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« Another installment of: "I only study science communication -- I didn't say I could do it!" | Main | Groping the political economy elephant ... »

Cultural cognition & cat-risk perceptions: Who sees what & why?

So like billions of others, I fixated on this news report yesterday:

Obvious fake! These are professional-model animals posing for staged picture. Shame on you, NYT!For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.

In report that scaled up local surveys and pilot studies to national dimensions, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.

My instant reaction (on G+) was: bull shit!

My confidence that I knew all the facts here -- and that the study, published in Nature Communicationswas complete trash and almost surely conducted by researchers in the pocket of the bird-feed industry -- was based on my recollection of some research I’d done on this issue a few yrs ago (I’m sure in response to a rant against cats and bird “genocide” etc.). I recalled that there was "scientific consensus" that domestic cats have no net impact on wildlife populations in the communities that people actually inhabit (yes, if you put them on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they'll wipe out an indigenous species or two or twelve).  But I figured (after posting, of course) that I should read up and see if there was any more recent research.

What I found, unsurprisingly, is either there is no scientific consensus on the net impact of cats on wildlife populations or there is no possibility any reasonable and intelligent nonexpert could confidently discern what that consensus is through the fog of cultural conflict!

Check this out:

And this:

This is definitely a job for the science of science communication!

So I’d like is some help in forming hypotheses.  E.g.,

1.  What are the most likely mechanisms that explain variance in who perceives what and why about the impact of cats on wildlife population? Obviously, I suspect motivated reasoning: people (myself included, it appears!) are conforming their perceptions of the evidence (what they read in newspapers or in journals; what they “see with their own eyes,” etc.) to some goal or interest or value extrinsic to forming an accurate judgment. But what are the other plausible mechanisms?  Might people be forming perceptions based on exogenous “biased sampling”—systematically uneven exposure to opposing forms of information arising from some influence that doesn't itself originate in any conscious or unconscious motivation to form or preserve a particular belief  (e.g., whether they live in the city or country)? Something else? What sorts of tests would yield evidence that helps to figure out the relative likelihood of the competing explanations?

2.  Assuming motivated reasoning explains the dissensus here, is the motivating influence the dispositoins that inform the cultural cognition framework? How might perceptions of the net impact of cats on wildlife populations be distributed across the Hierarchy-egalitarian and Individualist-communitarian worldview dimensions?  Why would they be distributed that way

3.  Another way to put the last set of questions: Is there likely to be any relationship between who sees what and why about the impact of cats on wildlife population and perceptions of climate change risks? Of gun risks? Of whether childhood vaccinations cause autism? Of whether Ray Lewis consumed HGH-laced deer antler residue?

4.  If the explanation is motivated reasoning of a sort not founded on the dispositions that inform the cultural cognition framework, then what are the motivating dispositions? How would one describe those dispositions, conceptually? How would one measure them (i.e., what would the observable indicators be)?

Well? Conjectures, please -- on these or any other interesting questions.

By the way, if you'd like to see a decent literature review, try this:

Barbara Fougere, Cats and wildlife in the urban environment.


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Reader Comments (6)

I don't think this is a science communication problem regarding motivated reasoning behind perceptions of "cats" but rather one behind defining a urban/wild interface and taking actions that offer real protections to ecosystems.

In many areas, development has sprawled out to encompass previously rural, sometimes wild-land areas. In so doing, small patches of "key" areas, such as wetlands, riparian zones, or other small plots of land to are preserved. These fractured and isolated patches can't really function well as ecosystems. But they are all many species have left.

This is a conceptual motivated reasoning problem in that humans are rationalizing that they can enjoy living in a pristine area without noticing that the act of living there makes it less pristine.

In totally urbanized areas, most of the species involved, cats, rats, and, say, English sparrows (in the US), have not only adapted to the urban environment, they are non native anyway.

I think it is ok if your cat goes bird hunting, as long as the cat uses an endangered species bird list the way I use the Monterrey Aquarium list of sustainable seafood when I go fish shopping.

If your cat responds to this request the way an NRA member would to gun restrictions, keep the cat indoors.

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Interesting, as Spock used to say. Re: your questions:

1. Cat lovers vs. bird lovers? Would those be the poles on a third axis of cultural cognition worldviews (meaning that you could find representatives of either pole among people anywhere among the other two axes with equal likelihood)?

2. But then the second of your sample papers suggest that it's the whole managed (designer!) ecosystems group that's upset about cats. Setting aside the possibility that they're really just bird lovers/cat haters under the cover of would-be ecosystem managers, this suggests at least that we could place the cat disparagers on the communitarian/egalitarian portion of the framework. But it also suggests a problem with the labelling of the axes -- there's a control/management theme inherent in that portion that's quite distinct from the self-organization/laissez-faire theme in the individualist/egalitarian portion.

