Monday, 30 May 2011

Bull. Shit! (Literally)

I've mentioned before how the credibility of science is exploited and mangled for the sake of advertising. So have more capable people, like Ben Goldacre. I was recently asked by a media representative to provide a critical perspective on the Dettol 'Mission for Health'. It seems that this major distributor of disinfectants has, purely out of the goodness of their hearts, conducted some research as to how badly infested with bacteria certain public transport services are. Why public transport? God knows. It couldn't be because so many people use public transport and this is a good way of alarming them and increasing their desire for disinfectants. That would be so cynical.

I was sent the Dettol press release, which described the different bacterial levels found on Cardiff Buses, Manchester trams, and so on. The numbers mean nothing out of context, or in the absence of any data about what's 'normal', and whether the (geographically and physically) distinct sample locations are comparable in any way. But it's OK, because the press release includes some comments from a 'media doctor' who says the bacteria levels aren't good. I was actually more alarmed by the revelation that 'media doctor' is a real job description these days.

The reporter who sent me the press release also included some comments from an actual qualified bacteriologist. These comments can be summarised as follows: 'Eh?'

It was gibberish, but it was just another example of corporations conducting a self-serving 'scientific survey' and just interpreting the data in a manner that suits their needs. Business as usual, I suppose. This sort of thing happens all the time.

Then, a few days later, I saw this. And that, for me, was the final straw for advertising-led science. I've never seen such obvious 'scientific' fabrications.

You might want to go over that article a few times, to convince your brain that yes, it does say what you think it says.

To summarise; on behalf of Laughing Cow, Comedian Milton Jones performed to a field of cows as part of an experiment in whether or not animals can laugh. And it turns out they can.

Essentially, it's a nonsensical experiment that bastardises science via the exploitation of the mediums of comedy and animal behavioural studies. Given my background, I'm not entirely convinced that this whole thing wasn't thought up with the express intention of annoying me specifically.

I will say right now that this is not an attack on Milton Jones, who is brilliant, and as a father of three trying to make a living in an increasingly crowded field (by which I mean comedy, not cows), I have no issue with him taking the corporate dollar. Plus, I imagine he felt it would be funny to perform to cows. And it is.

What's not funny in the traditional sense is the contribution of Bruce Woodacre. Bruce is, apparently, a 'Cow Expert'. Again, one of those jobs which I didn't know existed until I read this. His CV must be very interesting… Actually, it isn't. It's disappointingly normal.

Bruce has an MA in Animal Science from Cambridge. I don't know what that really involves (couldn't find it online, and he did the course nearly 40 years ago), but it sounds impressive. It's got 'science' in the title, but it's also an MA, not an MSc, so that's not 100% reassuring. But let's not get distracted by that*.

So, here's is my critique of this experiment, and why I disagree with the 'findings' that cows can be amused by comedians.


This wasn't written down anywhere that I could see, so I have to make conclusions based on what I saw in the video. It seems like the cows were herded towards a stage constructed in the middle of a field, and Milton Jones performed to them. My questions about this would be as follows;

  • Was there an interval between the cows being corralled and the performance starting? The sensation of being herded towards an unfamiliar construct would be likely to cause levels of activity in the subjects that could obscure the behavioural responses being assessed.
  • Why were there so few independent variables? 'Comedy' is known to have a very subjective component. Even if cows are capable of expressing amusement, there's no guarantee they would be amused by the surreal whimsy of Milton Jones. A repeat of the experiment with Frankie Boyle, Stewart Lee, Michael McIntyre etc. may provide a more robust assessment of whether cows can be amused.
  • In a similar vein, was it just comedians used? The cows are in a unique situation, were there measures in place to rule out the novelty of the situation as the main factor eliciting responses, rather than amusement? Did Milton Jones read out a tax return form at some point, or recite from the phone book? This would have shown whether the cows were actually understanding what was being said and not just 'laughing' at his hairstyle. Alternatively, was the behaviour of the subjects assessed when there was nobody on the stage? Some calibration and standardisation wouldn't have gone amiss.
  • Was this experiment repeated with multiple herds? The one herd used may have been more/less open to amusing stimuli than others. Or they may have been pissed. That makes a difference with comedy sometimes.


Bruce Woodacre is a cow expert. He has 'spent 40 years of [his] life trying to understand cows'. This immediately leads to thinking 'WHY?!?!' This also causes me to have some concerns as to the extent and nature of Bruce's 'interest' in cows. Seems a bit overenthusiastic, if I'm being brutally honest.

