Lapse of Memory or Lapse of Reason?

Less than two weeks after American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick explained in the Washington Post Magazine his organization’s position that killing cats is a moral imperative, ABC is giving a nudge to those who might be reluctant to get on board. “‘Remarkable’ deterioration in memory functions of seniors infected by common parasite found in free-roaming cats,” declared a press release issued yesterday.

Interestingly, the headline is far more accurate than ABC probably intended. Far more accurate than the rest of the release, to be sure—and more accurate than what the authors of the study suggest at times (and then contradict at other times), too. The findings reveal an association between Toxoplasma gondii infection in seniors subject to a “test battery for measuring memory functions” [1] and certain of those memory functions.

However, no causal relationship was found.

That is, the researchers are in no position to suggest that T. gondii infection causes any of the observed differences in seniors’ memory function. And yet, they do exactly that:

“We report for the first time that T. gondii infection significantly deteriorates functions of the episodic and working memory, which in turn was associated with reduced self-perceived psychosocial health.” [1, emphasis added]

It’s no surprise that ABC seized on this quote. Indeed, had the study’s authors not indicated (falsely) this causal link, ABC almost certainly would have done so on their own.

Charles Seife, author of Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception* calls this sort of misrepresentation causuistry.

“Casuistry—without the extra ‘u’—is the art of making a misleading argument through seemingly sound principles. Causuistry is a specialized form of casuistry where the fault in the argument comes from implying that there is a causal relationship between two things when in fact there isn’t any such linkage.” [2]

While it’s disappointing to see the authors of “Toxoplasma gondii impairs memory in infected seniors” (and Brain, Behavior, and Immunity’s editors and reviewers) commit this error, it’s straight out of the ABC playbook—as are the numerous other misrepresentations littering their most recent press release. For example:

“Although infection by the T. gondii parasite is sometimes associated with improperly cooked meat, a key transmission vector in the U.S. that has been growing to staggering levels is free-roaming cats. According to Dr. George Fenwick, a Johns Hopkins-educated pathobiologist who is also President of American Bird Conservancy, ‘The number of domestic cats in the U.S.—both owned and un-owned—has increased to as many as 188 million.’”

Where’s the evidence that the free-roaming cat population is “growing to staggering levels”? It simply doesn’t exist.

And that 188 million? Again, no evidence.

(On a related note: ABC’s also been misrepresenting the number of indoor-only cats for many years now. Multiple surveys have suggested that approximately 60 percent of pet cats are indoor-only, and that approximately half of those allowed outdoors are outside for no more than 3 hours each day. [3-6].)

These last couple points aren’t more proofiness, of course, just flat-out dishonesty.

And what does Fenwick’s Johns-Hopkins education have to do with all of this? Very little, it seems, if the title of his PhD dissertation is any indication: Feeding behavior of waterfowl in relation to changing food resources in the Chesapeake Bay. (Given the way Fenwick and his organization routinely endorse junk science, and misrepresent what little valid work they cite, perhaps Johns-Hopkins ought to demand that Fenwick return his PhD, or at least stop devaluing their brand with his name-dropping.)

Also included in ABC’s press release are the expected mentions of last year’s bogus “study” from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an equally bogus paper authored by employees of the CDC and USDA—along with Fenwick (a detail that ABC, curiously, omitted from their press release).

All of which we’ve come to expect from ABC—all part of their commitment to “using the best available science,” apparently.

* Which, in its most recent edition, was given the kinder, gentler subtitle, How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers.

Literature Cited

1. Gajewski, P.D., et al., Toxoplasma gondii impairs memory in infected seniors. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2014. 36(0): p. 193–199.

2. Seife, C., Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. 2010: Viking Adult. 304.

3. Kays, R.W. and A.A. DeWan, Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve. Animal Conservation, 2004. 7(3): p. 273–283.

4. Lord, L.K., Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2008. 232(8): p. 1159–1167.

5. Clancy, E.A., A.S. Moore, and E.R. Bertone, Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2003. 222(11): p. 1541–1545.

6. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 2010, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.