Arquivo mensal: março 2012

The Social Sciences’ ‘Physics Envy’ (N.Y.Times)


Jessica Hagy


Published: April 01, 2012

HOW scientific are the social sciences?

Economists, political scientists and sociologists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex: physics envy. They often feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the “real” sciences and self-consciously model their work on them, using language (“theory,” “experiment,” “law”) evocative of physics and chemistry.

This might seem like a worthy aspiration. Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the theoretical model holds; if the hypothesis is not confirmed, the theoretical model does not hold. If your discipline does not operate by this method – known as hypothetico-deductivism – then in the minds of many, it’s not scientific.

Such reasoning dominates the social sciences today. Over the last decade, the National Science Foundation has spent many millions of dollars supporting an initiative called Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models, which espouses the importance of hypothetico-deductivism in political science research. For a time, The American Journal of Political Science explicitly refused to review theoretical models that weren’t tested. In some of our own published work, we have invoked the language of model testing, yielding to the pressure of this way of thinking.

But we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.

The ideal of hypothetico-deductivism is flawed for many reasons. For one thing, it’s not even a good description of how the “hard” sciences work. It’s a high school textbook version of science, with everything messy and chaotic about scientific inquiry safely ignored.

A more important criticism is that theoretical models can be of great value even if they are never supported by empirical testing. In the 1950s, for instance, the economist Anthony Downs offered an elegant explanation for why rival political parties might adopt identical platforms during an election campaign. His model relied on the same strategic logic that explains why two competing gas stations or fast-food restaurants locate across the street from each other – if you don’t move to a central location but your opponent does, your opponent will nab those voters (customers). The best move is for competitors to mimic each other.

This framework has proven useful to generations of political scientists even though Mr. Downs did not empirically test it and despite the fact that its main prediction, that candidates will take identical positions in elections, is clearly false. The model offered insight into why candidates move toward the center in competitive elections, and it proved easily adaptable to studying other aspects of candidate strategies. But Mr. Downs would have had a hard time publishing this model today.

Or consider the famous “impossibility theorem,” developed by the economist Kenneth Arrow, which shows that no single voting system can simultaneously satisfy several important principles of fairness. There is no need to test this model with data – in fact, there is no way to test it – and yet the result offers policy makers a powerful lesson: there are unavoidable trade-offs in the design of voting systems.

To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.

Likewise, the analysis of empirical data can be valuable even in the absence of a grand theoretical model. Did the welfare reform championed by Bill Clinton in the 1990s reduce poverty? Are teenage employees adversely affected by increases in the minimum wage? Do voter identification laws disproportionately reduce turnout among the poor and minorities? Answering such questions about the effects of public policies does not require sweeping theoretical claims, just careful attention to the data.

Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.

Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, associate professors of political science at the University of Rochester, are the authors of “A Model Discipline: Political Science and the Logic of Representations.”

Conservatives’ Trust in Science at All-Time Low (Slate/L.A.Times)

A new study suggests a growing partisan divide as science plays an increasing role in policy debates.By  | Posted Thursday, March 29, 2012, at 1:29 PM ET

A new report suggests the number of conservatives who trust science is at an all-time low. Photo by Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images.

This may explain some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing in GOP stump speeches of late: The number of conservatives who say they have a “great deal” of trust in science has fallen to 35 percent, down 28 points from the mid-1970s, according to a new academic paper.

The study, which was published Thursday in the American Sociological Review, found that liberal and moderate attitudes toward the topic have remained mostly unchanged since national pollsters first began posing the question in 1974, back when roughly half of all liberals and conservatives expressed significant trust in science.

The peer-reviewed research paper explains: “These results are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”

The man behind the study, UNC Chapel Hill’s Gordon Gauchat, says the change comes as conservatives have rebelled against the so-called “elite.”

“It kind of began with the loss of Barry Goldwater and the construction of Fox News and all these [conservative] think tanks. The perception among conservatives is that they’re at a disadvantage, a minority,” Gauchat explained in an interview with U.S. News. “It’s not surprising that the conservative subculture would challenge what’s viewed as the dominant knowledge production groups in society—science and the media.”

The sociologist suggested that the shift is also likely tied to science’s changing role in the national dialogue. In the middle of the 20th century, science was tied closely with NASA and the Department of Defense, but now it more frequently comes up when the conversation shifts to the environment and government regulations.

“Science has become autonomous from the government—it develops knowledge that helps regulate policy, and in the case of the EPA, it develops policy,” he said. “Science is charged with what religion used to be charged with—answering questions about who we are and what we came from, what the world is about. We’re using it in American society to weigh in on political debates, and people are coming down on a specific side.”

You can read a more of the interview at U.S. News, a more detailed recap of the the study over the Los Angeles Times, or check out the full paper here.

Conservatives’ trust in science has declined sharply

Since 1974, when conservatives had the highest trust in science, their confidence has dropped precipitously, an American Sociological Review study concludes.

By John Hoeffel – Los Angeles TimesMarch 29, 2012
As the Republican presidential race has shown, the conservatives who dominate the primaries are deeply skeptical of science — making Newt Gingrich, for one, regret he ever settled onto a couch with Nancy Pelosi to chat about global warming.A study released Thursday in the American Sociological Review concludes that trust in science among conservatives and frequent churchgoers has declined precipitously since 1974, when a national survey first asked people how much confidence they had in the scientific community. At that time, conservatives had the highest level of trust in scientists.

Confidence in scientists has declined the most among the most educated conservatives, the peer-reviewed research paper found, concluding: “These results are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”

“That’s a surprising finding,” said the report’s author, Gordon Gauchat, in an interview. He has a doctorate in sociology and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To highlight the dramatic impact conservative views of science have had on public opinion, Gauchat pointed to results from Gallup, which found in 2012 that just 30% of conservatives believed the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gases versus 50% two years earlier. In contrast, the poll showed almost no change in the opinion of liberals, with 74% believing in global warming in 2010 versus 72% in 2008.

Gauchat suggested that the most educated conservatives are most acquainted with views that question the credibility of scientists and their conclusions. “I think those people are most fluent with the conservative ideology,” he said. “They have stronger ideological dispositions than people who are less educated.”

Chris Mooney, who wrote “The Republican War on Science,” which Gauchat cites, agreed. “If you think of the reasons behind this as nature versus nurture, all this would be nurture, that it was the product of the conservative movement,” he said. “I think being educated is a proxy for people paying attention to politics, and when they do, they tune in to Fox News and blogs.”

Gauchat also noted the conservative movement had expanded substantially in power and influence, particularly during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, creating an extensive apparatus of think tanks and media outlets. “There’s a whole enterprise,” he said.

Science has also increasingly come under fire, Gauchat said, because its cultural authority and its impact on government have grown. For years, he said, the role science played was mostly behind the scenes, creating better military equipment and sending rockets into space.

But with the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, scientists began to play a crucial and visible role in developing regulations.

Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, has been trying to move his party to the center on issues such as climate change, but he said many Republicans were wary of science because they believed it was “serving the agenda of the regulatory state.”

“There has been more and more resistance to accepting scientific conclusions,” he said. “There is concern about what those conclusions could lead to in terms of bigger government and more onerous regulation.”

The study also found that Americans with moderate political views have long been the most distrustful of scientists, but that conservatives now are likely to outstrip them.

Moderates are typically less educated than either liberals or conservatives, Gauchat said. “These folks are just generally alienated from science,” he said, describing them as the “least engaged and least knowledgeable about basic scientific facts.”

The study was based on results from the General Social Survey, administered between 1974 and 2010 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Gauchat, who has been studying public attitudes toward science for about eight years, has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to investigate why trust in science has waned. He plans to ask a battery of questions, including some focused on scientific controversies, such as those overvaccines and genetically modified foods, to try to understand what makes conservatives and moderates so distrustful.

“It’s not one simple thing,” he said.

Neela Banerjee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Why The Future Is Better Than You Think (

Sharif Christopher Matar | March 15, 2012

Can a Masai Warrior in Africa today communicate better than Ronald Reagan could? If he’s on a cell phone, Peter Diamandis says he can.

Peter Diamandis is the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which offers big cash prizes “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh sat down to talk with Peter about his new book Abundance and why he think we live in an “incredible time”, but no one realizes it. Peter thinks that there are some powerful human forces combined with technological advancements that are transforming the world for the better.

“The challenge is that the rate of innovation is so fast…” Peter says, “the government can’t keep up with it.” If the government tries to play “catch up” with regulations and policy, the technology with just go overseas. Certain inovations in “food, water, housing, health, education is getting better and better.” Peter “hopes we are not going to be in a situation where, entrenched interests are preventing the consumer from having better health care.”

Filmed by Sharif Matar and Tracy Oppenheimer. Edited by Sharif Matar

Americans Listening to Politicians, Not Climate Scientists (Ars Technica/Wired)

By Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica
February 27, 2012

US public opinion about climate change has been riding a roller coaster over the past decade. After signs of growing acceptance and emphasis around 2006 and 2007, a precipitous decline brought us back to where we started, with fully a quarter of the public not even thinking that the planet has warmed up. It’s not shocking that concerns about climate change would take a back seat to the economic recession, but that doesn’t explain why some are skeptical that global warming is even real.

Since economic turmoil does not extend to past temperature measurements, it seems clear that public acceptance of the data depends at least partly on something other than the data itself. So the natural question is — what’s driving public opinion? Why the big shifts? The answer to that question may hold the key to the US’ response to the changing climate.A recent study published in Climatic Change evaluates the impact of several potential opinion drivers: extreme weather events, public access to scientific information, media coverage, advocacy efforts, and the influence of political leaders. These are compared to a compilation of 74 surveys performed by six different organizations. The polls took place between 2002 and 2010, and provide a total of 84,000 responses. The researchers used all the questions that asked respondents to rate their concern about climate change to calculate a “climate change threat index” that could be tracked through time.

For extreme weather events, the researchers used NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index, which includes things like unusually high temperatures and precipitation events, as well as severe droughts. To evaluate public access to scientific information, they tracked the number of climate change papers published in Science, major assessments like the 2007 IPCC report, and climate change articles published in popular science magazines.

Similarly, media coverage was tracked with a simple count of stories appearing on broadcast evening news shows and in several leading periodicals. Advocacy was measured using a number of “major environmental” and “conservative magazines.” In addition, they captured the influence of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (a favorite target of climate contrarians) using the number of times it was mentioned in the New York Times.

Finally, they counted up congressional press releases, hearings, and votes on bills related to climate change. For comparison, they also looked at the influence of unemployment, GDP, oil prices, and the number of deaths associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The researchers compared each time series to their climate change threat index. They found no statistically significant correlation with extreme weather events, papers in Science(hardly shocking—when was the last time you found Science in the waiting room at the dentist’s?), or oil prices. There was a minor correlation with major scientific assessments.

While articles in popular science magazines and advocacy efforts (especially An Inconvenient Truth) appeared to have an effect, the impact of news media coverage came about because it is transmitting statements from political leaders, what the researchers refer to as “elite cues.” That’s where the meat of this story lies. Those elite cues were the most significant driver of public opinion, followed by economic factors.

The researchers note that around the time when public acceptance of climate change reached its peak, political bipartisanship on the subject also hit a high point. Republican Senator and (then) presidential candidate John McCain was pushing for climate legislation, and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich filmed a commercial together with an unlikely partner — Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi — urging action.

And then things changed. The economy went pear-shaped and Republican rhetoric shifted into attack mode on climate science. Gingrich’s commercial with Pelosi offers one example — opposing candidates in the presidential race have used its mere existence as a weapon against him, and Gingrich has tried to distance himself, calling it “the dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years.”

Flipping this around, it suggests that serious action on climate change depends on a healthy economy and bipartisan agreement among politicians. If that leaves you pondering a future connection between global warming legislation and icy conditions in hell, the cooperation in 2007 indicates it isn’t totally unthinkable.

In addition, recent polling has shown that acceptance of climate change is, once again, climbing among those who identify as moderate Republicans. It’s unclear how to interpret that in terms of this study’s conclusions. Is economic optimism having an impact, have Republican presidential candidates alienated moderates in the party, or is something totally different responsible?

While it’s certainly not surprising, it’s discouraging to see how little effect scientific outreach efforts and reports have had on public opinion. Even on simple questions like “Is there solid evidence that the Earth has warmed?” — it’s politicians that are driving public opinion, not scientists or the data they produce.

Image: Hurricane Ike in 2008. (NOAA)

What the World Is Made Of (Discovery Magazine)

by Sean Carroll

I know you’re all following the Minute Physics videos (that we talked about here), but just in case my knowledge is somehow fallible you really should start following them. After taking care of why stones are round, and why there is no pink light, Henry Reich is now explaining the fundamental nature of our everyday world: quantum field theory and the Standard Model. It’s a multi-part series, since some things deserve more than a minute, dammit.

Two parts have been posted so far. The first is just an intro, pointing out something we’ve already heard: the Standard Model of Particle physics describes all the world we experience in our everyday lives.

The second one, just up, tackles quantum field theory and the Pauli exclusion principle, of which we’ve been recently speaking. (Admittedly it’s two minutes long, but these are big topics!)

The world is made of fields, which appear to us as particles when we look at them. Something everyone should know.

The Inside Story on Climate Scientists Under Siege (Wired/The Guardian)

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
February 17, 2012 |

It is almost possible to dismiss Michael Mann’s account of a vast conspiracy by the fossil fuel industry to harass scientists and befuddle the public. His story of that campaign, and his own journey from naive computer geek to battle-hardened climate ninja, seems overwrought, maybe even paranoid.

But now comes the unauthorized release of documents showing how a libertarian thinktank, the Heartland Institute, which has in the past been supported by Exxon, spent millions on lavish conferences attacking scientists and concocting projects to counter science teaching for kindergarteners.

Mann’s story of what he calls the climate wars, the fight by powerful entrenched interests to undermine and twist the science meant to guide government policy, starts to seem pretty much on the money. He’s telling it in a book out on March 6, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines.

“They see scientists like me who are trying to communicate the potential dangers of continued fossil fuel burning to the public as a threat. That means we are subject to attacks, some of them quite personal, some of them dishonest.” Mann said in an interview conducted in and around State College, home of Pennsylvania State University, where he is a professor.

It’s a brilliantly sunny day, and the light snowfall of the evening before is rapidly melting.

Mann, who seems fairly relaxed, has just spoken to a full-capacity, and uniformly respectful and supportive crowd at the university.

It’s hard to square the surroundings with the description in the book of how an entire academic discipline has been made to feel under siege, but Mann insists that it is a given.

“It is now part of the job description if you are going to be a scientist working in a socially relevant area like human-caused climate change,” he said.

He should know. For most of his professional life has been at the center of those wars, thanks to a paper he published with colleagues in the late 1990s showing a sharp upward movement in global temperatures in the last half of the 20th century. The graph became known as the “hockey stick”.

If the graph was the stick, then its publication made Mann the puck. Though other prominent scientists, such as Nasa’s James Hansen and more recently Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe, have also been targeted by contrarian bloggers and thinktanks demanding their institutions turn over their email record, it’s Mann who’s been the favorite target.

He has been regularly vilified on Fox news and contrarian blogs, and by Republican members of Congress. The attorney general of Virginia, who has been fighting in the courts to get access to Mann’s email from his earlier work at the University of Virginia. And then there is the high volume of hate mail, the threats to him and his family.

“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t have to fend off some attack, some specious criticism or personal attack,” he said. “Literally a day doesn’t go by where I don’t have to deal with some of the nastiness that comes out of a campaign that tries to discredit me, and thereby in the view of our detractors to discredit the entire science of climate change.”

By now he and other climate scientists have been in the trenches longer than the U.S. army has been in Afghanistan.

And Mann has proved a willing combatant. He has not gone so far as Hansen, who has been arrested at the White House protesting against tar sands oil and in West Virginia protesting against coal mining. But he spends a significant part of his working life now blogging and tweeting in his efforts to engage with the public – and fending off attacks.

On the eve of his talk at Penn State, a coal industry lobby group calling itself the Common Sense Movement/Secure Energy for America put up a Facebook page demanding the university disinvite their own professor from speaking, and denouncing Mann as a “disgraced academic” pursuing a radical environmental agenda. The university refused. Common Sense appeared to have dismantled the Facebook page.

