Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Moving past the facts

Because we all need something more to be pessimistic about regarding the incoming administration's choices for leadership roles, we have: a nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services of an anti-LGBT ideologue who sided with BP when the Deepwater Horizon well blew out, fouling the Gulf of Mexico with 210 million gallons of crude oil.  He referred to the White House's drive to secure funds to recompense businesses and homeowners whose property was damaged by the spill a "Chicago-style political shakedown."  Worse still, considering the job he's been nominated for, he belongs to a group that is not only virulently anti-vaxx, but believes that President Obama used hypnosis and mind-control techniques to win the 2008 and 2012 elections.

It's hard to imagine a worse choice for HHS than Tom Price.  (Yes, I know, I've been saying that sort of thing a lot lately.  Each time I think, "Okay, that's the worst choice I've heard yet," the bar keeps getting raised.)  Dana Liebelson of Huffington Post writes:
Over the years, Price co-sponsored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  He voted against a bill that banned employers from discriminating against gay people and a bill that fought anti-gay hate crimes.  He called the Obama administration’s guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, “absurd.” 
Price went out of his way to back Kelvin Cochran, an Atlanta fire chief who was terminated in January 2015 after employees received copies of his self-published book, which equated homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality.  The city’s mayor claimed Cochran was fired for his “judgment and management.”  But Price, along with five other Georgia lawmakers, signed onto a letter asking the mayor to reinstate him.
Price belongs to the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, which sounds pretty innocuous, but is a fringe group whose beliefs border on lunacy.  Over at Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer writes:
Yet despite the lab coats and the official-sounding name, the docs of the AAPS are hardly part of mainstream medical society.  Think Glenn Beck with an MD.  The group (which did not return calls for comment for this story) has been around since 1943.  Some of its former leaders were John Birchers, and its political philosophy comes straight out of Ayn Rand.  Its general counsel is Andrew Schlafly, son of the legendary conservative activist Phyllis.  The AAPS statement of principles declares that it is “evil” and “immoral” for physicians to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, and its journal is a repository for quackery.  Its website features claims that tobacco taxes harm public health and electronic medical records are a form of “data control” like that employed by the East German secret police.  An article on the AAPS website speculated that Barack Obama may have won the presidency by hypnotizing voters, especially cohorts known to be susceptible to “neurolinguistic programming”—that is, according to the writer, young people, educated people, and possibly Jews.
Of course, I suppose this is the kind of thing you get when you have a President-elect whose spokespeople think -- and this is close to a direct quote -- "there's no such thing as facts."  Trump spokesperson Scottie Nell Hughes, who appeared three days ago on the Diane Rehm Show, made the following astonishing statement when asked about the President-elect's penchant for making statements that are outright lies (and I'm including her entire statement, so you can see that I didn't take it out of context):
Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion.  And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true.  And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. 
There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.  And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth.  When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.  Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.
No.  No, no, no.  For fuck's sake, there are facts, and they matter.  When Trump claims that there were "millions of illegal votes" that cost him the popular vote, it is simply untrue.  So are his statements that there was "serious voter fraud" in Virginia, California, and New Hampshire -- coincidentally, all states where he lost.  So was his claim that President Obama "screamed at a protester" at a Clinton rally.  So was his claim that "14% of resident non-citizens are registered to vote."  So was his statement that under Hillary Clinton, the State Department had six billion dollars "lost or stolen."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

These are not ideas or opinions.  These are statements that are demonstrably false, and that since he continues to defend them even after they were debunked, are actual outright lies.  Despite what Ms. Hughes claims, there is no such thing as a statement that is truth for "a large part of the population" and false for the rest of us.

The problem is, once you start to doubt the facts -- hell, to doubt that facts exist -- you can be convinced of literally anything.  You are set up to fall for any sufficiently convincing demagogue who makes statements that "seem reasonable," by which I mean "conform to your preconceived notions."  You are set up to buy that vaccines don't work, that LGBT individuals are more likely to be pedophiles, that Obama hypnotized people into voting for him, and that the people who live along the Gulf Coast deserve to pay for the damage of an oil spill from a multi-million dollar petroleum corporation out of their own pockets.

