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Does President Bush Count Like a Dog?

Last month, President Bush held a press conference. Afterwards, I had the following exchange with my friend and colleague David Easter:

David: The President counts like a dog.

Me: What do you mean?

David: He was holding a press conference, and was talking about UN resolutions, and said, not one, not two, not three, but a lot. Isn't that how dogs count?

Me: I think so.

Here's the actual quote:

Q: Thank you, sir. Perhaps the clearest, strongest message you have ever sent from any podium has been what you like to call the Bush doctrine -- that is to say, if you feed a terrorist, if you clothe a terrorist, if you harbor a terrorist, you are a terrorist. And I'd like to follow up on the Middle East. You have noted that Yasser Arafat is compromised by terror; Condi Rice has said he cavorts with terror. You've both noted that he is an obstacle to peace. He has, in political terms, choked off your last two Palestinian interlocutors. What is it that prevents you from concluding that he is, in fact, under your own definition of what a terrorist is, a terrorist, and should be dealt with in the same way that you've dealt with Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, not every action requires military action, Jim. As you noticed, for example in North Korea, we've chosen to put together a multinational strategy to deal with Mr. Kim Jong-Il. Not every action requires military action. As a matter of fact, military action is the very last resort for us. And a reminder: When you mentioned Saddam Hussein, I just wanted to remind you that the Saddam Hussein military action took place after innumerable United Nations Security Council resolutions were passed -- not one, two or three, but a lot. And so this nation is very reluctant to use military force. We try to enforce doctrine peacefully, or through alliances or multinational forums. And we will continue to do so.

So does the President count like a dog? Do dogs count, 'one, two, three, a lot,' or 'one, two, a lot'? I found the following reference from New Scientist:

Dogs can count, new work on mongrels reveals. Dogs are descended from wolves, which not only have a large neocortex -- the brain's centre of reasoning -- but live in large social groups. So their mathematical ability could, in evolutionary terms, have been useful for working out how many allies and enemies they had in a pack, the researchers think.

Animals such as birds and rodents can tell when one pile of objects is bigger than another. But to count, an animal has to recognise that each object in a set corresponds to a single number and that the last number in a sequence represents the total number of objects.

Many primates have this basic mathematical ability. But Robert Young, an animal behaviour expert at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, suspected that dogs do too.

To test the idea, Young and his colleague Rebecca West of De Montfort University in Lincoln, UK, borrowed a technique that has been used to show that five-month-old babies can count.

There's more on the subject, this from the September 2002 issue of Animal Cognition:

Do domestic dogs show any evidence of being able to count?

Abstract. Numerical competence has been demonstrated in a wide range of animal species. The level of numerical abilities shown ranges from simple relative numerousness judgements to true counting. In this study we used the preferential looking technique to test whether 11 pet dogs could count. The dogs were presented with three simple calculations: "1+1=2"; "1+1=1"; and "1+1=3". These calculations were performed by presenting the dogs with treats that were placed behind a screen that allowed manipulation of the outcome of the calculation. When the dogs expected the outcome they spent the same amount of time looking at the result of the calculation as they did on the initial presentation. However, when the result was unexpected dogs spent significantly longer looking at the outcome of the calculation. The results suggest that the dogs were anticipating the outcome of the calculations they observed, thus suggesting that dogs may have a rudimentary ability to count.

The work published in Animal Cognition suggests merely that dogs can count to three. But the work published in New Scientist suggests that dogs can count to higher numbers -- up to the approximate size of a pack, if the researchers' hunch is to be believed.

In other words, if the Animal Cognition study represents the limits of dogs' mathematical skills, then yes, the President counts like a dog. But if the New Scientist authors are correct, then the President has a ways to go before he can count like a dog. A dog wouldn't say "...not x, but a lot," until x equaled 10 or 11.


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