Flipping through the channels late tonight I chanced upon a re-run of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not that featured a story about a dog. Since it was late and it was a dog and there was NOTHING else on, I decided to sit back and check it out.
The episode included a story about a Labrador Retriever named Isaac who was reported to be a mathematical savant.
His owner said that Isaac could add, subtract, multiply, divide and calculate square roots. He noted that he saw early on that Isaac was an exceptional dog and said that he began teaching the dog to count when he was just a pup. Isaac loved participating in these training sessions and was soon able to amaze the people he met.
All his owner, Gary Wimer, had to do was give the dog a math problem and Isaac would bark the correct number of times to solve it.
I watched the segment that featured Isaac several times in real time, slow motion and even at an excruciatingly slow frame by frame speed – and I didn’t see his owner give him any obvious cues (though I strongly suspect that creative photography was the deciding factor here) but….
When I read about Isaac, I cannot help but be bothered by this little concept that scientists refer to as the Clever Hans phenomenon. The Clever Hans Phenomenon is a form of involuntary and unconscious cuing associated with an exceptional horse. Clever Hans was an Arab stallion who learned to respond to perform mathematical calculations by tapping his hoof (do you see a similarity here?)
Clever Hans seemed to be able not only to respond appropriately to complex forms of human language but was also apparently able to comprehend basic mathematical ideas.
Hans performed for many people and his audiences were amazed at his abilities. Unfortunately the people who watched his performances focused on the wrong set of abilities.
Hans could not understand human language or do mathematical computations; he was a brilliant student of human body language.
Otto Pfungst was skeptical of Hans’ accomplishments. He conducted a set of experiments where he observed different people asking Hans to do calculations for them. Pfungst noticed that when no one present knew the correct answer to the question the horse gave the wrong answer. This led Pfungst to conclude that, rather than being a mathematical savant, Hans was a body language expert. He proposed that Hans used subtle cues emitted by his questioners to correctly answer the questions.
Scientists since have discovered that horses (and dogs) can detect the heartbeat of a person near them and some have now proposed that as Clever Hans reached the correct answer, an increase in someone’s heart rate told him to stop tapping.
Clever Hans hadn’t mastered mathematics or German, he had become an absolutely brilliant student of human body language.
Sadly, the scientific community not only declared that Hans was a fraud, they also used his case to illustrate their theories that animals were not able to think. In doing this, they overlooked the horse’s uncanny abilities.
Clever Hans and Clever Isaac demonstrate that animals have the power to reason. They are able to contextualize observations, categorize them, and apply the concept of cause and effect – qualities that are cited as proof of intelligence.
So, should we be disappointed that dogs and horses don’t grasp details of human language and can’t do mathematical calculations — or should we be impressed by their amazing ability to read and interpret the most subtle non-verbal cues?