The moos you can moo

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Geoff Pullum, always forthright, looks at some typical journalistic anthropomorphisms about animal communication and calls them "lies" ("Now it's cows that use names (sigh)", LLOG 12/20/2014):

The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it's far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.

I was curious about the background of this case, which as Geoff notes is a particular instance of a generic class of untruths, so I looked into it a bit more closely.

What bothered Geoff was an article without authorship attribution in an Australian (?) publication called the Full-Time Whistle, "Breaking moos: Researchers have deciphered the noises that cows make". There's a a picture caption asserting that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names"; and the article text itself tells us that "Cows have distinctive voices and communicate with each other using calls that are individualised in a similar way to human names, scientists have discovered."

This article — including the caption — apparently came from a newswire source, and also appeared in more prominent publications such as The Week, where it was published as a "one-minute read" under the headline "Scientists decipher the meaning of a cow's moo". And in one form or another, the story has appeared in hundreds of other publications.

I would be very surprised to learn that anyone involved in any of those stories actually read the scientific publication in question. Rather, the media coverage was probably based entirely on the press release,"Do you speak cow? Researchers listen in on ‘conversations’ between calves and their mothers", about which more later. But the science behind the press release behind the journalism was reported in Mónica Padilla de la Torre,  Elodie F. Briefer, 1, Tom Reader, & Alan G. McElligott, "Acoustic analysis of cattle (Bos taurus) mother–offspring contact calls from a source–filter theory perspective", Applied Animal Behaviour Science, available online 12/8/2014.

The fact that cow and calf vocalizations can be used to identify individual animals was already known and is entirely expected, as that original scientific article makes clear.  It would have been big scientific news if this had not been true, since individually-identifiable vocalizations are the rule among higher animals, not the exception. Individually-identifiable vocalizations have been documented in penguins, wolves, baboons, dolphins, and goats, among many other species. And this is not an accident, as Elizabeth Tibbetts and James Dale explain in "Individual recognition: It is good to be different", Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2007:

Individual recognition (IR) behavior has been widely studied, uncovering spectacular recognition abilities across a range of taxa and modalities. Most studies of IR focus on the recognizer (receiver). These studies typically explore whether a species is capable of IR, the cues that are used for recognition and the specializations that receivers use to facilitate recognition. However, relatively little research has explored the other half of the communication equation: the individual being recognized (signaler). Provided there is a benefit to being accurately identified, signalers are expected to actively broadcast their identity with distinctive cues. Considering the prevalence of IR, there are probably widespread benefits associated with distinctiveness. As a result, selection for traits that reveal individual identity might represent an important and underappreciated selective force contributing to the evolution and maintenance of genetic polymorphisms.

In the particular study under discussion, the scientists collected vocalizations from cows and calves in two Nottinghamshire pastures, and found via acoustic analysis that the cows produced two types of calf-directed calls, one "low-frequency call" made with the mouth closed (or nearly so) when the calf was nearby, and another "high-frequency call" made with the mouth opened (for at least part of the call) when the calf was not in sight. And they also found that these two types of calls, as well as the calls that the calves made in response, were indeed "individually distinctive", as expected.

The idea that these "individualised calls" are equivalent to human names is obvious nonsense, as Geoff observed. The fact that we can recognize people from their voices (or from their faces, or their smells, or their gaits) is not at all the same thing as the fact that we sometimes refer to them (even in their absence) by a name. It's likely that every species of bird and mammal (and maybe some reptiles) can recognize the vocalizations of individual conspecifics. But humans are arguably the only species that has anything like "names", that is, arbitrary symbols that are used to address or refer to individuals by others. (It has been suggested that certain species of dolphins might use imitations of "signature whistles" in a name-like fashion, but the evidence for this seem weak at best.)

In the current cow case, the word name does not appear in the underlying scientific article. Nor, somewhat to my surprise, does the word name appear in the press release.

