Is language a straight-jacket for thought?

October 25, 2009

To have another language is to possess a second soul.  Charlemagne


Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Benjamin Lee Whorf


Infants are born with a language-independent system for thinking about objects. These concepts give meaning to the words they learn later. Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard



As we can see from the Charlemagne quote above, the notion that the language we speak somehow channels our thoughts goes back a long way. It clearly informed George Orwell when he created his fictional language Newspeak, the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. The rationale of Newspeak is if something can’t be said, it can’t be thought. Thus you can remove ideas such as freedom, rights and rebellion.


Newspeak seems to have been influenced by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which Wikipedia is “the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.” This is a tantalising thought but is it really true? I am very sceptical; it seems to have causation in the wrong way. I am more convinced by the argument that concepts precede vocabulary.


What is clear is that different languages express things differently. But does that mean some thoughts can only be expressed in one language? Is it possible to have thoughts in one language that can’t be translated into another? I am a big fan of the quirks of language. A while back I did a piece on untranslatable words and they are a lot of fun. The Japanese have one word, kyoikumama: for a mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement and the Germans have backpfeifengesicht: for a face that cries out for a fist in it. Does the lack of one-word English equivalents mean that English speakers are incapable of recognising these concepts? In Spanish you haves conocer and saber where in English you only have know. Does this mean that Spanish speakers are somehow more attuned to the difference between knowing a person and knowing a fact than English speakers are.


A lot of the evidence in this debate comes from analysis of tribal languages such as Hopi, a Uto-Aztecan language spoken in north-eastern Arizona, USA. I am not a professional linguist so it can be a bit difficult to analyse the conclusions that the opposing sides come to. A lot of the motivation behind Whorf’s studies was to demonstrate that indigenous peoples were not “primitive.” And studies of tribal languages have shown that they are incredibly complex. But Whorf wanted to overcompensate. His description of Hopi seems to be trying to show that the Hopi language existed on a higher plane of thinking. Whorf also appear to have got the grammar wrong when he claimed that the Hopi had no words or grammar that refer to past or future time. But it appears that Hopi does have time markers.


Another tribal language that has come under the spotlight is Pirahã, an Amazonian language. This language has no words for numbers. They are incapable of performing even the most basic mathematical operation. This is said to be because their language has no words for number, they are prevented from doing maths. A more logical explanation is that it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary.


Some people say that they feel like a different person when they speak another language. I can’t say I have ever had that feeling. I wouldn’t want to say that language has no influence on our thinking but it is greatly exaggerated.

My media week 25/10/09

October 25, 2009 has an article Let us now praise… the cliché – It’s concise, time-tested, and instantly familiar. What’s not to love?


In this Guardian piece Consistency is overrated Julian Baggini asks should there be freedom to mislead?


The Onion has this article: Television, Processed Foods Couldn’t Be More Proud Of Child They Raised


ABC All in the Mind looks at how the brain sciences are changing our understanding of addiction, and the powerful consequences for notions of free will, responsibility and culpability: Addiction, free will and self control

My favourite links #34

October 25, 2009

This is more of an update really. I have already featured Open Yale and they have recently added ten new courses, recorded during the 2008-2009 academic year:


Dante in Translation with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta

European Civilization, 1648-1945 with Professor John Merriman

Freshman Organic Chemistry with Professor J. Michael McBride

Global Problems of Population Growth with Professor Robert Wyman

Introduction to New Testament History and Literature with Professor Dale B. Martin

Introduction to Theory of Literature with Professor Paul H. Fry

Listening to Music with Professor Craig Wright

Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior with Professor Stephen C. Stearns

The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food with Professor Kelly D. Brownell

Roman Architecture with Professor Diana E. E. Kleiner


Here is the link:

Rights: a pragmatic perspective

October 18, 2009

The Oxford Dictionary has a very pithy definition of a right: moral or legal entitlement to have or do something. Unfortunately in the real world actually defining what should be included as a right is more problematic. In the last 800 years we have seen The Magna Carta, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from revolutionary France, The United States Bill of Rights, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more recently The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union The Universal Declaration of 1948 declares that the “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

But humans are more complex than that and there are wildly differing interpretations of where rights come from and what they should include. There are some interesting ways of approaching the subject. In 1979 Czech jurist Karel Vasak came up with the division of human rights into three generations:

• First-generation: liberty and participation in political life – freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and voting rights.
• Second-generation: social, economic, and cultural in nature – a right to be employed, rights to housing and health care, as well as social security and unemployment benefits.
• Third-generation: the softest set of rights and have proved hard to enact – group and collective rights, self-determination, economic and social development, a healthy environment and even intergenerational equity and sustainability. Critics would argue that this is an attempt to dress up a political agenda as rights

I have forgotten the fourth generation – the right to see football on free-to-air terrestrial television.

