively small population with a very strong tendancy for intermarriage (over many generations). A simple (but possibly controversial) method for avoiding these problems is for prospective couples to have their test results checked for compatibility before committing to marriage.

Opponents compare the basic premise to that of eugenics (and with such a claim comes an inevitable comparison to the ideas of the Nazis). Certainly if you are a strong believer in the idea of "true love", then it is a bit off-putting. Furthermore, at what point should you stop? There will always be some deleterious genes in any genetic profile. You might argue, however, that it's natural to want to know as much as possible about your partner before you marry, and why shouldn't this involve delving into their genetic identity?

My initial response was to feel a bit uneasy about the whole premise. However, after thinking about it for a while, I can see a lot of value in the idea that a couple should be confident that they have done all they can to ensure they are able to have healthy children. Is it acceptable for a couple to decide that they shouldn't marry in order to prevent avoidable suffering and death in the next generation? Of course, if you feel strongly that it is wrong for your religion to dictate who you should fall in love with, then the ideas of Dor Yeshorim will be completely alien to you in any case. Certainly a good subject for a TOK presentation I think, and it is a good example of a subject in which religion and science meet.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Simon Singh and UK libel laws

Simon Singh is a science author and journalist based in the UK. I met him on a couple of occasions when he gave some talks in cafés in Brighton (before I ended up here in Mexico), and I've mentioned his science and maths books on this blog before. He's a terribly nice chap, but has recently fallen foul of UK libel laws following the publication of an article he wrote in his column in the Guardian newspaper.

In the article he was critical of the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). Specifically, he questioned their claims that manipulation of the spine can cure illnesses in children such as asthma, ear infections and colic, by altering the flow of blood around the body (these claims bear a striking resemblance to those made by proponents of Braingym). Its difficult to find a transcript of the original article, since many websites are scared of being sued for libel along with Dr. Singh. However, I did find a copy on a Russian blog, here.

The result of his article was a two year legal battle (costing him 200 000 pounds), after the BCA sued him. He has consistently defended himself on the basis that he had the right to "fair comment". In an initial hearing, the judge found in favour of the BCA, but this decision was reversed in the High Court a few days ago (1st April, 2010).

The most obvious result of the whole thing has been the mobilisation of science writers and bloggers in the UK in support of Singh, and the highlighting of inequities within UK libel laws. Many people (including celebrities, journalists and politicians) are currently calling for reform of the law because of their perception that it favours large organisations with the money to silence their critics. Dr. Singh has always claimed that science writers in particular must be allowed to publish without fear of being sued by the organisations they are investigating.

I wasn't previously aware of British libel law, but it seems that it has gained some notoriety over the years. The UN's Committee on Human Rights has attacked "libel tourism", where foreign businessmen and millionaires use the High Court in London to sue foreign publishers under defamation laws. Similarly, in one episode of South Park, Tom Cruise shouts at the American press "I'm gonna sue you...... in England."

Simon Singh's website can be found here, together with his petition to reform the law (which I will admit to signing myself).

Sunday, April 4, 2010 endangered language

The common language in the time of Jesus, Aramaic, is now so endangered the written version has become practically extinct. Now the only place left in the world where it has remained virtually unchanged since biblical times is losing its Aramaic speakers, as people leave to find work elsewhere. Maaloula in Syria is one of the oldest villages in the world, but is losing its culture and its language as the modern world encroaches:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lost in Translation.....again

More proof that you should really know what you are saying before you write it on a signpost. This is a fairly old story now, but still funny. There is a legal requirement in Wales that all public signs should be written in both English and Welsh. This sign appeared on a Swansea street a few years ago:

Unfortunately, nobody bothered to check the translation with a native Welsh speaker, and it was later found to read "I am not in the office at the moment. Please resend any work to be translated".

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Logical Fallacy Song

At last... an explanation of logical fallacies that even I can understand. Made, incidentally, by a couple of straw men:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Language in animals

Animals are obviously able to communicate in many ways. However, I remain to be convinced that any animals are able to use language. There is an important distinction between communication and language. Language is open-ended, with rules that each participant knows and understands (referred to as 'grammar' in humans), and must be intended.

There are many examples of experts who are convinced that they have observed language in animals. More often than not this refers to sign-language taught to apes (chimps, orangutans and gorillas). However, many articles are written by people with vested-interests or bias (often the trainers of the animals themselves), and therefore should perhaps be treated with caution.

I have found a number of stories on the internet about apes that have been described as using language. Here are a few summaries:

(September 1965 – October 30, 2007) was a chimpanzee who was the first non-human to learn to use some of the signs of a human language - American Sign Language (ASL). She also passed on some of her knowledge to her adopted son, Loulis. As part of a research experiment on animal language acquisition, Washoe developed an ability to communicate with humans using ASL. She was named for Washoe County, Nevada, where she was raised and taught to use ASL. Washoe had lived at Central Washington University since 1980. She died on October 30, 2007, at the age of 42.

