I am an occasional visitor to the Natural Dog Training (is there such a thing as Supernatural Dog Training?) blog authored by snake-oil salesman and new-age mystic Kevin Behan. Reading the blog is amusing and infuriating. I find it painful to see him lie to readers and distort the latest science story to support the sales his energy snake-oil story.
I am also amused by the similarities between Behan’s attack on science and the way creationist (and climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, truthers, oil lobby and at one time the smoking lobby) deal with science – blanket dismissal, logical fallacies, distorting findings and outright lies.
Even though I read, I don’t normally comment on his blogs. Behan is industrious when it comes to producing misinformation and I don’t want to spend my time debunking it.
I reached my tipping point for the quackery with his recent post on the SPARCS conference. The cumulative fraud was more than I could take.
1. Why Don’t Free Ranging Dogs Live In Packs?
The weasel words start with the first sentence.
“The fact that free ranging dogs don’t form working packs is cited by proponents of dog-as-scavenger theory and modern learning theorists as evidence that dogs were fundamentally changed from wolves by way of neotony, the retention of infantile traits into adulthood.”
Who are these anonymous proponents? Can he name them? Cite where these claims are made? Which learning theorists are making these claims? In what study? In what book? You have to wonder about assertions that claim “it’s been cited” but don’t actually cite the source. To quote Ben Goldacre, “if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.”
Mr. Behan reaches new heights in ignorance of evolution when he reworks the creationist lament, “Why ain’t monkeys turning into humans?” He puts his own spin on it by asking:
“why then haven’t domesticated versions of foxes and coyotes, not to mention other dump scavengers such as rats, bears, raccoons, skunks, crows, ravens, seagulls, etc., etc., been domesticated through the same process that tamed the wolf?”
In simple terms, once an organism takes an evolutionary path in any direction, it’s hard to do a U-turn. No do-overs. And even under identical environments E.coli will evolve into different strains.
“Even from so simple a beginning, small happenstances of history may lead populations along different evolutionary paths. A potentiated cell took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” (Lenski 2008)
The same is/was true for dogs.
2. Cognitive Research as Alchemy Posting about this NYT article, Behan quotes:
“As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their new book, “The Genius of Dogs,” natural selection favored the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans.”
What does Behan get out of this? “Abracadabra. Dogs figured it out.” He doesn’t even pretend that truth will play a part of his attack on science. “Abracadabra”? What a dishonest douchebag! Darwinian selection is not magic. And “dogs figured it out” smacks of Lamarckism, IOW not natural selection, not evolution.
Of course the strawman is part of the con. After constructing the ‘dogs figure it out’ strawman he can then dismantle it to conclude his views must then be right – Snake-Oil Sales 101 is in session.
3. Resource Holding Potential
Let’s start with how RPH is described in two books:
- An individual organism’s potential for obtaining, or retaining, a resource based on its fighting ability [coined by Parker 1974 in Maynard Smith 1976, 44].
- An individual organism’s potential for obtaining, or retaining, a resource based on one or more relevant attributes, which include fighting ability, physical position with regard to the resource, posturing, size, strength, timing of its relevant behavior, vocalization quality, and weaponry (Parker and Rubenstein 1981, 221, 223–224).
- The chances of winning any contest can be also conceptualized in terms of the resource-holding potential of the participants (Parker 1974). The resource-holding potential is determined by fighting ability, information about the disputed resource, and motivation to invest in the contest.
Behan’s post on RPH was a response to Eric Brad’s article on dominance. I think Behan misrepresents Brad’s position but I’ll leave it to the author to defend his views. Reading the descriptions above, one gets the feeling Behan didn’t even bother Googling the term.
“The concept of “Resource Holding Potential” (RHP) has been offered as the best explanation for the social structure of canines.”
Really? Who made the offer? Where? When? The lack of citation for this decree makes me to doubt it. RPH has been successfully applied across varied species; sand gobies, pigmy swordtails, dragonflies, blue tit, prawns, red deer, butterflies, crickets, hermit crabs, female lion groups, etc., etc.
The concept works across wide taxa for two very simple reasons, animals compete for resources and contestants are rarely evenly matched. Body size, weapon size, age, energetic states, body temperature and other factors that determine an animal’s ability to win a contest are lumped under RPH.
If you are starting to think Behan is full of crap there is a reason, but it’s not that he’s full of crap. As he egotistically explains, it’s your fault.
The problem is that these folks think they know what I’m saying because they think they know what they’re saying and they thereby fail to see the internal contradiction at the heart of their own argument.
A wave of his hand is all it takes to dismiss the scientific evidence and the work or all who work in research. Suck it Dunbar, Hare, Fox, Mech, Lord, Bekoff, Topal, Miklosi, Beck, Casey, Yin, Trut, Horowitz and other. YOU just don’t know what you are saying!!
