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Lies, Damned Lies and Cat Statistics 175

Posted by samzenpus
from the nine-lies dept.
spopepro writes "While un-captioned cats might be of limited interest to the /. community, I found this column on how a fabricated statistic takes on a life of its own interesting. Starting with the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) claim that the unsterilized offspring of a cat will '...result in 420,000 cats in 5 years,' the author looks at other erroneous numbers, where they came from and why they won't go away."

*

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Lies, Damned Lies and Cat Statistics

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @06:56PM (#33295174) Journal
    When I was a kid, I used to sit there smashing mosquitoes that bit me. Every time I smashed one fat with blood, I relished the idea that I had just killed a female mosquito who was about to lay thousands of eggs. And those mosquitoes would in turn breed and lay thousands of eggs and I had essentially just ended the lives of an infinite number of mosquitoes!

    Please, just let me have this -- your environmental constraints and logical reasoning be damned!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Reminds me of the following: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/21/if-i-hadnt-killed-52-flies-as-a-child-how-many-descendants-would-they-have-had-by-now

    • by cappp (1822388) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:07PM (#33295274)
      That's pretty much TFA's point, and it's a scary one. Interest groups propogate faulty statistics so as to support questionable claims. Exaggeration, conflation, and the like does nothing more than undermine legitimate concerns. We've seen it with climate change - the desire to effect policy by presenting worst case scenario journalism has just fed the other side.
      I remember when I got the "you're a guy so try not to rape everyone" speech in college. Good underlying point...concent is important, getting concent is complicated, sex under the influence is generally a bad idea. It was totally undermined by the 1-in-4 statistic, and the way in which it was presented, and ultimatly served to offend my friends and I while also instilling the seeds of anti-feminism (ooh those stupid fem-nazis and their crazy ideas....)in a bunch of guys. The stat is wrong, it's been shown to be lacking, and it's still repeated. It has significant utility and so it's not questioned but, ultimatly, it does more to harm a good cause than it does to support it.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        For your future knowledge, it is 1-in-5 not 1-in-4. I would consider those to be almost the same. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00049859.htm [cdc.gov] "Female students (20.4%) were significantly more likely than male students (3.9%) to report they had ever been forced to have sexual intercourse."
        • by cappp (1822388) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:20PM (#33295874)
          Which is somewhat my point. We were specifically told that 1 in 4 women would be raped on campus. Not 1 in 5 in her lifetime. Not with all the significant caveats and modifiers that precede the numbers at the CDC you've referenced (the 1995 numbers). Check out the 2007 numbers [cdc.gov] - it’s now 20 to 25% either attempted or completed. The Institute of Justice found that [usdoj.gov]

          A survey of college women found that 2.8 percent had experienced either a completed (1.7 percent) or an attempted (1.1 percent) rape within a 9-month timeframe.
          13.7% of undergraduate women had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault since entering college: 4.7% were victims of physically forced sexual assault; 7.8% of women were sexually assaulted when they were incapacitated after voluntarily consuming drugs, alcohol or both; and 0.6% were sexually assaulted when they were incapacitated after having been given a drug without their knowledge
          Finally, a national-level study of college and community based women found that approximately 673,000 of nearly 6 million current college women (11.5 percent) have ever been raped, and approximately twelve percent of these rapes were reported to law enforcement

          I'm not questioning the underlying idea that rape is pervasive and wrong. What I'm getting at is that by dragging out exaggerated, faulty numbers you introduce weakness into an argument. Those men in that room would have been horrified to hear that 13.7% of women had been sexually assaulted on campus - but that numbers not sexy enough for widespread hyperbole. All it took was for one guy to do a little digging into the stats, find the body of literature that criticized the methodology of that one source, and campus rape became a joke to half the community. Instead of disgust we had widespread disdain for the claim itself, and that is extremely damaging.

          There is something extremely patronising, or condescending, which presumes that people cannot be motivated by subtle or nuanced arguments – every problem doesn’t have to directly affect 98.43% of the population to count.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            I wonder if part of it was almost like a sense of relief to find out it wasn't 25%, but more like 13%? While that's still horrendous (as you point out) it's lower, and therefore sounds much better, almost like the actual rate had dropped by half, when the first number was just bullshit.

          • by cappp (1822388)
            And by "precede the numbers at the CDC" I of course meant, "following the numbers at the CDC"
      • by kurokame (1764228)

        Well you would say that, wouldn't you, you dirty terrorist?

