This Week in Conspiracy (19 Aug 2012)

August 20, 2012

What ho! The Virtual Skeptics has gotten off to a real whiz-bang of a start. It streams live at 8:00PM Eastern on Wednesday nights. It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

But not all of the free, live content in the world could keep me from plucking the ripest lowest-hanging fruit from the tree of conspiracy and hurling it at your head. So, head’s up!

We have mass graves dug all over America for the planned killing of millions of the Middle Class of America. We have had a large number of guillotines that have been shipped to America. Chopping off of heads is the Islamic way of killing off your enemies. We have secret federal concentration camps set up all across America. C.I.A. and other intelligence sources are supposed to help engineer terrible economic conditions in America for October to help stir up the people to mass discontent, rioting in the streets, etc. and this gives Obama the legal excuse to place America under martial law. Foreign soldiers are already arranged to help mass disarm the American people of all their guns. Homeland Security for example has already been notified to prepare for massive uprisings in America in October.

The mocking of conspiracy theories in the American press and Western media is based on the simplistic argument that reason is on the side of the government and officialdom, not on the fringe of society and civilization.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

My favorite report of the week came from the venerable Weekly World News:

That’s it for this week! Check out the Virtual Skeptics this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern! Pip pip!

RJB

 

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A New Web Series: The Virtual Skeptics

August 15, 2012

Eve and I are panelists on the new web series The Virtual Skeptics. We had a pretty good show today. We are doing this every week with Sharon Hill from Doubtful News, Tim Farley from…the entire Internet but mostly whatstheharm.net, and producer/host Brian Gregory from http://virtualds.org/.

Enjoy!

Tell your buddies! Trick your enemies! #VirtualSkeptics 8:00PM EST Yay!

RJB


skeptical about the mainstream 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 2)

August 14, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for the interest in skepticism about mainstream linguistics. I’ll continue!

In addition to sheer conservatism and the ascribing of undue status to works produced by the famous, there are also other factors which may make it more or less difficult to publish. At any given time, some viewpoints – currently, for instance, ‘multiculturalism’ and some aspects of postmodernism – are very ‘trendy’ and indeed ‘politically correct’; papers espousing the relevant views are liable to be favourably regarded. Indeed, in public presentations (at conferences and such) where one can be identified it often requires courage to speak in criticism of such an offering. This trend also means that papers endorsing views contrary to those in political or cultural favour may struggle to achieve publication, even if they (and their authors) are otherwise sound; or, if they do achieve it, they may then be subjected to withering and arguably biased criticism. None of this implies that intellectual ‘rebels’ within the mainstream are necessarily correct in opposing majority mainstream viewpoints; the issue is that of critics obtaining a fair hearing, especially when they are well qualified on the matters at hand. Where this becomes difficult, the need for skepticism about the academic mainstream will obviously increase.

In fact, some skeptics have actually become known mainly for critiquing mainstream – if often contested – positions rather than non-mainstream ideas. Negative comments of this kind can sometimes be partisan and overstated, but in other cases they can be legitimate or arguably so.

Skeptical comments on mainstream linguistics, specifically, can be directed at a range of arguably unwarranted mainstream assumptions/ideas. These include: Chomskyan ‘nativism’; bizarre analyses of data adopted under the influence of unproven and often unlikely theories which are apparently regarded by some linguists as virtually immune to criticism; undefended and inadequately/inappropriately grounded analyses of basic grammatical structures; support for dubious but ‘trendy’ or ‘politically correct’ sociolinguistic theories (sometimes under postmodernist influence); exaggerated postmodernist ideas more generally; etc. Some specific examples will follow in later posts.

