Monday, September 22, 2003

The capuchin monkeys in France spin mainly on the 'lance

These three URLs purport to be about the same story: (Newsday) (Nature) (AFP)

The Newsday version appears fine. It addresses the experiment in detail, and finishes with a vox pop zinger – an economist casually wondering whether the rules of his discipline might have to be rewritten.

The AFP story (run verbatim on the ABC website) is the most egregiously misreported (so perhaps providing the growing band of Francophobes with some more handy ammunition). Not only does AFP completely omit the gender angle, their report ends with a para of editorial insinuation that goes beyond the premise of the experiment it ostensibly reports:

The pleasure of reward and anger at unfair treatment are known factors behind the [sic] human social hierarchy and cooperation. The researchers added that this evidence suggests the same may be true among non-human primates.

Running second to AFP in the misreporting stakes is the Nature blurb – a surprising fact given that Nature magazine is the forum where the story proper was premiered. While the scientific detail is mostly okay, the story goes off on an incredible tangent as a consequence of its not setting-up the basic capuchin monkey living unit, of one male and a five female harem. As a result, we get this ridiculous vox pop (voiced by a competing primatologist, who had nothing to do with the experiment):

Only female monkeys show this pique, the researchers found. Males were much less sensitive to inequality. Their minds may have been on other things, says Janson: "Males care about sex, and females care about food. The males might not consider the food differences worth worrying about."

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