Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Dog Logic

Experiments performed by dogs prove to have reproducible results!

In science, you come up with a theory, perform experiments to prove the theory, and if the results match the theory and are reproducible by others, may in fact prove the theory to be true.  But the emphsis is always on "may."  New experiments may disprove or modify the theory, over time.

We are camped across from another camper who has an adorable small dog. The problem is, the owner's husband died, and the dog now has separation anxieties.  So when the owner leaves, the dog barks uncontrollably until they return.  After a while, the dog will pass out due to exhaustion and stop barking.  But when he wakes up, he starts up again. Bark! Bark! Bark!

According to dog logic, this behavior makes perfect sense.  And we saw this with our own Lab-Chow mix, who developed the same theories as this little dog, over time.

From the dog's point-of-view, when the owner leaves, they start barking.  It may take some time, but so long as they bark, the owner always comes back.  Sometimes they have to bark more than others, but the experiment always has the same results: the owner comes back.  So they bark incessantly, knowing that their barking will cause the owner to return.  They are confusing correlation with causation, although sometimes, the owner will hear this barking (or someone will complain about it) and return to quiet the dog, thus reinforcing the message.

The error in dog logic and dog science is the lack of a control group. If the dog decided to try not barking on several occasions, he would discover that the owner comes back anyway. And maybe he would then figure out that incessant barking doesn't bring the owner back, it just annoys the snot out of everyone else.

But dogs are not that smart.  And neither are some people.

I noted before how our cats (when I was growing up) trained my Dad into letting them in and out of the house.  At night, Dad would sit in the living room and read the paper and the cat would claw his favorite chair.  "Damn cat!  I just had this re-upholstered!" and he would toss the cat outside. The cat learned, if he wanted to go outside, to claw the chair.

To get in, they would claw the screen on the sliding door.  "Damn cat! I just had that re-screened!" and he would let the cat in.  He was now the cat doorman.

He tried to short-circuit the process by removing the screen door from their bedroom sliding door (which was on the first floor).  The cat then ran his paws on the glass, which if damp, made a squeaking noise that would wake the dead.  Dad would then let the cat in (or out) to get some peace.

His only "solution" to this problem was to put the cat in the car and drive 10 miles away and let him go.  He came back three months later, covered with burdocks.  When I went away to college, he took all three cats to the vet and had them euthanized.  He told Mother they ran away - she was too drunk to notice and they were her cats!

So in the end, he won, and those cats all got posthumous PhDs in behavioral psychology.  Cats are better at science than dogs, I think.

Beyond cats and dogs, however, this sort of confusion between correlation and causation occurs in everyday life.  When credit card swipe machines first came out, they often didn't work well.  I would swipe my card, and if the magnetism was weak, it would not read.  Helpful Harriet at the cash register would wrap the card in a plastic bag and swipe it several times until it "worked" - explaining that the plastic bag somehow focused the magnetism or something.  Of course, it didn't, and if you swiped the card several times without the bag, it still would have worked - the key being trying again and again, not the use of the bag.

Some folks claim there is a science behind this, but I think it is more of a post-hoc justification than real science. "Smoothing out magnetic fluctuations" makes no sense, particularly when those fluctuations are what makes the signal.  It is akin to saying you can make out the lyrics better on a song by turning down the volume until you can barely hear it.  Others claim the plastic bag "cleans" the reader head of stray magnetic particles from previously swiped cards. That at least makes a little more sense.

I haven't seen that "trick" in recent years.  Card readers are better and we have chip and tap cards now.  Hardly anyone swipes anymore.  I think also, people realized that the plastic bag trick was just another form of Cargo Cultism - primitive thinking when it comes to technology.  Knock wood.

I guess the point is, we often see correlation in our lives and think it means causation.  We do something and see a result and assume what we did caused that result - without thinking of alternative explanations.  People pray for rain, and if it rains, they claim the prayer worked.  If it doesn't rain, they decide to stone a few witches to death to appease God.  And hey, it eventually rained!

Worse yet, they hire a rainmaker - a term whose meaning is not what we think.

We tend to think like dogs.