The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs - Alexandra Semyonova

Myth 99: Scientists know what they are talking about because they study animals in an objective way. 

We have seen that many scientists who make statements about dogs have never really studied dogs. Many of them simply adopted our Nazi Nobel Prize winner’s story about dogs, ignoring the fact that the man’s specialty was birds. Some simply went along with the idea that once you’ve looked at wolves, you don’t need to look at dogs. The scientists who have studied dogs have done it either in highly unnatural circumstances (the lab), or they’ve only watched the dogs for short intervals. But all the same, they make sweeping – and, as we have now seen, incorrect – statements about the domestic dog, claiming to know what it is and how it works. We have all been taught to believe that science is able to protect itself from such blunders. So the question arises as to why science has been blundering along this way about dogs, producing more fantasy than facts about them. In this chapter, we’ll look at a number of the things that are behind this.

    A huge, almost religious romance has been built up around science in our day. This romance states that science is in the business of constantly turning itself upside down and inside out in the search for truth. We look at scientists with awe, as if they are a special species and a sort of super humans. The fact is, scientists are ordinary human beings just like the rest of us. And just like the rest of us, scientists have egos. They are subject to pressure to produce, same as the rest of the labour force. Publishing articles fast and frequently helps a scientist’s career more than less frequent, but more valid, publications would. Like us, scientists want to be able to pay the mortgage, keep the kids at the private schools and buy a new car next year. Research funding and university jobs are scarce, and there is fierce competition for them. The older generation is ever watchful that the ideas of some young, coming colleague don’t overturn their own, old theories, the ones they’ve built their senior careers on. It’s not so hard to keep some uppity young thing from getting a teaching position. It isn’t hard to prevent a younger colleague from publishing, or at least to delay this, and if this fails, well, you can always manipulate the citation index (see text box below).

    As a result of all this, science, itself, is organized in a strictly structured (and enforced) hierarchy – scientists spend their lives moving within a dominance hierarchy they are never allowed to forget, always watching out whether they are stepping on higher ranked toes. For example, at scientific congresses, an insider can see at a glance who the Alpha leaders are just by looking at the seating arrangement. The closer to the front, the higher the rank. You ask difficult questions of those sitting behind you, but not those in front of you. You interrupt those behind you to correct a mistake, but not those in front of you. If you disobey these rules, you run the risk of torpedoing your own chances of getting good teaching or research positions, of being cited enough to count, and thus of ever building a scientific career.

The citation index

The fact that both academic career and scientific prestige are so dependent on publishing has led to the churning out of much trivial, irrelevant or even spurious work. Under the publish or perish pressure, some scientists have gone so far as to falsify data. Some have even published articles about research that never really took place. In the end, the problem of low quality publications reached such proportions that publication alone was abandoned as a criterion for estimating a researcher’s worth. Privately, inside the club, some of the most brilliant scientists openly acknowledge that you have as much chance of finding quality work in the scientific journals as you do on the Internet, where any nut (be it a brilliant nut or be it just a nut) can write and publish as s/he pleases. As both university administrators and the general public began to get wind of this problem, a solution had to be found – some way to more validly estimate the quality of a researcher’s work. They came up with the citation index. This is published by organizations that keep track of how much one scientist’s published work is cited by other scientists in their footnotes and bibliographies. The presumption is that scientists will tend to use high quality work as sources for their own. This presumption was justified by the fact that Nobel Prize winners turned out, up to 1965, to indeed have been cited about 40 times as often as other colleagues (despite the fact that these Nobel Prize winners only published about five times as much).

But of course, water always seek the lowest level – and scientists are, just like the rest of us, about 60% water. Once the citation index was instituted as a basis for getting jobs and prestige, people immediately began manipulating the index. All you have to do is cite your friends and ignore your competitors whenever possible. Yet again, this has taken such a flight that no one really takes the various indexes entirely seriously anymore. Some scientists openly and publicly ridicule them, while others (guess who) avidly defend them. Everyone recommends, at any rate, not using them as the sole measure of a researcher’s scientific worth.
End text box

    In a nutshell, science is partly an honest search for founded knowledge, but it is also partly a complicated ritual dance about ranks and status and damned be the truth. And of course, the young scientist must, like all young animals, survive in the environment s/he lives in. It is, thus, not so easy to contradict a Nobel Prize winner (at least not while he’s still alive). And when you live and move daily in a world that is organized by the principle of a strict dominance hierarchy and ever-guarded ranks, it’s not so easy to see when you are projecting this onto others (in particular when the others can’t speak to correct you).

