Skeptical Burst #1 – Lukas, the smartest horse in the world.

We are animals. Human beings are primates, and share ancestors with every living thing on this planet, and our closest ancestors with chimps. We have ascended to the heights of intellect and endeavour for a myriad of reasons, and this has allowed us to take advantage of previously unforseen opportunities on this planet. I’m simply saying that we are the nerds of the animal kingdom.

We are the only animals (that we can so far tell) that have the mental capacity to truly examine and attempt to understand the outside world, and a big part of this outside world just so happens to be other animals.

We are fascinated by “lower” (I use this in an intellectual context, not evolutionary) species of animal exhibiting higher level, or even human-like intellect. When we see a chimp on a game show reacting to magic as a naive human would, we are blown away.  When a bird figures out to use a tool to obtain food, we think “No way! only chimps and humans do that.” And when we see horses that are able to spell, count, discern shapes and the like, we are dumbfounded…or are we?

I stumbled upon Lukas “the smartest horse in the world” through via the huffington post. There was an article with an accompanying embedded video that lauded this horse as the rainman of the equine world. Apparently he can spell his name, discern shapes, and unserstand “absentness” which is a fancy word for the fact he can apparently understand when something is gone.

Now for all of you out there who would rush to watch the videos and forward them to all your friends and family touting this horse as the greatest thing since Clever Hans…oh, wait, you don’t know who Clever Hans was, or what the “Clever Hans effect” is? Well, funny you should ask. Clever Hans was a horse whose owner touted him as a genius animal. The horse could apparently count and do simple arithmetic, and was put on tour. The world was shocked and inspired by such an intelligent animal. However, this was not to last.

It was later discovered that the horse was given very subtle yet powerful facial cues (unknowingly) by his owner. If Hans was asked to add 6+4, the horse would pound out with his hoof: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and on the 10th beat, the owner would slightly change his facial expression, queing the horse to stop clopping. It is kind of a sad story, and very reminiscent of the old looney toons episode with the man who finds the dancing/singing frog that will only perform for him. Needless to say, Hans was exposed for what he was. He was a clever horse, but not in the specific way in which he was touted.

This brings us back to Lukas. This new horse phenom immediately reminded me of the Clever Hans debachle. I have to admit, I was slightly biased from the get-go and scoffed at the claims. But I had to see it for myself, and be a good skeptic. I began to watch the video of Lukas and his supposed tricks with a harsh and biased eye. I shouldn’t have, but it was almost necessary in order to truly sniff out the truth behind “Clever Lukas.”

Immediately upon viewing the video the red flags started to pop up. As I began watching it, I immediately noticed the angle at which the camera is placed once the “feat” is being performed. It is impossible to see the trainer’s face, body posture or body language. This was very fishy to me, until they changed the camera angle. I thought, “Okay, here we go, a better angle, less fishy, more honest.” Or so it seemed.

As they change the camera angle to the right side of the trainer you can clearly see she is using the left hand to feed Lukas his treats. It is difficult to see her feeding arm due to the angle, also, we still can not see her face. Worse yet, she has not changed the order of the letters in the horse’s name on the table. Perhaps it is amazing that a horse can remember the order of 5 dispersed tiles, but for it to be presented as novel behaviour each time is deceptive. And the worst is yet to come…

When you can see her as she feeds the horse, watch her hand. As she feeds the horse and he moves to the next letter, you can CLEARLY see her hand gently pushing his face in the correct direction. This is most obvious when she feeds and pushes Lukas in the direction of the camera. Watch her fingers curl as she sweeps to the right and the horse proceeds to choose the correct letter in that direction.

I am not saying that the trainer is deliberately deceiving the public, but right off the bat it looks as though she has fallen into the Clever Hans trap. The easy way to correct this is to get an impartial participant involved. If Lukas can do this without the trainer present, then the validity of the claims have more solid ground to stand on.

Knowingly or not, she seems to be subtly guiding the horse to the correct answer, which is unchanged, and moreover Lukas seems to not even be looking at the tiles before he chooses them! Granted, I am not an expert on equine vision, but it does look that way (puns rock).

Now I have only watched the first video, and perhaps this has been debunked or proven already and with much better aptitude, but I plan to watch all 7 parts on youtube and use my skeptical know-how to dissect and explain (or rejoice in the validity of! *maybe!?) the videos describing the world’s smartest horse.

There is something to be said for smart, clever and extraordinary animals, in that they fascinate us, and teach us more about the world and ourselves. But there is more to be said for the falability of the human mind, and the ease with which it is deceived. I hope this series helps you make a more informed decision on what is truly happening in this specific example, but also I hope it helps you think a little more critically from now on. The world is sorely lacking in that department.



~ by humanmoves on April 15, 2010.

One Response to “Skeptical Burst #1 – Lukas, the smartest horse in the world.”

  1. Hi there,
    Thank you for your interest in Lukas, I’ve considered your comments. It has been suggested that Lukas is responding to subtle cues and that he follows a pattern of some sort. Since this video was made Lukas has been filmed from many different angles (you might enjoy the Inside Edition clip). Also, we’ve been to many events (Lukas performs to benefit non-profits as he was a rescue – he is not used for personal gain by the way) – I ask bystanders to arrange Lukas’ items on his desk and tell me their picks. As best I can I keep my palm flat and centered for the treats (depends on how fast we both are) – discrimination tasks require a reward following each successful effort. As for any pattern, I change it up with every trial – I can’t even remember what I asked him previously, it would actually be more amazing if he were able to recall previous patterns, particularly considering all of his tasks.
    In addition, his most recent learning has to do with absentness – this is an advanced concept that was previously thoght to exist only in primates and certain parrots. It may help you to know that for this task Lukas realizes when his different item (one of his shapes) is missing from a group of identical round pipe covers.
    As far as Lukas performing for others in my absence, a good suggestion but he has no interest whatsoever in anyone else, and doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of others. The real message as far as this goes, in my opinion, is that animals can and do have emotions and develop a deep attachment to good friends. My only hope is that Lukas generates a broader perspective and creates some new possibilites and kinder practices.
    Karen Murdock

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