Noam Chomsky and the Bicycle Theory

Prof. Noam Chomsky Credit Virginie Montet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At 87, Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, remains a vital presence in American intellectual life. An emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he still teaches, he has a dual identity, reflected in his several dozen books. Many are on theoretical linguistics and the philosophy of mind. Others are sharp, leftish polemics on American politics. Dr. Chomsky is back in the news, thanks to a pair of high-profile attacks. In “The Kingdom of Speech,” Tom Wolfe pairs Dr. Chomsky (“Noam Charisma”) with Darwin as the malign Ur-theorists of evolution. In “Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics,” the British anthropologist Chris Knight explores “the Chomsky problem” — the paradox of a thinker who belongs to the “professional and scientific elite” even as he espouses populist political ideas.

It will soon be 60 years since your first book, “Syntactic Structures,” was published. Where was the study of linguistics then and what did you see that could be done?

The belief at the time was that languages can vary arbitrarily, so when you study a new language you should come to it without any preconceptions. Such views are still held, although the evidence to undermine them, I think, is simply overwhelming. Studies have shown that the diversity and complexity is superficial, while the internal system, which yields the fundamental properties of language as a system of thought, may be close to uniform among humans — basically following very simple genetically determined properties and general laws, like principles of computation. Some of the most exciting work in the field is going in that direction.

Are you as convinced now as when you were younger that understanding language is essential to understanding the human mind?

I think that’s clearer and clearer. The emergence of language as a system of creative thought was sensed by Descartes and Galileo. But it was not really addressed till the mid-20th century because the tools weren’t available to formulate it properly. You needed the modern theory of computability, which was developed by Alan Turing and other great mathematicians of the 1930s and ’40s. I was lucky that I was becoming an undergraduate at just the time that all these great insights were emerging.

Have you read Tom Wolfe’s book?

It’s so uninformed and distorted that it hardly rises to the level of meeting a laugh test. In the Harper’s Magazine excerpt, there’s exactly one paragraph that is accurate, quoted from an interview we had in which I explain why his crucial example, the Amazonian language Pirahã, is completely irrelevant to his conclusions and claims because what he says about Pirahã — correct or not — is about the language itself, not about the common human faculty of language. To take an analogy: If some tribe were found in which everyone wears a black patch over one eye, it would have no bearing on the study of binocular vision in the human visual system.

How about Chris Knight? He connects your theory of language to Pentagon-funded work you did at M.I.T. during the Cold War.

The Pentagon was the means by which the government carried out industrial policy and developed the high-tech economy of the future. M.I.T. was almost entirely funded by the military, including the music department. Does this mean we were doing military work? There was a study in 1969, the Pounds commission — I was a member of it — to investigate whether any military or classified work was being done on campus. Answer? None.

Why do you think we’re seeing this resurgence of analysis? You must tire of defending your work.

I’ve been defending the legitimacy of this work, extensively and in print, for 60 years. In earlier years, the discussions were with serious philosophers, linguists, cognitive scientists. I’m sorry to see that the resurgence you mention does not begin to approximate that level — one reason why, unlike earlier years, I don’t bother to respond unless asked.

Let’s talk about your politics.

I supported Bernie Sanders. The most important issue we face, a real question of species survival, is climate change. I’ve been criticized for advocating a politics of fear, which is correct. That’s not a criticism. That’s sanity.

What do you make of the political climate today? Of the student protests?

Humans face critical problems that have never arisen before in their history, problems of survival of organized human life on earth. They are barely mentioned in the current electoral extravaganza and the voluminous commentary about it. Fortunately, young people are often deeply concerned and directly engaged.

You’ll be teaching two classes next semester at the University of Arizona.

Yes. An undergraduate course will focus on the current stage of globalized state capitalism and ways of approaching “the common good” as it has been conceived in various ways since the Enlightenment. The graduate seminar will explore critical topics at the boundaries of current inquiry into the nature of language, its acquisition and use, its evolution. Every class is a challenge and often leads to rethinking and exploration of new directions.

How do you account for your amazing stamina and energy level at age 87?

The bicycle theory. As long as you keep riding, you don’t fall.

Bono of U2 called you the Elvis of academia. Students wait hours to hear your lectures. Then there’s all that Chomsky memorabilia — mugs, T-shirts, even luggage tags.

Seems strange to me. It can only mean that my activist engagements and professional work somehow relate to what many people are looking for and don’t appear to find elsewhere.

Do you own a Chomsky coffee mug?