        That's right, I saw you smoking that marijuana.

      • by xs650 (741277)
        There are people in this world who justify their behavior by saying others do whatever obnoxious behavior they have done.

        Does telling a warped person predisposed toward rape that rape is so common on a college campus that it is OK? I think it could.
      • The problem with the "lies, damned lies, and statistics" argument is that it leads people to conclude that all statistics are invalid unless they happen to agree with our political proclivities, which is far more dangerous than bad numbers floating around out there.

        You see the nice thing about statistics is that when someone fudges something, it's possible to prove that something was fudged. However if you have been trained to reject all statistical evidence, you no longer have any reasonable tools for sepa

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by c0lo (1497653)
      And well you did by smashing those female mosquitoes: my computations shows beyond doubt that, if you not have done that, the entire biomass of the earth would be now made of mosquitoes!

      I'll rush to publish this statistic and start a new one on rodent population, stay tuned.

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      When I was a kid, I used to sit there smashing mosquitoes that bit me. Every time I smashed one fat with blood, I relished the idea that I had just killed a female mosquito who was about to lay thousands of eggs. And those mosquitoes would in turn breed and lay thousands of eggs and I had essentially just ended the lives of an infinite number of mosquitoes!

      Please, just let me have this -- your environmental constraints and logical reasoning be damned!

      Presumably, I'm told (many years ago) that if you pinch t

      • Yep, it definitely results in a satisfying explosion. I can't remember whether or not it makes for a less or more painful mosquito bite.
      • by Coren22 (1625475)

        I had a friend who would clench his muscle until the mosquito was getting ready to disengage, and then would release. The resulting increase in blood flow would explode the mosquito quite nicely. Never was successful in the timing myself.

  • by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:03PM (#33295250) Journal

    That just means we have the opportunity to make our own captions!

    i can haz kitenz?

    Go Go Gadget Pointless Thread:

    • by jd (1658) <.imipak. .at. .yahoo.com.> on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:11PM (#33295316) Homepage Journal

      Unkaptshunned Kittehs aer a kryme agaynst kitteh-hood. Unless dey're orinj. Teh orinj wuns aer poyson.

      • Unkaptshunned Kittehs aer a kryme agaynst kitteh-hood. Unless dey're orinj. Teh orinj wuns aer poyson.

        My brain hurts from trying to read that.

        • by SirGeek (120712)

          unkaptshunned Kittehs aer a kryme agaynst kitteh-hood. Unless dey're orinj. Teh orinj wuns aer poyson.

          My brain hurts from trying to read that.

          But you STILL could read it...

    • by vidnet (580068)

      We'll need a lot of captions!

      If one cat turns into 420000 over 5 years, then if a single cat was abandoned or escaped 15 years ago in the USA, there should now be 13.8 quadrillion offspring accumulated, or 13.8 Peta-cats if you will. Let's say that "just" one Peta-cat is still alive. That's 3.2 Mega-cats per capita, or a bit over 100 cats per square meter of american territory.

  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:07PM (#33295278)
    With all the fucking bullshit that ends up on the front page. All the iPhone astroturfing, all the Android FUD, all the iPhone FUD and Android astroturfing, all the dupes and tripes and all the dopes. All the ridiculous "Ask Slashdot"s that could have been solved with 2 minutes Googling...

    This ends up in idle? Mis-reporting of unsubstantiated facts by news-outlets may not be news, but it's stuff that matters, and if ever there was an example of something that shouldn't have been consigned to the idle bin, this is it! Adding some stupid allusion to lolcats does not make it idle-worthy. If someone submitted a story about the pope dying and added "His hat looks a bit like a wang! LOL" does it follow that the story should go on the Funny Pages?
    • by HBoar (1642149)
      Well, TFA is an amusing read, but it's hardly news.... It's not like we don't all know this is going on all around us. I guess it's a high quality article for Idle, but it'd be a pretty low quality news story...
  • by JetScootr (319545) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:09PM (#33295300) Journal
    Pidoma == Pulled It Directly From My... uh... Mid Air.
  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by martin-boundary (547041) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:17PM (#33295364)
    I don't know what kind of maths they do in the Wall St Journal (yeah, I actually RTFA), but according to the maths that I do from the unfashionable side of my mother's basement, the actual number of offspring after 5 years starting with a single unspayed female cat is zero.

