I learned, 7/8/16

This is the story of a cat video that showed me something about how to do science.

I intended this week to tell a simple story about why we like fizzy drinks. Carbon dioxide bubbles are produced by bacteria and yeast as they spoil food, so you can imagine that the ability to detect this would be important for survival. And in fact, all mammals have receptors attached to their taste buds that are specific to identifying carbon dioxide. They clearly help us survive.

So why do we humans seek out fizz, when in principle we are evolved to avoid it?

That’s a question about motivation, a kind that’s harder for science to answer. In the articles I read, researchers speculated that humans may like fizz for the same reasons we like hot peppers, perhaps as a way to display fitness by showcasing our ability to tolerate discomfort. It’s the gastronomical equivalent of spreading our plumage to attract a mate.

The scientists support this speculation with experimental data: When animals are offered sparkling water in the lab, they refuse it. We also know that humans often have to be acculturated to soda or seltzer before they develop a taste for it. So perhaps cultural learning plays a role in overcoming our inherent aversion to the sour, slightly painful taste of carbonation.

It’s a lovely story. But is it true?

Not entirely convinced, I decided to take a slightly different tack: searched YouTube for videos of cats drinking seltzer. And while plenty of videos show animals freaked out by bubbly water, videos of cats, dogs and rabbits drinking soda water were actually quite easy to find.

The first thing that I find interesting here is that a bunch of cat videos on YouTube clearly show that the research scientists were wrong. Or, more precisely, that the scientists were making inferences about real behavior from a very small number of lab subjects, under a very unnatural set of conditions. Cat videos, in this case, serve as a useful check on the arrogance of researchers who believe that their work in the lab means they understand their world.



Yet, beyond the curiosity that a cat video can undercut a scientific hypothesis, they also present a fascinating opportunity: These cat videos potentially offer a better way of doing science.

What is the purpose of carefully controlled experiments that are so hard to generalize to the real world? What if, instead of doing their original lab experiments, scientists decided to learn about animal behavior by simply asking YouTubers to upload videos of their cats drinking seltzer?

The crowdsourcing approach to science would be cheaper than lab work. It would test the preferences of many, many more cats than are possible in a research lab. And even though scientists would complain that such videos create a “biased” sample (not representative of a random selection of cats), that doesn’t matter when testing the veracity of this particular hypothesis.

In fact, I would argue that any hypothesis that explores the limits of behavior, or the breadth of behavior, would benefit from studying these sorts of huge, hastily-organized groups.

Human behavior is magical in its diversity – just look at our variations in preferences for food, entertainment or sex. The traditional approach of science is to strip away as much of the variability as possible, to study the core of what is human by studying the “average”.

But what if there is another way? What if cat videos made by random people across the world give us the opportunity to explore behavior that could never be captured in a lab? What if asking the crowd to run experiments is more productive than running them ourselves?

It’s axiomatic in science that tight control is the first requirement for a good experiment. But that represents just one way of doing science, one that’s made oodles of sense in a world where communication and coordination is expensive. We’ve never had a tool with the reach of the internet before, and there is ample evidence from other disciplines that reams of low quality information can be much more valuable than a few, carefully selected data points.

To me, internet communication, as exemplified by cat videos, has the potential to not just improve the way that information is disseminated, but how knowledge is generated in the first place. Knowledge generated not just by scientists in lab, but by all of us working together.

Science could be made better by bringing in the non-scientists to participate. It’s enough to make me want to break out the bubbly.

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