Why Science? and First Post

I thought a good way to start off this blog would be a small discussion about why science is important to discussions about companion animals. Actually, this is really a discussion about why science is important in general!

How can you be sure?

The purpose of science is to find an objective truth. That would be the actual truth – not the truthiness that seems to be everywhere these days.

Using the scientific method to describe the world around us is vitally important because of all the funny things our brain does without us realizing it. Take, for example, this counting experience described by Dr. Scott L. Zeger in his Coursera course, Case-Based Introduction to Biostatistics:

A large barrel of candy kisses was placed in a central location in the Department of Biostatistics at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. All professors and graduate students within the department were invited to guess how many kisses were in the barrel within a range. All individuals who guessed a range that the actual number of kisses fell within would be entered into a random drawing to win the barrel of candy.

In all, 73 people entered the contest. There were about 1600 kisses in the barrel. Only 6 out of the 73 individuals who entered guessed ranges that included 1600. That’s less than 10%! In fact, the median (that is, the most occurring number of all responses) was 975 kisses…about 43% off.

Let’s make this clear – the only people who entered this contest had or were earning advanced degrees in counting things. Humans are just really bad at coming to objective truths by just looking at something.

Dr. Zeger (or, more likely, a graduate assistant) arrived at the total number of kisses in the barrel by counting every last kiss. But what if you were trying to count the number of free-roaming cats in a city? What if you wanted to determine the effectiveness of one training technique versus another in dogs? As previously mentioned, our brains can make objective observations difficult but in addition to that, some things are just very difficult to figure out. Even for people who are “professionals” or “experts”, rigorous scientific exploration is required to come to an objective truth.

Bayes’ Theorem

So, you read the word “theorem” and are seriously considering skipping this entire section. But stay with me! It’s not that bad and there are no proofs or equations to memorize. Well, there is an actual equation to Bayes’ Theorem but I’m going to discuss the concept rather than the actual calculation.

Bayes’ Theorem states that you can come to a scientifically informed opinion by multiplying the prior odds (your prior knowledge that most coins are one-headed) by the likelihood ratio the supports the prior odds. The qualitative explanation of Bayes Theorem is that we function in the world with  pre-formed beliefs or expectations about nearly everything. While Bayes’ Theorem advises us on a specific way to update our beliefs with the results of scientific experiments, the broad concept that I am arguing for is that the results of rigorous scientific experiments should cause us to update our beliefs. With some substantial caveats.

Bad Science

Unfortunately, not all science deserves to impact our beliefs. More unfortunately, there is an entire hoard of reasons why some “scientific” findings may not be worthy of serious consideration. Sincere mistakes happen, perhaps less than sincere mistakes happen, interested parties may interfere with the publication of certain findings and news outlets tend to get a hold of scientific papers and utterly misinterpret them. There’s a great TEDGlobal talk by Ben Goldacre that confronts some of these issues.

Fortunately, there are some principals of research that can help you avoid misleading scientific publications:

  • Be wary of articles summarizing scientific papers. News outlets make money from attracting readers, not accurate reporting! Find the scientific paper and read it yourself. Here’s a guide from Rice University to help you out if you’ve never read a scientific paper before.
  • Even if you don’t know a lot about the subject matter or the exact research methodology, a paper should be written well enough that the A) question the authors are trying to solve is evident and B) the method the authors are using to answer the question makes some general sense to the reader.
  • The authors conclusions should match up with their findings. After reading the results and the conclusion section, ask yourself, “Does that make sense?” If it doesn’t, there is either a problem with the writing or the authors’ interpretation of their findings.
  • Authors should suggest further research or implications for their findings. Be wary of authors that make definitive or large claims stemming for their results – they may be making more out of their work than it deserves.

Importance to Companion Animals

The bottom line is that research into companion animal behavior, veterinary care and management practices can help us be better friends to the animals that we share our lives with.  By better understanding our pets, we can provide a higher quality of life for them, enhance our relationships with them and prevent interactions with them that lead to damage or injuries.

 

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