An unusual analysis describing a special bond between “human females” and feral cats, published this week in a prominent ecology journal, triggered heated conversations about correlation and causation, gender, and the boundaries of solid science.
The paper, titled “Where there are girls, there are cats,” appeared in the journal Biological Conservation on Monday. By Thursday morning, following a backlash from bemused ecologists, the journal had temporarily removed the paper with little explanation — leaving behind questions about how, exactly, the study had made it through peer review in the first place.
In the study, copies of which are still circulating, a research team at Nanjing University in China surveyed the feral cat populations on 30 university campuses around Nanjing. The higher the proportion of female students at a university, they found, the larger the population of feral cats on campus.
In addition to conducting this cat/female census, the researchers circulated an online survey asking Chinese respondents how they treat strays. The results, they say, indicate that women are more likely than men to care for feral cats. The researchers also followed male and female volunteers around and tracked their attempted interactions with strays, finding that the cats were friendlier to women. (That result only held up in wet weather, though, and it included data from a grand total of just 27 Nanjing cats).
The researchers concluded that, over the past several thousand years, “cats probably learned to socialize while communicating with human females to efficiently get as much food and care as possible.” To illustrate their findings, one figure in the paper consists of a photo of a woman in a puffy white jacket, staring down at more than half a dozen cats. “A girl was surrounded by a group of cats,” the caption explains.
But study authors were ultimately agnostic as to which party initiates the special relationship: “Is [it] the cats who are attracting females, or is [it] human females who are attracting cats?” This and other aspects of the analysis drew howls from numerous researchers. Many pointed out that a fundamental tenet of science is that while statistical correlations might be found in any two datasets — in this case, larger populations of female humans in a given area, and a similarly higher population of feral cats — this provides no evidence of, nor even suggests, a causal relationship in either direction. Given this, some ecologists on Twitter openly wondered if the paper was a joke. Others expressed offense that the study kept referring to women as girls — though that issue, at least, may reflect the vagaries of translating the analysis from Mandarin to English.
Biological Conservation quickly withdrew the paper, and a note on the website of Elsevier, the journal’s publisher, explained somewhat cryptically that “a replacement will appear as soon as possible in which the reason for the removal of the article will be specified, or the article will be reinstated.” (Undark reached out to Vincent Devictor, the editor-in-chief of Biological Conservation, for comment, but as of Friday morning, had not received a response.)
Of course, any study that draws sweeping conclusions about the preferences of more than 3.5 billion human beings, based on a single set of correlations in a single city, is likely to draw some critics — as well as some mockery. “I’m torn between using this as one of the papers to discuss as an example of bad quantitative (and other) methods,” one ecologist wrote on Twitter, or “never ever thinking about it again.”
Also in the news:
• The British oil company BP announced on Wednesday that it aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, eliminating or offsetting not only the emissions from its operations but those caused by the burning of the fossil fuels it extracts. BP is not the first oil company to make such a commitment — the Spanish company Repsol has also pledged to zero out its emissions — but it is by far the largest. Between its operations and the burning of the fossil fuel it extracts, BP is responsible for the equivalent of more than 400 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, nearly as much as the entire state of California. An additional 77 million tons is created by petroleum that BP purchases from other companies and resells, but those emissions were not included in the company’s net zero pledge. While some environmental groups are cautiously optimistic about the announcement, BP has yet to provide details of how it will achieve the goal. In an interview posted on the company’s website, chief executive Bernard Looney predicted that BP would scale back fossil fuel production in coming decades, but that it very likely would still be producing and refining hydrocarbons in 2050. (The New York Times)
• China’s hardware capital is taking a hit due to regulations imposed to prevent the spread of a novel coronavirus taking hold across the globe. While the city of Yongkang only has five confirmed cases of the disease so far, its population is largely made up of migrant workers who travel from across the country to work in one of its thousands of factories. For the past few weeks, these factories have been closed and transportation services have been restricted, keeping workers from entering the city. “Without money coming in, I don’t know how much longer we can last,” Wang Weiwang, a factory manager in Yongkang, told National Geographic. Although Wang’s factory should have re-opened earlier this month, the government made the call to extend the Lunar New Year holiday to keep people at home. This week, according to local news reports, factories can ask the municipal government to re-open, but anyone coming from outside the city must be quarantined for two weeks and workers must be housed together and monitored daily. (National Geographic)
• On Tuesday, London police debuted powerful facial recognition software outside a shopping center in London, following a series of trials in 2019. While police say the technology can help them identify people wanted for serious crimes, activists have argued the technology violates the privacy rights of citizens. An independent review found that an earlier version of the software did not work as well as was claimed, but police say the technology is accurate and sufficiently vetted. For Tuesday’s operation, the police used cameras mounted on a blue police van, with prominent signs to alert the public. Officers also stood nearby, explaining the system to passers-by. (The Associated Press)
• On Tuesday, researchers from the University of South Wales announced a major breakthrough in the field of quantum computing, revealing they had successfully built a stable quantum silicon chip through the use of artificial atoms known as “quantum dots.” These artificial atoms are made of silicon, and, unlike naturally occurring atoms, they lack an elemental nucleus, instead using a “gate electrode” to attract electrons. Quantum dots produce the basic units of information used in quantum computing, referred to as quantum bits or qubits. The research team’s work, published in the journal Nature Communications, details how the team found that quantum dots with higher numbers of electrons produce more robust qubits than previously thought possible — which translates to more reliable calculations in quantum computers. By turning up the voltage on the gate electrode, the team of scientists was able to attract more electrons to their quantum dots, thus creating more stable artificial atoms, and as an end result a more reliable quantum chip. (Popular Mechanics)
• And finally: Paleontologists announced this week the discovery of a new dinosaur species — the oldest tyrannosaur ever found in Canada, and the first new species of the family to be discovered in the country in half a century. The first part of the new species’ name — Thanatotheristes degrootorum — translates roughly to “reaper of death” in Greek, a theatrical nod to the razor-sharp teeth and powerful build that helped it ascend the food chain some 79.5 million years ago. While smaller than its infamous cousin the Tyrannosaurus rex, the reaper still likely stood around 8 feet tall and stretched to nearly 30 feet in length. Most intriguingly, the fossil used to identify the reaper — which sat for years in a museum cabinet before Jared Voris, a University of Calgary graduate student and lead author of the study, examined it more closely — dates the new species as about 2.5 million years older than its closest relative. In filling in the evolutionary timeline of tyrannosaurids in North America, this finding could help clarify when and how this family of carnivorous dinosaurs became super-predators and reigned supreme during the late Cretaceous. (National Geographic)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.