The fine line between clever and stupid

Quite a few months back, perhaps as much as a few years ago, I started thinking about how and when I began to embrace critical thinking. I mentioned before that I used to believe in a whole lot of crap and gradually left it all behind, but was there some particular event that started this process? We like to believe that such things come in epiphanies and drama, which really isn’t the case most of the time; that’s Hollywood thinking. But it’s still true that sometimes there is a single event – something that we read, something insightful that someone says, an abrupt dose of perspective – that provides a new tool in our thinking processes. And just now, I think I might have remembered exactly what it was, or at least a significant one: Clever Hans.

In my adolescence, I had obtained an old book at a garage sale, one describing how to test the intelligence of animals; I’m fairly certain it was Animal IQ (since retitled) by Vance Packard. Testing the comparative reasoning powers of animals is rather tricky, because intelligence is not all that well defined in the first place, and reasoning power is relative to the environment. So even devising a test which gives a useful result takes effort, and within this section of the book, if I remember correctly, came the story of Clever Hans.

Clever Hans was a horse owned by Wilhelm von Osten in Berlin back around a century ago, who could apparently answer questions and perform math, even complicated calculations. Everything, of course, had to be answered by stamping a foreleg. If you’re thinking this sounds rather hackneyed, bear in mind that Hans was the case that created the cliché. In fact, the media attention around Hans’ purported abilities sparked a great deal of research into nonverbal cues and kinesics, because in fact it was owner von Osten that was providing the answers – Hans was simply taking his cues as he’d been taught. He just hadn’t been taught what von Osten was trying to teach.

While it’s not hard to find accounts referring to all of this as a hoax, that doesn’t appear to be the case – von Osten believed that Hans actually possessed superior (for a horse) reasoning powers and had been taught how to read and calculate. He was unaware himself of how Hans had instead learned how to read von Osten’s body language, the tense expectation that prompted the beginning of the hoof stamping, and the relaxation that prompted the halt – that was when he received his treats (and positive reinforcement remains one of the best methods of training animals.) Curiously, Hans may indeed have been different from the average horse, putting together the rewards with the unintentional cues from his owner, and it’s easy to see how this aspect could have been missed in contrast to what he was claimed to be capable of.

There was a significant demonstration of scientific methodology within the case, as well. Those testing Hans noticed that Hans was incapable of answering anything that the person posing the questions (it wasn’t always von Osten) could not answer, which became somewhat suspicious. The addition of a simple screen between horse and questioner brought on an immediate attack of standard horse intellect in Hans, and eventually revealed the horse’s ability to read the subtle cues provided by the questioner. Many, if not most, scientific experiments routinely use the same process of spotting anomalies, speculating on variations of cause, and then working to rule out as many as possible – those that cannot be ruled out obviously have the greatest probability of being correct.

Sometime after that, watching an inaptly-named television program called That’s Incredible!, I saw a dog that could answer math problems chalked on a blackboard – except that, armed with this knowledge now, it was exceptionally obvious how the owner was prompting the dog; three quick short barks, then each bark thereafter was drawn out almost into a growl, and upon reaching the correct number the owner would quickly interrupt. Anyone that has never heard of Hans and never engages in questioning could easily be fooled, and this is abundantly visible everywhere we look, from ‘psychic’ readers to political claims, ‘health’ food fads to revisionist history. In fact, Hans was performing a technique, still in routine use by even televised psychics, called ‘cold reading,’ which gives a rather damning indication of how easy it really is. Typically, as children we are taught to listen; we are rarely, if ever, taught to think or question. Which is, of course, why such simple tactics are successful in the first place.

If, however, we build on the process told within Hans’ story, we can see some of the further issues with determining ‘animal intelligence.’ Intelligence itself is a word largely expressing our conceited standpoint – any species that survives obviously has the properties necessary for that survival – but even from the standpoint of evaluating pattern-recognition, recall, and extrapolation, this runs dangerously close to value-judgments. It’s interesting to see where differences lie, and if there are portions of the brain that might be linked to certain kinds of cognitive function, but is a rabbit ‘smarter’ than a horse if if can remember certain patterns to receive rewards better? Or is it just an artifact of the demands of their environments?

The ability to even ask questions like that, to wonder if there are assumptions or blind perspectives influencing any conclusions, I can trace at least in part back to Clever Hans – which is being unkind, because it wasn’t the horse with the easy-to-remember name, but Oskar Pfungst, the assistant biologist who performed the tests, that provided the lesson in critical thinking. I’m not particularly surprised that the trait of animals taking subconscious cues is called the ‘Clever Hans effect’ rather than the ‘Pfungst phenomenon,’ but it’s unfortunate all the same. Perhaps, if more people were introduced to the values of critical observation, even of simply recognizing that there is usually more than one conclusion that can be drawn from every observation, then just a smidgen of the stupider stuff that we get up to as a species would vanish. And it shouldn’t even bother us to have learned it from a horse – it should be more embarrassing to fail to learn it, really.