The news is chattering over a new paper by Smet and Byrne entitled "African Elephants Can Use Human Pointing Cues to Find Hidden Food" [link]. The lede is frequently the typical one for comparative cognition studies. Take this example from VOA:
Elephants are able to recognize human gestures without any sort of training, new research shows. Scientists believe the finding indicates that elephants are able to understand humans in a way most other animals do not.
They might be excused for this since the authors themselves write, in the Results and Discussion section "Here we found elephants capable of responding spontaneously to pointing gestures that require attention to subtle differences in the position of the forearm and hand.". This is, however, a tired and old problem with this type of study.
Even Carl Zimmer, writing in the NYT, makes most of his post about this wonderous "spontaneous" property of all elephants. Still, to his credit he does include the critical caveat.
Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College, wondered if the elephants had already learned about pointing by observing their handlers pointing to each other.
“In these elephant camps such opportunities can easily go unnoticed by their human caretakers,” said Dr. Reiss.
The authors themselves point this out, although they try to handwave it away:
All of these elephants have lived in captivity since infancy: they have had the opportunity to witness pointing used between humans. However, observation of human interactions does not automatically translate into aptitude at interpretation of these interactions.
Whoa dude. Whoa. Hold up. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Except, apparently, in comparative cognition when we are just sooooo keen to believe findings that show species X is "just like humans" in some cognitive or behavioral property.
I have at least one observation in the archive that points out where not thinking hard about the study design can lead to unsupported conclusions being widely disseminated. This post was originally published Feb 25, 2008.
In the midst of World War I, Wolfgang Köhler conducted a famous series of experiments to investigate problem solving ability in chimpanzees. The lasting impression of these experiments, reinforced by just about every introductory Psychology text, was Köhler's assertion that the chimps demonstrated "insightful" learning.
Did they now?