When I first came across a Livescience story headlined, Cat People are Smarter than Dog People, New Study Shows, I thought it might be one of those clever studies that wasn’t about cats and dogs at all. Perhaps we’d learn that was all a set-up to reveal something about which kinds of study results people are willing to swallow whole.
it’s starting to look like the researchers and the reporter were attempting to be serious. But there is an important lesson. If you read it the story a certain way, you can extract a formula by which anyone can come up with a result that will get international publicity.
All you have to do is round up a few college students, and divide them into two categories. It might be cat people vs. dog people, or baseball vs. soccer fans, or people who prefer fish tacos vs. those who prefer chicken tacos. Then give them some tests. Claim the tests reveal intelligence, or introversion/extroversion, or whatever seems sexy and attention-getting.
As long as the samples aren’t really big, chance alone will ensure that the results will be slightly different. One group will always look a little smarter or more outgaining or whatever you claim you’re testing. If not, add more tests. That’s the nature of what scientists refer to as noise.
Then assume your observed differences are not random noise but meaningful correlations and make up a story to explain it. The researchers in this case had a ready explanation for why the dog people were more “lively”:
“It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they’re going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog,” Guastello said. “Whereas, if you’re more introverted, and sensitive, maybe you’re more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn’t need to go outside for a walk.”
Finally, make an announcement and presto! You’re in Livescience and broadcast by the Huffington Post.
It’ a little worrisome that it’s so easy to convince the world that one group is “smarter” than another.
Maybe the study was extremely carefully done, but there’s really no way to know. I can’t find a paper. It looks like it all started with a talk at a conference.
Time’s website covered it as well, under the headline/subhead: studies show cat people are smarter than dog people, but you already knew that, right?
Cute but not informative. Sill, it promised to offer a link to a paper describing the study:
Have you ever suspected that people who hang out with slinky, clever, moody cats are actually smarter than everyone with a goofy, friendly-to-everyone dog? Your hunch was likely correct, according to a new study carried out by Carroll University in Wisconsin. The study looked for personality traits in 600 college students that coincided with choices in pet ownership. Dog lovers tended to be more lively….
But the link goes to the uninformative Livescience write-up. I’ve been led around in a circle.
Kudos to everyone who completely ignored this story.