3. So, assuming the framework accurately identifies cultural/political groupings and that I've got the right quadrant for the cat alarmists (and that they're not merely cat haters in disguise), then you would expect that cat alarmism would go well with gun controllers and climate change accepters at least. The HPV vaccine issue is maybe more complicated -- the so-called "Precautionary Principle", the wedge commonly used to extend control or management of society, might operate in either direction. No idea re: Ray Lewis and HGH-laced deer-antler residue.

4. I do wonder whether the control/management vs. self-organizing/laissez-faire opposition might be orthogonal to the rest of the cultural cognition plane -- a third dimension of cultural group possibilities, i.e. -- in which case, as in point 1, cat alarmists could be found amongst all the other groups. It would suggest a reason for their dislike of cats too -- they're put off by the animal's famous independence or resistance to control.

A fun exercise!

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Disclaimer: I am a cat hater. Everything personal. I am hypersensitive to cats and cannot visit overnight where cats live or have lived. Last encounter almost took me to urgent care. But of course with their God-given perversity, cat owners tell me, don't worry their cat hates strangers. Funny, that the cat then proceeds to act like I am their long lost friend. I can even kick (softly) a such a cat, and they will come back for more! But I know the answer, they are psychic and know about my allergies. The only reason they get near me is they want to see the sneezing fit they give me. Clever bastards.

I think it is all about perception. Cats are hunters. The issue is as humans go, there go cats. Or as one author stated "where there are cats, there is civilization." Most of the species that cats prey upon have either lost the natural predators from human encroachment, or population control was starvation. Except for rare and endangered species the net benefit of cats is to the positive.

We don't need a snowshovel to get to our cars. The other perception problem is from innumeracy. Billions of these small mammals, they must be very small tender bite size for cats or the amount of biomass per acre won't work. Unless of course the reason civilization is not overrun by these native species most of whom are pests to the common citizen is due to cats. Looks like that author knew more than people thought. Without cats, farm gardens flowers etc, would not be possible without these ferocious felines. Thank God thay are hungry.

You have these horrible 12 critters/acre/year using CONUS. If you go out and really look you can find dozens in an acre. If you go to sources on shrews, mice, etc, and look up their reproduction activities, brood size, broods/year, sexual maturation period, etc.. it is truly alarming Most importantly just shrews alone can be 2 to 12 per acre, we haven't gotten to mice yet at 3 to 36 per acre. Mice have 5 to 10 litters a year at 3 to 14 per litter. Maybe I should learn to like cats? Nah, I prefer my motivated unreason.

Thank God most only live a year or two or we would need to be breeding cats like, well like rats.

February 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

Funny stuff.

FWIW - I've always liked cats. Birds aren't bad. They're kind of pretty. The sing nice songs.

Sometimes birds wake me in the early morning. I don't like them for that. Sometimes cats (I've had for pets) have awakened me in the early mornings. I don't think I've held it against them for that.

I like having cats as pets. I have had some friends that had birds as pets. I found birds very annoying as pets.

I like watching cats hunt birds - the way they GI-Joe crawl along the ground. The way they wiggle back and forth before they take off for the kill.

When I was a kid I had cats, and not infrequently would be awakened by my mother in the early morning to come down to the basement to clean up bird parts and feathers - left there as gifts from my cat, who was free to go out and come back with the kill during the night. It is not easy to sweep up bird feathers when you're sleepy.

My neighborhood has quite a few cat colonies, and I have sometimes helped CCCs capture and place cats in homes. I have sympathized with their opposition to euthanizing stray cats. I have taken care of a few strays myself - at no small expense - and did not consider euthanizing as an option.

I like the fact that cats I've had as pets felt responsible for making sure no rodents shared my living space.

Putting all that together - it would seem that I would have "motivations" to be on both sides of this debate, but mostly predisposed to weigh in on the pro-cat side. However, I have been of the opinion for a while now, that cats are negatively impacting bird populations. As a nature lover - in the end I would say that I was not a "denier" and did not defend cats on this issue.

Might people be forming perceptions based on exogenous “biased sampling”—systematically uneven exposure to opposing forms of information arising from some influence that doesn't itself originate in any conscious or unconscious motivation to form or preserve a particular belief (e.g., whether they live in the city or country)?

I'd say that was the case with me - mostly as the result of media exposure - which I had thought reported that cats were causing a decline in song bird populations.

My guess is that most "skeptics" don't like cats. At least in the on-line version, "skeptics" tend to be male, and chest-pounding macho types of males at that - who like to impress with how tough they are. Cats are considered to be touchy-feely. They think that all libruls have cats (and beards). :Although cats are more independent and individualist than dogs, my guess is that "skeptics" would, generally, like dogs and dislike cats. So my guess is that the "motivations" on this issue will align with opinions in the climate debate: "Skeptics will support the treating cats as pests position - although not for any logical reason. None of this is about logic, really.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Cats are just crowding out other alpha predators. That's why you'll never see a chupacabra in your neighborhood. Too many damn cats.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertechno

Dan -

I'm thinking you might find this interesting:

Research scientists getting death threats? The parallels with the climate war are fascinating.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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