Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: The Indo-European Controversy (Pereltsvaig, Lewis)

A Review: The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics (Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis)

A few years ago, a team of researchers lead by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson presented a mathematical model for the spread of language families. Applying this model in reverse to the Indo-European languages supported the Anatolian hypothesis, a minority position on the location of the Indo-European urheimat.

For some reason, this was widely published in media, and the paper Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family appeared at the same time in the journal Science. Gray and Atkinson have made very vocal and powerful claims about their findings: 'decisive support [for the Anatolian hypothesis]' is among the various things they have said about their own work.

Pereltsvaig and Lewis go over the results in depth, and find them highly lacking: they find numerous problems in the geographical spread that it presents, including multiple instances where the sanity of the model is excruciatingly questionable. They present the evidence we have against the Anatolian hypothesis (and even more clearly, the evidence we have against the Gray-Atkinson version of the Anatolian hypothesis) and all the difficulties it brings with it, as well as the evidence we have for the Steppe hypothesis.

They also present the evidence that has lead most linguists to accept Steppe Hypothesis instead. 

The argumentation is persuasive and clear, well-nigh undeniable. This leads to an important question: how did Science let a paper that is so rife with unsound historical linguistics pass peer review? It turns out that linguists did peer review it, and Science ignored their judgment, because their negative comments did not pertain to the maths of the model - clearly, having a mathsy model is a guarantee that the mathsy model is correct in Science's view?

Publications such as Business Insider either repost bad science from the Gray-Atkinson team, or add their own even worse spin to it. Consider their version of the Gray-Atkinson animated map. This is, allegedly, how "Language" spread across Europe. In linguistics, "Language" signifies the general phenomenon, the fact that humans can communicate in a complicated system. So if we are to take Business Insider's video title seriously, this is how the ability to speak spread in Europe, and all the current language families were the first languages spoken in their areas. 

Pereltsvaig and Lewis point out a very real problem: other scientists apparently do not take linguistics seriously, and we are facing a rise of armchair philosophers who disdain empiricism in favour of cute models (at least when going outside of their own field - i.e. Gray and Atkinson probably understand how to be scientific in their own field, but when working with language, the computational model seemingly blinds them to empirical facts). 

This, in turn, is coupled with the modern phenomenon of clickbaiting, where the most attention-attracting claim is more likely than other claims to pull in ad money, and thus scientific claims are propagated online not by their likelihood of being accurate, but by how tittilating they are. This is a genuine problem, and needs to be curbed.

Pereltsvaig's and Lewis's book is less combative than this review, although at times it does take vigorous swings at the Gray-Atkinson teams publications. It is a good read, and gives a lot of information about historical linguistics and especially Indo-European historical linguistics. A certain glimpse into issues in the philosophy of science can also be gleaned. It is well written: both clear, enjoyable and relevant, and it does something wonderful: fight pseudoscience.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Post on my Comment Policy

I deleted a comment, and I will probably be accused of censorship next time I run into the person who posted it, so this post serves only to preclude such accusations. I am not censoring any actual content of it. What I don't want to do, however, is to have my blog host texts that google will index and start posting the first line whenever my name is googled. The line goes like this:
"__________ is just another cyber-stalking lunatic posting his trash all over the place like a troll."
That is not exactly an honest description of me, and I think anyone can understand why I don't want seven of those comments to sit here. I'll give you the full comment here, just so whoever made it doesn't feel censored. I know who it is, and it's a person who's been hating on me since the beginning of this blog. In fact, I every now and then do look for this person online, find they're out doing their proselytizing shtick, and post some comment about just how full of flaws Murdock's books are.

__________ is just another cyber-stalking lunatic posting his trash all over the place like a troll. She already announced a 2nd edition for Christ Conspiracy long ago, which makes your malicious smear campaign of a blog irrelevant, obsolete and a complete waste of time so, grow up and get over it. You need to get a life very, very badly!!! If you had ANY integrity or character at all you would remove your blog maliciously smearing, defaming and libeling a single female author with stage 4 cancer whose work you obviously know nothing about. You have zero relevant qualifications or credentials as you've admitted elsewhere. Besides, they did a great job at her forum exposing you and your BS tactics so, nothing more needs to be said. _________________'s Smear Campaign ; )
This comment was posted on several of my posts, even ones that have nothing to do with D.M. Murdock's work. Just shows you what kind of idiots are attracted to her work. I have tried engaging this person with arguments for years now, and it's always been exactly the same litany of how I'm evil, dumb, unqualified and various kinds of insane. I am quite sure this person is the moderator of Murdock's forum, one of the most unhinged persons I've had the bad luck of running into on internet. And in fact, that moderator is one of the few persons I genuinely hate. I have no personal animus towards Murdock herself.

