How Smart is Your Viewer?

The document contains no data? Of course the document contains data, you stupid bloody…THERE’S the data. It’s right there. Gah!

Where was I? Oh yes.

I was watching How Smart Is Your Pet, or something similar on BBC1 the other week. (I know, I know, it’s my own fault. It was a Saturday evening, so I should have known the TV would be pitched at a level that colobus monkeys would find vaguely patronising.)

Anyway, they did a feature with an “amazing” intelligent dog which could fetch whichever large foam-rubber letter its owner asked for, simply based on a word command. It was as if the dog could tell one letter from another. The TV presenters fawned admiringly, including the lovely Kate Humble who really should know better.

What no-one seemed to realise was that the dog was clearly taking very simple cues from its owner, just like the famous case of the horse that could allegedly do sums by stamping the result with its hoof.

The dog’s owner made encouraging “Find the letter ‘C’, find the ‘C’, no, the ‘C’, find the ‘C’” noises. The dog snuffled from one letter to another. Then, as soon as the dog (by random chance) happened upon the letter ‘C’ the owner immediately changed to shouting “Good dog, there’s a good dog.” The dog, realising its task was complete, happily trotted back with the letter. Very simple. Very obvious. Requiring nothing more than basic fetching skills from the dog. Sheep dogs manage far more complex tasks.

I don’t know why I’m ranting about this, except that shouldn’t a programme that professes to be some kind of survey on the intelligence of animals have even the vaguest smattering of scientific method and skepticism about it?

Apparently not.

Maybe it was all some fiendish experiment to test my willingness to sit through utter drivel. If so, I think I failed. No doubt the colobus monkeys were all watching the Discovery Channel.

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