Monday, November 15, 2010

Scientifically Illiterate Media: Cats have innate knowledge of gravity

Taking the Purrfect Drink is All Physics to a Cat
According to the researchers cats understand innately the relationship between gravity and inertia, one force, inertia, pulls the liquid up while the other, gravity, draws it back down. The cat instinctively knows when those forces are in balance and closes its mouth around the column at exactly the right time.

I hate reporting like this. Cats do NOT have an innate understanding of the "relationship between gravity and inertia;" they do not "instinctively know when these forces are in balance." This is as stupid as saying that a cat lands on its feet because it has an "innate understanding of gravity." And it begs the question: do other animals have an innate understanding of gravity? Do humans? After all 3 year olds can catch a ball: a child can see the ball leaving his parents hands; observe the arc; calculate the force of gravity, air resistance and the curvature of the earth and put his hands up at the right time and place to catch this thrown ball. Whoopee! We've just proved that knowledge of gravity and air resistance is innate in human beings.

How is it possible that this sort of reporting takes place? What kind of idiocy is this? How could a journalist write this; how could the editorial staff approve of it? How could the fact checker let this go by?

Oh yeah, I know, because they're ignorant of even the most basic scientific principles. It doesn't help that journalists can write well if they don't understand what they're writing about. This video is one of the reasons adults remain scientifically illiterate. It is one of the reasons we have such silly debates over global warming.


rctlfy said...

In fairness he did say "According to the researchers","the researchers say", "they say". Your blog on media's inadequacies is topical.

It is possible to read research information without the tabloidization of news. My problem is not with the word innate but with the words innate understanding. Clearly ability was the wiser choice.

The contrast of headlines is reflective of seriousness of their reporting. I other words, you can judge a book by its cover

Taking the purrfect drink is all physics to a cat /

Cats strike delicate balance between gravity and inertia when lapping milk

Virginia Tech, MIT, Princeton collaborate on cat study that shows intriguing gravity issues

The Classical Liberal said...


I hope that researches didn't say that cats have an innate understanding, even as a way of simplifying things.

The Virginia Tech article was quite good. The article quotes the following:

"The fluid dynamics of lapping, as the engineers wrote, “is governed by inertia and gravity, whereas viscous and capillary forces are negligible. Inertial entrainment draws liquid upwards into a column, while gravity acts to collapse it. Ultimately gravity prevails and the column pinches off.”

Thus, a cat is able to exploit fluid inertia to defeat gravity and pull liquid into its mouth. “An interesting implication of this competition between inertia and gravity is that this sets the lapping frequency that depends on the animal’s mass,” they wrote.

rctlfy said...

I read the two articles that I linked, and viewed your film I think it is a Reuters.UK piece but I was unable to verify the origin. The researchers collaborating from 3 universities kept the explanation scientific, and "innate understanding" was not quoted from the article (I didn't read the research paper).

Does an animal have the capability for some level of innate understanding? Or, is every aspect of their existence based on their survival instinct? It is an interesting question but this study did not address the possibility.

The Classical Liberal said...

I thought the Virginia Tech article was excellent. I had no problems with it at all. Thanks for posting it.

I have an image of the news as a source of information; a means by which we can increase our knowledge of world. Yeah, silly, naive me. I suppose if I didn't have this image I wouldn't be so annoyed.

It would be nice if science reporters actually had taken a few science courses. I have the same complaint about business journalists. You need to know your topic before writing about it. One can certainly talk about inertia and gravity being "opposed." No one is going to think that one is anthropomorphizing gravity. But saying that "cats understand innately the relationship between gravity and inertia..." just irritates me to no end.

It's like saying "global warming is a scientific fact because temperatures are warmer today than they were 20 years ago."

Qué? What kind of nonsense is that? And yet how often have we heard that? Or "temperatures are warmer now than in 1700, the beginning of the industrial age." Altogether forgetting that 1700 was at the tail end of a little ice age and the industrial age did not begin until the development and mass production of the steam engine over 100 years later.

OK, I think I'm beginning to rant and should stop. Thx for listening.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying you don't believe in global warming?

The Classical Liberal said...

Sure I believe in global warming, and global cooling, and then global warming again, and then global cooling again.

I "believe" that temperatures change, that earth's axis wobbles, and believe that the earth's magnetic field shifts from North to South. I also believe that continental shift affects weather.

I don't think that global temperatures are changing significantly from human activity.

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