Wrong On Many Levels

I was driven indoors with all the recent snow and cold weather, and set up my road bike on the trainer in the basement. I hadn’t done all that much so far, but the other night I decided — dammit! — to finally get in a workout, and to make it more palatable I’d listen to a RadioLab podcast.

Big mistake. I should clarify that it wasn’t a terrible failure in terms of riding the trainer, since it did make the time go faster, but I was forced to a realization I’d been moving towards for a while: I just don’t like RadioLab all that much. Back in the day, it seemed to have a good premise, and the shows seemed interesting and scienc-ey, but there was always something that seemed off, some side comment that they liked good stories better than the truth (what science buff would say that?), and their production habit of letting a guest speak a few words before fading out and having the hosts radiolabsplain, and their slow drift from science-related stories to whatever it is they’re now pushing.

The podcast I listened to was about a woman hired in the 1960’s to teach dolphins to speak English — she actually lived in a half-submerged apartment, with an adolescent male as her subject and roommate. The institute doing the research was led by¬† a former physicist, who had once heard what he thought were human-like sounds coming from captive dolphins, and who was also an enthusiastic consumer of LSD for “research purposes” — one of those guys, in an era full of them…

Pure hubris and ineptitude. Dolphins can hear and make many sounds, but they are not physically equipped to make the sounds required for human speech (a fact that these guys bumped up against, apparently without noticing), and no matter what their intelligence, their psychology is not human psychology, and “if a lion could talk we wouldn’t understand it,” as the saying goes — a meaningful conversation with a dolphin might not even be possible, in English.

It was fairly obvious that these people were not really trained in animal research, and eventually there were ethical lapses: the woman managed to keep her boss from giving the dolphin LSD, but she herself had a “sexual relationship” with it. (Bad enough, but if they really thought that the dolphin was a sentient being like a human, then their test subject was a prisoner and their experiments were psychological torture, and the whole thing was an ethical failure.) I wasn’t surprised to hear that the funding dried up…

Mind you, this whole story was told from a point of view very sympathetic to the researchers. I got off the bike thinking “WTF did I just listen to?”

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