Tag Archives: pseudo-scholarship

I do not like thee, Dr Fell

In another post, I dealt with some of the late Barry Fell’s weird theories about Celts, Libyans, Ancient Egyptians and other groups in the Americas in ancient times.

Fell’s book, America BC, is full of absurdities. An ‘inscription’ found on the shore apparently reads: “Cargo platforms for ships from Phoenicia.” Yet, as other critics have pointed out, apart from inscriptions, there is no evidence. Where is all the rubbish which all civilisations produce? Why do no inscriptions turn up in archaeological sites where the stratigraphy can confirm their antiquity? This is a little like some archaeologist in thousands of years’ time (probably a genetically-enhanced chimp) finding a sign saying “Ellis Island – Welcome to America” but without finding any trace of New York!

As I have said before, I’m no expert on Libyan, or Ancient Egyptian, or even on Ancient Celtic. However, in order to be suspicious of Barry Fell’s ideas, you don’t need to be an expert. You just need to be sane.

One of the silliest and most incompetent parts of a very silly and incompetent book is the chapter where Barry Fell decides that many place names in New England are of Celtic origin. Fell’s claims are ludicrous. There is a fundamental inconsistency in them. Fell uses the meanings which speakers of Native American/Canadian languages themselves and experts in those languages have identified in the names of rivers and other places as a guide, and then claims to find Celtic equivalents to these meanings. In the process, he twists and corrupts the Scottish Gaelic language, a language which he had a slight knowledge of, and mixes it with Celtic etymological roots to invent phrases which are loosely similar to the Native American names. The logical problem with this is obvious. The meanings derived from the Algonquian language make sense within that language. So how can these names derive both from Algonquian and from Celtic?

For example, according to Russell the Algonquian meaning of the stream Ammonoosuc is “Stream of the small fish.” Fell interprets this as Am.-min-a-sugh using (according to him) Ancient Celtic roots, and comes up with the explanation “small stream for taking out (fish)”. This is highly suspect. Where does the root am come from? There is an Ancient Celtic word ambara, meaning a stream, but am? Then sugh is presumably the same as the modern Irish meaning to absorb. This isn’t likely to be used in the context of fishing.

A place called Cohas which means pine is linked by him to gaelic ghiuthas [sic] which also means pine. (The spelling with gh at the beginning is a clear indication that Fell knew very little Gaelic.) The names really aren’t that similar in the two languages.

From this weak start, it quickly descends into the totally ridiculous. The Merrimack river had a number of Indian names, one of which was Kaskaashadi, the Native American meaning of which is unknown. However, Fell thinks it looks like the supposed Gaelic phrase ‘g-uisge-siadi, which, according to Fell means with waters which flow slowly. But the Gaelic words for slow are mall, slaodach, ríamannach, sialtach. Where does siadi come from? What’s that ‘g doing there? I’ve no idea but at least I’ve more of an idea about Gaelic than poor old Barry Fell.

Fell also gives a ‘Gaelic’ derivation to the alternative name Merrimack, which he derives from the ‘Gaelic’ words mor-riomach, which (according to Fell, means ‘of great depth.’) . Try looking up the words mor-riomach, with or without grave accents on the first o and the i, in a Gaelic dictionary. You won’t find anything. Also, if you look it up on Google you will only find references to Fell’s ‘research’. I imagine the root of this word is something akin to réim in Irish, which means range or extent, but who knows? There are no references, no evidence that any of these phrases really exists or could have existed or meant what Fell said they meant.

Another two phrases which seem to be the product of Fell’s imagination are the stream Piscataqua, which supposedly means white rock, and another stream called Seminenal, which he claims means grains of rock. Fell’s Gaelic candidates are Pios-cata.-cua, and semen-aill. I have no idea what is happening with Pios-cata.-cua. Pios is obviously a loanword from Middle English or French, the same word as the Irish píosa or the English piece, so this dates it to the last eight hundred years, no earlier. The cata and cua aren’t usual or comprehensible words for white or rock. I don’t recognise them and I can’t be bothered looking for them.