Anyways, comments are permitted, as long as they actually contain any reasonable content. The example given above is borderline forbidden by that rule, since it contains nothing but ad hominem bullshit. However, due to my long-standing conflict with the person who posted it, and the constant misrepresentation that person stoops to, I've decided not to censor this post in its entirety, but just remove my name from it. As comments cannot be edited, this was the only remaining option.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Christ Conspiracy: An Index of the Review, pt 2

Chapter 20:
Pt 1 Various shenanigans with regards to trying to show that Christianity is older than the mainstream assessment has it. Here we find Taylor describing the early church in terms that would need some backing up – but as usual, no evidence is given, just assertion. It is also worth noting that Murdock uses motifs from the NT as historical evidence in the most contorted fashion. Polycarp is quote-mined. Some quite vacuous statements about the Essenes are made, including unsourced speculation reported as fact, bad etymologies, as well as directly contradicting the previous chapter regarding the relationship of Essenism and Christianity.
Pt 2 Eusebius' Interpretatio Christiana: did Eusebius claim that the Therapeutan monks were Christian before Christianity? A most precious thing emerges: the quote-mined quote-mine! Does allegorical reading imply gnosticism?
Pt 3 Irrelevant twaddle based on the previous identification of Christianity with the Therapeutans (given that all evidence in favour of such an identification given thus far is mistaken). Murdock thinks 'therapeut' and 'doctor of the law' are etymologically connected. Murdock relies on Epiphanius' knowledge of Hebrew, which is more or less proven to be sub par. (Bad referencing practices, again.) Undue reliance on Higgins.
Pt 4 Murdock cites Geza Vermes, but gets Vermes's claim wrong. A somewhat misleading description of Jewish lending practices. Murdock focuses on the most anti-gentile intertestamental Jewish literature to paint an exaggeratedly hateful picture of Judaism.
Pt 5 Murdock's ignorance of the Talmud is coupled with her insistence on thinking that she knows something about it.

Chapter 23:
Pt 1 Some rather weak reasoning with regards to where western culture originated.
Pt 2 Murdock reports a quote-mine by Jochmans as a prima facie quote, in an attempt to make it seem like the Great Pyramid at some point has been covered by the sea. Some fairly bad arguments (Byblos being an Egyptian colony being presented as evidence for the Bible being an Egyptian book ...) Papyri allegedly five to ten thousand  years of age are alluded to. A claim with no support or evidence presented at all, regarding 'Logia Iesou'. Some quotes that essentially consist of nothing but a nested quote, along the line of Murdock quoting Jackson quoting Kuhn, making looking the original source up tedious and fucking well frustrating.
Pt 3 Misrepresentation of the Aryan Invasion Theory with regards to Indian archaeology and linguistics. Reliance on Hindu religious material for claims of really far back history (on the order of tens of thousand years ago). Not enough sources given to be able to assess the value of the presented claims. Murdock presents an argument that makes her claims regarding prehistory unfalsifiable. Value-judgments regarding rishi-culture and later brahmanic culture that rest on no ground whatsoever. Shitty historical linguistics: Murdock misrepresents the state of Indo-European linguistics as well as downright pulls the wool over our eyes with regards to the Nostratic theory. 
Pt 4 Mentions some Egyptian depiction of a fish trap as evidence of Sumerians being closely related to some North Europeans (but does not tell us anything about this depiction, so we cannot verify this claim). Conflates the Sumerians with Aryan invaders – something not even her source for this madcap claim actually does. Weird ideas about Semitic languages having gone into "permanent eclipse" are quoted. Iranians are mistaken for proto-Greeks and proto-Romans. Really weird arguments presented to show that the Hebrews were Indo-European (or at least a significant portion of them). Murdock mistakes 'levitical' and 'levirate' when reading her source (which got it right) and uses this conflation to present the idea that Levites were Indo-European (for the record, levirate and levitical are highly unrelated terms). Weird and unsourced claims about levirate marriages.
 Pt 5 Unsubstantiated ideas about Abraham's origin are restated. Some pretty bad etymologies presented, of which my favourite is Jessulmer as the origin of the name Jerusalem - which simply cannot hold, since Jessulmer is named for a medieval king. Also, false claims about words in Sanskrit. No references for claims about Jerusalem's origin in Egyptian religion, although pretty fat claims are made. A conspiracy theory regarding the Rosetta stone sneaks in. Some very out there claims about the origins of various British things, such as the word Britain and the druids. Finally, Murdock ascribes some credibility to notions that western culture has its origin on Ireland. A nationalistic creed that probably makes some irish people very happy, but c'mon, not an evidence-based claim in any sense whatsoever.
 Pt 6. Here, full-on delusionality is evident: Pygmies at the root of all culture! A lot of evidence alluded to, none actually given. Bad understanding of the theory of evolution. . 