Chantek the orangutan has a vocabulary of approximately 150 signs. He currently lives at Zoo Atlanta. Like children, Chantek prefers to use names rather than pronouns. He has been observed to invent signs of his own (e.g., 'eye-drink' for contact lens solution, and 'Dave missing finger' for a special friend). He developed referential ability as early as most human children, and points to and shows objects just like humans do. Chantek uses adjectives to specify attributes, such as "red bird", and "white cheese food eat", yet he overgeneralizes in interesting ways, too. For example, he uses the sign 'Lyn' for all caregivers, but never for strangers.

Nim Chimpsky
The chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky (named after linguist Noam Chomsky) was taught to communicate using sign language in studies led by Herbert S. Terrace. In 44 months Chimpsky learned 125 signs. However, linguistic analysis of his communications demonstrated that this use was symbolic, and lacked grammar, or rules, of the kind that humans use in communicating via language. This constitutes a chimpanzee vocabulary learning rate of roughly 0.1 words per day. This rate is not comparable to the average college-educated English-speaking human who learns roughly 14 words per day between ages 2 and 22.

One of the most famous signing apes was Koko the gorilla. Here is a documentary about her made in 1978. It also features Washoe the chimp. It is always impressive and moving to see animals communicating with their trainers, but I'd like to invite comments to convince me that she is really using language here. I can believe that she is able to use signs to express a need or even a feeling, but is she really able to hold a conversation in the true sense of the word?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Steven Pinker on Language

Steven Pinker is a Canadian intellectual and Harvard professor. He specialises in the understanding of language and its development in children. He is well known for his advocacy that language evolved in humans as a direct result of natural selection. In this belief he contradicts other well known thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky, who suggest that language developed as a by-product of other human environmental adaptations. Here, he speaks about language in a TED talk he gave in 2007:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prescribed Essay Titles 2010-2011

    Here are the TOK essay titles as published on the IB website. Your essay will be marked according to the assessment criteria. Remember to centre your essay on knowledge issues and, where appropriate, refer to other parts of your IB programme and to your experiences as a knower. Always justify your statements and provide relevant examples to illustrate your arguments. Pay attention to the implications of your arguments, and remember to consider what can be said against them. Include a word count and your list of references using the Harvard System.

    Please see my other posts under "writing an essay" for help and advice. Examiners mark essays against the title as set, using the TOK essay criteria. Please make sure you are familiar with the criteria before starting your essay. Respond to the title exactly as given; do not alter it in any way. Your essay must be between 1200 and 1600 words in length. Remember also that your TOK presentation and essay must be submitted in the same language.

      1. Consider the extent to which knowledge issues in ethics are similar to those in at least one other area of knowledge.
      2. How important are the opinions of experts in the search for knowledge?
      3. “Doubt is the key to knowledge” (Persian Proverb). To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?
      4. To what extent do we need evidence to support our beliefs in different areas of knowledge?
      5. To what extent are the various areas of knowledge defined by their methodologies rather than their content?
      6. “There are no absolute distinctions between what is true and what is false”. Discuss this claim.
      7. How can we recognise when we have made progress in the search for knowledge? Consider two contrasting areas of knowledge.
      8. “Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth” (Pablo Picasso). Evaluate this claim in relation to a specific art form (for example, visual arts, literature, theatre).
      9. Discuss the roles of language and reason in history.
      10. A model is a simplified representation of some aspect of the world. In what ways may models help or hinder the search for knowledge?
      And the same titles in Spanish:
      1. Considere en qué medida las cuestiones de conocimiento en la ética son similares a las de al menos otra área de conocimiento.
      2. ¿Qué importancia tienen las opiniones de los expertos en la búsqueda de conocimiento?
      3. “La duda es la clave del conocimiento” (proverbio persa). ¿En qué medida es esto cierto en dos áreas de conocimiento?
      4. ¿En qué medida es esto cierto en dos áreas de conocimiento? ¿En qué medida necesitamos pruebas para respaldar nuestras creencias en distintas áreas de conocimiento?
      5. ¿En qué medida están las distintas áreas de conocimiento definidas por sus metodologías más que por sus contenidos?
      6. “No hay distinciones absolutas entre lo que es verdadero y lo que es falso”. Discuta esta afirmación.
      7. ¿Cómo podemos reconocer cuándo hemos avanzado en la búsqueda de conocimientos? Considere dos áreas de conocimiento diferentes.
      8. “El arte es una mentira que nos acerca a la verdad” (Pablo Picasso). Evalúe esta afirmación en relación con una forma artística específica (por ejemplo, las artes visuales, la literatura, el teatro).
      9. Discuta las funciones del lenguaje y la razón en la historia.
      10. Un modelo es una representación simplificada de algún aspecto del mundo. ¿De qué maneras pueden los modelos facilitar o perjudicar la búsqueda de conocimientos?

      Ben Goldacre talks bad science

      In this episode of the podcast "Carpool", my favourite blogger Dr. Ben Goldacre discusses bad science:

      Monday, January 18, 2010

      Performance Art

      Do you think the following videos all show some form of performance art? Are they all of equal artistic merit? If you think no, can you justify why?