But Mann’s attackers were merely regrouping. A hostile blogger published a link to Mann’s Amazon page, and his opponents swung into action, denouncing the book as a “fairy tale” and climate change as “the greatest scam in human history.”

It was not the life Mann envisaged when he began work on his post-graduate degree at Yale. All Mann knew then was that he wanted to work on big problems, that resonated outside academia. At heart, he said, he was like one of the amiable nerds on the television show Big Bang Theory.

“At that time I wanted nothing more than just to bury my head in my computer and study data and write papers and write programs,” he said. “That is the way I was raised. That is the culture I came from.”

What happened instead was that the “hockey stick” graph, because it so clearly represented what had happened to the climate over the course of hundreds of years, itself became a proxy in the climate wars. (Mann’s reconstruction of temperatures over the last millennium itself used proxy records from tree rings and coral).

“I think because the hockey stick became an icon, it’s been subject to the fiercest of attacks really in the whole science of climate change,” he said.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a poster-sized graph for the launch of its climate change report in 2001.

Those opposed to climate change began accusing Mann of overlooking important data or even manipulating the records. None of the allegations were ever found to have substance. The hockey stick would eventually be confirmed by more than 10 other studies.

Mann, like other scientists, was just not equipped to deal with the media barrage. “It took the scientific community some time I think to realize that the scientific community is in a street fight with climate change deniers and they are not playing by the rules of engagement of science. The scientific community needed some time to wake up to that.”

By 2005, when Hurricane Katrina drew Americans’ attention to the connection between climate change and coastal flooding, scientists were getting better at making their case to the public. George Bush, whose White House in 2003 deleted Mann’s hockey stick graph from an environmental report, began talking about the need for biofuels. Then Barack Obama was elected on a promise to save a planet in peril.

But as Mann lays out in the book, the campaign to discredit climate change continued to operate, largely below the radar until November 2009 when a huge cache of email from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was released online without authorization.

Right-wing media and bloggers used the emails to discredit an entire body of climate science. They got an extra boost when an embarrassing error about melting of Himalayan glaciers appeared in the U.N.’s IPCC report.

Mann now admits the climate community took far too long to realize the extent of the public relations debacle. Aside from the glacier error, the science remained sound. But Mann said now: “There may have been an overdue amount of complacency among many in the scientific community.”

Mann, who had been at the center of so many debates in America, was at the heart of the East Anglia emails battle too.

Though he has been cleared of any wrongdoing, Mann does not always come off well in those highly selective exchanges of email released by the hackers. In some of the correspondence with fellow scientists, he is abrupt, dismissive of some critics. In our time at State College, he mentions more than once how climate scientists are a “cantankerous” bunch. He has zero patience, for example, for the polite label “climate skeptic” for the network of bloggers and talking heads who try to discredit climate change.

“When it comes to climate change, true skepticism is two-sided. One-sided skepticism is no skepticism at all,” he said. “I will call people who deny the science deniers … I guess I won’t be deterred by the fact that they don’t like the use of that term and no doubt that just endears me to them further.”

“It’s frustrating of course because a lot of us would like to get past this nonsensical debate and on to the real debate to be had about what to do,” he said.

But he said there are compensations in the support he gets from the public. He moves over to his computer to show off a web page: I ❤ climate scientists. He’s one of three featured scientists. “It only takes one thoughtful email of support to offset a thousand thoughtless attacks,” Mann said.

And although there are bad days, he still seems to believe he is on the winning side.

Across America, this is the third successive year of weird weather. The U.S. department of agriculture has just revised its plant hardiness map, reflecting warming trends. That is going to reinforce scientists’ efforts to cut through the disinformation campaign, Mann said.

“I think increasingly the campaign to deny the reality of climate change is going to come up against that brick wall of the evidence being so plain to people whether they are hunters, fishermen, gardeners,” he said.

And if that doesn’t work then Mann is going to fight to convince them.

“Whether I like it or not I am out there on the battlefield,” he said. But he believes the experiences of the last decade have made him, and other scientists, far better fighters.

“Those of us who have had to go through this are battle-hardened and hopefully the better for it,” he said. “I think you are now going to see the scientific community almost uniformly fighting back against this assault on science. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I do know that my fellow scientists and I are very ready to engage in this battle.”

Video: James West, The Climate Desk

Original story at The Guardian.

Newly Discovered Space Rock Is Headed Toward Earth, Estimated Time of Arrival 2040 (

The UN is figuring out how to ward off a potential collision

By Clay Dillow
Posted 02.27.2012 at 1:34 pm

Earth, and the Near-Earth Objects that Threaten It ESA – P.Carril

All eyes are on the asteroid Apophis, but a new threat–just 460 feet wide–dominated the conversation at a recent meeting of the UN Action Team on near-Earth objects (NEOs). Known as 2011 AG5, the asteroid could well be on a collision course with Earth in 2040, and some are already calling on scientists to figure out how to deflect it.

Discovered early last year, 2011 AG5 is still somewhat of a mystery to astronomers, as they have a pretty good idea how big it is but have only been able to observe it for roughly half an orbit. That makes it difficult to project the object’s path over time–and to verify whether it may be a threat in 2040. Ideally, researchers would like to observe at least two full orbits before making projections about an NEO’s path, but that hasn’t stopped several in the astronomy from fixing odds on an impact in 2040.

Specifically, those odds are currently at 1 in 625 for an impact on Feb. 5, 2040. But like most odds, these are fluid. From 2013 to 2016, the asteroid will be observable from the ground, and that will give NEO watchers a better idea of its orbit and future trajectory. If those observations don’t vastly diminish the odds of an impact, there should still be time to do something about it before its 2023 keyhole pass.Like Apophis, which may or may not impact Earth in 2036, 2011 AG5 has a keyhole–a region is space near Earth through which it would travel if indeed it is going to impact us on its next pass. It will make its keyhole pass on its approach near Earth in February 2023 when it comes within just 0.02 astronomical units of Earth (that’s roughly 1.86 million miles). NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab estimates 2011 AG5’s keyhole is about 62 miles wide–not big at all by astronomical standards, but bigger than Apophis’s.

If 2011 AG5 does look like it is going to pass through that keyhole after the 2013-2016 observations, scientists will have a few years to figure out how to alter its orbit and push it outside of the keyhole in 2023, thus averting disaster 17 years later. Such a deflection mission could be good practice. Apophis will make a run at its keyhole in 2029.


O planeta doente (

por Guy Debord

A “poluição” está hoje na moda, exatamente da mesma maneira que a revolução: ela se apodera de toda a vida da sociedade e é representada ilusoriamente no espetáculo. Ela é tagarelice tediosa numa pletora de escritos e de discursos errôneos e mistificadores, e, nos fatos, ela pega todo mundo pelo pescoço. Ela se expõe em todo lugar enquanto ideologia e ganha terreno enquanto processo real. Esses dois movimentos antagônicos, o estágio supremo da produção mercantil e o projeto de sua negação total, igualmente ricos de contradições em simesmos, crescem em conjunto. São os dois lados pelos quais se manifesta um mesmo momento histórico há muito tempo esperado e freqüentemente previsto sob figuras parciais inadequadas: a impossibilidade da continuação do funcionamento do capitalismo.

A época que tem todos os meios técnicos de alterar as condições de vida na Terra é igualmente a época que, pelo mesmo desenvolvimento técnico e científico separado, dispõe de todos os meios de controle e de previsão matematicamente indubitável para medir com exatidão antecipada para onde conduz — e em que data — o crescimento automático das forças produtivas alienadas da sociedade de classes: isto é, para medir a degradação rápida das condições de sobrevida, no sentido o mais geral e o mais trivial do termo.

Enquanto imbecis passadistas ainda dissertam sobre, e contra, uma crítica estética de tudo isso, e crêem mostrar-se lúcidos e modernos por se mostrarem esposados com seu século, proclamando que a auto-estrada ou Sarcelles têm sua beleza que se deveria preferir ao desconforto dos “pitorescos” bairros antigos ou ainda fazendo observar gravemente que o conjunto da população come melhor, a despeito das nostalgias da boa cozinha, já o problema da degradação da totalidade do ambiente natural e humano deixou completamente de se colocar no plano da pretensa qualidade antiga, estética ou outra, para se tornar radicalmente o próprio problema da possibilidade material de existência do mundo que persegue um tal movimento. A impossibilidade está de fato já perfeitamente demonstrada por todo o conhecimento científico separado, que discute somente sua data de vencimento; e os paliativos que, se fossem aplicados firmemente, a poderiam regular superficialmente. Uma tal ciência apenas pode acompanhar em direção à destruição o mundo que a produziu e que a mantém; mas ela é obrigada a fazê-lo com os olhos abertos. Ela mostra assim, num nível caricatural, a inutilidade do conhecimento sem uso.

Mede-se e se extrapola com uma precisão excelente o aumento rápido da poluição química da atmosfera respirável, da água dos rios, dos lagos e até mesmo dos oceanos; e o aumento irreversível da radioatividade acumulada pelo desenvolvimento pacífico da energia nuclear, dos efeitos do barulho, da invasão do espaço por produtos de materiais plásticos que podem exigir uma eternidade de depósito universal, da natalidade louca, da falsificação insensata dos alimentos, da lepra urbanística que se estende sempre mais no lugar do que antes foram a cidade e o campo; assim como as doenças mentais — aí compreendidas as fobias neuróticas e as alucinações que não poderiam deixar de se multiplicar bem cedo sobre o tema da própria poluição, da qual se mostra em todo lugar a imagem alarmante — e do suicídio, cujas taxas de expansão se entrecruzam já exatamente com as de edificação de um tal ambiente (para não falar dos efeitos da guerra atômica ou bacteriológica, cujos meios estão posicionados como a espada de Dâmocles, mas permanecem evidentemente evitáveis).

Logo, se a amplitude e a própria realidade dos “terrores do Ano Mil” são ainda um assunto controverso entre os historiadores, o terror do Ano Dois Mil é tão patente quanto bem fundado; ele é desde o presente uma certeza científica. Contudo, o que se passa não é em si mesmo nada novo: é somente o fim necessário do antigo processo. Uma sociedade cada vez mais doente, mas cada vez mais poderosa, recriou em todo lugar concretamente o mundo como ambiente e décorde sua doença, enquanto planeta doente. Uma sociedade que não se tornou ainda homogênea e que não é mais determinada por si mesma, mas cada vez maispor uma parte dela mesma que lhe é superior, desenvolveu um movimento de dominação da natureza que contudo não se dominou a si mesmo. O capitalismo finalmente trouxe a prova, por seu próprio movimento, de que ele não pode mais desenvolver as forças produtivas; e isso não quantitativamente, como muitos acreditaram compreender, mas qualitativamente.

Contudo, para o pensamento burguês, metodologicamente, somente o quantitativo é o sério, o mensurável, o efetivo; e o qualitativo é somente a incerta decoração subjetiva ou artística do verdadeiro real estimado em seu verdadeiro peso. Ao contrário, para o pensamento dialético, portanto, para a história e para o proletariado, o qualitativo é a dimensão a mais decisiva do desenvolvimento real. Eis aí o que o capitalismo e nós terminamos por demonstrar.

Os senhores da sociedade são obrigados agora a falar da poluição, tanto para combatê-la (pois eles vivem, apesar de tudo, no mesmo planeta que nós; é este o único sentido ao qual se pode admitir que o desenvolvimento do capitalismo realizou efetivamente uma certa fusão das classes) e para a dissimular, pois a simples verdade dos danos e dos riscos presentes basta para constituir um imenso fator de revolta, uma exigência materialista dos explorados, tão inteiramente vital quanto o foi a luta dos proletários do século XIX pela possibilidade de comer. Após o fracasso fundamental de todos os reformismos do passado — que aspiram todos eles à solução definitiva do problema das classes —, um novo reformismo se desenha, que obedece às mesmas necessidades que os precedentes: lubrificar a máquina e abrir novas oportunidades de lucros às empresas de ponta. O setor mais moderno da indústria se lança nos diferentes paliativos da poluição, como em um novo nicho de mercado, tanto mais rentável quanto mais uma boa parte do capital monopolizado pelo Estado nele está a empregar e a manobrar. Mas se este novo reformismo tem de antemão a garantia de seu fracasso, exatamente pelas mesmas razões que os reformismos passados, ele guarda em face deles a radical diferença de que não tem mais tempo diante de si.

O desenvolvimento da produção se verificou inteiramente até aqui enquanto realização daeconomia política: desenvolvimento da miséria, que invadiu e estragou o próprio meio da vida. A sociedade em que os produtores se matam no trabalho, e cujo resultado devem somente contemplar, lhes deixa claramente ver, e respirar, o resultado geral do trabalho alienado enquanto resultado de morte. Na sociedade da economia superdesenvolvida, tudo entrou na esfera dos bens econômicos, mesmo a água das fontes e o ar das cidades, quer dizer que tudo se tornou o mal econômico, “negação acabada do homem” que atinge agora sua perfeita conclusão material. O conflito entre as forças produtivas modernas e as relações de produção, burguesas ou burocráticas, da sociedade capitalista entrou em sua fase última. A produção da não-vida prosseguiu cada vez mais seu processo linear e cumulativo; vindo a atravessar um último limiar em seu progresso, ela produz agora diretamente a morte.

A função última, confessada, essencial, da economia desenvolvida hoje, no mundo inteiro em que reina o trabalho-mercadoria, que assegura todo o poder a seus patrões, é a produção dos empregos. Está-se bem longe das idéias “progressistas” do século anterior [século XIX] sobre a diminuição possível do trabalho humano pela multiplicação científica e técnica da produtividade, que se supunha assegurar sempre mais facilmente a satisfação das necessidades anteriormente reconhecidas por todos reais e sem alteração fundamental da qualidade mesma dos bens que se encontrariam disponíveis. É presentemente para produzir empregos, até nos campos esvaziados de camponeses, ou seja, para utilizar o trabalho humano enquanto trabalho alienado, enquanto assalariado, que se faz todo o resto; e, portanto, que se ameaça estupidamente as bases, atualmente mais frágeis ainda que o pensamento de um Kennedy ou de um Brejnev, da vida da espécie.

O velho oceano é em si mesmo indiferente à poluição; mas a história não o é. Ela somente pode ser salva pela abolição do trabalho-mercadoria. E nunca a consciência histórica teve tanta necessidade de dominar com tanta urgência seu mundo, pois o inimigo que está à sua porta não é mais a ilusão, mas sua morte.

Quando os pobres senhores da sociedade da qual vemos a deplorável conclusão, bem pior do que todas as condenações que puderam fulminar outrora os mais radicais dos utopistas, devem presentemente reconhecer que nosso ambiente se tornou social, que a gestão detudo se tornou um negócio diretamente político, até as ervas dos campos e a possibilidade de beber, até a possibilidade de dormir sem muitos soníferos ou de tomar um banho sem sofrer de alergias, num tal momento se deve ver também que a velha política especializada deve reconhecer que ela está completamente finda.