According to Fell, the name Quechee corresponds to the Gaelic cuithe, meaning a hole or ravine. In fact, if you look up the word cuithe in a Gaelic dicionary you find that it means pit, trench; bank, drift; breastwork; stronghold. The ‘ravine’ meaning seems to be Fell’s invention. As always with this kind of pseudo-scholarship (it’s found throughout Daniel Cassidy’s work), minor tweaks are made to the meanings of both the source and target language so that it looks like there is an amazingly close correspondence. When you examine the primary sources, these amazing correspondences disappear.

Fell also claims that the New Hampshire name Uncanoonucks, a name which translates from the Algonquian as ‘a woman’s breasts’ can be compared to Scottish and Irish expressions for hills using the term Paps in English. He claims that this represents the Scottish Gaelic Uchd-nan-Ugan. This expression uchd-nan-ugàn is a total fabrication on Fell’s part. Uchd (Irish ucht) means breast, while ugàn is a Scottish Gaelic expression for top of the breast or neck. In other words, this bizarre phrase would really mean something like ‘breast of the tops of the breast.’ In reality, the word used for these geographical ‘paps’ is cíoch in Irish and cìoch in Scottish Gaelic, as in Sgurr na Cìche (The Paps of Jura) in Scotland and the Paps of Anu in Kerry (Dá Chíoch Anann).

Even more dishonest than that is the claim that the element –nock is used in New England place names for hills or mountains. This is true, it does occur in such names. But it isn’t the element that means hill or mountain, so any similarity to Irish cnoc is completely meaningless.

I could keep going and trash the rest of Fell’s ‘research’ on place names in New England but it really isn’t worth it. This is not a serious attempt to arrive at the truth. Fell was simply a fantasist and his book America BC is a worthless testament to human folly, just like Daniel Cassidy’s book on slang.

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Is Pseudo-Scholarship Good For Anything?

This is a subject I have been mulling over for a while. It was sparked by a casual comment on the excellent podcast Life, The Universe and Everything Else by the Winnepeg Skeptics. One of the panel said that they were addicted to pseudoscience and supernatural books when they were young. Then I read that Jason Colavito, an excellent debunker of Ancient Aliens, began his interest as a believer and gradually realised it was all bollocks. I must say, I was an omnivorous reader when I was young and I used to buy all kind of nonsense at jumble sales – Dennis Wheatley, T. Lobsang Rampa, Erich von Däniken, Carlos Castañeda, John M. Allegro.

I grew out of it by the time I was in my early twenties and it certainly never did me any harm. But could you make a case that exposure to this kind of dim-witted rubbish is actually a good thing for young minds?

The thing is, teenagers don’t think like adults. Teenagers are alive to a thousand possibilities. They are still looking for who they are and what they think about the world. The behaviour of teenagers is frequently a challenge for older people because it is often irrational and contradictory but in a sense, that’s because it needs to be. In many ways, it’s like the process of brainstorming. The first stage is to generate ideas uncritically, without rejecting anything. And one thing you can say about pseudoscientists is that they are also open to all kinds of irrational nonsense. No idea is too stupid to be rejected out of hand by a follower of pseudoscience. As a kid, I can remember reading Erich von Däniken’s books and the sense of wonder and of infinite possibility that his absurd theories gave me.

Another thing is that pseudoscientific books frequently cherry-pick exciting facts. They home in on things which are surprising, anomalous and interesting in mainstream research, as well as generous dollops of made-up nonsense. If you can work out which is which, pseudoscience can sometimes lead to some genuinely interesting material. (Of course, one common complaint is that these people make money by riding on the back of good research and distorting its conclusions, a criticism which is entirely justified.)

And last but not least, if I only read respectable and accurate works of scholarship as a child, would I have such an acute ability to detect bullshit now? Somehow I doubt it. I think that exposure to the illogical arguments and non sequiturs and random prejudices of pseudoscience actually works like an inoculation (for some people, at least). It makes them think about the nature of truth and dishonesty and it makes them develop the antibodies of skepticism and doubt.

However, if people still believe in this nonsense when they’re fully grown up, that’s a problem. But let’s face it, while it’s a problem for the wider society, it’s far more of a problem for these individuals themselves. They are the ones who are really missing out by preferring woo to true. As adults, they should be looking for that buzz of awe and wonder in the amazing amount we now know about the universe around us instead of watching Ancient Aliens. They should be impressed at the incredible amount that medical science has achieved rather than putting their faith in expensive water.

