Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cats: a study and its newspaper misrepresentation

Do cat owners exhibit strong reflexive defensive or aggressive behavior when strangers voice substantial negative effects about felines in general?

No, this was not the subject of the cats study that caught the blogster's attention. We wouldn't need a study for that question anyway because the answer is yes, the vast majority of cat owners do.

So, why is the writer of these lines furiously punching an innocent keyboard?

An article in today's Frankfurter Allgemeine baits readers with the title Cats really don't give a hoot about humans [our translation]. Written by a journalist of the paper's Nature and Science department, it is decent craftsmanship as far as the composition and the introduction to the field of attachment studies go. It then takes the main points of a study from PLOS One, summarizes them and rephrases the study's 'Conclusion', including the all important standard CYOB "further study is needed". Voila, we have an article.

All would be well, if the journalist hadn't taken to the click-bait type headline and toned down the presentation.

We won't know who is responsible for the click bait, maybe an overzealous department chief. Likewise, the big photo near the top of the piece of a yawning cat with the caption that this others obviously doesn't give a damn about humans, may be this week's creative freebie for an otherwise bored photo editor.

The blogster does understand that yet another article whose title accurately reflects the study, Cats are more independent than dogs, can't make it in today's general news world, so, you do what you can.

The underlying study itself is not helpful but okay. It acknowledges prior research indicating instances of stronger attachment, it describes the sample size reasonably well, and it is indeed all about showing the study authors understand the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (ASST) and know how to apply it. 

Human scientists to this day tend to grossly underestimate both intelligence and social behavior, including attachment, of non-humans. Until less than fifty years ago, scientific officialdom basically remained clueless about humans' closest wild relatives, and we are only slowly understanding other mammals better - despite overwhelming evidence of intricate advanced behavior.

But you have to see how cats stay outside of a house they have never seen before with only a few clothes of their owners to tell the felines what to do. And you have to see the behavior of a cat when an owner returns after several months of absence to appreciate the wide variety of behavior felines show in real life.

The study might as well originate from the University of Maximegalon, famous for painstakingly working out the glaringly obvious, but the blogster knows the value of tools and procedures and is certain the researchers will put them to great use in the future.

One more thing: *
Who knows, maybe the true objective of he study is not to add to our knowledge of cats but to extricate more knowledge about cat owners and cat haters. Or about how the media runs with any study - remember the famed chocolate diet one?

* Yes, that paragraph is a joke.

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