Chapter 24:
Pt 1 Bad understanding of evolutionary theory. Bad logic.
Pt 2 Shoddy linguistics, shoddy referencing, shoddily unclear claims, chains of sources getting things more wrong during each step, reliance on religiously mislead 19th-century scholars who tried finding the lost tribes of Israel in the Americas, claims about the Chimalpopoca manuscript that are wrong. These fabrications are used to bolster the notion that the Biblical creation myth was present in the Americas. Lots of unsupported assertions.
Pt 3 Shoddy linguistics regarding languages of America and India.
Pt 4 Unreliable sources (James Churchward). Lots of assertions without any evidence. Bad linguistics. Appealing to previous bad linguistics as though it were evidence.
Pt 5 Pyramids. In this part, Murdock quotes UFOlogists and new age kooks. Murdock accepts the Ica stones as genuine. Murdock accepts exaggerated claims about the 'precision' of the Costa Rican stone spheres as accurate without thinking about the methodology of measuring such stones
Pt 6 Giants. Ancient Maps. Saturn having been a 'pole star'. Murdock relies on sources that think writing goes back 150 000 years. Murdock also seems to believe that the original religion of humanity must have been objectively good in some sense ­ - which is a weird idea.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Deception and Effort

Honest skepticism has a genuine problem. This problem has to do with the somewhat fleeting character of fairness. How do we grant a claim a fair hearing? Or more specifically, how much of a hearing do we have to grant for the hearing to have been fair?

Basically, the problem boils down to this: for every true claim, for every usefully accurate model, for every insightful understanding, there's hundreds of mistaken claims, models that obfuscate or mislead, and misunderstandings. If we were to grant each proposal the same amount of interest and attention, we would definitely be wasting our time.

This, essentially, is at the root of why 'falsifiability' is so important to science. If we were to nurture a method of looking for truth where non-falsifiable hypotheses were given a lot of attention, we would waste a lot of effort on things that are, to be blunt, very mistaken. Falsifiability permits us to direct our effort where it matters – towards improvement of our understanding of something.

This is why a critical approach to knowledge is the most important tool in the toolkit: it gives us a fighting chance to stave off wastefulness, and to focus on things that are potentially fruitful instead. A big ugly problem rears its head here, though: some people are so attached to their ideas that they will not look at them with a critical eye. Heck, for many of this kind of people, voicing any criticism of an idea is an attack on them as a person. These people simply do not want to play by the rules ­ - they want their ideas to be given a pass, to be excempt from vetting.

This is a kind of deceptive approach - although I don't think they themselves realize just how deceitful this is. They may very well believe they are correct, but by not letting others check whether they in fact are correct, they are trying to rig the process of finding truth, so that their idea will come out on top no matter how accurate it is.

Now, if we granted each idea an equal, thorough hearing, we'd be drowned in frustratingly useless work. We'd end up reading thousands of pages of worthless speculation, just in the hopes of finding even a nugget of vaguely truth-like essence. So, already when one has taken a good first look at the work of an author and found that their work doesn't impress at all due to bad research, bad logic (etc), it is quite justifiable to refuse to go on. At that point, one can be sure there are more fruitful venues elsewhere. There's too much work to be done in the world, to let the ideologically blind lead us down gardenpaths of bad evidence.

However, those who do not want to play by the rules (and who are so enamored with their own ideas) will not concede the point at this point. They'll just keep demanding to be taken seriously. The bulk of this blog, in fact, stands as testimony to the amount of work such bad scholarship leads us to: I've spent several hundred hours reading Murdock's sources, looking for them, cross-referencing stuff, tracing stuff, translating stuff, ... and her fans still think my criticism of her work is just an ad hominem rant.

