Jun 30 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 8:38 pm

1. Celts to Anglo-Saxons, in light of updated assumptions. Interesting discussion about the two ways people living in a certain place transform into a new ethnicity — whether by replacement of the population, or through assimilation.

2 The first advertising campaign for non-human primates . Researchers are seeing if using sex in advertising targeted tochimpanzees can get them to start eating a flavor of jello that they otherwise don’t like.

3. Could Legally Getting High Reduce the Deficit?. “Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) plan to introduce a bill on Thursday that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana. . . . Miron estimates that the US would be around $88 billion a year better off if drugs were legalized, with $41.3 billion saved on enforcement of drug-related laws and $46.7 billion garnered in tax revenues.”

4. Homemade ‘Mars in a Bottle’ Tortures Bacteria. Scientists have built small habitats designed to mimic Martian surface conditions to see how bacteria cope with such conditions and to discover which species of bacteria could survive on Mars. This will give us a better idea of what to look for when searching for life with future probes sent to Mars.

5. Contradictions in the Bible. There are a lot more even than I expected!

6. The Rewards of Revenge.

The most striking finding, however, was limited to the minds of men. According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a defector get punished, they showed additional activation in reward related areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens. These are essential elements of the dopamine reward pathway, that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished. As the scientists note:

“The findings of enhanced activation in ventral striatum to a signal indicating that a defector is receiving pain are in agreement with the hypothesis that humans derive satisfaction simply from seeing justice administered, even if the instrument of punishment is out of their control.”

7. Who Needs a Moon? “The number of Earth-like extrasolar planets suitable for harboring advanced life could be 10 times higher than has been assumed until now, according to a new modeling study. The finding contradicts the prevailing notion that a terrestrial planet needs a large moon to stabilize the orientation of its axis and, hence, its climate.”

8. Trust and education. People’s levels of trust in others is positively correlated with level of education and with IQ.

9. Easily distracted people may have too much brain . Researchers “found larger than average volumes of grey matter in certain brain regions in those whose attention is readily diverted.”

Jun 23 2011

It’s Getting Better All the Time: Update

Category: death,Evil,goodness,optimismJames @ 10:25 pm

Returning to the subject of my previous post “It’s Getting Better All the Time,” I just wanted to share recent news about how the world is getting better:

1. Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

2. Crime Statistics and The Village. As you can see from this chart, homicide rates in the United States have been consistently falling since the 1650s. Contrary to what you might expect from watching shows like “Little House on the Prairie”, murder rates in the 1870s were higher than in the 1970s. There was a spike in murder rates in the 1960s and 1970s, but murder rates have been declining for many years, and are approaching their pre-spike levels from the 1950s.


Homicide Rates, 1650 to present

Jun 21 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 8:58 pm

1. Pigs could grow human organs in stem cell breakthrough. Scientists have been able to use stem cells created from adult rats and then make mouse embryos grow organs that would be compatible with that adult rat. It is hoped that this accomplishment is the first step to being able to grow new human organs in pigs, so that there would never be organ shortages again.

2. The heritability of feminism. New research indicates that political beliefs are heritable — some of the variation between people’s political beliefs (an average of 32%), appears to be caused by genetic factors. Does this mean that political beliefs which tend to reduce fertility will decrease over time in a population?

3. How Power Corrupts. “The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.”

4. The Brazil-Bolivia border:

Agricultural geneticists have long argued that the area around the railroad route — the Brazil-Bolivia border — was the development ground for peanuts, Brazilian broad beans…, and two species of chili pepper… But in recent years evidence has accumulated that the area was also the domestication site for tobacco, chocolate, peach palm (Bactris gasipaes, a major Amazonian tree crop), and most important, the worldwide staple manioc (Manihot esculenta, also known as cassava or yuca).

5. The OECD Better Life Index. Trying to figure out which OECD country is right for you? Use this handy tool to rank the importance and relative weight of different characteristics and see which country would be the best match for you.

6. Where to live to avoid a natural disaster. Looks like the Pacific Northwest is the place to be.

7. The “law school scam” media bubble. A summary of some of the recent stories in the press about how law school game the rankings and do other underhanded things to attract students.

