Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 3

March 31, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!

3 RONALD ENGLEFIELD (and others)

Ronald Englefield (1891-1975) was an English poet and philosopher. His major work,
Language and Thought, remains unpublished, though extracts appeared in the journal Trivium and this material is commented upon (often supportively) by other authors such as G. A. Wells and D. R. Oppenheimer. While Englefield’s specifically linguistic ideas have not met with wide acceptance, his criticism of religion and philosophy, published posthumously, was relatively well received.

Englefield was overtly critical of mainstream thought on language; he objected to the general pretentiousness and loose thinking which he found in much philosophical and linguistic work on the subject, and was especially critical of the effect on thinking of the use of words – in linguistics, literary criticism, religious studies and other philosophical domains – where they allegedly have no clear referent. Like Amorey Gethin (see my earlier comments), he went so far as to regard linguistics as a ‘bogus science’. However, Englefield’s skewed understanding of the writings of linguists (see below for an example) reduces the strength of his own claims.

On the origins of language, Englefield followed eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, who argued that language evolved naturally from gestures. Englefield ‘explains’ how an animal little more intelligent than modern apes could ‘progress’ from a natural gesture language to invent a spoken and later a written language.

Some of Englefield’s views on these matters were opposed to those of other writers marginal to the mainstream such as Philip Ballard, who seem to believe (quite wrongly) that the grammar and other structural aspects of one’s first language are learned by explicit instruction (some of these writers, at least, appear to have been distracted by awareness of the teaching of STANDARD grammar to native speakers of non-standard dialects). In contrast, Englefield (though possibly confused in a broadly similar way; see below) argues that even modern humans can communicate WITHOUT the benefit of grammar.

Specifically, Englefield joined Wells and others in critiquing the linguistic ‘paradigms’ associated with Noam Chomsky. While Chomskyan thought does invite skeptical comment (again, see my earlier discussion), some of these critics of Chomsky are confused on some quite basic issues. For example: Englefield suggests (with Wells) that – if Chomsky’s view of the matter is correct – adult native speakers of a language who do not command the grammar of the relevant standard variety have either somehow FAILED to develop (pre-birth) the tendency to acquire grammar which Chomsky believes humans inherit, or HAVE acquired grammar but have then ‘lost’ or suppressed it. Wells and Englefield seem to have misunderstood what Chomsky means when he says that all normal human infants have access to a Universal Grammar (UG) enabling them to acquire the syntax and other aspects of their native languages very rapidly. The term grammar here (as elsewhere in linguistics) does NOT refer only to standard/formal grammar as taught in schools and socially endorsed as ‘good usage’ (etc.); it also includes the grammar of informal and indeed of non-standard usage as used naturally by many native speakers of each language. Native speakers who systematically produce non-standard forms have simply acquired a DIFFERENT grammar. The idea that non-standard or informal usage somehow LACKS grammar, while widespread among non-linguists, is folk-linguistic and does not stand up under careful examination; and Chomskyan linguists fully accept this.

The acquisition of the SPECIFIC grammars of individual languages (spoken or signed) clearly requires exposure to suitable data (as does the acquisition of their respective phonologies); not even a ‘hard-line’ Chomskyan would dispute this. However, some non-linguists (including some skeptics) assume that humans actually inherit some of the specifics of their parents’ or ancestors’ particular languages. Even a few scholars in relevant disciplines have adopted this stance, notably J.R.R. Tolkien, who was expert in philology (descriptive historical linguistics) but not in modern theoretical linguistics. Tolkien apparently believed, for instance, that he himself had acquired older varieties of English formerly used in his own home area (where his family had long resided) more readily than would students from other areas. No positive evidence of such effects exists, and, if they were genuine, they would in fact be difficult to explain in scientific terms. Children clearly inherit a language-learning propensity (specific, as asserted by Chomsky, or more general); but they obviously learn the individual languages, accents etc. used by their early carers and in their communities, and if they have no contact with their biological parents they know nothing of the languages used by them.

On Englefield specifically, see F.R.H. Englefield, Critique of Pure Verbiage: Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious and Philosophical Writings (G.A. Wells and D.R. Oppenheimer, eds) (La Salle, IL, 1990), and Language: Its Origin and Relation to Thought (Wilton, CT, 1977).


Hispter Demonologists and the Brotherhood of the Black T-shirt (Virtual Skeptics #32)

March 28, 2013

Now with extra Viking!

RJB (With thanks to Torkel for stepping up and filling in!)

A Letter to the PBS Ombudsman about CPT12’s Airing of “Burzynski”

March 26, 2013

On Friday, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler responded to CPT12’s recent airing of the first Burzynski movie as part of a fundraiser. PBS has always been quite responsive to its critics, and this is something that I have not seen in many large broadcasters in the past. He contacted a lot of the interested parties at the station, the FDA, and CPT12. I have no doubt that Getler took this subject seriously, and I appreciate this very much.

