Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Robert Todd Carroll

ęcopyright 2007





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Making a monkey out of Jane Goodall

December 30, 2006. The Animal Planet cable TV network has been re-broadcasting "When Animals Talk," an apparent attempt to honor Jane Goodall for her many years as an ethologist, animal rights advocate, environmentalist, and champion of the chimpanzee. Unfortunately, the production makes a monkey out of her by highlighting her association with Aimee Morgana and Rupert Sheldrake, two human animals who think they have scientific evidence of telepathy in a parrot. Sheldrake's views on telepathic dogs is also presented as good science to back up what many dog and cat owners already know: their pets are telepathic. Scenes of Dr. Goodall sitting on her couch with a dog* are interspersed with scenes of various people and their animals. Goodall's observations of animals communicating with each other and with humans run the gamut from sound, sight, and scent recognition to the paranormal claims of a number of people who are convinced that their pets communicate telepathically with them. The only things missing were a segment on dolphin assisted therapy and segments on Koko, Washoe, or Nim Chimpsky. But much of the program consists of pet owners repeatedly asserting that they just know their animals are telepathic followed by Sheldrake asserting that this is meaningful data that closes the case on the issue. Some scientist!

Parts of the program are non-controversial, e.g., discussion of elephant communication via infrasound, use of rats to sniff out land mines in Africa, and matching up juvenile delinquents with problem dogs. One segment was absolutely astounding and the whole program could have been devoted to the topic of dogs who can detect cancer. According to the program: "There are 20 known cases of dogs alerting an individual that they have cancer. In laboratory tests, certain dogs identified cancer correctly 95 percent of the time."* New Scientist reported last January that "Dogs do as well as state-of-the-art screening tests at sniffing out people with lung or breast cancer. The research raises the possibility that trained dogs could detect cancers even earlier and might some day supplement or even replace mammograms and CT scans in the laboratory."*

But other parts of the program show Goodall as less than critical in her thinking. For example, Goodall is credulous and gullible in her assessment of what's really going on with Morgana and her parrot, N'kisi, or with Sheldrake and his experiments. For example, Goodall is very impressed when she meets N'kisi and it says something like "gotta chimp." What are the odds that Morgana's interaction with the parrot had something to do with her parrot's utterance? Yet, both Morgana and Goodall seem willing to naively assume the parrot was making intelligent conversation. Worse than this blunder due to the obviously overzealous desire to communicate with a member of another species, however, was the deceptive editing that made Sheldrake's experiment with the parrot look like it actually showed something significant. We are told repeatedly that Morgana and the parrot are 55 feet apart in different rooms. The television screen was divided. On the left was Morgana looking at a picture of a flower and on the right was the parrot saying 'flower' over and over. In the actual experiment the flower picture (which was one of 19 pictures selected randomly in the 71 trials analyzed) came up 17 times and the word the bird uttered most frequently just happened to be the word 'flower', which he blurted out 23 times.* This biased representation of the flower and water pictures was due to the fact that Sheldrake did not analyze 60 of the trials-about 40% of the data collected-because the parrot didn't utter one of the 19 key words on his list during those trials! By his method of testing telepathy, it is a miss only if the parrot utters one of the key words that does not correspond to a picture. All other misses, such as when the parrot says nothing or utters something off the list, are not counted as misses. Does this sound like the work of a scientists who wants to discover the truth or one that is hell-bent on confirming his biases? (If you want, you can read his article for yourself.)

Of course, nothing was mentioned of Richard Wiseman's failure to replicate Sheldrake's dog telepathy experiment. And no attempt was made to examine Sheldrake's experiment with the parrot. Goodall was made to look na´ve and foolish for accepting such shoddy work as if it were good science.

Another example of the lack of critical thinking shown by the producers of this program came in a segment involving Park Ranger Roberto Bubas, he who walks with the Orcas. First we see a dramatic attack on sea lions by a pod of Orcas near the shoreline on a beach in Patagonia. Then we see Bubas walking in the same water as the Orcas swim in front of him and next to him. He's been doing this for years, he says, and has never been attacked. Let me suggest that as long as he stands upright and does not look like a sea lion, he is probably safe from attack. The program presented this "mysterious" scene as evidence, validated by Goodall, that the Orcas wanted to communicate with Bubas. I suggest that the "killer whales" leave him alone because he does not appeal to them. However, we can test my hypothesis by having Bubas put on a dark wetsuit and have him lie or swim in the water.

Jane Goodall is seventy-two-years old, so she doesn't need to impress anyone at this stage in her career. She's no longer an active scientist, but an activist on behalf of animals and the environment. A two-hour special that makes her look like a blubbering schoolgirl won't do much for her reputation as a scientist. Her testimony that Chinese scientists use animals to predict earthquakes was not tempered by any reference to the fact that this may not be a wise thing since the Chinese don't seem very good at predicting earthquakes and they are hardly leaders in the scientific world. She puts forth the claim, with no evidence to support it, that animals didn't die in the great Indonesian tsunami because they sensed it coming and headed for high ground.

Goodall's reputation will not be enhanced by her belief in Bigfoot or animal telepathy. If she considers Sheldrake a good scientist, then one must wonder what standards she has held herself to over the years in her studies of chimpanzees. By supporting junk science will she lose credibility as an activist and environmentalist? I think she will. Why would we trust her claims regarding what is needed for the animals or the environment when her standards have dropped to the level of the fanatical pet owner with little understanding of subjective validation or self-deception and little incentive to ask critical questions?


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