Jun 20 2011

Consistent and complicated, but still not true

Category: Epistemology,ReasoningJames @ 7:49 pm

The following is from the book Revelations by Jacques Vallee. The book, which was published in 1992, is about UFOs (it debunks many of the strange conspiracy theories held by UFO enthusiasts and discusses some of the more notable UFO hoaxes). In one section, Vallee discusses the Ummo UFO phenomenon in Europe, which lasted for decades and involved people all over Europe and elsewhere receiving letters from unknown authors claiming to be aliens from the planet Ummo.1 To illustrate how the Ummo hoaxers could have created thousands of pages of internally consistent documents describing the purported civilization and science of Ummo, Vallee discusses a case study which illustrates how someone could construct an elaborate, and internally consistent fantasy, delude himself into believing it, and even convince a psychiatrist who was hired to help him overcome his fantasies that the whole thing was true.

The passage has nothing to do with UFOs – I’m quoting it because it is a fascinating illustration about the power of the human mind to create internally consistent fantasy worlds, and about every person’s susceptibility to being fooled by such fantasies. What’s the moral of this post? The human brain is absolutely amazing; it has an almost infinite capacity for invention, and it can construct believable and consistent stories which are completely false. Always be careful about what you believe; a story or idea is not true just because it is complex or internally consistent. How can you evaluate whether something is true? Think critically and carefully. Apply the scientific method, along with the other methods for discovering truth which I discussed in my five-part series on discovering truth.2 Don’t let yourself get sucked in to the point where you let confirmation bias take over such that you only look for confirmatory evidence. And for your already-held beliefs, watch out for confirmation bias – don’t reject evidence which contradicts your view, and always be willing to change your ideas (even if they are deeply held), when the facts don’t match your beliefs.

If we listen to the adepts of UMMO, like Jean Pierre Petit, a major argument against the idea that a single man, or even a small group, could have manufactured the UMMO material resides in the very weight of the documents. How could one person have manufactured the hundreds of reports, some containing hundreds of pages, which comprise the UMMO corpus? What about the maps, the tables, the mathematical system, the formulas, the codes? Clearly, the believers say, what we have here is the product of an entire civilization.

The people who say this have never studied the psychiatric literature. They have never heard of Kirk Allen.

On a sultry June morning in Baltimore a successful psychiatrist named Dr. Robert Lindner received a phone call that would initiate the most remarkable case in his career, a case he would later summarize in his book The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales.

The phone call was from a government physician at a classified installation in New Mexico, an installation where research on the H-bomb was in progress (although Dr. Lindner does not mention the fact). The physician wanted to refer a patient to him. He was a brilliant research scientist in his thirties who was “perfectly normal in every way” except that he seemed to have acquired an amazing amount of detailed information about another world—a world with which he seemed to become increasingly preoccupied to the point of neglecting his work.

When he was asked by his superiors about the drop in the efficiency of his department, Kirk Allen apologized profusely and said he would “try to spend more time on this planet.” It is at that point that the government decided he needed expert help. They would fly the scientist to Baltimore as often as necessary, all expenses paid.

Kirk Allen arrived in Dr. Lindner’s office three days later.

“Any speculations I had had about him as a mad scientist evaporated when I saw him in my office,” writes the physician. “A vigorous-looking man of average height, clear-eyed and blond, his seersucker unwrinkled despite the long trip and the humidity . . . he looked like a junior executive . . . He spoke with just enough diffidence to let me know that the situation he now found himself in was slightly embarrassing.”

During the first session, Dr. Lindner elicited detailed information about his patient’s background and childhood. He learned that Kirk Allen was an avid reader of science-fiction and had somehow become convinced that a series of stories in which the main character had the same name as himself were really parts of his biography! The stories had to do with the faraway world of other planets. It became an obsession with him to complete this biography, to establish the continuity of his life, to resolve the contradictions between various parts of what he called the “record.” He succeeded in doing it when he discovered that he had the ability to travel psychically to the world of the other Kirk Allen.

