Clever Hans


You may have heard of the story of the real “Clever Hans” escapade, after which the Hans above has been cleverly patterned.  The original faux equine genius had something special going for him.  A horse with the apparent aptitude to do math problems, his owner was feeding him a steady diet of visual cues being processed either consciously or subconsciously, depending on how you look at it.

A horse is a horse of course of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course, that is of course unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed (who’ll give you the answer that you endorse).

At the 14:00 minute mark of the pilot episode, Wilbur is trying to convince his skeptical wife that their horse can really carry on a conversation.  He coaxes her over to the barn where Ed, of course, gives her the silent treatment.  Carol storms out leaving Wilbur steamed, and when he confronts the horse about why he didn’t talk to his wife, Ed cleverly responds: “I hate skeptics”.

Wilbur:  Then why did you talk to me?

Ed: ‘Cause I like you.

Wilbur: That is fantastic … but I just don’t understand it!

Ed (wryly): Don’t try to.  It’s bigger than both of us.

As demonstrated in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, projecting intelligence to another agent may not be limited to horse trainers, but may underlie a wide range of social phenomena.  They explore this through the checkered history of facilitated communication (FC), a popular but controversial technique in which communication-impaired clients are helped at keyboards by facilitators who brace the clients’ hands while they type.  Despite a growing consensus that FC is a questionable practice, its proponents sometimes referring to it as augmented communication in an age when iPads are replacing keyboard, its advocates insist that it has merit.

FC

The baggage associated with FC is reviewed in great detail in the new book I’ve been blogging about, In A Different Key: The Story of Autism, by Donvan & Zucker.  While that controversy has been well documented, a more surprising controversy revolves around another Clever Hans — Hans Asperger.  There is nearly universal acclaim that Asperger pioneered in the identification and treatment of ASD in Germany in the early 1940s, around the same time that Leo Kanner was doing groundbreaking work in the United States.  But was Asperger’s motivation for separating out high functioning boys from their low functioning counterparts altruistic, or did he have an ulterior motive?  Donvan & Zucker cite an article by a well known autism researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen that will blow you away.

UPDATE 01/20/16: Nice review of In A Different Key  by Jerome Groopman in today’s NY Times Book Review section.

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