THE MESSICALS OF THE GREAT GOD.

Conrad, who (like Finnegan himself) has risen from the dead, has favored us with a tour-de-farce post that begins with The Plain People of Ireland—I mean to say, Ben Watson—pontificating on how the Wake is not at all the mysterious text bourgeois scholars pretend it is so that they can explicate it with their drafts and their allusions and their hypotheses, not at all, it’s as plain as the nose on your face, if only you have an honest proletarian consciousness! When you “read the Wake to the average person,… not necessarily intellectual, academic types, but just ordinary people with life experience, they get it immediately.” So Conrad takes him at his word and goes out to read the Wake to the average person, with hilarious results (“Unuchorn! Ungulant! Uvuloid! Uskybeak! I barked at a passing Rastafarian, who gave me such a terrifying look that I decided to stick to gentler passages from then on”).
From there he moves to the trope that “the academics have it all wrong, and that we have only to open our eyes to see the truth,” exemplifying it with M. J. Harper’s The History of Britain Revealed, which he bought and read after being enticed by my post about it. He quotes my conclusion “But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair,” and reassures me as follows: “The fact is, Mr. Hat, nonsense about every subject under the sun has been reviewed respectfully. There’s really no need to despair!” And quite right he is, too. I urge anyone interested in populist blowhards and/or crackpot theories to refresh themselves with Conrad’s sly and unflappable prose.

Comments

  1. Ah, merci!

  2. Pas de quoi, mon vieux! The Dargle shall run dry the sooner I you deny.

  3. As far as nonsense-‘x’ goes, it’s hard to beat nonsense-physics. ‘Relativity’, ‘quantum’, and (saints preserve us!), ‘entropy’ are all misused all the time– and with a force and a certainty that leaves linguistics in the dust.

  4. But misused terms are a far cry from complete denial of the basis of the science. It’s more as if everyone but physicists denied the very existence of relativity and entropy and insisted the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and heavy objects fell faster than light ones, because it’s OBVIOUS.

  5. @MattF: don’t forget “chaos” and “nonlinear”.

  6. @dearieme:
    Y’know, I was thinking that mathematics was comparatively nonsense-free, but you’ve got a couple of good ones. ‘Chaos’ and ‘nonlinear’ do show up in physics (both with and without quotes) but I’d flag them as nonsense-mathematics.
    @Hat:
    I suspect there’s some deformation professionelle going on here. It’s the uneasy sensation you get when reading the newspaper and finding that the things you actually know about are always all wrong.

  7. But do you dispute my point that the wrongness is more serious when it comes to language? Believe me, I know how irritating the misuses you’re talking about are—I started out as a math major, and took some pretty advanced physics—but there’s a huge difference between misunderstanding the technical definitions of scientists whose authority you acknowledge and refusing to accept that there is such a thing as a science involved, denigrating the specialists as crusaders out to destroy the language and drag us all down to the level of savages (or whatever it is the prescriptivists are so afraid of).

  8. I’ll agree that it’s unacceptable that M.J.Harper’s Completely Bananas History of the English Language is given prominent display in major bookstores. But Jeremy Rifkin on Entropy isn’t much better.
    As far as prescriptivists go, I think they’re just unnerved by the fathomless and ever-mutating subtleties of everyday language. Their arguments come (IMO) from a need to hold on to something solid, and not so much from a pro- or anti- scientific attitude.

  9. But they constantly attack linguists as destructive elements. It’s not like they basically accept the authority of linguists but get confused about details, or think they go too far, or something. They deny the very validity of linguistics; “linguists” and “descriptivists” are red-flag words like “communists” and “water fluoridation.” I don’t understand it, but there it is.

  10. Pity the biologists, too! They have to put up with the creationist crackpottery, too. They even have movies made about how wrong and EVIL evolution is.