    Now, if one starts with two cats however, the number could well be higher...

    • by _Sprocket_ (42527)

      I wonder how many LOCcats that would end up being.

      (Libraries of Congresses filled with cats)

    • by SheeEttin (899897)
      Yeah, I got a question like that on a test in high school once... we were given a fictional creature (one, either female or unspecified gender), and the rate at which they reproduce, and told to find how many creatures there would be after so much time.
      I puzzled over whether the answer was "one" or whatever the math worked out to, because it was fictional and there was no indication of whether the creature reproduced sexually, asexually, or whatever. Turned out, the answer was, sure enough, one.
    • I don't know what kind of maths they do in the Wall St Journal (yeah, I actually RTFA), but according to the maths that I do from the unfashionable side of my mother's basement, the actual number of offspring after 5 years starting with a single unspayed female cat is zero.

      Now, if one starts with two cats however, the number could well be higher...

      Not if all that changes is the number of cats involved, it couldn't.

  • Do your own math (Score:4, Informative)

    by mugnyte (203225) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:21PM (#33295406) Journal

    Age to maturity: 6 to 10 months
    Litters per year: 0 to 3
    Litter size: 1 to 8

    so, using a changing multipler for newborns of
        year1= 0 to 12 offspring
        year2,3,4,5 = 0 to 24 offspring

    i get values around
    end year1: 1 to 25 cats
    end year2: 1 to 300 cats
    end year3: 1 to 3900 cats
    end year4: 1 to 54k cats
    end year5: 1 to 835k cats

    So it pretty much stands as a useless range

    • Re:Do your own math (Score:4, Interesting)

      by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmythe@@@jwsmythe...com> on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @07:46PM (#33295576) Homepage Journal

      Of course it's a worthless statistic, that's why they use it. :)

          They never (and can't) account for population restrictions. That could include...

        Food supply. If there are too many cats, not enough food, some cats die of starvation. There are an abundance of natural controls at work there. Malnurished animals don't tend to reproduce very well. But, if there is a good food supply (rodents, birds, snakes, etc), they will reproduce more.

        Natural mistakes. Not every animal is born perfectly. Some are stillborn. Some die at only a few days or weeks old due to health problems.

          Illnesses. Sick animals without treatment have a lower chance of survival.

          Predators. A bunch of warm fuzzy kittens running around make good snacks for birds of prey. Well, also for foxes, coyotes, snakes, alligators, etc, etc, etc. Sometimes it doesn't have to be a predator that can actually eat it. I had a cat who was bitten twice by poisonous snakes. She could have died without medical assistance. Since she was a pet, she had readily available food and water. The same can't be said for feral animals.

          And of course we have to mention human influences. People taking feral cats out of the population to make fixed house pets out of them. Some may be trapped and sent off to the pound and subsequently euthanized. Others are killed through accidents, such as catastrophic intersections between the animal and vehicle vectors (i.e., run over).

          There are plenty of statistics on the likelihood of a feral animal surviving to maturity. That varies tremendously by their local environment. A stray cat in a suburban neighborhood may live very happily, as there are not many natural predators around (except humans). They'll also likely have access to food and water left outside for pets. A stray cat in a wooded area will have less of a chance. Sometimes the distance between the two is only a few miles.
      As with the statistics in the article, you cannot blindly assume either set of statistics is correct.

          I love statistics. They can be used to prove or disprove anything, and you can usually find statistics to argue both sides of the same issue. The statistics can be dramatically swayed by who paid for the study to be done.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by madmarcel (610409)

        Illnesses. Sick animals without treatment have a lower chance of survival.

        FIV. It is rampant in feral cat colonies. It has also mutated so that there are strains unique to specific areas and/or colonies. Unlike HIV it spreads via bites and scratches btw.

        I worked with a PhD student doing research on a specific strain of FIV unique to the country I live in - you should've seen some of the feral monsters she dissected. Size of frikkin' horses with fangs that would make Dracula jealous.

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

              That sounds more like she was dissecting chupacabra, not feral cats. Are you sure her PhD isn't in cryptozoology? :) Do you have any pictures? :)

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by madmarcel (610409)
            No, I don't have a picture of her pu...uhh... Let's just say that you're in the wrong continent altogether, the only cryptids we have here are invisible moose.
      • by SuperKendall (25149) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:27PM (#33295940)

        They never (and can't) account for population restrictions. That could include...

