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A friend’s note about Niko Tinbergen and the herring gull chicks – who was gulled, exactly?


Recently, in the “stuff we know that just ain’t so” files, I referenced Niko Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize for supposed discoveries about herring gull chicks – a discovery that turned to ashes. A friend writes to say:

I remember going to Niko Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize party in the Oxford University Zoology Department many years ago. I believe he shared the prize with a couple of other guys – and it was the Nobel for Medicine, of all things.

Of course Tinbergen and the his co-laureates were all animal behaviorists, and there was an undercurrent at the party that found the committee’s decision rather strange to say the least. Also, I seem to remember being told at the party that his brother had got the Nobel for economics. However, I could never really understand what Niko Tinbergen had done to get the prize.

One thing that was significant was that he was very handy with a movie camera, and I think that had a lot to do with his success. There was not much scientific content that consisted of moving pictures in those days, and he was able to vigorously market himself as a result. If my addled brain serves me right, I also think that Tinbergen did the movies of the Peppered Moths for Bernard Kettlewell.

Unfortunately, I still can’t make out what this red dot stuff means. The only conclusion I can draw is that Herring Gull chicks never ate until they had something red to peck at.

The Peppered Moth? Oh, you mean The Peppered Myth.

Basically, gentle readers, if you took Biology 101, with 600 other people and sat in a lecture room listening to someone drone about either the peppered myth or the herring gull chick, I suggest you take the following approach to what you learned:

The story is not important for its truth status. It is important for the moral lesson it is supposed to teach. In other words, it has the same basic value as Cinderella and Snow White. The basic message of Cinderella is “Being nice pays off.” The basic message of Snow White is “Most people mean well, but some people really are out to get you” – both are useful lessons for the workplace, I would say.

Now, what is the basic lesson of some of these evolution tales? That change in life forms over time happens without design? And what if – unlike the basic lessons of the fairy tales – that is simply incorrect?

Also just up at The Post-Darwinist:

The “little lady of Flores” files – something I want to write down before I forget

New intelligent design book

Remembering The Privileged Planet

Faith in mindless matter and energy

Podcasts in the intelligent design controversy – also, April 1 warning …

A reader write from an island in the Mediterranean to ask …

A friend’s note about Niko Tinbergen and the herring gull chicks – who was gulled, exactly?

Why newspapers are dying?

From the “More Stuff We Know That Ain’t So” files: Nobelist Tinbergen

Excerpts from Ezra Levant’s Shakedown

(Note: I am having a bit of a problem with the template at Post-Darwinist. You can read all these stories just fine but the main page does not display correctly, and I do not know why.)

This thread seems to either have been blocked or nobody has any interest anymore - but it would be interesting to hear what Denyse has to say about comments 1-4. JTaylor
The peppered myth? You mean the peppered fraud. Cracks me up still the lengths evolanders will go to to "prove" their theory. Cheap plug: For anybody who wants to watch the recent evolutionism versus creation science debate in Yukon OK, see Evolutionism versus Creation Science debate. William Wallace
Hello all. I’m missing something. The researchers described in the Whitfield article reported the following: - Tinbergen ran his original 1947 study and obtained results he didn’t expect: herring-gull chicks pecked at a black spot more often than a red spot. - He found a likely methodological flaw in his study: because he had presented the red spot much more often than white, black, blue and yellow spots, the chicks may have habituated to the red spot, accounting for the anomalous finding. - He tested this hypothesis (that habituation had skewed his original results) in a 1949 study by presenting red and black spots with equal frequency (controlling for the habituation factor), and found that the chicks indeed preferred the red spot under that condition. - What Tinbergen should have done at this point was re-run his original full study, presenting red, white, black, blue and yellow spots with equal frequency to test this hypothesis. He didn’t. Instead he applied a correction to his original study, based upon the more limited red/black spot comparison. - He initially included mention of the correction in his reports of his results. That detail dropped out, and the original study was described somewhat inaccurately in his later books. That was his primary “offense.” - Ten Cate and his colleagues re-ran the original study, including the original methodological flaw, and obtained the same results as Tinbergen: The chicks pecked the black spots more often. - They then ran the study Tinbergen should have run, but never did: the full study with all colors presented with equal frequency. They found that Tinbergen’s hunch, based upon his more limited red/black study, was correct: chicks innately preferred the red spot once habituation had been properly controlled for. What I therefore don’t get is how Tinbergen’s original findings have “turned to ashes.” Ten Cate et. al. found that herring chicks do indeed arrive in the world with an innate preference for a red spot - a revolutionary finding in Tinbergen’s day that, methodological and reportorial problems notwithstanding, has now been empirically reconfirmed in this new study. I agree that such events in the history of science should be presented to students warts and all, as it is simultaneously instructive regarding the innate behavior of these birds, the foibles and pitfalls that await even well-intentioned scientific research (which is not all that easy to do well), the importance of replication in science, and the strides taken in experimental design and statistical analysis since Tingerben’s day. Some incorrect findings do stagger on zombie-like in the literature and in textbooks, and everyone wins when they are tracked down and corrected. In this instance, however, Tinbergen’s essential conclusion has been proven correct, so isn’t a good example of these zombie findings. Diffaxial
O'Leary, you should really stop maligning Nikolaas Tinbergen. He was an exceptional human being and unlike many Darwinists of his day, he never endorsed eugenics or genocide. He was actually a WWII POW. He himself admitted that the Nobel was unorthodox, but if you want to see how he thought his research might be applied to "physiology or medicine" (the category in which the prize was awarded) you should read his Nobel lecture. AmerikanInKananaskis
Thanks madsen. I think this is the same as the second version with added links (but without any correction). Seriously, I don't know what Denyse is attempting to show by these repeated posts, except that (as she puts it above) "The story is not important for its truth status." If "the story" refers the post itself -- no kidding. David Kellogg
I suggest that any further posts on this topic include this quote from the paper that O'Leary referenced. Just so it's clear to what extent the "discovery has turned to ashes". (Credit to David Kellogg for posting it in the previous two herring gull threads).
Ten Cate and his colleagues redid Tinbergen’s original experiment and got the same result — black was more attractive than red. They also did the experiment he never did, presenting each colour equally often, and found that Tinbergen’s intuition had been correct after all — the birds tended to peck more often at red spots. The work is published in Animal Behaviour.

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