  11. Hat:
    The “special status” of linguistics as a BETE NOIRE from journalists’ or teachers’ point of view strikes me as easily explicable: journalists and teachers enjoy high status in society because of their mastery of the standard, and for them it is natural (and self-serving) to regard the standard as indeed being inherently better/clearer/more logical than non-standard varieties: after all, doesn’t this imply that those who (like them) master the standard are indeed more intelligent/logical/whatever than the unwashed vernacular-speaking masses? From their vantage point linguistics and its core message (standard varieties are not inherently better than non-standard ones) is VERY threatening, in a way physics is not.

  12. Hat:
    The “special status” of linguistics as a BETE NOIRE from journalists’ or teachers’ point of view strikes me as easily explicable: journalists and teachers enjoy high status in society because of their mastery of the standard, and for them it is natural (and self-serving) to regard the standard as indeed being inherently better/clearer/more logical than non-standard varieties: after all, doesn’t this imply that those who (like them) master the standard are indeed more intelligent/logical/whatever than the unwashed vernacular-speaking masses? From their vantage point linguistics and its core message (standard varieties are not inherently better than non-standard ones) is VERY threatening, in a way physics is not.

  13. Hey! I can TALK! I know as much about language as you do!
    Or thoughts to that effect…

  14. mollymooly says:

    I guess for a lot of people, common-sense_schoolroom_grammar is to modern_linguistics what old-time_religion is to wishy-washy_syncretism.
    Turning to abuse of mathematics, I vote for “exponentially”.

  15. IMHO reporters’ abuse of science is exponentially more chaotic when the science in question is a virtually non-linear one, like physics, than when it’s an extrinsically relativistic one, like linguistics. After all, what goes up must come down, and in no field is that more true than in the art and science of correct English punctuation.

  16. rootlesscosmo says:

    “linguists” and “descriptivists” are red-flag words like “communists” and “water fluoridation.”
    Have you ever seen a linguist take a drink of water? Vodka, that’s what they drink, isn’t it?
    You just keep your decriptivist hands off our precious bodily fluids.

  17. rootlesscosmo says:

    Aargh… “deScriptivist.”

  18. John Emerson says:

    In everything close to individual experience there will be people who insist on their own theories. Language and all social sciences are examples, but one that just popped into my head was a moderately successful dog-breeder I knew who’d go on and on about his ludicrous ideas on genetics.

  19. John Emerson says:

    In everything close to individual experience there will be people who insist on their own theories. Language and all social sciences are examples, but one that just popped into my head was a moderately successful dog-breeder I knew who’d go on and on about his ludicrous ideas on genetics.

  20. Oh, sure, there are crackpots everywhere, but when it comes to language, practically everyone who hasn’t studied linguistics is a crackpot. That makes it very hard to have serious discussions.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Fine words from a Darvidian-denialist, Hat!

  22. John Emerson says:

    Fine words from a Darvidian-denialist, Hat!

  23. michael farris says:

    Hey, I’m not anti-Dravidian, I’m a Dravidian-realist.

  24. Pity the biologists, too! They have to put up with the creationist crackpottery, too. They even have movies made about how wrong and EVIL evolution is.
    This is true, but there is an important difference. Biological crackpottery is indeed a major problem (and today is the day the propaganda film opens for paying audiences), but it tends not to get much support from serious journalists. Even Fox News agrees about how awful the film is. Linguistic crackpottery, by contrast, tends to get written up in serious newspapers and magazines.

  25. SnowLeopard says:

    I think part of the problem is that people have a hard time imagining the practical impact of linguistics on their daily lives — other than the assumption that they intimidate others and are killjoys at cocktail parties. Math can predict and “prove” “things”, physics brings us a thinner television sets, biology is dimly connected to medicine, they have the internet on computers now, and so on. But the average person probably assumes that linguists (a) make children cry; (b) Are Fluent In All Languages; and (c) where is that Star Trek universal translator, anyway? As a result, they may tend to assume that linguistics is highly politicized and unscientific, in the same way that political science is politics but not “science”, anthropology is imperialism by another name, sociology is political science for liberals, economists, chiropractors, and psychologists are all quacks with different licenses, and the practice of law empowers bullies, liars, and cheats. If the answer to a question is perceived to be political, as in the above (a creeping field in these anti-intellectual times), then accuracy and methodology tend to take a back seat to glib slogans, smug sneers, and sanctimonious posturing.

