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July 01, 2007

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: God turns dog into mathematician

Suppose you had a dog and, mirabile dictu, you found he was able to do mathematics? What would you thnk?

Stan Tuten held up a board and scribbled down a basic algebra problem:

If a=2, and b=3, what is axb-1?

Micah, a terrier mix with penetrating eyes like black molasses, glanced at the board.

"Micah?" said Dr. Cindy Tuten, a physician and Stan Tuten's wife. "Do you understand the problem?"

She held one hand high in the air with a bowl of cut tomatoes and cooked chicken (the dog's reward) and the other out for the dog's answer. Micah tapped his paw once.

"Once means 'yes' and twice means 'no' " she said. "So he's telling us he understands the problem. Micah, what is the solution to the problem?"

The dog stared at the food, then tapped Tuten's palm five times.

"Very good, Micah," she said and fed him a treat.

Her husband decided to ask their 4-year-old dog another question, the square root of 25. Micah tapped his paw five times.

To prove this wasn't a fluke, the couple and a friend tossed out more math than teachers during exam time. Micah consistently pawed the correct answers, appearing to solve such problems as square root division, finding the numerators and denominators of fractions, multiplying and dividing, even basic algebra.

"He can calculate problems given in English, Spanish, French and German," Cindy Tuten said. One member of the small audience gathered in the Tuten's living room wondered if maybe she was unknowingly giving the dog signals or secret messages. The visitor, who'd never before seen Micah, threw out a question.

"Nueve menos tres?"

Micah stood still for a moment, and then tapped his paw six times for the correct answer.

"We were speechless," Cindy Tuten said. "We were also skeptical."(Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC)

Yes. The Tuten's are skeptics, all right. Very hardcore:

Deeply connected by their faith and Christian beliefs, the Tutens began to pray.

"How many persons are in the God head?" Cindy Tuten asked.

Micah tapped three times.

"How many God's are there?" The dog tapped once.

Wow. The dog even got these tough questions right. Algebra is one thing. But knowing how many persons are in the God head? I don't even know what the God head is (I'll look it up in wikipedia when I get through posting this. No need to write in).

But back to my original question. What would you think if you had a dog that could do math? This?

It is the belief of this family, that beyond math and games, Micah was put on this Earth to teach people Jesus is coming soon, the Tutens said.

Both professionals, they knew coming forward with this story would be dicey.

"I believe the Bible is true and it tells us how God used ravens to feed Elijah, a whale to save Jonah and a donkey to speak to Balaam," Stan Tuten said. "Now that I see how God is using Micah, I'm all the more convinced he can use any creature to accomplish his purpose."

Me too. And why would God use a dog for this?

What's the matter? Aren't you dyslexic?

Cross-posted by Revere at Effect Measure


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why couldn't they have named him Hans and saved us the effort?

Seriously, someone must surely have told these people of Hans the horse by now, right? And if so, I wonder how they took it.

I wonder if these people heard of that effect where dogs can tell what their owners want them to do based on their body language?

Maybe this isn't the proof the dog owner thinks it is.

Amazingly, I had never heard of Clever Hans (see link from Chris O in comment above), although the case seems quite well known. Apparently Micah the dog is smarter than I am and may have read about it when he was surfing the web (on the internet no one knows you are a dog).

Not to be overly demanding here, but a supposedly omnipotent god, credited with creating the universe in 7 days, can only come up with a dog tapping his freakin' paw on a woman's hand? I know that the Xtian bible can be a bit obscure to modern readers who don't have a grasp of anicent Jewish literary devices, but surely this god of theirs can do better than this? If he's reduced to making images of Mary appear on toast and in smears on window glass and indicating the Jeebus is coming back through a dog in NC, then I'd say the poor old man is running out of steam fast and having a hard time going anywhere. Poor old thing! It just amazes me what gullible people will latch onto because reality bites faith in the ass every time....

