12 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.11

Wednesday: more on Marc Hauser; the case against tenure; copyright protects monopoly rights, not creators; philosopher of science David Hull has died; evidence that A. afarensis (Lucy's species) used stone tools for butchering; the Perseid Meteor Shower; problems with the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression; a collection of Photocroms from 1890-1910; my personal meat cleaver; the Barrison Sisters (Adults Only).



Academia

More on the investigation of Marc Hauser for research misconduct (see Monday's Digest and Carolyn Y. Johnson's story in The Boston Globe).

Mark Liberman at Language Log takes the opportunity to emphasize his strong doubts about a Hauser paper that is not currently under scrutiny:
W. Tecumseh Fitch and Marc D. Hauser, "Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate", Science 303(5656):377-380, 16 January 2004
Liberman summarizes:
Like many other linguists, Geoff [Pullum] and I have felt from the beginning that the results of Hauser's monkey experiments were of dubious relevance to the evolution of speech and language. Now we're forced to question whether there were any reliable results at all.
Charlie Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker also reports on the Hauser story, and points to an article on the affair by Nicholas Wade in Thursday's NYT.



I've written here several times recently about tenure (see especially here, here, here, here, and here).

Christopher Beam at Slate now weighs in with "Finishing School: The case for getting rid of tenure."  Beam cites the research and writings of of Cathy A. Trower and Mark C. Taylor, both of whom took part in the forum on tenure at the NYT in July (see my Digest for 20 July).

Beam's points reiterate ones already made here and by the previous writers I've cited, but he conveniently brings together in one place information on the history of tenure, arguments for and (mostly) against, and relevant data, with helpful links.

A quote:
But the clincher for the anti-tenure argument may come from the very people it is supposed to benefit: academics. Specifically, young academics. Consider the career path of an aspiring full-time tenured professor: Four years of college, six years getting a doctorate, four to six years as a post-doc, and then six years on the tenure track. By the time you come up for tenure, you're 40. For men, the timeline is inconvenient. But for women who want to have children, it's just about unworkable.
Not to mention what happens to you if you are, for one reason or another, out of sync with that very unforgiving chronological conveyor belt, as I was.  Then you run the risk of simply being discarded, no matter how good your work or teaching.

As I was.

Beam refers to Taylor's forthcoming book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities, which I look forward to reading.



Copyright

Mike Masnick at Techdirt summarizes and quotes extensively from an excellent article by law professor and intellectual-property attorney Lydia Pallas Loren on the history of copyright and the dangers of the way in which the concept of copyright is being reframed. 

The article is:
Lydia Pallas Loren, "The Purpose of Copyright," Open Spaces Quarterly, freely available to read on line.
Loren explains that copyright historically was intended to protect the monopolies of printers and booksellers, and also as a means for the Crown (in Great Britain, where the principle of copyright was developed) to be able to exercise censorship. It was not developed as a way of protecting the rights of creators (which, in fact, it doesn't do very well).

This background helps us understand the Framers' intent in Article I, Section 8, clause 8 of the U. S. Constitution, which, as Loren points out, is the only clause in the Constitution with a stated purpose: "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  As Loren explains, in the 18th century, "Science and useful Arts" meant generally knowledge and learning, not just "science" in the modern sense. 

She writes:
The framers of the United States Constitution, suspicious of all monopolies to begin with, knew the history of the copyright as a tool of censorship and press control. They wanted to assure that copyright was not used as a means of oppression and censorship in the United States. They therefore expressly provided for the purpose of copyright: to promote the progress of knowledge and learning.
And she continues:
Modern-day copyright harbors a dark side. The misunderstanding held by many who believe that the primary purpose of copyright law is to protect authors against those who would pilfer the author's work threatens to upset the delicate equilibrium in copyright law. This misunderstanding obviously works to the benefit of the content owning industries, such as the publishing industry, the music and motion picture industries, and the computer software industry. This fundamental misunderstanding is perpetuated by the stern FBI warnings at the beginning of video tapes, by overly broad assertions of the rights in the copyright notices, and by the general lack of public discourse about the balance required in copyright law if copyright is to fulfill its constitutionally mandated goal of promoting knowledge and learning.

This dark side, this pervasive misconception, is turning copyright into what our founding fathers tried to guard against - a tool for censorship and monopolistic oppression.
Read the rest of the essay.  It's highly recommended.



History and Philosophy of Science

Yesterday, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts reported the death of the esteemed and influential philosopher of science David Hull. Today Wilkins has followed up with an extremely useful survey of Hull's life, thought, and work, with a very extensive bibliography.  My first impression is that I will disagree with Hull on much, but it's clear that it is work that I need to grapple with, probably starting with his Science as a process.



Human Evolution

A new report in Nature finds evidence that our early hominin ancestors were using stones to butcher meat 3.4 million years ago, several hundred thousand years earlier than previously thought.  This is the era of "Lucy," Austrolopithecus afarensis. Read the summary by Richard Lovett in Nature here

The evidence consists of cuts in bones with a V-shaped cross-section characteristic of stone tools.  Lovett writes:
Some of the cuts are V-shaped in cross section, for instance — a shape characteristic of those made by sharp tools — with scratches inside the cuts left by the tool's rough edge. Other marks showed signs of scraping, and still others indicated that the bones had been bashed with blunt rocks — perhaps in an effort to reach the marrow.

