Research Shows Pit Bull Owners are Psychopaths

June 7, 2009 at 2:58 am 8 comments

A piece of sophomoric tripe study recently published by The Journal of Forensic Sciences states that owners of “vicious” dogs are more likely to commit crimes and exhibit primary psychopathic tendencies than people who don’t own such dogs are. 

Is this proof that we need breed specific legislation to save us from drug dealers, rapists and baby killers?  Hardly.  This bit of junk science has more holes in it than all the dog bite victims in America stitched together.

In his landmark work Sociological Methods Denzin stated that three properties must be demonstrated to prove a causal relation in sociological studies:

The researcher has to show that the cause is tied to and leads to the effect.

The researcher has to show that the cause occurs before the effect.

He also has to demonstrate that other causes, catalysts or intervening factors don’t produce the effect.

Note: This is part of that boring and annoyingly time-consuming work of eliminating unworkable solutions and collecting additional data to test the potentially workable ones.  Our friends at WVU get an F on this part of their work.  They simply handed a stack of questionnaires out to undergraduate students; compiled the answers; did some basic statistical evaluation — and then committed the cardinal sin of statistical studies by confusing correlation with cause.

And that’s just the start of it. Here are a few of their most glaring errors:

Propaganda as hypothesis:  The first, big, ugly mistake in this farcical creation sttudy is that the researchers start right out with an erroneous – and highly emotionally charged – assumption (rather than a group of facts).  To wit: that Akitas, Chow Chows, Doberman Pinschers, Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and “Wolf-mix” dogs are inherently vicious. They don’t provide any evidence that these breeds of dogs are vicious, and in fact, they don’t even define what they mean when they use the term “vicious”.

Studies have also shown (hopefully more rigorous studies than this one!) that research on emotionally-charged issues has an unfortunate tendency to be affected by the researcher’s own biased opinions on the subject. So, if the WVU group believed that the subject breeds of dogs were vicous before they even started their work (and they do indeed, state that this is so in the published article), they were much more likely to find and use data to support this hypothesis.

Collecting data to fit the hypothesis: A mastiff-sized hole in the study is the fact that the researchers  started out with a fixed hypothesis — and then went on a witch hunt fished for data to support it.  I’m not a social scientist. My education is in the hard, or physical sciences.  The standard there is to collect data and use multiple working hypotheses to evaluate it by a process of eliminating the unworkable solutions and then collecting more data to test the potentially workable ones.  I *know* that that’s a lot of work – but c’mon folks, good science (and – I think – good sociology) requires a lot of work.

Using potentially inaccurate data: To add further fuel to my fire they made absolutely no effort to verify that the dogs that were reported on in the study were of the alleged “vicious” breeds.  Breed identification is a notoriously difficult exercise.  Unless you’ve got papers, ask two veterinarians, dog trainers, groomers or animal control officers what breed(s) a given dog is and you are more likely than not to get at least two different answers.

They also didn’t even bother to ask if the dogs had exhibited any kind of aggressive – or “vicious” – behavior!

Next, the subject of their study were undergraduate students for crissakes.  The questionnaire on dog ownership asked them about all the dogs they’d owned.  I’ll bet that most of these kids included every dog that their family has owned since they were born in their answers.  So, do the results reflect their preferences in dog ownership – or their parents’?  Further, just how accurate is that self-reported data?

I’ll bet that the “Illegal Behavior Checklist” was prepared by the WMU group.  This was a 22 item self report questionnaire that addressed four types of “illegal activities” that included questions like “Have you ever been in a fight?”  Of course, they don’t define what a “fight” is. So – I wonder how many students who had never been in anything worse than a shouting match answered “yes” to that one and were subsequently labeled as violent criminals?

Collecting data from a nonrandom, non-representative population: A vital part of interview studies like this one is ensuring that a random sample of a representative population has been selected to participate.  The folks at West Virginia University failed this vital step when they simply selected a population of undergraduate students willing to fill out questionnaires for credit.  I’m just an ignorant dog trainer, but I have a nagging suspicion that this group isn’t a representative sample of American dog owners.  I’ll go a step farther and posit that this particular sample of dog owners tends to be a lot more impulsive and irresponsible than the much larger group of us who aren’t currently dog-owning undergraduate students.

