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.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Lying down with dogs

We love our dogs, but there are times when we look straight into their big brown eyes and say, "You are the reason we can't have nice things."

Of course, given that neither of our dogs are known for their excessive brain power, they usually respond by wagging cheerfully.

Sometimes I think our dogs are not so much pets as a pair of home demolition experts.  Both of them track mud everywhere, a problem made worse by Guinness's love of swimming in our pond.

There's also the issue that when he chases his tennis ball -- his all-time favorite occupation, one that he is capable of doing for hours on end -- he performs his catches with all the grace and subtlety of a baseball player sliding into home.  The result is that he has torn our back lawn into a wasteland of rutted dirt, which in early spring when the snow melts turns into a giant mud puddle.  We've been renovating our walk-out basement, and while considering what flooring to put in, I suggested that we simply spread an enormous plastic tarp on the floor and call it good.

Carol felt that this didn't set the right aesthetic for our home, and I suppose she's right,  but it would certainly be easier to keep clean.

And it'd be nice if tracking dirt everywhere was all they did.  Guinness (code name: El Destructo) has a great love of chewing stuff, and despite having approximately 1,485 chew toys, he is constantly finding stuff to tear up that isn't technically his.  So far, we've lost shoes, slippers, books, paintbrushes, pieces of unopened mail, a set of iPod headphones, and so many cardboard boxes that I've lost count.  He's also an accomplished counter surfer, and just a couple of weeks ago he snagged a half-pound of expensive French brie, something we still haven't quite forgiven him for.

I guess I didn't realize that when we picked him out at the shelter, we were on the Bad Doggie Aisle.  That'll teach me not to read the signs more carefully.

Anyhow, when we ask our dogs, "So, what good are you two, anyway?", they don't generally have any answer unless you count cheerful wagging.  But maybe they will now -- because two papers, one in the Journal of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology and the other in PLOS-One, have shown that dogs actually do have a positive contribution to make (above and beyond companionship), especially to the health of children.

In the first, "Early Exposure to Cats, Dogs and Farm Animals and the Risk of Childhood Asthma and Allergy," by a team led by Vincent Ojwang of Tampere University (Finland), we find that children living with dogs and/or cats when they're very young have a statistically significant lower chance of allergies, asthma, and eczema than children who don't.  The mechanism is poorly understood -- it may have something to do with early exposure to dirt and pet dander desensitizing children to harmless antigens -- but the effect was clear.  The sample size was nearly four thousand, so it's not an inconsequential result.  (Interestingly, the correlation with farm animals was uncertain, perhaps because farm animals aren't in the home and exposure to them is not only more limited, it's more likely to occur in the open air where concentrations of dust and dander are lower.)

The second, "Exposure to Household Pet Cats and Dogs in Childhood and Risk of Subsequent Diagnosis of Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder," by a team led by Robert Yolken of Johns Hopkins, found that (even when you control for other factors), a child who lived with a pet dog for a significant amount of time before age thirteen was 24% less likely to be diagnosed later with schizophrenia.  (There was no similar correlation with cat ownership; the reason is unclear.)

As with the allergy/asthma study, the mechanism behind this correlation is uncertain.  "Serious psychiatric disorders have been associated with alterations in the immune system linked to environmental exposures in early life, and since household pets are often among the first things with which children have close contact, it was logical for us to explore the possibilities of a connection between the two," Yolken said in an interview with Science Daily.  "Previous studies have identified early life exposures to pet cats and dogs as environmental factors that may alter the immune system through various means, including allergic responses, contact with zoonotic bacteria and viruses, changes in a home's microbiome, and pet-induced stress reduction effects on human brain chemistry...  [Some researchers] suspect that this immune modulation may alter the risk of developing psychiatric disorders to which a person is genetically or otherwise predisposed."

So I suppose I must grudgingly admit that our dogs actually might serve some purpose other than getting hair all over the sofa, barking at the UPS guy, and chasing away terrifying intruders like chipmunks.  Maybe we should credit their dirt-spreading capacity with the fact that our sons are both completely healthy and allergy-free.  At this point, though, since Carol and I are both clearly adults, they can lay off changing our home's microbiome.  I'll accept the risk of developing an allergy if I don't have to put up with Lena lying down next to me after having rolled in a rancid squirrel carcass.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is simultaneously one of the most dismal books I've ever read, and one of the funniest; Tom Phillips's wonderful Humans: A Brief History of How We Fucked It All Up.

I picked up a copy of it at the wonderful book store The Strand when I was in Manhattan last week, and finished it in three days flat (and I'm not a fast reader).  To illustrate why, here's a quick passage that'll give you a flavor of it:
Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don't yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place. 
The only trouble is... well, we're not terribly good at any of those things.  Any honest assessment of humanity's previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you.  We imagine patterns where they don't exist.  Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking.  And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realize that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
Phillips's clear-eyed look at our own unfortunate history is kept from sinking under its own weight by a sparkling wit, calling our foibles into humorous focus but simultaneously sounding the call that "Okay, guys, it's time to pay attention."  Stupidity, they say, consists of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results; Phillips's wonderful book points out how crucial that realization is -- and how we need to get up off our asses and, for god's sake, do something.

And you -- and everyone else -- should start by reading this book.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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