January 15, 2007

BBC's duplicity stuns Language Loggers

A story on the BBC News website, "Parrot's oratory stuns scientists", by Alex Kirby, "BBC News Online environment correspondent", claims that it was "Last Updated: Monday, 26 January 2004, 15:27 GMT". The version of this story captured by the Wayback Machine on 4/24/2006 is also labelled "Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 15:27 GMT", but it's somewhat different in content. This is a matter of some personal interest to me, because on January 28, 2004, I wrote a blog post complaining about "Parrot telepathy at the BBC", which began:

I hate to pile on, what with the "sense of shell shock" and "a bit of a meltdown" at the BBC. However, I have to take BBC News Online environment correspondent Alex Kirby to task, for sexing up this story about N'kisi the African grey parrot.

I yield to no one in my admiration for parrots' communicative efforts, and N'kisi does sound like a remarkable fellow, with a vocabulary said to number 950 words, but you have to wonder what is happening at the BBC when Mr. Kirby writes that:

N'kisi's remarkable abilities, which are said to include telepathy, feature in the latest BBC Wildlife Magazine.

However, in the version that's now on the BBC website, the sentence in question reads

N'kisi's remarkable abilities feature in the latest BBC Wildlife Magazine.

There's no correction at the bottom, and no indication that an imputation of telepathy has been retracted, so I'm glad that the Wayback Machine shows that I didn't just make the whole thing up.

[A skeptical take on N'kisi, including the telepathy experiments, can be found here. I'm skeptical in principle about the telepathy part, but I'm agnostic about the communicative potential of parrots; at least, I enjoy a good story as much as anyone.]

At the water cooler here at Language Log Plaza, Geoff Pullum commented "Wow! The BBC are not just science idiots; they actually fake the record later, and delete things from published material!" I reminded him of the infamous chatnannies affair, but I agree that silent removal of an embarrassing phrase, while retaining a false "Last Updated" banner, is worse. I'm sure that if a government ministry did the same thing with embarrassing predictions about the war in Iraq, or something of the sort, that BBC News would (quite properly) be all over the story.

Arnold Zwicky suggested that perhaps we ought to just relax and enjoy it, quoting email from Alessandro J.:

Why do you skeptics have to make the world so boring?  I for one do believe in telepathic parrots. I also believe in gorillas who develop nipple-fixations because they were not properly breast-fed as infants.

This is a reference to Patricia Yollin, "Gorilla Foundation rocked by breast display lawsuit", San Francisco Chronicle, 2/18/2005.

[The discovery of the telepathy-free BBC article was made by David Beaver, now iced up in Austin.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 15, 2007 03:10 PM