At the very least, I think that this kind of dross should be read and discussed in schools, because people need to be taught to recognise bad thinking and to develop good thinking and the easiest way to do that is to look at the worst examples of bad thinking around.

The Illusion of Balance

Most of us when faced with a lying, psychopathic cretin like Cassidy would be keen to ensure that he is treated with the contempt he deserves. There are many people who do things differently, who follow a path of gentle cultural relativism where nothing is ever entirely wrong and every claim and belief is to be treated with equal kindness, however ridiculous. Yeah, it’s a wonderful world …

For example, when American poet Terence Winch reviewed Daniel Cassidy’s book, he put in a few negatives to make the thing look balanced, but in fact, the overall effect is to validate and promote Cassidy’s vile, lying book.

But cold shoulders awaited him among some linguists and etymologists who found him lacking in scholarly rigor and authority. Grant Barrett, in particular, presented the most convincing attacks on Cassidy’s work. The debate seems to continue, with some scholars clearly threatened by an amateur barging into their domain with an exciting new insight that none of the experts had ever noticed. It seems to me, however, that Cassidy has presented a wonderful opening for trained scholars to explore, if they could get over their anger at being scooped (from scuab, to snatch away).

Insights like Cassidy’s are creative breakthroughs whose logical structures are filled in later. Last year, in this space, I discussed “eureka moments” and “tacit knowledge” in my post on Elizabeth Sewell. Cassidy’s book is one of those eureka moments that leap beyond the ordinary to give us a new understanding of the subject at hand.

That’s fine, if the book is worthwhile and well researched and correct. If the book is a pile of crud, which How The Irish Invented Slang is, then Cassidy’s theory is not ‘an exciting new insight’ and this ‘balance’ is an illusion. What is really being done is a subtle whitewash, where a couple of token criticisms make the generally positive tone of the review seem reasoned and fair. Winch’s comments here are offensive bullshit. Another way of describing ‘creative breakthroughs whose logical structures are filled in later’ is the process of choosing your conclusions and then looking for confirmation of them after. Which is a pretty accurate description of how Cassidy rolled. I also dislike that ‘clearly’. It may be clear to Winch that the experts are failing to accept Cassidy’s work because of a fit of pique. To me, it is quite clear, based on the available facts, that Cassidy’s work is all nonsense and that Winch is supporting it out of a mixture of stupidity, ignorance and nepotism. (He is a friend of several of Cassidy’s friends.)

Of course, this fake balance is predicated on the notion that all theories are created equal, that nothing can be proven, and that the evidential basis for a claim is irrelevant. I don’t believe this and I really don’t think anyone else should believe it. Winch claims that scoop in journalism comes from Irish scuab. Yet the word scoop meaning something used to pick something up dates back to the Middle Ages in English, and scuab means a brush or broom and is therefore less appropriate than the long-established English word. Winch also mentions dude coming from Irish dúid, meaning 1. Stump. 2. (a) Stumpy object, protuberant part; (short) horn, (cropped) ear, tail. (b) Short-stemmed (clay) pipe. 3. (Craned) neck, throat. 4. (a) Stumpy person. (b) Mopish, shy person; numbskull, but ignores the other claims, that it comes from Dudenkopf in German meaning a dandified idiot, or from Yankee Doodle, who ‘stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.’ (The original meaning of dood is basically a fashion-victim.) He also repeats the absurd Cassidy claim that do-thóigthe means ‘a sickly, hard-to-feed calf.’ A look at any Irish dictionary is enough to disprove that one. And then he finishes with béal ónna for baloney. Yet again, there’s no evidence. If you want to claim that, you should be able to provide evidence from a dictionary or a text in the Irish language which predates Cassidy and which clearly shows that béal ónna has been used to mean nonsense. It you can’t do that, there is no evidence, so the claim is invalid. It’s not rocket science.

When trying to establish the truth, you should give equal credence to claims of equal weight. Sticking your thumb on the scales to give weight to claims which have no substance is not being balanced or fair. In reality, it is giving an unfair advantage to liars and it’s making you an accomplice in their dishonesty.