  26. You may have something there, SnowLeopard. I’ll have to cogitate upon that.

  27. When people have a hard time imagining the practical impact of linguistics on their daily lives, I tell them that it’s linguists who make video games talk. Works on the young, anyway.

  28. Richard Hershberger says:

    I too was seduced into buying M.J. Harper’s magnum opus. I enjoy a good piece of crankery, but found this one disappointing. Harper is a crank, but a lazy one. He doesn’t know enough about his subject to fake it well.
    Compare this with Holy Blood, Holy Grail (still pulling in royalties a quarter century after first publication!) It is complete bollocks, but it starts plausibly and builds upward. Someone with a decent amateur knowledge of history could read the part linking the Masons with the Templars and be persuaded. There are impressive footnotes, and the gaps in the chain of logic are disguised. The book builds on this credibility toward its real lunacy. I can only stand back and admire.
    This is, however, a lot of work. Harper doesn’t put anything like this much effort into his crankery. It is all quite vague, and he barely even tries to disguise his misrepresentations of standard scholarship. The result is that anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of historical linguistics will realize what he is doing.
    He is also far too slapdash about the gaps in his reasoning. He has a digression about Beowulf. Digressions can be used to good effect. You go off on a tangent for a few pages with some entertaining aside, and return to you main argument a few steps advanced from where you left off. This can be an effective smokescreen. But in his digression about Beowulf he explains that it is a Tudor forgery, making the argument that it is only found in one manuscript, which was “discovered”, and this is utterly implausible. The trouble is that it is actually pretty easy to imagine this sort of thing happening, which leaves the reader wondering if perhaps Harper isn’t a bit dim.
    He has a website which is mostly message boards, mostly private, and apparently dead. But there is a public section: http://www.applied-epistemology.org/foundation.html. It is worth a look, for those who enjoy such things.
    In the meantime, I note my all-time favorite crankery: http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Consciousness-Breakdown-Bicameral-Mind/dp/0618057072. Before such a work I can only stand in humility and awe.

  29. Jaynes’ book is clearly a masterpiece.

  30. John Emerson says:

    Recent research disproves the cockamamie theory in Holy Blood, Holy Grail:
    The Templars’ Secret Island

    Does the remote Baltic island of Bornholm hold the key to an ancient secret? A secret that links it to the enigmatic village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the French Pyrennes and the tunnels beneath Mount Sion in Jerusalem? What is its connection with the Templar Knights, and what were they trying to hide on such a distant isle? THE TEMPLARS’ SECRET ISLAND is a journey of awe-inspiring breadth and complexity, a journey that spans Europe and reaches into ancient Palestine, that first takes us thousands of years into the past and then back to our own time. It is a journey that casts new light on some of the most important enigmas of modern science.

  31. John Emerson says:

    Recent research disproves the cockamamie theory in Holy Blood, Holy Grail:
    The Templars’ Secret Island

    Does the remote Baltic island of Bornholm hold the key to an ancient secret? A secret that links it to the enigmatic village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the French Pyrennes and the tunnels beneath Mount Sion in Jerusalem? What is its connection with the Templar Knights, and what were they trying to hide on such a distant isle? THE TEMPLARS’ SECRET ISLAND is a journey of awe-inspiring breadth and complexity, a journey that spans Europe and reaches into ancient Palestine, that first takes us thousands of years into the past and then back to our own time. It is a journey that casts new light on some of the most important enigmas of modern science.