In essence, the criticism of one particular book that I've presented on this blog is testimony to what superfluous work has to be done if we entertain the notion that pseudoscience has to be permitted a fair hearing. The amount of text I've written amounts to, roughly speaking, the length of a PhD thesis. The time and effort I have invested is considerable. The conclusion that The Christ Conspiracy is worthless is unavoidable and quite well substantiated – its conclusions are less waterproof than a sieve. Yet this work gets us nowhere – Murdock's fans still propagate her claims around the internet, and her claims are nice clickbait. Solid, scholarly work has no impact on the delusional fringe, and wasting effort on debunking it is essentially futile. This does not stop me, since I would get a bad conscience otherwise, but I fear that in these days of clickbait, reason and rationality will lose out to mass-appeal and controversy.

Fallacies II: General Word-related Fallacies

Fallacies: General Word-related Fallacies

as well as Fallacies with Similar Basic Flaws in Reasoning

There are many kinds of fallacies that fly by rather unnoticed, especially in online debates. The previous example is but one, and it is not even of a similar type of word-related fallacy that I am thinking of right now. Having consulted several lists of fallacies, it turns out only some of the semantic fallacies seem to have names - and even then, the scope they are given tends to be fairly restricted, even if the same kind of fallacy easily could be applied elsewhere as well.

Often, these fallacies are of a kind I would call naive prescriptive lexical Platonic realism

Example 1: The Jews are the members of a religion, hence the Jews cannot form an ethnicity too.
This assumes that the definitions of religion and ethnicity are
  • mutually exclusive
  • objectively right and true
  • prescriptive, rather than descriptive
Mutually exclusive signifying that if something signifies a religion, it cannot also signify the members of an ethnicity and vice versa. Objectively right and true in that using even slightly different definitions somehow is objectionable - and some seem to think this objectionableness is objectively true, even - essentially stating that there is an absolute ethics that forbids using terms in a different way. Prescriptive, in that if something is a religion, it must conform - religion is strictly defined, and when we say something is a religion, all this baggage suddenly comes along and we can also therefore predict a lot of things about the subject - in this case, Judaism - once we know it is a religion.

Usually, the thing we can know about a religion - any religion, really, but Judaism will be the example I will use here - is that it is exactly like protestant Christianity. Viz. it has a scripture, which is its only source of doctrine and rules, which are obtained by a literal reading of that book. It has ceremonies and beliefs, and if you do not hold those beliefs, you are going to hell. If you hold the right beliefs, you go to heaven. The rabbi is the person who leads the service, and he serves as some kind of interface between God and the believer. He also has the right to officiate at weddings, and perform circumcisions and so on. 

All of those are basically wrong to different extents:
  • Judaism does have scripture, but they are not the only source of doctrines and rules, and the rules are not obtained by literal readings of the text.
  • The beliefs about the afterlife are not clearly spelled out, but it would seem almost all Jews reject the idea of an eternal hell, as well as the belief that condemnation depends on belief. Going to heaven is definitely not predicated on having the right belief.
  • The rabbi is a scholar of Judaism, not a middleman. He is supposed to know the rules of Judaism well, and to be able to reach conclusions on new issues in Jewish law. It is tradition that each Jewish congregation should have a rabbi as its leader, but he does not have any specific role in the service (although some congregations may have traditions along the lines of 'the rabbi must never turn his back to the congregation during a service', essentially placing him the furthest back!). Any bar-mitzva Jewish man (and in conservative and reform Judaism women as well) who knows the liturgy can lead it. It is not unusual that the rabbi does not take that role. I gather in more liberal versions of Judaism, it is more common for a rabbi to officiate, but even then this is not mandatory.
  • Jewish rabbis do officiate at weddings in some countries where secular law has given them that right (or, from a Jewish religious point of view, forced that responsibility on them by requiring that someone officiate at weddings in the first place). Jewish law does not require that, but instead requires witnesses and the signing of a wedding contract - the ketubah. Oftentimes, of course, the only persons available to check the validity of the ketubah per Jewish law is a rabbi, but if someone else of sufficient knowledge can verify it, that is ok. The verification, as far as I can tell, need not occur during the wedding itself but can be done earlier.
All of these are things I have seen people assume hold true for Judaism simply because Judaism is a religion. Apparently, people believe that the word religion only includes things which satisfy all the things I italicized above (or some other similar list of distinctive features).

