Was moved to write after seeing the Horizon programme on dogs last week, which tested the ability of humans to differentiate between various kinds of noises that dogs make. To me the idea is empirical fact. Wherever I hear my five-year old Staffie vocalising in another room I can tell what's on his mind from the sound he makes. Yet the idea was presented as a 'claim', and moreover one that science was distinctly iffy about: dog barks are just 'random noises' and their owners merely imagine they can tell the difference between them.
Apparently no one had actually thought to check this out. Horizon filmed a chap sticking a mike in dogs' faces in different situations and then playing the results back to the owners. No stats, but 'most' of the owners were able to match the bark to the situation. So not just imagination then.
Actually I'm surprised that any of the owners failed at this, as I had no trouble at all: the sounds the dogs made were unmistakably distinct, just as my dog's are. A deep throaty 'wo-wo-wo-wo-woooo' means 'strangers approaching'; a single sharp yelp (I've got locked in the broom cupboard); grrrrrr (this is MY ball); a sort of staccato, high register double bark when he's playing with my son that means, 'I can take you, loser', and other quite recognisable sounds for 'come and play', 'are we there yet?', and so on.
It seems to me that 'science', as an oracular institution, thinks something can't happen until a) it's got around to focusing on it and/or b) it can explain why it happens. There's no in-between category - no statements like, 'well, we're not sure about this', or 'we need to check this out before we talk about it': just, 'it doesn't happen, period'. Implication: it's wishful thinking, all in the imagination. It's this sort of lazy complacency, the gulf between human experience and scientific knowledge, that causes people to have suspicions about science, as much as 'ignorance' or 'poor education', which science thinks are the real reasons.
There are some nice examples of this in Irreducible Mind. Also, Guy Playfair recently reminded me about the controversy over the ability of bats to navigate in the dark.
In 1794 the eminent eighteenth century Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani published a paper arguing that bats use their ears for this. There was no conceivable mechanism for it, and idea was denounced the following year by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who insisted on what seemed to him the far more plausible explanation, that they use the nerves in their wing tips to stop them bumping into objects. Cuvier's explanation was favoured until the mid-twentieth century, when the principle of echo-location was discovered in the invention of sonar.
The difference between the two scientists was that Spallanzani had carried out extensive experiments, eliminating each of the bats' senses in turn, while Cuvier had relied on his imagination. As Guy argues, it's an important example of how scepticism can delay progress, which in this case would have saved lives on the Titanic. (See his piece in Skepticalinvestigations.org for details).Back to the Horizon programme, which was interesting about the evolution of dogs, showing that dogs evolved only from wolves - and not from other canine-type species like hyenas and jackals - and also, thanks to a fascinating 50-year ongoing Russian experiment with Siberian foxes, that selective breeding can quite quickly turn vicious aggressive animals into cuddly pets. It aired the theory that dogs were crucial to human social development, in the help they give in herding and hunting, for instance. And it touched on the therapeutic effect of dogs in reducing stress and anxiety, about which there's a growing scientific consensus.
A really interesting Horizon programme would look at Rupert Sheldrake's research suggesting a telepathic link between pets and their owners. In this context the word 'claim' is perhaps more reasonable, given the strength and specifity of the scientific and philosophical objections. But anyone who actually talks to pet owners will soon find that it's another widely reported human experience. I was with a cat owner yesterday who described, quite persuasively, the responses of her cat to her unspoken thoughts, for instance showing anxiety consistently over a period of two days after she briefly considered whether to get rid of it, and so on. But of course this is just something else that science considers can't happen, and even empirical evidence to the contrary is dismissed as flawed and mistaken.