Tag Archives: science

People just will not quit with the “March of Progress”

I am now reading the article by or about Deepak Chopra and consciousness in the Hufington Gazette-News (whose name I may have put down incorrectly on purpose out of spite and bitterness) because I have now invested more than enough time in it, the product of which is this blog posting, and I am sure that whatever the article has to say is not anywhere near redeeming enough to compensate for the scientifically incorrect, openly racist image used to call attention to it, sometimes called the “March of Progress” image.

"Monkey" image

Ordinarily when talking about something I feel strongly about, I might say something like, “I don’t want to go into histrionics about …” the idea being that people will pick up on the sarcasm, and realize that the topic is something I really would go into histrionics about if I didn’t mind looking like an idiot not fit for civil society.

Here we see it in an abolitionist medallion IN A CLEARLY RACIAL SENSE.

In a previous post to the EE&O blog and a follow-up, in which I explain the significance of the two images above as well as others, I have already addressed this issue in what I think is a non-histrionic manner.

I can’t take it anymore, and I am afraid that I am going to embarrass myself. I don’t care. If I check the date and time on my Mac, which is set automatically by a query to the NIST official time in Colorado or somewhere similar, I find that it is indeed 2011. Moreover, whatever one may think of whether he is not liberal enough, radical enough, or is too liberal, or too radical, the President of the United States is a black man. This does represent at least a symbolic victory for the progress of Civil Rights and for healing the collective wounds caused by the Civil War. I think I that it’s reasonable to say that explicitly racist images and statements are at least frowned upon. I do not feel much hesitation over making  the assertions of this paragraph.

At the same time, even at this late date in human history, say, several hundred years after Newton published his “Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy” in which he sketched out empirical, experimental methods for use in science, and more than 150 years after many of Darwin’s hypotheses in the Origin of Species have been shown to be credible beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt whatever, almost everyone everywhere, including professional scientists, makes the mistake of thinking that evolution is progressive, that species improve on one another according to some general, secular trend, and that human beings are in some way special, and represent the furthest advance made in the organic world, and that this is best represented by our most recent conquest, over “monkeys.” But this is precisely what is represented in the frequently observed “March of Progress” image showing some apparently more primitive human primate ancestor hunched over at the far left, and an upright, “fully evolved” human being at the right, with other primates in between, becoming more and more upright, their brows receding more and more, each “more evolved” than the primate to its left.

To be brief: the March of Progress image is SCIENTIFICALLY INDEFENSIBLE and OPENLY RACIST. If you want to use it, go ahead, but don’t then go claim that you are not engaging directly in racial hate speech, or that your thinking is in line with scientifically credible opinion today.

My final comment by way of a question is, What the $#%!! is wrong with you people!

New study provides precisely no evidence whatever for innate ideas

The headline of a recent press release by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne about a recent paper in PNAS (Perin R., Berger T.K., & Markram H: A synaptic organizing principle for cortical neuronal groups, p, 108 (12); link will download a PDF.),  reads “New evidence for innate ideas.” The kind of innate knowledge for which there is supposed to be new evidence is described as follows.

These clusters contain an estimated fifty neurons, on average. The scientists look at them as essential building blocks, which contain in themselves a kind of fundamental, innate knowledge – for example, representations of certain simple workings of the physical world. Acquired knowledge, such as memory, would involve combining these elementary building blocks at a higher level of the system. “This could explain why we all share similar perceptions of physical reality, while our memories reflect our individual experience”, explains Markram.

The “clusters” are “pyramidal neurons in the neocortex,” according to the article. The argument that the way these neurons develop is evidence that there are innate ideas is described.

When the scientists tested in vitro neuronal circuits from different rats, they all presented very similar characteristics. If the circuits had only been formed from the experiences lived by the different animals, the values should have diverged considerably from one individual to the next. Thus, the neuronal connectivity must in some way have been programmed in advance.

The argument is that we should expect different neuron clusters in different rats, because the rats had different experiences as the neurons developed. But what’s seen is that the neuron clusters do not differ from one another.

Hang on. Presumably we all have more or less the same “representations of certain simple workings of the physical world,” because everyone lives in three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension, which always moves in the same direction; and the fundamental physical properties of medium-sized and large objects are the same everywhere. If something really big falls on something really small, the small thing will be crushed. I imagine the same is true for rats. I would think that rats live in a world poorer in diversity than we do. So it should be no surprise that the neurons that develop in response to the “simple workings of the physical world” develop the same in all the rats and probably all (normal) people as well.

The remarks about Locke are false, at least, within the discipline of philosophy. “Since John Lock [sic], about 400 years ago, research into how the brain learns and remembers has been guided by the belief that we start from a clean slate.” This is not true. Kant quite clearly indicated that he believed that there was some knowledge that we could not have learned through the five senses, but that we possess nonetheless. Querying the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for nativism is a good place to start learning about the veritable flood of work on this subject in many disciplines.

Another point that’s important is that it most certainly does not follow from the claim that a trait is inherited that it is innate. “Innate” is fatally ambiguous, and should probably be retired. Paul Griffiths argues conclusively for this in a paper that’s available online (this links to a PDF file which will be downloaded immediately upon following it.).

“Avalanche control” in scientific literature: A role for informatics

In “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research,” it is claimed that much of the scientific research literature published recently is “redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor” and that “research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs.” “Countless” is intended in a negative sense here. No argument is provided for the first claim, unless the claims about frequency of citation—generally very low, if at all, for any paper in the literature—are to be taken as an argument that recent literature is poor in quality. It does seem clear that the authors believe that there is too much literature, and it seems to me that their claims and arguments that there is too much literature might be just as strong if it weren’t paired with the argument that the literature is generally low in quality.

Taking a larger view, the problem is probably worse than the “Avalanche” authors suggest. A prominent case in point: the Biodiversity Heritage Library, whose holdings amount at present to 30,512,292 pages in 80,976 volumes, is growing daily, and more and more libraries are joining the project, including those in Europe and the Pacific rim. (Perhaps the “Avalanche” authors would find this reassuring. Back in the good old days, when men were real men (and women didn’t do science), only what was worth reading was published, and everyone read it.) Nonetheless, finding works relevant to a given topic is difficult and will become more so.

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