You are also, apparently, set up to believe that a candidate whose platform was "Drain the Swamp" is still living up to his word when every single leadership appointee he picks is either a donor or an establishment insider -- for example, the wife of a prominent conservative senator (Secretary of Transportation), a hedge fund manager for Goldman-Sachs (Secretary of the Treasury), a billionaire investor nicknamed "the king of bankruptcy" (Secretary of Commerce), a long-time senator with distinct racist leanings (Attorney General), and a pro-privatization multi-millionaire with zero experience (Secretary of Education).

The whole thing is profoundly terrifying, mostly because it's so hard to combat.  Once you've adopted this viewpoint -- that facts don't matter, or that facts are what you say they are -- you're stuck, and no amount of evidence will persuade you.  And after that, scary things can happen.  As Voltaire put it: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Impact coverup

Over the last few weeks, with the sudden explosion of anger, partisan politics, and fake news, I fear we are moving into a period where our actions are no longer governed by facts, but by kneejerk reactions to media who are telling people what they want to hear and covering up what they'd prefer we don't know.

And of course, once such a tendency becomes widespread, there arise people who will deliberately and cynically engage in this kind of thing in order to manipulate what information gets out to the public.  As a particularly egregious example of this, look at the Environmental Protection Agency's last report on the danger of hydrofracking to drinking water.

The report, which was issued in June 2015, was revealed two days ago to have amendments that were made immediately before release, thus preventing anyone who worked on it from having the opportunity to fix them.  These amendments did only one thing: they downplayed the risks of fracking.  The summary concluded that fracking did not have "widespread systemic impacts" on drinking water, despite there being 250 documented cases of drinking water contamination from fracking -- in the state of Pennsylvania alone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But such a result runs against the agenda of using natural gas as a replacement for coal.  You even hear this from the pro-renewables folks; gas, they say (correctly) is cleaner burning than coal, and could provide a stopgap bridge between coal and renewables like wind and solar.  This, however, looks at only one feature of natural gas as a resource -- its capacity for creating air pollution -- conveniently ignoring the potential problems from gas extraction, especially by fracking.

And of course, it also pretends that anthropogenic climate change doesn't exist, that it's safe for the long-term habitability of the planet to go on using fossil fuels, despite the fact that scientists have concluded that to do anything substantive about climate change would require immediate drastic cutbacks on fossil fuel use now, stopgaps be damned.

Things are only set to get worse under the new administration, which has pledged to return us to coal use.  "Clean coal" (there's no such thing) was one of Donald Trump's clarion calls in his stump speeches, which was music to the ears of people in West Virginia and Pennsylvania who have seen widespread job losses as coal mining and processing jobs have been lost.  (Not to downplay the economic devastation in these communities; clearly we have done a piss-poor job of making sure that lost jobs and crumbling infrastructure are replaced by sustainable employment.  But returning to coal mining and burning is not the way to do it, for multiple rather pressing reasons.)

Michael Halperin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is one of the people that uncovered the changes to the EPA document, was grim about the future.  "Given the names that are circulating for key positions in the Trump administration, who are oil and gas industry insiders and lobbyists," Halperin said, "I’m very concerned that science that is critical to protecting public health and safety will be more vulnerable to spin and suppression."

So am I, Dr. Halperin.  A lot of us are worried, given the incoming administration's outspoken support for weakening environmentally-based restrictive laws such as the Clean Power Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, not to mention suggestions that the handover of the EPA to Myron Ebell (who referred to climate scientists and their supporters as "climate criminals") might be a prelude to dismantling it altogether.  We seem poised to cede unprecedented power to the oil lobby and anti-environmentalists, with potentially devastating consequences not only to our own ecosystems, but the whole Earth's.

So the coverup of the truth about fracking and drinking water is only the tip of the iceberg.  We're being steered to believe that a business as usual (or worse, a "drill, baby, drill") approach to fossil fuel use is the way to go, despite incontrovertible evidence that such a policy amounts to a slow-motion train wreck -- and the media is the one with its hands on the steering wheel.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Accidentally active

In today's contribution from the Unintentional Irony Department, we have: a New Jersey pharmaceuticals company has issued a recall of some homeopathic "remedies" last week because they contain actual active ingredients.

