Friday, March 19, 2010

From Science news March 13,2010:

Lisa Grossman reports that when participants are asked to either make the American Sign Language gesture for a word [say "drink"] or to pantomime taking that action [in this case, a drinking from a cup], different parts of the brain are active for the gesture and for the word. In other words, there is a difference between word and pantomime, even though the actions are identical. Specifically, brain scans of deaf participants who are fluent in American Sign Language show the different areas of the brain are active depending upon whether they were told to “say” the word or to make the pantomime.

This makes me think of the case of the supposed thinking ape, Koko. Koko, a gorilla, is often presented as having mastered American Sign Language and as speaking at an almost human level. Steven Pinker, however, points out that when humans who spoke ASL watched videos of Koko “speaking” they saw far fewer words and a lot more random gestures than the usual observers, who had been trained to recognize ASL gestures, but were not actually considered to be fluent.

It seems to me that the usual observers of the gorilla were poorly trained and not competent to judge when actual words were being used and were subject to the Clever Hans syndrome in which observers eager to see animal intelligence interpret every action by the animal in the best possible interpretation--best possible for their prejudice.

We humans have a strong tendency to see what we want to see, negative or positive. It is hard to be objective about any area in which we have a strong emotional interest. Consider Blondot [sp.?], in the early 20th century this famous and competent scientist became convinced that he had discovered a new ray [similar to the recently discovered x-rays]. His evidence was thin, mostly observational, mostly observed by him. As I recall, at one point he declared that the change in the color of a flame caused by the presence of the rays was so faint that only those who believed in the rays would be able to see it. Not totally out of line, after all, that statement is just a variation of my point that we see what we want to see and don't see what we dislike. But if not totally out of line, it was unscientific and came down to special pleading.

Another case made famous by Stephen Jay Gould is that of Thayer. A brilliant career in biology, which included insight into biological and military uses of camouflage ended with tortured arguments about how every single color scheme in nature was camouflage, and only camouflage. No sex displays, no species recognition, just camouflage.

Thus, we have those who see everything Obama does as socialism, even though nothing he has done matches the definition of socialism, and the contrasting views of the Tea Party Patriots/Tea Bagger Dolts. Life with humans is a mess. I can't help but think that every Utopia would work perfectly, if only we could keep all people out. Sort of a riff on Groucho Marx--I wouldn't join any Utopia that would allow me as a member.

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