January 29, 2004

Stupid fake pet communication tricks

I'm perfectly well disposed toward parrots; I have mingled with them in the wild on a friendly basis, and I have pictures to prove it. And N'kisi the grey parrot whose press coverage Mark recently discussed is said to have a sense of humor. Well, I'm normally all in favor of laughter and merriment, but I don't have a sense of humor when it comes to stupid animal communication stories like the one by Alex Kirby (another candidate for an early resignation from the BBC, I'd say). I'm just appalled at the kind of ridiculous, credulous garbage that sails out into the media universe the moment anyone claims they have located a communicative animal. People seem to completely lose their critical faculties when a bird with a brain the size of a macadamia nut creaks out a few imitated syllables, or (we've seen this before, with Koko) a gorilla waves its hairy hand vaguely in the air in a way that its trainer thinks resembles the very sign she was expecting. What is going on? Are we so desperate for communication with other intelligences that we will throw away our own the moment some dumb creature gives us an imitative squawk or a hand sign?

"PARROT'S ORATORY STUNS SCIENTISTS" burbles Kirby's headline. The scientists would have to be stunned to accept this slop. Set aside the claim about N'kisi being telepathic, which just shows Kirby is a shameless hack who will follow Jayson Blair into the annals of journalism without facts. (The website of the N'kisi project admits: "Aimee found that her state of mind was critical, and if she intentionally tried to "send" the information, it wouldn't work. N'kisi responded best when Aimee's full attention was genuinely immersed in exploring the images, without any thought of the experiments": yeah, right -- when it works it's telepathy, when it doesn't it was Aimee's fault for thinking wrong!) Forget that. Just consider the communication claim.

I will state a view here that I don't believe has been explicitly set out in public very often: I am prepared to voice doubt that there has ever been an example anywhere of a non-human expressing a single opinion, or even asking a question, ever.

I don't mean blurting out "pretty smell medicine" when in the presence of aromatherapy oils. I mean actually saying things, not just naming things in the vicinity or appearing to do so. Here is what would convince me: N'kisi drops some fecal matter into the water dish while sitting above it, looks down, and says "Oh, dear, I pooped in my drinking water" (without having been carefully trained to do so, of course). Or N'kisi sees his owner going out shopping and says "If you're going to the store, don't forget to buy some more birdseed", and when the owner comes back with it the bird says, "Oh, good, you remembered."

Kirby's parrot story is much more ridiculous than the familiar signing ape stories, of course. But the ape stuff is absurdly over-blown too. Don't get me wrong, I think bonobos in particular are wonderful creatures: a society that has figured out how to use sex to make peace is a society we could learn from. But language use? If just one bonobo would ever say (or sign) to her keeper: "I'm bored; I think I'll go have sex with Mandy again", that would be interesting. If a bonobo or any other ape would even just say, "How are you feeling today?", I would sit up and take notice. It just doesn't happen. Apes do learn to produce utterances designed to get the investigators to give them bananas. What they don't do is state opinions, or ask what your opinions are, or comment in even the most trivial way on what it's like to be an ape.

If you truly imagine that American Sign Language has ever been taught to an ape of any species other than ours, just stop relying on the trainer to tell you what the gesticulating creature is saying, and ask a native user of ASL to view a videotape and pass judgment. It isn't there. Apes cannot control ASL, or come anywhere close. (Joel Wallman's book Aping Language is a very useful aid for those who find them slipping into credulousness). And parrots can't talk. All the press stories about this topic are just hokum.

Even Alex Kirby (he of the deathlessly moronic opinion "About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if N'kisi could read he would be able to cope with a wide range of material") goes way beyond any non-human animal or bird in his linguistic capacities. We all do. I know you animal-lovers will all hate me for saying this, but it's true.

Update, January 15, 2007: For a detailed critique of the ridiculously fraudulent (yet nonetheless published) experiment on N'Kisi's telepathy, see Robert Carroll's article in The Skeptic's Dictionary. And note also that David Beaver recently discovered that the BBC retrospectively altered their article to remove all reference to telepathy (see the article at the same link referenced above), without altering the 2004 post date ("last updated: Monday, 26 January 2004") — an astonishing act of dishonesty for a mainstream science news source. The BBC sinks lower and lower in one's estimation as time goes on.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 29, 2004 06:14 PM