Similarly, you run into some atheists who refuse to accept that Buddhism is a religion because it is not theistic, or it lacks this or that trait that protestant Christianity has.

To me, this seems a very naive view of what it means for something to be something. When a chef calls a fruit a berry, he is not disagreeing with the botanist, he is not making a statement along the lines that modern biology is wrong. He is classifying the various plant parts he runs into according to their use in cooking and such characteristics that he readily can discern.

A commonly raised objection to my stance here would be that words mean things, and superficially, it would seem my stance undermines this guarantee. I have two major responses to that criticism.

First, this is in fact typical of human language, and enables it to adapt to any number of new situations. We cannot a priori know which traits are important distinguishing lines, and a purely taxonomic approach will probably be useless - if the chef adhered to biological taxonomy, the fruit compote suddenly turns into a berry, drupe and aggregate fruit compote and the average green salad no longer contains vegetables, but tubers, leafs, false fruits (cucumber), ...
Clearly words have to have useful meanings as well; and for the chef, vegetable is a more useful category than most botanical meanings. I am not saying the botanist is wrong, I am saying his or her classification is useful in one context, not the other.

Further, the classificatory scheme used by the botanists and biologists in general rely on observations that are needlessly complex for most real-world situations. Developing some kind of artificial fertilizer might benefit from such observations - cooking probably does not.

Finally, words still mean things in my approach. In fact, it turns out my approach preserves, with greater fidelity, the meaning of words as they are attested in actual use. If we made a tool intended to efficiently fix a certain problem, and people found another use for it that was better, more useful, and so on, would we be right to refuse to accept the results of their use of it, to scorn them for finding a better application for it? This is what a prescriptive armchair prescriptivist approach essentially does.

Getting back to the main example I have been running with - viz. Jews - members of a religion or members of an ethnicity?- we can easily find a synthesis of these two statements. Judaism is indeed a religion, a religion that concerns itself a lot with a specific ethnicity. Non-members of this ethnicity can believe in the religion without joining the ethnicity, (but this is unusual). Non-members of the ethnicity who wish to join the ethnicity, can do so. In doing so, they become part of the community - and ethnicities tend to form communities. Ethnicity and religion both are somewhat fluid concepts, and both are relatively recent concepts as well. Judaism as a religion predates the current "formal" definition of what a religion is. The Jewish people, as an ethnicity, predates the current "formal" definition of what an ethnicity is.

Both religion and ethnicity are terms that have been made up to describe some phenomena we have experiences of - viz. some humans have cultural, linguistic, etc links that make them form a kind of group. Ethnicity, in addition, is somewhat fuzzy, one can simultaneously belong to several different ethnicities that overlap in various ways, not necessarily even hierarchically. I am simultaneously a member of the Swedish-speaking Finns, the Finns, the major Swedish ethnical sphere (but I am not a member of the Swedish-ethnicity in Sweden), Ostrobothnians, and maybe even some other group. I know Jewish people that are Jewish, Swedish-speaking Finns and Finns, and Jewish people that are Jews and Finns. I also know Jewish people who are Jewish and American. The fact that Jewish people can be members of other ethnicities does not preclude Jewish people from being members of a Jewish ethnicity as well - ethnicities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, except in some specific frameworks ­ - but if we demand that such a framework is adhered to, we are enforcing an interpretation of things, not trying to describe them objectively.

There we run into an important concept: frameworks. Whether a certain thing is an ethnicity or not may very well be different in the eyes of secular law, the opinions of individual members of the different ethnicities, etc. We need to know which framework is being assumed to know whether something is accurate and to know what knowledge we can derive from a statement made in that framework. If someone says Buddhism isn't a religion, we must know what kind of framework this statement is made in to be able to know what it says about Buddhism - on the other hand, the same applies when someone says Buddhism is a religion. Words still mean things, but context tells us what things they mean.

Too often "words mean things" is used to reach a conclusion that does not validly follow from what is known about a thing, and the examples I gave above with regards to conclusions about Judaism based on knowing one single factoid about Judaism should amply illustrate just how flawed this form of reasoning is. Yet it's a fairly popular form of reasoning even among people who pretend to be rationalists, skeptics and scientifically minded.