Pitfalls of Popular Writing About Science

I won’t cover the gamut, but rather wish to point out a case. In the 16 Oct. 2008 Nature, Clive Wynne of the University of Florida had a review of a book by Irene Pepperberg. His review was titled, “Psychology’s Pet Subject”. The book reviewed was Pepperberg’s “Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process”. In his review, Wynne says precious little that is about the book being reviewed. Instead, Wynne sets himself up as an arbiter of the worth of Pepperberg’s scientific career.

Alex and Me is an engaging narrative because it has the intimate relationship between one human and one parrot at its centre. But as an exploration in science, it is deeply worrying that nobody can replicate its central findings, given the ease with which the subjects and equipment can be acquired. Even Pepperberg has been unable to replicate Alex’s achievements using other parrots.

Irene Pepperberg has responded in a letter to Nature (Vol. 456, 13 Nov. 2008, p.166), “Peer-reviewed parrot studies speak for themselves, as he did”. Pepperberg points out the obvious problem with Wynne’s dismissal:

As a memoir for a general audience, [the book] does not contain in-depth technical detail. But Wynne’s questioning of the underlying science is answered by my publications in the peer-reviewed literature — one of which won the Frank A. Beach comparative psychology award (I.M. Pepperberg and J.D. Gordon J. Comp. Psychol. 119 197-209, 2005).

Dr. Pepperberg summarizes various of the technical details present in her papers that Wynne somehow failed to convey any cognizance of. While Dr. Pepperberg did not take the obvious next step, I think that it should be stated succinctly: it appears that the reviewer, Wynne, did not have any familiarity with the body of technical work whose value he chose to publicly denigrate (and I use the word advisedly).

The technical level of Wynne’s critique in his review nowhere rises above that of sophomore psychology student. The ghost of Clever Hans is summoned, Led Zeppelin lyrics are alluded to, and pigeon cognition gets a mention. Oh, yes, freshman philosophy takes a bow with Descartes and his views on animal vocalizations; we should not overlook that, as it forms a major portion of Wynne’s critical structure. One might be inclined to cut Wynne some slack since, after all, space is limited in a review article. However, that tendency is rather severely dampened by Wynne’s lack of charity in the review. It’s a hit piece, and it isn’t even a challenging hit piece. Wynne’s criticism everywhere is premised upon generalities, the things that could be wrong with studies of cognition in another species, and nowhere does it appear that he took the effort to find out whether the research that he was ultimately talking about actually suffered from the faults he offered as reasons for skepticism. Is Wynne as careless in his technical work as this review paints him? It makes me wonder if UF has been declining since I earned my B.S. degree there. His final dismissal of Pepperberg’s research is an indictment of his own scholarship:

For those who did not know him personally, the tragedy of Alex’s passing is that the records that remain are not enough to prove the case one way or the other.

Dr. Wynne, you actually have to read the records that remain in order to have the standing to have an opinion like that one. The fact that Dr. Pepperberg was able to concisely show that so many of the dismissals you made were contradicted by the technical papers indicates a critical lack of preparation for the review on your part. Intellectual laziness was compounded by either callousness or simple lack of charity.

Dr. Pepperberg was, I feel, gracious and reserved in her final comment on Dr. Wynne’s review:

Wynne has no basis for implying that my methods might be flawed — other than a possible inherent skepticism, which, ironically, is a common bias discussed at length in the book.

I think Dr. Wynne owes Dr. Pepperberg a prominent public apology. I hope to see it in Nature soon.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.