As noted, some of the skeptical criticism which the linguistic mainstream receives is produced by linguists themselves, as illustrated last time by the case of Göran Hammarström. In addition to Hammarström, various other ‘insiders’, thoughtful linguists who have been more able than most to remain independent of the various ‘paradigms’, have written of these matters in an essentially skeptical way (while not necessarily identifying as skeptics). Perhaps the most prominent of these linguists is Geoffrey Sampson, who has antagonised some other prominent linguists by arguing very persuasively that their pet theories are empirically empty or obviously contradicted by inconvenient data (see later on this issue). Sampson, in fact, goes some way along the road taken more indiscriminately by Amorey Gethin and others (again, see later), suggesting that many of the unexplained facts (cross-linguistic and language-specific) and many of the theoretical issues debated by linguists may find their solutions in other domains such as psychology, and that – while there is a clear role for linguistic description and the necessary generalisations – a truly valid general linguistic theory would thus be minimal in scope.

Some of the linguists who critique the linguistic mainstream are skeptical linguists turning their skepticism on their own mainstream (as they are often urged to do by the non-mainstream thinkers whom they criticise). Obviously, I myself identify as a member of this group. I would argue, in fact, that mainstream linguistics is perhaps more in need of skeptical attention than some other mainstream disciplines. One reason for this is the relative lack of consensus or orthodoxy in linguistics, and how this is handled. Obviously, on many major issues involving language almost all linguists do in fact agree with each other, at least in general terms. However, one does not have to penetrate far into linguistics to find disagreement on basic points. There are many competing ‘schools’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘frameworks’ within many of the branches of linguistics, differing from each other on such fundamental and basic issues as, for instance, the ‘true’ or most insightful grammatical analysis of sentences as straightforward as ‘Mark drank his beer’ in a language as well-described as English (the largest issue is that of whether this sentence divides into two constituents or three). Of course, all fields display some differences of this kind, despite displaying substantial cores of shared ideas. In the case of linguistics, however, the degree of disagreement is so great that the need for skeptical attention would appear greater than in some other disciplines.

Professional linguists have not been conspicuously effective in dealing with this problem. Some, especially those influenced by postmodernism, seem to adopt a quasi-relativist view on which the issue is (perhaps) acknowledged but is not presented as truly problematic, even where the different ‘frameworks’ appear to be offering incompatible analyses of the very same aspects of the matters in question. One can make any set of ‘assumptions’ which is not self-confounding or refuted by obvious facts, and can then extrapolate massively from these ‘assumptions’, with little fear that anyone will actually attempt to disprove them. Limited interest is shown in the question of how far the ‘assumptions’ and ‘paradigms’ upheld by a given group of linguists might actually prove demonstrably preferable to alternative ideas. A further problem here lies in the fact that different ‘schools’ do not by any means always agree even on what is valid and relevant evidence in such cases, or at any rate upon the relative importance of different types of evidence (for instance, some linguists regard typological surveys across many languages as crucially important in resolving issues of analysis and theory, while others prefer to rely mainly upon close, abstract analyses of one language or a few languages).

One reason for this situation lies in the relative intractability of linguistic data. Linguistics is an essentially empirical subject; but, in the more abstract or speculative areas of such a domain, it is not always easy to adduce decisive reasons or evidence for preferring one account or analysis to another. However, it is surely preferable to seek to address this kind of issue with whatever decisive evidence may be found, rather than to forge ahead at great length with any one ‘paradigm’ in circumstances where there can be little confidence that it really is the ‘best’ available.

The training of academic linguists and the nature of many linguistics departments contribute (often inadvertently) to these problems. Some departments have a strong bias towards one ‘paradigm’ or another. Many of these ‘paradigms’ have now developed in such depth and detail that students must spend several years familiarising themselves with one ‘paradigm’ before their grasp of the material is at such a level that they can make fresh contributions at the ‘cutting edge’. Differences within the ‘paradigm’ are discussed, but its basics are often left unchallenged. Furthermore, many of the central concepts and issues within each ‘paradigm’ are intelligible only within that ‘paradigm’.

More next time, including some specific examples!

