I came across this news item in the i newspaper (page 13 of the 29 August 2018 edition, a short article by John von Radowitz). The article reports on a study in which “Scientists showed 20 goats unfamiliar photos of the same human face looking happy or angry;” they found that “goats preferred to interact with the smiling face.”
It sounds fun, it sounds odd, it almost sounds improbable.
Two things struck me immediately. The first was that phrase, “unfamiliar photos.” When you’re a goat, who’s to say whether a photo is familiar or unfamiliar?
The second was a memory – a memory of the academic paper Feline Reactions to Bearded Men. You might remember it: the researchers claimed to have held cats in front of photos of bearded men and observed their reactions. The paper suggests that ” Cats do not like men with long beards, especially long dark beards.”
The cats “paper” was first published in 1999, maybe earlier. It is frequently used in website evaluation exercises to make students aware of web pages which look authentic but could be big hoaxes.
The name of the site – Improbable Research – is claimed as a warning signal (though as this is the site responsible for the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, a very real event, one might not be so sure). The biggest giveaway in the cats paper is probably the bibliography, which includes entries for Pat Boone, Madonna, Yul Brynner, Sinead O’Connor, Mary Quant, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the if-only Dr Seuss (responsible for the paper “Feline Responses to Hats”). How much of a giveaway, 20 years on, might be questionable; many of the names are probably unknown to children today. (Dr Seuss and Madonna might be enough to ring those alarm bells.)
This does not, of course, rule out the “Goats paper” – but it does suggest a degree of caution is warranted.
I’ve tried. I looked at Snopes and a couple of other fact-checking sites but they have no record of this. It might be too soon, it takes time to fact-check.
On the other hand, the i newspaper was not the only news outlet to report on the paper: UK tabloids reported it, of course – but so did BBC News, Sky News, Smithsonian Smart News, Phys Org, and many more.
I just had to find the actual academic paper …
That was not difficult, given that many reports named the lead researcher; some listed the full team. The paper is published by the Royal Society. It carries the title “Goats prefer positive human emotional facial expressions.” It is there on the Society’s website, and you can download a PDF version too.
It all looks authentic, and I am sure it is. Unlike the authors of the cats paper, the authors are real people with real reputations; a mouse-over on the author’s names shows their credentials and provides links to sites where we can explore more.
The study itself is credible, even if one remains unsure about the conclusions. While the team has attempted to eliminate possible bias, this is still a very small experiment, a very small sample. But this is how science works, from the small to the large, and if the idea has to be refined as we go along and new evidence becomes apparent, so be it.
But it does make me wonder… maybe we should try again with the cats. For real next time?