The Weird World of Ancient Aliens

I have been watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel recently, as research for this post. If you have never watched Ancient Aliens, it is hard to describe just how bad it is. It is essentially a bunch of cranks looking at statues of gods or stone circles from the ancient world and making bizarre assertions about their links to little green (or grey) men. Any god with big eyes is an alien, anything disc-shaped is a UFO, etc. etc. The whole thing is narrated by a man who sounds a little like E.L. Wisty. Here is a piss-take of a typical item, which is only slightly sillier than the real thing.

 

A typical rock, you might think. [Picture of rock.] A rock like any other rock on earth. A rock picked up and brought to the USA by a young back-packer at an ancient Inca site in Peru. [Picture of someone picking up rock.] Within weeks, the young tourist was convinced that the rock was speaking to her. Mental illness, or was she driven to madness by alien voices, as many ancient alien theorists believe? [Picture of young woman covering ears with anguished expression.] 

[Cut to respectable scientist explaining about current thinking on other dimensions.]

“The current belief is that there are more than just the dimensions we can see around us in the ordinary world. These extra dimensions are hidden,  folded up in the interstices of our everyday reality.”  

[Cut to ancient alien author with crazy hair and a Greek name.]

“So, these aliens who have the technology to travel vast distances across space, they understand the multi-dimensional nature of the universe. We all know the Tardis effect of science fiction, something is bigger on the inside than the outside, right? So how do we know that this rock is not a whole spaceship? It wouldn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. There could be whole fleets of spaceships inside it.”

[Cut to badly-designed graphic of alien spaceship.]

 

Why am I having a go at Ancient Aliens on cassidyslangscam? Well, I’m sure many people have wondered why I have expended so much time and effort on someone as marginal and unimportant as Daniel Cassidy. Partly, of course, the reason for this is that Cassidy is treating the Irish language with contempt and I happen to love the Irish language. However, there is a more serious aspect to all this.

The world is awash with pseudoscience and pseudoscholarship. Cassidy’s nonsense is just one example of people believing in any old shite without following scientific methodology, without seeking evidence. People who believe rubbish like this are just as likely to believe in graphology or the MMR link to autism, or AIDS denial, or Hancock’s nonsense about ancient civilisations. They believe in these things for the same reasons – arrogance, hubris, a desire among badly-educated people to be ‘in on’ some arcane story which the ivory-tower scholars have supposedly missed.

However, there is a big difference between these other idiotic theories and Cassidy’s nonsense. They haven’t had positive articles in the New York Times and the Irish Times. The people who peddle AIDS denial and Hancock’s rubbish about ancient civilisations under the ice caps haven’t been given receptions at New York University. They aren’t treated with respect among genuine scholars and intellectuals and quoted in history books and on television programmes.

Cassidy was, in spite of the fact that his ‘research’ was every bit as ridiculous as the worst pseudo-scholarship out there. That’s why the Cassidy Scandal is part of something bigger. And that’s why this story needs to be told.

The Lessons of the Cassidy Scandal

Now that Cassidy’s Reign of Error is over, it seems like a good time to examine some of the lessons to be learned from this case.

Cassidy, who had no qualifications at all, was able to hide his fraud in plain sight. While he never gave a clear account of his academic record in public, there is enough evidence on line that he claimed to have a degree from Cornell. Cornell and its Registrar Cassie Dembosky responded to my request for information very quickly and with no hassle. The other universities were less responsive and in spite of a campaign of letter-writing and contacting the press, I have still not received satisfactory answers to my questions. Academic fraud is on the increase and it’s in everybody’s interests to make it easier to expose it. Unfortunately, no one body is responsible for tracking down frauds like Cassidy, so the evidence may have to be sought in different states and different countries. If even one of these individuals or institutions fails to do its duty (such as Columbia and San Francisco State), it may be difficult to prove the fraud conclusively.

People need to be taught to think. Thinking rationally is the most basic skill of all and people should be taught how to distinguish manipulative bullcrap from reality. It is amazing how many people don’t understand that ‘I want this to be true’ is not a valid argument, or simply don’t feel it necessary to check ‘facts’ because they’ve seen them in black and white in a book.

