Three common misunderstandings about science

With the entire world being in the midst of a pandemic right now, many people are turning to scientists for answers.  Now seems like a good time to address some common misunderstandings about science. This applies just as much to dog training and behavior as infectious diseases!

When our field first began, there was very little research on dogs and dog behavior.  I remember long ago, when I was an undergraduate, Patricia McConnell telling me that dogs were not “sexy”.  What she meant by this, is that they were not considered interesting to research.  Scientists were interested in wild animal behavior or the behavior of lab animals – no one wanted to study the lowly, common, domestic dog.  As a result, early trainers and behavior consultations largely had to rely on learning theory and their own personal experience.  Sure, there was some other information out there – Scott and Fuller did their puppy development research in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  But, there really was not enough to build a career on.

Image by Ralf Bitzer

However, a lot has changed over the recent decades.  Dogs are no longer considered boring and have, in fact, become very “sexy” in the world of research.  Scientific understanding of dog behavior is rapidly expanding and we run the risk of missing out on vast amounts of knowledge if we don’t keep up.  This means two things: 1) keeping up with the new research and insights into learning theory and 2) expanding our knowledge to go beyond learning theory.  This is particularly clear for those of us who work with behavior issues, but trainers who have a deep understanding of the current science will also benefit.  Keeping up with research will set you apart from others in your field – bringing better results for your clients and their dogs.

Keeping up with the research requires the ability to evaluate, interpret, and apply scientific findings.  There are a lot of misunderstandings about science – starting by debunking those myths is a good place to start.

Misunderstanding #1: There is one, definite, black and white answer

Throughout much of our schooling, the world is presented in black and white – there is one definitely correct answer and other answers are just as definitively incorrect.  When I taught undergraduates, they would often get extremely frustrated when there wasn’t a single, clear, easily summarized answer to their questions. This is what we expect to see:

This is certainly true with certain things – a tree is clearly not a dog, for example!  However, large areas of our world do not conform themselves so neatly to such black and white, dichotomous answers. It is much more likely to see complexity and nuance.  This is especially true when we’re talking about biology and behavior. A much more common answer than “yes” or “no” is “it depends”. The image below is a more accurate depiction of actually happens:

The point here is that behavior is complex.  It is influenced by many different things.  If you limit yourself to finding black and white answers, you will limit your ability to help your clients and their dogs.  By increasing your knowledge of a wide range of scientific disciplines, you will improve your understanding of the complexity of behavior and reduce your black and white thinking. This will allow you to take novel and innovative approaches to training and behavior and find success – or faster pathways to success – where others have failed.

Misunderstanding #2: Correlation equals causation

If you have ever taken a science class in your life, hopefully this phrase sounds familiar to you!

If there is a relationship between the two variables, then they are said to be correlated. Correlations can be negative or positive. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  Maybe we are interested in how exercise is related to owner ratings of the dog’s energy level.  We conduct a survey study that asks owners to rate their dog’s energy level and report how much exercise the dog gets. We  may find that dogs that get more exercise are rated as less energetic by their owners.  That would mean there is a negative correlation between exercise and energy level rating.  As one measure increases, the other decreases. It’s also possible that dogs that get more exercise are rated as more energetic by their owners. This would mean there is a positive correlation between exercise and energy level rating—as one measure increases so does the other. (A third possibility is that there is no correlation, indicating no relationship between the two.)

Image by Tom und Nicki Löschner

The major drawback of a correlation is that we cannot use it to infer causation. That is, a relationship between X and Y does not necessarily mean that X causes Y or that Y causes X. It’s possible that there is a causal relationship, but it’s also possible they are both influenced by a third factor, or it could just be chance.

Let’s say that our exercise study found a positive correlation between exercise and energy level score. That is, dogs with more energy also received more exercise. We might think that dogs that are exercised more are rated as more energetic by their owners because the increased exercise is causing an increase in energy – they are in better shape, so they are more energetic.  You could also speculate that they are exercised more because they are more energetic and this is causing their owners to prioritize getting them exercise.  Another possible explanation is that more active owners select more active dogs and it’s the owner characteristics that are causing the increase in exercise and the characteristics of the dog.  All of these explanations could be true and they are all testable.  However, we cannot know which one of these explanations (if any) are actually true based on these results.

This particular study can’t tell us why this relationship exists – it can only tell us that there is a relationship. In order to determine cause, we would need to do an experimental study where some dogs randomly receive more exercise than others and everything else is held as constant as possible.  Then, if we found that dogs that received more exercise were also more energetic, we would have evidence that exercise increases energy level in dogs.  Please note that this is just a hypothetical example and not based on actual data!

So, when you see that two things are correlated, or that there is a relationship between the two, remind yourself that this is not enough to tell us that one causes the other!

Misunderstanding #3: It’s been proven

I hear this phrase a lot.  I don’t know any scientists that use it.  Why not?  First, as I said earlier in this post, there are not black and white answers in most cases.  That means that something that applies in one situation or context, may not be true in another.  This makes it very difficult to say “it’s been proven”.  Second, there is always the possibility that we will gain new information, or that there will be an exception to the rule. Our knowledge is only as good as our ability to measure what we’re interested in studying.  As our ability to measure changes, our understanding of a particular phenomenon may change as well.  It’s possible that this new knowledge will support our existing knowledge, but it’s also possible that we will learn that we’ve been wrong all along.  Here is one of my favorite quotes that I think illustrates this quite nicely:

“[Science’s] genius is self-criticism. When you find that the universe is accelerating and accelerating in its rate of acceleratin…, this is not supposed to be true and the moment [scientists] find out that all major assumptions have been overthrown, there’s rejoicing in the scientific community…And that is the authority of science for me.”  – Marilynne Robinson interviewed on the On Being Podcast, “They Mystery We Are”

When I was an undergraduate, feathered dinosaur fossils were discovered.  This provided conclusive evidence that we had been wrong in some of our core beliefs about dinosaurs.  My professors were ecstatic about this news.  They were so excited that they canceled a normally scheduled lecture and brought in a guest lecturer from another university in another state to talk to us about the discovery.  This left quite an impact on me.  New knowledge is new knowledge and it’s worth celebrating even if it means we were wrong.

Credit: Ron F. from Pixabay

It’s also important to understand that this doesn’t mean we can’t trust science. Science is still very powerful, but at best it’s 99% confident, not 100%. This is why we don’t tend to speak in absolutes at least not when it comes to the biological and behavioral sciences.

(Notice, that I am not even speaking in absolutes in this blog post!  I say things like “we don’t tend to speak in absolutes” instead of “we never speak in absolutes! As a side note, the strong tendency of scientists to avoid speaking in absolutes means that if you have a large number of scientists telling you that something is true, that means there is an overwhelming amount of evidence behind it and you should probably listen to them!)

This is only a sampling of the misunderstandings regarding science, but I hope that you find this helpful when reading or learning about the science of behavior.  What other misunderstanding do you think are common?

If you find this topic interesting or would like further guidance in learning and interpreting current research, please check on my Research Bites webinar series!


Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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