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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

But what about proof?

But what about proof? Am I really trying to prove that Bow can use language? Why have I spent so much time on proofing books for children, and so little time on trying to prove that Bow can read? What is more important here?

What's most important, of course, is for all of us to survive. And in order to do that, I have to start generating an income stream. We have to eat.

I set up an experiment, the goal has been achieved, but proof is hard to come by. And it's not just hard for me. It's hard for every animal language experimenter. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is still publicizing that Kanzi has English comprehension at the level of a two and half year old, when Kanzi is a very intelligent thirty year old. But knowing what he knows and being able to prove it are two different things. Irene Pepperberg worked with the late Alex, an African Grey parrot. He didn't need to point at lexigrams or words, he could vocalize comprehensible English. But in order for her work to be accepted, she had to make cognitive, not linguistic claims. Linguists who are receptive to her work like to point out that Alex's production and comprehension of English wasn't "language". He was just manipulating "auditory symbols". I ask you: when somebody says "green" to refer to a green object, and that person is a human, is the word "green" just an auditory symbol? Or is it a word? But when a parrot does the same thing, do we have to use different terminology to label it? And this goes on without having the problem that we're having: that Bow won't point at letters without using our hands.

Lawrence came back from his trip very eager to make progress with Bow. He has a really positive attitude, and he's trying to think of ways to get Bow less dependent on physical contact with us when he writes. He's thinking of things like taking letter boards outside with Bow, so that he can spell outdoors as well as in. (Of course, we did do that, but he tore them up, and it's just much better when he can't directly harm the letters he is pointing at, because they are behind the glass or beyond the grid.)

"Yeah, so you tried that," Lawrence said to me yesterday. "But maybe he can do things now, that he couldn't do before. Maybe he's maturing."

Lawrence may be right. We can try these things again. We can write letters in chalk on the concrete, we can wear T-shirts that are letter boards, we can re-try a lot of things we've tried before.  But... while we're trying all that, we still have to eat.

I'm hoping to start filming again in the coming year on a regular basis, and I hope that I'll be able to capture more footage of Bow spontaneously spelling, whether on the glass or on his touch screen.

"How many videos of him doing that will be enough to prove that he can?" Lawrence asked me yesterday.

I laughed. The truth is that I could have a million such videos, and it still wouldn't be enough. Doubters would want any possibility of "cuing" to be eliminated. They would want to see him doing this with no one in the room. They would want to see him doing it with people he doesn't know. They would want him to talk to complete strangers. They would want him to answer multiple choice questions, over and over again, till he was bored to tears, so everything could be "replicable" and "objective." And even if he did all these things, it might still not be enough, because he would be accused of doing it by rote, and the utterances would not be spontaneous.  So, while I'm never going to give up, I'm also not holding my breath.

The difference between me and Herbert Terrace is that I have a real relationship with Bow, and I don't see him as just a means to an end. Even if we never prove anything, Bow and I are still going to be together, and we still have to eat.

Which is why at the end of this year, I am putting more energy into proofing books, and less into trying to come up with proof. The next book I plan to publish, When Sword Met Bow, is going to come out sometime in December. If you buy it, please be sure to review it on Amazon. It might help us buy more bananas and grapes and apples.


  1. I've never doubted you or Bow once. I hope you are able to find your proof. I'm sure those with experience in your field know that it's true.

  2. Thanks, Victoria! I appreciate the support.