I wish I was kidding about this. "CVS Homeopathic Infants' Teething Tablets", "Kids Relief Homeopathic Ear Relief Oral Liquid" and "CVS Homeopathic Kids' Ear Relief Liquid," all produced by Raritan Pharmaceuticals and marketed nationwide, are being recalled because they contain "varying levels of belladonna," better known as deadly nightshade.

"The recall is a precautionary action," said Sushant Pradhan, a Raritan Pharmaceuticals representative. "The products contain only about a nanogram of belladonna, which is not toxic to anybody."

But wait a minute.  I thought the whole point of homeopathy was that the less of the original ingredients were, the more potent it becomes.  In that case, shouldn't a nanogram be a fatal dose?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In any case, the company wants everyone to know that there haven't been any reports of adverse effects, that the recall was purely to prevent any problems.  And the most amusing thing about all of this is that it's not the first time it's happened; two years ago, a different company had to recall some homeopathic products that were labeled "Penicillum" because they actually contained Penicillum, the mold that produces penicillin, and there was a chance a person with a penicillin allergy could have a reaction, instead of simply consuming a sugar pill, which was apparently their intent.

What pisses me off about all of this is the kid-gloves approach that CNN used in its report (linked above).  Here's an actual quote:
Pradhan acknowledged that there can be a wide range of belladonna levels across homeopathic treatments outside of the recalled products.  Belladonna is used in several alternative medicines: it can be found in homeopathic eye drops and as a cure for upset stomach, he said. 
"This is not your typical medicine," and homeopathic treatments should be used with caution, Pradhan said.  People who use homeopathic treatments may be seeking a healthier, more natural remedy than with modern medicine, he explained, but alternative cures risk being less regulated than standard medications.
No, this is "not your typical medicine" because it's not a medicine at all.  It's a completely useless hyper-diluted bottle of water or sugar pills.  So they may be "seeking a healthier, more natural remedy," but what they're getting is completely worthless except insofar as it might trigger the placebo effect.

Appalling, then, that places like CVS still stock the stuff.  Taking homeopathic "remedies" can stop people from seeking medical care when they need it, and the profit motive still keeps it on the shelves.  (And people accuse "Big Pharma" of being motivated by money.)  If you doubt that homeopathic "remedies" are a fraud and cause damage, take a look at the site What's the Harm?, that documents 437 cases (and counting) of people who have been seriously injured or killed by taking homeopathic "remedies" instead of seeking competent medical attention.

So this started out being funny, and ended up being not so funny after all.  In any case, if the CNN story doesn't put people on notice that they're been hoodwinked, hopefully What's the Harm? will.  I live in hope that the public will start making decisions based on science, facts, and rationality rather than superstitious hocus-pocus, but it's evident from this that we still have a ways to go.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Educating more than the sheep

I have had frequent cause to bemoan the fact that we in the educational establishment are teaching 21st century students using a 19th century model.

Let me explain what I mean.  Back in the 19th and early 20th century, it was critical for a well-educated person to know lots of facts.  If you were conversing with a doctor about your health, and you didn't know the names of basic human organs and tissues, you were likely to be entirely lost, and unless you had a medical text handy, there was no way to figure it all out.  On a less dire level, even when I was a kid (1960s and 70s) if you didn't know something -- perhaps even a simple fact, like what is the name of the cellular structure that provides cells with energy -- you had to go and look it up in an encyclopedia or textbook, if you were lucky enough to own them.  Failing that, you took a lengthy trip to a library to see if you could dig it up.

Or you just decided that it wasn't worth the time and stopped worrying about it.

(Nota bene: it's the mitochondria.)

Now?  Most students have access either to cellphones or to other internet-connective devices.  Access to facts and terminology is trivial.  Sometimes a student will ask me something I don't know the answer to -- such as yesterday, when someone wanted to know the gestation period of a sheep -- and within seconds, answers are being shouted out from all over the room.

