An interesting study and my quibble

So researchers have demonstrated through an experiment that apes understand when another has a ‘false belief’, i.e., someone believes something that is not true. This seems to be applied to the concrete here and now more than to tax policy but more on that later. The researchers made a video and showed it to apes of a man holding a rock, then a man in a gorilla suit takes it from him and puts it under a box. The man leaves and the gorilla puts the rock under a second box and then takes it away altogether. When the first man returns, the apes watching are found to anticipate that he will go to the first and now empty box through eye tracking technology (they look at the man and first box repeatedly), thereby showing that they understand another’s perspective and that it can be wrong. One link is the Duke Chronicle: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/10/duke-study-shows-apes-have-a-cognitive-ability-thought-to-be-unique-to-humans

chimpanzee-personality

So you can’t find your rock? Did you look under the other box? In your closet?

This is an interesting albeit limited finding. I like the effort to show a more sophisticated side to animal minds, but here’s my quibble. Why call this a ‘false belief’ rather than a ‘false assumption’? If linguists were studying humans in this regard, we would talk about contextual knowledge and pragmatic processes. That apes (and many other animals for that matter) understand another’s false assumption is no real surprise, so this study provides another confirming detail. Frans de Waal has documented many instances of apes using such perspective taking and knowledge to their advantage in his books, especially the latest one, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?  Consider his account when one chimp lower in the pecking order was allowed to see through a window where bananas were hidden and then when he and the whole group were released to find the food ran somewhere else and then later returned by himself to enjoy the bananas. If he had gone straight to them, an alpha male would have taken them. He promoted the assumption that he did not know where the bananas were. Did the other apes ‘believe’ he was as ignorant as they were? Mimicking false beliefs is strategically a ‘feint’ that dogs do all the time in play, going one way to trick the other in assuming one intent and then quickly changing course, as do humans playing a sport. Manipulation through hiding intent or understanding another’s false assumption/belief is, I think, common in the animal kingdom, including humans pushing a fraudulent sales deal. Our more powerful symbolic and cultural capabilities make this even more apparent and problematic.

Back to false beliefs and tax policy. I am aware of the false belief that reducing taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs; that this tax reduction does not increase jobs has been demonstrated repeatedly at the state and national level; the data are clear. This is no rock under the box situation though, so understanding another’s false belief is not so helpful because of the persistence of the false belief in the face of evidence. Surely the human or ape looking under the box to find nothing would abandon that assumption. For tax policy though, some continue to insist the rock is under the box even though it is clearly not there. This marks a difference between an assumption and a belief wherein the persistence is due to faulty reality testing by ignoring data so as to find an advantage in other ways.

I recently saw a study that showed climate change deniers were associated more with the Republican party than the Democratic one. Why? A friend’s family of origin teaches their younger children that evolution is wrong. Why? At least in part to be consistent with their religious beliefs, but they still use all the medical tools evolutionary science bestows upon us. I recognize these as false beliefs more than false assumptions because they persist in the bright light of empiricism. Yes, each of us has a powerful world view that shapes our interpretation and assembly of data, but empirical thinking, from cooking, early tools and agriculture through the scientific revolution in the 16th century to now, is our most powerful perspective. Remember a few years back when a group of young, disrespectful, stupidly self-involved American tourists climbed a sacred mountain in, I think, Indonesia, and stripped naked for their selfies? Then they were arrested for desecrating a sacred place (ok so far) and causing an earthquake (oops, slipped over the positivistic border there). I had a conversation with a friend who contradicted me when I said they did not cause the earthquake saying that maybe the indigenous people there were on to something, maybe the mountain god was angry and that we do not understand all that goes on in this world (now there’s a safe assumption I can endorse). Is there no such thing as superstition then? I knock on wood toward off bad events but I know that is a superstition. We do not understand everything but we do understand somethings very well. I am prepared to believe in magic and miracles and apprehension of unknown things by special talents but I can also reject false assumptions and beliefs. Let me not begin a discussion of religious beliefs, because we humans with our fecund symbolic capabilities not only make up the weirdest stuff (remember the Atargatis?) but we lose track of our creations and mistake them for objective truth. Many religious minded people ‘recognize’ the false beliefs of other religions. Really? Better travel on from there.

bonobo2

I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should study the matter empirically.

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