Mark


This Week in Conspiracy (8/9/12)

August 11, 2012

I’m coming to you from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, the new home of Skeptical Humanities. I’m teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire this fall, where I am a Visiting Assistant Professor. It will be an exciting, cheese-filled odyssey, to be sure.

But just because we’ve traded in the hustle and bustle of Atlanta for lethargic moo-cows doesn’t mean we’ve slowed down here. Oh, no. As a matter of fact, Eve and I, along with Tim Farley of whatstheharm.net and skeptools.com, and Sharon Hill of doubtfulnews.com, have started a google+ On Air Hangout skeptical news show that is hosted and produced by Brian Gregory, who started the Virtual Drinking Skeptically franchise. Brian has long wanted a panel discussion show, and this is it. We are going through a test run, mastering the technology and getting our shtick down at undisclosed times and places, but I can tell you the name of the show is The Virtual Skeptics (#virtualskeptics). Last night we had our first run through, and there were some rocky bits, but overall I was quite pleased with what we came up with. We’re taking inspiration from Fraser Cain’s work with the Weekly Space Hangout and The Universe Today. I know that Brian has been in touch with Fraser about the project.

So stay tuned.

But we have conspiracies to get to–before they get to us!

As you would have seen on our pilot episode, I thought that the conspiracy theories related to the shootings in Aurora and Milwaukee were the big stories this week.  As the Aurora story has developed, conspiracists have fixated on the news that a university psychiatrist was attending to James Holmes. In a very Scientological type of move, they make the post hoc fallacy, imagining that because the shooting happened after Holmes saw a psychiatrist, that somehow the psychiatrist made the guy pull the trigger. Vigilant Citizen sees it as a ritual killing, but probably should just stick to analyzing pictures of 2nd rate pop stars. One guy has found a way to, through a Byzantine tangle of distant “connections”, tie the President to the shootings. No wait! It was by bank fraudsters who wanted to silence Holmes’s DARPA daddy! And finally despite the really rather tepid response to the mass shootings by government, at least as far as gun control has been discussed, people have been afeared that the gummint’s comin to take away their guns. This is an old narrative, and every mass shooting can be and has been THE event that was finally going to let the NWO swoop in and disarm the “real” patriots(tm).

Oh, also an Illuminati card game predicted the Colorado shooting. Or at least some nitwit is willing to entertain the idea.

The other mass shooting, of course, is the shooting at the Sikh Temple here in Wisconsin, where all the flags remain at half-mast. This one has a couple of different facets. First is the revelation that the shooter, Wade Michael Page, who it seems killed himself at the scene, was a white supremacist in a hate metal band. (The Southern Poverty Law Center, I believe, broke this story and had followed him.) On the face of it, it seems to be yet another example of something we’ve seen before: a racist white veteran who kills a lot of people. The most prominent example of this was, of course, Tim McVeigh. An interesting angle on his hate metal bands seems to be an attempt to incite action on the part of other dipshit subnorms. It seems possible that the shooter, like McVeigh, Breivik and other derps thought that a violent act might lead to a race war or something, like in The Turner Diaries. If nothing else, it seems to be a reoccurring theme on the part of the racist right.

But others have other, dumber theories.

Take Alex Jones, for instance, who reported: “Speaking with the Associated Press, an eyewitness stated, ‘Between ten and ten-thirty, four white males who were dressed darkly, dressed in all black clothing, came in and opened fire on our congregation.'” I simply can not find this in print in any AP story. But at least this unverified quote is substantiated by someone who is unnamed and was apparently not there: “UPDATE: A separate source has corroborated the other eyewitness claim – a family member whose parents were victims of the shooting said his parents told him there were ‘multiple shooters’ involved in a ‘coordinated’ attack.” I’m going to say that this is just a manufactured load of bull-droppings.