Temporal aspects were not evaluated:  Even if it could be demonstrated that the ownership of allegedly vicious dogs was truly correlated with criminal behavior or psychopathy (and it most definately was not) – did the psychopathic tendency lead to pibble ownership or does owning a pibble make you a psychopath?

Alternative hypotheses were not considered:  Nope. Not at all. Too much work (or not enough grad students) to bother with that I suppose.

This “study” (and, yes – I am using the term loosely) was so poorly designed and executed, that frankly I’m shocked it ever saw the light of publication in a “peer-reviewed” journal.

I’m not just a scientist, I’m a person who is in head over heels love with science. But the thing that really disturbs me about the publication of a total piece of crap like this isn’t that it represents a complete and utter failure of the peer review system — it’s the sad fact that politicians and special interest groups will use junk science like this to justify the passage of oppressive, draconian laws and regulations that will punish the innocent.

This is truly a sad day for science.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, bsl, bull breeds, dogs, pit bull, pitbull, science. Tags: .

Right Before You’re Eaten Another Reason to Have a Dog?

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barb  |  June 7, 2009 at 5:54 am

    It tarnishes the reputation of all scientific journals when one of them publishes a badly designed and/or badly performed study – but it does happen as it did here.

    I actually think this could have been an interesting study if they had defined “vicious dog” the way most of us would… based on the dog’s actual aggressive behavior toward humans. Regardless of breed.

    It would be useful to find out more about the people who own dogs like that – we certainly have lots of assumptions but I’m not aware of actual research in this area.

    But this study, even if it had been designed better, was doomed to irrelevance by the assumption that the breed of the dog mattered.

  • 2. Rosemary  |  June 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    It would be interesting, though, to test how breed ownership by unsuitable owners varied over time. My (non-scientific) observations over a long time in animal rescue would suggest there probably is a tendency for the current fad breed to attract the wrong kind of owner. It used to be GSDs, went through a Doberman/Rottie phase, now is probably Bull breeds (assorted) and seems to be morphing into an interest in Mastiffs. Obviously some breeds are probably immune – I can’t see us having a Papillon crisis. Banning particular breeds probably just adds to their attractiveness to young men who want to prove how “hard” they are.

    Come to think of it there was a phase of interest in lurchers, who also tended to have incompetent owners, but didn’t seem to be used as props to show toughness. That seems to have faded away almost entirely.

  • 3. H. Houlahan  |  June 7, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Read the abstract and the first two paragraphs, had to stop and go hurl.

    One. Single. Control.

    Socioeconomic status of the respondents.

    Will explain everything.

    Because, duh.

    Although I do not accept that there is, in fact, anything that needs to be explained.

  • 4. H. Houlahan  |  June 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Okay, RTWT, rinsed out my mouth, took a shower.

    Did you know that owners of tiny dogs are significantly more likely to indulge in “status” crimes than the owners of “vicious” dogs?

    In the tables, not in the discussion, ‘cuz it don’t fit our predetermined conclusion.

    Not that it means anything (oh noes! not at all), but WVU’s psych department is the last bastion of Shiite Behaviorism in the academic world. It’s where old-school Skinnerians have circled the wagons and are cultivated as an antiquarian curiosity by the rest of the university.

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  June 7, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    This piece was so over-ripe for the fisking that, at a certain point, I had to stop myself or I’d have been ripping and tearing at it for days.

    Your point on the VWU as a bastion of radical behaviorism is interesting. I had googled a bit on the authors (mostly checked to see if any were editors of the rag they published in) – but of course the really interesting stuff like that is hard to find.

  • 6. selwyn marock  |  June 8, 2009 at 4:21 am

    On these theories could one now deduce that all people involved
    in the Airline industry are Mass Murderer’s as just last week Air France killed 226 people.

  • 7. billy  |  March 26, 2010 at 8:49 am

    if u think pitbull owners are phsycopaths then u need to learn some history.

  • 8. SmartDogs  |  March 26, 2010 at 9:07 am

    u need 2 learn how 2 reed

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