Friday, December 31, 2010

Ring out the old...

It's New Year's Eve.  Here in northern Florida, we finally had a northern Florida type day, sunny with temps at or near 70.  This provided the excuse for a five-mile walk through the Julington-Durbin Preserve with our little terrier, Tinker Belle.  The only hitch was that about ten minutes into the walk, I started having those nagging doubts about whether I locked the car up or not, so we walked to where I could check with the remote. It was reassuring to hear the beep of the alarm.

Even on the last day of 2010, some Fall colors linger here, and the subdued reds and browns of the deciduous trees make a nice contrast with the always-green evergreens, as you can see in these photos. The trails itself mostly winds over and around a prehistoric sand dune, at times skirting cypress swamp.  There are relatively open areas, and there is also pretty thick forest.

We see, from time to time, deer, raccoons, possums, armadillos, squirrels of course, and various birds including hawks, crows, pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and smaller modern dinosaurs that I can't identify.  Reptiles are my strength, and we've seen, in warmer weather, gopher tortoises, terrapins, box turtles, yellow and red rat snakes, black racers, and even a water moccassin down in the swamp.  The ranger says there are lots of pygmy rattlers, but in all my miles of walking this place I have yet to see one.  I haven't seen the family of bobcats that are said to reside here, either.

There's one place in the woods where people have left a couple of strange items.  One is what looks like an old trap, large enough for a bear but with the trap door rusted open.

Another is what appears to be a bath tub, accumulating leaves and whatnot which has gradually provided sufficient organic material so that now a small tree is growing in it.

Anyways, this walk was a nice way to end the year.  It also provided me with time to think about how the year went, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  First, the Good:
  • We had several opportunities (including now at the end of the year) to visit with our son and his new family, which includes our grandson Gabriel, who turned two yesterday. Sometimes, he's a Terrible Two, but mostly he's a Terrific Two.
  • Our daughter, the offspring that inherited my passion for critters, successfully completed her first semester of veterinary school, and she too is home for the holidays.  She's studying in the Caribbean, and her semester began with a hurricane, but things went ok after that.
  • In August Willy and I got to revisit the place where we were married, Barbados, 36 and counting years ago.  We had an excellent time, enhanced by our attendance at the conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, a group that includes so many positively marvelous people who are both fun and intellectually stimulating to interact with.
The Bad?
  • By returning control of the House to Rethuglicans and reducing the Democrats' majority in the Senate, Americans once again proved to the world that they are the stupidest, most gullible, most easily manipulated voters on the Planet, perhaps in the Galaxy, if not the Universe.
  • Our President, questing ever for "bipartisanship" and "consensus," did not win for us national health care, a living minimum wage, or free education through university. Instead, he allowed viciously mean-spirited Republicans to dictate the terms of engagement at every turn, and in the end what we got was an ever-widening gap between the wealthiest 1 or 2 percent of the country and all the rest. I'm not saying he didn't get us anything at all, but it has been disappointing to say the least.
  • Our President upped the ante on the GW Bush administration by expanding a hopeless and idiotic "war on terror" in Afghanistan, so that now Afghanistan is really Obama's War.  And it's stupid.  And every US military person who is injured or dies in this Kafkaesque nightmare is a sacrificial lamb on the altar of our addiction to "war."
  • The increasing stranglehold of the corporatist/capitalist "business" model on higher education is most upsetting. Professors at universities are treated, now, like stock persons at Barnes & Noble, or Books-a-Million.  We are "evaluated" by our students, who are notoriously unqualified for this task.  And the students themselves have devolved. I started out teaching high school and middle school in 1969. When I came to UNF in 1989, the students were mature, eager to learn, happy to be in a classroom. Now, 22 years later, I feel like I'm back in middle school. It may take an entire semester to convince some of them that yes, the notes they take in class are important, and no, I am not going to provide them with a "study guide" for the test. [Disclaimer: Not all our students are like this, obviously; we have many great students, especially in our Anthropology Program.  But the general feeling, that the quality of intellectual life is going down, remains. Added 1/1/11 at 6:15 pm.]
The Ugly? 
  • The following people, listed in no particular order, are walking around, free to go pretty much where they want, with little likelihood that they will ever pay for the crimes they have committed on ourselves and many, many others who share the world with us: Henry Kissinger; George W. Bush; Dick Cheney; Richard Pearle; William Kristol; Donald Rumsfeld;  Condoleeza Rice; Karl Rove; The Koch Brothers; John McCain; Etc.
  • The following people are dead, but they should be exhumed, placed on trial, and postemptively hanged at The Hague for what they did to us and others in the world:  Richard Nixon;  Ronald Reagan; Augusto Pinochet; Etc.
So, I have mixed feelings about 2010.  Most of the non-good feelings go away when I'm with my grandson, though.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why anthropologists are special