This somewhat surprised me because media nonsense about science and technology is often copied directly from press releases, as documented for example in "Flacks and hacks and Hitchens", 12/14/2006; "Flacks and hacks and brainscans", 11/23/2007; "Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry", 4/22/2009; "Study: hacks often bamboozled by flacks", 5/30/2009. Or most recently in Petroc Sumner et al., "The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study", BMJ 2014:

Objective To identify the source (press releases or news) of distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions drawn from research that could potentially influence a reader’s health related behaviour.  

Design Retrospective quantitative content analysis.  

Sample Press releases (n=462) on biomedical and health related science issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories (n=668).  

Results 40% (95% confidence interval 33% to 46%) of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% (26% to 40%) contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% (28% to 46%) contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58% (95% confidence interval 48% to 68%), 81% (70% to 93%), and 86% (77% to 95%) of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17% (10% to 24%), 18% (9% to 27%), and 10% (0% to 19%) in news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Odds ratios for each category of analysis were 6.5 (95% confidence interval 3.5 to 12), 20 (7.6 to 51), and 56 (15 to 211). 

In the cow-naming case, the media coverage contains no "conclusions that could potentially influence a reader's health related behavior", but there certainly are "distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions".

The main contribution of the press release to these distortions and exaggerations is in its headline ("Do you speak cow? Researchers listen in on ‘conversations’ between calves and their mothers"), which anthropomorphizes the research by framing it as a study of conversations in the language of cows, rather than using the scientific study's terminology of "cattle vocalizations" and "contact calls".

The BBC News report played it pretty straight, ending with this piece of rural common sense:

Farmer James Bourne, who has been around cows since the 1950s, said the research supports what he has always noticed himself.  

"A calf certainly knows its mother from other cows, and when a calf blarts the mother knows it's her calf," said Mr Bourne, who is a farmer in Lincolnshire.  

"If they are not distressed and they are calm they will moo fairly low to the calf, almost talking to their calf.  

"If they are distressed, in other words they have lost their calf or are separated from their calf, it's a much higher pitched moo.  

"She starts bleating louder and louder because she's distressed because he's away from her."

But many other publications went beyond the press release, to take up the "identifiable blart = name" meme. Thus  The Telegraph, which tells us that "Cows communicate using individual sounds like human names: Scientists believe that they have discovered the meaning behind a 'moo' and cows speak to each other using individual 'names'". Or The Daily Mail, which tells us that "Cows and their calves communicate using calls that are individualised in a similar way to human names".  Or The Week, whose lead sentence is "Cows have distinctive voices and communicate with each other using calls that are individualised in a similar way to human names, scientists have discovered."

My personal favorite is the New Zealand news outlet whose lead sentence for this story is "The countryside could be getting noisier with more and more dairy cows calling out each other's names."

This is clearly nonsense, but I think it's unfair of Geoff to call it lying.For the concept of lying to apply, the situation would have to be one where the writers accept that they are supposed to be saying things that accurately depict the state of affairs in the world. But it's clear from their behavior that many people writing for mass media, especially in writing about science, see their role in other terms.

It's true that many readers still think that The Telegraph (say) is in some ways essentially different from The Onion, but it takes two to establish communicative norms, and the world is full of people who swallow Telegraph and Clickhole stories with equal avidity. I mean, have you read about the words added by the Oxford Dictionary in 2014? Zogmoriffic!




  1. Vicki said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    I'd say it's lying if they know or believe that what they're saying isn't true, and expect or want the listener to believe them. So a parent telling a three-year-old that Christmas presents come from Santa Claus is different from an adult telling someone "look what Santa brought me this year."

    Some liars take advantage of the fact that story-telling is an accepted and important thing: but the hearers generally understand and care about the difference between a novel or fairy tale, on one hand, and a lie about what happened to the money in the joint bank account or where they were last night.

