Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The drinking habits of cats

I did again what I shouldn't do, namely, read the "Comments" section on an article in the Yahoo! news.

The article, a fun little piece that came out day before yesterday, describes how engineers at MIT have figured out how cats drink.  Originally, it was thought that they curled the ends of their tongues to form a ladle (which is evidently how dogs do it).  But using high-speed photography, the MIT researchers figured out that this isn't what they're doing at all -- they're darting their tongues so fast (the cats, not the engineers) that it creates an upward-flowing column of liquid held together by cohesion.  The tongue is apparently moving at exactly the optimal speed to create an upward flow without the column breaking up.

So, I was reading this, thinking what a charming piece of research this is, with applications both to engineering and to evolutionary biology, and feeling pretty happy.  Then I scrolled down and started reading the comments.  Here is a sampler for your perusal.  Spelling and grammar are left intact, so you can get the full effect.

"This is what these scientists are spending there government funding on?  Cut em off and make em start working for there money like everyone else."

"How much of our tax dollars funded this research."

"Wait a minute.  China is holding the worlds purse strings... and researchers at our best college are studying cats drinking habits?  WTF?"

"its only money goverments love to waste it aslong they get there share line there pockets
so its no odds at all do it all the time nomatter who gets in they will always steal from the public pursemisuse taxpayers money"

Okay, enough.  You get the picture.  Now, for my response.  The more sensitive members of the studio audience may want to avert their eyes.


First:  no tax dollars whatsoever were "wasted" on this research.  MIT's engineering research lab is funded by a private endowment.

Second:  knowledge of how the world works is important in and of itself.  This kind of knowledge is called "science."

Third:  the people who engage in this kind of commentary, despite the fact that they seem to have a single Froot Loop where most people have a brain, fail to take into account how many practical applications have come from pure research that seemed, at first, to have no connection to the "real world."  Here are just a few:

1)  Two researchers, George Beadle and Edward Tatum, were studying nutrition in a mold called Neurospora, and were particularly interested in why some strains of Neurospora starved to death even when given adequate amounts of food.  Their research generated the concept of "one gene-one protein" -- the basis of our understanding of how genes control traits.

2)  Charles Richet was studying how the toxin of a rare species of jellyfish affects the body.  His research led to the discovery of how anaphylactic shock works -- and led to the development of the epi pen, saving countless lives from death because of bee sting allergies.

3)  Wilhelm Roentgen was researching the newly-invented cathode-ray tube, which at that point had no practical applications whatsoever.  That is, he was playing around.  He noticed that when he activated the tube, even though it was completely covered, some fluorescent papers at the other end of the room began to glow in the dark.  He had just discovered x-rays.

4)  Alexander Fleming was something of a ne'er-do-well in the scientific world.  He did a lot of raising of bacteria on plates, and his favorite hobby was to take brightly-colored species of bacteria and paint them on agar media to make pictures.  One day, a mold spore blew in and landed on one of his picture-cultures and spoiled it.  His further messing-about with how the mold spoiled the culture led to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin.

5)  Roy Plunkett was working with gases that could be used to quickly cool vessels in scientific experiments, and after one failure he found that the vessel was left coated with a slick substance.  He eventually named it "Teflon."

And so forth.

I think the problem, honestly, is that far too many people have an erroneous idea of how science works -- that scientists clock in at 8 AM, and consult their Scientific Method Rules List, and proceed to make discoveries, then clock out at 5 PM and go home to their wives and 2.5 children.  Very little science actually works this way, going in a straight line from A to B.  Much more of it is just inquiry into a little bit of the world that strikes the researchers' curiosity -- and this is everything from the oddball experiments that never have any practical applications whatsoever to the pure research that ends up saving lives or transforming society.  Most of the best science comes from the curious, agile minds of men and women who are pursuing research to explain things they wonder about, and shedding a little light on one small piece of the universe about which we were ignorant.  The rest of us common folk should be thankful that these people are doing what they're doing, because you know what?  Every piece of technology, every medical advance, all the things that make modern society possible, were developed by scientists.

And toward that end, I do wish that the Yahoo! posters would either educate themselves, or else simply do what I do when I am ignorant on a topic -- namely, shut the hell up.

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