August 26, 2006

It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section

A few days ago, some brilliant British public-relations consultant decided to spread the fame of West Country Farmhouse Cheeses by floating the story that West Country cows not only give special local milk, they even moo in a special local way. (This concern for cheesy terroir is part of the spread, at least in Britain and the U.S., of wine-tasting culture into other agricultural product areas.) The PR firm asked a famous linguist, John Wells, whether cows could have regional accents. He gave a sober and sensible response , which they were able to spin into a form of "yes", even though what he actually said was "probably not". (Specifically, according to John's own account, "I told them I thought it highly unlikely; but that there was well established scientific evidence that several species of bird exhibit regional variability in their calls, so you could not entirely rule out the possibility.")

The PR firm's spin on the matter was eagerly accepted by journalists from media outlets around the globe, and within a matter of hours, increasingly preposterous versions of this story had been presented to the public via thousands of newspapers, radio stations and television channels. John had become "a group of British linguists"; his off-the-cuff answer had turned into an in-depth investigation in which "numerous of the country's herds" were "subjected to screening"; and the scientific validity of cow dialects is now an established fact for millions of the world's better-informed people.

It's a tradition in anglophone journalism that the late summer is treated as a sort of extended April Fool's Day, known as the "silly season". Because both newsmakers and subscribers are on vacation, the laws of journalistic supply and demand motivate attempts to stir up interest with extravagant nonsense. A similar phenomenon is called Sommerloch (= "summer hole") in German. But this silly-season cow-dialect case is not very different from the journalistic treatment of animal-communication stories throughout the year. Even though the cow-dialect story was created out of nothing as a PR stunt, it exemplifies a relationship between facts and their media presentation that is, alas, the normal one. In the world's science sections, it's always silly season.

I guess that some of this is just the normal "telephone game" of human communication, where each writer adds bit of misunderstanding or embroidery to the interpretations or fabrications of the the last one. And most journalists know nothing much about science, and most editors seem to believe that audience appeal is much more important than accuracy, as long as there are no powerful groups to complain about falsehoods. So we get the predictable result: wildly inaccurate stories.

In the cow dialect case, though, I detect an additional factor. At some point in the past decade or so, the British Broadcasting Corporation adopted standards for science reporting that are even lower than those of other serious publications. Nevertheless, readers around the world -- including other journalists -- still associate the BBC's past authority with its current output. [See the end of this post for links to some other BBC science-reporting howlers.]

When I scan the world's reporting on the cow-dialect story, which the internet and Google News now easily allow me to do, the BBC factor jumps out. The BBC was not the first place where this "news" appeared, and it certainly wasn't the only place, but it was an especially influential place. Here are a few examples of this influence:

Europa Press:

Un grupo de lingüistas británicos ha convenido que las vacas, al igual que los seres humanos, tienen distinto acento en función de la región donde viven, según informa la BBC.
A group of British linguists has concluded that cows, just like humans, have different accents depending on the region where they live, according to the BBC.

Los expertos decidieron ahondar en la cuestión después de escuchar que varios ganaderos británicos hablaban de la diferencia de acentos en los mugidos de las vacas, dependiendo de la zona de Inglaterra en que se encontraban.
The experts decided to go into the question in depth after hearing several British cattle dealers speak of the different accents in the moos of cows, depending on the part of England in which they were found

Diario de Léon:

¿Son diferentes en sus ento-naciones una vaca morucha salmantina y una cachena gallega? La respuesta, afirmativa, parecía encontrarse ayer en la sección de ciencia de la web de la BBC: bajo el titular «Las vacas también tienen acentos regionales» se informaba de que los especialistas apuntaban a que estos animales emitían sonidos ligeramente distintos en función de su procedencia geográfica.
Are a morucha (breed of) cow from Salamanca and a Galician cachena (breed of cow) different in their intonations? The answer "yes" seems to be found in the science section of the BBC web site: under the headline "Cows have regional accents" we learn that specialists indicate that these animals emit slightly different sounds as a function of their geographical origin.

The Ciencia section of Terra:

-Me parece que esa vaquita es de Buenos Aires.
-Te equivocas, si bien camina con paso rápido como si estuviese apurada por llegar al trabajo, su mugido es típico de las vacas santafecinas.

