Experimental Design

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Mythbusters is back as of last week with new episodes! Although the season premeire about throwing dogs off the scent isn’t directly physics-related, I do have one issue to point out.

Tory, Kari, and Grant did an experiment in which they tried to hide some “contraband” from a dog by sticking it in a container with a strong-smelling material, like coffee or peanut butter. They hid the container somewhere in a 17,000 square-foot warehouse and set the dog loose to find it — which he always did. So the conclusion was that strong scents can’t distract a sniffer dog.

But what if the dog was actually following the distraction? I wouldn’t be surprised if the scent of e.g. peanut butter itself was a dead giveaway to the location of the container, even if did mask the smell of the fake drugs. It was probably the strongest smell in that warehouse. A better experiment would have entailed filling several containers with the smelly substance, distributing them around the building, and only hiding the fake contraband in one of them, then seeing if the dog identifies the right one.

Of course, they did basically that later in the show, in the luggage store with the hidden meats, and it didn’t deter the dog. So I doubt that it would have made a difference in the result. And I know the Mythbusters don’t strive for scientific rigor (and I don’t blame ‘em, because real science is often boring). Still, it wouldn’t have taken much for them to upgrade from a for-fun experiment to something more scientific, and I think we could all stand to try for that as often as possible.