People should be taught a little about linguistics. Everything we do is based on language, yet the scientific study of language is a mystery to many people who consider themselves educated. Many people would rather read the pontifications of grammar mavens who spout nonsense (e.g. food cannot be healthy, it can only be healthful!) rather than read a genuine expert on language like David Crystal. There seems to be a prevailing view among some people that linguists are just a bunch of trendy lefties who are intent on reducing the language of Shakespeare to textspeak.

A common view among people who have never been taught to think (or have they been taught not to think?) is that being reasonable consists of finding a middle point between two competing positions. Let’s just think about this for a minute. If someone is telling me that black people are genetically non-human, should people like me who are not racists go half way on the path of irrational bigotry to meet them? Of course not! It’s not a question of finding compromises between opposing theories, it’s a question of assessing how well the theories correspond to the facts. Not all theories are created equal and not all theories deserve to be treated with equal respect. Some theories, like racism, deserve no respect at all.

The newspapers really should strap on a pair and start to clear up the messes they make. I know their function is to sell copies and get noticed but in the case of Cassidy, they were all very keen to spread the word about his book and his lunatic theories without actually checking whether those theories had any validity at all. (There are a few exceptional journalists like Ed Power, but most of them couldn’t be arsed confirming that Cassidy wasn’t a flake.) But when the dog bites man story comes around, that Cassidy was simply an unqualified fraud masquerading as a professor and that he knew nothing about Irish, none of the papers want to know. None of them are prepared to publish a retraction or set the record straight because there’s no profit in it for them and apparently, informing people of the truth isn’t what they do.

Friends are a wonderful thing. When people use their friendships to gain advantage at the expense of the truth and even at the expense of the people who regarded themselves as their friends, that’s another matter. Cassidy used his friends to support his ignorant posturing, and all of these friends – Joseph Lee, Peter Quinn, Peter Linebaugh, John Rickford and many others – all of them have been diminished as people and as academics by their contact with the Great Fraud. They may not recognise that fact but those of us who recognised Cassidy’s childishness and stupidity the moment we opened his book find their gullibility astounding and their unwillingness to set the record straight a clear indication of the kind of people they really are.

However good somebody is as a party animal, that doesn’t make them a talented researcher or academic. If you want a comedian or musician to make the faculty Christmas party go with a swing, contact a theatrical agent. If you want someone who can do academic research, make sure they actually have a degree or two before you employ them.

Wikipedia can be a wonderful source of information but there are problems with it. The famous case of Philip Roth should stand as a warning. Roth corrected certain claims about his own novel The Human Stain on Wiki but was told by administrators that they needed secondary sources! It seems to me that the original intention of Wikipedia was that subject experts who really understand the issues would contribute their specialist knowledge. However, it appears that much of the activity on Wikipedia is by busybodies who edit so much on such a wide range of matters that they cannot possibly have any expert knowledge of the area in question. Furthermore, the protocols of Wikipedia favour pseudoscience and false claims, just as they did in the case of Philip Roth. If someone publishes a false claim in a book, that is regarded as a valid source, even if it’s a work of pseudoscience like How The Irish Invented Slang and completely valueless. Academics do not routinely publish books or articles debunking nonsense (perhaps they should!) and so the only sources for the correct information are often inadmissible sources by Wikipedia’s criteria, such as privately published blogs like this one.

Lastly, be careful of people playing certain political cards in their own defence. Cassidy played the ethnicity card and the class card in order to protect himself from legitimate criticism. He depicted the world of linguistics and lexicography as an upper-class Anglophile closed shop where men in dinner jackets decide on fake English etymologies to play down the cultural contribution of the Irish. Because of this bizarre fantasy, a large number of idiots who consider themselves Irish were quite happy to rush to his defence, even if that meant trying to shout down people who actually speak Irish.

Another Update

Well, it has been several weeks now since I last updated people on my search for the truth about Cassidy’s qualifications. However, before giving a further update, I will just run through the background for the sake of anyone who has just joined us.

