Archive | June, 2012

Crossword solving cat beats mathematical dog, and replaces clever horse !

6 Jun

Anyone who has done psychology at almost any level will probable have come across the story of Clever Hans, a horse from the early part of the twentieth century, who had been thought to possess mathematical abilities. Despite approaching 100 years old, this story appears in many research methods texts books illustarting the need for experiments to control what is happening in their experiments.

This has always struck me as stranger as there so many more recent examples that are more likely to engage students. For a couple of years I’ve been using the example of Maggie, a terrier who appeared on a number of TV shows demonstrating her mathematical abilities. I show students a video of Maggie appearing on the Oprah Show, and then ask how we would go about testing Maggie’s abilities. This conversation rapidly leads to questioning the role of Maggie’s owner rather than Maggie’s abilities. These sorts of exercises are really useful, in that they are a good way to get students to recognise that they are capable of idenifiying complex issues, and working out what to do about them especially in this case where they can recognise something that Oprah Winfrey appears to have missed

I thought I’d found the perfect example with ‘Maggie the Mathematical Dog, until I read a recent Daily Mail story caught my eye. The Mail report a story of a cat helping his owner to complete a crossword puzzle !!! One thing that I do find intriguing about this is that a cat doing crosswords is in some way less plausible than a dog doing sums.

I’ve yet to have a chance to discuss the cat with students, but it raises an interesting point. It would seem reasonable to assume that the editorial staff of the Mail are clever enough to realise that the cat isn’t actually solving the crossword. In which case you have to assume that either they are accepting that their readers are also in on the joke, or (more sinisterly) they assume that their readers are too stupid to recognise that the story is nonsense. Of course this same question applies to the Oprah video, although as I said in some way a dog doing sums seems more plausible !!

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