    The Onion is honest about making its stories up. The staff of many other newspapers would be unhappy if people looked at the sort of "scientific" twaddle they publish and started referring to all their stories as being from "the noted satirical publication X" and telling their friends "you can't expect me to believe anything published there."

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

    So I was once swimming in the Vltava river and was joined by a duck with a large bunch of ducklings (about 10, as I recall). She seemed indifferent to my presence so I was able to stay fairly near her and watch what she was doing.

    What she was doing appeared to be keeping a close eye on her ducklings, and reining them in when they drifted too far astray. Every now and then she would give a loud quack, and on each occasion one duckling, which had fallen back a fair bit further than the rest or scrabbled up onto the bank, would then hurry to catch up. The others didn't respond. (But to be clear, the straggler was generally a different duckling on each occasion.)

    My immediate assumption, as a non-scientist, was that there were two possibilities here. Either there's one quack that essentially means 'Catch up!' – in which case each duckling must have a sense of how far adrift it is (and only one duckling responding each time was probably just chance or inaccurate observation); or ducks have names (though of course I couldn't hear any quacoustic difference).

    So is my conclusion (2) a silly inference? Is there a clear conceptual difference between a call that alerts only one individual from a group of con-specifics, and a name?

    Not that I'm claiming my paddle constituted an experiment, of course – or that my conclusions really are the only two possibilities! But in principle, is there a distinction here that I'm missing?

    [(myl) The "Hey there, catch up!" (or just "Hey there!") theory sounds pretty plausible, along with a bit of Duckling-Gricean (quaxim of relevance) reasoning.]

  3. Sili said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    "blart" is new to me.

  4. Theodore said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    Like @Sili, I have never heard "blart" as a bovine onomatopoeia. (Maybe in my rhotic accent it's just not appropriate?).

    I have only heard "Blart" as the mall cop in the eponymous film which I did not see.

    [(myl) I've never seen it either. But the OED has

    blart v. 1. Of sheep and cattle: to bleat, low, bellow.
    2. Of a child, etc.: to cry, whimper, howl. Also quasi-trans.


  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    Even if we grant the silly notion that individually recognizable voices are equivalent to names, that still only gets us to cows uttering their own names, like Hodor in Game of Thrones. The leap from there to cows addressing each other by name is entirely imaginary.

  6. Ginger Yellow said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    For the concept of lying to apply, the situation would have to be one where the writers accept that they are supposed to be saying things that accurately depict the state of affairs in the world. But it's clear from their behavior that many people writing for mass media, especially in writing about science, see their role in other terms.

    Sounds like the classic definition of bullshit: reckless disregard for the truth.

  7. Rubrick said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    "So I was once swimming in the Vltava river and was joined by a duck" is a contender for "Best Opening of a Language Log Comment".

    "Blart" was new to me too, which is interesting, since I've been using "blart" as a pure nonsense word (e.g. naming my wifi network "Blartnet"), based on an inside joke, for decades.

  8. RP said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 4:20 pm


    "Is there a clear conceptual difference between a call that alerts only one individual from a group of con-specifics, and a name?"

    This is a different situation from the one described in the article (which the original post discussed): that was a matter of each cow making a distinctive noise, whereas you are proposing that a duck might have a way of calling out to a specific other duck – but I still don't think this would constitute a name. I'm no expert, but if I had somehow reached a situation where if I whistled in a particular way, one individual felt I was summoning them, whilst if I whistled in a different way someone else responded, there is no way I would consider those two whistles to constitute names for the individuals concerned.

  9. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    … along with a bit of Duckling-Gricean (quaxim of relevance) reasoning.]

    Mark's quaxim is brilliant!

  10. AB said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

    Even that doesn't work, because Hodor isn't really saying his name except in the sense that my dog would be if I christened it "Woof".

  11. Matt said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

    It's especially irritating because of course it was newspapers who helped popularize the Larson Hypothesis regarding communication in large mammals, which certainly seems more parsimonious here than talk of cow names. (I mean, tools, yes. But names?)

