Here are some interesting/funny/horrible items I stumbled upon.
The first is a blogpost on the blog mathbabe; it’s a rant about the human brain project. The list items are called e.g. “We have no fucking clue how to simulate a brain”, “We have no fucking clue how to wire up a brain” etc… I think you get the point. Under the first heading you find this:
We can’t simulate the brain of C. Elegans, a very well studied roundworm (first animal to have its genome sequenced) in which every animal has exactly the same 302-neuron brain (out of 959 total cells) and we know the wiring diagram and we have tons of data on how the animal behaves, including how it behaves if you kill this neuron or that neuron. Pretty much whatever data you want, we can generate it. And yet we don’t know how this brain works. Simply put, data does not equal understanding. You might see a talk in which someone argues for some theory for a subnetwork of 6 or 8 neurons in this animal. Our state of understanding is that bad.
Then, we have probably the most horrible article of all time about matters linguistic in the popular press, claiming among others that Australians’ use of alcohol is the reason for their accent. The stupidity, ignorance and not-even-wrongness of this article just cannot be overstated, and I’m not even sure whether the quote from Peter Medawar’s review of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ applies, viz. “its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself”. The article is full of claims that not even a second semester undergraduate student of linguistics would ever make and no empirical evidence whatsoever is provided to support the claims. This speaks volumes about the public perception of linguistics, i.e. that anybody can make claims about language, while for any other science you at least have to talk to experts before you distort their views.
Last, we have the statement for Ivan Sag’s lifetime service award by the LSA. I stumbled upon this guy so often in the last few weeks, so I found it interesting to see how he is recognized in the wider field:
Ivan A. Sag, the 2005 recipient of the Victoria A. Fromkin Prize for service to the field of linguistics, is a force of nature. Luckily for his colleagues in linguistics, that amazing force has been directed towards many projects for the general good of the discipline. The LSA is especially grateful for the extraordinary talents and energy he has invested in summertime linguistic institutes. To many, Ivan is “Mr. Institute”: Not only did he direct early in his career the enormously successful 1987 Stanford institute, but he has served as associate director for three other institutes, including the MIT-Harvard institute, and, while still a graduate student, as “special consultant” for the 1974 U MA-Amherst institute. A student at three institutes during his graduate career, he has been on the faculty of at least eight more, organizing conferences or workshops at several including one where he did not teach. Through his own direct organizing skills as well as serving on committees and helping draft various documents, he has helped the LSA keep institutes successful. Ivan upped both the intellectual and the economic payoff, not only introducing corporate sponsorship for institute courses but even turning them into ongoing revenue streams by marketing tapes. Beyond these administrative achievements, Ivan has been central to creating the special atmosphere that makes institutes so attractive to linguists at all stages of their careers: Playing with the “Dead Tongues”, organizing accommodations in empty sorority houses replete with French chefs, engaging colleagues and students in lively linguistic discussions, and more. […]
Here is an article that discusses other public appearances of the author of the above-mentioned horrible piece. There, in a falsification of Popper’s falsificationism he proves by evidence that he is as incompetent regarding linguistics as you can be. In this article, he is rightly critized, i.a. for making (not even) wrong claims about the linguistic abilities of Neanderthals to speak and phonetics while having absolutely no linguistic credentials whatsoever – furthermore, he doesn’t even have any academic credentials, he is a singer and voice coach.
In a response he claims that this gives him an ‘unconventional perspective to the subject’ and dismisses the previous author’s criticism as follows: “Despite his apparent linguistic training he is a chronic under-achiever with a nasty chip on his shoulder and some old fashioned jealousy. He is an amateur who achieves modest heights only by digging low, scraping the gutter and criticising the work of others without producing work of his own. What books has he written? Has he been published beyond Crikey?”
Everything further in this article demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of and contempt for linguistics, its goals, science, the scientific method, and even rational thinking in general. I will not reproduce this here.
It is simply saddening to see that everybody is allowed to pontificate about language. Imagine a TV/radio show or a magazine would invite a baseball player to talk about General Relativity onto their program because they’ve seen thousands of things fall in their lifetime. This sounds ridiculous. However, with linguistics this is exactly the case. It could never occur to anyone that language can be the object of scientific study, that there is something to learn about it and that it takes years of training to understand fundamental issues, let alone communicate these findings to the public.