No. But I get things from friends. The one I like is one my grandchildren like. It’s a little figure of a gnome you can put in a garden. “Gnome Chomsky.”


Brazilian State Suspends Larvicide Used to Combat Zika, Monsanto Slams ‘Rumors’ Regarding Virus


Source: Eco Watch
Lorraine Chow | February 15, 2016 |

Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, has suspended the use of the pyriproxyfen—a pesticide that stops the development of mosquito larvae in drinking tanks—to combat the spread of the Zika virus, according to a report from Fox News Latino.

The state government’s move came after separate reports from the Argentine group Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Towns (PCST) and Brazilian Collective Health Association (Abrasco) suggested that the larvicide, not the Zika virus, was responsible for the alarming spike in microcephaly.

In its report, PCST claims that in 2014 the Brazilian Ministry of Health introduced pyriproxyfen to drinking-water reservoirs in the state of Pernambuco, where the proliferation of the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito is very high. As it happens, the northeastern state holds roughly 35 percent of the total microcephaly cases across the country. Abrasco’s report also linked the pesticide to the abnormality.

The PCST report said that the larvicide, known by its commercial name SumiLarv, is manufactured by Sumitomo Chemical, a “Japanese subsidiary of Monsanto.” As word spread of the report, the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant clarified its relationship to Sumitomo, calling them “one of our business partners in the area of crop protection.”

According to Fox News Latino, Rio Grande do Sul government officials said Sunday that “the suspension was communicated to the 19 Regional Health Coordinating Authorities, which in turn will inform the respective Municipal Monitoring services” in all cities in the state.

The state’s health secretary, Joao Gabbardo dos Reis, said that the “suspicion” of the larvicide’s link to microcephaly led the organizations to decide to “suspend” the use of the chemical, even though the relationship between the larvicide and microcephaly has not been scientifically proven.

“We cannot run that risk,” Gabbardo added.

Gabbardo sent this tweet Sunday that translates to: “RS [Rio Grande do Sul] suspends larvicide that can be related to microcephaly.”

He also tweeted today: “In a moment I’ll be in Gente, talking about prohibition of larvicide and Zika.” 

Brazil’s health minister, Marcelo Castro, however, dismissed the larvicide’s link to the congenital condition which causes abnormal smallness of the head.

That is a rumor lacking logic and sense. It has no basis. (The larvicide) is approved by (the National Sanitary Monitoring Agency) and is used worldwide. Pyriproxyfen is recognized by all regulatory agencies in the whole world,” Castro told reporters in the city of Salvador.

Castro said he is “absolutely sure” that the virus is connected to the rare birth defect. According to the Associated Press, “Brazil has reported 5,079 suspected cases of microcephaly since October, of which 462 cases have been confirmed while 765 have been discarded. Of the confirmed microcephaly cases, 41 have been connected to Zika.”

Brazil’s federal government issued a similar statement, the Telegraph reported:

“Unlike the relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly, which has had its confirmation shown in tests that indicated the presence of the virus in samples of blood, tissue and amniotic fluid, the association between the use of pyriproxyfen and microcephaly has no scientific basis. It’s important to state that some localities that do not use pyriproxyfen also had reported cases of microcephaly.”

The government said it only used larvicides recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and indicated that no scientific study has linked pyriproxyfen to microcephaly.

Sumitomo Chemical issued a statement to Fox News Latino saying, “There is no scientific basis for such a claim,” adding that the product has been approved by the WHO since 2004 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2001.

Monsanto issued a response on Saturday to the “misinformation and rumors on social media.”

Monsanto’s post, The truth about Monsanto and the Zika virus, reads:

You may have seen misinformation and rumors on social media regarding Monsanto, the Zika virus and microcephaly. Unfortunately, this misinformation causes unwarranted fear and distracts from the health crisis at hand and how you can take steps to protect you and your family. Here are some facts:

  • Neither Monsanto nor our products have any connection to the Zika virus or microcephaly.
  • Monsanto does not manufacture or sell Pyriproxyfen.
  • Monsanto does not own Sumitomo Company. However, Sumitomo is one of our business partners in the area of crop protection.
  • Glyphosate is not connected in any way to the Zika virus or microcephaly.
  • GMOs have no role in the Zika virus or microcephaly.

The Zika virus is a tragic and critical health issue. Dealing effectively with such an important health threat requires a focus on the facts. As a science-based company working to help meet some of the world’s biggest challenges we support all efforts to combat this health crisis. We hope all efforts will be taken based on the facts, not rumors.