The exponential growth of claimed rights over the last few years has led to a complicated situation of conflicting rights. In his book Shouting Fire, lawyer Alan Dershowitz has a list of rights and counter-rights:

Right to free speech – Right not to be offended
Right to life of foetus – Right to choose abortion
Rights of criminal defendants –Rights of victims
Right to keep one’s money – Right to equitable distribution of wealth
Right of gay couple to adopt right of child to be adopted by a heterosexual family
Right to know of sex offenders in neighbourhood – Right of privacy after serving sentence

This is just a sample of a list that goes on for three pages and makes fascinating reading. How can we possibly sort out all these contradictory claims?

Dershowitz takes a pragmatic view; rights come from wrongs. It is a practical viewpoint based on human experience. As we have seen what constitutes perfect justice is very controversial and will probably never be resolved definitively. Intelligent people can and do disagree about economic justice. There is however much more consensus as to what is perfect injustice. The inquisition, slavery, Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust and the massacres in Rwanda show us what can happen when there is an absence of basic rights. I tend to favour a negative conception of rights. Negative liberty means that there are certain things that states and others cannot do to you. Just a few negative rules go a long way. Such things as freedom of speech, property rights, due process of law freedom of association are absolutely fundamental. Positive liberty, the right and frequently the obligation to do certain things, has often produced overblown bureaucracies and sometimes even tyranny.

Quotes about rights

October 18, 2009

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson


Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual). Ayn Rand


Get up, stand up, Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, Don’t give up the fight. Bob Marley


We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. It is time now to write the next chapter – and to write it in the books of law. Lyndon B. Johnson


Both free speech rights and property rights belong legally to individuals, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise these rights. Thomas Sowell


If the evens of September 11, 2001, have proven anything, it’s that the terrorists can attack us, but they can’t take away what makes us American – our freedom, our liberty, our civil rights. No, only Attorney General John Ashcroft can do that. Jon Stewart.


It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations. Alexander Solzehnitsyn


You don’t have to love them. You just have to respect their rights. Edward Koch


Can any of you seriously say the Bill of Rights could get through Congress today? It wouldn’t even get out of committee. F. Lee Bailey

My media week 18/10/09

October 18, 2009

Better regulation is not the panacea for all our problems as John Kay shows in How the skies proved the limits of regulation.


The Telegraph had a piece about the 50 most annoying things about the internet.


I am always interested in the world of books so I was interested to listen to NPR’s Talk of the Nation on the changes in book publishing –The Book Industry Turns A Page.


I did a piece last year about the Oxbridge interview and this week The Telegraph invited seven Oxbridge alumni to answer a typical interview question. Would their replies pass the test? Are you clever enough to get into Oxbridge?

Monopoly is a terrible thing

October 11, 2009

Monopoly is a terrible thing, till you have it. Rupert Murdoch


I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly. Steven Wright


We [Microsoft] don’t have a monopoly. We have market share. There’s a difference. Steve Ballmer


They will come to learn in the end, at their own expense, that it is better to endure competition for rich customers than to be invested with monopoly over impoverished customers. Frederic Bastiat



The Economist’s A to Z glossary of economic terms defines monopoly thus:

When the production of a good or service with no close substitutes is carried out by a single firm with the market power to decide the price of its output. Contrast with perfect competition, in which no single firm can affect the price of what it produces. Typically, a monopoly will produce less, at a higher price, than would be the case for the entire market under perfect competition. It decides its price by calculating the quantity of output at which its marginal revenue would equal its marginal cost, and then sets whatever price would enable it to sell exactly that quantity.


When we think of monopoly we are worried about the monopolists’ ability to charge higher prices. From an economic point of view if some Monet is transferred from one group to another. This may be deemed socially unacceptable but it is an equal transfer of wealth from one group to another and doesn’t reduce aggregate welfare. What economists object to is that as the monopolist raises prices above the competitive level in order to make extra profits, customers buy less of the product, therefore less is produced, and society as a whole is worse off.


Monopolies go back a long way. Traditionally it has been state power, which has been used to restrict access to particular sectors and industries. In the past kings would grant or sell monopoly rights. More recently it has been governments who have played this role. One way to keep out potential competitors is to have the government make it illegal for others to operate in particular industries. An extreme example was India at the end of the last century which would licence companies and decide what and how much these companies could produce. There are always political justifications for these interventions.