There is also the view of Pete Santilli, which incorporates Jones’s made up story but takes it one step farther, placing it in the same category as the plot of Enemies Foreign and Domestic, which you should never read:

[Santilli describes] the narrative of the alleged Sikh shooter developed by the main stream media as being staged and he calls it a ‘rookie mistake’ by their demonizing white, military veteran, racist, gun-toting, 9-11 truthers as the enemy of our society. Pete essentially quashes their attempts to conceal the facts communicated by eyewitnesses who observed 4 men in black clothing commit a well organized attack. The secret government motive for demonizing white, veteran, 9-11 truthers is fully exposed, especially in the second hour.

But a decidedly more whimsical conspiracy theory has emerged, one which I suspect will become decidedly more irritating in the weeks to come. It turns out that one of the victims was the father of someone working with Steven Greer about a movie about the Disclosure Project. Part of Greer’s schtick is that he wants to raise a metric assload of money to build a research facility to develop free energy technologies that he claims he already has. He needs the money, he says, to protect his scientists. So when this came across my twitter feed, I thought, “Oh, hell.”

Godlike Productions ‏@glptweets
Sirius Film-maker’s Father SHOT in PROFESSIONAL WISCONSIN HIT!
http://bit.ly/QuYC4n

Here is an ad fundraising for the documentary. Of course, the sad fact is that even crime victims have gullible children, and one needs not posit that the shooting was a “message” being sent to alien disclosure filmmakers.

It was a bad week for religious hate in this country, as @ChrisDStedman pointed out:

This week in the U.S. a mosque was burned down, another was shot at, at least 2 others were vandalized & 7 people were killed in a gurdwara.
Other conspiracy theories:

I hereby revoke Jerome Corsi’s adulthood. He is now claiming that Obama was gay-married to a Pakistani.
My favorite post of the week at Above Top Secret demonstrates nicely how a genuinely good observation (seriously, the guy who noticed it should be proud) depends on context to make sense:
I live in Florida. I am looking now at the sunset. I have done this many times but I haven’t looked in a while. It setting too far north. I wish I had a compass to measure it. Anyone else noticing this? Anyone interested who has a compass handy if you can record your position and the position of the sun maybe we can figure this out?The sun isn’t supposed to move. Therefore, I can only assume (if I am not crazy or disoriented) that the rotation of the earth is changing. I have read that the ice caps in Greenland have melted a significant amount in the last few days. Some say it is global warming or climate change. If the earth’s rotation changes then the climate in many areas definitely would change. Essentially think about the equator… It is the hottest place on the planet because that is the middle. Directly east to west or vice versa. If the poles shift a little bit then the equator could begin to run through some other direction.

The Watch, a new movie, satirizes American paranoia. Unfortunately, it’s a Ben Stiller movie, and I’d rather choke on my own eyeball than see it.

OK, News With Views of course gets it wrong, but GLP gets it wrongerer: “PENTAGON INDOCTRINATING US TROOPS WITH ISLAMIC PROPAGANDA…… SHARIAH LAW IN AMERICA” (opening comment: “How the fuck can this retchid religion be taught as law to our soilders.”)

The Major Media Remains Silent On The Death of Prince Bandar Bush” Perhaps because he is still alive? Or he’s dead and has been replaced with Billy al-Shepherd.

Is the declining, nay, free-falling brand of National Geographic being used to prepare us for disclosure? Or is the cable channel pumping out more sensationalistic crap?

Are chemtrails hiding the Nibiru flyby as they brainwash us and depopulate the planet? Boy, our overlords sure can multitask!

We need to come up with a term to use instead of New World Order, because when people hear it, their brains shut off.

Boy, they really turned on Rand Paul, didn’t they?

Little nepotist #RandPaul exposed as police state thug! Calls cops on #WeAreChange and #AbbyMartin of #RT #RonPaul http://t.co/6ryEheXf — WebsterGTarpley (@WebsterGTarpley)

FINAL, INDISPUTABLE PROOF OF UFOS!!!! IN SPANISH!!!! OR SHAKY BLUR?!!?!?!