Furthermore, Burzynski is not Getler’s fight. To understand the complexities and history involved takes a lot of work, far more than we could possibly expect of Mr. Getler. The station is not his responsibility, nor is it PBS’s role to censor a member station. This was clear from his first post in the run-up to the airing of the documentary.

That said, however, I do disagree with some of his conclusions. (You could see that coming a mile away, couldn’t you?)

Getler starts off:

[Burzynski] is a long program — two and a half hours, with about 45 minutes of that devoted to pledge drive discussions and promotions of the film. It is about the decades-long struggle of a Polish-born physician and biochemist, Stanislaw Burzynski, who set up a clinic in Texas in 1976, to achieve acceptance for a cancer-cure therapy based on a treatment he developed based on what he calls “Antineoplastons.” [ANP]

I submit this is already wrong. There is little evidence that Burzynski is at all serious about developing antineoplastons for wider marketing. If that were true, surely he would have managed to have completed and published a single advanced trial in 35 years. If you look at the trials he’s been required to register at, you see over 60 trials, 1 completed, and none published. NONE. This is important because he is restricted to giving his ANP in clinical trials. But he apparently abandons his trials, almost all of them. This is not normal. He charges patients out the nose to participate in the clinical trials. This is not normal. This is not the behavior of someone who intends to market the product widely later and expects a return on an investment. It sure looks like someone taking the money while he can.

I put the word “documentary” in quotes above because while the actual film does indeed document very well Burzynski’s seemingly endless battle to win acceptance and approval for his treatment against the FDA, National Cancer Institute, patent challenges and big pharmaceutical companies — and includes very powerful filmed interviews with cancer survivors who say his treatment (in Texas, where it was allowed) saved them — it doesn’t have the kind of critical other-side that one is used to in other documentaries.

That last part is true. the movie is one-sided. Of course, why this is might be more apparent if Mr. Getler had realized that Merola’s cousin was a patient of Burzynski (she later died, of course) and that Merola raised funds for his cousin’s treatments on his website. Merola is not impartial. He has skin in the game. He has sunk an enormous amount into Burzynski.

Mr. Getler mentions that Shari Bernson, the person responsible for the programming and who appeared in fundraising spots, described the movie as “controversial.” To someone on the outside, it may appear to be controversial. To someone who understands the science and process of publication and who has found endless descriptions of how patients end up making really, really bad choices out of desperation at that clinic, however, there is no controversy. The fact remains that after 35+ years, the Clinic has never produced a single reproducible result that would constitute the barest minimum for serious consideration among experts. It just hasn’t. Should that ever happen (I’m not holding my breath), then, hell, yes, we’ll be on board cheering the advance of science. But he has to play by the rules.

And this is important too, playing by the rules that all real researchers abide to. Part of the FDA’s job is to ensure that Burzynski’s people are doing this. And on February 7th, they were doing just that; they were in the facility inspecting to make sure that Burzynski’s team was playing by the rules.

In a FOIA release this week, the FDA revealed a number of things that had been found out and reported to the clinic by the time the movie aired. By law, the Clinic had 15 days to respond, so if they responded, it was before CPT12’s love-in. (The observational notes can be found here:

Two investigators observed:

  • “The IRB [Institutional Review Board] used an expedited review procedure for research which did not appear in an FDA list of categories eligible for expedited review, and which had not previously been approved by the IRB. Specifically, your IRB routinely provided expedited approvals for new subjects to enroll under Single Patient Protocols.” [2 adults and 3 pediatric patients are mentioned]
  • “The IRB approved the conduct of research, but did not determine that the risks to subjects were reasonable in relation to the anticipated benefits (if any) to subjects, and to the importance of the knowledge that might be expected to result. Specifically, your IRB gave Expedited Approval for several Single Patient Protocols (SPP) without all the information necessary to determine that the risk to subjects are minimized.” [4 examples follow]
  • “The IRB did not determine at the time of initial review that a study was in compliance with 21 CFR Part 50 Subpart D, ‘Additional Safeguards for Children in Clinical Investigations.’ Specifically, an IRB that reviews and approves research involving children is required to make a finding that the study is in compliance with 21 CFR Part 50 Subpart D, ‘Additional Safeguards for Children in Clinical Investigations.’ Your IRB approved research involving children without documentation of the IRBs finding that the clinical investigation satisfied the criteria under Subpart D.” [3 examples follow and there is a note that this is a repeat observation that had been found in an Oct 2010 Inspection.]
  • “The IRB did not follow its written procedure for conducting its initial review of research. Specifically, the IRB is required to follow its written procedures for conducting initial and continuing review. Your IRB did not follow your written procedures for conducting initial and continuing review because these subjects received IRB approval via an expedited review procedure not described in your Standard Operating Procedures. If your IRB would have followed your own SOP for initial and continuing review, the following subjects would have received review and approval from the full board rather than an expedited review.” [2 adults and 3 pediatric patients are listed.]
  • “The IRB has no written procedures for ensuring prompt reporting to the IRB, appropriate institutional officials, and the FDA of any unanticipated problems involving risks to human subjects or others. Specifically, your current SOP-2012 v2-draft doc does not describe the requirements on Investigators on how unanticipated problems are reported to the IRB, Institutional Official, and the FDA, such as time intervals and the mode of reporting, or otherwise address how the prompt reporting of such instances will be ensured.”
  • “The IRB has no written procedures [in the SOP-2012 v2-draft doc] for ensuring prompt reporting to the IRB, appropriate institutional officials, and the FDA of any instance of serious or continuing noncompliance with theses [sic] regulations or the requirements or determinations of the IRB.”
  • “A list of IRB members has not been prepared and maintained, identifying members by name, earned degrees, representative capacity, and any employment or other relationship between each member and the institution.”

