Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fox Talk Blog Guest Post

Fox Talk by L.E. Carmichael

About the Book

Title: Fox Talk
Author: L.E. Carmichael, PhD
Book Designer: Michael Penman
Illustrator: Jody Bronson
Photography: Brian Dust
Publication Date: August 8, 2013
Publisher: Ashby-BP Publishing
Pages: 62
Recommended Age: 8+


When you talk to a dog, does the dog talk back? Many people think so. But for a long time, scientists didn't know how our furry friends learned to communicate with people. Luckily, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev had a plan. If he could tame wild red foxes, he could learn how dogs first came from wolves. By studying the way these foxes changed during domestication, the mystery of communication would be solved at a last. More than 50 years after the experiment began, Belyaev's foxes have become so tame, you can have one as a pet! Packed with eye-popping photos and first-hand research, FOX TALK reveals the story of these amazing animals... and everything they've taught us about wolves, dogs, and communication.  

~Guest post~

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

Some days, I wish I was the kind of writer that gets to make stuff up.

It would be a lot easier. If information wasn’t available, or sources conflicted, it wouldn’t actually matter. I could pick the version I liked and run with it, adding and subtracting as the story demanded.

As a nonfiction writer, though, the stories I tell have to be true. I can get creative with presentation, but the facts have to stay facts.  But what’s an author to do when the experts themselves can’t agree what IS fact?

This happened to me while I was working on Fox Talk, which is about domesticated foxes and what they’ve taught us about human-animal communication. One type of communication involves body language, specifically pointing. To understand how domestic animals gained the ability to understand pointing, scientists developed the “object-choice experiment.” The scientist hides food in one of two containers, points to the correct one, and waits for an animal to choose between them. Right answers more than 50% of the time are a sign that animals are using information from the pointing gesture to find food – in other words, communicating.

Pretty simple, right? Yeah… no. As I quickly discovered, object-choice experiments have only been around for about 10 years, and scientists are still arguing over how to do them properly, never mind what the results might actually mean. HOW should one point, for example: with the finger, or the whole arm? What’s the best way to control for the effect of training and experience? If the animal learns during repeated trials, what impact does that have on the numbers? And what if they’re using their noses instead of their brains?

As a writer, all I wanted was to describe one cool experiment Brian Hare’s team did with domestic fox puppies. Instead, I got sucked into a decade-long debate about the research that involved hundreds of pages of journal articles. And I couldn’t read the papers like a writer, looking for the “oh wow!”; I had to dust off my scientist hat and critically evaluate the validity of a dozen experiments, trying to figure out WHY they got different answers, and what that meant for domestic foxes.

I won’t lie – there was a lot of bad language involved. At one point, I caught myself throwing printouts across my office while arguing (out loud, no less) with people I’d never met who were not in fact present at the time. If I was this frustrated, I can only imagine how the actual scientists felt!

In the end though, the data convinced me – domestication really does make animals better communicators. It’s a fact.

Want to try an object-choice experiment with your pet? Check out the At-Home Experiment in Chapter 3 of Fox Talk!

Early Buzz About the Book

"Fox Talk is an educational non-fiction title exploring the domestication of dogs by studying fox behaviour and communication. The information is presented with beautiful photographs, illustrations, bubbles/boxes of brief information, and descriptions of the research findings using age-appropriate language. I think this would be an excellent resource in elementary schools or for homeschoolers in particular and I highly recommend it." ~ 5-Star Review, Mother Daughter Book Reviews


Fox Talk by L.E. Carmichael

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About The Author: L.E. Carmichael

L.E. Carmichael Author L.E. Carmichael Lindsey Carmichael never outgrew that stage of childhood when nothing's more fun than amazing your friends (and correcting your teachers!) with your stockpile of weird and wonderful facts. Her sense of wonder came in handy during her career as a scientist, and in 2006, she received the Governor General's Medal for her PhD thesis, Ecological Genetics of Northern Wolves and Arctic Foxes. Lindsey finds talking about science more fun than doing it, however, and now writes for kids, teens, and occasionally adults (a sense of wonder is essential for this, too). Lindsey publishes under the name L E Carmichael, and her work has appeared in Dig, Highlights for Children, Kiki, and Canadian Tales of the Fantastic. Her published science books cover everything from animal migration to hybrid cars. When not digging up obscure or wacky details for her next nonfiction project, Lindsey's probably working on her young adult fantasy novel.

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  1. LOL - I can totally relate to what you are saying Lindsey coming from an academic background myself. Sifting through academic papers with varying positions can really make your head hurt! I had flashbacks to grad school as I was reading your post! Thanks so much for hosting Lindsey in the Fox Talk Blog Tour Victoria.

  2. That one problem doubled the time it took to write the book!