TWITS OF THE WEEK

My cup runneth over this week:

  • NASA pic showing all spacecraft parts. Hey, that looks like Death Valley. Um…I feel a conspiracy theory coming on… http://t.co/P6dEemkk — Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer)
  • Happy “birthday,” “President” Obama! — Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack)
  • Today is not Obama’s birthday. We know that birth certificate was part of a 50-year conspiracy to put America under Romneycare. — Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat)
  • Now remember, climate change is a conspiracy. Clearly, all these drought zones are in on it. http://t.co/XUw5yoBw — The Justicar (@Integralmathyt)
That’s all, folks! I have a much larger backlog that I’m working on, believe you me! Also, keep an eye out for the hashtag #VirtualSkeptics, and make sure you have circled me or Eve in your Google Plus account. We’ll be going live and advertising broadly within the next few weeks!
RJB

#wordpressformattingfail #sigh


skeptical about the mainstream 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 1)

August 7, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks a lot for your ‘votes’! Seven people responded and I’ll try to deal with all proposed topic areas in due course. One topic area – skepticism about mainstream linguistics – obtained two votes, and so I’ll start there.

This is a topic which obviously has considerable potential relevance for skepticism about mainstream scholarship more generally, perhaps especially in the humanities.

Obviously, skepticism in any given intellectual discipline is typically directed at ideas towards the outer edges of that discipline. It generally focuses upon positions within the discipline (or dealing with its subject-matter) which are not merely controversial but so controversial or ‘strange’ that they can reasonably be called ‘non-mainstream’, ‘fringe’ or ‘non-standard’. Even in cases where the qualified thinkers are themselves seriously divided (so that there is no orthodoxy or consensus – although some positions may still be more controversial than others), comments of an overtly and specifically skeptical nature are relatively rare in the mainstream literature itself.

The explanation for the neglect of the mainstream by skeptics may seem obvious enough. The skeptical enterprise involves subjecting the claims of non-mainstream thinkers and practitioners – who are typically not themselves academics or professional researchers – to tests of the kind which are routinely undergone by the claims of mainstream scholars. The latter receive intensive and prolonged training and examination in the basics of their disciplines; their preliminary drafts and initial pilot studies are discussed and criticised by their colleagues and others; their ‘finished’ books and papers are exposed by house and journal editors to anonymous (‘double-blind’) peer-review and often rejected or returned for re-writing, and – if and when published – are assailed in a barrage of further criticism; their experiments are replicated again and again in a determined effort to find sources of error or alternative explanations. In contrast, a non-mainstream publication is typically a book written at a fairly popular level and published by the author or by a press with few academic pretensions, or an article in an ‘anomalist’ journal or on a web-site used largely by those who share the author’s basic non-mainstream position. There is sometimes a review process, but the authors, editors and reviewers – who often form a close-knit group, very much on the edges of the relevant scholarly worlds – agree in upholding the basic ideas which divide them from the mainstream; reviewers will generally attack only points of detail. In this context, skeptical scholars provide (albeit only after publication) the processes of testing and review which non-mainstream publications would otherwise lack. Naturally, their conclusions and assessments are usually negative.

Many scholars confronted by skeptics trained in their own field take the view that skeptical work of this kind is simply unnecessary in the context of mainstream thought. They believe that the safeguards outlined above really do work well enough to obviate the need for specifically skeptical examination. Skeptical linguists, for example, are sometimes asked what difference there is between skeptical linguistics, as applied to the mainstream, and just plain linguistics, conducted within the usual academic constraints. This view is understandable, and obviously it is not entirely inaccurate; but the amount of doubtful material which achieves serious publication might suggest that additional vigilance is indeed needed. Some non-mainstream authors actually suggest that skeptics should direct their attention at the mainstreams of their own disciplines as well as or even instead of at non-mainstream material; and, while one might not wish to take such an extreme view of the matter (almost diametrically opposed to that of some mainstream scholars as reported above), it is more than arguable that some mainstream ideas do warrant more skeptical attention than they tend to receive.

