Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I just today ran across an example of a much-adored pet peeve: Deceptive headlines in science journalism.

I get a lot out of ExtremeTech, a web publication focused on information technology and science. However, today the following headline appeared in their RSS feed:

Scientists Identify ‘Missing Link’ in Life’s Chemical Origins

This headline got my baloney meter going. It implies that researchers have unequivocally identified a key step in the origin of life. But I know a little about origin-of-life research, and I was immediately skeptical of the implied assertion.

Diamidophosphate ion. Source: Ueliem.

Upon actually reading the article, I could see quickly that things were not as certain as the headline-writer would like the reader to think (boldface mine):

A team from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California have found a molecule that could have been integral to the development of life…

According to the TSRI team, diamidophosphate could have existed in water on Earth billions of years ago…

These complex interactions are just a sample of what could have happened on Earth eons ago.

The headline-writer at Scripps Research Institute, ExtremeTech’s source, was more honest, using the word “potential”:

Scientists Find Potential “Missing Link” in Chemistry That Led to Life on Earth

The Scripps article quotes the author of the TSRI study, who acknowledged that the compound in question, diamidophosphate (DAP), is only a hypothetical link in the chemical origin of life (boldface mine):

We suggest a phosphorylation chemistry that could have given rise, all in the same place, to oligonucleotides, oligopeptides, and the cell-like structures to enclose them,” said study senior author Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at TSRI. “That in turn would have allowed other chemistries that were not possible before, potentially leading to the first simple, cell-based living entities.

Making exaggerated claims is a recurring trope in science journalism. Why do I refer to deceptive headline-writing as “propaganda”? For one thing, it’s dishonest. For another, editors know that many people won’t bother to read beyond the headline. And for another, it conveys the idea that something has been proven about an important question — in this case, the origin of life. It supports a materialist ideological stance, even though the research finding itself might be tentative.

One of the most reasonable considerations of the state of origin-of-life research can be found in the book Signature in the Cell, by philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer. Meyer’s work focuses on the role of information in living systems and makes a good argument for an intelligent designer as the best explanation for the existence of biological information.

For some additional thinking about assertions and propaganda, see this discussion:

The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True

ARK — 7 Nov. 2017




Read Full Post »

Making Charcoal

At the blog “Primitive Technology,” an excellent video shows how charcoal can be made using the “mound method.” This is important to understanding ancient metallurgy, as charcoal burns hotter than the wood it is made from.


I made a batch of charcoal using the mound method then stored it in baskets for later use. Charcoal is a fuel that burns hotter than the wood it’s made from. This is because the initial energy consuming steps of combustion have taken place while making the charcoal, driving off the volatile components of the wood (such as water and sap). The result is a nearly pure carbon fuel that burns hotter than wood without smoke and with less flame. Charcoal was primarily a metallurgical fuel in ancient times but was sometimes used for cooking too.

To make the charcoal the wood was broken up and stacked in to a mound with the largest pieces in the center and smaller sticks and leaves on the out side. The mound was coated in mud and a hole was left in the top while 8 smaller air holes were made around the…

View original post 327 more words

Read Full Post »

An article I often refer to, asking some questions about how we decide what is true and who has the right to make assertions.

A Thinking Person, a.k.a. Cogit8R

I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.

The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:

  • The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
  • The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion…

View original post 471 more words

Read Full Post »

Al Bredenberg at A Thinking Person manages to highlight an interesting news story and criticize the BBC’s punctuation practices at the same time.

A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.” I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch ( … Read More

via A Thinking Person

Read Full Post »

I recently finished reading The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, a fascinating book by Edenics scholar Isaac E. Mozeson.

Edenics is a linguistics project undertaken to study the original human mother tongue called Edenic, the language given to Adam in the garden of Eden. Mozeson is the leader of a group of scholars working on Edenics.

Wikipedia entries related to this idea include “Adamic Language‘” “Proto-World Language,” and “Monogenesis.”

Whereas Mozeson is an independent scholar, Merritt Ruhlen is a more credentialed linguist, a Stanford professor who advocates a monogenetic view of human language. I previously reviewed his book The Origin of Languages: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue — also a fascinating book — see my previous entry, “Ruhlen’s ‘The Origin of Language’ Points to Common Source for All Tongues.”

Mozeson is one of those investigators unlikely to receive much credence from mainstream academia. For one thing, the use of the phrase “intelligent design” in his title is likely to turn away all but the most open-minded of academics.

However, on a more substantive level, one of Mozeson’s key premises flies in the face of conventional linguistic theory, which maintains that words are for the most part arbitrary. Most linguists recognize that humans are innately programmed for language, but they maintain that the words themselves are essentially arbitrary sounds that have arisen and developed over time.

Mozeson, however, asserts that the Edenic program in the human brain naturally inclines humans to assign certain meanings to certain sounds. Humans now speak different languages because of the confusion and dispersion that took place at Babel as describe at Genesis 11:1-9 — go here to see those verses in the King James Version; here you can look them up in the modern New World Translation.