Ela está finda na forma suprema de seu voluntarismo: o poder burocrático totalitário dos regimes ditos socialistas, porque os burocratas no poder não se mostraram capazes nem mesmo de gerir o estágio anterior da economia capitalista. Se eles poluem muito menos — apenas os Estados Unidos produzem sozinhos 50% da poluição mundial — é porque são muito mais pobres. Eles somente podem, como por exemplo a China, reunindo em bloco uma parte desproporcionada de sua contabilidade de miséria, comprar a parte de poluição de prestígio das potências pobres, algumas descobertas e aperfeiçoamentos nas técnicas da guerra termonuclear, ou mais exatamente, do espetáculo ameaçador. Tanta pobreza, material e mental, sustentada por tanto terrorismo, condena as burocracias no poder. E o que condena o poder burguês mais modernizado é o resultado insuportável de tanta riquezaefetivamente empestada. A gestão dita democrática do capitalismo, em qualquer país que seja, somente oferece suas eleições-demissões que, sempre se viu, nunca mudava nada no conjunto, e mesmo muito pouco no detalhe, numa sociedade de classes que se imaginava poder durar indefinidamente. Elas aí não mudam nada de mais no momento em que a própria gestão enlouquece e finge desejar, para cortar certos problemas secundários embora urgentes, algumas vagas diretrizes do eleitorado alienado e cretinizado (U.S.A., Itália, Inglaterra, França). Todos os observadores especializados sempre salientaram — sem se preocuparem em explicar — o fato de que o eleitor não muda nunca de “opinião”: é justamente porque é eleitor, o que assume, por um breve instante, o papel abstrato que é precisamente destinado a impedir de ser por si mesmo, e de mudar (o mecanismo foi demonstrado centenas de vezes, tanto pela análise política desmistificada quanto pelas explicações da psicanálise revolucionária). O eleitor não muda mais quando o mundo muda sempre mais precipitadamente em torno dele e, enquanto eleitor, ele não mudaria mesmo às vésperas do fim do mundo. Todo sistema representativo é essencialmente conservador, mesmo se as condições de existência da sociedade capitalista não puderam nunca ser conservadas: elas se modificam sem interrupção, e sempre mais rápido, mas a decisão — que afinal é sempre a decisão de liberar o próprio processo da produção capitalista — é deixada inteiramente aos especialistas da publicidade, quer sejam eles únicos na competição ou em concorrência com aqueles que vão fazer a mesma coisa, e aliás o anunciam abertamente. Contudo, o homem que vota “livremente” nos gaullistas ou no P.C.F., tanto quanto o homem que vota, constrangido e forçado, num Gomulka, é capaz de mostrar o que ele verdadeiramente é, na semana seguinte, participando de uma greve selvagem ou de uma insurreição.

A autoproclamada “luta contra a poluição”, por seu aspecto estatal e legalista, vai de início criar novas especializações, serviços ministeriais, cargos, promoção burocrática. E sua eficácia estará completamente na medida de tais meios. Mas ela somente pode se tornar uma vontade real ao transformar o sistema produtivo atual em suas próprias raízes. E somente pode ser aplicada firmemente no instante em que todas suas decisões, tomadas democraticamente em conhecimento pleno de causa, pelos produtores, estiverem a todo instante controladas e executadas pelos próprios produtores (por exemplo, os navios derramarão infalivelmente seu petróleo no mar enquanto não estiverem sob a autoridade de reais soviets de marinheiros). Para decidir e executar tudo isso, é preciso que os produtores se tornem adultos: é preciso que se apoderem todos do poder.

O otimismo científico do século XIX se desmoronou em três pontos essenciais. Primeiro, a pretensão de garantir a revolução como resolução feliz dos conflitos existentes (esta era a ilusão hegelo-esquerdista e marxista; a menos notada naintelligentsia burguesa, mas a mais rica e, afinal, a menos ilusória). Segundo, a visão coerente do universo, e mesmo simplesmente, da matéria. Terceiro, o sentimento eufórico e linear do desenvolvimento das forças produtivas. Se nós dominarmos o primeiro ponto, teremos resolvido o terceiro; e saberemos fazer bem mais tarde do segundo nossa ocupação e nosso jogo. Não é preciso tratar dos sintomas, mas da própria doença. Hoje o medo está em todo lugar, somente sairemos dele confiando-nos em nossas próprias forças, em nossa capacidade de destruir toda alienação existente e toda imagem do poder que nos escapou. Remetendo tudo, com exceção de nós próprios, ao único poder dos Conselhos de Trabalhadores possuindo e reconstruindo a todo instante a totalidade do mundo, ou seja, à racionalidade verdadeira, a uma legitimidade nova.

Em matéria de ambiente “natural” e construído, de natalidade, de biologia, de produção, de “loucura” etc., não haverá que escolher entre a festa e a infelicidade, mas, conscientemente e em cada encruzilhada, entre, de um lado, mil possibilidades felizes ou desastrosas, relativamente corrigíveis, e, de outra parte, o nada. As escolhas terríveis do futuro próximo deixam esta única alternativa: democracia total ou burocracia total. Aqueles que duvidam da democracia total devem esforçar-se para fazer por si mesmos a prova dela, dando-lhe a oportunidade de se provar em marcha; ou somente lhes resta comprar seu túmulo a prestações, pois “a autoridade, se a viu em obra, e suas obras a condenam” (Jacques Déjacque).

“A revolução ou a morte”: esse slogan não é mais a expressão lírica da consciência revoltada, é a última palavra do pensamento científico de nosso século [XX]. Isso se aplica aos perigos da espécie como à impossibilidade de adesão pelos indivíduos. Nesta sociedade em que o suicídio progride como se sabe, os especialistas tiveram que reconhecer, com um certo despeito, que ele caíra a quase nada em maio de 1968. Essa primavera obteve assim, sem precisamente subi-lo em assalto, um bom céu, porque alguns carros queimaram e porque a todos os outros faltou combustível para poluir. Quando chove, quando há nuvens sobre Paris, não esqueçam nunca que isso é responsabilidade do governo. A produção industrial alienada faz chover. A revolução faz o bom tempo.

Escrito em 1971, por Guy Debord, para aparecer no nº 13 da revista Internacional Situacionista, este artigo permaneceu inédito até recentemente, quando foi publicado, junto com dois outros textos do mesmo autor, em La Planète malade (Paris, Gallimard, 2004, pp. 77-94). A tradução de “O planeta doente” aqui publicada apareceu pela primeira vez em Tradução de Emiliano Aquino (


Man on ‘Jeopardy’ penalized for mispronouncing Wimbledon (Yahoo Sports)

By Chris Chase | Busted Racquet – Tue, Mar 13, 2012 12:56 PM EDT


It happens every June like a rite of summer. Uppity British journalists and/or American tennis fans scoff when the less sophisticated among us butcher the name of the most hallowed event in the sport.

“Wimbledon,” they say, affecting a slight British accent, even if they’re from Parsippany. Each syllable is quick, but distinct. The first three letters are accentuated. “Whim.” The middle three are softly pushed from your lips. “Bull.” For the final syllable, you move your tongue to the roof of your mouth. “Din.”


A Nebraska man found out the particulars of the pronunciation on Monday’s episode of “Jeopardy.” Reid Rodgers correctly answered a question (or questioned an answer) about the first women’s champion at an 1884 tennis tournament. “WimbleTIN,” he said, with a distinct hint of Midwestern twang.

Even after being exposed to the syllable police for years, I didn’t notice the verbal faux pas. Neither did Alex Trebek. He awarded Rodgers his $400 and moved to the next question.

A moment later, before Rodgers was set to receive a Daily Double answer, Trebek issued a ruling.

“I’m informed that you very clearly said Wimble-TON not Wimble-DIN a few moments ago,” Trebek told him.

Rodgers’ money was taken away and the railroad mechanic had money deducted for the incorrect answer. His total went from $1,000 to $200.

Alright, first off, he didn’t say “Wimble-TON.” He said “Wimble-TIN,” Trebek. Neither is right, but the least you could have done with accurately quote his mistake. (Leave it to Trebek to smarmily add that “very clearly.” If it was so clear, why didn’t you hear it first, bub?)

Second of all, COME ON! We all know what Rodgers was trying to say. He knew the answer. Is it his fault that he was born an American and, thus, a brutish rogue who doesn’t appreciate the King’s English?

“Dialectical bias,” CBS Sports blogger Will Brinson wrote on Twitter.

Like Alex Trebek should talk. Just last week he was sputtering out umlauts like a college kid in Intro to German.

We feel for you, Reid Rodgers. And don’t worry about your lack of tennis pronunciation. Bud Collins has been involved with the sport for 60 years and still can’t say “Navratilova.”

19 Climate Games that Could Change the Future (Climate Interactive Blog)


March 9, 2012 – 10:13 a.m.

The prevalence of games in our culture provides an opportunity to increase the understanding of our global challenges. In 2008 the Pew Research Centerestimated that over half of American adults played video games and 80% of young Americans play video games. The vast majority of these games serve purely to entertain. There are a growing number of games that aim to make a difference, however. These games range from those that show players the complexity of creating adequate aid packages and delivering them to places in need to games thatrequire people to get out and work to improve their communities to do well in the game.

Looking at the climate change challenge there are a number of games and interactive tools to broaden our understanding of the dynamics involved.Climate Interactive, for one, has led the development of the role-playing game World Climate, which simulates the UN climate change negotiations and is being adopted from middle school all the way up to executive management-level classrooms. Many are recognizing the power of games and everyone from government agencies to NGOs to a group of teenagers is trying to launch a game to help address climate change. Below are some of the climate and sustainability-related games we’ve found. Let us know if you’ve found others.

Computer Games:

Climate Challenge

1. Climate Challenge: The player acts as a European leader who must make decisions for their nation to reduce CO2 emissions, but must also keep in mind public and international approval, energy, food, and financial needs.

2. Fate of the World: A PC game that challenges players to solve the crises facing the Earth from natural disasters and climate change to political uprisings and international relations.

3. CEO2: A game that puts players at the head of a company in one of four industries. The player must then make decisions to reduce the CO2 and maintain (and increase) the company’s value.

4. VGas: Users build a house and select the best furnishing and lifestyle choices to have the lowest carbon footprint.

5. CO2FX: A multi-player educational game, designed for students in high school, which explores the relationship of climate change to economic, political, and science policy decisions.

6. “Operation: Climate Control” Game: A multi-player computer game where the player’s role is to decide on local environmental policy for Europe through the 21st century.


7. My2050: An interactive game to determine a scenario for the UK to lower its CO2 emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2050. The user can select from adjustments in sectors from energy to transit.

8. Plan it Green: Gamers act as the planners of a city to revitalize it to become a greener town through energy retrofits, clean energy jobs, and green building.

9. Logicity: A game that challenges players to reduce their carbon footprints by making decisions in a virtual city.

10. Electrocity: A game designed for school children in New Zealand to plan a city that balances the needs of energy, development, and the environment.

11. Climate Culture: A virtual social networking game based on players’ actual carbon footprints and lifestyle choices. Players compete to earn badges and awards for their decisions.

12. World Without Oil: An alternate reality game that was played out on blogs and other social media platforms for 32 weeks in 2007 by thousands of players to simulate what might happen if there was an oil crisis and oil became inaccessible. Participants wrote blogs and made videos about their experience as if it was real.

13. SimCity 5 (coming 2013): With over 20 years of experience and millions of players the SimCity series has captured imaginations by putting players in control of developing cities. Recently announced, SimCity 5 will add among other things the need to face sustainability challenges like climate change, limited natural resources, and urban walkability.

Role-playing Games:

14. World Climate Exercise: A role-playing game for groups that simulates the UN climate change negotiations by dividing the group into regional and national negotiating teams to negotiate a treaty to 2 degrees or less. 

15. “Stabilization Wedge” Game: A game to show participants the different ways to cut carbon emissions, through the concept of wedges.

Board Games:

16. Climate Catan: Building on the widely popular board game Settlers of Catan, this version adds oil as resource that spurs development but if too much is used it also instigates a climate related disaster which can ruin development.

17. Climate-Poker: A card game with the aim to have the largest climate conference in order to address climate change.

18. Keep Cool- Gambling with the Climate: Players take on the roles of national political leaders trying to address climate change and must make decisions about the type of growth and balance the desires of lobby groups and challenges of natural disasters.

19. Polar Eclipse Game: A game where players navigate different decisions in order to chart a path to future that avoids the worst temperature rise.

Lessons from Gaming for Climate Wonks and Leaders — Video


Games can help us ensure that climate and energy analysis gets used to make a difference. Last week at the Climate Prediction Applications Science Workshopin Miami, Climate Interactive co-director Drew Jones, gave a keynote presentation to an audience of climate analysts, many who are working to communicate the massive amount of climate data to the public.

In Drew’s speech below, he draws out the key things that we are learning from games, like Angry Birds, Farmville, World of Warcraft, and the existing efforts to integrate climate change into games. Also included in this presentation, but left out of the video, was a condensed version of the World Climate Exercise, a game that Climate Interactive has developed to help people explore the complex dynamics encountered at the international climate change negotiations.

You can’t do the math without the words (University of Miami Press Release)

University of Miami anthropological linguist studies the anumeric language of an Amazonian tribe; the findings add new perspective to the way people acquire knowledge, perception and reasoning

Marie Guma Diaz
University of Miami

 VIDEO: Caleb Everett, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, talks about the unique insight we gain about people by studying…

CORAL GABLES, FL (February 20, 2012)–Most people learn to count when they are children. Yet surprisingly, not all languages have words for numbers. A recent study published in the journal ofCognitive Science shows that a few tongues lack number words and as a result, people in these cultures have a difficult time performing common quantitative tasks. The findings add new insight to the way people acquire knowledge, perception and reasoning.

The Piraha people of the Amazon are a group of about 700 semi-nomadic people living in small villages of about 10-15 adults, along the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon. According to University of Miami (UM) anthropological linguist Caleb Everett, the Piraha are surprisingly unable to represent exact amounts. Their language contains just three imprecise words for quantities: Hòi means “small size or amount,” hoì, means “somewhat larger amount,” and baàgiso indicates to “cause to come together, or many.” Linguists refer to languages that do not have number specific words as anumeric.

“The Piraha is a really fascinating group because they are really only one or two groups in the world that are totally anumeric,” says Everett, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the UM College of Arts and Sciences. “This is maybe one of the most extreme cases of language actually restricting how people think.”

His study “Quantity Recognition Among speakers of an Anumeric Language” demonstrates that number words are essential tools of thought required to solve even the simplest quantitative problems, such as one-to-one correspondence.

“I’m interested in how the language you speak affects the way that you think,” says Everett. “The question here is what tools like number words really allows us to do and how they change the way we think about the world.”

The work was motivated by contradictory results on the numerical performance of the Piraha. An earlier article reported the people incapable of performing simple numeric tasks with quantities greater than three, while another showed they were capable of accomplishing such tasks.

Everett repeated all the field experiments of the two previous studies. The results indicated that the Piraha could not consistently perform simple mathematical tasks. For example, one test involved 14 adults in one village that were presented with lines of spools of thread and were asked to create a matching line of empty rubber balloons. The people were not able to do the one-to-one correspondence, when the numbers were greater than two or three.

The study provides a simple explanation for the controversy. Unbeknown to other researchers, the villagers that participated in one of the previous studies had received basic numerical training by Keren Madora, an American missionary that has worked with the indigenous people of the Amazon for 33 years, and co-author of this study. “Her knowledge of what had happened in that village was crucial. I understood then why they got the results that they did,” Everett says.

Madora used the Piraha language to create number words. For instance she used the words “all the sons of the hand,” to indicate the number four. The introduction of number words into the village provides a reasonable explanation for the disagreement in the previous studies.

The findings support the idea that language is a key component in processes of the mind. “When they’ve been introduced to those words, their performance improved, so it’s clearly a linguistic effect, rather than a generally cultural factor,” Everett says. The study highlights the unique insight we gain about people and society by studying mother languages.

“Preservation of mother tongues is important because languages can tell us about aspects of human history, human cognition, and human culture that we would not have access to if the languages are gone,” he says. “From a scientific perspective I think it’s important, but it’s most important from the perspective of the people, because they lose a lot of their cultural heritage when their languages die.”

Will one researcher’s discovery deep in the Amazon destroy the foundation of modern linguistics? (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Chronicle Review

By Tom Bartlett

March 20, 2012

Angry Words

chomsky everett

A Christian missionary sets out to convert a remote Amazonian tribe. He lives with them for years in primitive conditions, learns their extremely difficult language, risks his life battling malaria, giant anacondas, and sometimes the tribe itself. In a plot twist, instead of converting them he loses his faith, morphing from an evangelist trying to translate the Bible into an academic determined to understand the people he’s come to respect and love.

Along the way, the former missionary discovers that the language these people speak doesn’t follow one of the fundamental tenets of linguistics, a finding that would seem to turn the field on its head, undermine basic assumptions about how children learn to communicate, and dethrone the discipline’s long-reigning king, who also happens to be among the most well-known and influential intellectuals of the 20th century.

It feels like a movie, and it may in fact turn into one—there’s a script and producers on board. It’s already a documentary that will air in May on the Smithsonian Channel. A play is in the works in London. And the man who lived the story, Daniel Everett, has written two books about it. His 2008 memoir Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is filled with Joseph Conrad-esque drama. The new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, which is lighter on jungle anecdotes, instead takes square aim at Noam Chomsky, who has remained the pre-eminent figure in linguistics since the 1960s, thanks to the brilliance of his ideas and the force of his personality.

