Just met Richard Dawkins! I know hero-worshipping is anathema to reason and science, but seriously the Selfish Gene was what got me into Biology. He said he was pleased to hear it…
Also, I can’t put this on facebook because Oxford is a hotbed of reactionary Christianity (more so even than Uist).
Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks
The neuroscience shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?
“And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”. - on fMRIs
pseudoneuroscience sucks (lookin’ at you, Dawkins)! The anger in this post is delicious though.
That being said, it’s good(ish) if you combine it with scientific literacy, or use one or two of the popscience books as your intro to the actual field.
I wouldn’t say Dawkins was a particular culprit. He’s never written a neuroscience book. He sometimes makes forays into Evolutionary Psychology (e.g. Binker, Middle World) but most of the time he stick to non-human animal behaviour and evolution…
The First Family
The K.E. clan are the first family of linguistics. A dynasty with over thirty members, their seat is in London, England. But what have they done to merit their title? To put it bluntly, they can’t talk.
Over three generations, around half the family suffers from a disorder whose name changes from verbal dyspraxia to dysphasia depending on who’s writing the paper. The key characteristic of this disorder is that their speech sounds like gobbledegook to the rest of the family – indeed, the impairment is so severe they now rely on simple hand signals to get things done. The family was first discovered by Myrna Gopnik in 1990 and a quick glance at the family tree was enough to confirm that she was dealing with an autosomal dominant disorder caused by a mutation in just one gene. The unmutated gene would presumably code for the ability the sufferers lacked – namely, language! Journalists jumped at the news, and the language (or, even more remarkably, grammar-) gene meme dominated the popular picture of genetics for the rest of the decade.
Early research fuelled the press perception that this was the gene for language. For instance, the affected family members were shown to repeatedly fail Wug Tests. In a Wug Test the subject is given a drawing of a made-up animal and told this is a wug. Then they are given a drawing of two of these wugs and asked to complete the sentence: ‘Now there are two…’ The affected family members simply could not generalize the plural add ‘s’ rule to an unfamiliar noun like wug. Similarly, they could make no sense of sentences whose meaning depended on the rules of syntax – they were unable to answer the question: ‘The lion was killed by the tiger. Which one is dead?’ All this pointed to a specific inability to parse syntax.
Nonetheless, it was clear from just listening to the subjects that effect of the impairment was much wider than a mere grammatical deficiency. The affected family members couldn’t control the muscles in the mouth and tongue properly, making it very difficult to produce the tiny changes in tongue position that produce different phonemes. This manifested itself in the subjects struggling to repeat multisyllabic words that demanded quick sound shifts. Steven Pinker went as far as to conclude in the Language Instinct that the so-called language gene was really a gene affecting mouth and tongue muscle movements. He guessed that fine motor control of these muscles must have been a prerequisite for the evolution of vocal language.
Because the IQ Range of the sufferers overlapped with that of the unaffected family members (with one sufferer even having as high an IQ as 111!), commentators were able to claim that the disorder was independent of general intelligence – therefore it just had to be language specific and thus, as night follows day, the gene must also be language specific. Yet, when we look at the stats, the mean IQ of the unaffected group was 104, while that of the sufferers was 85 – with many of them classed as ‘mentally retarded.’ There is clearly a significant difference in IQ between the two groups! Nonetheless, perhaps the sufferers’ low scores can be blamed on poor performance in verbal reasoning caused by their language defect. Unfortunately in 1995 this explanation was proved wrong – the sufferers’ really were stupider, with low IQs in both verbal and non-verbal domains. Moreover, it was shown that the gene affected muscle control in generating facial expressions too. This gene it seemed was about far more than just language…
The Authority Of Instinct In Moral Decision-making
Imagine, for a moment, that Abraham has killed Isaac. On returning home to his wife Sarah, Abraham decides to tell her everything – that he killed their beloved son and burnt his body, leaving his ashes to the wind. Naturally, Sarah is very upset and demands to know why Abraham would so such a thing. Looking uncomfortable, he answers that God came to him and said:
“Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering…”
God commanded Abraham to obey. Yet, He is also supposed to have given him free will – there is no reason Abraham could not have disobeyed God and saved his son’s life. In a later Holocaust, the perpetrators were said to excuse themselves with: “I was only following orders.” They were forced to murder; had they not, their families would have been punished, even killed. Assuming a vengeful God, is Abraham then justified in saying: had I been godfearing and done as He said, then I would watch my wife, my servants and all my people die. Or, as the original story is intended to be read, should we applaud Abraham for putting his trust in a moral authority who knows what’s best.
