Sunday, August 22, 2010

A case of beer and some waterproof boots

Some of you may have been in suspense since yesterday.  I did, after all, mention that a post about cow tipping was in the pipeline.  I, myself, would have been biting my nails in anticipation.

As a skeptic, I have plenty of criticisms I can give to those that believe in things that I think are (at best) very unlikely.  As a critical thinker, though, I have plenty of criticisms for the skeptical community as well. I'm sure that some of you heard the words cow and tipping, and your first thought was that it's been debunked.  Well, yes, it has, for the following reasons.

1. Cows do not sleep standing up.  They doze.
2. Cows have an excellent sense of hearing and smell.  They would not be easy to sneak up on.
3. Cows are heavy, with a low center of gravity.

From the Times Online article Cow-tipping myth hasn't got a leg to stand on:

“The static physics of the issue say . . . two people might be able to tip a cow,” she said. “But the cow would have to be tipped quickly — the cow’s centre of mass would have to be pushed over its hoof before the cow could react.”

Newton’s second law of motion, force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, shows that the high acceleration necessary to tip the cow would require a higher force. “Biology also complicates the issue here because the faster the [human] muscles have to contract, the lower the force they can produce. But I suspect that even if a dynamic physics model suggests cow tipping is possible, the biology ultimately gets in the way: a cow is simply not a rigid, unresponding body.” 

So, case closed?  Well, I have to admit that all of this troubles me.  Not only is there the anecdotal evidence (and sorry, fellow skeptics, it is actually evidence.  I'll do a blog about this later) of people who've been involved in tipping a cow, but there's also the debunkers, who've never been involved in tipping a cow.

In my mind, the best information comes from scientists who have been in the field (so to speak) and have studied a matter first-hand, using the scientific process.

The second-best information comes from the lay person who reports a matter, and has experienced it first-hand, using a non-scientific process.

And the third-best information comes from scientists who sit at a desk, with a calculator and a protractor, and use their abilities to remote-debunk a phenomenon, believing that they have been given the power to settle an argument at a distance.

Of course, this isn't an absolute scale.  Some things are perfectly viable on a piece of paper.  Theoretical physicists have done wonders with chalkboards.  With biology, though, and things that are alive and aware, the edges are much more fuzzy than the pencil lines on a piece of paper.

If you've ever watched Mythbusters* (a show I enjoy more for the fun they have than the sometimes-iffy science) whenever they do a myth about an animal, the animal will consistently not behave the way they had expected.** An animal is something that cannot be represented by simple math.  There are too many factors involved.  In short, I don't buy it, and I won't until the debunkers find themselves in a field, skirting around piles of poop, sneaking up on an unsuspecting cow.

Perhaps a dozing cow isn't alarmed by approaching humans.  It may be used to humans approaching.  Perhaps a cow, when shoved, would decide that falling over was preferable to regaining balance, because of some quirk in bovine psychology.  I don't know, and likely neither do you.  All I know is that to arrive at the now-accepted conclusion, you have to make a boatload of assumptions, and then pretend that they're all correct.

In short, go, and I don't want to see you again until your boots are soiled.

Thanks for reading.

*I just checked, there have been multiple submissions of cow tipping to the Mythbusters homepage.

**My favorite instance, by far, was a bull in a china shop.  If you haven't watched the episode, take a look.

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