Written by: Heather Clemenceau
You might not be aware that Snopes is one of the oldest websites around, and one of the original ways skeptics would meet online and discuss their skepticism way before social media existed. It ran on Usenet, which was rather like a hybrid of email and a web forum. Snopes is usually pretty reliable in its debunking so long as the writers are not called upon to make a determination about a website that is beyond their expertise or is highly nuanced. But they don’t always nail their arguments and they don’t get a pass just because they’re Snopes – they are not immune to being critiqued.
In October, Snopes author Brooke Binkowski disputed the effectiveness of Breed Specific Legislation in the US and Canada. Binkowski exhorted Snopes readers to accept that her “deep research” is the result of rational objective examination – something she vigorously defends on her professional Facebook page, yet it hardly begins with any sort of “null hypothesis” about BSL. Her credibility in this particular piece of writing is called in question both by her use of source materials and her unfiltered admonishment of posters who disagree with her as “mentally ill” or “paranoid” on her Facebook page. Ms. Binkowski relied heavily on the debunked pit bull propaganda mill, the National Canine Research Council and her conclusions are at odds with many other published studies.
Unpacking the Problems With the Snopes Article
1. The Use Of Questionable Sources Or Debunked Source Material
Ms. Binkowski didn’t expand her search or chose to ignore many other published studies in the US National Institute of Health database and elsewhere, and cited several source documents in her analysis that were later debunked.
Binkowski relied upon the work of the National Canine Research Council (NCRC), the same group referenced by the Ordre des médecins vétérinaire du Québec (OMVQ) when appealing Montreal’s BSL legislation earlier this year.
It was subsequently revealed by La Presse journalist Marie-Claude Malboeuf that five of the roughly 50 studies cited in the report by the OMVQ were financed by American pit bull lobbyists (the NCRC) and that the data they used was problematic. At the same time, the Order of Veterinarians listed four recent medical studies on the gravity of injuries suffered from dog attacks, but downplayed the role of pit bulls. La Presse reported that the OMVQ report also emphasized that shelters are concerned for “their structure and already precarious financial health” if the Montreal bylaw were to proceed. However, these concerns should never supercede those of public health. Public policy is not always based solely on the frequency of an event. For example, a recall of children’s car seats or faulty ignition switches in vehicles may be based in a small number of deaths over a years’ long period.
The 5-part La Presse investigation, now translated into English, also shows that the OMVQ report cited studies that gave the impression of being “scientific and objective” when in fact they had been funded by the not-at-all objective American pit bull lobby. To get an expert opinion of the OMVQ report, Malboeuf gave it to McGill University professor emeritus Dr. Barry Pless, a professor of Paediatrics, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics, and the Director of the Injury Prevention Program at Montreal Children’s Hospital among other achievements. Said Pless – “doing studies that are primarily intended to prevent the adoption of laws, without declaring conflicts of interest, is the strategy employed by the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby.”
The Order’s President now says he recognizes those studies should have been excluded or properly nuanced. The use of paid-for research by the OMVQ represents a lack of scientific rigeur and transparency on their part, and at worst, is a serious conflict of interest.
La Presse spells out the players of the American Pit Bull Lobby. They divide it into 5 levels and explain the often overlapping relationships:
Five Levels of the Pit Bull Lobby
- Level 1: The financing source. Animal Farm Foundation (AFF), owned by Jane Berkey. The company’s motto is: “Securing equal treatment and opportunity for pit bull dogs.” AFF devotes itself entirely to fighting pit bull regulations. “After inheriting a fortune from her father, Jane Berkey, who also owns a literary agency, turned over at least $6 million to her group, $2.85 million in 2013, according to government records. She pays 9 employees (one of whom, the director, makes more than $100,000 a year) and finances numerous groups that share her philosophy,” La Presse reports.
- Level 2: The researchers. “To produce studies, AFF bought a private research body in 2007. The acquisition was kept secret until the victims’ group Dogsbite discovered this during litigation. The National Canine Research Council (NCRC) was created by a veterinary technician, Karen Delise. Neither an academic researcher nor a veterinarian, she self proclaims as the ‘greatest national expert on deaths caused by dog bites,’” La Presse reports. NCRC co-authors and finances studies, like the ones cited by the OMVQ, which chiefly attempt to show pit bulls cannot be identified.
- Level 3: Publication. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). “The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) publishes NCRC studies in its journal. On its own website it proposes sample letters [for readers to write] contesting any law aimed at pit bulls. Moreover, its site has a link to AFF,” La Presse reports. The journalist even points out the AVMA’s notice on the embargoed 2000 fatal dog attack study, which falsely and fraudulently states: “In contrast to what has been reported in the news media, the data contained within this report CANNOT be used to infer any breed-specific risk for dog bite fatalities.”
