the short but eventful magnetosensing life of cows

I’ve given several talks in the last few months about the Neurosynth framework, which is designed to help facilitate large-scale automated meta-analysis of fMRI data (see this paper, or these slides from my most recent talk). On a couple of occasions, I’ve decided to start out by talking about something other than brains. In particular, I’ve opted to talk about cows. Specifically, the cows in this study:

…in which the authors–Sabine Begall and colleagues–took Google Earth satellite imagery like this (yes, those tiny ant-like blobs are cows):

…and performed the clever trick of using Google Earth to determine that cows (and deer too!) naturally tend to align themselves along a geomagnetic north-south axis. In other words, cows have magnets in their brains! You have to admit that’s pretty amazing (unless you’re the kind of person who refuses to admit anything is amazing in the presence of other people, even though you secretly look them up and marvel at them later when you’re alone in your bedroom).

Now, superficially, this finding doesn’t actually have very much to do with any of the work I’ve done recently. Okay, not just superficially; it really has absolutely nothing to do with any of the work I’ve done recently. But the more general point I was trying to make was that advances in technology often allow us to solve scientific problems we couldn’t address before, even when the technology in question was originally designed for very different purposes (and I’m pretty confident that Google Earth wasn’t conceived as a means of studying cow alignment). That’s admittedly a bit totally grandiose inasmuch as none of the work I’ve done on Neurosynth is in any way comparable to the marvel that is Google Earth. But, you know, it’s the principle that counts. And the principle is that we should try to use the technology we have (and here I’m just talking about the web, not billion dollar satellites) to do neat scientific things.

Anyway, I was feeling quite pleased with myself for coming up with this completely tangential introduction–so much so that I used it in two or three talks to great success confuse the hell out of the audience. But then one day I made a horrible mistake. And that horrible mistake was to indulge the nagging little voice that kept saying, come now, cows with magnetic brains? really? maybe you should double-check this, just to make sure. So the last time I was about to use the cow slides, I went and did a lit search just to make sure I was still on the cutting edge of the bovine geomagnetic sensing literature. Well, as it turns out I was NOT on the cutting edge! I’d fallen off the edge! Way off! Just a few months ago, you see, this little gem popped up in the literature:

Basically the authors tried to replicate the Begall et al findings and couldn’t. They argued that the original findings were likely due to poor satellite imagery coupled with confirmation bias. So it now appears that cows don’t have the foggiest conception of magnetic fields after all. They just don’t get to join the sparrow-and-spiny-lobster club, no matter how much they whine to the bouncer at the door. Which leads me to my current predicament: what the hell should I do about the cow slides I went to the trouble of making? (Yes, this is the kind of stuff I worry about at midnight on a Wednesday after I’ve written as many job application cover letters as I can deal with in one night, and have safely verified that my Netflix Instant queue contains 233 movies I have no interest at all in watching.)

I suppose the reasonable thing to do would be to jettison the cow slides entirely. But I don’t really want to do that. It’s not like there’s a lack of nifty* and unexpected uses of technology to solve scientific problems; it’s just that, you know, I kind of got attached to this particular example. Plus I’m lazy and don’t want to revise my slides if I can help it. The last time I presented the cow slides in a talk–which was after I discovered that cows don’t know the north-south axis from a hole in the ground–I just added a slide showing the image of the Hert et al rebuttal paper you see above, and called it a “postscript”. Then I made some lame comment about how, hah, you see, just like you can Google Earth to discover interesting new findings, you can also use it to debunk interesting spurious findings, so that’s still okay! But that’s not going to cut it; I’m thinking that next time out, I’m going to have to change things up. Still, to minimize effort, maybe I’ll keep the Google Earth thing going, but simply lose the cows. Instead, I can talk about, I don’t know, using satellite imagery to discover long-buried Mayan temples and Roman ruins. That still sort of counts as science, right?



* Does anyone still use the word ‘nifty’ in casual conversation? No? Well I like it, so there.