The False Hypothesis of the Pack

Hey! “Pack theory” is not a theory at all!

Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to "pack theory"

Observations of captive wolves in unnatural groupings led to “pack theory” –Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theories vs Hypotheses

One of the biggest misunderstandings between science folk and lay folk is the definition of the word, “theory,” and here we are adding to that misunderstanding.

In science, the term “theory” has a specific meaning. It is much stronger than how we use the word in casual conversation.

From the National Academy of Sciences:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.

Heliocentricity is a theory although there is virtually no question that the earth revolves around the sun. Gravity is also a theory. So is learning theory (take that, you quadrants bashers!).

Actually, the scientific meaning of a “hypothesis” is closer to what people mean when they say in everyday settings that they have a theory, although it too has some specific criteria for usage.

Also from the National Academy of Sciences:

A hypothesis is a tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. If the deductions are verified, it becomes more probable that the hypothesis is correct. If the deductions are incorrect, the original hypothesis can be abandoned or modified. Hypotheses can be used to build more complex inferences and explanations.

Both theories and hypotheses can be disproven, but not proven.

Pack Theory

So why are we still using the term “pack theory”? On the one hand a lot of us are trying to teach people the scientific definition of the word, “theory.” On the other we are referring to “pack theory,” which was never was a theory to begin with.

It was an initial idea and statement about the natural world, and maybe qualified as a hypothesis.

This post is not about the incorrectness of the pack hypothesis. If you are interested, here are two articles I wrote about that. There are some original sources at the bottom of the post as well.

This post is just a small rant about nomenclature and its effects on thinking.

In addition to “pack theory,” one can also see references to “alpha theory,” and “dominance theory,” the latter even in a publication by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior.** So I think putting a lot of energy into trying to eradicate the terms is probably useless. But personally, I’m going to try to remember to call it “outdated pack hypothesis,” or even better, “pack nonsense.”

Hey, I’m Not the Only One!

I was wondering whether to post this. Figured it might appeal only to other word nerds, but I decided to put it out there anyway. I did one more Google search, and found out that I got scooped! The wonderful trainer and blogger Sam Tatters wrote about this in July 2013! Here is her piece: Where We’re Going Wrong.

Thanks, Sam! I think you were right on target, and more succinct than I was. And why am I not surprised to find the “awesome” Yvette Van Veen chiming in over there as well!

By the way, no disrespect meant to L. David Mech, who is a scientific hero as far as I’m concerned. His book came out of those early observations of captive wolves, and he has corrected the misinformation and is actively rectifying the incorrect application of those early ideas to wild wolves. Here are an article and a video he made.

Thanks for reading! So how are you going to refer to “pack stuff” now?


Wolves: Do you think this is a family group? (Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons)

**Comments by a couple of readers made me realize that the term “dominance” is in a slightly different category from the other two, since it is defined and used in ethology. But since it also doesn’t mean what lay people generally think it means, I’m not going to write extensively about that here. Dr. Patricia McConnell has the creds to do so, so here is one of her articles. Thanks, Cynthia and Laura in the Canine Skeptics FaceBook group.

Coming up:

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Dog behavior, Human and dog misunderstandings, Terminology, Training philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The False Hypothesis of the Pack

  1. Omigosh, guilty as charged. Even those of us who are staunch defenders of scientific nomenclature fall into the trap of wrongfully naming – perhaps so that we can start on the same page while trying to convince others of the fact that their pet “hypothesis” has been debunked. I am grateful for the reminder! The more we insist on correct terminology, the closer we get to having our audiences understand what we are trying to tell them.

    • Thanks for the support, Anne. I’m sure guilty. It can be hard to change our habits, including terminology. But that’s what we signed up for with this learning theory and training business, isn’t it!

  2. Jerry I says:

    It is based on two studies of captive wolves. Therefore it is based on repeatable science. The science just doesn’t accurrately depict wolves in the wild. We could easily do the same study again and get the same results. It does depict how wolves would act in that circumstance. What if there were a major catastrophy and wolves came together from different packs in order to survive? Wolf Pack theory would be the appropriate example. It is not that it does not exist, it just has a limited application.

    • Hi Jerry–Thanks for the comment that is perfectly on topic! Great points. David Mech also brings up in that video that the term “alpha” could be appropriately used in that exact situation (captive packs).

      Do two studies qualify to refer to something as a theory? I would think that is a little scanty, but it sounds like you know more about biology/ethology than I do. Some quick Google Scholar searches didn’t yield many usages of the word “theory” applied to aspects of a single species’ behavior. But you make a great point. The observational findings are not invalid. They have been misapplied.

      • Jerry I says:

        I doubt I know more than you do. Its just a different perspective.

        • Well you made a very good point! You’ve caused me to consider modifying the post. I’m checking with some other folks. Sincere thanks, Jerry. There’s always something more to learn.

  3. Kelsie Wimsett says:

    I love that you made the “theory vs hypothesis”distinction! Great piece.

  4. Your dog is also a captive animal.

  5. Pingback: Dominanz | Chakanyuka

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