Thinking About Thinking About Thinking
by The World

Can animals think? Can they think about thinking? Yes, say scientists.

Here's what actually happened though. Someone had the brilliant idea of adding an additional button to those classic experiments where you train an animal to press buttons in response to stimuli.

In the classic experiment, you call the stimuli “questions”, you call the button-pushing behaviour “answers”, add a little anthropomorphism, and bingo, the Nobel Prize for Discovering that Animals Can Think is within your grasp. Or at least, a credulous newspaper article to that effect – and, perhaps, more funding for more of the same silliness.

In the new experiment, the extra button doesn't actually do anything. And so sometimes, when the animals’ training has not been good enough to get them to pick the right button, they choose randomly and sometimes hit the new button. Even better, if you punish them for pressing the wrong button, but never punish them for picking the new button, then they will pick it whenever a conditioned reflex for one of the other buttons does not kick in first.

OK, so far, so obvious. But here's the master-stroke: as usual, it lies not in the substance of the experiment but in the naming of the outcomes. You call the new button the “Don't-Know” Button.

Actually, you could call it the “I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but I'm afraid I can't work out the answer to your interesting question right now. Leave it with me and ask me again in a few days and perhaps by then I may have understood better what you are getting at” button. But, whatever. The point is, as always, once you have given your new button a human interpretation at the start of the experiment, your jackpot conclusion at the end – that the animal is essentially human – is pretty much guaranteed.

That is what a team from the aptly named ‘University of Buffalo’ did. And that's how the Science Editor of The Guardian breathlessly came to splash the headline: Animals ‘can think about thought’:

It means that animals, like humans, may be capable not just of thinking, but of thinking about thinking, of knowing that they don't know. Psychologists call this “metacognition”, evidence of sophisticated cognitive self-awareness.

No, it doesn't mean anything of the sort. It just means that humans displayed their usual ingenuity in naming the new button. But it does demonstrate yet again that when it comes to thinking about thinking, some humans chronically fail to use their inborn potential.