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DrawingTheLine

Steven M. Wise's book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (2002) could have been an important book. It is profoundly good-hearted but, alas, profoundly muddle-headed. The author's conclusions are right on target: for a host of reasons, nonhuman animals deserve far more legal protection than they now have against cruelty. But his arguments for that thesis are undercut and eventually eviscerated by his own scientific illiteracy.

Wise is a Harvard lawyer and a fine writer. The biggest problem that he suffers from is number-worship. He doesn't appear to grasp the concepts of accuracy, error propagation, or significant digits --- or if he does, evidence of it was edited out of the book. Hence, there's the distracting attempt to assign pseudo-precise (to two decimal places, no less!) "autonomy values" to various creatures --- when the obvious uncertainties and variances within and between species are much huger. When a scientist gives an estimated range of numbers, Wise latches immediately onto the arithmetic midpoint of that range. When he sees a number in print, he accepts every digit, as in "... polar bear brains, which grow [between birth and maturity] by an astonishing 4,510 percent ..." and "... Orangutan brains average about 335 cubic centimerters and weigh about 333 grams ...". (pps. 133-4)

I'm reminded, unfortunately, of the sign I saw many years ago on a baseball outfield fence, which showed "350 feet" (two significant digits) above "106.68 meters" (five significant digits). No! No! No! It's both numerically right and totally wrong.

As for probabilities, Wise's naivete is showing already in Chapter Three (p. 35):

... The more certain we are that the answer to any of these questions is "yes," the closer the probability is to 1.0. If "no" is certain, the probability is 0.0. If we think the answer impossible to know, or that it's possible but we just don't know anything, the probability is exactly 0.5. ...

No! No! No! If we don't know, we don't know.

Wise's biased authority-worship is almost as bad as his innumeracy. He can scarcely write a paragraph without multiple footnotes, but he doesn't distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable sources, credible or incredible claims, and validated versus idiosyncratic observations. He relies far too much on the anecdote-out-of-context method of argumentation. But, as the joke goes, "The plural of anecdote is bullsh*t!"

And, a more minor nit: Drawing the Line is sloppily edited. The most egregious example is that I happened to spot occurs on page 59:

Piaget compared Christopher's early mental images to a slow-motion movie. He might understand each frame, but couldn't figure out the movie.86 Cognitive scientists don't agree (of course) how to define "representation." ...

and on page 69:

Piaget compared Christopher's early mental images to a slow-motion movie. Christopher might understand each frame, but not the whole movie. Damasio says the core self is created in pulsing scenes that follow each other so quickly they appear continuous.181 ...

Perhaps this is a mere copy/paste hiccough --- but the fact that nobody noticed it is bothersome and reduces the book's credibility another notch.

On a more substantive front, at multiple points (most notably in his commentary on honeybees, where he also fails to differentiate between individual and group "thinking") Steven Wise is far too quick to anthropomorphize and see animal behavior through human eyes. I can only imagine what he would believe about the mental level of computers if, without prior experience, he encountered one programmed to appear interactive and intelligent. The 1980 VernorVinge novel True Names made the point in the context of fiction: "... there is nothing new about this situation. Even a poor writer --- if he has a sympathetic reader and an engaging plot --- can evoke complete internal imagery with a few dozen words of description. ...". The same applies, in trumps, to interactions with software, or nonhuman animals. (Remember Clever Hans!)

On the positive side, Wise is clearly a nice guy, on the side of the angels. He tries to be honest and fair, even to those whom he clearly mistrusts. He apologizes in a lengthy footnote (p. 274) for an earlier disagreement with Daniel Dennett, apparently based on a misunderstanding of Dennett's writings. And in a chapter on dolphins Wise quotes (pps. 131-2) from a letter he received from Louis Herman of the University of Hawaii:

You seem to wonder and to be sorely pained about my prior reluctance to communicate with you. I hope I am mistaken, but your prior communications to me suggested that you had a strong anti-captivity bias and consequent agenda to use my work to bolster your case, and in doing so, to misuse me. If so, how sad that you would use the knowledge we have gained through our laboratory studies to obviate any future knowledge we might gain. It is sad, also, that those who are so against captivity of the few scarcely raise a voice or take the necessary action to protect wild dolphins from the immense harassment and slaughter they suffer as a result of human activities, intentional or not. It must be reinforcing, I suppose, to pontificate, to possess a moral stance superior to others, and to see the world as dichotomous --- good guys and bad guys, but no complex guys or complex issues. ...

Bottom line: "Science" doesn't simply consist of citing authority, footnoting assertions, and marshalling stories. Science is organized knowledge. It demands judgment and critical thinking. Dennett's Kinds of Minds (1997) offers much more of that, and thereby makes a better case for animal rights than Drawing the Line.

(see also SufferTheAnimals (11 Jun 2000), CompassionateCarnivorism (19 Nov 2002), ModernPhrenology (19 0ct 2003), ... )


TopicScience - TopicLiterature - TopicSociety - TopicJustice - Datetag20040711


(correlates: CorrelationCausalityAndAstrology, 1 Comment on DeliberateOpinion, DisAvowal, ...)

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