But before any Hollywood premiere, it’s worth asking whether Everett actually has it right. Answering that question is not straightforward, in part because it hinges on a bit of grammar that no one except linguists ever thinks about. It’s also made tricky by the fact that Everett is the foremost expert on this language, called Pirahã, and one of only a handful of outsiders who can speak it, making it tough for others to weigh in and leading his critics to wonder aloud if he has somehow rigged the results.

More than any of that, though, his claim is difficult to verify because linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both. Such divisions exist, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, but linguists seem uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.”

With that in mind, why should anyone care about the answer? Because it might hold the key to understanding what separates us from the rest of the animals.

Imagine a linguist from Mars lands on Earth to survey the planet’s languages (presumably after obtaining the necessary interplanetary funding). The alien would reasonably conclude that the languages of the world are mostly similar with interesting but relatively minor variations.

As science-fiction premises go it’s rather dull, but it roughly illustrates Chomsky’s view of linguistics, known as Universal Grammar, which has dominated the field for a half-century. Chomsky is fond of this hypothetical and has used it repeatedly for decades, including in a 1971 discussion with Michel Foucault, during which he added that “this Martian would, if he were rational, conclude that the structure of the knowledge that is acquired in the case of language is basically internal to the human mind.”

In his new book, Everett, now dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, writes about hearing Chomsky bring up the Martian in a lecture he gave in the early 1990s. Everett noticed a group of graduate students in the back row laughing and exchanging money. After the talk, Everett asked them what was so funny, and they told him they had taken bets on precisely when Chomsky would once again cite the opinion of the linguist from Mars.

The somewhat unkind implication is that the distinguished scholar had become so predictable that his audiences had to search for ways to amuse themselves. Another Chomsky nugget is the way he responds when asked to give a definition of Universal Grammar. He will sometimes say that Universal Grammar is whatever made it possible for his granddaughter to learn to talk but left the world’s supply of kittens and rocks speechless—a less-than-precise answer. Say “kittens and rocks” to a cluster of linguists and eyes are likely to roll.

Chomsky’s detractors have said that Universal Grammar is whatever he needs it to be at that moment. By keeping it mysterious, they contend, he is able to dodge criticism and avoid those who are gunning for him. It’s hard to murder a phantom.

Everett’s book is an attempt to deliver, if not a fatal blow, then at least a solid right cross to Universal Grammar. He believes that the structure of language doesn’t spring from the mind but is instead largely formed by culture, and he points to the Amazonian tribe he studied for 30 years as evidence. It’s not that Everett thinks our brains don’t play a role—they obviously do. But he argues that just because we are capable of language does not mean it is necessarily prewired. As he writes in his book: “The discovery that humans are better at building human houses than porpoises tells us nothing about whether the architecture of human houses is innate.”

The language Everett has focused on, Pirahã, is spoken by just a few hundred members of a hunter-gatherer tribe in a remote part of Brazil. Everett got to know the Pirahã in the late 1970s as an American missionary. With his wife and kids, he lived among them for months at a time, learning their language from scratch. He would point to objects and ask their names. He would transcribe words that sounded identical to his ears but had completely different meanings. His progress was maddeningly slow, and he had to deal with the many challenges of jungle living. His story of taking his family, by boat, to get treatment for severe malaria is an epic in itself.

His initial goal was to translate the Bible. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics along the way and, in 1984, spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an office near Chomsky’s. He was a true-blue Chomskyan then, so much so that his kids grew up thinking Chomsky was more saint than professor. “All they ever heard about was how great Chomsky was,” he says. He was a linguist with a dual focus: studying the Pirahã language and trying to save the Pirahã from hell. The second part, he found, was tough because the Pirahã are rooted in the present. They don’t discuss the future or the distant past. They don’t have a belief in gods or an afterlife. And they have a strong cultural resistance to the influence of outsiders, dubbing all non-Pirahã “crooked heads.” They responded to Everett’s evangelism with indifference or ridicule.

As he puts it now, the Pirahã weren’t lost, and therefore they had no interest in being saved. They are a happy people. Living in the present has been an excellent strategy, and their lack of faith in the divine has not hindered them. Everett came to convert them, but over many years found that his own belief in God had melted away.

So did his belief in Chomsky, albeit for different reasons. The Pirahã language is remarkable in many respects. Entire conversations can be whistled, making it easier to communicate in the jungle while hunting. Also, the Pirahã don’t use numbers. They have words for amounts, like a lot or a little, but nothing for five or one hundred. Most significantly, for Everett’s argument, he says their language lacks what linguists call “recursion”—that is, the Pirahã don’t embed phrases in other phrases. They instead speak only in short, simple sentences.

In a recursive language, additional phrases and clauses can be inserted in a sentence, complicating the meaning, in theory indefinitely. For most of us, the lack of recursion in a little-known Brazilian language may not seem terribly interesting. But when Everett published a paper with that finding in 2005, the news created a stir. There were magazine articles and TV appearances. Fellow linguists weighed in, if only in some cases to scoff. Everett had put himself and the Pirahã on the map.

His paper might have received a shrug if Chomsky had not recently co-written a paper, published in 2002, that said (or seemed to say) that recursion was the single most important feature of human language. “In particular, animal communication systems lack the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans’ capacity for recursion),” the authors wrote. Elsewhere in the paper, the authors wrote that the faculty of human language “at minimum” contains recursion. They also deemed it the “only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.”

In other words, Chomsky had finally issued what seemed like a concrete, definitive statement about what made human language unique, exposing a possible vulnerability. Before Everett’s paper was published, there had already been back and forth between Chomsky and the authors of a response to the 2002 paper, Ray Jackendoff and Steven Pinker. In the wake of that public disagreement, Everett’s paper had extra punch.

It’s been said that if you want to make a name for yourself in modern linguistics, you have to either align yourself with Chomsky or seek to destroy him. Either you are desirous of his approval or his downfall. With his 2005 paper, Everett opted for the latter course.

Because the pace of academic debate is just this side of glacial, it wasn’t until June 2009 that the next major chapter in the saga was written. Three scholars who are generally allies of Chomsky published a lengthy paper in the journal Language dissecting Everett’s claims one by one. What he considered unique features of Pirahã weren’t unique. What he considered “gaps” in the language weren’t gaps. They argued this in part by comparing Everett’s recent paper to work he published in the 1980s, calling it, slightly snidely, his earlier “rich material.” Everett wasn’t arguing with Chomsky, they claimed; he was arguing with himself. Young Everett thought Pirahã had recursion. Old Everett did not.

Everett’s defense was, in so many words, to agree. Yes, his earlier work was contradictory, but that’s because he was still under Chomsky’s sway when he wrote it. It’s natural, he argued, even when doing basic field work, cataloging the words of a language and the stories of a people, to be biased by your theoretical assumptions. Everett was a Chomskyan through and through, so much so that he had written the MSN Encarta encyclopedia entry on him. But now, after more years with the Pirahã, the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he saw the language on its own terms rather than those he was trying to impose on it.

David Pesetsky, a linguistics professor at MIT and one of the authors of the critical Languagepaper, thinks Everett was trying to gin up a “Star Wars-level battle between himself and the forces of Universal Grammar,” presumably with Everett as Luke Skywalker and Chomsky as Darth Vader.

Contradicting Everett meant getting into the weeds of the Pirahã language, a language that Everett knew intimately and his critics did not. “Most people took the attitude that this wasn’t worth taking on,” Pesetsky says. “There’s a junior-high-school corridor, two kids are having a fight, and everyone else stands back.” Everett wrote a lengthy reply that Pesetsky and his co-authors found unsatisfying and evasive. “The response could have been ‘Yeah, we need to do this more carefully,'” says Pesetsky. “But he’s had seven years to do it more carefully and he hasn’t.”

Critics haven’t just accused Everett of inaccurate analysis. He’s the sole authority on a language that he says changes everything. If he wanted to, they suggest, he could lie about his findings without getting caught. Some were willing to declare him essentially a fraud. That’s what one of the authors of the 2009 paper, Andrew Nevins, now at University College London, seems to believe. When I requested an interview with Nevins, his reply read, “I may be being glib, but it seems you’ve already analyzed this kind of case!” Below his message was a link to an article I had written about a Dutch social psychologist who had admitted to fabricating results, including creating data from studies that were never conducted. In another e-mail, after declining to expand on his apparent accusation, Nevins wrote that the “world does not need another article about Dan Everett.”

In 2007, Everett heard reports of a letter signed by Cilene Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and who co-wrote the paper with Pesetsky and Nevins, that accuses him of racism. According to Everett, he got a call from a source informing him that Rodrigues, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had sent a letter to the organization in Brazil that grants permission for researchers to visit indigenous groups like the Pirahã. He then discovered that the organization, called FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, would no longer grant him permission to visit the Pirahã, whom he had known for most of his adult life and who remain the focus of his research.

He still hasn’t been able to return. Rodrigues would not respond directly to questions about whether she had signed such a letter, nor would Nevins. Rodrigues forwarded an e-mail from another linguist who has worked in Brazil, which speculates that Everett was denied access to the Pirahã because he did not obtain the proper permits and flouted the law, accusations Everett calls “completely false” and “amazingly nasty lies.”

Whatever the reason for his being blocked, the question remains: Is Everett’s work racist? The accusation goes that because Everett says that the Pirahã do not have recursion, and that all human languages supposedly have recursion, Everett is asserting that the Pirahã are less than human. Part of this claim is based on an online summary, written by a former graduate student of Everett’s, that quotes traders in Brazil saying the Pirahã “talk like chickens and act like monkeys,” something Everett himself never said and condemns. The issue is sensitive because the Pirahã, who eschew the trappings of modern civilization and live the way their forebears lived for thousands of years, are regularly denigrated by their neighbors in the region as less than human. The fact that Everett is American, not Brazilian, lends the charge added symbolic weight.

When you read Everett’s two books about the Pirahã, it is nearly impossible to think that he believes they are inferior. In fact, he goes to great lengths not to condescend and offers defenses of practices that outsiders would probably find repugnant. In one instance he describes, a Pirahã woman died, leaving behind a baby that the rest of the tribe thought was too sick to live. Everett cared for the infant. One day, while he was away, members of the tribe killed the baby, telling him that it was in pain and wanted to die. He cried, but didn’t condemn, instead defending in the book their seemingly cruel logic.

Likewise, the Pirahã’s aversion to learning agriculture, or preserving meat, or the fact that they show no interest in producing artwork, is portrayed by Everett not as a shortcoming but as evidence of the Pirahã’s insistence on living in the present. Their nonhierarchical social system seems to Everett fair and sensible. He is critical of his own earlier attempts to convert the Pirahã to Christianity as a sort of “colonialism of the mind.” If anything, Everett is more open to a charge of romanticizing the Pirahã culture.

Other critics are more measured but equally suspicious. Mark Baker, a linguist at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, who considers himself part of Chomsky’s camp, mentions Everett’s “vested motive” in saying that the Pirahã don’t have recursion. “We always have to be a little careful when we have one person who has researched a language that isn’t accessible to other people,” Baker says. He is dubious of Everett’s claims. “I can’t believe it’s true as described,” he says.

Chomsky hasn’t exactly risen above the fray. He told a Brazilian newspaper that Everett was a “charlatan.” In the documentary about Everett, Chomsky raises the possibility, without saying he believes it, that Everett may have faked his results. Behind the scenes, he has been active as well. According to Pesetsky, Chomsky asked him to send an e-mail to David Papineau, a professor of philosophy at King’s College London, who had written a positive, or at least not negative, review of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. The e-mail complained that Papineau had misunderstood recursion and was incorrectly siding with Everett. Papineau thought he had done nothing of the sort. “For people outside of linguistics, it’s rather surprising to find this kind of protection of orthodoxy,” Papineau says.

And what if the Pirahã don’t have recursion? Rather than ferreting out flaws in Everett’s work as Pesetsky did, Chomsky’s preferred response is to say that it doesn’t matter. In a lecture he gave last October at University College London, he referred to Everett’s work without mentioning his name, talking about those who believed that “exceptions to the generalizations are considered lethal.” He went on to say that a “rational reaction” to finding such exceptions “isn’t to say ‘Let’s throw out the field.'” Universal Grammar permits such exceptions. There is no problem. As Pesetsky puts it: “There’s nothing that says languages without subordinate clauses can’t exist.”

Except the 2002 paper on which Chomsky’s name appears. Pesetsky and others have backed away from that paper, arguing not that it was incorrect, but that it was “written in an unfortunate way” and that the authors were “trying to make certain things comprehensible about linguistics to a larger public, but they didn’t make it clear that they were simplifying.” Some say that Chomsky signed his name to the paper but that it was actually written by Marc Hauser, the former professor of psychology at Harvard University, who resigned after Harvard officials found him guilty of eight counts of research misconduct. (For the record, no one has suggested the alleged misconduct affected his work with Chomsky.)

Chomsky declined to grant me an interview. Those close to him say he sees Everett as seizing on a few stray, perhaps underexplained, lines from that 2002 paper and distorting them for his own purposes. And the truth, Chomsky has made clear, should be apparent to any rational person.

Ted Gibson has heard that one before. When Gibson, a professor of cognitive sciences at MIT, gave a paper on the topic at a January meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, held in Portland, Ore., Pesetsky stood up at the end to ask a question. “His first comment was that Chomsky never said that. I went back and found the slide,” he says. “Whenever I talk about this question in front of these people I have to put up the literal quote from Chomsky. Then I have to put it up again.”

Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, is also vexed at how Chomsky and company have, in his view, played rhetorical sleight-of-hand to make their case. “They have retreated to such an extreme degree that it says really nothing,” he says. “If it has a sentence longer than three words then they’re claiming they were right. If that’s what they claim, then they weren’t claiming anything.” Pullum calls this move “grossly dishonest and deeply silly.”

Everett has been arguing about this for seven years. He says Pirahã undermines Universal Grammar. The other side says it doesn’t. In an effort to settle the dispute, Everett asked Gibson, who holds a joint appointment in linguistics at MIT, to look at the data and reach his own conclusions. He didn’t provide Gibson with data he had collected himself because he knows his critics suspect those data have been cooked. Instead he provided him with sentences and stories collected by his missionary predecessor. That way, no one could object that it was biased.

In the documentary about Everett, handing over the data to Gibson is given tremendous narrative importance. Everett is the bearded, safari-hatted field researcher boating down a river in the middle of nowhere, talking and eating with the natives. Meanwhile, Gibson is the nerd hunched over his keyboard back in Cambridge, crunching the data, examining it with his research assistants, to determine whether Everett really has discovered something. If you watch the documentary, you get the sense that what Gibson has found confirms Everett’s theory. And that’s the story you get from Everett, too. In our first interview, he encouraged me to call Gibson. “The evidence supports what I’m saying,” he told me, noting that he and Gibson had a few minor differences of interpretation.

But that’s not what Gibson thinks. Some of what he found does support Everett. For example, he’s confirmed that Pirahã lacks possessive recursion, phrases like “my brother’s mother’s house.” Also, there appear to be no conjunctions like “and” or “or.” In other instances, though, he’s found evidence that seems to undercut Everett’s claims—specifically, when it comes to noun phrases in sentences like “His mother, Itaha, spoke.”

That is a simple sentence, but inserting the mother’s name is a hallmark of recursion. Gibson’s paper, on which Everett is a co-author, states, “We have provided suggestive evidence that Pirahã may have sentences with recursive structures.”

If that turns out to be true, it would undermine the primary thesis of both of Everett’s books about the Pirahã. Rather than the hero who spent years in the Amazon emerging with evidence that demolished the field’s predominant theory, Everett would be the descriptive linguist who came back with a couple of books full of riveting anecdotes and cataloged a language that is remarkable, but hardly changes the game.

Everett only realized during the reporting of this article that Gibson disagreed with him so strongly. Until then, he had been saying that the results generally supported his theory. “I don’t know why he says that,” Gibson says. “Because it doesn’t. He wrote that our work corroborates it. A better word would be falsified. Suggestive evidence is against it right now and not for it.” Though, he points out, the verdict isn’t final. “It looks like it is recursive,” he says. “I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”

Another researcher, Ray Jackendoff, a linguist at Tufts University, was also provided the data and sees it slightly differently. “I think we decided there is some embedding but it is of limited depth,” he says. “It’s not recursive in the sense that you can have infinitely deep embedding.” Remember that in Chomsky’s paper, it was the idea that “open-ended” recursion was possible that separated human and animal communication. Whether the kind of limited recursion Gibson and Jackendoff have noted qualifies depends, like everything else in this debate, on the interpretation.