  32. Seems ridiculously unfair to put Jaynes in the same ranks as real cranks such as Harper, Rifkin or creationists. Jaynes theory is probably unprovable and certainly a little out there but it doesn’t radically contradict anything we currently know about neuroscience, biology or evolution. It’s more on the level of the “aquatic ape” theory – an intriguing theory that would explain quite a lot if it were true, but for which there just isn’t any evidence.

  33. John Emerson says:

    Erm….. apparently “disproves” should read “proves”.

  34. John Emerson says:

    Erm….. apparently “disproves” should read “proves”.

  35. Doug Sundseth says:

    For sheer volume of vitriol, accusations of dishonesty and corruption, and lack of intellectual seriousness, I think the diatribes aimed at medical chemistry are unmatched.
    “Vaccines cause autism.”
    “The pharmaceutical companies are hiding the good drugs so they can make money off the palliatives.”
    “They’re all just dirty price gougers.”
    FWIW, I’m in an entirely different industry; this isn’t special pleading. I just get really angry at people who are trying to destroy an industry that has helped most of us many times.

  36. Compare this with Holy Blood, Holy Grail
    Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed that book. If you’re going to distort history to make a buck, that’s the way to go! Remember, folks, entertainment combined with plausible pseudohistory works better than pure balderdash.

  37. “The pharmaceutical companies are hiding the good [curative or preventative] drugs so they can make money off the palliatives.”

    Hiding, no. Not working on, quite possibly. Something has to account for the lack of interest in vaccines and antibiotics.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Vaccines, OK, but are you sure there’s a lack of interest in antibiotics? “New superbug resistant to last-line-defense antibiotics” is a pretty common headline these days.

  39. Lars (the original one) says:

    And that would not have been an issue if research into antibiotics had been funded at the same level as say, erectile dysfunction remedies, over the last several decades. Headlines don’t move the billions needed for development and trial of new drugs.

  40. From what I can make out, there are about 3000 drugs in the U.S. infectious-diseases pipeline, of which 41 are antibiotics. Experience suggests that of those 41, about 8 will make it to commercial use.

  41. January First-of-May says:

    But in his digression about Beowulf he explains that it is a Tudor forgery, making the argument that it is only found in one manuscript, which was “discovered”, and this is utterly implausible.

    I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which is not just only found in one manuscript, but said manuscript (probably itself a 15th century copy) burned down in 1812 before much research could have been done on it (the modern editions are based on two surviving transcriptions from the late 18th century).

    It was widely regarded to be a forgery (the Soviet authorities’ insistence on its originality didn’t help), but in 2004, Zaliznyak conclusively proved on linguistic grounds that it was almost certainly an actual text from the 12th century.

  42. It’s more on the level of the “aquatic ape” theory – an intriguing theory that would explain quite a lot if it were true, but for which there just isn’t any evidence.

    There is evidence aplenty of an indirect nature, but only the fossil record would be definitive, and it is lacking. The savannah hypothesis persists mostly out of cultural inertia among anthropologists. Daniel Dennett reports that whenever he asks experts what’s actually wrong with the AAH, nobody says anything.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Not so. Google for “soggy ape” and spend the rest of the day reading. 🙂

    Short version: the AAH is really thoroughly dead. It explains much less than used to be claimed, and it causes a long list of new problems, only one of which is that there isn’t a gap in the fossil record left to squeeze it in.

  44. I just looked at the ‘endurance running hypothesis’ page on WP, there are many very specific adaptations that are claimed to be useful only for running — whereas many of the ones cited for the AAH have alternative explanations leaving mainly the ‘brains don’t grow well without seafood’ one which is sort of indirect. (Also I get an uneasy feeling when most of the article is devoted to detailing the degree to which the ‘establishment’ has ignored the hypothesis).

    Now running and wading are not mutually exclusive, but I’d like to see a model that includes both.