The confidence of fools never fails to amaze or their capacity to blame others for their deficiencies. Behan constructs comforting delusion; he never has to bother with introspection because if you don’t accept his theory it’s always your fault and never his.
Behan reads far too much into this article about trained planaria that have regenerated their heads seem to perform better than untrained planaria. It’s an interesting observation and probably indicates that they encode information along their nervous system and not just the neural bundle – not really a brain.
Behan’s idea of physical memory is explored in the 1924 classic ‘The Hands of Orlac’, Mad Love (1935), Hands of a Stranger (1962), Body Parts (1991) and a Simpson’s episode called Killer Toupee. Though most adults know these stories are entertainment and not science. Moving on to the second cited article he writes:
“Physical memory tunes the organism to the vibratory essence of those things that are emotionally relevant to its evolutionary niche.”
I’m a practical guy. I wan’t detailed mechanisms not rhetoric, metaphors and stories. What is physical memory? How does it tune? What is the vibratory essence of things? And how did the measure essence?
I get the feeling that he doesn’t even read the articles he links to. Did he miss this?
“Once flowers hide away their pollen this way, natural selection favors bees that can give the flowers a harder shake. The harder the bees shake, Dr. Vallejo-Marín and his colleagues have found, the more food they can bring home.”
There is no need to posit emotional transference to a flower. It’s just evolution, or if you prefer co-evolution. Common to many quacks, Behan’s explanation involves “energy.”
The body formats sensory inputs, tunes the organism into forces of nature which are embodied as the forms of things, and is also the anchor for the deepest kind of memory, physical memory, a cellular record held in the body and which is composed from the resistance experienced in the expression of emotion. In this way the forms of things are internalized as energy, emotion.
“Forces of nature“? Are there other forces? “Deepest“? Did he take a survey of other memories? Gibberish a la nonsense with a spice of Weasel.
BIG WORDS all strung together do NOT = Science. I’ve seen some pretty strange things on Facebook in the past couple weeks that claim to explain how animals work, are motivated, or have feelings. They are essentially strings of big words put together in an effort to sound “authoritative.” If anything, what they are saying is quite the opposite of science, not just of animal behavior, but also about physics, chemistry, etc., and some of it sounds like complete gibberish. Sounds like a marketing ploy to me. Critical thinking is an important skill to have, and we need to get to the sources of the science when there’s any doubt at all!!
Like many others, I tuned into the SPARCS conference drawn in by the prestigious lineup of speakers and presenters. Mostly I listened, taking the occasional notes and I even had a few tweets, including one expressing disappointment with Dr. Fox for deviating into the paranormal and talking about telepathic dogs.
You would think that listening to the speakers would be a requirement for anyone wanting to write about the conference. But not everyone takes such a rational approach. Posting about the SPARCS conference, Behan takes a unique approach: knowing jack-squat about the material presented.
“I didn’t attend either the conference linked below or log onto its streamed content”
I admire the gall it takes to comment on something without knowing anything about it but I glad that movie and books reviewers don’t take this approach.
For Mr. Behan, IGNORANCE is the perfect starting point; it saves him the effort of ignoring the presenter. Unburdened by facts he can entertain whatever notion pops into his head. Who needs to know things? Learning and knowing just gets in the way of the magical energy/magnetic/quantum juju he’s made up.
From my point of view the take away is that attendees heard what they expected to hear, dogs think just like us and a dog’s capacity to adapt to humans is a function of high order cognition, such as a theory-of-mind (ToM). But here’s what was not taken into considerimagine it.Summary
NYT or other science articles often inspire Behan to respond; this is foolish. These articles are often far removed from the original paper and are often based on press releases or media copy. Basic rule: If you aren’t willing to read the study, don’t blog about it.
This one is specifically for Behan: if you didn’t attend the conference and listen to the lectures then you don’t get to comment on them.
Behan’s argument style is formulaic; if you read through his blog the same players keep showing up. The cast includes:
- The Strawman
- Dichotomous fallacy
- Goalpost Movers
- God of Gaps
- Appeal to Ignorance
- Prodigious Gibberish
- Nominal fallacy
- False Premises and Promises
- Anonymous Authority
Expect to see them in the next Kevin Behan production.
- Kevin Behan: A Legend in His Own Mind
- The Baloney Detection Kit (michaelshermer.com)
- Myths and misconceptions about evolution: A TED-Ed lesson about the subtleties (4:23 TED video)
- Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Darwin’s Dark Knight: Scientist Risked Execution for Fox Study (Op-Ed) (livescience.com)
- Science vs Pseudoscience: Where is the Difference? by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci,
University of Tennessee (PDF)