Dr. Lindner soon realized two things—first, that his patient was utterly mad; second, that his psychosis was life-sustaining and would be very difficult to manage. He requested that Kirk turn over to him the documents on which his research was based.

It is impossible to convey more than a bare impression of Kirk’s records . . . There were, to begin with, about twelve thousand pages of typescript comprising the amended biography of Kirk Allen. This was divided into some 200 chapters and read like fiction. Appended to these pages were approximately 200 more of notes in Kirk’s handwriting, containing corrections necessitated by his more recent “researches,” and a huge bundle of scraps and jottings on envelopes, receipted bills, laundry slips, sheets from memo pads, etc.; these latter were largely incomprehensible since they were written in Kirk’s private shorthand, while some of them were little more than hasty designs or sketches, mathematical equations, or symbolic representations of something or other: each, however, was carefully numbered and lettered with red pencil to indicate where it belonged in the main script.

In addition to this bulky manuscript and its appendages there were:

1. A glossary of names and terms that ran to more than 100 pages.

2. 82 full-color maps carefully drawn to scale, 23 of planetary bodies in four projections, 31 of land masses on these planets, 14 labeled “Kirk Allen’s Expedition to —,” the remainder of cities on the various planets.

3. 61 architectural sketches and elevations, some colored, some drawn only in ink, but all carefully scaled and annotated.

4. Twelve genealogical tables.

5. An eighteen-page description of the galactic system in which Kirk Allen’s home planet was contained, with four astronomical charts, one for each of the seasons, and nine star maps of the skies from observatories on other planets in the system.

6. A 200-page history of the empire Kirk Allen ruled, with a threepage table of dates and names of battles or outstanding historical events.

7. A series of 44 folders containing from two to twenty pages apiece, each dealing with some aspect of the planet . . . typical titles, neatly printed on these folders, were “The Fauna of Srom Olma I,” “The Transportation System of Seraneb,” “Science of Srom,” “Parapsychology of Srom Norbra X,” “The Application of Unified Field Theory and the Mechanics of the Star Drive to Space Travel,” “The Unique Brain Development of the Crystopeds of Srom Norbra X,” “Plant Biology and Genetic Science of Srom Olma I,” and so on.

8. Finally, 306 drawings, some in watercolor, some in chalk, some in crayon, of people, animals, plants, insects, weapons, utensils, machines, articles of clothing, vehicles, instruments, and furniture.

It is a catalog that dwarfs anything in the UMMO literature, anything in Urantia or the other fringe areas of the UFO field. As Dr. Lindner writes:

The reader can imagine for himself my dismay at the sheer bulk of this matter: I do not know if he can appreciate with what misgivings I approached the task of weaning this man from his madness.

The roots of Kirk Allen’s fantasies were evident from the story of his childhood and adolescence. The son of a naval officer who was assigned as governor of a remote Pacific island where they were the only white family, his mother abandoned him to a series of governesses, one of whom seduced him when he was eleven years old before running away with the husband of the island’s only schoolteacher. From then on the boy, who was gifted with unusual intelligence, spent his time reading every book he could find and fantasizing about remote worlds.

Dr. Lindner considered several strategies to try and cure Kirk Allen. He rejected shock therapy as inhumane and extreme. He also rejected the use of hypnosis, a technique he had used often in other situations, for reasons today’s ufologists would do well to consider:

Kirk’s hold on reality was tenuous enough as it was, and I frankly feared to break the thin thread by which his connection with this world was maintained.

Dr. Lindner decided the only alternative was to enter his patient’s fantasy and to try to pry him from the psychosis from that position. By then Kirk Allen had moved to Baltimore. The physician steeped himself in his records and became increasingly fascinated as he worked on them, hour after hour, with Kirk Allen as his mentor. Whenever he would detect some gap in the data, he would “send” his patient to get the missing information psychically. At first this was just a convenient technique for Dr. Lindner—but he became caught in the game and often found himself anxiously awaiting the requested answers.

One day the doctor noticed a major discrepancy in the star maps, which used a scale measured in ecapalim, an Olmayan unit equivalent to a mile and five-sixteenths. They worked on the discrepancy, and Dr. Lindner insisted that Kirk go back to his interplanetary institute to check the original records.