You have to play by the rules. I’m not sure that this round of investigation is over yet, as the audience at the premier of the sequel was apparently told that the FDA was still on site. Researchers should not be playing fast and loose with the rules that protect children (a protected subject population, like prisoners and students–yeah, I’m IRB certified). There should be procedures in place to see that proper oversight and reporting of unexpected events is ensured. Hell, there was apparently no document even saying WHO was on the IRB!

This is not a report on a serious research institution. It’s more like the observations of the IRB of a clown school.

Back to Mr Getler’s letter:

On the other hand, Bernson’s sidekick on the in-studio, pledge-drive promotion who was interviewing the clinic spokesman, made me gag when she said, “I’m Rebecca Stevens and I’m proud to be a journalist who asks the hard questions.” There were no hard questions. [I believe the question that followed up this statement was, “What is peer-review?”–RJB]

And where Bernson may have gone too far, depending on who you believe, was in her statement that: “Antineoplaston therapy has had significant success rates with terminal brain cancer patients and especially in children.”

No, she went too far no matter who you believe, and his next paragraph demonstrates this:

The National Cancer Institute, reporting last month on Antineoplastons, said, among other things: “No randomized, controlled trials showing the effectiveness of antineoplastons have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals” and that they are “not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the prevention or treatment of any disease.”

Aaaand…how’s that controversial? In light of this, how could Sherri possibly be right?

My bottom line is that CPT12 obviously has a right to show this film.

Nobody questions that. What we wanted, and what was offered to the station, was the opportunity to have an independent oncologist in the studio at the time of the broadcast, you know, to stir up the kind of informed discussion the station says they want to have instead of settling for two True Believers talking to two CPT12 pitch people. When the station had that opportunity, they walked away from it. That’s indefensible. Especially when you consider that the people we are worried about, patients and their families, may NOT be as discerning as your average viewer, as CPT President Willard Rowland suggests in his response to the ombudsman:

“The program’s airing is grounded in the station’s mission, specifically those portions about respecting our viewers as inquisitive and discerning citizens, addressing social issues and public concerns not otherwise adequately covered in the community, and cultivating an environment of discovery and learning.”

Some of them haven’t had good news since their diagnosis. Then they hear that some lone genius with the cure for cancer is operating in Houston and they are on the next flight down. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I have hundreds more patients on deck to write about. These are vulnerable, vulnerable people who deserve the best information from their public broadcasters.

I’m fairly disappointed by the tepid response, honestly. I have a hard time imagining that Mr. Getler, or Mr Willard Rowland for that matter, could possibly think that this program was anything but misleading if they spent a half hour at The OTHER Burzynski Patient Group, which chronicles, in patients’ own words, what goes on in that Clinic. All of the people told that getting worse is getting better (for decades being fed the same line!), the children having strokes (unrelated to their tumors) while on the medicine, the “terrifying” amounts of sodium that go into patients. The quasi-legalistic threats and phone calls to dissatisfied cancer patients. The untested chemo cocktails given to most of his patients. None of that was mentioned in the CPT12 fundraiser.

Of course, that’s not Mr. Getler’s fight.


Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 2

March 23, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!


Laura Knight-Jadczyk (henceforth K-J) is a widely-read independent scholar with highly radical views on history and the nature of humanity. I encountered her work at a stall run by her supporters at the 2008 Unconvention in London, and approached her with information on her linguistic claims, which do not loom especially large but are important – and display some knowledge of the subject but a (temporarily?) incomplete grasp. For example, she accepts Iman Wilkens’ linguistically naïve equations of Greek and English river-names (in his revisionist book Where Troy Once Stood) as clearly valid, and wonders how linguists can justify ignoring his ‘obviously’ impressive success in correlating the two sets of names.

K-J was unwilling to be corrected here (pending further reading), whereas she was (surprisingly) more amenable to my exposition of mainstream reservations about the much less fringe but seriously (and increasingly) controversial theory that Indo-European and several other language families had a common ancestor (‘Nostratic’) spoken 10-12,000 years ago. This theory would fit in with her view (quite widely shared and not altogether unsupported) that there was a world catastrophe at that time caused by minor-planet impact.

More generally, K-J regards the more extreme revisionist/catastrophist histories proposed by Immanuel Velikovsky, Michael Cremo etc. as much more strongly supported by the evidence than mainstream scholars would allow. She holds, in fact, that all such seriously revisionist views are systematically suppressed by ‘the powers that be’.

