Beyond Belief: Strange, True Mysteries of the Unknown – Part 7

This is it. The final countdown…uh, I mean chapter. Chapter 10: Animals that Talk, Spell, and Find their Way Home. See parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 for other “interesting” topics.

This chapter is about animals that have special cognitive powers. There are lots of pretty cool animals that can do pretty cool things. Bonobos have their sex. Dolphins have their trickery. Crows have their fishing lines. African gray parrots have their, well…pretty interesting stuff. But these are not special magical powers. They are highly trained in some cases and rudimentary versions of more complex behaviours in other cases (ex: often people, even scientists, can confuse “communication” in animals with “language”). Other behaviours are impressive, yes, mysterious, for now, unexplained/beyond belief? no.

Imagine my surprise when I’m browsing this inappropriate chapter (because, again training =/= magic and anecdotes =/= data) and I see a glaring example of failing to do basic research. It’s one thing to tell a story that’s probably wrong, it’s another to irresponsibly promote a story that is definitely wrong – and known to be so for over 80 years before the publication of this book.

I have to give Brad credit for this one example. It would have taken a lot of effort not to realize that this particular animal is used in probably every single animal behaviour class in North America as an example for classic blunders of experimental design. This animal is so famous that, chances are, even people who didn’t take so much as an intro psych class have probably heard this story. This is a story so classic that its mere presence in this already condemnable book eliminates all doubt that this is the most profoundly thick dumbshittery ever set to a printing press.

I’m talking, of course, about Clever Hans.

Clever. Hans.

Giving accidental cues to animals is even called the Clever Hans Effect. This common mistake is frakking named after this example! And yet still it’s offered up here as evidence that animals have special cognitive powers. While it may be true that there are impressive cognitive feats to be unlocked with yet-to-be-developed experimental design, the Clever Hans experiment is most definitely not one of them. These days experimenters try to get around these effects as much as possible. They can eliminate experimenter interaction entirely or they can try without eliminating the social aspect of animal communication – such as phrasing their questions in a certain way that reduces accidental cuing. Irene Pepperberg was attempting such methods with Alex (linked above), for example.

But as with some previous chapters, he’s padding his paranormal book with normal (and/or false) information. Even if animals have impressive cognitive skills, which are interesting, how are they Beyond Belief, Strange, or Mysterious? This is not parapsychology – this is regular animal behaviour and an example of how we sometimes underestimate and/or misinterpret their skills. Unless you say something crazy like Hans was reading minds….oh wait, what’s that on page 127:

“Hans had learned to read minds by monitoring subtle changes in their posture, breathing and facial expressions.”

Ok he was quoting someone else, but it’s there. Uh huh. Hans looked at all these physical cues and that is evidence that he read minds. This is a classic failing in paranormal research – loose boundaries where literally any behaviour can be interpreted as evidence of something supernatural. Yes, he apparently is reading subtle cues, but he’s obviously doing it with his eyes and ears. That’s all he needs.

Further, if the goal is to talk about these skills, why not discuss documented actual skills, as opposed to debunked Clever Hans nonsense? Fuuuuuurther, why not discuss recent examples and the latest innovations in animal behaviour discoveries/research? Because he apparently isn’t interested with presenting the truth so much as he’s interested in making the young reader go “oooh” with stories from the 1930s.

Some other animals discussed in this chapter:

Smart Horses

Lady, owned by Mrs. C. D. Fonda, Richmond Virginia, 1928 – a horse that could apparently read, do math, and communicate with humans. “Thoroughly” studied by Dr. J. B. Rhine, “famous parapsychologist” from Duke University, and Dr. William McDougall a “leading psychologist”. Because the horse could apparently point to blocks to communicate with the people talking to her, Dr. Rhine concluded that the horse could communicate via behavioural training read minds. ?? Quite a leap, doncha think? (See Clever Hans above.) Hilariously, the 1928 New York Times takes these two to task by correctly pointing out that by irresponsibly concluding the the horse reads minds, they may have missed important insights about a horse’s ability, or lack thereof, to understand English and math. That’s some refreshing journalism for a change.

