Even the most impressively intelligent humans, left to their own devices, have wishes and dreams and the biases that come with them. There are things they want, with a passion, to be true, and things they cannot imagine are not true. The careful thinking and systematic experimentation that are at the heart of scientific psychology are necessary antidotes.
That is the premise of The Horse That Won’t Go Away: Clever Hans, Facilitated Communication, and the Need for Clear Thinking, a brief, entertaining, instructive, and at times shocking book by three psychology professors, Thomas E. Heinzen, Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Susan A. Nolan.
The first chapter after the introduction begins with a potentially charming story of one of the most renowned horses in history, Clever Hans. The horse’s owner, retired math teacher Wilhelm von Osten, believed he could teach Hans to think. So in the early 1900s, he worked intensively with his horse in the courtyard of his apartment building in Berlin, Germany.
Von Osten trained Hans to answer questions by tapping a hoof. For example, if von Osten asked Hans, “What is 28 divided by 7?,” Hans could show that he knew by tapping four times. Von Osten kept Hans hungry and offered him a treat every time he got an answer right.
Once word of the thinking horse spread, all sorts of people came to see him perform, including a military general and a highly respected scientist. Some started out as skeptics. But once they saw Clever Hans solve mathematical equations, count the number of people in the audience wearing straw hats, demonstrate musical acumen, and much more, they were won over.
Hans soon became the pre-internet version of a viral sensation. His image was everywhere and he was celebrated in songs. But the Clever Hans bubble of fame was ultimately punctured by controlled experimentation.
Hans could only answer questions correctly when his questioners knew the answers to the questions they were posing and when Hans could see the questioners. It turned out that von Osten and all of the other people who had tested Hans were unwittingly signaling the correct answers to the horse.
For example, they might bend over as they stared intently at Hans’s hoof as the tapping progressed, and then very subtly straighten a bit when Hans got to the correct number of taps. None of this was intentional trickery: it was just subtle, nonconscious, nonverbal communication.
So what if a bunch of people got fooled by a horse? The Horse That Won’t Go Away turns more serious in the next chapter, on facilitated communication. There the authors tell the story of a time, just a few decades ago, when professionals, laypersons, and the popular media all came to believe that autistic people who otherwise had trouble communicating in the traditional sense were highly intelligent and simply had no way of showing it until facilitated communication came along. In the technique, the autistic person sits in front of a keyboard or letter pad while an adult “facilitator” holds the person’s arm as it approaches the letters. As the authors explain, “The facilitator doesn’t do any of the ‘typing,’ acting only as a steadying influence on the autistic person’s upper limb movements so he can become, in effect, a one-fingered typist.”
Using facilitated communication, autistic people who had been mute for years began to type heartfelt messages of love to their parents. They also demonstrated intellectual and literary skills by solving problems and composing lengthy poems. Facilitated communication became a sensation, taught in schools and institutes and touted breathlessly in the media.
Then the phenomenon took a dark turn: some of the children accused their parents of sexual abuse. No evidence was found for those accusations, other than what the children had typed with the support of their facilitators. But children were removed from their homes and parents were jailed. Once again, systematic studies showed the same thing that the rigorous research on Clever Hans had demonstrated: the facilitators were subtly shaping the children’s behavior. In 183 carefully controlled trials (in which, for example, only the child and not the facilitator could see the picture the child was asked to describe), the autistic children never answered correctly.
Some of the most stunning stories in the book depict highly respected professionals, including an esteemed research psychologist and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, who continued to believe in facilitated communication. They all had something in common — children of their own who were autistic.
How could this happen? How could so many people — including so many brilliant and accomplished people — be so thoroughly fooled for so long? The authors’ many thoughtful perspectives on this puzzle, most of them culled from scholarly research in psychology, are among the most important contributions in the book.
In addition to discussing Clever Hans and facilitated communication in depth, the authors also review other phenomena in which vast numbers of people believed in something — not because it was scientifically validated, but because they so wished and expected it to be true. Examples include elephants who can paint, dogs who can sniff drugs and bombs, a dog who was a math genius, the D.A.R.E. and Scared Straight programs, the videos insisting that Your Baby Can Read, and the wildly trumped-up fears of child abduction.
This is a fascinating read, but I do have one beef with it. The authors repeatedly underscore von Osten’s supposedly pitiful status as a single man, a so-called “bachelor with few friends.” They quote another scholar who describes von Osten as “unmarried and entirely alone…and his Hans was almost his sole companion.” (Never mind that people from around the world had traveled to see him and his horse.) We are told that “Clever Hans was to be the crowning achievement of his life” but that he “died in gloom and solitude.”
In a book in which the authors underscore the need for clear thinking, and repeatedly caution readers against believing things simply because they want or expect them to be true, they nonetheless perpetuate the tired old stereotypes of single people as sad and lonely. And are they really suggesting, as it sometimes seemed, that if von Osten hadn’t been single, maybe he would not have clung so stubbornly to his belief in the brilliance of his horse?
With that exception, though, The Horse That Won’t Go Away is a wonderful book. I hope it is assigned to thousands of students, and also picked up by many intellectually curious people who are not in school.
The Horse That Won’t Go Away: Clever Hans, Facilitated Communication, and the Need for Clear Thinking
Worth Publishers, December 2014
Paperback, 144 pages