Everett thinks what Gibson has found is not recursion, but rather false starts, and he believes further research will back him up. “These are very short, extremely limited examples and they almost always are nouns clarifying other nouns,” he says. “You almost never see anything but that in these cases.” And he points out that there still doesn’t seem to be any evidence of infinite recursion. Says Everett: “There simply is no way, even if what I claim to be false starts are recursive instead, to say, “‘My mother, Susie, you know who I mean, you like her, is coming tonight.'”

The field has a history of theoretical disagreements that turn ugly. In the book The Linguistic Wars, published in 1995, Randy Allen Harris tells the story of another skirmish between Chomsky and a group of insurgent linguists called generative semanticists. Chomsky dismissed his opponents’ arguments as absurd. His opponents accused him of altering his theories when confronted and of general arrogance. “Chomsky has the impressive rhetorical talent of offering ideas which are at once tentative and fully endorsed, of appearing to take the if out of his arguments while nevertheless keeping it safely around,” writes Harris.

That rhetorical talent was on display in his lecture last October, in which he didn’t just disagree with other linguists, but treated their arguments as ridiculous and a mortal danger to the field. The style seems to be reflected in his political activism. Watch his 1969 debate on Firing Lineagainst William F. Buckley Jr., available on YouTube, and witness Chomsky tie his famous interlocutor in knots. It is a thorough, measured evisceration. Chomsky is willing to deploy those formidable skills in linguistic arguments as well.

Everett is far from the only current Chomsky challenger. Recently there’s been a rise in so-called corpus linguistics, a data-driven method of evaluating a language, using computer software to analyze sentences and phrases. The method produces detailed information and, for scholars like Gibson, finally provides scientific rigor for a field he believes has been mired in never-ending theoretical disputes. That, along with the brain-scanning technology that linguists are increasingly making use of, may be able to help resolve questions about how much of the structure of language is innate and how much is shaped by culture.

But Chomsky has little use for that method. In his lecture, he deemed corpus linguistics nonscientific, comparing it to doing physics by describing the swirl of leaves on a windy day rather than performing experiments. This was “just statistical modeling,” he said, evidence of a “kind of pathology in the cognitive sciences.” Referring to brain scans, Chomsky joked that the only way to get a grant was to propose an fMRI.

As for Universal Grammar, some are already writing its obituary. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has stated flatly that “Universal Grammar is dead.” Two linguists, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, published a paper in 2009 titled “The Myth of Language Universals,” arguing that the “claims of Universal Grammar … are either empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading in that they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals.” Pullum has a similar take: “There is no Universal Grammar now, not if you take Chomsky seriously about the things he says.”

Gibson puts it even more harshly. Just as Chomsky doesn’t think corpus linguistics is science, Gibson doesn’t think Universal Grammar is worthwhile. “The question is, ‘What is it?’ How much is built-in and what does it do? There are no details,” he says. “It’s crazy to say it’s dead. It was never alive.”

Such proclamations have been made before and Chomsky, now 83, has a history of outmaneuvering and outlasting his adversaries. Whether Everett will be yet another in a long line of would-be debunkers who turn into footnotes remains to be seen. “I probably do, despite my best intentions, hope that I turn out to be right,” he says. “I know that it is not scientific. But I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit it.”

Canibais? Nós? Imagine! (Revista Geo)

Canibais viveram na América do Sul ou na Nova Guiné – mas com certeza não na Europa! Que engano! Ainda no século 19, a antropofagia era praticada em Berlim ou Paris; embora não de forma tão grotesca como na gravura (à esquerda). Na Europa, partes do corpo humano eram consumidas por razões médicas…

Por Andreas Weiser

Edição 31 – 2011

No dia em que fui preso ainda navegávamos a cerca de sete milhas de distância de Bertioga, quando os selvagens tomaram o rumo de uma ilha. Eles puxaram as canoas para a terra e depois me arrastaram para fora. Eu não conseguia ver nada de tão machucado que estava meu rosto. Também não conseguia andar por causa da lesão na minha perna; portanto, fiquei caído na areia. Os selvagens me cercaram e indicaram com gestos ameaçadores que pretendiam me devorar.”

Hans Staden é o nome do infeliz tão gravemente ferido, caído em uma praia no litoral brasileiro naquela ensolarada tarde de dezembro de 1553. Ele é um “lansquenê” (do alemão Landsknecht, soldado mercenário alemão). Staden era procedente da região do atual estado de Hesse, na Alemanha, mas estava a serviço dos colonialistas portugueses comandando uma pequena fortificação não muito distante da atual cidade de São Paulo.

Levianamente, ele havia se afastado demais da área protegida pelo forte, caindo nas mãos dos índios tupinambá, que estavam em pé de guerra com os portugueses. Prisioneiros inimigos costumavam ser escravizados pelos índios litorâneos – ou eram devorados. “Quando nos aproximamos da aldeia chamada Ubatuba, vi sete cabanas. Perto da praia na qual eles tinham largado suas canoas havia mulheres trabalhando na roça… Fui forçado a lhes gritar de longe em sua língua Aju ne xe remiurama, que quer dizer: ‘Eu, vossa comida, estou chegando’.”

O lansquenê não estava destinado ao consumo imediato. Os tupinambá o reservariam para ser devorado durante uma festividade. Staden permaneceu em cativeiro durante nove meses.

Durante esse tempo ele foi obrigado a assistir como os índios matavam e comiam outros prisioneiros. Em seus diários, o alemão descreve o ritual nos mínimos detalhes – e de uma forma tão distante que é como se o medo de logo chegar a sua vez o tivesse feito sair de si mesmo e se transformado em um observador imparcial.

Uma crônica do século 16 ilustra como o lansquenê (do alemão Landsknecht, soldado mercenário alemão que, nos séculos 15 e 16 servia sob o comando de oficiais de sua nacionalidade) Hans Staden cai nas mãos dos “nus comedores de gente”

“Eles fazem borlas de plumas para a clava com o qual matam o prisioneiro”, escreveu o lansquenê. “Quando tudo está preparado, eles determinam o dia em que o infeliz morrerá e convidam índios de outras aldeias para essa celebração.”

Depois disso, o drama na mata Atlântica se aproxima de seu clímax: “Por fim, um dos homens pega a clava, se posiciona diante do prisioneiro e lhe mostra a arma de tal modo que a vítima é obrigada a olhar para ela. Enquanto isso, o índio que matará o prisioneiro sai em companhia de outros 13 ou 14. Eles pintam os corpos com cinzas antes de retornarem à praça onde está o cativo.”

Segue-se uma troca de palavras entre o prisioneiro e o índio que irá matá-lo. Depois disso, o guerreiro “o atinge com a clava por trás na cabeça”.

Imediatamente, as mulheres esfolam o cadáver sobre uma fogueira. Em seguida, Hans Staden descreve como o morto é esquartejado. Um homem “corta suas pernas acima do joelho e separa os braços do torso; então quatro mulheres pegam essas quatro partes e, com grande gritaria de alegria, correm com elas ao redor da cabana. Depois disso, eles separam as costas com o traseiro da parte dianteira do corpo. Eles comem as tripas e também a carne da cabeça. O cérebro, a língua e todo o resto comestível da cabeça são reservados para as crianças. Depois que tudo isso aconteceu, cada um volta para sua oca levando a sua parte”.

ISSO REALMENTE PODE ser verdade? Os relatos de Staden não lembram demais aquelas histórias em quadrinhos de canibais em que o homem branco cozinha no caldeirão de um cacique da selva todo enfeitado com plumas e ossos?

Atualmente, muitos cientistas acreditam que está provado que os tupinambá, bem como outras tribos indígenas, de fato eram canibais. Ao que tudo indica, aquela fração de antropólogos que queria categoricamente absolver “o bom selvagem” da acusação de antropofagia foi refutada: um patologista e bioquímico comprovou a existência de traços de proteínas humanas em restos de excrementos e em panelas centenárias dos índios anasazi norte-americanos – provas irrefutáveis de canibalismo. Na Amazônia, pesquisadores documentaram casos de antropofagia ritualística até o século 20. Os índios wari, por exemplo, não consumiam apenas seus inimigos mortos mas também parentes falecidos. A ideia de enterrar um ente querido na terra úmida e mofada da floresta lhes era repugnante.

Nos anos 90, o indianista Werner Hammer ainda presenciou como os índios yanomami misturavam as cinzas de seus mortos em uma papa de banana e depois a consumiam. Desse modo a comunidade internalizava seus falecidos.

Pergunta-se também o quanto Hans Staden foi verossímil como cronista. Sua obra Viagens e aventuras no Brasil (o título original é: História Verdadeira e Descrição de uma Terra de Selvagens Nus e Cruéis Comedores de Seres Humanos, Situada no Novo Mundo da América, Desconhecida antes e depois de Jesus Cristo nas Terras de Hessen até os Dois Últimos Anos, Visto que Hans Staden, de Homberg, em Hessen, a Conheceu por Experiência Própria e agora a Traz a Público com Essa Impressão”) foi publicada pela primeira vez em 1557, em Marburgo, Alemanha. Ela é um dos primeiros documentos detalhados de um mundo que já não existe mais. Muitos consideram o relato de Staden autêntico – e pesquisadores brasileiros também o utilizam como uma fonte valiosa de informação.

A antropofagia: (não) era um tabu na Europa
O canibalismo como expressão extrema de miséria também existiu na Europa: soldados espanhóis comem condenados à morte

Hans Staden descreve sem refletir sobre o que ocorre à sua volta. Ele não compreende que os tupinambá não matam e comem seus prisioneiros pelo puro prazer de matar. Ele é intelectualmente incapaz de conceber que o canibalismo praticado por eles brota de sua crença mágica de se apropriarem da força física e espiritual do inimigo por meio do ritual antropofágico.

De certa forma, a cerimônia era até uma homenagem à força do oponente: na Amazônia daquela época, ter um fim desses era considerado sofrer uma morte honrosa, explica Richard Sugg, da Universidade de Durham, na Inglaterra. Uma de suas áreas de pesquisa é o chamado “canibalismo medicinal”. Mas, para Staden, os indígenas não passavam de selvagens que comiam suas vítimas movidos apenas por um “grande ódio e inveja”.

ESTA ERA UMA OPINIÃO que certamente estava de acordo com o espírito de época vigente na Europa. Na Espanha do século 16, os habitantes nativos do Novo Mundo eram coletivamente demonizados – inclusive como justificativa para sua submissão e escravização. Para os europeus, o canibalismo era um fenômeno fora de seus próprios limites morais e geográficos. Um tabu, um ato de anomalia proibido por uma questão moral. Eram selvagens os que comiam a carne de sua própria espécie – algo impensável em uma sociedade civilizada. Ou pelo menos era nisso que os europeus queriam acreditar. Porém, eles estavam completamente equivocados.

Antropólogos distinguem três tipos básicos de comportamento antropofágico: o canibalismo por fome, o ritualístico e o medicinal. O primeiro é uma estratégia de sobrevivência na luta pela existência nua e crua, que ocorre em todas as sociedades a qualquer momento.

Cenas da vida cotidiana dos índios tupinambá, do ponto de vista de Hans Staden. O guerreiro à esquerda carrega a clava com a qual os presos eram abatidos antes de serem esquartejados

Na época em que Hans Staden aguardava seu próprio sacrifício na América do Sul, a Europa sofria com epidemias, atrocidades da guerra e fome. As cidades foram vitimadas pela peste; mais tarde a guerra dos Trinta Anos (1618-1648) devastou grandes áreas do continente e uma catastrófica mudança climática destruiu uma colheita atrás da outra. A Europa mergulhou em uma terrível fome.

Testemunhas da Alsácia de 1636 relataram, por exemplo, que as pessoas iam aos cemitérios e desenterravam cadáveres para comê-los, ou cortavam os enforcados do cadafalso para consumi-los. No mesmo ano, uma pastora de gado de Ruppertshofen, no sul da Alemanha, teria “arrancado a carne dos ossos de seu marido morto; cortando-a em pedaços, cozinhando e consumindo-a com seus filhos”.

NOS TEMPOS MODERNOS, a mais absoluta necessidade também pode transformar pessoas perfeitamente normais em canibais. Foi o que ocorreu com os membros de uma equipe de rúgbi do Uruguai, cujo avião caiu nos Andes, em 1972. Isolados durante 72 dias na gélida cordilheira, os sobreviventes se alimentaram da carne de seus colegas mortos. Sob o título Sobreviventes dos Andes, o trágico e sinistro episódio foi recriado em um filme de Hollywood.

O mesmo aconteceu no cerco a Leningrado, na União Soviética, entre 1941 e 1944, quando o exército alemão cortou todo e qualquer fornecimento de víveres à cidade. Desesperadas, as pessoas viram-se diante de duas alternativas: morrer de fome (o que aconteceu com centenas de milhares) ou fazer o impensável – o que centenas de fato fizeram.

Já o canibalismo ritualístico, como o praticado pelos índios tupinambá, não é um ato de necessidade ou desespero. Nem o canibalismo medicinal – a variante europeia de práticas antropofágicas.

Carne fresca da forca: particularmente cobiçada
Saque de cadáveres na guerra dos Trinta Anos: os famintos desenterravam até caixões. O canibalismo medicinal era a variante socialmente aceitável dessas ações repugnantes

Essas duas formas de antropofagia tinham suas raízes na idéia de que o corpo humano, mesmo depois de morto, ainda continha forças que podiam ser transferidas aos vivos – um conceito que sobreviveu até os primórdios da modernidade na cultura dos tupinambá, wari ou yanomami; bem como entre os povos das florestas tropicais da Nova Guiné, que ainda viviam na Idade da Pedra, e entre muitos cidadãos de Londres, Paris ou Berlim.

Os canibais europeus também consumiam partes do corpo humano para se beneficiar das forças obscuras do morto; contudo, eles não capturavam pessoas para consumi-las. Na Europa, aproveitavam-se os corpos de vítimas de execuções.

NO SÉCULO 16, quando Hans Staden ainda aguardava a sua morte na América do Sul –, médicos e farmacêuticos europeus acreditavam plenamente na energia mágica que, segundo eles, emanava dos corpos de recém-executados. A ingestão de carne humana não era, de forma alguma, um ritual secreto, realizado à luz bruxuleante de velas. Na Europa, os membros dos mortos ou as substâncias derivadas deles farão parte durante séculos do repertório do tratamento médico. O comércio de múmias e partes de cadáveres se transformou em um ramo altamente lucrativo da economia.

O famoso médico, alquimista, físico e astrólogo suíço Paracelso é considerado o representante mais conhecido do canibalismo medicinal – e ele deixou instruções precisas. No século 17, seu seguidor Johann Schroeder escreveu: “O ideal é você pegar o corpo de um homem ruivo, de cerca de 24 anos, que morreu de morte violenta”.

Cabelos ruivos eram sinal de “sangue mais leve” e de “uma carne melhor”. Era considerado particularmente importante que o cadáver não tivesse “dessangrado” – sangrado até a morte; pois, de acordo com a escola de pensamento dominante, um corpo sem sangue era um corpo sem alma.

Os tupinambá trazem o prisioneiro (a partir da esquerda); duas mulheres dançam ao redor da fogueira. A vítima é desmembrada. Sua cabeça é fervida; Staden está presente e reza

Todavia, o poder inerente ao cadáver era um produto altamente perecível. Era preciso captá-lo sem demora, para que não se esvaísse. De acordo com a imaginação da época, quando alguém morria, o vínculo entre a alma e o corpo se dissolvia em um prazo de 3 ou 4 dias. Portanto, somente quem se alimentasse de um cadáver fresco (ou de produtos derivados dele) podia ingerir também a sua alma e beneficiar- se de seus poderes.

