This Slate writeup
, though, quotes more interesting research, including a study
(behind yet another damn paywall) in which cats had to attend to which of two cups a volunteer pointed to, which had treats inside. Many cats simply didn’t care to participate, but of those that did, performance was apparently on par with that of dogs.
My favorite part of the Slate piece:
Now before you conclude that cats are dumber than dogs […] consider this: Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years—20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the “human radio frequency”—the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that’s why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don’t hang on our every word like dogs do. They’re surfing other channels on the dial. And that’s ultimately what makes them so hard to study.
To me, this is exemplary popular science writing – it doesn’t just report on a cool finding, but gives us context. What we start out thinking is a matter of the unified idea of “intelligence” turns out to be a matter of how we can responsibly define intelligence for animals we don’t understand.
You might immediately balk at a headline as facile as “X is smarter than Y,” but what about “Scientific research of intelligence finds X performs better than Y”? The latter is more responsible – it focuses on the idea that this story is about research on intelligence rather than intelligence itself, and states a fact about that research.
But I think a good story should also empower the reader to see any such research both as fractional and provisional. Not only is this factual thing a small part of the whole endeavor that draws us in the first place – what is intelligence? – but it may not be true of the next study!
The point here is that part of what makes scientific research so beautiful is that it is a humble, toilsome project. People take a grand epistemic or moral problem and chip off ever smaller pieces of it to turn over and over, and then, funding permitting, hand it off for more turning when they’re done.
I would argue that the best science communication embraces this, and makes a lot of space for uncertainty. Ed Yong is among my favorite science writers and has this piece
on the trouble with measuring animal intelligence. I’m also fired up on this topic because I’m reading a book on bird cognition right now, and it might already be one of my favorite popular science books: The Genius of Birds
. Ackerman’s prose carries her obvious enthusiasm for the subject and a healthy awareness of what about preceding research sets us up to miss the varieties of cognition that exist in other animals.