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Stalking the Elusive Talking Crow

 

There is a very old mathematician's and logician's paradox concerning the logical analysis of the following statement: "I'm a Talking Crow", said the talking crow. If the crow did indeed say that, then the statement is true. But if the Crow did not say that, or if the crow lied, then the logical truth or falsehood of the statement may be argued forever.

This paradox will serve as a platform for the following parable (based, with mock apologies, on TIME magazine's shabby reporting of a remarkably similar survey):

Battelle Human Affairs Research Center, Seattle: Scientific researchers at this institute, which nobody ever heard of before, interviewed 3,321 crows in an effort to determine once and for all how many of them could actually talk. The Crow, genus Corvus brachyrhynos, is widely reputed in mythology and folklore to possess the property of loquacity, though ornithologists in the "know" about such things point out that, at best, this could hardly be anything more than a mimicry of real human speech.

The study, one of the most comprehensive studies of crow speech behavior anywhere, found that only 1% of genus Corvus owned up to powers of speech. Contrary to estimates as high as 10%, only 1% of the crows actually talked to the interviewers, the other 99% of the highly scientific sampling presumably being of the other, ordinary, speechless variety of crow.

Crows willing to participate in the survey were determined to have engaged in certain controversial speech practices with a far greater frequency than other bird species studied, thus giving clues as to which crows were telling the truth, and which crows were the liars.

Critics point out that the sampling was only of American crows of age 20 to 39, in 1991. It could be that something in the nest has changed since 1991, that there are older and wiser birds excluded from the survey, that there are younger or more timid birds who were not heard from, or that some crows simply weren't saying. Similar but less comprehensive studies in other countries also suggest that the majority of the birds everywhere just are not talking.

Scientists and bird fanciers everywhere agree that little is really known about the private speech practices of crows, but measures to fund more comprehensive studies have been shot down, so to speak, by the conservative anti-crow lobby, led by expert bird spokespersons Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer. "The crows lie!", said Dannemeyer, clucking that that kind of bird is already getting more attention than he thinks it deserves.

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© Alex Forbes , La Parola May 1993

 

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