He also promotes different approaches to cow management on his website, and uses the term 'holistic' at one point, which is enough to make any scientist twitch nervously these days. I've also found examples of him saying that it's important to put yourself 'in the mind of a cow'. I don't really know how to do this. I tried, but after 5minutes of thinking about cud and grass I just got too bored to continue.

So, I'm sure Bruce knows a lot about cows. But this does not make him an expert behavioural analyst. I myself have spent much of my life in or around cars. However, I am not a mechanic.

There are several points in Bruce's expert analysis that I take issue with. These are as follows:

  • "This cow is a heckler. She doesn't like what Milton's saying. She doesn't think he's funny at all"

Said cow was seemingly chewing cud and moving her head around, in a manner much like most of the other cows in the video. She's also remaining audibly silent, which is not a form of 'heckling' any comic would recognise. Bruce is probably right in saying the cow doesn't think Milton's funny, in that the cow doesn't have any mental concept of what's 'funny' as we'd recognise it, and that goes double for the concept of 'heckling'. It also doesn't speak or understand English. Even if it could, it's spent its entire life in a cow rearing facility, so can't really grasp the social and/or cultural references that make Milton's (or anyone else's) jokes work. The reasons for all this can be explained by one simple fact; It's a cow, not a human.

  • "I don't think a cow laughs in the same way as a human does".

It wouldn't, Bruce. It's a cow. Have you seen any evidence anywhere that they laugh at all? Please provide references if so.

  • "[The cows] display signs that they wouldn't normally display. The position of its ears, its' rate of breathing, things like that, which could well be interpreted as laughter".

I'd be surprised if they weren't displaying signs they wouldn't normally display. Normally, they wouldn't be corralled into a field and forced into a small area in front an unfamiliar artificial structure and have a human in a flamboyant shirt make noises at them through a microphone. When animals are exposed to unfamiliar scenarios, they behave in ways that they wouldn't normally in situations they are familiar with. All these things could well be interpreted as laughter. They could also be interpreted as fear, confusion, curiosity, irritation, indigestion, stomach parasites, impatience, thirst, hunger or a response to any sensation or feeling an animal is capable of

  • "Another example, a pair of cows that are certainly paying attention to Milton…"

In the clip used, the cows in question are clearly paying attention to the camera in their face. Unless they had serious budget issues, I'm guessing it wasn't Milton Jones who was doing the filming. If he's referring to the fact that the cows in question are close to the front of the stage, this is undoubtedly what happens when you're forcibly moved into an area and have several dozen of your co-creatures (each weighing the best part of a ton) pushed in behind you. Admittedly, they may well be paying attention to Milton. He's an unfamiliar thing in an unfamiliar situation. Animals that don't pay attention to things like that are usually dealt with harshly by evolution.

  • "…and that one is showing clear signs of amusement".

'That one' has its mouth open. If that's a sign of amusement, I'm guessing cows find food hilarious. It does look like it's smiling, admittedly, but remember Bruce just said "I don't think a cow laughs in the same way as a human does". Inconsistency there, Bruce? What sort of cow expert are you, man!

  • "[This experiment] has been very useful. No, cows can't laugh in the same way as humans can, but we've shown they can show amusement, and that's got to be worthwhile".

You haven't shown that Bruce. You've shown that you can take some ambiguous footage and speculate wildly about what it means, and then bizarrely make firm conclusions based on these speculations. As for worthwhile, if this conclusion was accurate and cows can indeed perceive and understand jokes and humour delivered by a surreal English-speaking comic, then this would undeniably prove that they are thinking, intelligent beings capable of the complex logical processing required to appreciate jokes and recognise the structural elements that make them humorous. This would mean the cattle trade is responsible for the mass slaughter of thinking, intelligent, emotional beings like most die-hard vegans already think it is. I sincerely doubt the dairy and meat industries (who seem to pay Bruce's wages) would consider this finding 'worthwhile'.

I know I'm taking this far too seriously, but this is the worst example of utter bullshit (appropriately) science and ridiculous conclusions that I've yet seen. There's no indication that the analysis is a knowing joke or parody, it's presented as straight up fact. The publicity stunt would have been just as effective, possibly more so, without this horrendous attempt to make it seem scientifically valid. I think Bruce Woodacre has crossed the line, and is making claims that are not just exaggerated or cynically worded, but flat out wrong. He may disagree, and that's his prerogative.

After all, what do I know? I'm no cow expert.

Utter Bullshit.

* = Turns out, "Cambridge awards BAs that magically become MAs- for all disciplines". Why? Don't know, but there you go.

Email: Humourology (at) live

Twitter: @garwboy

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