Acreditava-se que era principalmente o sangue que continha aqueles “espíritos vitais” (Lebensgeister, em alemão) que uniriam a alma e o corpo. Dizem que quando o papa Inocêncio VIII estava à beira da morte, em 1492, os médicos teriam sangrado três meninos para ministrar ao seu proeminente paciente o sangue deles. Depois do procedimento, os meninos teriam morrido – e a intervenção aparentemente também não teria ajudado o Santo Padre.

NAQUELA ÉPOCA, os médicos papais também desconheciam o princípio que Paracelso postularia pouco mais tarde: “especialmente eficazes”, escreveu ele em sua Arte Necromantia, “são a carne e o sangue de criminosos executados”.

“Por que justamente os cadáveres de criminosos executados são considerados a melhor substância possível?”, pergunta a pesquisadora sociocultural Anna Bergman em seu livro Der entseelte Patient (“O paciente desalmado” – até onde pude verificar, sem tradução para o português), que descreve em detalhes as práticas do canibalismo medicinal. Uma parte da resposta parece ser puro pragmatismo: “Como, de que forma obter cadáveres jovens e frescos sem se tornar um assassino?” Para Bergman, a recomendação de Paracelso tem motivos mais profundos, que se enraízam nos mundos imaginários mágicos e nos rituais de execução cristãos – que hoje nos parecem tão bizarros quanto a crença tupinambá em espíritos.

De acordo com a convicção reinante na época, a alma do “pobre pecador” era purgada de todos os seus males (pecados) nos porões das câmaras de tortura da Justiça (significando que o pecador confessava sua culpa) – uma analogia à crucificação de Jesus Cristo. Estes corpos que, arrependidos e purificados pela Graça Divina, despedem-se deste mundo no cadafalso, são particularmente cobiçados pelos canibais da Europa.

Sangue dos decapitados: remédio para as massas

QUANDO O SANGUE esguicha e jorra das artérias e veias do delinquente decapitado, os espectadores se amontoam na cerca ao redor do cadafalso com recipientes coletores em punho. Os assistentes do carrasco coletam o sangue e devolvem os recipientes aos seus respectivos donos – que bebem avidamente o líquido. São epilépticos convencidos de que seu sofrimento pode ser curado com o sangue fresco de um executado. Eles querem incorporar sua alma – afinal, Hildegard von Bingen já havia explicado a epilepsia como uma “evasão da alma que sai do corpo”.

Essa cena no cadafalso não se passa na Idade Média, mas em Göttingen, na Alemanha, em 1858. Naquele ano, o primeiro cabo submarino entre Europa e América entrou em operação; Karl Marx escreveu sua Contribuição à crítica da Economia Política e Rudolf Virchow apresentou sua teoria, segundo a qual as doenças surgem em consequência de perturbações nas células do corpo – que substituiu o antigo conceito sobre o funcionamento dos fluidos corporais.

Para os adeptos do canibalismo medicinal, a coleta do sangue no cadafalso é apenas o começo do aproveitamento dos mortos. Médicos e anatomistas assediam os carrascos para obterem partes do corpo particularmente cobiçadas. O povo mais simples, por sua vez, tenta se apossar por conta própria das preciosas partes (sem passar pelo caminho da medicina, cara demais para eles) e começa a praticar saques tanto ao cadafalso como nos cemitérios. Frequentemente, os restos mortais dos executados são completamente dilacerados após poucos dias.

Hans Staden escapou com vida; os tupinambá o deixaram viver – talvez por que ele lhes parecesse covarde demais? Seus relatos tornaram-se uma fonte etnográfica

O QUE OCORREU NA EUROPA foi uma diversificação daquela prática que teve seu apogeu no século 17. Muitas receitas circulavam entre a população; transmitidas oralmente na medicina popular ou artisticamente impressas em tratados eruditos. O médico Johann Schröder, por exemplo, autor do manual de medicina mais importante do século 17, recomenda “cortar a carne humana em fatias, ou pedaços pequenos”, temperá-la, curti-la em aguardente de vinho e, por fim, secá-la.

A gordura corporal também é um produto muito desejado. Em 1675, o professor de medicina Tobias Andreae desmembra uma infanticida morta por afogamento, derrete sua carne e obtém 20 quilos da chamada “gordura do pecador pobre” (expressão que definia os criminosos condenados à morte). E, na Grande Enciclopédia Universal de Zedler, de 1739, pode-se ler como transformar essa gordura em um medicamento antropofágico para uso doméstico. Não seriam, portanto, os europeus que deveriam ser chamados de “selvagens ferozes comedores de gente”? Foi precisamente isso o que aconteceu entre os habitantes da África ao sul do Saara até o século 20: mesmo sem conhecimentos detalhados sobre o canibalismo praticado no hemisfério norte, os negros acreditavam que os brancos eram antropofágicos.

OS EUROPEUS JÁ HAVIAM levantado demasiado suspeitas perpetrando crimes colonialistas. Por volta de 1800, o explorador escocês Mungo Park, especializado no continente africano, relata que os escravos acorrentados tinham certeza de que os homens brancos os estavam levando ao abatedouro e não para realizar trabalhos forçados. No Peru, a primeira insurgência contra os espanhóis foi desencadeada pelo boato de que os senhores coloniais estavam matando os povos indígenas para obter gordura corporal.

O comércio de matérias-primas canibalescas na Europa assumiu proporções transcontinentais, envolvendo múmias. Entre 1500 e 1900, os médicos, os farmacêuticos e até os charlatães prescrevem a seus pacientes partes de cadáveres embalsamados, em pó ou forma esférica (comprimido), como remédio contra quase todos os males.

O negócio com a chamada mumia vera aegyptica (a “verdadeira múmia egípcia”) assume tais dimensões que em pouco tempo a demanda por exemplares autênticos do reino dos faraós não pode mais ser atendida. Comerciantes e farmacêuticos apelam para falsificações e corpos embalsamados de mendigos, leprosos e vítimas da peste. Fetos abortados também são secados e vendidos como múmias infantis.

As verdadeiras múmias egípcias são um artigo de luxo. O rei francês Francisco I (1494-1547) sempre carregava consigo uma pequena quantidade da preciosa substância para, no caso de uma queda do cavalo ou outro ferimento se medicar imediatamente. O filósofo inglês Francis Bacon (1561- 1626) apostava tanto no poder de cura das múmias quanto o poeta Léon Tolstoi, no final do século 19. Ainda em 1912, a empresa farmacêutica alemã Merck oferecia em seu catálogo a mumia vera aegyptica – “enquanto os estoques durassem”. O preço era citado por quilo: na época, o equivalente a 17,50 marcos alemães.

As vozes céticas eram escassas. Um dos críticos mais proeminentes foi o humanista francês Michel de Montaigne que em pleno século 16 rotulou a mania das múmias como comportamento canibal e chamaou a atenção para a “crítica hipócrita” dos europeus em relação à antropofagia indígena.

Com toda razão, julga o historiador de medicina britânico Richard Sugg. Segundo ele, o canibalismo do Velho Mundo possuiu uma dimensão muito mais abrangente do que o dos índios. O consumo de múmias não era uma cerimônia mágica, mas uma parte da cultura cotidiana e da vida econômica. Na Europa, médicos e farmacêuticos faziam bons negócios com o canibalismo. No topo dessa rentável cadeia comercial estavam os carrascos e os ladrões de túmulos. “A antropofagia europeia influiu nas mais diversas esferas e países”, resume Sugg. “Não se pode compará-la ao canibalismo limitado praticado, por exemplo, por uma tribo no Brasil.” Segundo o historiador, os verdadeiros canibais viviam na Europa.

DURANTE O SEU CATIVEIRO, Hans Staden observou, incrédulo, como os índios tupinambá tratavam bem aqueles que eles haviam reservado para suas festividades: “Eles lhe dão uma mulher que cuida dele, lhe dá de comer e também se deita com ele. Se ela engravidar, eles criam a criança… Alimentam muito bem o prisioneiro e o mantêm vivo por algum tempo, enquanto fazem todos os preparativos para a celebração. Eles fabricam muitos recipientes para as bebidas e outros mais especiais para as substâncias com as quais o pintam e decoram”.

Antes de ser abatida, a vítima desfruta do maior respeito; os tupinambá até permitem que ela gere descendentes – embora o venerado inimigo seja obrigado a provar que é digno de seu papel. Como?

Os sobreviventes da queda de um avião nos Andes, em 1972, alimentaram-se durante semanas da carne de seus companheiros de viagem mortos. Seu drama de sobrevivência se transformou em um filme de Hollywood

OS ASTECAS, por exemplo, torturavam seus prisioneiros para pôr à prova a sua coragem e assim determinar se eles eram ou não adequados para uma cerimônia antropofágica, explica Richard Sugg. Segundo ele, as vítimas cooperavam com seus torturadores – na certeza de estarem sendo criticamente observadas pelo deus sol.

Hans Staden relatou que os tupinambá também davam grande valor à força física e mental do inimigo. Afinal de contas, estas eram as características mais importantes que pretendiam incorporar ao devorá-lo. O lansquenê de Hesse, no entanto, foi um completo fracasso nesse sentido.

As regras desse jogo sinistro permaneceram incompreensíveis para ele. Em sua terra natal, a Europa do século 16, as pessoas que comerão e a que será comida não estabelecem nenhum tipo de relacionamento antes da morte da vítima. Staden havia perdido toda a sua coragem. Ele implorou, suplicou, chorou e rezou aos brados ao seu deus. E depois descreveu a reação dos tupinambá com as seguintes palavras: “Então eles disseram: ‘Ele é um verdadeiro português. Agora ele grita desse jeito porque está com horror da morte’… Eles zombaram cruelmente de mim; tanto os jovens como os velhos”.

A cientista cultural brasileira Vanete Santana Dezmann presume que o pânico de Hans Staden o tenha tornado indigno aos olhos dos índios. O que fazer com um pedaço de carne impregnado de covardia? Talvez tenha sido por essa razão que os tupinambá o libertaram novamente após nove meses de cativeiro.

O medo devora a alma: Staden teve a sorte do medroso. Ele voltou para Hesse e, juntamente com um médico, escreveu o seu livro sobre os comedores de gente.

Em Marburgo, o lansquenê abandonou o mercenarismo e foi trabalhar em uma jazida de salitre. Ele morreu em 1576.

A história não nos transmitiu o que aconteceu com o seu corpo.

How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in Pirahã? (N.Y.Times)

By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. Published: March 21, 2012

Dan Everett. Essential Media & Entertainment/Smithsonian Channel

In his 2008 memoir, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” the linguist Dan Everett recalled the night members of the Pirahã — the isolated Amazonian hunter-gatherers he first visited as a Christian missionary in the late 1970s — tried to kill him.

Dr. Everett survived, and his life among the Pirahã, a group of several hundred living in northwest Brazil, went on mostly peacefully as he established himself as a leading scholarly authority on the group and one of a handful of outsiders to master their difficult language.

His life among his fellow linguists, however, has been far less idyllic, and debate about his scholarship is poised to boil over anew, thanks to his ambitious new book, “Language: The Cultural Tool,” and a forthcoming television documentary that presents an admiring view of his research among the Pirahã along with a darkly conspiratorial view of some of his critics.

Members of the Pirahã people of Amazonian Brazil, who have an unusual language, as seen in “The Grammar of Happiness.” Essential Media & Entertainment/Smithsonian Channel

In 2005 Dr. Everett shot to international prominence with a paper claiming that he had identified some peculiar features of the Pirahã language that challenged Noam Chomsky’s influential theory, first proposed in the 1950s, that human language is governed by “universal grammar,” a genetically determined capacity that imposes the same fundamental shape on all the world’s tongues.

The paper, published in the journal Current Anthropology, turned him into something of a popular hero but a professional lightning rod, embraced in the press as a giant killer who had felled the mighty Chomsky but denounced by some fellow linguists as a fraud, an attention seeker or worse, promoting dubious ideas about a powerless indigenous group while refusing to release his data to skeptics.

The controversy has been simmering in journals and at conferences ever since, fed by a slow trickle of findings by researchers who have followed Dr. Everett’s path down to the Amazon. In a telephone interview Dr. Everett, 60, who is the dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., insisted that he’s not trying to pick a fresh fight, let alone present himself as a rival to the man he calls “the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

“I’m a small fish in the sea,” he said, adding, “I do not put myself at Chomsky’s level.”

Dan Everett in the Amazon region of Brazil with the Pirahã in 1981. Courtesy Daniel Everett

Still, he doesn’t shy from making big claims for “Language: The Cultural Tool,” published last week by Pantheon. “I am going beyond my work with Pirahã and systematically dismantling the evidence in favor of a language instinct,” he said. “I suspect it will be extremely controversial.”

Even some of Dr. Everett’s admirers fault him for representing himself as a lonely voice of truth against an all-powerful Chomskian orthodoxy bent on stopping his ideas dead. It’s certainly the view advanced in the documentary, “The Grammar of Happiness,” which accuses unnamed linguists of improperly influencing the Brazilian government to deny his request to return to Pirahã territory, either with the film crew or with a research team from M.I.T., led by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science. (It’s scheduled to run on the Smithsonian Channel in May.)

A Pirahã man in the film “The Grammar of Happiness.” Essential Media & Entertainment/Smithsonian Channel

Dr. Everett acknowledged that he had no firsthand evidence of any intrigues against him. But Miguel Oliveira, an associate professor of linguistics at the Federal University of Alagoas and the M.I.T. expedition’s Brazilian sponsor, said in an interview that Dr. Everett is widely resented among scholars in Brazil for his missionary past, anti-Chomskian stance and ability to attract research money.

“This is politics, everybody knows that,” Dr. Oliveira said. “One of the arguments is that he’s stealing something from the indigenous people to become famous. It’s not said. But that’s the way they think.”

Claims of skullduggery certainly add juice to a debate that, to nonlinguists, can seem arcane. In a sense what Dr. Everett has taken from the Pirahã isn’t gold or rare medicinal plants but recursion, a property of language that allows speakers to embed phrases within phrases — for example, “The professor said Everett said Chomsky is wrong” — infinitely.

In a much-cited 2002 paper Professor Chomsky, an emeritus professor of linguistics at M.I.T., writing with Marc D. Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch, declared recursion to be the crucial feature of universal grammar and the only thing separating human language from its evolutionary forerunners. But Dr. Everett, who had been publishing quietly on the Pirahã for two decades, announced in his 2005 paper that their language lacked recursion, along with color terms, number terms, and other common properties of language. The Pirahã, Dr. Everett wrote, showed these linguistic gaps not because they were simple-minded, but because their culture — which emphasized concrete matters in the here and now and also lacked creation myths and traditions of art making — did not require it.

To Dr. Everett, Pirahã was a clear case of culture shaping grammar — an impossibility according to the theory of universal grammar. But to some of his critics the paper was really just a case of Dr. Everett — who said he began questioning his own Chomskian ideas in the early 1990s, around the time he began questioning his faith — fixing the facts around his new theories.

In 2009 the linguists Andrew Nevins, Cilene Rodrigues and David Pesetsky, three of the fiercest early critics of Dr. Everett’s paper, published their own in the journal Language, disputing his linguistic claims and expressing “discomfort” with his overall account of the Pirahã’s simple culture. Their main source was Dr. Everett himself, whose 1982 doctoral dissertation, they argued, showed clear evidence of recursion in Pirahã.

“He was right the first time,” Dr. Pesetsky, an M.I.T. professor, said in an interview. “The first time he had reasons. The second time he had no reasons.”

Some scholars say the debate remains stymied by a lack of fresh, independently gathered data. Three different research teams, including one led by Dr. Gibson that traveled to the Pirahã in 2007, have published papers supporting Dr. Everett’s claim that there are no numbers in the Pirahã language. But efforts to go recursion hunting in the jungle — using techniques that range from eliciting sentences to having the Pirahã play specially designed video games — have so far yielded no published results.

Still, some have tried to figure out ways to press ahead, even without direct access to the Pirahã. After Dr. Gibson’s team was denied permission to return to Brazil in 2010, its members devised a method that minimized reliance on Dr. Everett’s data by analyzing instead a corpus of 1,000 sentences from Pirahã stories transcribed by another missionary in the region.

Their analysis, presented at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting in January, found no embedded clauses but did uncover “suggestive evidence” of recursion in a more obscure grammatical corner. It’s a result that is hardly satisfying to Dr. Everett, who questions it. But his critics, oddly, seem no more pleased.

