Sunday, June 11, 2017

Not Telepathy!

"What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

― Christopher Hitchens

Just when you think you've heard it all, someone on the Middleton Airport grassland birds field trip this morning said to our group that birds maintain flock cohesion via telepathy. At first I laughed because I thought she was joking. Alas, she wasn't. And she didn't accept my explanation that complex flocking behavior in birds is based on simple rules of interaction. Sadly, further woo was injected into her argument. Despite my pleas for her to drop the subject, she persisted so I went into full scientific smackdown mode. For her part, standard logical fallacies were deployed, especially appealing to ignorance.

We don't know everything, so...

Which then expands into:

We don't know how something works, therefore we do (so, telepathy). 


If we don't know how something works, then we don't know how something works. We don't arbitrarily make up something, appeal to mystical or supernatural explanations, or propose other pseudoscientific nonsense. At one point I think she was starting to tell me that she has a science degree. I don't, but I still know birds don't use telepathy for the reason that it isn't real; there is absolutely zero scientific evidence that the power exists.

I think it may have been ornithologist Edmund Selous (1857-1934) who first postulated thought-transference in birds because he believed flock movements were too synchronized and rapid to be any type of natural coordinated behavior. Today we know better. Flocking dynamics and coordinated behavior can be explained with a few simple rules of interaction.

From The Smart Swarm, Peter Miller offers this about "adaptive mimicking":
"By adaptive mimicking I mean the way that individuals in a group pay close attention to one another, picking up signals about where they're going and what they know. How they respond to such signals shapes the behavior of the group as a whole, which, in turn, informs the actions of individuals."
Though this was a Madison Audubon field trip, for at least Open Birding dates I'm going to add an additional rule for participants:

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