    Then there’s a second problem with the objectivity of science: scientists are still mostly men. We all know (and it has been proven repeatedly) that men tend to use competitive strategies in dealing with group membership, whereas women tend to use cooperative strategies. As we look at the world around us, we all refer to our own inner experience and motivation as we try to understand and explain it. It can’t be otherwise, this is true of all humans. Our own experience of the world affects which things we find important enough to study at all, which questions we then pose, which things we think are relevant (and thus which things we count), and how we interpret whatever results our studies turn up. Because of this, it’s inevitable that the pretty much exclusive presence of men in science has led to some distortions in the way the world is researched and interpreted. This might not be so important when we’re looking at non-living things, but when it comes to interpreting the behavior of living creatures this is a serious failing. This projection of purely male, competitive psychology onto reality has given us many faulty theories about the world of the living. The theory that non-human animals are constantly constructing competitive hierarchies isn’t the only one. Freud’s theory that incest doesn’t really occur, that this is just four-year-old girls having fantasies about sleeping with their fathers, came from the same place.

    Then there’s this other thing about having mostly men do science. Recent research (published by The Scientific American) has shown that men engage in science in a different way than women do. Men are more preoccupied with career building and tend to be focused on publishing a lot and fast. Women tend to be more concerned with doing really thorough research, even if this slows down their rate of publication. In other words, women tend to do better science than men, but the rules of the game mean that this slows down their careers. This doesn’t mean that all men are inferior scientists. It does mean that it isn’t always the best scientists who end up at the top of the hierarchy, with the most prestige.

    When we are talking about the sciences that study animal behavior, there is a third thing that gets in the way of objectivity. We now know that science often attract people who have various, more or less serious, autism related disorders, perhaps in particular Asperger’s syndrome. This turned out, in 2006, to be the explanation for a small epidemic of autistic disorders among school-going children in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. A world wide electronics company had established a large scientific research centre in that city, which – as it turned out – had attracted an unusual concentration of parents (scientists employed by the company) who themselves suffered from these heritable disorders. One of the typical symptoms of these disorders is that the bearer has difficulty with social and communicative skills. They often have difficulty conceiving of the other as a living being with its own inner world of knowledge, feelings, beliefs and intentions that are not the same as his/her own: they lack the ability to feel empathy. They tend to have difficulty with social and emotional reciprocity. People with these disorders are particularly bad at reading non-verbal language and social signals. Because of this, they often have trouble responding appropriately in social contexts or communicating their own inner world. There has not yet been any large scale investigation into exactly how many scientists have autism related disorders, nor whether they are concentrated in particular fields of study. Until these questions are answered, it is probably a good idea to be reserved about believing any statements scientists make about the behavior of animals.  First we need to know how many of the observers we have appointed to this task are really capable of understanding another’s behavior at all.

    But we aren’t done yet. When we are talking about animals, we are talking about non-verbal creatures, whose only means of expressing themselves is body language. Among humans, about seventy percent of the information that is conveyed in a conversation is conveyed non-verbally, by our facial expressions, tone of voice, body postures and positions. Among animals, one hundred percent of the information is conveyed this way. Now of course, not all scientists have autism related problems with this – but it remains a problem that most scientists are men. Men in general are infamously (and scientifically proven) bad at reading what we call body language, at any rate they are much worse at it than women. So it is, yet again, questionable whether we can and should put our trust in what are, evidently, our least capable observers when we want to understand the behavior of animals.

    If we take all of the above together, this may explain why so many scientists still, some three hundred fifty years later, embrace Descartes’ view of the animal as a machine, a sort of program-driven automaton that is without feelings, without any kind of thoughts, completely different and separate from humans. It is, in scientific circles, still taboo to contradict this idea. The word “anthropomorphic” appears instantly as a reproach, and as proof that you must be fairly worthless and quite misguided as a scientist. [Anthropomorphism means assigning human qualities to non-human objects.] This is often still the case even when it’s about something as evident as the fact that other mammals feel pain. The accusation of anthropomorphism is usually paired with ridicule and laughter.