Dr. Pesetsky, who heard the presentation, dismissed the whole effort as biased from the start by its reliance on Dr. Everett’s grammatical classifications and basic assumptions. “They were taking for granted the correctness of the hypothesis they were trying to disconfirm,” he said.

But to Dr. Gibson, who said he does not find Dr. Everett’s cultural theory of language persuasive, such responses reflect the gap between theoretical linguists and data-driven cognitive scientists, not to mention the strangely calcified state of the recursion debate.

“Chomskians and non-Chomskians are weirdly illogical at times,” he said. “It’s like they just don’t want to have a cogent argument. They just want to contradict what the other guy is saying.”

Dr. Everett’s critics fault him for failing to release his field data, even seven years after the controversy erupted. He countered that he is currently working to translate his decades’ worth of material and hopes to post some transcriptions online “over the next several months.” The bigger outrage, he insisted, is what he characterized as other scholars’ efforts to accuse him of “racist research” and interfere with his access to the Pirahã.

Dr. Rodrigues, a professor of linguistics at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, acknowledged by e-mail that in 2007 she wrote a letter to Funai, the Brazilian government agency in charge of indigenous affairs, detailing her objections to Dr. Everett’s linguistic research and to his broader description of Pirahã culture.

She declined to elaborate on the contents of the letter, which she said was written at Funai’s request and did not recommend any particular course of action. But asked about her overall opinion of Dr. Everett’s research, she said, “It does not meet the standards of scientific evidence in our field.”

Whatever the reasons for Dr. Everett’s being denied access, he’s enlisting the help of the Pirahã themselves, who are shown at the end of “The Grammar of Happiness” recording an emotional plea to the Brazilian government.

“We love Dan,” one man says into the camera. “Dan speaks our language.”

Books Without Borders (N.Y. Times)


Published: March 15, 2012

When we reached Tony Diaz, novelist and novice smuggler, by phone this week, he was in West Texas, 500 miles from his home in Houston and about a third of the way through a journey with three dozen comrades and serious contraband. That is, a busload of books.

“The Aztec muse is manifesting right now!” Mr. Diaz said, which was a gleeful way of saying: Watch out, Tucson. Dangerous literature on the way.

Mr. Diaz is the impresario behind an inspiring act of indignation and cultural pride. His bus-and-car caravan is “smuggling” books by Latino authors into Arizona. It’s a response to an educational mugging by right-wing politicians, who enacted a state law in 2010 outlawing curriculums that “advocate ethnic solidarity,” among other imagined evils. That led to the banning of Mexican-American studies in Tucson’s public schools last year.

School officials say the books are not technically banned, just redistributed to the library. But what good is having works from thereading list — like “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941” and “The House on Mango Street,” by Sandra Cisneros — on the shelves if they can’t be taught? Indeed, the point of dismantling the curriculum was to end classroom discussions about these books.

That’s where Mr. Diaz’s “librotraficantes,” or book traffickers, come in. “Arizona tried to erase our history,” he says. “So we’re making more.” They left Houston on Monday. On the way, they’ve held readings with “banned” authors at galleries, bookshops and youth centers. After leaving El Paso on Wednesday, they followed the Rio Grande to Albuquerque, to meet with Rudolfo Anaya, a godfather of Chicano literature. They also planned to wrap some volumes in plastic and carry the “wetbooks” across the river. At the Arizona border, there will be a crossing ceremony. They expect to be in Tucson, singing, dancing and handing out books, by the weekend.

“Translações etnográficas: reposicionando ciência e antropologia”- palestra do Prof. Dr. Guilherme José da Silva Sá

Encontro de abertura das atividades de 2012

Data: 23/03, sexta-feira, às 14h30

Local: Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Sociais da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IFCS/UFRJ), sala 403 (4o. Andar)


Palestra “Translações etnográficas: reposicionando ciência e antropologia” (Prof. Dr. Guilherme José da Silva Sá – DAN/UNB).

Apresentação do grupo e da programação de leituras e encontros em 2012.


Sobre o GEACT

O Grupo de Estudos de Antropologia da Ciência e Tecnologia (GEACT) foi inicialmente concebido por alunos do PPGAS/Museu Nacional, e atualmente é composto por pesquisadores de diversas instituições: PPGAS/MN, IMS/Uerj, IFCS/UFRJ, ECO/UFRJ, UFF, entre outros. O objetivo do GEACT é consolidar um espaço de debates no campo da Antropologia da Ciência e da Tecnologia. O coletivo congrega pesquisadores de diferentes formações, interessados nas abordagens antropológicas e nas reflexões filosóficas, epistemológicas, sociológicas e historiográficas acerca do tema. Recentemente tem se dedicado a discussões de questões como ciência e ficção; interfaces humano-máquina; gênero, saúde e tecnociência; relações interespecíficas; e embates entre práticas de conhecimentos científico e minoritário.

New report reveals how corporations undermine science with fake bloggers and bribes (io9)


MAR 9, 2012 2:22 PM

You’ve probably heard about how the tobacco industry tried to suppress scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer by publishing shady research, bribing politicians, and pressuring researchers. But you may not have realized that tabacco’s dirty tricks are just the tip of the iceberg. In a disturbing new report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists about corporate corruption of the sciences, you’ll learn about how Monsanto hired a public relations team to invent fake people who harassed a scientific journal online, how Coca Cola offers bribes to suppress evidence that soft drinks harm kids’ teeth, and more. Here are some of the most egregious recent examples of corruption from this must-read report.

The report is a meaty assessment of corporate corruption in science that stretches back to incidents with Big Tobacco in the 1960s, up through contemporary examples. Here are just a few of those.

One way that corporations prevent negative information about their products from getting out is by harassing scientists and the journals that publish them. Here’s how Monsanto did it:

Dr. Ingacio Chapela of the University of California–Berkeley and graduate student David Quist published an article in Nature showing that DNA from genetically modified corn was contaminating native Mexican corn. The research spurred immediate backlash.Nature received a number of letters to the editor, including several comments on the Internet from “Mary Murphy” and “Andura Smetacek” accusing the scientists of bias. The backlash prompted Nature to publish an editorial agreeing that the report should not have been published. However, investigators eventually discovered that the comments from Murphy and Smetacek originated with The Bivings Group, a public relations firm that specializes in online communications and had worked for Monstanto. Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek were found to be fictional names.

Corporations also form front organizations to hide their efforts to undermine science. That’s what happened when producers of unhealthy food got together to cast doubt on the FDA’s recommended health guidelines:

The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit that targets dietary guidelines recommended by the FDA, other government agencies, medical associations, and consumer advocacy organizations. The center has run ads and owns a website that accuses government agencies of overregulation, and has published articles claiming to refute evidence that high salt intake and other dietary guidelines are based on inadequate science. The center was founded with a $600,000 grant from Philip Morris, but has also received funding from Cargill, National Steak and Poultry, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and Sutter Home Winery.

Sometimes corporations just go for it and buy off legit organizations, as Coca Cola did when they appear to have paid dentists to stop saying kids shouldn’t drink Coke:

In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry accepted a $1 million donation from Coca-Cola. That year, the group claimed that “scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.” The statement directly contradicted the group’s previous stance that “consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor…that contributes to the initiation and progression of dental caries.”

Corporations can also unduly influence federal agencies, as ReGen did when they wanted their device approved for trials by the FDA, despite serious medical problems:

ReGen Biologics attempted to gain FDA approval for clinical trials of Menaflex, a device it developed to replace knee cartilage. After an FDA panel rejected the device, the company enlisted four members of Congress from its home state of New Jersey to influence the evaluation process. In December 2007, Senator Frank Lautenberg, Senator Robert Menendez, and Representative Steve Rothman wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach asking him to personally look into Menaflex. Soon thereafter, the commissioner met with ReGen executives and heeded the company’s advice to have Dr. Daniel Shultz, head of the FDA’s medical devices division, oversee a new review. The FDA fast-tracked and approved the product despite serious concerns from the scientific community.

If bribery doesn’t work, you can always censor negative results, the way pharmaceutical company Boots did:

Boots commissioned Dr. Betty Dong, a scientist at the University of California–San Francisco, to test the effects of Synthroid, a replacement for thyroid hormone. Boots hoped to reveal that despite its high price, Synthroid was more effective than similar drugs. The company closely monitored the research, and when Dong found that the drug was no more effective than its competitors, instructed her not to publish the results. When she refused to comply, Boots threatened to sue. The company relented only after several years, during which consumers continued to pay for the costly product.

You can also try “refuting” scientific results with bad evidence, the way the formaldehyde industry did:

To counter a study that found that formaldehyde caused cancer in rats, a formaldehyde company commissioned its own study. That study-which found no association between the chemical and cancer-exposed only one-third the number of rats to formaldehyde for half as long as the original study. A formaldehyde association quickly publicized the results and argued before the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that they indicated “no chronic health effects from exposure to the level of formaldehyde normally encountered in the home”

And then, if you’re Pfizer, you can just generate as much favorable research as you like to bolster sales of a drug, despite your discovery that the drug increases risk of suicide:

From 1998 to 2007, Pfizer discreetly facilitated the publication of 15 case studies, six case reports, and nine letters to the editor to boost off-label use of Neurontin, a drug prescribed to treat seizures in people who have epilepsy and nerve pain. The number of patients taking the drug rose from 430,000 to 6 million, making it one of Pfizer’s most profitable products. An investigation found that Pfizer had failed to publish negative results, selectively reported outcomes, and excluded specific patients from analysis. [Most importantly] Pfizer failed to note that the drug increased the risk of suicide.

Read the full report here, which includes sources for these stories, as well as an extensive section devoted to reforming scientific practices. There are ways we can avoid this kind of corruption, and they involve everything from federal reforms to corporate transparency.

[via Union of Concerned Scientists]

Science, Journalism, and the Hype Cycle: My piece in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal (Discovery Magazine)

I think one of the biggest struggles a science writer faces is how to accurately describe the promise of new research. If we start promising that a preliminary experiment is going to lead to a cure for cancer, we are treating our readers cruelly–especially the readers who have cancer. On the other hand, scoffing at everything is not a sensible alternative, because sometimes preliminary experiments really do lead to great advances. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that bacteria can slice up virus DNA to avoid getting sick. That discovery led, some 30 years later, to biotechnology–to an industry that enabled, among other things, bacteria to produce human insulin.

This challenge was very much on my mind as I recently read two books, which I review in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal. One is on gene therapy–a treatment that inspired wild expectations in the 1990s, then crashed, and now is coming back. The other is epigenetics, which seems to me to be in the early stages of the hype cycle. You can read the essay in full here. [see post below]

March 9th, 2012 5:33 PM by Carl Zimmer

Hope, Hype and Genetic Breakthroughs (Wall Street Journal)


I talk to scientists for a living, and one of my most memorable conversations took place a couple of years ago with an engineer who put electrodes in bird brains. The electrodes were implanted into the song-generating region of the brain, and he could control them with a wireless remote. When he pressed a button, a bird singing in a cage across the lab would fall silent. Press again, and it would resume its song.

I could instantly see a future in which this technology brought happiness to millions of people. Imagine a girl blind from birth. You could implant a future version of these wireless electrodes in the back of her brain and then feed it images from a video camera.

As a journalist, I tried to get the engineer to explore what seemed to me to be the inevitable benefits of his research. To his great credit, he wouldn’t. He wasn’t even sure his design would ever see the inside of a human skull. There were just too many ways for it to go wrong. He wanted to be very sure that I understood that and that I wouldn’t claim otherwise. “False hope,” he warned me, “is a sinful thing.”


Stephen Voss. Gene therapy allowed this once-blind dog to see again.

Over the past two centuries, medical research has yielded some awesome treatments: smallpox wiped out with vaccines, deadly bacteria thwarted by antibiotics, face transplants. But when we look back across history, we forget the many years of failure and struggle behind each of these advances.

This foreshortened view distorts our expectations for research taking place today. We want to believe that every successful experiment means that another grand victory is weeks away. Big stories appear in the press about the next big thing. And then, as the years pass, the next big thing often fails to materialize. We are left with false hope, and the next big thing gets a reputation as the next big lie.

In 1995, a business analyst named Jackie Fenn captured this intellectual whiplash in a simple graph. Again and again, she had seen new advances burst on the scene and generate ridiculous excitement. Eventually they would reach what she dubbed the Peak of Inflated Expectations. Unable to satisfy their promise fast enough, many of them plunged into the Trough of Disillusionment. Their fall didn’t necessarily mean that these technologies were failures. The successful ones slowly emerged again and climbed the Slope of Enlightenment.

When Ms. Fenn drew the Hype Cycle, she had in mind dot-com-bubble technologies like cellphones and broadband. Yet it’s a good model for medical advances too. I could point to many examples of the medical hype cycle, but it’s hard to think of a better one than the subject of Ricki Lewis’s well-researched new book, “The Forever Fix”: gene therapy.

The concept of gene therapy is beguilingly simple. Many devastating disorders are the result of mutant genes. The disease phenylketonuria, for example, is caused by a mutation to a gene involved in breaking down a molecule called phenylalanine. The phenylalanine builds up in the bloodstream, causing brain damage. One solution is to eat a low-phenylalanine diet for your entire life. A much more appealing alternative would be to somehow fix the broken gene, restoring a person’s metabolism to normal.

In “The Forever Fix,” Ms. Lewis chronicles gene therapy’s climb toward the Peak of Inflated Expectations over the course of the 1990s. A geneticist and the author of a widely used textbook, she demonstrates a mastery of the history, even if her narrative sometimes meanders and becomes burdened by clichés. She explains how scientists learned how to identify the particular genes behind genetic disorders. They figured out how to load genes into viruses and then to use those viruses to insert the genes into human cells.


Stephen Voss. Alisha Bacoccini is tested on her ability to read letters, at UPenn Hospital, in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, June 23, 2008. Bacoccini is undergoing an experimental gene therapy trial to improve her sight.

By 1999, scientists had enjoyed some promising successes treating people—removing white blood cells from leukemia patients, for example, inserting working genes, and then returning the cells to their bodies. Gene therapy seemed as if it was on the verge of becoming standard medical practice. “Within the next decade, there will be an exponential increase in the use of gene therapy,” Helen M. Blau, the then-director of the gene-therapy technology program at Stanford University, told Business Week.

Within a few weeks of Ms. Blau’s promise, however, gene therapy started falling straight into the Trough. An 18-year-old man named Jesse Gelsinger who suffered from a metabolic disorder had enrolled in a gene-therapy trial. University of Pennsylvania scientists loaded a virus with a working version of an enzyme he needed and injected it into his body. The virus triggered an overwhelming reaction from his immune system and within four days Gelsinger was dead.

Gene therapy nearly came to a halt after his death. An investigation revealed errors and oversights in the design of Gelsinger’s trial. The breathless articles disappeared. Fortunately, research did not stop altogether. Scientists developed new ways of delivering genes without triggering fatal side effects. And they directed their efforts at one part of the body in particular: the eye. The eye is so delicate that inflammation could destroy it. As a result, it has evolved physical barriers that keep the body’s regular immune cells out, as well as a separate battalion of immune cells that are more cautious in their handling of infection.

It occurred to a number of gene-therapy researchers that they could try to treat genetic vision disorders with a very low risk of triggering horrendous side effects of the sort that had claimed Gelsinger’s life. If they injected genes into the eye, they would be unlikely to produce a devastating immune reaction, and any harmful effects would not be able to spread to the rest of the body.

Their hunch paid off. In 2009 scientists reported their first success with gene therapy for a congenital disorder. They treated a rare form of blindness known as Leber’s congenital amaurosis. Children who were once blind can now see.

As “The Forever Fix” shows, gene therapy is now starting its climb up the Slope of Enlightenment. Hundreds of clinical trials are under way to see if gene therapy can treat other diseases, both in and beyond the eye. It still costs a million dollars a patient, but that cost is likely to fall. It’s not yet clear how many other diseases gene therapy will help or how much it will help them, but it is clearly not a false hope.

Gene therapy produced so much excitement because it appealed to the popular idea that genes are software for our bodies. The metaphor only goes so far, though. DNA does not float in isolation. It is intricately wound around spool-like proteins called histones. It is studded with caps made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, known as methyl groups. This coiling and capping of DNA allows individual genes to be turned on and off during our lifetimes.