    EDIT: I googled for soggy ape and just saw people shouting and dismissing each other. Not my idea of Sunday entertainment, sorry.

  45. the ‘brains don’t grow well without seafood’ one

    I don’t eat seafood and I have no reason to feel my brain is stunted.

  46. I think the idea is that modern humans have access to things like vegetable oil, or just some cereal crops, that provide the same sort of essential fatty acids as seafood, but early hominids didn’t have that access so where did they get it? But I’m sure there are other possibilities — brains were mentioned in the soggy ape thread. (Not human, I think).

  47. David Marjanović says:

    I just looked at the ‘endurance running hypothesis’ page on WP, there are many very specific adaptations that are claimed to be useful only for running —

    That doesn’t work either, because hunting down deer or antelopes by running after them only works under specific conditions (shifty sand or deep snow) and requires that the hunter can carry water, which is too recent a technological innovation.

    just saw people shouting and dismissing each other

    Most of the information is in the very long comments. Read those, and you can probably ignore the rest. 🙂

  48. So are we looking for another explanation for adaptations to running, or other explanations for those specific skeletal autapomorphies, or saying they aren’t?

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Many, perhaps all, make sense as adaptations to walking – to a nomadic lifestyle in the savanna.

    Similarly, many features that are useful for running in other mammals also enable energy-efficient migration, which may have been the more important selective pressure.

  50. The WP article made great claims to the contrary, that running needs to store kinetic energy into spring compression whereas walking uses gravity potential, and that many homo adaptations only help the running part. Things like shortened toes and metatarsals. But a biased article in WP would not be unique.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    Huh – a smaller area in contact with the ground works just as well as an adaptation to walking; and walking involves using your legs as compressible springs (pogo sticks).

  52. Wait… are people seriously proposing that humans are well adapted to running? That seems very weak. Keep in mind that, our functional understanding of biomechanics is still very crude; the details of how an organism’s ambulatory motion works in practice is not something we can figure out in detail just from looking at its skeleton or even musculature. But as a general rule, you can look at the legs of other animals that are clearly adapted for running, and they don’t look at all like ours. Running is obviously harder on two legs than on four, but humans’ plantigrade, heel-toe gait is not doing us any favors. Certainly, we are much better at running than other members of our order, but that’s because all the others are largely or partially arboreal; we are likely to be the best primate at all forms of terrestrial movement, just because we live entirely down here on the ground.

  53. Baboons are terrestrial, and are great runners.

  54. Huh – a smaller area in contact with the ground works just as well as an adaptation to walking; and walking involves using your legs as compressible springs (pogo sticks).

    Yes, my intuition does tell me that since people walking don’t look like they are on stilts, the ‘inverse pendulum’ model is not 100% correct. But from there to evaluating the claims in that article was a leap. (I walk a lot, but my biomechanical introspection powers are weak).

    But if the savannah hypothesis is dead too, what remains to explain extensive adaptations to long distance walking and improved thermoregulation? I suppose I should hunt for those long soggy ape comments…

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Baboons are terrestrial, and are great runners.

    Patas monkeys are even better.

    my intuition does tell me that since people walking don’t look like they are on stilts, the ‘inverse pendulum’ model is not 100% correct

    There we run into a spectrum of individual variation. I’m sure it’s correct for me, but I walk unusually fast (…at least for the cultures I’ve lived in…), my feet actually point forward (some people walk to the left with their left leg, to the right with their right leg, and forward only on average), and I need good cushioning under my heels because I hit the ground hard with them (some people’s heels barely touch the ground at all).

    if the savannah hypothesis is dead too

    What? No. Our ancestors spent most of the last 3 to 4 million years walking around on the savannah.

  56. You should go and fix WP (all of it, please). The savannah hypothesis page says that it has largely been abandoned since 1990 because it turned out early hominines did have opposable big toes for tree climbing. (Condensing here).