  12. Rebecca said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

    Pflaumbaum's story of duckling discipline was excellent. My only disappointment was that the ducklings who were in-line did not respond at all to their mother's loud quack at their errant sibling. Had they been observed to slyly smirk, it would have been perfect.

  13. Whistle said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    @Pflaumbaum, @RP

    Actually my father does/did that. When he felt that I or my brother had wandered too far or otherwise wanted to catch our attention, he'd do a two-finger whistle. It worked as a call for me and my brother, while other people would soon figure out they didn't know the whistler and ignored the call. This must then mean that the calves have two names depending on their distance to their mothers, while I and my brother share (at least the high-pitched) name..

  14. Breffni said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 6:41 am

    Pflaumbaum: "Is there a clear conceptual difference between a call that alerts only one individual from a group of con-specifics, and a name?"

    That's an interesting question. I'd guess that the most common human use of names is not interactional – to summon their bearers, or to address them (which are themselves two different things) – but referential: to talk about name-bearers in their absence (or as though in their absence). So a hypothetical animal call that consistently attracted the attention of just one individual would share that one function of human names. I suppose if you believed that in humans the summoning function emerged first phylogenetically, then you could say that individualised animal calls are like human proto-names. Then the question arises whether this limited similarity of function is one of analogy or homology, and we might answer that differently depending on whether we're talking about cows or chimps. For me the bottom line is that there's enough empirical difference between your hypothetical animal calls and human name-use to keep them terminologically separate.

  15. Sili said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 10:03 am

    This seems vaguely relevant, if only for the synchronicity.

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    "Hey! You in the red hat!" is a call that alerts a specific individual, but it's not a name.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 22, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

    @ Breffni and Gregory. –

    Excellent points, thanks.

  18. SRP said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    In the dialect of my youth (in Stoke-on-Trent, England) 'to blart' meant 'to cry', as in; 'Stop crying you mard arse'.

  19. SRP said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    Damn. You know what I mean.

  20. Jim Scobbie said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 7:29 am

    Readers, I am picking up on some of the discussion above.

    Is there any work on the fact that some people seem to have a vocative naming habit? I don't know what the users in English of personal names in a vocative way have in common, because in anecdotal experience, they are a mixed bunch. I find it personally slightly unsettling to be addressed by my name, by the way. People even do it when writing (e.g. in FB) where the software makes it clear who is being addressed and by whom.
    I don't think *anyone* uses their own name orally to identify the speaker, but some certainly feel it comfortable to use the addressee's name even 1-to-1.

    I'm pretty sure it's a different group of people to those who are regular perpetrators of "collaborative completions" discussed by John Local (chap 11 in A Figure of Speech: A Festschrift for John Laver edited by William J. Hardcastle, Janet Mackenzie Beck, referring back to work by Sacks and Lerner).

    These two discourse behaviours seem to me like subconscious linguistic processes making it out onto the lips of the speaker, and I'd love someone to put the enormous effort into an experimental study of unmonitored use. Meantime I'd be happy to know say if there is sociodialectal or psychological distribution of either type.


  21. richardelguru said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    The word 'Blart' rather sounds as though it came from the other end…

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    Robyn Davis (of Australian camel trek fame) used it in that sense.

  23. Chris Brew said,

    December 25, 2014 @ 6:34 am

    My son, Jamie Brew, is a moving spirit for Clickhole, and will be totally delighted to be equated with the Telegraph.



    both of which he wrote for The Onion. Scientific education has many uses.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 26, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    Pflaumbaum: I know nothing about the Vltava avifauna, but female mallards have an "Assembly Call" that causes their ducklings to approach them. In a few minutes of searching, I couldn't find out what ducklings do if they're already near their mother when she gives this call. (However, there's a lot of research on how the ducklings learn to respond to this call.)

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