There were several such incidents, in which the therapist sought to displace Kirk’s obsession by sharing it with him. As he did so, however, he found himself increasingly immersed in the fantasy. He actually reversed roles with Kirk, often solving by himself the discrepancies he found in the Olmayan records!

One day when Dr. Lindner was expecting Kirk Allen with special anxiety because he had sent him on a key mission to retrieve more data, he found his patient strangely uninterested in the results. When he queried him eagerly, Kirk shrugged and finally confessed that for the last few weeks he had been lying to the physician.

“I’ve been making it up,” he sputtered, “inventing all that . . . that . . . nonsense!”

“What about the trips?” asked Dr. Lindner with what he describes as a mixture of disappointment and triumph, of concern and relief.

“What trips?” asked Kirk Allen. “Why, it’s been weeks since I gave up that foolishness.”

The patient in this case had continued to pretend that the trips were real for the sake of his therapist, who was now so utterly caught up in a fantasy that was fulfilling a need in his own life.

Kirk Allen returned to his research work with the government, leaving Dr. Lindner with the problem of curing himself. That section of his book is perhaps the most remarkable part of the record:

Until Kirk Allen came into my life I had never doubted my own stability. The aberrations of mind . . . were for others . . . It has been years since I saw Kirk Allen, but I think of him often, and of the days when we roamed the galaxies together.

On long summer nights on Long Island when the sky was filled with stars, Dr. Lindner would look up, smile to himself and whisper: “How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

And I am similarly tempted to ask: “Is there peace in IUMMA? And are the Ummites truly pleased with the transcendental function of OEMII?”3

Don’t read this and think about how you would never fool yourself into believing the fantasies of someone like Kirk Allen, or spend the time creating elaborate fantasies for yourself. While none of us may go as far as Kirk Allen, we are all susceptible to such cognitive mistakes (just look at Dr. Lindner’s eventual mental immersion in the fantasy), and our brains are very good at deluding ourselves so that we don’t even know we’re making such errors in thinking. The first step to overcoming them is to acknowledge that our thinking is fraught with potential for such errors and recognize the limitations of our minds and our knowledge. Next, we should always seek better evidence and information, and be willing to change our ideas, attitudes, and beliefs in response to new information and discoveries.



2 Here are links to the five parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

3 Jacques Vallee, Revelations: Alien contact and Human Deception, pp. 116-121

Jun 14 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 5:11 pm

1. Let Them In: How Brazilians Could Help the U.S. Economy. The United States is losing a lot of tourist money because visa requirements to come here are so onerous. International tourist travel from places like Chile and Brazil is going up astronomically as those countries experience sustained economic growth. But because they are not part of the United States’s “Visa Waiver” program which allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States without a visa, citizens of places like Chile and Brazil must go through a long and rigorous visa application process (the article gives an example of a family from Porto Alegre, Brazil having to schedule visa interviews, which have an average wait time of 141 days and which cost $140 for each family member, after which the family would then need to spend hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and hotels to fly to São Paulo to do the interview). The article quotes numbers from the U.S. Travel Association which indicate that if the United States hadn’t restricted visas after 9/11, the extra tourism would have generated $606 billion for the U.S. economy and 467,000 more jobs.

2. Q&A: Who is H. sapiens really, and how do we know?. Interesting FAQ explaining the latest state of scientific knowledge about human origins and our ancestors’ admixture with archaic human species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

3. The Revolutionary New Birth Control Method for Men. No surgery (just an injection into the vas deferens), and it seems to be reversible. More here at Wikipedia. There was only one unplanned pregnancy out of the 250 men in the trial (because of an improperly administered injection). There is some concern, though, that it could cause kidney damage.

4. ‘Whites suffer more racism than blacks’: Study shows white American people believe they are more discriminated against.”The results showed that while both blacks and whites saw anti-black racism decreasing over the decades, whites saw race relations as a ‘zero sum game’ where they were losing out as blacks ‘gained’ the advantage.”