By way of another specific (more philosophical) issue, K-J is strongly opposed to Judaic-Christian-Muslim monotheism, regarding it as balefully influential even on recent scientific & historical scholarship, and in fact as ‘psycho-pathological’. Saliently, she holds that it would be psycho-pathological even for a creator god to claim the right to allegiance and obedience. I myself agree that humans could legitimately resist such claims – partly because of the logical argument, best summarised by Bertrand Russell, that objective ethical truths (if any exist) cannot follow from religious truths (ditto). But, despite my own atheistic views, I suggest that a creator god, if (s)he existed, WOULD have a prima facie case here, unlike truly psycho-pathological human tyrants making similar claims.

On the other hand, K-J holds (obviously against skeptics and most scientists) that the evidence for spiritual and ‘paranormal’ entities of other kinds is overwhelming and should persuade even those who themselves have no awareness of divine or parapsychological forces in the world. But she also thinks it likely that some humans have a ‘soul’ which confers veridical awareness of these entities. Others (including skeptics) have no such awareness exactly because they have NO souls. (This idea is similar to the less dramatic claim that humans have a psychic/spiritual ‘sense’ but that some are ‘blind’ in this respect.) Souls probably arose by way of mutation in the process of evolution (her version of same!). But it is not clear how such entities as souls (if they can exist at all) could arise in this way (though see for example Stephen Goldberg’s view, expounded in his book Anatomy Of The Soul, that important aspects of a mind can exist after the demise of the brain from which it is generated). And the fact that even members of the same family may differ in respect of such awareness surely renders K-J’s specific position dubious.

K-J is also searching for a new form or aspect of linguistics which would relate to her ontology by way of being ‘hyper-dimensional’. She declined to attempt to explain this idea to me, seeing me as one of the soul-less and thus being permanently unable to grasp the concepts involved. (For her, humanity is doomed to remain divided on issues of this kind, where empirical evidence does NOT directly apply. The soul-less have an incorrigibly impoverished world-view.) She did suggest that semiotics might be identified with her ‘hyper-dimensional linguistics’, but this notion seems to reflect either confusion or a so-far unarticulated non-standard view of semiotics (it is normally taken to be the study of symbolism, with linguistics as one of its most major sub-fields, and thus to be wider in scope than linguistics but NOT at a ‘different level’).

K-J’s main work is her book The Secret History of the World (Grande Prairie, AB, 2008), her main web-site is, and her publishing-house, Red Pill Press, is at, where other books by K-J and her associates can be ordered. The most recent issue of the Red Pill Press newsletter (available on enquiry) advertises a second volume of Secret History, Comets and the Horns of Moses. (K-J also had interesting views regarding the predictions of Zecharia Sitchin and others regarding the anticipated appearance in 2003 of the rogue planet Nibiru; see


Virtual Skeptics, Episode 31 (20 March 2013)

March 22, 2013

This week on the Virtual Skeptics

  • Bob sacrifices Tim to the Illuminati for the success of the show;
  • Eve asks, “Got penis?”;
  • Sharon is mad Bob took her story so she is going to go watch television;
  • and Tim wants to see your papers – including your cash.

This Week’s Panel

  • Bob Blaskiewicz – CSI’s Conspiracy Guy web columnist, blogger for Skeptical Humanities and Swift Blog contributor
  • Eve Siebert – Editor and blogger at Skeptical Humanities and contributor to Skepticality
  • Sharon Hill – Editor of Doubtful News and author of the CSI’s Sounds Sciencey web column
  • Tim Farley – JREF fellow and creator of What’s the and the Skeptical Software Tools blog and also contributor to Skepticality.

Bob’s links:

Eve’s links:

Other sources:

  • Ivan Crozier, “Making Up Koro: Multiplicity, Psychiatry, Culture, and Penis-Shrinking Anxieties,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 67.1 (2012): 36-70.
  • Johan J. Mattelaer and Wolfgang Jilek, “Koro: The Psychological Disappearance of the Penis,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 4 (2007): 1509-1515.
  • Moira Smith. “The Flying Phallus and the Laughing Inquisitor: Penis Theft in Malleus Maleficarum,” Journal of Folklore Research 39.1 (2002): 85-117.

Sharon’s links:

Tim’s links:

Brian’s Robot links:


The Virtual Skeptics is an independent production of Doubtful News,, Skeptical Humanities, and Brian Gregory. Our logo was designed by Sara Mayhew at Our theme music is by Tremor and is used with permission.

A moment for me…

March 22, 2013

I used to blog at another site under a pen name. It was a great way to keep a daily tally of my exploits, and if I did not get around to my nightly post, I would feel guilty.

Not so much these days.

I only sort of miss the frantic bursts of commentary that I used to produce. The best thing about becoming a blogger was how it helped me snap a longstanding bout of writers block so that I could finish my Ph.D. Establishing a routine was essential to that. Now that I work primarily on themed projects, doing similar things here and on Skepticality, the Burzynski stuff, and at CSI on conspiracy theory (new article on Jesuits coming soon!), education stuff at the JREF Swift blog, well, the Virtual Skeptics is the one place where I get to do a little bit of everything, a new short little essay every week about whatever catches my fancy. But I don’t get to go off on my Wagnerian rants like I used to. It’s probably for the best.

