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Friday, May 14, 2010

Chimps Are Misrepresenting their Linguistic Abilities: and How!

Chimpanzees are perhaps well known for their tricky, tricky ways. A totally honest chimpanzee is hard to find. However, I was really surprised to read this sentence in the wikipedia article about Nim Chimpsky:

The validity of the study is disputed, as Terrace argued that all ape-language studies, including Project Nim, were based on misinformation from the chimps.
Funny, how chimpanzees can disseminate so much "misinformation" about their ability to use language without actually using language!

I turned to Bow and asked him: "Are all chimps lying when they say they can talk?" Bow took my hand and confidently spelled: "Yes." Okay... If you want to take his word for it!

One of our problems at Project Bow is that Bow likes to have physical contact with us and use our hands to spell. Now, he doesn't spell what we want him to spell. We who deal with him know that we couldn't possibly control his language use, even if we wanted to. He's not that cooperative! But to outsiders, it really does look bad.

Lawrence has been trying to wean Bow from using his hand, by giving him less and less of his hand to use, gradually. At this point, he's just giving him a pinky. He hopes later to phase this out and only lightly touch Bow on the small of his back, as a sort of moral support.

I told Lawrence, the last time he was here, that any physical contact between the two of them will be interpreted as cuing by critics. "They'll figure that you and Bow have worked out some kind of code between the two of you so that you can tell him what to write."

Lawrence laughed. "If he's smart enough to understand a code, why do they think he wouldn't be smart enough to spell?"

I laughed, too. But there are some people who will believe almost anything -- except the truth!

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