"That's hot but I think I'll pass."
This weekend, as we've done every Easter for a few years, we worked a booth at the All About Pets show at the International Centre out by the airport. An estimated 40,000 people visit the show although this year it wasn't as busy as in previous years. People always rush over to our booth to sign petitions and talk about the ban. We got a couple of thousand signatures this year and only 8 people refused to sign. That's about right, ratio-wise, in terms of support.
Presenting at the show again this year was Stanley Coren, the author of The Intelligence of Dogs and other pop-science books about our canine friends.
I was very anxious to speak with him, since I'd come across a news report the previous week in which he was quoted:
“This is quite astonishing. Although pit bulls make up only a half per cent of the total number of dogs in the US, they are responsible for 43 per cent of fatal dog bites,” he points out.
“That says something about the wiring of the dog.”
I wanted to find out what his sources were for the population and the percentage of dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs) he attributes to "pit bulls". Luckily for me, he stopped right near our booth to talk to somebody about their dog so I was able to sneak up on him and pounce.
He said he got his DBRF number from 'available data' because in the US there is a requirement for bite reporting only in cases of fatalities. It's all in some database, apparently but he couldn't remember how to access it.
He said his "pit bull" population estimate, .5% (yes, one-half of one percent), was obtained via UKC and AKC registrations for American Pit Bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire Bull terriers. I asked why he didn't include ADBA. He didn't know about them.
I told him his DBRF data came from news reports, as stated by CDC, which is his source. He disputed this and said I had no understanding of data. I told him it's right in the journal articles themselves, that there is no 'database' of DBRFs, that they scanned news reports, that there were missing death certificates and other weaknesses. He became rather argumentative at that point.
I said that in a population of 78 million dogs, 30 fatalities a year, while a horrific for the people involved, are not statistically significant enough to predict any kind of trend. He insisted there are 12 fatalities a year, not 30 on average. I then realized he was talking about 5 fatalities attributable to "pit bulls" on average, per year.
I told him I think there are probably at least 5 million dogs that could be construed as "pit bulls" in the US. He was sputtering by now and said that would mean 1:10 dogs are "pit bulls". I said yes, that would probably be about right but actually it would be roughly 1:16. I asked him if he includes mutts in his "statistics" he said no, just those three breeds. I asked him who would be able to determine the purebred status of a dog in the US involved in an attack, since there is no requirement for identification. He didn't have an answer for that. He didn't respond to my point about how most "breed" attributions are guesses or hearsay.
I didn't bother getting into how he determined how many were alive or how he must be the only person who doesn't count mutts because they are in every piece of legislation, etc because by then he was kind of yelling that he was a scientist, repeatedly.
I had reminded him about our email conversation from 2006, when I had found his claim about 2000 psi pressure in a bound book after reading it in several news reports. After trying to throw me off-track and failing, he finally had to admit he couldn't find a reference and thought he might have overheard it. I have spared him the publication of our email exchange because I actually feel kind of sorry for him, but here is where he finally admits I've got him by the nuts over the 2000 psi:
I really can't be more specific. I apparently simply noted the essence of the findings to use as an aside in a talk I was giving. I always felt that I could recover the original reference if I needed it, although you have proven that this is not necessarily so. This has happened several times in the past, where a bit of interesting data was briefly noted by me and then my contact with it disappeared in the dimming memory of an aging psychologist. One would think that I would have learned to be more obsessive by now but being only 9 months from retirement probably means that I have lost the window of opportunity to change my habits.
He told me on Saturday that he isn't responsible for what media write about him. I said he's responsible for what he tells them - was he now accusing them of making it up? "They can't print what you don't tell them and when you have an audience you should be careful about what you say."
He started yammering about his friends who have done studies recently but couldn't remember their names, which university they are from or what the titles of their papers are. He thought they had a couple of papers in the Journal of Public Health. I said I'd look for them. He mentioned a lurid paper from Detroit - one we have all seen that was written by an ER doctor. I said that "pit bulls" are very popular in Detroit, so it makes sense there will be more bites by that type. He said they aren't popular there at all.
I asked him why he doesn't talk about Canada. He said there aren't enough data. I asked him how many people have been killed by "pit bull" types, ever, in this country. He didn't know. I asked him how many had been killed by "sled dog" types. He didn't know. He kept saying there are not enough data in Canada.
He then beetled off down the hall at top speed.
So that's pretty much what Stanley Coren is about. He's not interested in accuracy, he's not interested in science, he accused me of being closed-minded about "pit bulls" and incapable of understanding data.
Somebody's neurons are misfiring, but I don't think it's "pit bulls".
Later that day somebody visited our booth and said "Stanley Coren said that "pit bulls" used to be called the nanny dogs". I said "That's not true. Dr Coren says a lot of things that aren't supported." She said "But it's good, right?". "If it's not true, how can it possibly be good?"
Note belt and suspenders!