Au Brésil, l’ombre de Monsanto derrière Zika

Le Nordeste brésilien, avec 1 447 notifications de microcéphalies, est l’épicentre du phénomène. Photo : Reuters

Le Nordeste brésilien, avec 1 447 notifications de microcéphalies, est l’épicentre du phénomène.
Photo : Reuters


Source: L’Humanité.fr

Et si l’épidémie Zika n’était pas le bon coupable  ? Des chercheurs argentins mettent en cause un pesticide, injecté dans l’eau et produit par une filiale de Monsanto, d’être à l’origine des microcéphalies.

Le virus Zika serait-il vraiment responsable de la multiplication des cas de microcéphalie au Brésil ?

Un groupe de chercheurs argentins et brésiliens, coordonné par le docteur Avila Vazquez, pédiatre spécialisé en néonatalogie (spécialité médicale qui s’attache à prendre en charge les nouveau-nés) a, en tous les cas, soulevé cette interrogation.
Dans une étude parue le 3 février dernier, ceux-ci ont en effet mis en doute la responsabilité du seul virus Zika dans l’augmentation exponentielle de microcéphalies enregistrées chez les nouveau-nés ces derniers mois. Selon eux, les cas de malformations à la naissance seraient dus, non pas au fameux moustique, mais à l’utilisation d’un pesticide : le Pyriproxyfen, produit par Sumitomo Chemical, filiale japonaise de la multinationale américaine Monsanto.
Ce pesticide utilisé plus particulièrement au Brésil, et injecté dans le réseau d’eau potable de certaines régions, sert à la lutte contre la prolifération du moustique-tigre, vecteur de la dengue.

Un futur scandale sanitaire et financier

Partis d’un simple postulat, les chercheurs se sont demandés pourquoi Zika (virus identifié dès les années 1950 en Ouganda), une maladie relativement bénigne, ne provoquait pas partout des malformations chez les nouveau-nés. Et de s’appuyer sur la constatation qu’en Colombie, où il sévit également, mais où le produit chimique n’est pas utilisé, aucun cas de microcéphalie n’a été enregistré jusqu’à ce jour.
Plus étonnant encore, ils font remarquer que, dans certaines zones où 75 % de la population a été testée positive à Zika, il n’y avait jamais eu de malformations comme celles observées au Brésil : « Les malformations détectées chez des milliers d’enfants nés de femmes enceintes dans des régions où l’État brésilien a ajouté du Pyriproxyfen ne sont pas une coïncidence et ce, même si le ministère de la Santé incrimine directement le virus Zika », ont déclaré dans un communiqué les chercheurs à l’origine peut-être d’un futur scandale sanitaire et financier.
La solution serait donc non pas à chercher dans les eaux stagnantes, mais dans l’eau potable des régions infectées et notamment celles du Nordeste brésilien, qui, avec 1 447 notifications de microcéphalies, est l’épicentre du phénomène. Depuis plus de dix-huit mois, les autorités brésiliennes, sur les recommandations de l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS), y injectent dans le système hydrique cet insecticide.
Une solution pour le moins expéditive de lutter contre le virus, dans cette région qui est l’une des plus pauvres du Brésil où « 70 % des mères d’enfants atteints par la maladie vivent dans une extrême pauvreté », dixit le Diario de Pernambuco (quotidien du Nordeste).
Crise que ne connaît décidément pas le géant Monsanto, une nouvelle fois mis à l’index. Crise que ne connaîtront pas non plus les laboratoires pharmaceutiques, qui ont dix-huit mois pour trouver la solution et enlever le marché : « Une quinzaine de laboratoires et agences nationales de recherche sont sur les rangs », a déclaré la sous-directrice de l’OMS, le Dr Marie-Paule Kieny.
Dans le lot, deux vaccins sembleraient des plus prometteurs : l’un est développé par l’Institut national de la santé américain – institution gouvernementale – et l’autre par le laboratoire indien Bharat Biotech. Mais les États-Unis pourraient très vite avoir une longueur d’avance.
Barack Obama ne vient-il pas de demander au Congrès américain 1,8 milliard de dollars (1,6 million d’euros) pour combattre Zika ?

Le Brésil est en première ligne, mais l’épidémie s’étend. Le Brésil est aujourd’hui le pays le plus touché par le virus Zika. Ce sont en effet un million et demi de personnes qui ont été contaminées depuis 2015. Derrière lui se trouve la Colombie. Jusqu’en 2014, le virus n’était pas recensé sur le continent américain. Il est connu, en revanche, depuis les années 1950 en Afrique.