Click-Bait, Cows, Bacon, and Scientific Thought

I had finished reading an online newspaper article when I noticed the title of a click-bait ad. You are familiar with this type of headline: “Ten Secrets to Wealth that Turned Homeless People into Billionaires,” “You Won’t Believe What Fidel Castro Looks Like Now,” and “Scientists Prove, Eating Bacon is Good for You.” I generally resist the bait, but when I don’t, I often spend half an hour clicking away, going from one story to the next, trying to make sure I find the real “next” button, so I am not sent over reading an ad for life insurance. I’m like a person given a bag of candy who can’t stop eating until the bag is empty, but I don’t want to eat the bag itself. On this day, the title that started me on my binge was something like, “The Ten Mysteries Science Can’t Solve.”

I was familiar with the first few scientific mysteries. One mystery was new to me. The article claimed that cows always graze in the fields facing south. Wow. I never noticed. Scientists, the article stated, were stumped. I began to think about why cows would face south. My best ad hoc theory was that cows were let out in the mornings when the sun was rising and returned to the barn in the evenings when the sun was setting, so they fell into a habit of grazing toward the south to avoid having the sun in their eyes. Of course, the theory had a hole in it. Why wouldn’t the cows be as likely to face north if the sun were responsible?

On a trip to Macon, Georgia, while driving south, I paid attention to the cows grazing along a back road. The cows were all facing in the same direction I traveled. So, I started thinking again about theories and ways to test them. Scientific thinking involves generating hypotheses, then figuring out how to methodically test them to see if they are true. On the return trip, I saw the cows facing the same southerly direction in a few more fields. I thought some more about possible explanations. A few weeks later, however, I was driving elsewhere in the county and slowed to look at some grazing cows. These cows were facing north, east, south, and west. Hmm. Was this herd an exception to the rule or did it challenge the validity of the rule? I drove past another cow pasture and the cows were not facing south either. I got mad at myself for believing what I read in a click-bait article. Hook, line, and sinker, I thought. Time for more research; you have to get the facts straight before you start generating theories.

I did some more secondary research. There seems to be solid evidence that some herd animals, like cows and deer, do typically graze facing north or south. Yes, there are exceptions, but the generalization seems to be confirmed. The best explanation seems to be that these herd animals sense magnetic fields. We don’t know how. Some animals do. Even if cows have this ability, the question remains about why they align themselves in the direction of the magnetic field. Neither the sun in the face nor its warmth are satisfying explanations. Does grazing in one direction help cows avoid conflicts as one theory suggests? Scientists have to find ways to test this explanation before accepting it. It’s not easy to do.

Explanations of behavior are difficult. There are multiple causes for behaviors which vary even under the same circumstances. To be useful, scientific explanations must begin with reliable, unbiased observations. We have to look at lots of herds in various places and at various times. The potential explanations for these observations must be tested. Is there more conflict when herds are facing multiple directions? If we start some members of a herd in a northerly direction and the rest in a southerly direction so the groups meet, does conflict arise? When the results support a hypothesis, the findings and experimental methods have to be shared with other researchers. Peers do their best to criticize the study. If the study withstands criticism, it may be published. The community of scientists then tries to duplicate the results or vary the experiment slighty to test a different hypothesis. Even when the information is published in reliable scientific journals, it can be incorrect or incomplete. Generating, evaluating, refining, and testing theories is an ongoing process. The process results in a body of theory that has been tested.

What makes scientific thinking worth pursuing is that scientists are willing to question any assumption and reexamine every theory. Over time, with this kind of scrutiny, scientists are increasingly likely to get things right. No, scientists don’t have all the answers. Behaviors are especially difficult to understand. But, scientific explanations, even tentative ones, obtained from reliable scientific study, is far better to read than click-bait written by wannabe writers. This time, the click-bait story I read was accurate though incomplete. However, I recommend you stay away from bacon even if it sounds good and you find an Internet article saying scientists love it.

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