Thursday, January 15, 2015

When the cat brings home a mouse

To our daughter's distress, she needs to find a new home for her beloved cats, so overnight we've gone from no cats to three cats, while we try to find them someplace new.  I haven't lived with cats since I was a kid really, because I was always allergic.  When I visited my daughter, I'd get hives if Max, her old black cat, sadly now gone, rubbed against my legs, and I always at least sneezed even when untouched by felines.  But now with three cats in the house, I'm allergy-free and Ken, never allergic to cats before, is starting to sneeze -- loudly.

Old Max


Oliver upside-down

But the mystery of the immune system is just one of the mysteries we're confronting -- or that's confronting us -- this week.  Here's another.  The other day my daughter brought over a large bag of dry cat food.  I put it in a closet, but the cats could smell it, and it drove them nuts, so I moved it into the garage.  A few days later I noticed that the cats were all making it clear that they really, really wanted to go into the garage, but we were discouraging that given the dangers of spending time in a location with vehicles that come and go unpredictably. I just assumed they could smell the kibbles, or were bored and wanted to explore new horizons.

But two nights ago I went out to the garage myself to get pellets for our pellet stove, and Mu managed to squeeze out ahead of me.  He made a mad dash for the kibbles.  Oliver was desperate to follow, but I squeezed out past him and quickly closed the door.  At which point, Mu came prancing back, squeaking.  Oh wait, he wasn't squeaking, it was the mouse he was carrying in his mouth that was squeaking!  He was now just as eager to get back in the house as he'd been to get out.  After a few minutes he realized that wasn't going to happen, so he dropped the now defunct mouse, and I let him back in.

Mu, the Hunter
So, that 'tear' in the kibbles bag that I'd noticed a few days before?  Clearly made by a gnawing mouse (mice?).  And the cats obviously had known about this long before I did.  But how did Mu know exactly where to make a beeline to to catch the mouse?  He'd never seen where I put the bag, nor the mouse nibbling at it!  And I have to assume the other cats would have been equally able hunters had they been given the chance.

Amazing.  A whole undercurrent of sensory awareness and activity going on right at our feet, and we hadn't clued in on any of it.  I'd made unwarranted assumptions about holes in the bag, but the cats knew better.  Yes, I could have looked more closely at the kibble that had spilled out of the bag and noticed the mouse droppings.  But I didn't, because, well, because it didn't occur to me.

Though, now that I'm clued in, I believe we've got another mouse...

Mu and Ollie at the door to the garage yesterday afternoon

I might even have been able to detect the mouse without seeing any of the evidence, just like the cats, if I'd tuned in more attentively, but I'm pretty sure it would have required better hearing.  In any case, other bits of evidence more suited to my perceptive powers were available, but I didn't notice.  I take this as yet another cautionary tale about how we know what we know, and I will claim it applies as well to politics, economics, psychology, forensics, religion, science, and more.  We build our case on preconceived notions, beliefs, assumptions, what we think is true, rarely re-evaluating those beliefs -- unless we're forced to, when, say, Helicobacter pylori is found to cause stomach ulcers, or our college roommate challenges our belief in God, or economic austerity does more harm than good.

As Holly often says, scientists shouldn't fall in love with their hypothesis.  Hypotheses are made to be tested; stretched, pounded, dropped on the floor and kicked, and afterwards, and continually, examined from every possible angle, not defended to the death.  But we often get too attached, and don't notice when the cat brings home a mouse.

An illustrative blog post in The Guardian by Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett last October tells a similar tale (h/t Amos Zeeberg on Twitter).  "Today’s key fact: you are probably wrong about almost everything."  Based on a survey by Ipsos Mori, Nardelli and Arnett report disconnects between what people around the world believe is true about the demographics of their country, and what's actually true.

So, people in the US overestimate the percentage of Muslims in the country, thinking it's 15% when it's actually 1%.  Japanese think the percentage of Muslims is 4% when it's actually 0.4%, and the French think it's 31% while it's actually 8%.

In the US, we think immigrants make up 32% of the population, but in fact they are 13%.  And so on.  We think we know, but very often we're wrong.  We're uninformed, ill-informed, or under informed, even while we think we're perfectly well informed.

Source: The Guardian

The Guardian piece oozes political overtones, sure.  But I think it is still a good example of how we go about our days, thinking we're making informed decisions, based on facts, but it's not always so.  A minority of Americans accept evolution, despite the evidence; you made up your mind about whether Adnan is guilty or innocent if you listened to Serial, even though you weren't a witness to the murder, and the evidence is largely circumstantial.  And so on.  And this all has consequences.

In a sense, even if we are right about what we think, or its consequences, based on what we know, it's hard to know if we are missing relevant points because we simply don't have the data, or haven't thought to evaluate it correctly, as me in regard to Mu and the mouse.  We have little choice but to act on what we know, but we do have a choice about how much confidence, or hubris, we attribute to what we know, to consider that what we know may not be all there is to know.

This is sobering when it comes to science, because the evidence for a novel or alternative interpretation might be there to be seen in our data, but our brains aren't making the connections, because we're not primed to or because we're unaware of aspects of the data.  We think we know what we're seeing, and it's hard to draw different conclusions.

Fortunately, occasionally an Einstein or a Darwin or some other grand synthesizer comes along and looks at the evidence in a different way, and pushes us forward.  Until then, it's science as usual; incremental gains based on accepted wisdom.  Indeed, even when such a great synthesizer provides us with dramatically better explanations of things, there is a tendency to assume that now, finally, we know what's up, and to place too much stock in the new theory......repeating the same cycle again.


