Monday, October 19, 2009

One Fish, Two Fish

One fish
Two fish
Crew fish
Wonder who fish?
Yellow-blue fish!
Little fish, as bright as lights
Who love to munch on parasites!
Some are yellow; some are blue
Some very few, some other hue
Why are they colored just like this?
Go ask an ichthyologist!
Some are happy; some may gripe
The nice one has a vivid stripe!
From here to there, from there to here,
There’s fishes in our hydrosphere!
Here are some who like to learn
They love to learn for food they earn
Oh me! Oh my!
Oh my! Oh me!
What funny things live in the sea!
Some have two fins, and some have four
Some have eight legs, and some have more!
Where did they come from?
Ooze or slime?
They’ve co-evolved for a long, long time
We see them live
We see them die
Beneath the sea
Beneath the sky
Too many times
We say good-bye
Each one unique; each one distinct
Sometimes we’re why
They go extinct.

The New York Times has a really nice article about learning in fish, with both laboratory and reef studies examining different aspects of a single larger question, but with an irritating, very basic mistake that happens to be one of my pet peeves.

On the reef, the article reports on two different teams out of the University of Queensland, one looking at the effect of the cleaner wrasse (reefs without cleaner wrasses had about 5 times as many parasites as those with cleaners), and the other examining the role of color and pattern in the recognition of cleaner wrasses (color and stripe are both important, in case you wondered). In the lab, the ability of fish to recognize and differentially respond to visual stimuli was examined by yet more of those busy Queenslanders; damselfish demonstrated they could learn to recognize various patterns (in one experiment) and colors (in another) in both two and three dimensional targets.
Remarkably, the fish also learned when the food reward was delayed and delivered far from the stimulus. The damselfish exhibited what is called anticipatory behavior, in that they would tap the image and then swim quickly to the other end of their tank in anticipation of their food reward. This response is much like Pavlov’s dogs who learned to anticipate food at the sound of a bell.
No, it's not. Not like Pavlov's dogs, that is. The task the fish were presented with was clearly an operant chamber--a Skinner box (or Skinner tank, as it were)--the elegant device B. F. Skinner invented in order to examine operant behavior. Not respondent behavior, which is what Pavlov looked at.

In an otherwise excellent article (including a description of the procedure clear enough to easily see this error), does one sentence really make such a difference?

Well... yes. I don't know whether the mistake is the fault of the reporter or of the research team; sadly, either is possible. Behaviorism has been subject to steady misrepresentation for decades. It's as if the creationists got to control what the majority of Americans knew about evolution... Like that could ever happen.

And this one is so incredibly easy, too.


Like, oh... Dr. Seuss.




Daddio said...

Your peeve is my peeve too. Science reporting is shaky at the best of times, and anything to do with psychology seems to induce fact-neglect-syndrome. I once had a bit of press cover on a suggestion, backed up by pilot data, for a way to detect Alzheimer's disease at an early stage. The reporter actually got most of the science story right, but the headline shouted Local Team Close In On Alzheimer's Cure. Uh . . . no. For a week I fielded calls from all around the country, explaining to worried, sometimes desperate-sounding people that we did not have an imminent cure to offer.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate when they either don't care to be accurate, or are approved by people who don't know it's wrong.

Good thing people who do know make a point of mentioning it.