    Because of all this, science moves only very slowly in correcting the flaws I point out in this book. We know now how similar our anatomies and brains are to those of other animals (and where they aren’t similar), including the functions of all kinds of body and brain structures, processes and parts. We know now that we differ genetically from a rabbit only by about fifteen percent – which means that a large number of our own genes are executing the same programs they execute in other animals. Despite this, scientists are still amazed when, for example, a creature as simple as a crow is able to make plans, to use tools and to complete complicated tasks (a thing any farmer could have told them three hundred years ago, had they bothered to ask, and if they hadn’t laughed so contemptuously at him). And, after watching the crow make plans, use tools, and do complicated assignments, they still continue to insist that the same crow is unable to feel (for example) pain as we feel it. In a nutshell, science now has to deny many known facts because of adopting an incorrect viewpoint three hundred fifty years ago, one which is now very difficult to abandon without great loss of face. But of course, it could be less nefarious. It could be a kind of innocence operating. It could be that scientists are just genuinely unable to adapt to changes, preferring to continue their repetitive movements according to their set pattern, because they are semi-autistic and can’t understand the meaning of it all, or why it would matter anyway. The ridiculing laughter may be nothing more than the defensive autistic panic reaction when confronted with a part of the universe they aren’t even able to perceive, let alone understand. This, too, is possible.

    Another reason science moves so slowly is the obsession with measurement and quantification. You might think you see a thing, but it doesn’t really exist until you have measured it. This is something that fits into the pattern of autism, but it is also (to be fair) a kind of honest hope that measurement and quantification will (albeit magically) insure objectivity. This wouldn’t be so bad if scientists had said you don’t understand a thing until you’ve measured it. But alas, this isn’t what they came up with, and this is a source of huge problems with science. Many aspects of reality are simply denied as even existing, simply because we can’t measure them (yet). The shock at discovering how few genes we have and the conclusion that we really aren’t so different from other animals as we thought, is just one example. Another problem is that the fixation with quantification leads science to focus on things we can measure instead of concentrating on things that are really relevant. A question that can’t be answered with quantitative data and a statistics program, in an article of not more than seven pages length (including diagrams and tables), is set aside – you can’t publish about it anyway, so why be interested? Even scientists are complaining that this attitude has led to stagnation in the formation of theory in favour of measuring all kinds of irrelevant trivia. A final problem is that if you want to measure aspects of living beings, you have to create highly artificial circumstances and situations. This means your measurements no longer reflect the real world, and that your measurements are, therefore, very often irrelevant or even banal. This has sometimes led to surprising results, to the measurement of things that turned out not really to exist – things that were a temporary result of the artificial circumstances, which ceased to exist as soon as the artificial circumstances are removed. The dominance hierarchy within a wolf pack is an example of this. Our puppies fighting over a bone in the lab is another one.

Fact: Scientists have forgotten that one of the things they should be observing most (if they want to claim objectivity) is their own behavior. They have forgotten to watch out for how their own psychology is determining what they see. They have been too unaware that they are, like any other animal, projecting their own inner world onto the outer world and calling this the only true reality.

Fact: So there we are. There are huge unsolved problems in the sciences. All kinds of human interests, biases, and limitations play a bigger role than we acknowledge, despite sometimes honest attempts to correct these. We would all do well to keep a healthy dose of scepticism as we listen to what the scientists are telling us about dogs. You don’t have to (and can’t) assume you always know better, but you can – just to be sure – refrain from letting them talk you into doing anything that you suspect may be cruel.

Animals “projecting”

Most animals do not have the large areas of the brain that give us our abstract cognitive abilities. Most animals don’t seem to have an abstract sense of self and other, nor the ability to abstractly think about themselves or themselves vs. the other. Animals operate within their perception of the world, without being able to stand back and observe themselves. They can’t think, “Gee, maybe the other is living in a different world of perception.”

As a result, many animals will interpret the behavior of another animal according to their own inner world. Some examples to clarify. When dogs bare their teeth, they are telling the other that they want distance and will use their weapons for it if they have to. When chimps bare their teeth, they are telling the other that they feel afraid. Unless the animal has a long learning experience of what it means when we show our teeth, the animal will respond as if our smile means the same thing it means for the animal’s own species. When a human smiles at a dog, many dogs take this to mean the human is hostile. When we smile at a chimp, a chimp may take this to mean we are fearful. The animals react to our approach accordingly, and according to the rules that govern their behavior with their own kind.

So male human scientists are just another kind of animal. They look at an animal and think, “when I behave that way, it means I have such-and-such a motive, so the animal must have that same motive now, too.”  And then they tell us to respond according to our human rules, just as any other non-cognitive animal would respond according to its own rules. The fact that scientists are so quick to accuse others of anthropomorphism illustrates how unconscious their own projections are.

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