Sunday, January 21, 2007

bias against animals

Here's a post about "firsts" bias from Overcomming Bias. If we read a news story about oldest sculptures, when life first appeared on earth or whatever, it is almost always to explain that the date is earlier than we thought and how surprising this is. Part of the answer has to do with physical evidence, finding a younger fossil is unremarkable. But there is a difference between the oldest known fossil and the best estimate of when the animal first appeared; theories are not just collections of facts. This suggests the estimates are biased because if they weren't we should be changing our estimates in both directions.

I haven't done a massive survey or anything but I think the same bias is involved with animals. I can't remember reading an article explaining that animals are dumber than we previously thought. Descartes thought that animals had no sensation at all. For the last 300 years what we know about animals has only been moving in one direction, which suggests systematic bias.

Of course the opposite bias also exists; some animals really are very stupid but a few people are quite prepared to get hot under the collar about people being mean to them.

1 comment:

Tracy Leigh said...

hey, I'm glad to see you posting again.

You're completely right that every break through understanding animals seems to show that they are more intelligent than we thought they were.

I think our systematic bias towards animals is partly due to a combination of arrogance, ignorance and lack of imagination.

These days studies are showing that fish are not as stupid as we thought (they can figure out escape routes in enclosures and remember them for months.) And they can feel pain and suffering, so much so that they change there behaviour when experiencing pain and will go back to normal when given morphine.

And parrots (African Grey's) have also been shown to have similar intellectual powers to Chimps!

It's time to err on the side of caution, like my mom says, if it has a face, assume it can think and feel, and don't eat it!

It makes me sad of the unbearable cruelty that animals suffer every day.

In the newspaper this weekend they had an article on how Tony (ANC politician released from prison) speared and killed a cow in celebration. I really think the columnist was downplaying the whole event, but it was still clear that animal was being tortured! But because of necessary "cultural sensitivity" we will never be able to critisize this behaviour.