But I’m tired. At this point, I essentially have two full time jobs, and only one pays. The thought of turning away from either of them hasn’t occurred to me.

So, what’s next? Well, I have NECSS coming up in a few weeks. That’s going to be a great long weekend. I went to the conference two years ago, and had a great time. This time around, I’m going to be participating in a workshop about the joys of multidisciplinary skepticism.  The cool thing about speaking is casually bumping into your heroes in the green room. I am looking forward to seeing a couple of British skeptics who will be speaking who I have never met or seen. I have so many books to get signed.

After that, well, the next big thing that I’ll be doing is TAM. This year, I’m involved in two events, a workshop and a thingy on the main stage. That’s very, very exciting, of course. There was a point way back in the day when I sort of had TAM in my mind as a long-term career goal. This is my second one, so I’m pleased as punch.

Ah, well. It’s late. 2:00 AM. Lots to do tomorrow too.


Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 1

March 17, 2013

Hi again, everybody!

At Bob’s suggestion, I’m presenting a new series of blogs on specific ‘fringe’ writers (idiosyncratic individuals rather than members of ‘movements’) on language matters (in his words a ‘Hall Of Shame’, though some of these writers are more worthy of attention than this terminology might suggest!).


One example of a deep-thinking person who developed his own idiosyncratic linguistic theories (and issued attacks on the mainstream of linguistics) is the psychologist and amateur logician John Trotter. Trotter was a psychology lecturer in Australia, and in the 1970s-80s he developed radical views on the logical and structural nature of language, and incorporated these into papers offered for publication and into his teaching. His most central focus was on the philosophical aspects of these matters, and one of his main foci within linguistics involved the development of links between the formalism of Chomskyan grammars on the one hand and the ‘predicate calculus’ of logic on the other. If Trotter’s main ideas are valid, much of the basis of linguistic theory and indeed some important aspects of contemporary thought on logic must be mistaken.

Trotter’s papers were rejected by editors and reviewers whom he regarded as inadequately informed, and he was allegedly discouraged from presenting his views to students. After that time he operated as a private scholar. He & I interacted at some length in the late 1990s, but his dogmatic approach to many of his key points does not encourage scholarly attention. (In addition, some of his claims regarding e.g. possible improvements in automatic translation appear to be contradicted by familiar linguistic facts.)

Some of Trotter’s main points involve direct criticisms of mainstream concepts. For instance, he holds that some key mainstream linguistic concepts such as ‘allophone’ and ‘phoneme’ should NOT be used; new formulations of the matters in question should be adopted. This stance involves his rejection in its mainstream form of the ‘emic/etic’ contrast (as in phonemic versus phonetic), which he instead treats as essentially a type-token relationship; for example, each phoneme is seen as a type and each of its allophones as a token of this type. Trotter’s objection at this point is associated in turn with his opposition on philosophical (ontological) grounds to some types of linguistic expression used to express the relationship between types and tokens (for example, he objects to definite descriptions such as the dodo as used to refer to a type, as in the dodo is now extinct). However, whatever might be the merits of Trotter’s philosophical points, his reasons for rejecting the mainstream formulations of the linguistic concepts in question here (‘allophone’ etc.) appear to involve a) a degree of misreading of mainstream linguistics (an allophone of a phoneme is NOT in fact the same thing as a token of that phoneme; it is itself a type, more specific and at a less abstract linguistic ‘level’, and has its own tokens, namely the individual instances where it occurs) and b) an exaggerated ontologically-based preference for one linguistic formulation of such matters over another (not uncommon in philosophical work based on linguistic facts; see below).

Trotter also rejects (mainly covertly, and in some specific respects) the linguistic non-prescriptivist approach to language adopted by mainstream linguists. He argues that certain kinds of formulaic expression of philosophical interest (for instance the logician’s For all X, X is Y = ‘all Xs are Y’, as in ‘all men are mortal’) are to be deemed ungrammatical even though they are the normal forms used by the relevant native speakers (logicians) in such cases. For all X, X is Y is seen as ungrammatical because there is no determiner such as that or the before the second token of X, which would be required in more everyday styles of English if the sentence were to occur (suitably modified) and to be deemed grammatical. For instance, in any other context one would not say For all lions, lion has paws, or even For every/any lion, lion has paws; the noun lion in the second clause would always have a determiner, as in that lion or the lion. However, this does not imply that it must have a determiner in the style used in the technical philosophical/logical domain in which such sentences normally occur. These sentences are NOT ungrammatical in context in any normal sense of this term (prescriptivist or descriptivist).

