Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Does your Dog Like Hugs? Truly Sketchy Science and the Value of Critical Thinking

As we all learned a few weeks ago, courtesy of John Oliver, sometimes the media misrepresents scientific findings. Things get blown out of proportion and the result can be total confidence in ideas that are totally wrong or frustration leading to mistrust of science in general. Fortunately, humans are equipped with an ability that few other animals demonstrate that allows us to sift through the nonsense. In school you may have learned about it as “critical thinking”, but in practice it is more like a bullshit-o-meter.

The ability to stop and ask ourselves “Wait, does that result actually make sense?” is incredibly powerful. It actually lies at the heart of science itself through the concept of peer-review, whereby other researchers get the opportunity to tear a study apart before it ever sees the light of day. Occasionally though, something slips through the cracks and it is up to the eye of the reader to spot something fishy. Such a case popped up on social media feeds around the world a last month with a study claiming, intentionally evocatively, that dogs don’t like hugs.

As a dog owner, I have my own biases that would lead me to question this research in the first place. I’ve hugged every dog I’ve ever owned and feel like my best friends would have hugged back had they possessed the appropriate shoulder joints and bipedal orientation to do so. But, that alone isn’t enough to discount the conclusions. Part of critical thinking is having an open mind and accepting the idea that I may have been wrong all these years… but I am within my rights to doubt it. That is where the critical part comes in.

The first fact worth pointing out is that, despite what the various click-bait style articles claimed, the research findings were not reported in a respected, peer-reviewed science journal. They were part of a blog post by UBC psychologist Stanley Coren, who was reporting on some data he collected from looking at pictures on the internet. The idea for the research came from Dr. Coren bringing his dog to school one day as part of a “Doggy De-stress Day” for overworked undergrads. The well-meaning doctor observed that his dog was not enjoying the hugs it was receiving and felt like he was on to something.

Now, looking at the anecdote and the research objectively, there are a couple of red flags right off the bat. A major one is that “Doggy De-Stress Day” would be better named “Doggy Distress Day” as any animal – dog, human, turtle, gibbon – that suddenly finds itself being attacked by strangers who seem hell-bent on using their arms as restraints is likely to get a little freaked out. As for the data that Dr. Coren collected by analyzing internet photos of dogs being hugged (he found that a whopping 81.6% of the dogs in the photos showed signs of stress), it also presents a couple of problems. Chief among them is that the researcher has no knowledge or control over the context in which the photos were taken. Are these purely candid moments or are the dogs being forced to pose for an overly excited person pointing a weird, flashing plastic thing (camera) at them?

A good way to evaluate the scientific merit of a conclusion is to think about how you would go about researching it under ideal conditions. If we want to test the hypothesis that dogs don’t like hugs, there are simple ways to get closer to an answer than by looking at random pictures online. First, you would want the dogs in an environment that doesn’t stress them out, preferably at home. That would allow us to rule out the surroundings as a source of stress and focus purely on the hugs. Second, you would want to control for the person doing the hugging. In this case, the findings are seeking to scold dog owners for forcing human affection onto dogs, so the dogs should only be hugged by people they know and trust. Finally, we would control the situation. Are the hugs happening out of the blue or is the dog relaxing with its owner on the couch after a long day of hiking? These are things that matter.

The point I’m trying to make is one that compliments John Oliver’s message about media misleading people about science: sometimes the research itself deserves to be questioned. You don’t need to misrepresent flawed research to reach the wrong conclusion; the data will take you there on its own. All the more reason to go back to the primary source of a new and shocking idea and ask yourself a few basic questions about how the findings were reached – well-meaning or not.

Until someone conducts a more controlled study, hug your dog. It makes you feel good and that’s all your dog wants for you anyway.


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