            Food supply. If there are too many cats, not enough food, some cats die of starvation.

        That's a nice textbook analysis of natural limits to population.

        But you are totally ignoring the reality of a very specific situation - feral cats in urban areas. What exactly is the natural control at work? Cats are wary, not many are killed by accidents. There is abundant food in an urban environment thanks to dumpsters. Furthermore, cats are great natural predators and left unchecked will decimate a bird population. You seriously think "birds of prey" in a modern city are enough to do ANYTHING to a feral cat population? If you don't care about any other wildlife then ignoring wild cat populations is a great way to see most of it decline.

        People taking feral cats out of the population to make fixed house pets out of them.

        A really feral cat CANNOT be made a pet. If you get them really, really early as kittens (a few weeks old) you can, but after that - forget it.

        Not to mention shelters have to kill plenty of cats that are not feral to begin with, because there aren't even enough people to take cats simply abandoned...

        The truth is more of a range but the reality is on the high end of the range, in any modern city. The groups posting these figures may be giving you a number somewhat too high but they are not as far off as you and other people thinking of statistics in simple terms seem to think.

        The best solution is to trap cats, spay/neuter, and then release them. This keeps cat populations at a much lower natural limit, as the cats will still keep other cats out of a territorial area but cannot produce new kittens that keep a colony growing and then go out to form new colonies.

        • What exactly is the natural control at work?

          Disease, most likely.

          There is abundant food in an urban environment thanks to dumpsters.

          In the absence of any other limit the population will grow to the limit of the food supply.

          If you don't care about any other wildlife then ignoring wild cat populations is a great way to see most of it decline.

          The coyote population won't decline.

          The best solution is to trap cats, spay/neuter, and then release them.

          Better to vasectomize the males. That way they continue

          • Disease, most likely.

            Wild cats don't have many diseases that kill them or prevent them from mating.

            In the absence of any other limit the population will grow to the limit of the food supply.

            What I'm saying is that in an urban area that limit is very high, since there is food EVERYWHERE.

            The coyote population won't decline.

            Feral cats are rarely killed by coyotes, even if there were enough in urban populations to matter. Coyotes are eating pets, who are not at all wary like a feral cat is. Just one trademark

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          But you are totally ignoring the reality of a very specific situation - feral cats in urban areas. What exactly is the natural control at work?

          With urban sprawl, "urban" or "suburban" areas have grown into what was wild natural areas. At one house I lived in, I was talking to people who had lived there since the community was built. 15 years prior, it wasn't uncommon to see wild foxes or otters. The area was almost infested with large snakes. When I moved in, the first day I saw an osprey

          • He was never comfortable coming into the house,

            Exactly. You can get a feral cat to take food from you but it's never going to be a pet. It's not logical to claim the feral cat population will decline because of adoption, when there are many perfectly ready cats already available for adoption at any given moment in time.

            And that was in a rural area, where easy access to food is harder to come by - in an urban or city environment a cat really doesn't need your handouts as much, because there is so much garb

            • by JWSmythe (446288)

              Feral are wild.

              The cats that we domesticated were comfortable laying around the house (the porch was enclosed, but the doors were left open).

              I never said we domesticated them to make them pets. There were a few reasons. The most "friendly" was that we could then get them fixed. The real reason though was so we didn't have wild animals fighting with our domesticated animals.

              The argument wasn't for or against adoption. The statistic counts an unf

              • The latest thinking on the tributes is that they aren't gifts for the alpha cat. Some big cats and a lot of the smaller ones are storage predators, they haul the carcass somewhere safe to eat. Leopards pull them up trees, cougars often take them back to dens etc. Fluffy is just taking his mouse to a safe territory where no other cat can get it. Nice to think they think your house is safe.
                • by JWSmythe (446288)

                  With cats that I've had, I've noticed a few different behaviors with food, including kills. I've had a lot of cats over the years, and have paid attention to their behaviors. These are some general categories of their behaviors with food.

                  1) Pet food. They usually don't care much, but it's food so they eat it. They'll fight a little with each other when they're eating (growling, and the occasional paw smack), but they aren't very interested in protecting it.

                  2)

        • But you are totally ignoring the reality of a very specific situation - feral cats in urban areas. What exactly is the natural control at work? Cats are wary, not many are killed by accidents. There is abundant food in an urban environment thanks to dumpsters. Furthermore, cats are great natural predators and left unchecked will decimate a bird population.