(Nota bene: it's 152 days.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Far more important than simple facts are two things, one of which is taught less often than mere terminology, and the other of which is hardly taught at all.  The more common one is process.  Not just the name "mitochondria," but how it goes about breaking down glucose to release energy for cellular function.  Not just the names of Mendel's four laws of genetics, but why they work (and why there are cases where they don't -- thus, "non-Mendelian inheritance").

Process, though, is hard to teach.  It requires not only that the teacher thoroughly understand it, but that (s)he finds ways to make the subject accessible to students.  It's much easier simply to teach laundry lists of disconnected facts and terms -- but I would question if such a thing is actually "education."

Teaching process, though, is downright common when compared to the other more important skill, which is how to tell false claims from true ones.  Okay, fine, you can look something up on your cellphone, tell us the gestation period of a sheep in five seconds flat.  How do you know if it's right?  How could you tell if it were false?  What does it mean if the source of the information has a bias or an agenda -- admittedly unlikely in the case of pregnant sheep, but a huge deal with respect to science, current events, or politics?

The sad truth that today's students are not being taught to sift fact from fiction was highlighted by a study released last week by some researchers at Stanford University that came to the rather horrifying conclusion that middle, high school, and college students, when presented with various combinations of news articles, opinions, outright falsehoods, biased stories, "sponsored content" (i.e., advertisements), and unsupported claims, couldn't tell one from the other.  Across the board, students scored very poorly on their ability to question source validity, discern bias, and tell real news from fake news.

"Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there," said Sam Wineburg, lead author of the study.  "Our work shows the opposite... What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking.  And we really can't blame young people because we've never taught them to do otherwise."

To combat this, however, would take a major overhaul of the way we teach.  Unlikely, given the increasing reliance on easy-to-measure "learning standards" -- most of which are taught and assessed using shallow, vocabulary-based factoids, not deep understanding (which is hard to quantify, and therefore to the policy wonks at the state and federal Departments of Education, doesn't seem to matter).  Couple this with the ongoing slicing of funding from public schools, and you can easily see why there's a significant incentive to keep doing things the old way.

But as the study by Wineburg et al. shows, what we're doing is inadequate for preparing young people to be smart consumers of media in the 21st century.  It's no wonder "fake news" has gotten such traction; the consumers can't tell it from the real thing.  Unsurprising, too, that our tendency to place ourselves in echo chambers where we only hear opinions we already believed, and therefore are unlikely to question them, makes for increasing political polarization and people making decisions based on what they think they understand rather than the actual facts.

If this is going to change, we'll need a bottom-up revamping of how teaching is done, and a rethinking of what it means to educate children in the 21st century.  Otherwise, we'll fall victim to the old adage -- "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Defending science vs. defunding science

I keep wanting to bring you some good news, honestly I do.  But lately all I've seen is more reason to fuel my inner pessimist.

The latest assault on any Pollyannas that are still floating around comes from Bob Walker, senior adviser to President-elect Trump, who has stated the incoming administration's intent to defund NASA's Earth Sciences Division.  In an interview with The Guardian, Walker said:
NASA’s Earth Science Division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space, with the president-elect having set a goal during the campaign to explore the entire solar system by the end of the century.
Which might, on first glance, not sound that bad, just a defunding of one program in favor of another...  Until you realize that the Earth Sciences Division is the branch of NASA that is studying climate change.

Then, if you're like me, you have an "aha" moment.

Walker went on to say:
My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing NASA programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies.  I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.  Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.
In other words, the climate scientists have not come to the conclusion the President-elect and his advisers want, so time to pull funding from the bastards and hand the money to agencies that will come to the politically expedient conclusions.

And who, exactly, is at fault for "politicizing" climate science?  It certainly isn't the climate scientists themselves, who are simply studying the data itself (i.e., the facts) and would be much happier if the politicians and petroleum lobby would just butt the hell out.  It's legislators like James "Senator Snowball" Inhofe and Lamar "Harass 'Em Till They Give Up" Smith.  And, it must be said, the President-elect himself, who went on record as saying that climate change was a "hoax perpetrated by the Chinese."