- Level 4: The political lobby. Best Friends Animal Society. Their senior legislative analyst, Ledy VanKavage, drafts state-level bills to eliminate local pit bull ordinances (state preemption laws) and is also a board member of AFF. VanKavage boasts on Best Friends’ corporate website that she commissioned an ex-economist from the tobacco industry, John Dunham, to create a fiscal calculator designed to advise governments on the cost of breed banning. Dunham’s sham BSL calculator, financed by the NCRC, over exaggerates these costs by nearly two orders of magnitude.
- Level 5: The distributors. The animal care industry. “All the lobby studies are abundantly distributed by animal-based companies like shelters, breeders, trainers, etc. In Montreal, they are [distributed] by, amongst others, the SPCA, whose mission is to avoid euthanizing dogs and whose two most senior executives are themselves owners of pit bulls,” states La Presse. “On social media, pit bull owners deploy these studies relentlessly and accuse all their opponents of ignorance,” La Presse reports. More aggressive ones have even threatened the mayor of Québec City with death.
The methodology and conclusions behind the NCRC’s study “Preventable Factors Associated with Dog Bite-Related Fatalities” was also called into question by two members of the Department of Comparative Pathobiology at Purdue University, in a letter to the editor of the AVMA journals, published July 1, 2014:
“For instance, where the NCRC clearly knew what breeds were involved, they did not disclose same. They also classified dogs as “resident” or “family” dogs without explaining what that meant. They did not state how much time a dog had to be kept outside in order for it to be considered a “resident” dog. How was it possible for the researchers to determine, by any means, what the dog’s status was? The assumption is that when the NCRC knew what breeds were involved in fatalities they simply declined to disclose that information, and invented new characterizations (resident vs family dog) in an attempt to further confound the findings and minimize the number of fatalities caused by dogs that were actually determined to be “pit bulls.”
The NCRC reported that “Most DBRFs were characterized by coincident, preventable factors; breed was not one of these.” Since their report provided no data to support the conclusion, the Purdue University professors questioned the findings of the NCRC report since it conflicted with other studies that showed a correlation between the passage of BSL and a reduction in dog bite injuries. The Purdue professors were also not fooled by the statement that “dog bite-fatalities are exceedingly rare” either.
At several points in the NCRC narrative it is reiterated that child safety education and practices were one of the key factors in preventing dog bites. There is no doubt that this is an important consideration for parents, and there is really no downside to educational efforts. But a study in the Cochrane Report on the effect of the role of education in preventing dog bite injuries in children and adolescents concluded that, due to a lack of evidence, education should not be the only public health strategy to reduce dog bites and their dramatic consequences. (The Cochrane Report articles combine the results of research papers, while pointing out weaknesses in experimental design or quality – very useful for contradicting the standard pseudoscience retort. The Cochrane Report gives weight to properly designed studies and less to weaker ones.)
The naming of the “National Canine Research Council” itself may also be an attempt to capitalize on the legitimacy of the National Research Council, an American non-profit NGO that shapes policies, informs public opinion, and advances the pursuit of science. Capitalizing on the name association with other more established groups appears to be standard operating procedure for the NCRC, who also purchased (or had purchased on their behalf) the top-level domain “dogsbite.com” for $11,000 to try to capture some of the bandwidth of the legitimate group Dogsbite.org. (Dogsbite.com redirects to the website of the NCRC and this “cybersquatting” resulted in a domain name dispute) Both DNASalePrice and NameBio confirm this spend. Why would self-described professional “think tank” researchers have a need to cybersquat on an established internet domain? Can they not generate enough traffic to their website through the legitimacy of their own “research?”
2. Omission Of Studies That Support BSL And Implicate Pit Bull Phenotypes In Serious Dog Attacks
A review of the Pubmed database provides the following evidence-based studies that suggest that a majority of dog bite hospitalizations are attributed to pit bull phenotypes, often after analyses of decades worth of data. Had Ms. Binkowski included these in her analysis, I believe she would have been compelled to revisit her conclusion in Snopes:
Fatal dog attacks in Canada, 1990 – 2007 (Includes references to bite incidents that immediately preceded the implementation of BSL in Ontario)
Or this study- Significant Neuroanatomical Variation Among Domestic Dog Breeds, which confirms that neuroanatomical variation is plainly visible across breeds, and that breeding for behaviour has altered dog brains.
I can’t explain why articles and studies that favoured pit bulls featured so predominantly in Ms. Binkowski’s research, but somehow she did not locate or decided not to include information freely available using in-depth knowledge tools for reporters, such as Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Search, the Pubmed open-access library, Social Science Research Network, or the Cochrane Report. Unless of course she intended to come up with an hypothesis and then set to work proving it right. But without confirmation bias, many theories would fall apart.