I'd be worried if my dog could do math. I'd be wondering if she's draining the checking account.

Seriously, though, the Clever Hans problem is already well-known. And dogs are far more attuned to human expressions than horses are, the opportunistic little scavengers.

The original article shows that the owners have been informed of the Clever Hans effect (although perhaps not by that name), and rejected it because they just know that they are not giving unconscious signals:

Dr. Josh Van Szalatnay at Animal Hospital South is skeptical about these "wonder dogs." It is his belief the owners are giving some sort of facial clue or inflection of the voice that lets the dog know when to stop tapping its paws. . . "The owners may not even realize they're doing something as subtle as a raised eyebrow" [Van Szalatnay said.] Even if this were the case, which both Treff and the Tutens emphatically insist is not, a dog being able to calculate math is "impressive one way or another," Van Szalatnay said.

What's sad about this is that with a fairly low level of critical thinking and skepticism on the part of the family, or the reporter, they could have checked this by, for example, asking the dog something that the questioner didn't know.

Someone should ask the dog how many fundamentalists it takes to screw in a light bulb.

Fundamentalists don't screw in lightbulbs; they screw in bed, with the lights turned off.

The thing to do is to have the questions asked by someone who doesn't already know the answer.

I think God is using Micah to promote algebra! Thank God!

But seriously, if God is using Micah (nice prophetic name, there) to tell people that Jesus is coming soon, why don't they ask Micah when God is coming? Are they afraid if the answer is "3," nobody will know whether it's 3 seconds or 3 millenia? Couldn't God get a more articulate prophet? I'm with Priscilla on this.

If my God were that pathetic, I would jump off a bridge. Look, everybody, the Creator can do dog-tricks! :-)

Um, God, you're a little late. We can get solar powered calculators now for eight bucks at any drug store that do cube roots, trigonometric functions, and everything without barking, shedding, stinking, drooling, crapping, pissing, nosing your crotch, stealing your sandwich, or requiring fifty-pound bags of kibble. Try again, oh omnipotent one.

"I believe the Bible is true"
Only if you have a really, really big Bible. Then you can sink pegs into it and use them as moorings. Smaller Bibles tend to slip about too much.

Someone needs to ask that dog the correct view on the doctrine of transubstantiation. Our immortal souls are hanging in the balance here!

Someone needs to ask that dog the correct view on the doctrine of transubstantiation.

"Micah, does the bread and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus, or is it purely symbolic?"

"He tapped 'five', and put his nose in my crotch. Purely symbolic it is."

"Hey, everybody, God put Micah on this earth to conclusively demonstrate that Catholicism is wrong."

Is it possible that the dog *is* Jesus? Have they asked him?

Does anyone else find it a little disconcerting that Micah requires a milk-bone to do God's will? Well, I'm grateful in any case to finally have an answer on the transubstantiation controversy; I only wish Micah had showed up in time to head off the Thirty Year's War. Now, about that infralapsarian-supralapsarian dispute...

What is the point of the allusion to dyslexia? A dog counts (subitizing) like humans but not so many distinct counts as humans. Dogs don't think like humans in the sense of devoting brain space to making speech. So while the dog might get 20 or so words like no, food, their name, they are using 'connection' not language to understand.

What's funny about this claim is not God wants a dog to talk, but the idea that talking is important as a vehicle for contact. Keeping in mind what people get out of their pets, that is unconditional love, language provides a pretty poor substitute. God wants to connect via some sort of language implies something about how the religious person pictures connection. They are theorizing that oneness with God is via a verbal description. The concepts are of course profoundly impossible, but what dispels nonsense is a bit of not so much dismissal by humor but that the image they conjure with language is not what they make it out to be. Clever Hans while not thinking like the person coaching the horse to paw the ground is showing it can think by 'connection' to the human in some ways probably more important than 'counting' which the religious can't understand is what is amazing if not religious about the horse doing what it does.