Hell, climate change denial is a part of the Republican Party platform.  They have received millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry to finance a disinformation program, all too similar to the one waged against the medical establishment by the tobacco industry to weaken the public perception of the connection between smoking and cancer.

Oh, but do go on about how the nasty liberals and crooked climate scientists are the ones who politicized this.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy was unequivocal about what a terrible move this is:
If this slashing of NASA Earth science comes to pass, it will be a disaster for humanity.  This is no exaggeration: NASA is the leading agency in studying the effects of global warming on the planet, in measuring the changes in our atmosphere, our oceans, the weather, and yes, the climate as temperatures increase.  They have a fleet of spacecraft observing the Earth, and plans for more to better understand our environment.  That’s all on the chopping block now.
Equally strong were the words from Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research:
It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era. It would be extremely short sighted...  We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space.  Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life.  Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.
Interesting that all of this is taking place during a year when there has been record heat and drought and a record low in the Arctic sea ice.  Interesting, too, that the military industrial complex has no problems whatsoever in accepting this "politicized science;" this summer a top military advisory board stated that climate change was a "threat to national security" and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report was a "clarion call to action."

So there you have it.  Another reason for weeping into your coffee, at least if you have respect for science and give a damn about the long-term habitability of the Earth.  Me, I'm just apprehensive about what I'm going to find out when I read the news tomorrow.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The end of the social experiment

In case I needed another reason to be glad that I'm only a few years from retirement, a few days ago President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to the post of Secretary of Education.

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of photographer Keith A. Almli and the Wikimedia Commons]

It would be hard to find a less qualified person.  It is debatable whether DeVos has ever set foot in a public school.  She did not attend one as a child, nor did she send her own children there.  She does not have a degree in education, nor has she ever taught, even in a private school.  Her sole connection to schools is her near-rabid support of vouchers, which would funnel money away from public schools and into private (including religious) schools.

It's worse, however, than a simple lack of qualifications.  The Acton Institute, where DeVos is a board member, recently published a piece called "Bring Back Child Labor: Work is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle" which included passages like the following:
Operating out of a justified fear of the harsh excesses of “harder times,” we have allowed our cultural attitudes to swing too far in the opposite direction, distorting work as a “necessary obligation of adulthood,” a gift too dangerous for kids.  Working from these same distorted attitudes, the Washington Post recently published what it described as a “haunting” photo montage of child laborers from America’s rougher past. 
The photos surely point to times of extreme lack, of stress and pain.  But as Jeffrey Tucker rightly detects, they also represent the faces of those who are actively building enterprises and cities, using their gifts to serve their communities, and setting the foundation of a flourishing nation, in turn.
The author, Joseph Sunde, was the recipient of a firestorm of criticism over the article, so he changed the title to remove the "Bring Back Child Labor" part, and appended the following disclaimer:
Given the recent attention drawn to this post, permit me to clarify that I do NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor, nor do I support sending our children back into the coal mines or other high-risk jobs, nor do I support getting rid of mandatory education at elementary and middle-school ages.
No?  So what does "Bring Back Child Labor" mean?

What is the most maddening about all of this is that the majority of students I teach do work, and I see the stress that they deal with trying to juggle school, homework, job, extracurricular activities, and family obligations.  The idea that kids today are lazy whiners who need a return to some 1920s-style discipline is a convenient falsehood for those who want to gut the public school system.

DeVos and the Acton Institute are deeply invested in what amounts to defunding public education.  They focused for a time on Michigan, trying to push a "school choice" agenda there (an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful), showering huge amounts of money and gifts on Republican candidates in exchange for their support.  Detroit Free Press writer Stephen Henderson denounced DeVos as engaging in "a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July," adding that "in Michigan, children’s education has been squandered in the name of a reform “experiment," driven by ideologies that put faith in markets, alone, as the best arbiters of quality, and so heavily financed by donors like the DeVos clan that nearly no other voices get heard in the educational conversation."

Michigan Board of Education President John Austin, in an apt if somewhat mixed metaphor, said that "It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren...  DeVos’s agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model."