Talking Dogs

Ann Landers published a letter from someone describing their neighbour’s poodle asking to be let outside. And there’s no way that this second-hand account, as presented by a third-hand person who also has an editor, could possibly have been exaggerated? And there’s no possible way that this neighbour simply heard someone else, say a child, being asked to let out and drew the wrong conclusion? On no, you see, because after she published the letter she was flooded with a bunch of other letters from people suffering from cuteness pareidolia who had similar stories. So there you go. I guess anecdotes really do = data. If the people in those linked videos weren’t saying exactly what they want the dog to say just beforehand, would you hear anything in those vague noises? They aren’t clearly saying words. They are making noises within their vocal repertoire that someone has trained to sound as specific as possible. Is that “talking”? No. It’s parroting, and not even good parroting.

There are other talking doggies in this chapter, but the stories are all basically the same: vague details, anecdotal report, no proper investigation or follow-up, from a ridiculously long time ago. I mean they have these so-called talking dogs on Letterman and he couldn’t find a more recent story than 1928 or the 60s?

Well-Trained Strangely Talented Animals

Tramp, owned by C. K. Wilderson, Denver, n.d. – The Denver Post reported that this dog could play the piano. No details on whether the animal was actually playing anything resembling a song or was just mashing at keys. In which case, who cares?

Arli, owned by Mrs. Borgese, London, n.d. – The London Sunday Times reported that this dog could type – because the owner “laboriously” taught him to type 3-letter words with the hunt-and-peck method. Ok, and rats press levers for food. The mystery is…?

And the Rest

Dogs that save lives (i.e., barking when noticing that someone was in serious trouble – a dog barked? call the frigging Smithsonian!), animals that find their way home, a benevolent stingray that fended off sharks for 16 [sic – 13] days while 18-year-old Lotty [sic – Lottie] Stevens rode on his back (I can’t make this stuff up, although apparently Brad can since he got a bunch of details wrong – either way, this seems to be a sort of Buddhist Animal Rights urban legend and I couldn’t find non-biased accounts), and finally people who talk to animals via fraud/insanity “mental telepathy” (wait, I thought this chapter was about special non-people animals, not psychics).


One thing that these stories had in common was that they were all “investigated” by journalists. The same kinds of journalists who completely screwed up the details of the Columbine tragedy and are responsible for the resulting fall-out. Yeah, those fame-happy keyboard jockeys looking for the sexiest story paragons of truth and justice. Notice the glaring lack of a scientist of two. Oh wait, I forgot. They’d just mess things up with that pesky “making sense” they are so wont to do.

Throughout this entire book there have been vague stories, exaggerated urban legends, completely normal events presented in a way to make it seem like something spooky was going on, completely normal events that didn’t seem to fit in the book at all, and wild assumptions that have no basis in fact and no proof. The burden of proof is not on the skeptic. It’s on Brad. And he has failed to provide. But he serves as an example for almost all paranormalists…because really is Brad that much different from the norm? Are these stories that much worse than the typical everyday bullshit?

This book is a boring regurgitation of very old, sometimes to the point of being obscure even in the pseudoscience/paranormal world, repetitions of tired stories. And in the end isn’t that all there is? You’ve got these basic categories: cryptozoology, psychics, weird sightings of lights/objects outside, ghosts (i.e., weird sightings of lights/objects inside), bizarre remains, and tall tales (e.g., people walking into the past). Within that there’s the continual grasping at straws to fill out otherwise mundane events to make it seem like there is a supernatural “pattern”.

I think one of the most hilarious things about this book is the age of the examples. I don’t know why he picked such ridiculously old stories, maybe because they’re the ones he was familiar with or they’re “classic” or something, but honestly they aren’t that different from modern stories. Nothing ever changes for these folks because no amount of evidence against what they are saying can change their minds, and yet we skeptics are called the closed-minded ones.

We’re not closed-minded. On the contrary. Our minds are open to any and all compelling evidence. The problem is, these stories don’t have any of that. And that’s the point. So Brad (or anyone else), if you’ve got something more convincing, thrill me. I’ll be right here ready to listen.

One response to “Beyond Belief: Strange, True Mysteries of the Unknown – Part 7

  1. My dog says he’s heard it all before and refuses to let me buy the book.