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Clever Hans in Miniature

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A hundred years ago, people marveled to think that a German horse could perform simple arithmetic tasks. The anomaly was explained by skeptical scientists of the time as a response to subliminal cues from the horse's owner. Up until the 1980s, anything to do with numbers was classified as abstract thought, and the exclusive province of human intelligence. The idea that a chimpanzee could do arithmetic would have been ridiculed. But recently, Irene Pepperberg taught her parrot to do simple arithmetic operations.

No one imagined that an insect could be trained to do arithmetic. Conventional thinking tells us that there is a deal of hive intelligence governing collective behaviors, but individual bees are too simple to do anything but respond to stimuli. A bee's brain has about a millionth the complexity of a mammal's.

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When I was in grad school, wise advisors counseled me not to take on a big, important topic for my dissertation, because the chance of failure was too high. I didn't heed them, and as a result had two false starts before settling for a mundane but manageable project.

Scarlett Howard wasn't listening to anyone's advice when she took on a dissertation project that any neuroscientist could have told her was a lost cause. She earned her PhD (in Melbourne) by teaching bees to do arithmetic.

Just as impressive to me is the fact that she taught the bees our symbolic language (because we aren't smart enough to decode their language).

With insects, a lot of work goes into ensuring you asked the question in the right way. You can't give them a human test. They need the right motivation. They need to understand the question to be able to answer it.

Read experimental details in the journal article and I think you'll agree she wasn't cheating, that the bees' performance can't be explained without understanding elementary concept of number. These are tasks we wouldn't expect a child to be able to perform until age 3, at least.

"Bees are not as simple as we used to think they are. Or even as some people still think they are."

Read about Howard's work in this Quanta Magazine article.

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Josh Mitteldorf, de-platformed senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at Read how to stay young at
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there (more...)

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