Trotter goes on to argue that because these expressions are ungrammatical they are also logically invalid – and that, because the issue at hand is central in discussions of logic, the whole basis of logic is thereby impugned. Indeed, the philosophical under-pinnings of contemporary logic and linguistics are grossly inadequate. Both mainstream linguists and philosophers would deny this. First of all, the linguistic features in question are found in only some languages. Not all languages even require determiners modifying nouns; for instance, Chinese and Russian do not. In fact, there are serious problems (albeit not always adequately acknowledged by philosophers) associated with heavy reliance upon linguistic data in a philosophical context, because the details of the constructions involved vary so much from language to language. And, even if it were accepted that ENGLISH sentences such as those cited were ungrammatical, it would thus be difficult to argue that some formulations were logically invalid on the ground that there was an issue with the grammar of the versions of these formulations as expressed in English but not in all languages. English and similar languages have no special status in this respect.

Indeed, the grammatical and logical statuses of expressions in any given language are very largely independent of each other. Grammatical issues can normally bring the logical status of expressions into question only if they involve the meanings of these expressions, for example by rendering them ambiguous or self-contradictory. Most grammatical anomalies (whatever their origin or the status ascribed to them) generate no significant ambiguity and certainly have no logical consequences. A form such as Jo go home (grammatically non-standard) is normally semantically transparent, and its ‘ungrammaticality’ (in contrast with Jo goes home, etc.) has no logical consequences.

For reading, see John Trotter, System of Rational Discourse: Vols. 1 (A Calculus of Attributes), 2 (Aggregates, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Sets’), 3 (Applied Arithmetic and Probability), 4 (A Calculus of Predictions and Propositions), (Aranda (ACT), 1995-6, and other works; see
bibliography with links to online versions at http://isbndb. com/d/person/trotter_john. html (accessed 2 February 2011).


Response to the release of Burzynski 2, Havanna Nights

March 14, 2013

On this week’s episode of the Virtual Skeptics, I replied to what was learned at the premiere of the new Burzynski movie. The text of my segment follows the episode.

This week, the new Burzynski movie premiered in San Luis Obispo, California. We largely knew what was going to be in the movie since a couple of trailers had been released, the patients who appeared had talked about the filming, and there was a sort of credulous review had appeared a few days ahead of time and I believe the director may have mentioned it on a PBS fundraising specual a few days earlier. So we had a pretty good idea of what our proxies should be looking for. We really wanted to see if certain people who had been filmed, like Amelia Saunders or Hannah Bradley appeared and especially what was said about them. We wanted lists of people who appeared, to see if we might be able to put together who said what. Most of these people’s stories are well known, and we doubted there would be anything new. Also our people took down key quotes that struck them as important, like “skeptics are hiding behind their BS free speech.”

This is my takeaway, after talking to the people who I know were there. We are wiggly little scumbags who are hateful and slimy. We ridicule the desperate and dying. Some of us are paid by big pharma. Others are deluded and think that we are doing good but are being misled. But make no mistake–and this was hammered home to me by everyone I talked to–we are to them pure evil.

One of my big concerns going into the movie was how I was going to be portrayed and whether or not I was going to receive death threats. That my family was going to receive death threats or that I was going to be harassed at work. I feared this because of a letter that, as you know, was sent to my employer promising that I would be featuring prominently in the Burzynski movie. Nobody asked me for my opinion or to give a statement or to respond or clarify; they went straight to my boss. Fine. I’ve had wacky people contact my employers in the past. I fully expect it to happen in the future. Clips of this show, episode 13, were included in the movie. This is the episode that was quoted in the letter on my university chancellor.

As it turned out, our faces were blurred, our names obscured, and our voices were altered. No real identifying information. Which, you know, I’m OK with. However, there are some problems here. 1) What was served by contacting my employer other than to scare me? How dare the filmmakers say that we’re terrorizing people when they are doing just that. 2) Someone asked me about a quote, “we’re coming for you, you little polish sausage you.” The thing is, the quote is patently absurd if my name is shown, something that everyone here jumped on, like I hoped you would during the original episode. That joking was not conveyed to the skeptics in the theater audience. This might be due to the fact that not only were we given scary voices but also that apparently every time we appeared scary music played in the background.

It’s clear that the reason I’m in the movie in the capacity I am, as chief bad guy, is because I’m on video talking about the Burzynski Clinic. And this leads me to another thing that Brian mentioned. That when we kind of appeared on the screen, they put up a title card type thing that said, “skeptical teleconference” or something like that, and that a woman at the end of the show, wanted to know, “How did you get this footage of these scheming skeptics?” Um….we publicize our show constantly? If you can’t have real clandestine drama, you might as well make it up. My favorite bit was a tweet that I got around this time where a new account who followed like 10 people I do said, “It’s really interesting when you talk about Burzynski on the show. Could you do that more?” Really, Eric? Do you think I’m two years old?

I am interested in ultimately seeing it. I’m asking that the producer send a review copy to the James Randi Educational Foundation so a proper review can be done.

Or you could screen it in Minneapolis. Next week works for me, Eric, if you’re free.