We begin by distinguishing between the role of authority through coercion and authority through wisdom in our moral decision-making. My aim in this essay is to infiltrate the minds of our hypothetical Abraham and try to understand the role of reason and sentiment in moral decision-making, relating them to both forms of authority.
With the first of three Hobbit documentaries being released this year, it seems an appropriate time to announce the new revolution in the study of origins: Tolkien Science. Though evolution, with all its associated irony may well be the more appropriate word…
Tolkien Science has been brewing in the firey Mount Doom of scientific enquiry for decades and is now as indestructible as the One Ring itself. Yet it is still untaught in our schools, dismissed as mere science fiction, when it is in fact fantasy of the old sort: an imaginative conceptualization. Like Einstein who imagined himself riding on a beam of light and so discovered relativity, JRR Tolkien – an Oxford Professor and founder of our field – imagined himself on a quest to Mordor and, in doing so, discovered the origins of the universe. Between 1937 and 1955 he published a series of monographs synthesising knowledge from many fields into a coherent and, as I shall show, accurate account of the origins of the world. His his papers took the form of epic fantasy novels – befitting a man of such penetrating and creative intellect – but they were appended by detailed notes providing the data underlying the theory, much of which was only published after his death. It is a cause of celebration that his monographs are more widely read than either Darwin or Dawkins, and in the early years of the 21st century were made into a trilogy of powerful documentary films by the renowned New Zealand Tolkien Scientist Peter Jackson, which brought to the world’s attention this exciting new paradigm.
Unlike Darwin, whose theories were invented during the luxury of a round the world cruise, Tolkien’s quest to understand the history of the universe began on the battlefields of World War One. In the same way that humanity’s ego had rent Flanders’ Fields apart, Tolkien surmised that the world was once flat, but that the arrogance of men had caused it to have become round. The evidence for this came from the discoveries of German scientist Albert Einstein – that, when events of such gravity as the Doom of Numenor occurred, space could actually become curved. The stories of Atlantis, Mu and Hy-Brasil – all island nations flooded in a great cataclysm – passed down unchanged over the generations, give the theory that nice, convincing human element that allows it to transcend the Popperian planes to the level of scientific truth. Bearing in mind that geologists have never actually been under the earth’s crust to see if their tectonic plates really do float, the idea that the all-powerful Valar simply caused the shape of the world to change is a far more convincing explanation of continental drift.
Tolkien’s theories, which emphasize the effect of Valinor-based Powers, let us throw out the implausible geological yarns of mainstream science. Ice-ages in the Northern Hemisphere are more parsimoniously explained by the evil wrought by the cold-hearted Morgoth in the First Age and by the Witch King of Angmar in the Third. Nonetheless, like all true sciences, Tolkien science has its controversies. Another hypothesis claims Ice Ages are a figment of geologist imagination. Erratics are rocks found far away from home, usually said to have got there by hitching a lift on a passing glacier. Some Tolkien scientists, however blame erratics on trolls getting caught out in the sunlight. The strength of the theory is in its predictions: trolls are social creatures – as evidenced by Tom, Bert and Bill Huggins, who turned to stone together around a campfire. We would therefore expect to find tall rocks scattered in clusters around the landscape where trolls have frozen together. A visit to Stonehenge should suffice to convert the world’s geologists.
la-java-de-cezigue said: sounds like a plan, the first years actually like it when your telling them interesting stuff
I was out for a run, and I invented a lesson (or two, maybe). I would do endosymbiosis, Cambrian ‘explosion,’ ‘retard’ fish, the platypus, marine mammals, ants, chimpanzees … and I’d probably do dinosaurs or snakes as well. I’d contextualize it with geological and paleoantological data as well. I think to explain the process of evolution I’d do the eye.
Only thing is Miller’d never let me.
Plus, I’m not really qualified.