          Starvation is definitely a limiting factor, at least in suburban areas. My mom's neighborhood has seen an increase in stray cats since the housing bust.

        • by sjames (1099)

          But what about those neighborhoods that are so tough the squirrels have Uzis?

          More seriously, it's not that feral cats are no problem or that it's a problem to just ignore. It's that it isn't as outrageously bad as the stats that are being claimed. Making ludicrously wild claims that simple logic will negate may get some attention initially, but in the long run it will damage your cause a lot more than it will help it..

      • Real world example of self-limiting cat populations: Barn cats. Maybe the number quoted is theoretically possible, but if this were as much of a problem as the statistic implies, we'd have been buried in cats long ago.

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          You know, that's a great example.

          A friend of mine had "barn cats" They were mostly domesticated, but not fixed. You could get close, and if they were curious, they'd let you touch them. They lived in the barn, and were perfectly happy catching mice. They were never fed, but were still healthy and happy. The population was about 3. One of them had a litter of kittens, and the population went up to about 7, but dwindled down on it's own to 4, which then became 3 when one of

    • Better ranges (Score:3, Informative)

      by SuperKendall (25149)

      A healthy female cat is going to have a littler every year. A litter is going to be greater than one cat, guaranteed.

      The low end of your range is thus not realistic.

      To give only the upper end of that range is misleading but not as bad as your range, which hides a real problem by saying that there may not be one.

      What you should really do is use an average figure as a base, which is four cats per littler (of course for the purposes of growth you would use something like half that number to account for only t

      • by mugnyte (203225)

        I agree that your numbers are probably closer to reality, but I think the minimum should still stand at 1, or even 0. The survival rates of feral cats are probably good, but they're not perfect. Also, the breeding availability of feral cats is more limited than you assume due to competition for territory, mates and resources. Also, parasites and spoiled food are two large contributors to weakened feral animals and inability to reproduce.

        • Also, the breeding availability of feral cats is more limited than you assume

          I don't think they are - my numbers assume only that the cats get pregnant, not from who. That is going to happen regardless of territory issues, and there will always be mates... I did lower the number of litters to 3 to account for some variance in how often a female cat could get pregnant.

          Also, parasites and spoiled food are two large contributors to weakened feral animals and inability to reproduce.

          That could be but I'd like

  • by EdZ (755139)

    Did you find yourself hip-deep in cats the last time you left the house?

    If you're a Dorf [magmawiki.com], you don't even need to leave.

  • in 5 years, 1 unspayed mouse will have 60,466,176 offspring.

  • If we were still using DDT there'd be no songbirds. Without a billion songbirds to eat those 420,000 cats would starve. As a bonus, without cats to eat the coyotes would starve.

  • More Or Less @BBC (Score:2, Interesting)

    by datakid23 (1706976)
    More Or Less [bbc.co.uk] is off air atm, but is a wonderful podcast that is probably best described as "Myth Busters for Statistics". Highly recommended.
  • I heard [wikipedia.org] that the African elephant population has tripled in the past six months.

  • Norm McDonald once said that you can have people believe anything you tell them, as long as you preceed it with the words "Study shows"... the funny because it's eerily right.
  • Those are the questions that drove Peter J. Wolf to create Vox Felina, a blog dedicated to examining the basis of claims made about cat numbers and behavior, and debunking those that don't withstand scrutiny.

    I believe this is some sort of conspiracy.

    Also:

    Cat got your tongue? (something important seems to be missing from your comment ... like the body or the subject!)

    They're all out to get me!

  • The sexy meme will propagate much faster than the rational one!
    How do you get people to listen to the rational answer--especially when the rational answer is "Don't make decisions based on that--I don't know it and neither do you. You're a hazard to all of us while you're flying blind!"

  • the unsterilized offspring of a cat will '...result in 420,000 cats in 5 years,'

    Sounds like an opportunity for a new fast food chain.

  • And there was just a poll (even posted here on Slashdot) that claimed that iPhone user have more sex partners.

    I think there's needs to be a study that shows that 99.99% of all statistics are complete and utter hogwash and we shouldn't believe any of this bullshit.

    If we can't believe that one cat can produce 420,000 more cats over the course of 5 years, then maybe we shouldn't believe any other statistic.

    Maybe we need a more critical eye towards EVERY number hurled at us in information overload land.

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

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