Another thing. News broke on the 7th of January in skeptical circles that the FDA was conducting an audit of the clinic. A patient in the movie apparently said that she had been receiving a brain scan when she heard that the Clinic was being investigated again. This means that material was added to the movie after the 7th of January. The Burzynski Birthday Fundraiser was announced by PZ Myers on the 6th. So there was more than enough time for the filmmaker to clarify exactly what was meant in that episode when I said that there was going to be a little present on his birthday. Skeptics evilly, and with malice aforethought, raised $14.5K dollars for St. Jude’s. We then challenged the Clinic to match us, and it didn’t. That the director did not mention this fact seems to me inexcusable, making us look like we are big meanos who hate babies and morality. This demonization is unfair and at the expense of the truth–if you ever read theotherburzynskipatientgroup blog you know whose side I’m on. If he used the video clip of us that he cited in his letter to my employer, about us bringing a “present” to Burzynski and knowing what it actually was without clarifying it, well, that just speaks to his regard for completeness and accuracy. No messiah should need such fudging. It suggests to me that he’s forcing evidence into a pre-existing narrative of persecution.


PZ Myer’s announcement of the Houston Cancer Quack

The Virtual Skeptics episode that appears in the movie:


Sleep Paralysis or Folk-Tale Motif

March 10, 2013

Consider the following hypothetical situation: a young woman is asleep in bed. She awakes but cannot move. She senses a malevolent presence near her. The being comes closer, pressing on her chest with a great weight. Now consider the following “real” account:

…Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body [of her sister], causing great pain and misery. (Sidney S. Rider, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island,” qtd. in Bell)

What was happening to the nameless sister? Was Sarah really a vampire attacking her in the night? Or was the poor girl suffering from sleep paralysis, perhaps exacerbated by sadness over her sister’s death? Or was it something else?

Many skeptics would immediately say that it’s a case of sleep paralysis, perhaps accompanied by hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination. During sleep paralysis, the brain is conscious or on the verge of wakefulness, but the body remains locked down. In addition to the paralysis, the sufferer may experience vivid and frightening hallucinations. These frequently involve an impression of a presence, often hostile. The dreamer may also feel as if he or she is suffocating.

Sleep paralysis is extremely common. Many people will experience it at least once in their lives. Some people experience if with some regularity. The experience can be terrifying and the hallucinations can seem very real. Many people swear that they are awake, and, in a sense, they are–more or less.

The experience of sleep paralysis varies over time and according to cultural expectation. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, people experienced demon attacks as they slept. The word “incubus” comes from the Latin “incubare,” to lie upon. While this may suggest the sexual nature of incubi, it probably originally referred to the feeling of oppression. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of of “incubus” in English is from Laȝamon’s Brut: there is a very numerous race–

heo beoð ihaten ful iwis

incubii demones.

ne doð heo noht muchel scaðe:

but hokerieð þan folke.

monine mo on sueuene:

ofte heo swencheð. (Brut, Cotton Caligula A 9, ll. 15782-7. Ed. Frederick Madden, 1847)

They are known, indeed, as incubus demons. They don’t do much harm, but they deceive people. They often afflict men in dreams.

It goes on to say the incubi “know” women and lead children astray.

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

In eighteenth-century Serbia, vampires visited their victims at night:

In addition, the haiduk Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by name of Stanacka, lay down to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, fearful and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled by the son of a haiduk by the name of Milloe, who had died nine weeks earlier, whereupon she had experienced a great pain in the chest and became worse hour by hour, until she finally died on the third day. (Visum et Repertum, tr. and qtd. in Barber 16)

Since the second half of the 20th century, the assailants have often been aliens, bent on abduction and examination.

About 18 years ago I had gone to bed just like any night. I do not take drugs or drink. I went to sleep and some time during the night I felt something crawling up on me. It started at my lower legs and was crawling up to my chest. I could not open my eyes. It felt like it was some kind of hoffed animal. I wanted to move but could not. I was thinking what the heck is this what is happening. It semed to last for a few minutes then the weight of this thing was gone. I then could open my eyes and there was nothing. (

In some cases, sleep paralysis has been suggested to sufferers, but they reject the notion:

A woman named Ruth told me that the crucial event for her had been a nighttime episode in which she’d felt terror, been unable to breathe, and heard footsteps. I asked her if she thought the symptoms could have been related to sleep paralysis. “no–because, see, I wasn’t asleep when it happened. I was on the couch watching David Letterman.” (Clancy)

Are we, as skeptics, justified in dismissing all these stories as sleep paralysis? No doubt we often we are. Many instances almost certainly can be explained by sleep paralysis, and it seems likely that stories of night hags and night demons originated with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but the stories are so prevalent that they’ve moved from the world of physical phenomenon to the realm of folk tale motif.

A folk motif is a recurring and recognizable element in traditional narratives. For instance, a cruel stepmother is a motif that appears again and again in folk tales. Another is the supernatural being who helps the hero or heroine perform chores. In the 1930s, Stith Thompson published his monumental six volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Entry F471 deals with dream demons. F471.1 is the Nightmare or Alp which “presses person in dream.” There follows a long list of sources. F471.1.5 concerns

Persons who at night become nightmare. Those who are born on a Thursday and christened on a Sunday must at certain times (on Thursdays) press someone or something.

