Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vicki Hearne on Cats

I used to hear older experimenters advising younger ones about working with cats. It seems that under certain circumstances if you give cats a problem to solve or a task to perform in order to find food they work it out pretty quickly. But, as I heard, "the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher or technician wants them to push the lever they stop doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it."

That result fascinated me -- I would have dropped everything in order to find out what the cats were trying to do or say to the researchers. After all, when human beings behave that way we come up with a pretty fancy catalogue of virtues in order to account for it. But, of course, I was stupidly supposing that the point of these efforts was to understand animals, and it wasn't at all. The point was simply to Do Science, or so I began to suspect when I heard one venerable professor tell a young researcher, "Don't use cats. They'll screw up your data."

-from Vickie Hearne's "Questions about Language," Part II. The New Yorker, August 25, 1986.

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