And if you needed anything else, there's also a good likelihood that she's an Intelligent Design Creationist.  She grew up in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church; her parents, Edgar and Elsa (Brockhuizen) Prince, are major donors to the Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council;  and her husband, Dick DeVos, came right out with "teach the controversy" bullshit when he was running for Michigan governor in 2006:
I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design — that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory — that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.
By the same argument, I suppose teaching students alchemy in chemistry class and astrology in physics class would "expose them to more ideas, not less."

And funny how whenever one of these clowns tries to ramrod ID or creationism into public school classrooms, they always say that "many scientists" are in favor of it without telling us who these scientists are.  "Cite your sources" apparently doesn't carry any weight in politics, for some reason.

So in the next four years -- assuming DeVos is confirmed, which is likely given the Republican majority in both the Senate and the House -- look for a further siphoning of funds away from public schools, more emphasis on draining resources and talent from poor inner-city schools, and more efforts to hamstring science education.  I've taught for thirty years, and I've weathered some ups and downs in that time, but I can't recall a point at which I felt so genuinely pessimistic about the future of public education.  In a purely selfish sense, I'm glad I'm retiring, probably some time in the next five years, and can get myself right out of this mess.  But it breaks my heart that this great social experiment in educating all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or religion, may be coming to an end.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mouse talk

Being a linguistics geek, I've always been fascinated with the mechanisms of communication.  My interests span such topics as the evolution of human language, how one language (or culture) influences another (the topic of my master's thesis), the question of how we would understand language in a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, and whether vocal communication in other species is actually language.

The conventional answer to the last question has usually been "no."  Language, as defined by linguistics, is "arbitrary symbolic communication."  The arbitrary part is because except in certain rare cases, such as onomatopoeic words ("pop," "splat," "bang," etc.), there is no logical connection between the sound of a word and its referent.  Except in our minds, there is nothing especially doggy about the sound of the word "dog."

So is vocal communication in other animals language?  The singing of songbirds is clearly communication, but it lacks one important characteristics of human language; the flexible productive ability of language to communicate different concepts in different contexts.  Birdsong is for the most part (within a species) limited in range to a few different sounds, and once learned, never changes.

Some species, however, get closer to language than that.  Some birds, notably corvids, have a wide range of vocalizations, and are also some of the most intelligent birds.  Dogs vary their tones depending on context -- I can tell from the tone of my dog's barks whether he's seen a squirrel, someone's knocked on the front door, he wants to be let in, he's hungry, or my wife's just come home.  One step closer are whales and dolphins, whose vocal communication appears to be complex and responsive -- but whether it qualifies as true language is an unsettled question.

However, a new study, which appeared this week in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests that human language may not be as far removed from vocalizations in other animals as we may have thought.  The paper, entitled "A FOX-P2 Mutation Implicated in Human Speech Deficits Alters Sequencing of Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Adult Male Mice," by Jonathan Chabout, Erich D. Jarvis et al., has shown that mice have the "Forkhead Box Protein 2" (FOX-P2) gene, just as humans do -- and a mutation in that gene impairs vocal communication in mice, just as it does in humans.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"This study supports the ‘continuum hypothesis,’ which is that FOX-P2 affects the vocal production of all mammals, and not just humans," Jarvis said.  "Mice do not have the complex vocal learning behavior of humans and song-learning birds.  Nonetheless, we find that the same FOX-P2 mutation in mice and in humans leads to overlapping effects on sequencing of vocalizations. In particular, against a background of preserved syllable acoustic structure, we see reductions in the length and complexity of syllable sequences."

I find this fascinating, because I've always been of the opinion that there's a lot more going on inside the brains of non-human animals than we've typically been willing to acknowledge, and a great deal more similarity than difference between human cognition and cognition in other mammals.  So in a way, I find this result unsurprising.

But still, what was drilled into me in my college linguistics classes -- that humans were the only animals that had language, and that there was a hard-and-fast divide between the vocalizations of humans and those in other species -- was a surprisingly deep-seated bias.  It's one I'm glad to jettison, however.  My other geeky passion is evolutionary biology, so the idea that there is an unbroken continuum in the animal world in terms of what we have to say, and the genetic underpinning thereof, is pretty damn cool.