As monopoly has come to be seen as harmful to economic growth, over the last century or so we have seen a rise in the number of antitrust cases. They are called like this because cartels used to be known as trusts. There is more to these cases than meets the eye. There are often underlying political motivations and it would be unwise to assume that protection of consumers is the rationale. We often think of the robber barons of late nineteenth century USA, companies such as Standard Oil. They were growing but they were in fact reducing prices. That is hardly typical behaviour for a monopolist Often pressure comes not from consumers but competitors who resent losing their market share. The Microsoft case is a prime example. I don’t think that consumers were clamouring for the prosecution. Microsoft would quickly discover what would happen if they tried to abuse their customers.  There are alternatives to the Windows – Linux, Apple, unauthorised copying and more alternatives would undoubtedly spring up. The latest panic is about Google but who knows how they will be doing in 2030?


We also lack an historical perspective. Just because a company is dominant now doesn’t mean that it will hold that position in twenty years time. History is littered with the cases of megaliths that have seen their position eroded by more agile competitors. Bigger is not always better. Natural history teaches us that – Where are the dinosaurs now?

A Petition

October 11, 2009

Frédéric Bastiat, the French classical liberal theorist, wrote a famous satirical petition from the candlemakers’ guild to the French government, asking the government to block out the Sun to prevent its unfair competition with their products. It is a delicious satire of the kind of self-serving justifications we so often hear. It is more than 160 years old but it is still relevant today:


A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.


You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity for your — what shall we call it? Your theory? No, nothing is more deceptive than theory. Your doctrine? Your system? Your principle? But you dislike doctrines, you have a horror of systems, as for principles, you deny that there are any in political economy; therefore we shall call it your practice — your practice without theory and without principle.

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land.

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion.

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls.

There is no needy resin-collector on the heights of his sand dunes, no poor miner in the depths of his black pit, who will not receive higher wages and enjoy increased prosperity.

It needs but a little reflection, gentlemen, to be convinced that there is perhaps not one Frenchman, from the wealthy stockholder of the Anzin Company to the humblest vendor of matches, whose condition would not be improved by the success of our petition.

We anticipate your objections, gentlemen; but there is not a single one of them that you have not picked up from the musty old books of the advocates of free trade. We defy you to utter a word against us that will not instantly rebound against yourselves and the principle behind all your policy.

Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense?

We have our answer ready:

You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too.

Indeed, you yourselves have anticipated this objection. When told that the consumer has a stake in the free entry of iron, coal, sesame, wheat, and textiles, “Yes,” you reply, “but the producer has a stake in their exclusion.” Very well, surely if consumers have a stake in the admission of natural light, producers have a stake in its interdiction.

“But,” you may still say, “the producer and the consumer are one and the same person. If the manufacturer profits by protection, he will make the farmer prosperous. Contrariwise, if agriculture is prosperous, it will open markets for manufactured goods.” Very well, If you grant us a monopoly over the production of lighting during the day, first of all we shall buy large amounts of tallow, charcoal, oil, resin, wax, alcohol, silver, iron, bronze, and crystal, to supply our industry; and, moreover, we and our numerous suppliers, having become rich, will consume a great deal and spread prosperity into all areas of domestic industry.

Will you say that the light of the sun is a gratuitous gift of Nature, and that to reject such gifts would be to reject wealth itself under the pretext of encouraging the means of acquiring it?

But if you take this position, you strike a mortal blow at your own policy; remember that up to now you have always excluded foreign goods because and in proportion as they approximate gratuitous gifts. You have only half as good a reason for complying with the demands of other monopolists as you have for granting our petition, which is in complete accord with your established policy; and to reject our demands precisely because they are better founded than anyone else’s would be tantamount to accepting the equation: + x + = -; in other words, it would be to heap absurdity upon absurdity.

Labour and Nature collaborate in varying proportions, depending upon the country and the climate, in the production of a commodity. The part that Nature contributes is always free of charge; it is the part contributed by human labour that constitutes value and is paid for.

If an orange from Lisbon sells for half the price of an orange from Paris, it is because the natural heat of the sun, which is, of course, free of charge, does for the former what the latter owes to artificial heating, which necessarily has to be paid for in the market.

Thus, when an orange reaches us from Portugal, one can say that it is given to us half free of charge, or, in other words, at half price as compared with those from Paris.

Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semigratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: “How can French labour withstand the competition of foreign labour when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?” But if the fact that a product is half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition? Either you are not consistent, or you should, after excluding what is half free of charge as harmful to our domestic industry, exclude what is totally gratuitous with all the more reason and with twice the zeal.

To take another example: When a product — coal, iron, wheat, or textiles — comes to us from abroad, and when we can acquire it for less labour than if we produced it ourselves, the difference is a gratuitous gift that is conferred up on us. The size of this gift is proportionate to the extent of this difference. It is a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the value of the product if the foreigner asks of us only three-quarters, one-half, or one-quarter as high a price. It is as complete as it can be when the donor, like the sun in providing us with light, asks nothing from us. The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!

My media week 11/10/09

October 11, 2009

Gary Stern, former President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Stern’s book, Too Big To Fail (co-authored with Ron Feldman), a prescient warning of the moral hazard created when government rescues creditors of financial institutions from the consequences of bankruptcy. Stern traces the origins of “too big to fail” to the rescue of Continental Illinois in 1984 and then follows more recent rescues including those of the current crisis. The conversation explores the incentive effects of such rescues on the decision-making by executives in large financial institutions. The discussion concludes with Stern’s ideas for alternative ways to deal with large, troubled financial institutions.


Café Hayek has a nice piece explaining How moral hazard works.


The Guardian reproduced a New Yorker article by Nicholson Baker about Amazon’s reading device the Kindle – Amazon Kindle 2: Centuries of evolved beauty rinsed away.


The BBC World Service’s Business Weekly looks at the power of the mind. What’s the psychology behind the layout of a supermarket? What are the pressures and mental stresses of middle management? And what are the best mind games to play in job interviews? Plus, the head of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer, tells us how the software giant is faring in these uncertain times. And fathering a genius – William Gates Snr recalls his memories of the adolescent Bill Gates Jnr.

Smoke and mirrors

October 3, 2009

As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magicThe Magician’s Oath.


Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. From the film The Prestige.

I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That’s what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the ‘human fly’ who scales the walls of the same building. Harry Houdini

We’re starting to realize that magicians have a lot of implicit know-ledge about how we perceive the world around us because they have to deceive us in terms of controlling attention, exploiting the assumptions we make when we do and don’t notice a change in our environment. There is an enormous amount of really detailed instruction on how to perform magic. People are always blown away by how detailed a description you’ll have.  Richard Wiseman

The world of prestidigitators, conjurors, mentalists, escape artists, and ventriloquists has long intrigued me. I love reading about the golden age of magic – from 1890 to 1930. In particular, as a sceptic, I am fascinated by the relationship between scepticism and magic. Magicians are engaged in deception and come into contact with the dark side of human nature and how easily we can be manipulated. This enables them to shine a light on the paranormal world I will be looking at three magicians to illustrate what I mean.

The first is Harry Houdini. Houdini is of course a household name. We have all heard of his famous stunts – escaping from straitjackets, making an elephant disappear, being lowered into water tanks and being buried alive. A lesser known part of his life was as a debunker of mediums and psychics. He began doing this in the 1920s after the death of his mother. It was his background in magic that enabled him to spot things that had escaped many scientists and academics. Later he would have to attend sessions in disguise. He was also able to show how photographers could produce fraudulent “spirit photographs”. I have read on some websites that Houdini was merely exposing the bad apples. But the whole enterprise of talking to spirits is a farce.

My second figure, James Randi, is less well-known, although he was described by Arthur C, Clarke as “a national treasure, and perhaps one of the remaining antidotes that may prevent the rotting of the American mind.” Randi is fully fledged magician who has escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls However the facet I am interested in is his sceptical persona. Randi certainly takes no prisoners in his exposure of psychics, mediums, faith healers etc. His definition of New Age is spot on: The New Age? It’s just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds. 

Randi became of a public figure in the 1970s for exposing Uri Geller as a fraud. When Randi replicated Geller’s cutlery bending exploits he was accused of secretly using psychic powers. This echoed an accusation made by Arthur Conan-Doyle about Houdini many years earlier Randi has instituted a prize of one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls; nobody has claimed the prize yet.

My final choice is illusionist Derren Brown. He recently came into the public eye by predicting the winners of the national lottery. He then gave an explanation of how he was able to do it that was pure tosh. but that’s what’s so compelling about Brown – the way he mixes magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. He is perfectly open about his dishonesty. It’s part of the spectacle. You’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t. When the person doing this is an entertainer that’s fine. It becomes fraudulent when somebody claims special powers.