-I think this cow is from Buenos Aires.
-You are mistaken; although it walks rapidly as if it were late for work, its moo is typical of cows from Santa Fe.

No se asuste, este diálogo es ficticio pero según las más recientes teorías de los especialistas en lenguaje, esta conversación podría ser tranquilamente parte de la realidad, ya que las vacas, al igual que los seres humanos, parecen tener acentos regionales.
Don't worry, this dialog is fictitious, but according to the most recent theories of language specialists, this conversation could easily be real, because cows, just like humans, seem to have regional accents.

Los expertos decidieron ahondar en el tema después de escuchar que varios ganaderos hablaban de la diferencia de acentos en los mugidos de su ganado vacuno, dependiendo de qué parte del país provenía.
The experts decided to probe into the subject after hearing several British cattle dealers speak of the different accents in the moos of their cattle, depending on what part of the country they came from.

...Cortesía BBC Mundo
...Courtesy of BBC World

Die Welt:

Das Interesse der Wissenschaftler weckte die Tatsache, dass sich Kühe unterschiedlich „äußerten“ – je nachdem, aus welcher Herde sie kamen. John Wells, Professor für Phonetik an der Uni in London, erklärt: Dieses Phänomen war zuvor von Vögeln bekannt.
The fact that cows "express themselves" differently depending on what herd they come from has aroused the interest of scientists. John Wells, professor of phonetics at the university in London, explains: This phenomenon has long been known in birds.

Die BBC berichtet, dass Farmer in Somerset das Phänomen als erste beobachtet hätten.
The BBC reports that farmers in Somerset were the first to observe the phenomenon.

TGCOM Mundo: ("Singolare scoperta di alcuni scienziati" -- "Singular discovery of some scientists")

Proprio come gli uomini anche le mucche quando muggiscono rivelano la loro provenienza. Hanno insomma un accento caratteristico che cambia da regione a regione. Lo sostiene uno studio britannico di specialistii del linguaggio che hanno sottoposto a screening numerose mandrie del Paese dopo che alcuni allevatori avevano segnalato loro questa curiosa caratteristica.
Just like men, cows also reveal their origin when they moo. Thus they have a characteristic accent that changes from region to region. This is the conclusion of a British study by language specialists, who have subjected to screening numerous of the country's herds, after some breeders had noticed their peculiar characteristics.

Un analogo studio condotto da John Wells, professore di fonetica all'Universita' di Londra, confermerebbe l'ipotesi anche per gli uccelli. "In questo caso è assolutamente provato -ha detto alla Bbc- uccelli appartenenti alla stessa specie cinguettano in modo diverso da zona a zona. E lo stesso potrebbe valere anche per le mucche".
An analogous study carried out by John Wells, professor of phonetics at the University of London, confirmed the hypothesis also for birds. "In this case it is absolutely proved", he said to the BBC, "birds belonging to the same species chirp in different ways from place to place. And the same thing could be true for cows."

I'll leave it to the reader to verify that similar stuff can be found worldwide, with the BBC's fingerprints on much of it.

Some other BBC science silliness that we've noted, in passing, over the years:

"Parrot telepathy at the BBC" (1/28/2004), "Stupid fake pet communication tricks" (1/29/2004)
"More junk science from the BBC" (3/10/2004), "The decline of the BBC" (3/10/2004)
"Chatnannies debunked" (3/31/2004), "Chatnannies update" (4/3/2004), "We are all Big Brother" (4/15/2004)
"Talking chimp" (4/7/2004)
"The most untranslatable word" (6/23/2004)
"Transmutation of wood chips at the BBC" (8/28/2004)
"Enhance breast size by 80%" (4/9/2005)
"Tudor linguistic homogeneity" (7/29/2005)
"The Agatha Christie Code: stylometry, serotonin and the oscillation overthruster" (12/26/2005)
"The brave new world of computational neurolinguistics" (12/27/2005)
"Linguists have different brains" (4/7/2006), "How much do those red and blue jellybeans predict about linguistic ability?" (4/17/2006)
"Maurice Saatchi, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/23/2006)
"We feel sad because we say ü" (7/21/2006)
"Vicky Pollard's revenge" (1/2/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 26, 2006 12:00 PM