Daniel Cassidy worked as an academic in California for twelve years. He published a totally off-the-wall book which revealed that he knew absolutely nothing about Irish, Irish Studies or Linguistics. Sources online claim that he had a degree from Cornell. Others claim that he had a degree from Columbia as well. However, a couple of months ago, acting on a tip-off from his sister, I contacted Cornell, whose registrar Cassie Dembosky confirmed that Cassidy flunked out and never received his degree.

Since then, I have been searching for further information. I particularly wanted to find out if there was any evidence of what qualifications he claimed to have when he applied for work in California at New College of California and before that at San Francisco State (probably) and I also wanted to confirm that he had no qualifications from Columbia. So, I have written a few letters and emails to these institutions.

So far, the only reply I have had was from WASC, the body in charge of higher education in California. In a somewhat begrudging exchange (on both sides, after the first reply) I have established that WASC does not keep the records of the staff of the now defunct New College of California. Still, begrudging is better than no answer at all. Way to go, Danielle! Anyway, that’s one door closed.

Whatever dog-eared and largely fictional curriculum vitae this man submitted to these institutions has probably been shredded years ago. That’s assuming that there was ever a proper hiring process at New College. Perhaps they did something Californian – casting the runes or the I Ching, looking at Cassidy’s horoscope, or perhaps Martin Hamilton had a prophetic dream or decided that the vibes were good (“I have a good feeling about Daniel. The chakras are strong in this one…”) Who knows?

Anyway, that leaves San Francisco State, who haven’t replied, and Columbia. I suppose it isn’t really essential to get confirmation from Columbia (we know he didn’t graduate from Cornell and personally I refuse to believe Cassidy had any qualifications at all until I see proof of it) but you would think an academic institution like Columbia, when informed that a fairly high-profile charlatan has almost certainly claimed to have a degree from them when he almost certainly didn’t would be at pains to set the record straight.

Apparently not. Perhaps Columbia doesn’t value its academic integrity as highly as Cornell.

Still, I’ll keep on trying and I live in hope that one day someone in Columbia will say “Hm, maybe he’s right! Perhaps we should do something about a well known pseudo-scholar who apparently claimed to be a graduate of Columbia when he wasn’t!”

… And a Slice of Cold Turkey

In his insane collection of fake etymology, How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy made many ridiculous claims. None is more ridiculous than his claim about the origins of the expression ‘cold turkey’, a slang term for the awful fever and craving which an addict goes through when giving up drugs (especially heroin). Cassidy would have known a thing or two about this, as he spent 23 months in rehab at Phoenix House, where he managed to kick his narcotics habit. (Please note, I am not sneering at Cassidy here. I have nothing but respect for people who manage to overcome addictions. My beef with Cassidy is to do with his arrogance, his nastiness and his incompetence, not his history of drug-abuse).

The term ‘cold turkey’ makes its appearance quite late on, in the early 50s. There are various theories about its origin. The most convincing is quite simply that it is descriptive of the cold clammy flesh and goosebumps associated with withdrawal.

Cassidy, of course, had a different view. According to him, this is the Irish word coillteoireacht, which he claims means ‘cutting off, expurgation, castration’. Back in the real world, coillteoireacht is an abstract noun from coillteoir, which has two separate meanings and two separate etymologies. One is from the noun coill, meaning a wood. In this case, coillteoir means a woodcutter or forester. The other is from the verb coill, meaning to geld or to spoil. So coillteoir means someone who castrates or despoils. So coillteoireacht can mean ‘the actions or behaviour of one who is engaged in forestry work’ or ‘the actions or behaviour of one who castrates or despoils.’ Well, that’s such a close correspondence to the meanings of cold turkey, it’s truly amazing nobody ever made the connection before, especially when you consider that coillteoireacht almost sounds a little bit like cold turkey!

Of course, this is complete nonsense. It isn’t a fit in terms of meaning, or sound, or the date of its appearance, and an Irish speaker back then would probably call it haras na ndrugaí (from English horrors), or rámhaille na ndrugaí, or something like that. Coillteoireacht? Not a chance!

Incidentally, this reminds me of a well-known story about an Irish country and western band back in the 60s and 70s who called themselves Big Tom and the Mainliners, unaware that mainliner had the slang meaning of heroin-user in the States. When Big Tom went to America, loads of druggie types turned up to the concerts only to find that Big Tom was more Jim Reeves than Lou Reed.