[...]

However, the discovery doesn't mean that early hominins made tools. They may simply have used convenient rocks for tasks such as butchering. But their efforts still required planning because the nearest source of suitable rocks was about 6 kilometres away from where the bones were found.
The article is:
Shannon P. McPherron, et al. (2010), "Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years agoa at Dikika, Ethiopia," Nature. The article is behind a paywall and costs $32. All 8 authors are affiliated with publicly-funded institutions.
The same issue of Nature includes a "News and Views" essay on the find by David R. Braun, "Palaeoanthropology: Austraolpithecine butchers." This is likewise behind a paywall, and costs $18.

For further summary, context, and analysis, see Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science (with dissenting voices) and John Hawks (who discusses some potential pitfalls in the interpretation of evidence of this type). Hawks cites the conclusion from McPherron et al.:
The cut marks demonstrate hominin use of sharp-edged stone to remove flesh from the femur and rib. The location and density of the marks on the femur indicate that flesh was rather widely spread on the surface, although it is possible that there could have been isolated patches of flesh. The percussion marks on the femur demonstrate hominin use of a blunt stone to strike the bone, probably to gain access to the marrow. The external surfaces of ribs have thin sheaths of flesh, so the scraping marks on the fossil rib suggest stripping off of these sheaths.
See also the story by John Noble Wilford in Wednesday's New York Times.  Wilford includes input from skeptics, including Tim White, who says the the claims in the current paper “greatly outstrip the evidence."  He adds: "We have been working sites in this area for 40 years, and not a single stone tool has been found in deposits of this antiquity.”






More Science

Right now (Wednesday through Friday) is the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. 80beats has details and links.

Unfortunately, it was overcast last night in Boston, and I'm inside the city (albeit a residential part) anyway, so I probably wouldn't have seen much even if it had been clear.  But I'll try again tonight.



Mind

Neuroskeptic has an excellent post, "Very Severely Stupid About Depression," inspired by a new critique of the use of a popular depression rating scale in clinical trials of antidepressants:
Levente Kriston and Alessa von Wolff (2010), "Not as golden as standards should be: Interpretation of the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression," Journal of Affective Disorders.  Unfortunately behind a paywall at ScienceDirect, where it costs $31.50
From Neuroskeptic's summary:
The Hamilton Scale (HAMD) is the most common system for rating the severity of depression. If you're only a bit down you get a low score, if you're extremely ill you get a high one. The maximum score's 52 but in practice it's extremely rare for someone to score more than 30.

First published in 1960, the HAMD is used in most depression research including almost all clinical trials of antidepressants. It's come under much  criticism recently, but that's not the point here. The authors of the new paper, Kristen & von Wolff, simply asked: what does a given HAMD score mean in terms of severity?

It turns out that people have proposed no less than 5 different systems for interpreting HAMD scores. Do they all agree? Ha. Guess.


If that looks just a teeny bit inconsistent to you, that's the point.  And yet the scientific literature on the efficacy of antidepressants rests on this rickety scaffolding.

And it gets worse.  Read Neuroskeptic for details.

Neuroskeptic's conclusion:
Interpreting the Hamilton Scale is a minefield of controversy and the HAMD is far from a perfect scale of depression. Yet almost everything we know about depression and its treatment relies on the HAMD. Don't believe everything you read.
Neuroskeptic links out to an article that is highly critical of the Hamilton Scale:
R. Michael Bagby, et al. (2004), "The Hamilton Depression Rating Scale: Has the Gold Standard Become a Lead Weight," The American Journal of Psychiatry.  Freely available for download.


&c.

(Via io9:) The Flickr site of the Library of Congress has a large collection of Photocrom prints of travel sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Canada from the years 1890-1910. The Flickr site is a substantial taste of their larger collection of 6,500 Photocrom images available through a searchable interface here.

An explanation of Photocrom at the Flickr site:
Published primarily from the 1890s to 1910s, these prints were created by the Photoglob Company in Z├╝rich, Switzerland, and the Detroit Publishing Company in Michigan. The richly colored images look like photographs but are actually ink-based photolithographs, usually 6.5 x 9 inches.
My search at the LC site for "Vienna" turned up around 35 images. Here is the Graben in Vienna, probably in the 1890s:


And Leopoldsberg:





From Bill Barol's post at BoingBoing, "Expensive cleavers are a waste of money."





Adults-Only Section

If you are under 18, COVER YOUR EYES RIGHT NOW!

(Are your eyes covered?  Ha!  I caught you...)

(Via BoingBoing) TYWKIWDBI has a link to the Wikipedia article on the Barrison Sisters, a vaudeville act from the late 19th century.  As the Wikipedia article explains:
In their most famous act, the sisters would dance, raising their skirts slightly above their knees, and ask the audience, "Would you like to see my pussy?" When they had coaxed the audience into an enthusiastic response, they would raise up their skirts, revealing that each sister was wearing underwear of their own manufacture that had a live kitten secured over the crotch.

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