5. Divorce Rate: It’s Not as High as You Think. This is from 2005, but still interesting.

[S]ince 1980, the two groups [college graduates and non-graduates] have taken diverging paths. Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979.

About 60 percent of all marriages that eventually end in divorce do so within the first 10 years, researchers say. If that continues to hold true, the divorce rate for college graduates who married between 1990 and 1994 would end up at only about 25 percent, compared to well over 50 percent for those without a four-year college degree.

6. Historic Pairing: Shuttle Docked to the ISS. Amazing pictures of the shuttle docked to the International Space Station (here is a picture of the shuttle docked to the Mir Space Station to give some perspective on the stations’ relative sizes).

7. Evolutionary psychology and the left. “[O]pponents of evolution, who were generally older and more conservative, were more likely to endorse” the evolutionary psychology implications about evolution’s effect on human mating behavior (such as that “men are more interested than women in one night stands, men are more interested in attractiveness, and women value good financial prospects in a mate more than men do”). “Interestingly, when half of the survey respondents in the second survey were explicitly told that the evolutionary psychology questions were ‘based on the THEORY OF EVOLUTION, as applied to the fields of psychology and biology’ (actual text from survey), it reduced the level of support from evolution opponents but made no difference to the response of evolution supporters.”

I find it interesting that people who don’t believe in evolution more readily accepted the evolutionary psychologists’ conclusions about evolution’s impact on human behavior than the more liberal believers in evolution. All of us are subject to the problems of confirmation bias — we should all be careful about rejecting ideas just because they disagree with our preconceived notions. In this study, the believers in evolution (the ones who are supposed to be more rational and educated) rejected very reasonable conclusions (which are backed up by evidence), likely because it contradicted their political / moral belief that average differences in men’s and women’s preferences and behavior is a product of culture and not biology.

8. Better brain wiring linked to family genes. “How well our brain functions is largely based on our family’s genetic makeup, according to a University of Melbourne led study. . . . ”

“We found that people differed greatly in terms of how cost-efficient the functioning of their brain networks were, and that over half of these differences could be explained by genes,” said Dr. Fornito.

Across the entire brain, more than half (60%) of the differences between people could be explained by genes. Some of the strongest effects were observed for regions of the prefrontal cortex which play a vital role in planning, strategic thinking, decision-making and memory.

Previous work has shown that people with more efficient brain connections score higher on tests of intelligence, and that brain network cost-efficiency is reduced in people with schizophrenia, particularly in the prefrontal cortex.

Jun 03 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 7:19 pm

1. Ancient Female Ancestors Roamed Far and Wide for Mates. Analysis of the 2 million year old bones of human ancestors indicates that males stayed close to their birth place for their entire lives, whereas females who reached maturity would leave their birth area and join a new group to find a mate.

2. Nerds and the supernatural. Radio preacher Harold Camping recently incorrectly predicted that the rapture and the end of the world would happen on May 21, 2011. How could he have believed the Bible could be used to make such predictions? I like Razib Khan’s exaplanation:

“Harold Camping is a nerd. He has a degree in civil engineering from Berkeley. . . . I have tried to imagine myself, a nerd with a quantitative and analytic bent, existing in a world where the Bible was the Word of God. I can immediately intuit how someone like Harold Camping could arrive at his absurd conclusions! To the nerdy crazy fundamentalism seems eminently reasonable once one accedes to the peculiar propositions of faith. Give a nerd an absurd axiom, and he will infer absurd entailments! Camping did as a nerd is wont to do. Most normal humans don’t have this nerdish momania to create integrated rational wholes, and then project inferences from the system which they’ve constructed. It seems silly and a waste of time. This is why so many conservative Christians easily spouted sage skepticism worthy of James Randi all this week.”

I think he hit it right on. It took me many years of my life to figure out that I shouldn’t expect that “integrated rational wholes” can be derived from metaphysical and religious texts. Just because a religious book makes you feel good, it does not mean that the book is a reliable guide to understanding the objective reality of our world, to understanding cosmology, or to predicting the future.

3. What happens when you let your children have it all their own way? A mother tries an experiment of saying yes to everything her children want for a week. She learns some interesting lessons: that saying “yes” a little more often created some great family moments of fun and bonding, but that it was still necessary to impose some boundaries.

