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

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

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 a 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 Communications, was 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:

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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