Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bruno Littlemore questions the double-blind experiment

Clever Hans

I'm still re-reading Ben Hale's novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and I once again see that Ben knows about "Clever Hans," a horse that picked up on visual clues in responding to oral questions, for he has Norm Plumlee -- the behaviorist research director who's attempting to teach Bruno 'language' -- try to prevent any exchange of cues from experimenter to Bruno by hiding Lydia's face and hands:
Norm had recently added an extremely unsettling detail to this procedure. Lydia wore a flat black metal mask that completely obscured her face, with a rectangular window of opaque green glass for her eyes. I am told that this was a welding mask. She also wore a pair of oven mitts on her hands. Dressed in this insane costume -- like a baker in Hell -- she would ask me to perform the pointless tasks with the objects strewn about the floor of the playpen. I did not know what could be the reason for these new details that had been added to the ritual. Lydia looked slightly terrifying in this costume. Still, I knew it was her under there, and so I gamely complied with the requests coming from the tinny echoey voice buried beneath the black metal mask. (Ben Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, pages 140-141)
Though Lydia can still see Bruno, this is similar to what scientists call a double-blind experiment, the sort eventually used with Clever Hans to determine if that horse were really responding to language, and it is intended to assure the skeptical that Bruno was receiving no visual clues and noting no body language. Bruno is skeptical of that skepticism:
But why, I ask -- why Dr. Norman Plumlee, did you decide that external bodily elements of communication do not count as part of language? Is language not comprised of an entire flexible interface of both spoken and visual interaction? No human mother speaks to her infant only while wearing oven mitts and a welding mask! Spoken language is but a single component of communication. We speak as much with our hands and our eyes and faces as we do with our lungs and throats and tongues -- namely, principally, with our brains. Analog gestural communication isn't "cheating." Removing words from the interface of the body only removes them from their natural environment, like putting an animal in a cage. (Ben Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, page 141)
Good questions, Bruno. Such thoughts are never far below the surface of Bruno's tale. An apparent allusion to Clever Hans surfaces in a direct reference to the drama Woyzeck, which Bruno later directs and 'stars' in, for he mentions the role of the Showman, who "has a horse that he claims can tell the time and communicate it by stamping his hooves" -- though, interestingly enough, Bruno calls this Showman "a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman" (page 91). I would have expected Bruno rather to defend the horse's linguistic skills. He doesn't tell us directly what he really thinks about the horse's sense of language, and he never mentions Clever Hans directly, so far as I recall (but correct me if I'm wrong), even though he eventually befriends a fellow chimp called "Clever Hands" -- so-named because he has learned the rudiments of sign language (an added allusion to "Nim Chimpsky") -- which should have given Bruno entry into further explicit musings about the nature of language. Perhaps Bruno doesn't know the story of Clever Hans and for that reason has nothing to say about it, in which case, the allusions are all Ben Hale's, never Bruno's.

I would be interested in knowing Ben's particular views on the Clever Hans story, for it's usually told as a triumph of science's double-blind experiment in the uncovery of the truth that the horse was not really responding to language but merely to visual cues, the moral of the story being that science has to work this way. Ben -- or maybe just Bruno -- seems to imply that it shouldn't.

Labels: , , ,


At 4:29 AM, Blogger dhr said...

a fellow chimp called "Clever Hands" -- so-named because he has learned the rudiments of sign language

In Robert J. Sawyer novel "Wake" (first volume of the WWW trilogy, but also in the following books, supposedly) there is a slightly-mutant chimp who can convey quite complex messages through the sign language. No double-blind experiment occurs; but one day the monkey makes a non-abstract painting, a portrait, without having been requested by anybody.

The interesting thing, however, is that the Zoo legally owning the animal decides to have him neutered, because he is half "Pan troglodytes" half Bonobo, so that, if he happened to mate, he would 'merge' two endangered species which must be preserved in their 'purity,' instead.

Does Bruno Littlemore run some social risk, or is his unusual condition accepted?

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're asking for a spoiler!

Well, okay. Science decides to save Bruno.

No spoiler there, for this point is clear from early in the book.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"No spoiler there, for this point is clear from early in the book."

My, my Doctor Jeff, pretty keen observation. "No spoiler" indeed - there is a book.


At 6:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eh? I don't get it . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff. RE: last post, I don't, either. Ah well. RE: the photo of Clever Hans, holy smoke, I did not know there were any! That one is going in my on-going Collection of Bizarre Images, stat, thanks much.

Ben and I talked about Hans from way, way back; I came upon him from way back in my kidhood, along with I believe the seemingly all-mechanical "Arab" who would solve problems for the audience and such, but in fact had a little bitty dude down inside the assembly doing the hard work. Great stuff. But as you say, it would be extremely interesting to hear from Ben hisself on the topic of Hans, and I hope you do. He's departing Costa Rica in a few days I believe, with pads and pads of paper filled with new fiction, so I hear. --CharleyP
--btw, have you read any Steven Millhauser? Great writer, Ben turned me onto him a few years ago. He loves this sort of arcana, too, and has written several short stories that deal with things like Hans and similar.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pete, I imagine Ben is busy enough already. No need for him to respond to my queries here on this blog . . . unless he just happens to want to.

I've discovered that nearly all my photo needs are met by Wikipedia, so you can probably find lots of weird stuff there.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home