Yeah, I know, I've posted a lot of cartoons and such lately but hey...  And by the way, it's called participant observation.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Science is not that hard

There's a lot of discussion, some reasonable, other not so much, about the AAA Executive Board's decision to drop "science" from its mission statement.  There's a lot of history behind, especially the conflict between the (sometimes legitimate) postmodernist critique of science.  But that's not what this post is about.  This is about the nature of science.

Science reflects, I think, an attitude, a skeptical attitude, toward the world.  The goal of science, as expressed by Jim Lett* and with which I wholeheartedly agree is that:
Science is an objective, logical, and systematic technique for acquiring synthetic propositional knowledge.

The best way to illustrate this is probably with an example.  Every semester in linguistics I start out by presenting students with a little piece of data from Aymara:
[utama]    'your house'
I then ask them what they can tell me about Aymara from this data. They try heroically, but in the end we have to agree that it's not much. I ask them what do we need, and they say "more data." So I give them:
[yapusa]      'our field'
Does this help? No. Why not? Because while it is more data, but it's not evidence; there's no contrast, and therefore no information.  We need evidence that produces a contrast. Eventually someone gets the idea to ask how Aymara says 'our house':
[utasa]     'our house'
Now we have contrast, because while both items contain 'house', one has 'your' and the other has 'our'.  We're on our way. We can create some hypotheses:
[uta]     'house'
[yapu'   'field'
[-ma]    'your'
[-sa]     'our]
As we collect more data/evidence, they discover that [utaxa] can also mean 'our house'. We revise our hypotheses to show that [-sa] is first person plural inclusive (yours and mine) while [-xa] is exclusive (mine or ours, but not yours). At some point, they usually ask for 'his house':
[utapa]     'his house'
And we then have the hypothesis that [-pa] means 'his'.  This is quickly demolished, however, as they continue to discover that [utapa] also may mean 'her house' or 'their house'.  So, we have to revise our hypothesis about [-pa], which turns out to be 'her/his/their', i.e. 'third person', with no number or sex-based gender specified (Human gender is, however).

Eventually, we can take these hypotheses and construct a theory (grammar) of Aymara possession, which could look something like this:

Aymara personal possession can be explained using the categories + Human, + First Person, +Second Person:
[-xa]     +Human, +First Person, -Second Person 'my or our, not your'
[-ma]    +Human, -First Person, +Second Person  'your, not my'
[-sa]     +Human, +First Person, +Second Person  'your and my'
[-pa]    +Human, -First Person, -Second Person  'not your or my (her/his their)'
This set of interconnected hypotheses constitutes what scientists would call a theory (linguists would call it a grammar) of Aymara personal possession, which can be united with a slightly larger theory (grammar) of Aymara personal reference.  This is what "science" does.

I suspect that for some people this doesn't look much like science, because we didn't need a lab, white coats, Bunsen burners and flasks, or intricate technology of any kind other than ourselves, and we didn't apply any quantitative measures. But it is science, because it proceeds from empirical data through evidence and hypotheses to theory. And it's objective (I didn't just dream it up, someone else can collect the same data) as well as self-correcting. There's even room for experimentation (can I say [yapuma], and if so what does it mean?).

In other words, science is more of attitude toward the world than anything else.  And it's not that mysterious or difficult, anyone can "do science."