Holly Dunsworth said...

This is wonderful. You're a cool cat, Anne. A lesson we can take from this could be that if it's not possible to sense the world like a cat, at least listen to the cats better, take them more seriously, learn from what they can't translate to us.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Holly! A doggedly cogent observation re. listening to cats better.

DG said...

Nice post AB.

Your blog can be scary, just like Deric Bownds's Mindblog. We go about our lives like we can depend upon our brain to guide us through.

I know you frown on such speculation, but it really can't be any different. Don't we have to get up everyday and behave like we know stuff for sure? We can't conduct experiments and evaluations of everything that we "think" that we know everyday.
People so inclined were de-selected. Its fight or flight; indecision is deselected.

Ken Weiss said...

I don't exactly frown on speculation, but I frown on speculation being covered over as if it's knowledge, or minimized when it's mostly what's being done, or overstated when money or press or promotional attention are being sought. All of that's only human, but that doesn't mean we can't object. Keep speculation where it belongs, overt and identified.

Then, as it is fun and (as you say) sometimes the best we can do, enjoy away!

And there is a bit of a lesson in humility to realize how little we might not know--and it adds to the grandeur and wonder of nature.

As to your last point, maybe those who speculated too freely (before careers were rewarded for it) were the ones who ventured a bit too far out in the open where "there aren't any predators out here", while there more wary mates lived to tell the tale.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, DG. I think it's both scary and reassuring. Scary in that it's hard to know what we don't know, but probably should. But reassuring in that it's totally possible to get through life without knowing much. Or even believing in falsehoods. The lives of people who don't accept evolution are as real as those who do. People who believe in God get through life just as readily as those who don't (or vice versa). People who accept that climate change is due to human activity live life as fully as those who don't. People who can't do calculus, or read Latin, or do crossword puzzles or who can't read at all are fully functioning people too. In Darwinian terms, after all, all that matters is that we survive to reproduce -- but even people who don't reproduce live full lives too!

So what I'm saying is that as people I think it's our choice as to how much we need to know, and why. As responsible citizens, it's probably better to know more. As scientists, I think it's incumbent upon us not to believe we know the Truth, because I'm pretty sure the Neanderthal thought they knew the Truth too. Surely Aristotle did. That's where I think it's most important.

And, by the way, I don't think indecision was deselected. Don't you know any indecisive people?

DG said...


"there aren't any predators out here"

Somebody had to climb down from the tree. If you had to say whether that person was speculative or wary, which would you choose?

Of course it might have been an example of one of my favorite redneck jokes, “Hey Bubba, watch this.”

“but I frown on speculation being covered over as if it's knowledge”

True enough. It may seem obvious to you which science needs more or less funding, or when some scientist is groundlessly speculating to obtain funds, but it can be difficult (if not impossible) for the lay person to make an informed opinion.


“both scary and reassuring”

I have never thought of it as reassuring, but I see your point.

This is my main concern; the better informed and knowledgeable the person the more difficult it is for the better informed to manipulate that person for the benefit of the better informed.

“So what I'm saying is that as people I think it's our choice as to how much we need to know, and why.”

I don’t think this is true; it’s not a true choice, everybody doesn’t have the same available choices.

“Don't you know any indecisive people?” Yes, but under the conditions that I set; fight or flight; doing neither would have the least chance of success. OTOH, “Does that sound like a tiger?” “I’m not sure, let’s wait here until we know for sure.” Indecision here would likely be the best option.
For me, indecision goes into the box with gray, middle ground, and continuum. I think that our brain is biased against those. We want a decision; we want black or white; left or right; discrete objects and categories. Further, it seems to me that our brain can’t be “trusted” and tries to eliminate these soft areas, regardless of previous instructions. Maybe I’m wrong and indecision doesn’t go into that box; I can’t decide.

Anne Buchanan said...

DG: I tend to err on the side of believing that evolution didn't sculpt specific approaches to the world, but rather sculpted our ability to approach the world in any of multiple ways. Much better for organisms to be adaptable, rather than adapted. Just as we didn't evolve to do calculus, but rather to be able to do calculus. So I would say that basically all of us have the ability to be indecisive sometimes, and decisive at others.

And yes, I agree that many people have no choice of what they can know. But being able to choose from 500 channels vs having only the state-run channel I would say is a quality of life issue, defined as we choose to define it, not an objective biological reality.

We have to fill our minds all day, every day, for a lifetime, right? What I'm trying to say is that how they are filled -- whether by our choice or someone else's -- is largely irrelevant to the fact of getting through the day. Of course there are extremes that impede getting through, but I'm thinking of 95% of the distribution, not the extremes. There are people whose thoughts rarely intersect with mine, and yet we all manage to get up, have breakfast, do whatever we have to do, go to bed... This has to do more with cultural things, which we don't share, than biological things that we do share.

But now we're veering off the point of the post. Scary.

Ken Weiss said...

I'd say that the general public has no way of knowing and that is exactly why science should responsibly present what it knows. Just to give a few categorical examples: Nature shouldn't have artists renditions of distant possibly habitable planets in a research report, NASA should be clear about what it's actually finding, NIH and the journals that report the daily magnificent discovery shouldn't be allowed to exaggerate and should be held accountable if it reports promised miracles.

Otherwise, the difference between science and dogma (or, religion, if you prefer) dissolves. Of course, the tendency to speculate is natural, but it needs to be clear and kept in its place.

The public isn't all that ignorant, and should have a clear idea what it's paying for, that's all.