E281.2 tells of a “Ghostly horse [that] enters house and puts hoof on breast of sleeper.”

According to Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow in Medieval Folklore, the assaults of the mara, nightmare or night hag

were always connected with a feeling of anxiety and suffocation. The mara was believed to oppress and weigh her victim down when tormenting and riding it. There is also an undercurrent of latent sexuality more or less manifest in the mara traditions.

Jan Louis Perkowski, professor of Slavic languages, has published extensively on Slavic folklore. He has collected numerous tales of suffocating demons. For instance, Canadian Kashubs speak of the mwəra or succuba. He describes it as “a night spirit which suffocates its sleeping victims” (34). Among the accounts he records:

The succuba chokes. They said that it was a child who was not baptized properly. This person walks at night and chokes others.

They said that when people went to sleep it choked them.

Succuba–They are unbaptized children who died before they were baptized. They come to a person and they choke a person in the night….

A succuba is that which chokes people. She could crawl through a keyhole. Someone said that, while a succuba was choking them and then they grabbed, sometimes it was like a ball of wool and then it disappeared.

My brother Frank also caught one. A succuba, nightmare, also choked him. He had to sit up and not go to sleep on the pillow, so that it would come to him. He said that a man all matted with hair came to him, and he caught it.

The succuba had to be a person. It would come and choke you at night. Sometimes it was a neighbor. (Perkowski 35-6)

Demons, night hags, witches, ghosts, vampires and now aliens. All have attacked and suffocated victims in the night. It seems odd that we label all of these cases “sleep paralysis.” The Wikipedia entry on sleep paralysis has a section on “Folklore,” listing folktales from all over the world. A New York Times article attributes all sorts of folklore to sleep paralysis, as does a Skeptical Inquirer article by Susan Blackmore. Were all the victims suffering from sleep paralysis? Probably not. I have no doubt that sleep paralysis served as the origin of the motif, but the motif has grown beyond the physical phenomenon. It’s become a part of the story of beings that attack in the night, and it’s been a part of the story for a very long time.

This is not to say that people who tell stories of a great weight on their chests are lying or adding that element to the story because they think they should; however, the experience has become an expected element. We know that cultural expectations shape perception and memory. For instance, it has been suggested that some of the elements of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction accounts were subconsciously based on science fiction television programs and movies. Certainly, the Hills’ story has influenced other accounts of alien abduction.

The very fact that experiences that would have once been perceived as demon attacks are now interpreted as alien visitations suggests just how much cultural expectations influence perception.

To return to the case of Sarah the vampire and her sister: this story is one of the earliest of the New England vampire cases. It concerns Stukeley “Snuffy” Tillinghast and his fourteen children. His daughter Sarah died of consumption, followed by several other family members. The bodies were exhumed. Only Sarah’s was found to be undecayed. Her heart was removed and burned. The deaths ceased (after one more).

The story of the Tillinghast family was recorded nearly a hundred years after the events described, in Sidney S. Rider’s 1888 article, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island.” Folklorist Michael Bell researched the stories and found some information that corroborated Rider’s story: Tillinghast did have fourteen children, and several, including Sarah, died of consumption in 1799. There were also discrepancies: Rider says half the Tillinghast children died, but, in fact, only four or five died. Rider also says Sarah was the oldest child; she was actually the tenth. Enough of the story was corroborated that it is plausible the bodies were exhumed and that Sarah’s heart was burned.

However, there are elements of Rider’s story that are pure folklore and cannot be true. Some of these folkloric elements involve dreams. At the beginning of the story, paterfamilias Snuffy dreams that he has an apple orchard (which he did) and that exactly half of it died. This dream is presented as an omen of the death of exactly half of his children. Aside from problems of interpreting a dream as an allegorical prediction–or postdiction–the dream simply isn’t accurate: Snuffy lost plenty of children, but not half.

And then there are the sleep paralysis dreams. We’ve seen that an unnamed sister dreamed of Sarah sitting on her body. This was a “continual complaint” that occurred every night until the sister died.

So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother also now complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. (Rider qtd. in Bell)

Seven people, six siblings and their mother, dreamed every single night that Sarah visited them and pressed on them. Each of them had these dreams until they died or, in the case of the mother, recovered. These dreams, though they sound like sleep paralysis, cannot be explained by any real physical phenomena. It is not plausible that the family could have shared so many hypnopompic hallucinations. Like the prophetic dream, these dreams belong to the realm of folklore, not neurology.

This case is extreme and was no doubt intentionally embellished by a professional writer. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind when we hear tales of alien abduction that folklore may be at play as well as sleep paralysis.



Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Kindle ed. N.p.

Blackmore, Susan. “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?” Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1998.

Clancy, Susan A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Kindle ed. N.p.

Kristov, Nicholas D. “Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis.” New York Times 6 Jul. 1999.

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs. Oxford UP, 2002.

Perkowski, Jan Louis. Vampire Lore: From the Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2006.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.

Virtual Skeptics (Show 29, 6 March 2012)

March 6, 2013