Sheep and Cats

One expression I’ve heard a lot lately (most recently at TAM 8) is “herding cats”. As in, organizing skeptics/atheists is like herding cats. The implication in most cases was that this makes us nearly impossible to organize into groups.

I think this conclusion is unwarranted. The reason it’s easy to herd sheep (or cattle, or other herd animals) is that they tend to stick together and do things as a group. So all you need to do is get a leader or bellwether to go where you want, and all the others will follow, because everyone else is doing it. In other words, proverbial sheep feel strong peer pressure, while proverbial cats feel very little.

But it doesn’t follow from this that cats can’t be directed where you want them to go. Rather, you need a different approach. It’s not that proverbial cats are contrarians who refuse to do what every other cat is doing; rather, it’s that they don’t give a damn what the other cats are doing, and will go where they like, for their own reasons.

If you’ve ever had a cat, you know that all that’s necessary to summon it is to make the sound of a can opener, or shake the can of treats, or open the laundry dryer. In other words, you have to give the cat a reason to come, other than “I said so”. This approach scales well: shaking the can of treats can summon five cats as easily as one. Each one makes an individual decision to go where the treats are, regardless of what the other four are doing.

And that’s presumably what happened at TAM: 1300 people, who would respond to “Come on! Everyone else is going!” with a shrug and a “So what?”, looked at the program and individually made a decision that that’s where they wanted to be. The same thing happens at any number of smaller associations.

In other words, you can’t herd cats by pushing them. But you can gather them in groups by inviting them, by giving each one a reason to show up.

And by the way, I see a parallel between this and the following: why is it that “Everybody knows that this country was founded on Christian principles, so that’s what we should teach in schools” is an argumentum ad populum fallacy, while “99% of biologists accept evolution, so that’s what we should teach in schools” isn’t?

In the first case, people’s ideas are not independent, but rather influenced — and perhaps determined — by those of the people around them. In general, ideas can spread not because they’re true, but because they’re popular. In the second case, for the most part, every biologist has been exposed to the evidence for evolution, and ideally has come to an independent conclusion. That is, the first conclusion is popular because it’s popular. The second conclusion is popular because there are lots of ways to look at the evidence, and they all point to the same conclusion.

On the other hand, choreographing cats, now that’s a challenge.

8 thoughts on “Sheep and Cats”

  1. I’m reminded of a quote from Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods. The narrator mentions the Omnian religion’s first prophet was a shepherd, and speculates on how differently the religion might have turned out had he been a goatherd instead: “Sheep are stupid, and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent, and need to be led.”


  2. arensb said:

    On the other hand, choreographing cats, now that’s a challenge.

    Nah. You just need multiple cats and a fuzzy chicken on a string – you can make them twitch their heads side-to-side to any rhythm you like.


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