Saturday, January 31, 2015

Basic versus applied and "The Horse's Manifesto"

The distinction between basic and applied science is worth considering here. What we are doing is basic science, which means looking for understanding without regard for how useful it might be.

It is not that we are indifferent to the potential application of what we figure out and that is a common misconception about basic science. It is just that the focus has to be on what can in fact be understood, because that is a hard question in itself.

Science is based on the fact that there are cases where simple rules can explain complex behavior. This is true for physics, chemistry, biology and behavior, and all the varied sciences. Thus the first challenge in doing science is to identify specific cases where important rules can actually be discovered. The art of science is to identify important answerable questions.

But there is often an overlap between important basic science and importantly useful applied science. To make this point in our case of critter cognition, consider three elegant essays called "The Horse's Manifesto" by Lauren Fraser.

Fraser is the Chair of the Horse Division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. The focus of IAABC and its member consultants is the scientific treatment of behavioral problems, many of which are cognitive in nature.

The connection between IAABC's applied cognitive science and our basic cognitive science can be seen in the fact that Fraser's three essays touch on many of the topics we have been exploring. She talks about the three "F"s of Friends, Forage and Freedom, while we talk about herd decision making, grazing, play, movement, etc. In some cases even the details overlap, such as with what we call grazing in motion, which she also discusses.

Here is the difference. Fraser points out that these behaviors are deeply based on instincts, such that interfering with these instincts can lead to common behavioral problems. This is applied science. What we are trying to do is figure out how to understand these instincts much more clearly than can presently be done. This is basic science. Everyone talks about instincts but how do we describe one scientifically? Hopefully if we are successful the results will flow into the applied arena, to help solve the kind of behavioral problems that Fraser describes, even though that is not our primary concern. This is how basic science feeds applied science.

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