The amazing crow vending machine correction

1 minute read

I’m not sure if it illustrates the challenges of science reporting, but I’m pointed to the New York Times corrections section today:

An article in the Year in Ideas issue on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on Josh Klein, whose masters thesis for New York Universitys Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed a vending machine for crows that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose change.
The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo.
The reporter never called the zoo in Binghamton to confirm. And while the fact-checker did discuss the details with Klein, he did not call the zoo, as required under The Timess fact-checking standards. In addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a success. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that Kleins machine is unlikely to work as intended.

The correction is around four times the length of the original article, which was part of the “alphabet” of new ideas in the end-of-year issue of the NYT Magazine. Here’s the end:

The Binghamton crows quickly learned that dropping nickels and dimes into the slot produced peanuts, and the most resourceful members of the flock began looking for more coins. Within a month, Klein had a flock of crows scouring the ground for loose change.

An unfortunate choice of metaphor.