    You shouldn’t bring your feet so far forward when you walk that your weight falls down on your heels, it’s better to use a faster cadence and only bring your feet forward to under your center of gravity. It’s mostly the part of the step behind the body where you can exchange momentum with the ground anyway. (I walk five to ten kilometers per day, it really helped my pace when I learned that).

  57. A friend who favours barefoot running insisted that landing on the heel (in running at least, though maybe she meant walking too) can only have developed since the invention of cushioned footwear, bare heels not being designed for that kind of impact, at least on solid ground. So a ‘natural’, pre-Shoe Age gait would involve landing on the ball of the foot. That sounded far-fetched to me, but then I haven’t done much barefoot running on solid ground to test the claim.

  58. Savannah turf is not “solid ground” in the sense people usually understand that term: it is rather softer than bare dirt, and much softer than bare rock or concrete. But you only have to watch a toddler walk to realize that humans are plantigrade like bears, not digitigrade like most animals that walk. (The toddliness of toddlers arises out of their as yet unrecurved spines.) The one time I saw an American black bear in the wild (at a safe distance), I realized it was a bear rather than a very large black dog because of its characteristically plantigrade gait on four feet.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    The savannah hypothesis page says that it has largely been abandoned since 1990 because it turned out early hominines did have opposable big toes for tree climbing.

    Ah, you mean as a hypothesis for the origin of the upright stance? “Early hominines” and even “early hominins” means more than 3 Ma ago; Lucy is older than that, and fell to her death, most likely from a tree. The upright stance was already there; gibbons stand and walk upright on the rare occasions that they walk at all, and orang-utans do so sometimes as well (more often than gorillas or chimps).

    it’s better to use a faster cadence and only bring your feet forward to under your center of gravity

    That’s probably what I do; I walk with a high step frequency, not with long steps. I bob up & down much less than most other people.

  60. A friend who favours barefoot running insisted that landing on the heel (in running at least, though maybe she meant walking too) can only have developed since the invention of cushioned footwear…

    This video about how people walked before structured shoes was going around a few months ago. I don’t know how accurate it is.

  61. are people seriously proposing that humans are well adapted to running? That seems very weak.

    Like it or not, there is no land animal on earth that can outrun a human over long distances. There are plenty that can outsprint humans, obviously, but if a human can keep sight of an animal and keep after it, she will catch up with that animal eventually, normally after it has fallen over from heatstroke.

    Turns out one great advantage of bipedalism is that your breathing rate is uncoupled from your stride frequency. Think about a dog running – it stretches out and then crunches up on each stride. So it physically can’t breathe any faster than once per stride – inhale as it stretches out, exhale as it crunches up. Humans can pant as fast as they like, which means they can dump heat.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    there is no land animal on earth that can outrun a human over long distances

    That’s a bit exaggerated: ostriches, pronghorns, AFAIK even wolves…

  63. This video about how people walked before structured shoes was going around a few months ago

    …followed by this debunking turning up a few months later. Closing quote — “Some people refer to the proponents of this theory as the flat-earthers of the historical fencing community, and I can see why.”

  64. Well, the predator runs for its dinner, the prey for its life; only wolves/dogs and humans are cursorial hunters. It’s not surprising they formed an alliance early.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    I wouldn’t call 20,000 years ago “early”. That was barely last Glacial Maximum.

  66. Well of course you wouldn’t, you … amphibianist!

  67. David Marjanović says:

    Compared to when our ancestors started living on the savanna, domestic dogs are newfangled indeed.

  68. True, although human/wolf commensalism may predate the dog/wolf split; still, it can’t predate first contact with wolves. In any case, it certainly predates all other domestication events, which is what I meant by “early”.

  69. Is there a reason to think that the dog-wolf split was anything other than just domestication?

  70. Not as far as I know. But living with wolves presumably came before domesticating (some of) them. The 20K years ago figure David quotes refers to DNA evidence for the split, not for commensalism.

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