Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Paradigm buster dies

Says “I Love You” as last words, then conks

Alex counted, reported colors, shapes, materials for Irene, even ordered breakfast

But no recursive logic, humanity’s defenders rush to point out

Sad news today. After a brilliant, 31 year academic and show biz career as a student of language and television star on PBS and BBC, Irene Pepperberg’s research subject Alex passed away in the night, last Thursday.

alexparrot.jpgHe knew his colors and shapes, he learned more than 100 English words, and with his own brand of one-liners he established himself in TV shows, scientific reports, and news articles as perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird.

But last week Alex, an African Grey parrot, died, apparently of natural causes, said Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard who studied and worked with the parrot for most of its life and published reports of his progress in scientific journals. The parrot was 31.

Scientists have long debated whether any other species can develop the ability to learn human language. Alex’s language facility was, in some ways, more surprising than the feats of primates that have been taught American Sign Language, like Koko the gorilla, trained by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org in Woodside, Calif., or Washoe the chimpanzee, studied by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the 1960s and 1970s….

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Dr. Pepperberg said, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.

We have known about and admired Alex for a long time, but we were never surprised by his facility with words, since we have long owned an African Grey, who is both affectionate and knows exactly what is going on.

However, we haven’t taught her to order breakfast yet, which was the most human-like feat Alex managed, in our book. Reportedly Irene would ask Alex what he wanted for breakfast, and Alex might say “Apple!’ If he was then brought a banana, he would say “No banana! Apple!”

No, no, humans are still superior!

As Benedict Carey reports Alex was a paradigm buster who pushed the envelope of what bird brains were thought capable of (by scientists), and seemed to surpass both Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimp in some ways.

But note the resistance that some people put up to any idea that a parrot might compete with a human child. They rush to point out that Alex lacked “recursive logic”, and “grammatical structure”, as if they were defending a fence between humans and the rest of the animal world.

Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to count small numbers, as well as colors and shapes. “The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. “That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

Other scientists, while praising the research, cautioned against characterizing Alex’s abilities as human. The parrot learned to communicate in basic expressions — but it did not show the sort of logic and ability to generalize that children acquire at an early age, they said. “There’s no evidence of recursive logic, and without that you can’t work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar,” said David Premack, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

We prefer to think of the differences as a spectrum in which different abilities merge into one another like the colors in a rainbow, so that we are simply farther along in a continuum where animals and it seems birds and other creatures do have much more in common with us that we have allowed in the past.

bootsieupsodedown.jpgWe used to sit with guests and while they were all still sitting down and we hadn’t yet noticed any signs of incipient departure, our African Grey would suddenly pipe up “Goodbye! Goodbye!” and it would become clear that indeed they were just about ready to take their leave. The parrot could read body language very well. Bootsie (left) was reading cues, she didn’t give them the cue to leave, we assure you.

Does anyone except Irene and other African Grey owners care about Alex’s departure? Seems so. It is currently the top story on the “e-mailed” list at the Times.

We are just sorry to recall how much trouble Irene and Alex had gaining funding for one of the most interesting research projects around. But that’s the fate of paradigm busters.

Here is the story in the Times, Alex, a Parrot Who Had a Way With Words, DiesThe New York Times
September 10, 2007
Alex, a Parrot Who Had a Way With Words, Dies
By BENEDICT CAREY

He knew his colors and shapes, he learned more than 100 English words, and with his own brand of one-liners he established himself in TV shows, scientific reports, and news articles as perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird.

But last week Alex, an African Grey parrot, died, apparently of natural causes, said Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard who studied and worked with the parrot for most of its life and published reports of his progress in scientific journals. The parrot was 31.

Scientists have long debated whether any other species can develop the ability to learn human language. Alex’s language facility was, in some ways, more surprising than the feats of primates that have been taught American Sign Language, like Koko the gorilla, trained by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org in Woodside, Calif., or Washoe the chimpanzee, studied by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the 1960s and 1970s.

When, in 1977, Dr. Pepperberg, then a doctoral student in chemistry at Harvard, bought Alex from a pet store, scientists had little expectation that any bird could learn to communicate with humans. Most of the research had been done in pigeons, and was not promising.

But by using novel methods of teaching, Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to count small numbers, as well as colors and shapes. “The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. “That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

Other scientists, while praising the research, cautioned against characterizing Alex’s abilities as human. The parrot learned to communicate in basic expressions — but it did not show the sort of logic and ability to generalize that children acquire at an early age, they said. “There’s no evidence of recursive logic, and without that you can’t work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar,” said David Premack, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Pepperberg used an innovative approach to teach Alex. African Greys are social birds, and pick up some group dynamics very quickly. In experiments, Dr. Pepperberg would employ one trainer to, in effect, compete with Alex for a small reward, like a grape. Alex learned to ask for the grape by observing what the trainer was doing to get it; the researchers then worked with the bird to help shape the pronunciation of the words.

Alex showed surprising facility. For example, when shown a blue paper triangle, he could tell an experimenter what color the paper was, what shape it was, and — after touching it — what it was made of. He demonstrated off some of his skills on nature shows, including programs on the BBC and PBS. He famously shared scenes with the actor Alan Alda on the PBS series, “Look Who’s Talking.”

Like parrots can, he also picked up one-liners from hanging around the lab, like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He could express frustration, or apparent boredom, and his cognitive and language skills appeared to be about as competent as those in trained primates. His accomplishments have also inspired further work with African Grey parrots; two others, named Griffin and Arthur, are a part of Dr. Pepperberg’s continuing research program.

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Dr. Pepperberg said, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.

2 Responses to “Paradigm buster dies”

  1. MacDonald Says:

    TS,

    I guess there’s a specific reason why you run a story on a bird brain that blurs the line between parrots and humans immediately after the Tara Smith stories, but that to belabour it would be less than subtle.

  2. Truthseeker Says:

    MacD, it is true that my next post which I am just about to edit contains a joke along those very lines to start off with, and it will not be removed even though you got there first. So you too have detected that there are two species of bird brains who parrot everything their owners tell them. A good research result.

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