Dolphin Snake Oil

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Discussion by: SoundGuyLuke

In June, I was delighted to read an article posted here about the language of prairie dogs, and how researchers are decoding their yelps and calls through contextual data. I was enthralled. As a fan of The Hitchiker's Guide, it occurred to me to check in on where modern science was with dolphin language. (If they give the call to evacuate, I want to hear it.) Adams gently pokes fun at the pseudoscience that infected dolphin study in the seventies; a trend I thought was long gone.

In my brief research into the topic, I found a great Ted talk featuring Dr. Denise Herzing. Her visual aids in the lecture include spectrographs and simple charts featuring visual representations of recorded dolphin sounds, with frequency displayed across the x-axis and amplitude on the y. A z-axis, time, would have been cool. Nevertheless, I recognised these charts as the tools of a competent acoustician.

 Unfortunately, any low-brow google search led me to the fine folks at the Speak Dolphin project. Their "research" is described as innovative because of the use of a "new" device called a cymascope. This device is the acoustic equivalent to observing metal filings on a piece of paper to reveal the field of the magnet underneath. Their web page makes very high claims concerning the device's ability to reveal the true nature of dolphin speak, as well as the true nature of sound. A search of the Cymascope's creator, John Suart Reid, leads only to more new age tripe and pseudoscience. Reid claims that his device shows the viewer a cross-section of an actual sound "bubble," and that sound doesn't really travel in waves, as previously thought. While a sound's directionality is dependant on its frequency, to call it "beams and bubbles" seems to be an infantile misunderstanding of wave propagation, even in a liquid medium like water. Also, I would argue that the device shows the viewer nothing, except what pretty shapes the measured sound induced onto the Cymascope's transducer.

I wouldn't be bothered by all of this bunk, but Reid is selling his device, and the SpeakDolphin people are accepting donations on their site, soliciting money from those who can't sift through the science. 

Does anyone know of any published material refuting the claims made by Reid and his marine snake oil salesmen? Or am I missing something? Am I just misunderstanding the science? I teach a university class about commercial audio, I should be kept aware of any changes made to physics.

11 COMMENTS

  1. A sound kaleidoscope? I don’t know what sort of useful information you can extract from that, if any. It seems to work best with standing waves rather than speech noise. It may be useful at visualizing and finding patterns, we’re rather good at that, visually. Or it may just be undecipherable garbage.

    It would be more interesting to study what actually makes the patterns than what the pattern represents. I would think it has a lot to do with the shape and tension of the surface, with sound and vibrations reflecting all around generating harmonics along the way. Therefore could be simulated via software, and maybe controlled and fine tuned to actually show something useful about the sound wave (which I doubt, but hey).

    I’m no specialist though, however the marketing and general feel of the field has a lot of new-age woo attached to it. Mandalas, that kind of sh*t. It’s just making pretty drug-addled pictures. Not to say that it isn’t inherently useful, but it would need a rational, sober approach.

      • In reply to #10 by SoundGuyLuke:

        In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

        Just a suggestion: if you want to present some web site, paper, or whatever and have people comment on it a specific link or at least an actual reference would be nice.

        Deepest apologies, Red Dog.

        (http://www.speakdolphin.com/home.cfm)

        (http://cymascope.com/)

        Not a big deal. I know we can all use Google but there is so much crap out there these days its nice to have a shared reference point so we know we are all talking about the same thing. That site actually looks kind of interesting, I can see why your BS detector might be in the warning zone, I had the same impression, this looks like it could be one of those cold fusion sites or something, they often look and sound very scientific but when you read the details it turns out they for example don’t believe in the laws of thermodynamics. I just read a bit from the site though and it seems legit and if it is legit it seems pretty cool. Dawkins had an article a couple months back where he talked about a similar issue with bats, that perhaps they could perceive color as part of their sonar system. Interested to hear what others think.

        Also, sorry I indirectly accused you of plagiarizing or at least of double posting, looks like it was just some site aggregating from this site.

  2. When I was doing research on communication with dolphins in 1979, one of the hypothesis that we had not the tools to explore was that dolphins could draw sound pictures, e.g. that they might desrcibe a shark be creating sounds that would be similar to that of the echos bouncing off a real shark.

    One of the most baffling experiments was listening in as one dolphin said either “yes” or “no” to another over a hydrophone. You could interrupt the communications by lowering the bandwidth. Dolphins are always playing with you. They kept trimming the length of the communication burst. As far as we could tell, the sound for “yes” and “no” was absolutely identical. We were absolutely baffled how they communicated.

  3. To moderators: FYI, this discussion topic has already been posted as an article on another site:

    Dolphin Snake Oil

    This is a paste of the first paragraph of that article, verbatim with no editing, the rest of the article is more or less identical to this topic:

    In June, I was delighted to read an article posted here about the language of prairie dogs, and how researchers are decoding their yelps and calls through contextual data. I was enthralled. As a fan of The Hitchiker’s Guide, it occurred to me to check in on where modern science was with dolphin language. (If they give the call to evacuate, I want to hear it.) Adams gently pokes fun at the pseudoscience that infected dolphin study in the seventies; a trend I thought was long gone.

    • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

      To moderators: FYI, this discussion topic has already been posted as an article on another site:

      Dolphin Snake Oil

      This is a paste of the first paragraph of that article, verbatim with no editing, the rest of the article is more or less identical to this topic:

      In June, I was delighted to read an…

      That article says it was posted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and the link Read more of the article here at its source returns one to this site. Is atheism eating itself like that ouroboros snake thing?

      • In reply to #5 by Katy Cordeth:

        That article says it was posted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and the link Read more of the article here at its source returns one to this site. Is atheism eating itself like that ouroboros snake thing?

        Looks like it was automatically pulled and copied by a news aggregator. (A few other sites do that with stuff posted here, too, both articles and discussions.)

      • In reply to #5 by Katy Cordeth:

        In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        To moderators: FYI, this discussion topic has already been posted as an article on another site:

        Dolphin Snake Oil

        This is a paste of the first paragraph of that article, verbatim with no editing, the rest of the article is more or less identical to this topic:

        In June…

        Kind of off topic but this reminds me of something that happened to me recently when editing a Wikipedia article. I was looking for new sources on a slightly obscure but awesome blues rock guitar player. I came across an article and as I started to read it I swear I was thinking “I like the way this guy writes, we agree on,…hey WTF?” The article was a copy of a Wikipedia article I wrote (at least the most recent version at that time) and it was word for word from the article. This kind of “which came first’ it turns out isn’t that unusual, it happens fairly often with Wikipedia and they even have tools you can use to verify who stole from whom — they take things like copyrights and IP seriously. But in this case there was no question who plagiarized who because I still remembered writing the words in Wikipedia that were now on someone else’s site with no attribution.

  4. In June, I was delighted to read an article posted here about the language of prairie dogs, and how researchers are decoding their yelps and calls through contextual data. I was enthralled. As a fan of The Hitchiker’s Guide, it occurred to me to check in on where modern science was with dolphin language. (If they give the call to evacuate, I want to hear it.) Adams gently pokes fun at the pseudoscience that infected dolphin study in the seventies; a trend I thought was long gone.

    A couple of youtube clips which seem appropriate:

    So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Not a great movie but a terrific opening credits scene and song, I think;

    and Alan.

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