Anatomy of a misquote

by • May 10, 2013 • Book NewsComments Off3127

I have been wronged, interweb friends! After being interviewed about my upcoming book by the Sunday Times, a series of news stories appeared where it was alleged that I stated that “dolphins are dimmer than chickens” and that dolphins engage in “gang rape.” I never said such obvious nonsense. The source for this “quote” appears to be a little editorial piece that accompanied the main article in the Sunday Times. It was only a few sentences long, and I think was meant to serve as a kind of light-hearted overview of the full article. Unfortunately, it included the following problematic sentence: “Not only are dolphins dimmer than the average chicken, says Justin Gregg, a zoologist, but they are capable of gang rape and acts of violence.”

The thing is, I didn’t say any of this. In fact, I harped on the point in my interview with the Sunday Times that it is wrong to suggest that dolphins are dumb, and that my book was about elevating the intelligence of other animal species, not about suggesting that dolphins are not intelligent. I have argued on my blog and in the book that dolphins are highly intelligent animals, but that it’s generally impossible to compare intelligence between species in this manner. In any event, dolphins quite clearly display more complex behavior than chickens on the whole, so this statement is wrong no matter how you slice it.

Furthermore, I have argued quite vehemently that there is no such this as dolphin rape. In fact, if you Google ‘dolphin rape’ you will see that my blog post debunking this myth is the first thing that comes up. I receive a huge number of visitors to my blog each day coming from internet searches for the phrase ‘dolphin rape.’ (sidenote: Why are you so interested in dolphin rape interwebs? Seriously, why?) In any event, I would never suggest that dolphins engage in gang rape. That is patently false.

But the meme of ‘dolphins dumber than chickens’ spread like a virus through the interwebs, and the painstakingly argued points I raise in a scholarly book that took me years to write have now been supplanted by an asinine quote that I would never have said AND strongly disagree with. To learn about what I actually say in my book, please read my Author Q&Athis blog post where I discuss the main points of the book, or – better yet – the actual book!

UPDATE: the Sunday Times has been very kind in addressing my concerns, and will be printing a letter to the editor from me this coming Sunday (September 15th), as well as providing a correction under the editorial piece and the main article. I also submitted a letter to the Daily Mail pointing out where they also misquoted and misrepresented me – they wrote their article based on the Sunday Times article and introduced a number of creative falsehoods. Fingers crossed that this letter is printed soon.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail corrections department responded to my queries and stated that they are “happy to amend the online article and to delete the quotes which were wrongly attributed to you, including the ‘less sophisticated than chickens’ line in the penultimate paragraph.” I pointed out a number of inaccurate passages in the article that should be changed in my correspondence with them, including the headline. No changes have been made to the article yet at this time however. As an FYI, here is the letter to the editor that I sent them and that I hope they will publish in addition to the changes to the article itself:

Dear Daily Mail,

The article from September 9 titled ‘Flipper is a thug!’ contains misinformation and attributes statements to me which I never made. It is twice stated that I claim that dolphins are ‘less sophisticated than chickens.’ I never made such a claim, and this is false. It also stated that my book suggests that ‘decades of scientific research suggesting dolphins have human-like qualities is flawed.’ This is also incorrect. The book confirms that the scientific research shows that dolphins, much like primates, display a large number of human-like qualities. It is also stated that I believe that ‘we have allowed sentimental ideas about the species to cloud our judgment.’ I never made such a statement and do not believe this is a correct summary of what I discuss in my book. It should be noted that I never spoke to anyone at the Daily Mail about my book or any of these subjects. I don’t think anyone who reads the book could reach the conclusion that dolphins are dumb – but they will have a newfound respect for the intelligence of dolphins and other animals, as well as an appreciation of just how hard it is to study animal minds.

And here is the letter to the editor that will be appearing in the Sunday Times on 15 September:

In a humorous editorial (“Flipper fails on porpoise,” last week) it was suggested that I stated that dolphins are dimmer than chickens and capable of gang rape. I did not. Dolphins do not engage in rape – a myth based on a misunderstanding of dolphin socio-sexual behavior – and are not dimmer than chickens.

In my book on dolphin cognition, which was the focus of the article “Jack the Flipper kills smart dolphin myth” (News, last week) I conclude that there is good reason to believe that dolphins are intelligent. But I also point out that many other species that we often think of as unintelligent sometimes produce unexpectedly intelligent behavior as well. Animal cognition is a lot murkier and harder to interpret than most people realize, especially when trying to make cross-species comparisons.

Justin Gregg, Research Associate, Dolphin Communication Project

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