June 30, 2007

Invisible telepathic parrots

There's been a new development in the BBC parrot-telepathy story. Last year, the reference to telepathy was silently removed; but now the whole parrot has been airbrushed out of the journalistic record.

It all started back in January of '04 ("Parrot telepathy at the BBC", 1/28/2004). A BBC story about the linguistic abilities of N'kisi the African grey parrot said something foolish about his vocabulary, claimed to be 950 words:

"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."

I explained why this was a silly thing to say by showing the start of the story as it would appear to someone with a 100-word vocabulary:

The xxxxxxx of a xxxxxx with an xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxx to xxxxxxxxxxx with people has xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx up xxxxx.

I also noted in passing that the story seemed a bit credulous about N'kisi's abilities in general:

I yield to no one in my admiration for parrots' communicative efforts, and N'kisi does sound like a remarkable fellow ... 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.

As a mere linguist, I'll leave this one to the experts at the Skeptical Inquirer, but let's just say that throwing in a claim about pet telepathy doesn't do a lot for my confidence in the rest of the story. It's like reading about a hypothetical engineering genius whose remarkable new windmill design and perpetual motion machine are both covered enthusiastically in the latest issue of National Geographic.

The first thing to disappear was the telepathy. In January of 2007, David Beaver pointed out to me that the reference to N'kisi's telepathy had been silently deleted from the article ("BBC's duplicity stuns Language Loggers", 1/15/2007). Consultation of the Wayback Machine showed that I had not hallucinated the original passage. The Wayback Machine also showed that the change had been made without changing the story's time stamp, which in January of 2007 continued to read "Last Updated: Monday, 26 January 2004, 15:27 GMT", although the version of this story captured on 4/24/2006 still contained the reference to telepathy.

Our reaction at the time:

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.

But now, as Neil Golightly informs me, the original BBC story link (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3430481.stm) -- which used to point to the story about N'kisi by Alex Kirby, "BBC News Online environment correspondent", datelined 1/26/2007, under the headline "Parrot's oratory stuns scientists", -- now points to an entirely different story, "Animal world's communication kings", by Rebecca Morelle, "Science reporter, BBC News", datelined 5/1/2007.

At the bottom of this new story, there is a little note:

Note: This story about animal communication has replaced an earlier one on this page which contained factual inaccuracies we were unable to correct. As a result, the original story is no longer in our archive. It is still visible elsewhere, via the link below:
'Parrot oratory stuns scientists'

"Factual inaccuracies we were unable to correct"?

Did you mean, "the story was a complete and obvious crock, and we were caught at it and made fun of, but our policy of pretending to be infallible prevents us from explaining and correcting the problems"?

As a pompous euphemism, "factual inaccuracies we were unable to correct" doesn't have quite the compact power of "wardrobe malfunction", but it's still impressive.

Now, in fact, it wouldn't be at all hard to document and correct the factual inaccuracies in that original article. I think that I did a decent job of correcting the suggestion about the value of a 950-word vocabulary; it took Ray Girvan all of 232 words to deal with the whole thing, with useful links; and a minute with Google will find plenty of skeptical discussions of N'kisi's telepathy and/or vocabulary, for example this one by Robert Todd Carroll. The Wikipedia article on N'kisi has links to Carroll's debunking and also to a reply by the psychic researcher responsible for the claims about telepathy, Rupert Sheldrake. Surely if the parrot telepathy article were (say) some government minister's credulous white paper about using the power of prayer to reduce National Health expenditures, the BBC's ace investigative journalists would have been able to "correct" its "factual inaccuracies"?

I learned about the purged article and the "unable to correct" note from Neil Golightly, who explains:

You may be interested in a response I got on the BBC Editors' blog. The News Online editor, Steve Hermann, had a post up
( http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2007/06/conflicting_accounts.html ) re: changing events rendering stories obsolete. I wanted to reference the infamous parrot story to make the point that discredited stories do hang around and not necessarily in a visible context: however when I opened the link I found to my surprise that it went to an entirely different story. I pointed this out in my comment ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2007/06/conflicting_accounts.html#c1721336 ). Steve acknowledged my point to a certain extent ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2007/06/conflicting_accounts.html#c1790329 ) and indeed the new story (still at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3430481.stm ) now has a disclaimer at the bottom saying "This story about animal communication has replaced an earlier one on this page which contained factual inaccuracies we were unable to correct. As a result, the original story is no longer in our archive. It is still visible elsewhere, via the link below:" followed by an Internet Archive link.

So the original article was first silently purged and replaced by a completely new piece on a similar theme, which doesn't mention N'kisi at all. And the note at the bottom, with a link to a copy of the original article that happened to have been harvested by the Internet Archive, was added only after Neil complained. Here's what Steve Herrmann says about the process:

2. Neil - you are right to point out we should have explained what happened to the original story, and we’re adding a note to the bottom of the new story to do that, along with the link you provided to the Internet Archive. The Newswatch website when it launched had a number of indexes which aimed to increase accountability – the ‘Notes and Corrections’ page was one of them, but was never a detailed or comprehensive list. When we launched the Editors' blog last year, it seemed to us it was a more effective way of achieving the same aims, and we reduced the scope of the Newswatch site to what it is today.

Also, (and in response to JG, Kevin and Dave) as far as corrections in general go it’s our policy to correct anything that’s wrong as soon as we become aware of it. As I said here previously when we make a major change or revision we republish it with a new datestamp, indicating it’s a new version of the story. If there’s been a change to a key point in the story we will often also point this out in the later version (saying something like "earlier reports said..."). Lesser changes, including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs - go through with no new datestamp because there hasn’t been a substantive change or update in the story. There may be ways in which, as Neil suggests, we could track all the changes automatically and make them more obvious to readers that way, but at present we haven’t got that ability.

(Apparently the BBC had no copy of the purged article in its own online archive.)

It's certainly a step forward that the BBC News blog "The Editors" exists, and that comments posted there get an honest response, even if that honesty doesn't translate into a transparent correction of errors on the news site itself. I hope that this feedback process will eventually improve the risible state of science journalism at BBC News.

[I should add a few words about why I think this matters.

The public needs accurate information about technical subjects, but the quality of reporting on science and engineering in the popular press is scandalously low. Many science journalists write as if their only goals were cheap sensationalism and various political or personal agendas -- and this is not only true of the tabloids, it applies all too often to the most respected brands in the business. In my experience, BBC News is the worst and most consistent offender among serious English-language media organizations. Its competitors are not much better, but you'd think that an outfit with the BBC's financial and cultural advantages could be ahead of the pack instead of behind it.

I don't especially enjoy playing "gotcha" with journalists, but there's some evidence that being held up to ridicule in the blogosphere has an impact on reporters and editors, not just in individual cases but cumulatively.

Also, the availability of responsible discussion in alternative media offers at least a small contrary force to the surge of misinformation from traditional sources. As a result, those who consult Google or Wikipedia -- with an open-minded and skeptical attitude, of course -- are likely to be better informed than those who rely on sources like the BBC. Perhaps this is the best outcome that we will get, but it's not the best that we could hope for.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 30, 2007 07:40 AM