For instance, the degree of conservative bias which inevitably affects publication and acceptance of novel ideas probably does mean that some of the more obviously mainstream works which are published may indeed owe too much of their success to their mainstream status (although non-mainstream writers certainly exaggerate the degree to which such things occur).

One very interesting study along these lines was produced by the adventurous mainstream linguist Göran Hammarström, in an unfortunately little-read 1971 article which illustrates how the published views of very eminent linguists may appear ludicrous when looked at in a different (maybe more realistic or more ‘common-sense’) way and without undue respect for their reputations. Hammarström summarises four works of linguistics which may all appear nonsensical to the uncommitted intelligent reader. Three of these are journal articles; the fourth is a mainstream book (The Sound Pattern of English; New York, 1968). The three short pieces are very obviously non-mainstream, not to say bizarre, in nature, and the thinking involved is lacking in self-criticism. (Details on request!) Hammarström suggests that they were accepted in error by the editors of the journals in question; in the first two cases the editor was a dialectologist rather than a theoretical linguist, while in the third case the journal had a language-specific, not overtly linguistic focus.

On the other hand, the book in question was written by the very prominent linguists Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle; it was taken very seriously by the linguistic world as a whole when it appeared, and, while now dated in many respects, is still regarded as a ‘classic’. Hammarström argues that in fact the thinking set out in this work is little if any less ludicrous than that rehearsed in the three shorter pieces discussed earlier. Much of the theory developed in the book is highly abstract, counter-intuitive and seriously under-demonstrated. For example, abstract ‘underlying representations’ for the spoken forms of English words are established, often appreciably closer to current spellings than to orthodox phonemic representations. (This is associated with the Chomskyan claim that more abstract, non-phonemic spelling is psychologically preferable.) In associated works, theoretical findings based on these ideas are applied to other languages and indeed are treated (as is normal in this tradition) as of universal application if valid. However, Hammarström argues (quite cogently, and later supported by other linguists) that these and other such Chomskyan analyses are inadequately justified (both for English and cross-linguistically), and at times they appear simply bizarre. They have, it seems, been highly respected in large part because of the prestige and perceived authority of authors such as Chomsky and Halle – far greater than those of the authors of the three shorter pieces, who certainly had far inferior training in the discipline.

More on this general theme next time!

Mark


Where we are and what’s happening…

August 4, 2012

Yo!

For the last few weeks, ever since we were at TAM, Eve and I have been really, really busy moving up to Eau Claire to take up our new jobs at the University of Wisconsin campus there. Several hundred thousand miles later, we’ve made it and are almost close to moved in. The house is in Chippewa Falls, which means nothing to you, but the skies are hoooomygod dark and the Big Dipper is surprisingly high in the sky. We basically followed the drinking gourd out of the south.

We have a few big projects coming up that we will be announcing in the next week or so. Well, at least one of them. So stay tuned. I’m keeping tabs on conspiracies still and when we get a reliable internet connection (Wed afternoon), we’ll get the Week in Conspiracy back up. I’m still putting up things for the JREF and writing the CSI column. The next edition of the latter will be up shortly, I think. The other announcement is going to be a bit of kick-ass activism.

I just wanted to touch base and let you know that we’re still alive. 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions about Wisconsin or the great vowel shift that they seem to have missed.

RJB


where to go next?

August 1, 2012

Hi all!

I’ll be happy to resume my blog, but I wonder WHICH sets of non-historical topics might be of most interest! Votes, etc? (Queries first if need be, of course!) Thanks! Mark

Language (itself sometimes mysterious) from mysterious sources (alien, channelled, etc)
Reversals and other alleged mysterious aspects of ‘normal’ language
Allegedly mysterious scripts, texts, etc. (non-historical issues)
Alleged animal ‘languages’ and language-learning abilities
Non-mainstream theories of language and the mind, and non-mainstream general theories of language
Language reform and language invention (as proposed by non-linguists)
Skepticism (by linguists and others) about mainstream linguistics