The study of this extra layer of control on our genes is known as epigenetics. In “The Epigenetics Revolution,” molecular biologist Nessa Carey offers an enlightening introduction to what scientists have learned in the past decade about those caps and coils. While she delves into a fair amount of biological detail, she writes clearly and compellingly. As Ms. Carey explains, we depend for our very existence as functioning humans on epigenetics. We begin life as blobs of undifferentiated cells, but epigenetic changes allow some cells to become neurons, others muscle cells and so on.

Epigenetics also plays an important role in many diseases. In cancer cells, genes that are normally only active in embryos can reawaken after decades of slumber. A number of brain disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, appear to involve the faulty epigenetic programming of genes in neurons.

Scientists got their first inklings about epigenetics decades ago, but in the past few years the field has become hot. In 2008 the National Institutes of Health pledged $190 million to map the epigenetic “marks” on the human genome. New biotech start-ups are trying to carry epigenetic discoveries into the doctor’s office. The FDA has approved cancer drugs that alter the pattern of caps on tumor-cell DNA. Some studies on mice hint that it may be possible to treat depression by taking a pill that adjusts the coils of DNA in neurons.

People seem to be getting giddy about the power of epigenetics in the same way they got giddy about gene therapy in the 1990s. No longer is our destiny written in our DNA: It can be completely overwritten with epigenetics. The excitement is moving far ahead of what the science warrants—or can ever deliver. Last June, an article on the Huffington Post eagerly seized on epigenetics, woefully mangling two biological facts: one, that experiences can alter the epigenetic patterns in the brain; and two, that sometimes epigenetic patterns can be passed down from parents to offspring. The article made a ridiculous leap to claim that we can use meditation to change our own brains and the brains of our children—and thereby alter the course of evolution: “We can jump-start evolution and leverage it on our own terms. We can literally rewire our brains toward greater compassion and cooperation.” You couldn’t ask for a better sign that epigenetics is climbing the Peak of Inflated Expectations at top speed.

The title “The Epigenetics Revolution” unfortunately adds to this unmoored excitement, but in Ms. Carey’s defense, the book itself is careful and measured. Still, epigenetics will probably be plunging soon into the Trough of Disillusionment. It will take years to see whether we can really improve our health with epigenetics or whether this hope will prove to be a false one.

The Forever Fix

By Ricki LewisSt. Martin’s, 323 pages, $25.99

The Epigenetics Revolution

By Nessa CareyColumbia, 339 pages, $26.95

—Mr. Zimmer’s books include “A Planet of Viruses and Evolution: Making Sense of Life,” co-authored with Doug Emlen, to be published in July.

Nature journal criticizes Canadian ‘muzzling’ (CBC News)

Time for Canadian government to set its scientists free, magazine says

The Canadian Press

Posted: Mar 2, 2012 7:08 AM ET

Last Updated: Mar 2, 2012 12:54 PM ET

One of the world's leading scientific journals is criticizing the Harper government for 'muzzling' federal scientists

One of the world’s leading scientific journals is accusing the Harper government of limiting its scientists from speaking publicly about their research.

The journal, Nature, says in an editorial in this week’s issue that it’s time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

Nature says Canada is headed in the wrong direction in not letting its scientists speak out freely.Nature says Canada is headed in the wrong direction in not letting its scientists speak out freely. (Nature)It notes that Canada and the United States have undergone role reversals in the past six years.

It says the U.S. has adopted more open practices since the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, while Canada has gone in the opposite direction.

Nature says policy directives on government communications released through access to information requests reveal the Harper government has little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

Two weeks ago, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, the World Federation of Science Journalists and several other groups sent an open letter to Harper, calling on him to unmuzzle federal scientists.

The letter cited a couple of high-profile examples, including one last fall when Environment Canada barred Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research when it was published in Nature.

O que você não quer ser quando crescer (Revista Fapesp)


Pesquisa mostra que menos de 3% dos adolescentes latino-americanos desejam seguir uma carreira científica
Carlos Haag
Edição Impressa 192 – Fevereiro de 2012

Boneco de Albert Einstein na Estação Ciência, em São Paulo. © EDUARDO CESAR

Mesmo vivendo num mundo imerso em tecnologia, o jovem, ao se deparar com a célebre pergunta “o que você quer ser quando crescer?”, dificilmente responderá “cientista”. Segundo a pesquisa Los estudiantes y la ciência, projeto do Observatório Ibero-americano de Ciência, Tecnologia e Sociedade (Ryct/Cyted), organizado pelo argentino Carmelo Polino, apenas 2,7% dos estudantes secundaristas (de 15 a 19 anos) da América Latina e Espanha pensam em seguir uma carreira nas áreas de ciências exatas ou naturais, como biologia, química, física, e matemática (as ciências agrícolas mal aparecem). Realizada entre 2008 e 2010, foram consultadas cerca de 9 mil escolas, privadas e particulares, em sete capitais: Assunção, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lima, Montevidéu, Bogotá e Madri. Curiosamente, 56% dos entrevistados se disseram interessados em se profissionalizar em ciências sociais e um quinto deles optou pelas engenharias. A equipe brasileira participante do projeto veio do Laboratório de Jornalismo da Unicamp (Labjor), coordenado pelo linguista Carlos Vogt, responsável pelo capítulo “Hábitos informativos sobre ciência e tecnologia” do livro, lançado em espanhol e disponível apenas para download pelo link
“São dados preocupantes para sociedades em cujas economias há uma intensa necessidade de cientistas e engenheiros, mas há um baixo interesse dos jovens por essas profissões. E as razões alegadas igualmente são desanimadoras: 78% dos estudantes explicam sua opção por achar que as ciências exatas e as naturais são ‘muito difíceis’, quase metade dos alunos as considera ‘chatas’, enquanto um quarto deles afirma que esses campos oferecem oportunidades limitadas de emprego”, afirma Polino. “O número de alunos de ciências já está num patamar insuficiente para as necessidades da economia e indústria e, acima de tudo, para lidar com os problemas a serem enfrentados pelas sociedades no futuro.” Ainda segundo os entrevistados, o desânimo em face do desafio das ciências está ligado, em boa parte, à forma como elas são ensinadas, e reclamam que os recursos utilizados em sala de aula são limitados. Metade dos adolescentes tampouco acredita que as matérias científicas tenham aumentado sua apreciação pela natureza, nem que sejam fontes de solução para problemas de vida cotidiana.

“Há barreiras culturais, porque os jovens de hoje acham que para ter êxito na vida, ter dinheiro, não é preciso estudar muito. É possível escolher uma carreira de resultados econômicos mais rápidos. A cultura do esforço, que é a cultura da ciência, vem perdendo espaço. Temos a necessidade urgente de uma política pública de educação e comunicação da ciência”, avisa Polino. Em alguns pontos a nova pesquisa reforça algumas tendências observadas no estudo anterior do grupo, Percepção pública da ciência (ver “Imagens da ciência” na edição 95 de Pesquisa FAPESP; Leitores esquivos”, na 188; e “Avanços e desafios”, na 185), de 2004, mas a pesquisa recente, com o foco nos jovens, traz novos e preocupantes dados. “Num país como o nosso, cujo futuro depende dos avanços de ciência e tecnologia, e onde há uma grande carência de profissionais técnicos e engenheiros, esses números demandam atenção das autoridades e da sociedade em geral para despertar nesses jovens o interesse pelas carreiras científicas. Acima de tudo, é um paradoxo, porque vivemos num mundo estruturado pela presença da tecnologia em todos os espaços da vida das pessoas”, analisa Vogt. “Apreciamos as benesses do esforço científico, mas não nos interessamos em continuar esse trabalho. As facilidades são ofertadas, mas são ilusórias, porque se quisermos tomar posse dessas conquistas é preciso capacitação científica, capacidade de abstração, mesmo com todas essas dificuldades que advêm do estudo das ciências exatas e naturais.”

“Já existem obstáculos grandes para os jovens adentrarem o mundo das ciências, visto como hermético, uma coisa de iniciados com linguagem própria que pouco tem a ver com o mundo sensível em que vivemos, exigindo um alto grau de abstração, e nem sempre se pode encontrar com facilidade analogias na vida pessoal dos estudantes”, observa Vogt. “Imagine tudo isso num país como o nosso em que apenas 2% dos formados desejam seguir uma carreira no magistério. A situação de ensino é lamentável e, na maioria dos casos, quem dá aulas de ciências vem de campos alternativos, como engenheiros ou médicos, pouco interessados em facilitar ou renovar a maneira de ensinar.”

São, portanto, sutis as razões que levam um estudante a optar pela carreira científica. Segundo a pesquisa, 4 em cada 10 estudantes seguiriam a profissão por dois motivos: viajar muito e trabalhar com novas tecnologias. Para um terço dos interessados, o salário, que consideram atrativo, é também uma variável a ser levada em conta para essa escolha. Bem atrás, com menos de 18%, estão motivos como: descobrir coisas novas, solucionar problemas da humanidade e avançar o conhecimento. Bem abaixo, com menos de 5%, estão razões como exercer uma profissão socialmente prestigiada ou trabalhar com pessoas qualificadas. No campo dos fatores que desanimam os jovens, o grande “vilão” é a didática das ciências nas aulas, que afasta da cabeça dos estudantes o desejo de uma carreira científica ou um futuro laboratorial. Em seguida, para 6 em cada 10 alunos, a dificuldade em entender as matérias é um filtro negativo. O “tédio” assola metade dos jovens. Daí, outro fator que os desanima é a ideia de que escolher a área científica é seguir estudando “indefinidamente” algo que consideram “chato”. Em quarto lugar, com 24%, está o receio de que existam poucas oportunidades de conseguir um emprego na área.

Isso não impede os jovens de ver aqueles que escolheram a ciência para profissão como figuras socialmente prestigiadas, cujo trabalho está associado a fins altruístas e ao progresso, e a imagem dos cientistas que predomina é a de apaixonados pelo seu trabalho, com mentes abertas e um pensamento lógico, não vigorando mais o estereótipo do cientista “solitário” e “distante da realidade”. Há, porém, um ponto controverso: os jovens estão convencidos, em sua maioria, de que os cientistas são donos de uma inteligência superior, que embora possa ser vista como uma característica positiva e atrativa afugenta os jovens, que não se consideram capazes de alcançar os patamares dessas “figuras excepcionais”, afetando negativamente a escolha pela carreira científica. “É preciso analisar esses dados a partir do seu potencial, pois é possível mudar esse paradigma atual que reverta a situação, trazendo não apenas mais jovens para as carreiras científicas, como também melhorando a experiência de aprendizagem da educação secundária”, observa Polino.

Diante da afirmação “que a ciência traz mais benefícios do que riscos à vida das pessoas”, 7 em cada 10 entrevistados concordaram com a premissa. Mas diante da assertiva “a ciência e a tecnologia estão produzindo um estilo de vida artificial e desumanizado”, as posições são menos definidas e a resposta mais recorrente (21,5%) foi “não concordo, nem discordo”. O contexto social revelou aspectos interessantes: os jovens de escolas públicas são menos entusiastas das comodidades oferecidas pela tecnologia. “Não é de estranhar que os que têm menos acesso a ela percebam menos a sua importância em facilitar a vida das pessoas”, nota Polino. Diante das afirmações “contraditórias” de que a ciência está “tirando postos de trabalho” e que “a ciência trará mais chances de trabalho para as gerações futuras” os resultados revelam que mais jovens (37%) têm medo de perder seu emprego por causa da ciência do que são otimistas com o futuro (32%). Segundo os pesquisadores, as respostas seguem o padrão da juventude latino-americana, para quem a “meritocracia” no trabalho é mais mito do que realidade. Quando o meio ambiente entra em cena, tudo piora.

Em face das assertivas “ciência e tecnologia eliminarão a pobreza e a fome do mundo” e “a ciência e a tecnologia são responsáveis pela maior parte dos problemas ambientais”, 3 em cada 10 estudantes não acreditam no poder de “cura” científico e a cifra se repete na certeza de que a ciência está afetando o meio ambiente negativamente. Aqui também as mulheres mostram sua visão: elas são as mais céticas, com 5 em cada 10 rejeitando a capacidade da tecnologia em pôr fim às mazelas globais. No cômputo total, porém, há certo otimismo juvenil: 52% dos adolescentes estão abertos e favoráveis ao que a ciência e a tecnologia possam realizar em nossas sociedades, mostrando que não vigora mais a fé cega e absoluta diante de seus resultados, sendo bem mais moderados e conscientes dos riscos do que os adultos, o que, dizem os pesquisadores, se bem aproveitado pode servir de base a uma cidadania mais crítica e responsável. “Instalar uma usina em Angra sem consultar a sociedade é, hoje, algo impensável. Os jovens pressupõem que exista um sistema que enfatiza a democratização nos processos científicos, o que não implica votar em quem vai ou não para um laboratório”, observa Vogt. “Eles aceitam uma cultura científica que realize uma ligação entre razão e humanidade, entre ciência e sociedade.”

Isso talvez explique um dado curioso descoberto na pesquisa realizada pelo Labjor. Se o caminho do conhecimento científico principal continua a ser a televisão, seguida pela internet, a ficção científica, em livros, filmes, HQs ou games, ganhou um honroso terceiro lugar como fonte de informação sobre ciências para os jovens. “Ao lado da internet, esses meios diferenciados oferecem um grande potencial de atrair jovens para a ciência de forma lúdica e interessante, uma forma estratégica de atingir essa camada da população para a divulgação de assuntos científicos”, nota Vogt. Até porque em vários lugares pesquisados as instituições oficiais são pouco conhecidas ou mesmo ignoradas, assim como os locais onde se pode informar sobre ciência, como museus ou zoológicos. Assim, curiosamente, uma cidade como São Paulo, onde há uma concentração de centros de pesquisa, universidades, e onde o acesso à informação científica é favorecido pela presença de museus e uma oferta midiática rica, mostrou índices de consumo informativo da população abaixo da média.

Veja infográficos:
Evolução dos universitários formados por área do conhecimentoFrequência com que os jovens se informam sobre ciênciaO que afasta os jovens da ciência

Chimpanzees Have Police Officers, Too (Science Daily)

Mostly high-ranking males or females intervene in a conflict. (Credit: Claudia Rudolf von Rohr)

ScienceDaily (Mar. 7, 2012) — Chimpanzees are interested in social cohesion and have various strategies to guarantee the stability of their group. Anthropologists now reveal that chimpanzees mediate conflicts between other group members, not for their own direct benefit, but rather to preserve the peace within the group. Their impartial intervention in a conflict — so-called “policing” — can be regarded as an early evolutionary form of moral behavior.

Conflicts are inevitable wherever there is cohabitation. This is no different with our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Sound conflict management is crucial for group cohesion. Individuals in chimpanzee communities also ensure that there is peace and order in their group. This form of conflict management is called “policing” — the impartial intervention of a third party in a conflict. Until now, this morally motivated behavior in chimpanzees was only ever documented anecdotally.

However, primatologists from the University of Zurich can now confirm that chimpanzees intervene impartially in a conflict to guarantee the stability of their group. They therefore exhibit prosocial behavior based on an interest in community concern.

The more parties to a conflict there are, the more policing there is

The willingness of the arbitrators to intervene impartially is greatest if several quarrelers are involved in a dispute as such conflicts particularly jeopardize group peace. The researchers observed and compared the behavior of four different captive chimpanzee groups. At Walter Zoo in Gossau, they encountered special circumstances: “We were lucky enough to be able to observe a group of chimpanzees into which new females had recently been introduced and in which the ranking of the males was also being redefined. The stability of the group began to waver. This also occurs in the wild,” explains Claudia Rudolf von Rohr, the lead author of the study.

High-ranking arbitrators

Not every chimpanzee makes a suitable arbitrator. It is primarily high-ranking males or females or animals that are highly respected in the group that intervene in a conflict. Otherwise, the arbitrators are unable to end the conflict successfully. As with humans, there are also authorities among chimpanzees. “The interest in community concern that is highly developed in us humans and forms the basis for our moral behavior is deeply rooted. It can also be observed in our closest relatives,” concludes Rudolf von Rohr.