4. Are Associations Between Parental Divorce and Children’s Adjustment Genetically Mediated? An Adoption Study. This is an old study (from 2000), but I thought it was interesting. It is well-known that children with parents who are divorced fare worse in many measures of life outcome than children of intact families. It is a matter of debate, however, whether those poor outcomes are because of genetic or environmental factors. Twin adoption studies have shown that a significant determinant of a person’s probability of getting divorced is genetic (possibly, for example, because of factors such as genes that influence behavior in a negative way), so it is possible that the same genetic factors leading to an increased probability of divorce would be inherited by the couple’s children and lead to other negative life outcomes for the children. It is thus possible that there is no causation between correlation of having parents who divorce and poor life outcomes.

This study compares almost 400 adopted and biological families to try and figure out whether the children in divorced families are negatively impacted by the divorce itself, or by the genes. The authors conclude that “[i]n biological families, children who experienced their parents’ separation by the age of 12 years exhibited higher rates of behavioral problems and substance use, and lower levels of achievement and social adjustment, compared with children whose parents’ marriages remained intact. Similarly, adopted children who experienced their (adoptive) parents’ divorces exhibited elevated levels of behavioral problems and substance use compared with adoptees whose parents did not separate, but there were no differences on achievement and social competence.” It thus appears that the increased rates of behavioral and substance abuse problems among children of divorced parents are caused by environmental factors and not genetics. On the other hand, it looks like the decreased achievement and social competence in children of divorced parents is caused at least in part by genetics, and not only as a result of the divorce.

5. Beware Cancer Med. Increased non-drug spending on cancer treatment actually seems to increase cancer deaths. “The apparent lesson: avoid cancer docs, and especially their non-drug cancer treatments. . . . . That fits with cancer patients living longer when they go to hospice and get no cancer treatment and with randomized trials of cancer screening consistently showing no effect on total mortality.”

6. Why Almost Everything You Hear About Medicine Is Wrong. “[T]he very framework of medical investigation may be off-kilter, leading time and again to findings that are at best unproved and at worst dangerously wrong. The result is a system that leads patients and physicians astray—spurring often costly regimens that won’t help and may even harm you. . . . ‘Positive’ drug trials, which find that a treatment is effective, and ‘negative’ trials, in which a drug fails, take the same amount of time to conduct. ‘But negative trials took an extra two to four years to be published,’ he noticed. ‘Negative results sit in a file drawer, or the trial keeps going in hopes the results turn positive.’ With billions of dollars on the line, companies are loath to declare a new drug ineffective. As a result of the lag in publishing negative studies, patients receive a treatment that is actually ineffective.”

7. Harvard Law School exams from 1871 to 1998.

8. Mars’ Frozen Ocean of Carbon Dioxide. The northern Martian ice cap has 30 times more carbon dioxide than previously thought, enough to double the atmosphere’s density when the planet’s periodic change in tilt (every 100,000 years or so) makes it warm enough in the summer to evaporate the frozen CO2 into a gas. The extra CO2 would be enough to warm the planet up to make it possible for liquid water to exist on the surface of Mars at low elevations (enough for creeks and ponds).

Jun 02 2011

Learning to Speak a Language Correctly and Respectfully

Category: linguistics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:45 pm

I heard a story on NPR last week about Brazil.1 Whenever I hear a news story about Brazil, I get interested for obvious reasons: I am half Brazilian, I lived in Brazil for two years as a young adult, I speak fluent Portuguese, and I minored in Latin American studies in college. But this post isn’t about the subject matter of the NPR story, but rather about some common linguistic mistakes made by the reporter. Whenever the reported said any word in Portuguese, he made a point to not use standard American English pronunciations of the word. But he didn’t use the correct Portuguese pronunciation either. Instead, he pronounced every Portuguese word he said as if it were Spanish. Even though he spoke unaccented English, it was clear to me from hearing his pronunciation of Portugese that he as a native Spanish speaker, and obviously had a poor command (if any) of Portuguese. This was confirmed to me when, at the the end of the report, he signed off with a clearly Hispanic name, Juan Forero. A quick check of his bio revealed that he is originally from Columbia.2

