The Blog of Brian Ballard Quass

Brian's response to When you're happy and you show it, dogs know it by Susan Milius, Science News, February 12, 2015

Bombshell! Dogs understand human faces!

It's always hilarious to me when I see "bombshells" like this one spread all over the Internet. It always makes Science look like "the slow kid in the class" who finally learns what everyone else knew almost from birth.* Unfortunately, the slowness of science is not really funny, though, because while Science was trying to figure this stuff out, animals have been misused under the (ahem) "dogmatically" agnostic assumption that they have no "real" similarities to human beings (such as feelings).

"Bombshells" like this (that -- surprise! -- dogs know what smiles mean) just remind us that science is not the only way to look at the world -- and sometimes it's far from the best way. (Remember Nazi Germany?)

But then Science itself was violating some of its own premises when it doubted such canine capabilities in the first place: according to the principle of Occam's Razor, scientists should have erred all along on the side of assuming that dogs probably had similarities to human beings when it came to facial recognition. Viewed in this way, it's hardly "scientific" to assume (as Science has done for years past) that canine actions that are so strikingly similar to ours are yet somehow completely different in origin, nature, motivation, and meaning.

*It's instructive that the laypeople who spread these stories through the Internet almost always fail to catch the irony of the fact that they are blazoning self-evident truths as "bombshells". "Dogs can understand human faces"? Really? The fact that web page editors don't laugh that naive question right off the front page proves how we're all influenced and cowed by Science's own unscientific agnostic bias on such matters. The big story here (if there is one) is the tardiness of science's "gotcha" moment, not the fact that dogs just might have similarities to human beings in some ways.

PS Dear Science News, please stop making long-time podcast subscribers like myself pay twice for your articles -- once for the podcast mag, and once to subscribe to this site. If, as you claim, Amazon won't give you podcast subscription lists, you're a big, important organization now, so believe in yourselves, doggone it! Try giving Jeff Bezos a simple phone call and see what you guys can work out in this connection. (What's Jeff gonna do, bite your heads off? I don't think so.)

For further study

Brian has single-handedly exposed the unscientific basis of Science's approach to animal behavior (for which, bravo, old boy: well done, you!). But if dogmatic anti-anthropomorphism is, indeed, not justified by the principle of Occam's Razor, how can we explain Science's emphatic insistence on enshrining such a prejudice in its modus operandi? (Hint: Re-read Genesis -- especially that bit about Man having dominion over the fish of the sea and whatnot.)

Just for Fun: Logic Puzzle

After reading the above article by Susan Milius, the dog lovers at the Clifton Canine Club (one of whom was Mr. Barnes) spent their March meeting discussing various amusing canine anecdotes which they felt served to prove the validity of the article's point: namely that dogs can, indeed, "read" human faces. Using just the clues provided below, determine the name of each dog and its owner (Mrs. White owns Sparky), the subject of their shared anecdote (one involved a wasp nest), the primary emotion that the dog could "read" (one was disappointment), as well as the species to which each dog belonged (one was a German shepherd).

1) The chihuahua that understood jealousy was not the dog that ate an entire garbage bin of trash, which was not the dog that was owned by Mr. Merriwether.

2) The story about the dog in the sailboat was not told by Mr. Wentworth, whose dog was neither the beagle, the dog that understood fear, nor the dog named Tubby.

3) Cottonball's owner was a man, as was the owner of the Shih-tzu that wrecked the outdoor manger scene prior to seeing (and apparently understanding) the meaning of its owner's angry face.

4) The dog that understood Mr. Allen's "lassitude" was not the one that boarded a streetcar on its own and got as far as Derby before being kicked out, which was neither the chihuahua nor the cocker spaniel -- nor even the bulldog owned by Mr. Flank.

5) The five dogs were: Molly-poo, the dog owned by Mr. Wentworth, the sheepdog that understood happiness, the dog involved in the Easter egg fiasco, and the beagle that was thought to sympathize with its female owner's "wanderlust."

dogs, faces, susan milus, faces, science, susan milius

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