3. Failure To Distinguish Between Dog Bites Vs. Maulings
Ms. Binkowski is not the first reporter/journalist to fail to make a distinction between a dog bite and a mauling. While a bite by the oft-mentioned scapegoat the chihuahua may require stitches, a bite from a pit bull type dog will more than likely require that, plus plastic reconstructive surgery or oral/maxillofacial surgery in order to make the victim “whole” again. Most dogs respect protocols in behaviour when they fight, which includes a lot of posturing and growling, and usually very little biting – if there is biting most dogs practice bite inhibition – they bite once and then release, possibly not even puncturing the skin, retreating to protect themselves. There is almost never a fight to the death between most breeds of dogs.
Reducing dog bites overall is not something that BSL or the Dog Owners Liability Act in Ontario has ever set out to accomplish, indeed, it would be impossible. No law that seeks to protect the public can ever eliminate all risks. The aims of the DOLA were to reduce serious maulings and fatalities by banning or muzzling the breeds statistically most likely to be responsible. But any law that is enforced will be effective and mandatory muzzling, required in Ontario for pit bull phenotypes, would have prevented the following recent attacks if only it were consistently observed and applied:
A dog was shot dead by police after it grabbed a child by the throat and inflicted several bites during an attack (May 2016)
Two dogs were shot and killed after they attacked a man and woman in Ottawa’s east end. “The dogs were going in, they were biting, they were shaking the person. The person on the ground was very bloodied…[The dogs] were just relentless,” (August 2016)
Toronto Police shot and killed a pit bull “when it attacked a shih tzu and held the small dog down with a “locked-jaw grip,” police said. The policeman was hitting the dog so hard with his baton that it flung out of his hands but the pit bull would not let go. Police shot the dog twice in the leg and when it still didn’t release the shih tzu, they shot it in the head.” (September 2014)
4. Accusations That BSL Is Really A Form Of Covert Racism
Binkowski mentions “racial parameters” in dogs when what she really means are morphological characteristics (because there are no races of dogs). For a long time now, the pit bull advocacy movement has attempted to parlay BSL and discernment towards pit bull dogs as “canine racism” or overt racism. These claims have been refuted by a peer-reviewed, scholarly work by graduate researchers at Penn State University.
“This dog-breed comparison does not hold up to science and to everything we know about what ‘race’ is and is not. What’s worse, the people who are trotting out this bad analogy do not have innocent intentions. They are not objectively curious about the wonders of biology, they are not confused about the sociocultural construction of race, they are interested in justifying racism and convincing others to do the same.”
The paper attacks the analogy by demonstrating the differences in patterns of genetic and biological variation between humans and dogs, contrasting them and explaining how differences between the two are unsurprising given the two species evolved very differently. Dogs are domesticated and different breeds have evolved through highly controlled breeding that has drastically reduced the variation within breeds. The paper goes on to lay out decades of interdisciplinary work beyond genetics and biology that has documented how the phenomenon of “race” in humans is vastly different from any groupings we impose on other animals.
“History tells us how people who use the dog-breed analogy for race are perpetuating racism,” said Dunsworth. “It’s bad science, bad everything. “Race’ as we know it in our daily lives—and as we have known it throughout history—goes well beyond science. Race is socioculturally, politically and historically constructed, but dog breeds are … dogs.”
With the Snopes article and a recent Washington Post article that echoed that theme, the pit bull advocacy movement has now carried this forward and attempted to show that BSL has been implemented to keep “undesireables” at bay. The cries of “racism” are further evidence that the pit bull advocacy movement are desperate to shift the blame for BSL on the cities or towns who express objections to bully breeds. The goal is to further the cause of pit bulls as a social justice issue (while simultaneously ignoring victim issues). Accusations of racism are intended to shame and squelch dissent and reasonable debate.
“Looking into the data on breed bans turns up an interesting finding: each region that has enacted breed-specific legislation of some sort appears to have also experienced significant, if not dramatic demographic changes over a relatively short period of time.” ~ Brooke Binkowski
The most recent available online Statscan report (2011) reveals that 6,264,800 people identified themselves as a member of a visible minority group in Canada. They represented 19.1% of the total
population. Of these visible minorities, 30.9% were born in Canada and 65.1% were born outside the country and came to live in Canada as immigrants. The vast majority of the foreign-born population lived in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and Alberta. Since the 1960s, our immigration has steadily increased, but there is no single event that can accurately be described as a “significant, if not dramatic demographic change.” Creating BSL as a means to racially oppress 20% of the Canadian population, only some of whom might actually own a pit bull type dog, is just laughable. Binkowski no doubt assumed that the overt racism seen across mainstream America during the current electoral process could also be (mis)applied to Canada with broad strokes.