Another departure from mainstream linguistics — although a more subtle departure — is Mozeson’s reconstruction of Edenics by comparison of cognates (similar word forms found in different languages) in many languages at once. Such a method is not unknown in linguistics — this is the kind of method Ruhlen uses, as did his predecessor Joseph Greenberg, also of Stanford.

On page 50, Mozeson points to the obvious cognation of English eye with Hebrew ayin, supported by Chinese yan and Eskimo iye. However, to mainstream scholars any relation between Hebrew and non-semitic languages is anathema. Mozeson writes about such words,

They ought to be called cognates, but linguists would never concede that the English and Hebrew words share a common ancestry.

Admitting such a relationship would take academics in an uncomfortably non-atheistic direction.

Mozeson’s book provides many interesting examples of global cognates and shows their potential relationship to Biblical Hebrew, which he believes is the surviving language closest to the original Edenic. That makes sense, as Noah’s son Shem and other faithful descendants would not have joined in the rebellion at Babel and would not have had their languages confused.

On page 108, Mozeson makes a good case for an Edenic source for the English word market and its cognates in other modern languages: commerce, market, mart, mercantile, mercenary, mercer, merchant, mercury, and merchandise.

Mozeson connects all these cognates with Edenic Mem-Khaf-Resh, meaning to sell.

As another example, he asserts that

The Edenic SHOR (bull) became the Aramaic TOR (bull). This is how Latin and Spanish got words like TAURUS and toro.

While Mozeson’s ideas are interesting and worth considering, I wonder if he is too liberal in defining cognates. Is he cherry-picking?

Mozeson often connects words as cognates even if their consonants appear in a different order.

So, for example, the Edenic for word, Da[V]aR, (Daled-Bhet-Resh in Hebrew), is a permissible cognate to English WORD. Consonants have shifted through a process called metathesis so that D-V-R has become V-R-D (or WoRD).

Maybe calling on metathesis in this manner is not outside the bounds of accepted linguistic methods, but I suspect that Mozeson will be subject to criticism on this front. Critics will say he is playing fast-and-loose with the methods of comparative linguistics.

Regardless of his potential vulnerabilities, Mozeson’s work is intriguing and worthy of consideration. I do have one larger criticism, though — or perhaps it’s more of a question for consideration:

Is Edenics as currently practiced too narrow in scope?

Mozeson’s arguments seem limited to lexical issues — the words themselves and how they were changed among the different human families present at Babel and their descendants.

But should we assume that, when human languages were confused during the late third millennium BCE, only the human lexicon was involved? Could other aspects of human speech have been affected as well — grammar, modality, semantics?

ARK — 24 Oct. 2009

Read Full Post »

An article in NewScientist Thursday alerted me to a recent controversy over the Indus script, a set of symbols associated with the Indus Valley civilization of eastern Pakistan and western India. The Indus valley civilization is dated in the timeframe of 2500 to 1900 BCE, according to writer Ewen Callaway (see “Scholars at odds over mysterious Indus script.”)

The basic controversy is over whether the Indus script really represents a language or is merely a set of religious or political symbols. Advocates on both sides have used computational analysis to support their conclusions.

The viewpoint that Indus script is not a language in part rests on the observation that “most of the inscriptions contain fewer than five characters, few of the characters repeat, and many of the symbols occur very infrequently,” writes Callaway.

This viewpoint is put forward in a 2004 article for the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies by Steve Farmer and colleagues — see “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization.”

Farmer notes that there were other “nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political, and social functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids.” His paper points to evidence “that the Harappans’ lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling large multilinguistic populations.” (The Indus civilization is sometimes called Harappan, referring to one of the key archaeological sites associated with the culture.)

However, the cocksureness of Farmer’s tone (just consider the title of his article, referring to the “collapse” of the opposite viewpoint and his calling it a “myth”) sets off my “expertitis” meter. The readings are high in this case, so I am interested to find recent research that argues in favor of the Indus-Script thesis that in fact “Indus inscriptions were tightly bound to language,” in Farmer’s words.

Finnish professor of Indology Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki analyzes and critiques Farmer’s work in “Study of the Indus Script.” It’s worth noting what he has to say, as his work is a key target of Farmer.

Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington computer scientist, has more recently published research based on use of artificial-intelligence pattern-analysis software to study the Indus script.

A writeup in Wired describes Rao’s findings (see “Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000-Year-Old Mystery“):

[Rao’s team] fed the program sequences of four spoken languages: ancient Sumerian, Sanskrit and Old Tamil, as well as modern English. Then they gave it samples of four non-spoken communication systems: human DNA, Fortran, bacterial protein sequences and an artificial language.

The program calculated the level of order present in each language. Non-spoken languages were either highly ordered, with symbols and structures following each other in unvarying ways, or utterly chaotic. Spoken languages fell in the middle.

When they seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages.

Wikipedia offers some useful articles related to this question of the Indus script — see “Indus script,” “Undeciphered writing systems,” and “Decipherment.”

A refreshingly readable discussion of why decipherment is so hard is available from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope — see his article “How come we can’t decipher the Indus script?” This is the first time I have encountered Cecil Adams, and I am pleased to be able to start following the work of a fellow know-it-all.

AB — 25 April 2009

Read Full Post »