Aside from grating on my ears and stoking my pet peeve with people who assume that Portuguese and Spanish are identical and interchangeable (they’re not, for example, Brazilian Portuguese has a whole slew of vowel sounds not found in Spanish), the reporter’s habit of trying to inject foreign pronunciations into his English was a bad habit that far too many people intentionally adopt as if it were a virtue. I can think of several reasons people develop this practice: 1) national/linguistic pride – some bilingual people think that it is an insult to their native language or culture to adopt foreign pronunciations of words from their native language, even when they are using those words while speaking another language; 2) cultural sensitivity: some people think that, in order to show respect for other languages and cultures, they must pronounce words from a foreign culture or language using a pronunciation correct for a speaker of that foreign language, even when they are using those words while speaking a separate language.

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to incorporate foreign pronunciations into your speech:

Language Learning

This is the biggest reason, in my mind, to avoid mixing foreign pronunciations (or foreign words) into your native language conversation is that it interferes with language learning. My personal experience with many American English speakers in Brazil who were learning Portuguese was that the people who never learned to speak Portuguese very well would usually quickly develop two bad habits: 1) they would mix up words from the two languages (for example, getting in the habit of using Portuguese nouns when speaking English, even though there was a perfectly good English equivalent available – saying arroz e feijão to refer to Brazilian-style rice and beans, for example), and 2) when they were speaking English, they would try to pronounce Portuguese words with a Portuguese accent, and when they were speaking Portuguese, they would pronounce English words with their native American accents.

The pattern of poor language learners not separating the two languages became clearest to me when I met one particular American who could speak Portuguese with a near-native level of fluency (most Brazilians couldn’t tell that he was American); whenever this guy would speak English, though, he would pronounce any occasional Portuguese word in the conversation (such as proper nouns or words that didn’t have an English equivalent) with the worst American accent you could imagine. I finally realized that part of his ability to speak Portuguese so well came from strictly separating the two languages in his mind.

The people who were constantly mixing pronunciations almost never gained a very high level of Portuguese language fluency. They spoke Portuguese with thick American accents, generally had a poor vocabulary, and were frequently unable to fully express themselves in Portuguese. My theory is that their mixing of languages interfered with their brain’s ability to learn and fully integrate the new pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar.

This first reason for not mixing languages, however, doesn’t apply to people who learned to speak multiple languages as a child – children’s brains have an amazing capacity to learn languages that is lost with the start of adolescence.

Efficient Communication

The purpose of language is to communicate. A speaker who uses foreign pronunciations from a language that is not understood by the speaker’s listeners is defeating the whole purpose of using language. When someone uses foreign pronunciations, they just cause decreased understanding and comprehension; it just increases the risk that a listener won’t understand the speaker’s words. It can also make the listener afraid to talk to you. My mom (who has lived in the United States since before I was born) used to pronounce her first name with the correct Brazilian pronunciation (and would sometimes correct people when they messed up). It just made people afraid to talk to my mom or to say her name, because they were afraid of “getting it wrong.” Years ago, she switched to using an anglicized pronunciation of her name, and it has made life easier for her and everyone else too.

Respect for Listeners

If you’re speaking one language to a group of people, switching into another language not understood by your listeners shows a lack of respect and cultural sensitivity for your listeners. It is a form of cultural and linguistic imperialism, demonstrating disdain for the language you are speaking, and trying to impose new cultural and linguistic norms on your listeners without their consent.

It Leads to Errors

Often, people who try to adopt foreign pronunciations get it terribly wrong. Juan Forero’s errors in rhat NPR story are a perfect example. Alex Trebek from from the TV game show Jeopardy is another – he tries to pronounce Portuguese words correctly, but ends up with some weird pseudo-French pronunciation that is completely wrong. Juan Forero’s and Alex Trebek’s mistakes are worse than just using an anglicized pronunciation. By giving listeners the wrong idea about how those words are pronounced, their mispronunciations actually perpetuate mistakes and cultural misunderstanding.