The real reason for implementing BSL in Ontario was due to a number of serious bites immediately preceding 2005 (the year it became effective). Dog attacks were also the reason the First Nations community of Membertou in Cape Breton implemented a pit bull ban immediately after a pit bull attacked an elder and her grandchild, which coincided with “several other instances of close calls.”
From the Ontario Dog Owners’ Liability Act:
“In nonfatal aggressive incidents, the pit bull did rank highest in 2000 and 2001 (2.84 bite incidents per 100 licensed dogs of this breed type) in 1 Canadian municipality (Edmonton, Alberta). Other breeds that followed in this municipality included the rottweiler (1.60 bite incidents per 100 licensed), Akita (1.52), mastiff (1.47), Dalmatian (1.40), and Great Dane (1.21).”
In 2004, the last full year before the ban, there were 984 licensed pit bulls in Toronto and 168 reported bites. In 2013 there were 501 pit bulls registered in the city, and just 13 bites, according to a Toronto Star investigation.
“Most of the dogs Ottawa bylaw officers have sought to have destroyed as dangerous have been pit bulls, according to statistics released by the city. The city has initiated 10 prosecutions against owners who allegedly let their dogs bite another person or pet since the Ontario Dog Owners’ Liability Act was passed in 2005. Seven of the dogs were pit bull types.”
5. Snopes Conclusion At-Odds With Competing Debunkers
Finally, Binkowski’s conclusion about BSL is at odds with that of rival fact-checking website Politifact, who found the statement that pit bulls were inordinantly dangerous to be “mostly true.”
“The past studies and research we’ve reviewed shows pit bulls are among the most aggressive dogs. Some breeds, however, have been shown to be more aggressive in each report. However, the widely held perception is that they are dangerous, which was Boyer’s over-arching point. An Associated Press poll done in October found of the dog owners who would support breed bans, 85 percent would outlaw pit bulls.”
6. Snopes Conclusion Not Researched In Accordance With The International Fact-Checking Network Declaration It Signed
Snopes, as a signatory, clearly did not use the same standard of care for this article as they normally do for every other fact check. There is a built-in bias if the writer of the article does indeed own a pit bull as has been suggested on social media sites – is this Binkowski posting about pit bulls on Live Journal in 2012? (I think it was, but she deleted it. You can tell because the number of responses doesn’t equal the total. Why else would a years-old comment that most had forgotten about spontaneously disappear?). If so, it’s very illustrative of a pre-existing bias. Snopes needs to follow the code and recall this article.
It’s very tiring to read of shady attempts to distort the facts. Common sense would tell you that bans on breed restrictions have everything to do with the safety of the public at large and nothing to do with the race, class and ethnicity of the people who own those dogs since the law is applied to everyone. It is also morally bereft to claim that it’s OK to patch up people after-the-fact when an attack has a chance to be prevented in the first place. Making a person “whole” again after an attack isn’t nearly as positive as preventing the attack altogether. BSL cannot prevent all dog attacks but it is designed to prevent the worst sort of maulings by dogs with the greatest propensity to commit them.
Binkowski cites the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, the American Bar Association, AVMA, HSUS, the ASPCA, and the Toronto Humane Society, among other lesser known references and publications. In addition to those aforementioned groups, Best Friends, the AKC, Bad Rap, Pit Bull Rescue Central, and various other Humane Societies are all lobbying partners of professional pit bull advocacy.
The American Veterinary Medical Association is a professional group; sometimes its journal publishes articles with scientific intent. Other times it publishes articles that are intended to protect financial interests of its members — and in those cases, its “peer review” is done by hand-picked “peers” who will reject anything that doesn’t support a purely political position the AVMA or other self-interested groups are protecting. None of these groups or the NCRC/Animal Farm Foundation are qualified to comment on the effectiveness of BSL or the impact to society of dog bites, which are a public health issue and are the purview of epidemiologists and those holding Masters of Public Health degrees or similar educational achievements.
Perhaps non-science writers can be forgiven for not understanding what constitutes a scientific study or the “peer review” process and what a “peer-reviewed journal” is. There are plenty of impartial, scientific journals out there, whose peer review process is to guard scientific integrity. However, there are also as many journals founded and funded by an industry or a professional group, whose peer-review is intended to protect the interests of that industry or group.
Still, Snopes is pretty accurate and I’ll continue to rely on them for myths, email rumours, and urban legends. Snopes’ accuracy is not a foregone conclusion with more complex issues such as the efficacy of BSL or vaccine conspiracies (they recently declared that Presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein was not an anti-vaxxer, but I believe that the truth is less obvious). Journalists should examine the full scope of the available evidence, whether they agree with it or not. Avoiding biases in journalism is an important component of rationalism. Merely repeating the propaganda does not challenge views or compel people to face facts.