Lett, James.  Science, Reason, and Anthropology: A Guide to Critical Thinking.  Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Word meanings and other relations

Most people who survive the US educational system know a little bit about what linguists call nyms. Nyms are sets of meaning relations that words have with each other.

For example, everybody's heard of synonyms and antonyms (we'll come back to antonyms a bit later).  Synonyms are words that supposedly have the same meaning, like couch and sofa, or big and large.  I say supposedly, though, because true synonyms are pretty rare.  I suppose couch and sofa work ok, but check out these phrases:
my big brother
my large brother
Still think big and large are synonyms?  Try the same experiment with little and small.

There are some nyms, though, that most people haven't heard about, for example:
Hyponyms.  These are kinds of something, as in terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd, which are kinds of dogs, which makes terrier, chihuahua, and German shepherd hyponyms of dog.
Metonyms.  We use these when we refer to a whole something by naming one of its parts.  My favorite is suits, as in look like you're busy, the suits are coming.  Here suits is a metonym for the people who wear business suits and are in charge, the bosses.
And again:
Partonyms (aka meronyms).  These are parts of something:  head, ear, leg, and tail are parts of a dog, so they are partonyms.
And one more:
Retronyms.  These show up when we have to specify something's older form because the newer one has become the default.  Acoustic guitar is a retronym; before there were electric guitars, all guitars were acoustic and if you spelled it out you were being redundant.  Straight razor is probably another.
Before we get to antonyms, I might mention two other relations between words, one of which most people know, and the other maybe a bit less known:

Homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different meanings: led and leadsweet and suitefeet and feat.
Homographs. These are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently and with different meanings.  For example, dove (the bird) and dove (past tense of dive).
And now, at last, antonyms. Antonyms are supposed to be opposites, but it turns out it's a little more complicated than that; there are several flavors of antonyms:
Gradable antonyms. These are opposites that have intermediate forms or grades in between. For example, something doesn't have to be either hot or cold, it can be warm, lukewarm, tepid, cool, chilly, etc.
Nongradable (or complementary) antonyms.  Unlike gradable antonyms, these have to be one or the other: single or marrieddead or alive. There's nothing in between.
Converse antonyms.  These antonyms entail each other; you can't be a member of the pair unless the other member also exists:  wife and husbandparent and childteacher and student.  Can't have one without the other.
It's this last set of antonyms that's illustrated in the photo.  Grampa Ron and Grandson Gabriel: converse antonyms.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hurricane Anti-Science hits New Orleans

The American Anthropological Association, to which I belong, held its annual convention last week in New Orleans. I was unable to attend, and I may just not bother any more, if what was proposed at those meetings comes to pass.

Anthropologist Peter Wood, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports that the AAA Executive Board is proposing a new mission statement that deletes the term "science" and replaces it with "public understanding,"  as in this marked up paragraph:
Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research; The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. and its use to solve human problems.
Note that they have also deleted the term "ethnological," which has always referred to the comparative study of human cultures with the goal of developing broad general theories about Human Culture.

This is a disturbing development for a discipline that has, since the days of Franz Boas, the founder of American academic anthropology, seen itself as linking the sciences and humanities to gain the broadest and deepest knowledge of what humans are, where they came from, and so on.  But it's not entirely unexpected, as for the last several decades people who call themselves "postmodernists" and "interpretivists" have gradually taken over the field, bringing with them a rejection of the empirically based, objective, systematic, logical, and rational methodologies developed by Boas and those who followed him.

One of the most dangerously bogus claims that these folks have made is that science cannot help sort out immoral from moral aspects of cultures.  This is wrong, because we need good, empirically based, objective knowledge if we want to make valid assertions about who is doing what to whom, to what ends, and at what cost.  Fuzzy-minded "interpretations" of, say, female genital mutilation may be useful and even necessary, but if all knowledge is contingent then any claims we make about the harm this does can always be contested and anthropologists become, essentially, over-educated journalists.

I have a feeling I may be writing more about this...