The scientific life is not as glamorous as its propaganda would have you believe. It isn’t all jetting from luxury hotel to tropical island conference to plan the next round of grants (which include line-item funding for travels). No, sir. Some of it is hard work.
Like following dogs around and watching them poop. As did Vlastimil Hart and a slew of others, publishing their results in “Frontiers in Zoology” (pdf).
Hart figured that because birds do it and bees do it—even educated plebes do it—that dogs ought to do it, too. That is, make use of the earth’s magnetic field. Plebes learn to work a compass at the academy, and our canine pals surely “work the lines” when making deposits.
So, plastic baggies and scoopers in hand, Hart and friends set off behind 70 dogs of varying breeds and took pictures of their body postures (as above) when they released. Results? “Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North—south axis under calm [magnetic field] conditions.”
What fun if it were true! You’d no longer need fear being lost in the woods miles from your GPS, batteries, or sextants. Just bring along Sparky and when the tree you just passed looks just like the one you passed ten minutes ago, you command “Make!” and voilà!, you’re out of the woods. As long as the magnetic field is calm.
Conversely, you don’t need fancy expensive equipment to measure the hystericity (my own term for the level of anti-calmness) of the magnetic field. Just trot out Roofy and have him go. If he ends up facing east, or his end ends at west, then you know a storms a brewin’, electromagnetically speaking.
Alas, the results do not appear true. The paper is very shoddily written. It contains few details of how the dogs were measured, like how they handled departures from perfectly straight backs (especially when peeing), or how they accounted for the error in measuring the dog pointed in this or that direction, and so on. They used hand-held compasses. The study was therefore not blinded. They were vague to the point of opacity about the difference in the magnetic field’s intensity, inclination, and declination, especially its local variations. They used the Kp-index to ascertain magnetic calmness, but this is a global and not local scale. There are numerous typos (which are no strangers to this blog, but rare in professional journals).
Then there were problems with the dogs. What in the world happened with “M07”, a 40-kilogram 4-year-old male Borzoi, who during the course of this most scientific study peed 2,478 times? Why, “M63”, a 25-kg 5-year-old Husky-Australian Shepherd mix, didn’t pee at all—though he pooped 46 times. The average looks to be (I did this by eye) around 50, um, efforts. All the authors said about this was that, sometimes, M07 was “analyzed separately”.
And then the analysis itself is a hodgepodge. The picture with blue dots is part of their main story. Each dot is some kind of pooling across dogs pooping (by averaging?). This one was from the time period “20:01 – 8:00”, i.e. eight at night to eight in the morning. It was plotted once for all periods and once for “quiet [magnetic field]” periods.
Now if all the dots were in line, it would show dogs have a preference for which direction they point when unloading. The dots are not in line, not here nor in any of their other plots. Further, there is no consistency in the dots for time periods or other breakdowns. There is enormous variation in pointing directions.
So how did they come to their conclusion? How did they have the guts to write, “Our findings open new horizons in magnetoreception research”? Lots of statistics (on mean directions; this and that classical hypothesis tests). Which gave them wee p-values. What else?
The study was picked up in the press, uncritically as all scientific studies which have nothing to do with politics are. “The new findings have important implications in our understanding of magnetoreception in mammals.” Sure there are. Hey, if it was done by scientists using the scientific method, it must be right, right?
The danger in these studies is that they plant anchoring biases, to lapse into the jargon. You might never have before thought of your dog pooping in alignment with the magnetic field, but after hearing scientists said they do and thinking on it for more than a moment, you will henceforth have the suspicion that Oscar knows which way is north. A harmless belief, surely. No, the real damage is the strengthening of the belief that science can do anything.
Thanks to Rexx Shelton and Willie Soon for bringing this study to our attention.