Doyle: Many people with dyslexia have a tendency to see words reversed. That's the connection with "dog." Micah doesn't talk. He "paws." The importance to his ownsers was not the communication, it was the ratiocination (or perhaps both). Animals are very sensitive to behavioral signals from other animals (e.g., humans). That seems to be a biological fact. It is not proof of divine intervention or existence.

The bits about "We were also very skeptical", and how they "insist" they're not signalling the dog, are pricelss. Being so certain of themselves that they don't bother to test or control for such signals in any way, while knowing about the Clever Hans Effect, and then coming to unshakable conclusions that are completely idiotic, is a classic demonstration of true-believer self-deception.

The lesson is not merely that true believers will believe almost anything, but that "sophisticated" true believers (she's a doctor, he's a freakin' math teacher!) can also convince themselves of their own immunity to error. (To be fair, that phenomenon is not confined to religious muddle-heads. Many psychic frauds who refuse to perform in front of professional stage magicians have been eager to perform in front in professional scientists, who have often badly embarrassed themselves by way of their own blind spots.) These clowns actually believe they've conducted an experiment. All they've proven is that their dog is smarter than they are.

Real, as opposed to pseudo-science on counting dogs and human-dog communication is actually fairly interesting. Google-scholaring the following will get the abstracts and a couple entire articles. ---

West RE, Young RJ. Do domestic dogs show any evidence of being able to count? Anim. Cogn. (2002) 3, pp 183-6.

Ward C, Smuts BB. Quantity-based judgments in the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Anim. Cogn. (2007) 1, pp 71-80.

K. Soporani, A. Miklosi, J. Topal and V. Csanyi, Comprehension of human communicative signs in pet dogs (Canis familiaris). J. Comp. Psychol. 115 (2001), pp. 122–126.

B. Hare, M. Brown, C. Williamson and M. Tomasello, The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298 (2002), pp. 1634–1636.

J. Call, J. Braueur, J. Kaminski and M. Tomasello, Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) are sensitive to the attentional state of humans. J. Comp. Psychol. 117 (2003), pp. 257–263.

A. Miklosi, E. Kubinyi, J. Topal, M. Gacsi, Z. Viranyi and V. Csanyi, A simple reason for a big difference: Wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr. Biol. 13 (2003), pp. 763–766

B. Hare, I. Plyusnina, N. Ignacio, O. Schepina, A. Stepika, R. Wrangham, L. Trut, Social Cognitive Evolution in Captive Foxes Is a Correlated By-Product of Experimental Domestication. Curr. Biol. 15, (2005) pp 226-230

Topál J, Byrne RW, Miklósi A, Csányi V., Reproducing human actions and action sequences: "Do as I Do!" in a dog. Anim Cogn. (2006) 4, pp. 355-367.

Gácsi M, Miklósi A, Varga O, Topál J, Csányi V., Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs (Canis familiaris) show situation-dependent recognition of human's attention. Anim Cogn. 2004 Jul;7(3) pp 144-153

I must concur. If the best their all powerful deity can do is get a dog to tap its paw for food then they should reconsider their unconditional devotion to Dog--er, I mean God. --and, of course, it is a complete coincidence that Stan Tuten is a math teacher.

revere writes;
Many people with dyslexia have a tendency to see words reversed. That's the connection with "dog." Micah doesn't talk. He "paws."

Ahhhh I see what you were alluding to. It's a myth that a symptom of dyslexia is seeing letters reversed. Everyone sees letters reversed at times. Not that I expect most people to know that, just that I wondered why someone would equate reversing dog with god as dyslexic. And I got my answer.

While I'm not going to go on at length about what seeing dyslexically might be like, Think of it as blurry dancing spots you can't quite make out. The distinctness of a reversed letter is a sign the person can see well enough to read just needs normal training. Dyslexia like the reality of other learning disabilities takes a long time to catch up with popular images of what people think they know about a disability. People mean well though.

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