Anti-ScienceSkepticism

Cat Child Found in Cave!

Or, maybe not?

Vikki Thomas, intrepid journalist for The Sun, reports that “A CAT-BOY has stunned medics with his ability to SEE in pitch black with eyes that GLOW in the dark.” All the preceding CAPITAL LETTERS are THE SUN’S, possibly designed to FREAK YOU THE HELL OUT because OMG CAT-BOY WILL DESTROY US ALL!

Young Nong Youhui was supposedly brought to a hospital by his dad Ling, who claimed that the boy’s freaky blue eyes gave him the power of superior night vision and thus allowing him to read in pitch blackness. Amazingly, the article also claims that the boy can see perfectly well in the daylight.

I say BULLSHIT. Yeah, I can use capitals, too.

First of all, cats can see better in the dark due to eyes that operate in a very different way from humans’, thanks to a very long history of evolving along completely different tracks. For instance, cats have pupils that narrow to slits and grow much larger than yours to let more light in while hunting in the dark. They also have larger lenses to absorb even more light, and they even have an extra part called the tapetum lucidum that bounces light back and forth to give them another chance at seeing something in the dark (that’s what causes the gleam when you shine a light at a cat’s eyes). Cats also have more rods, the photoreceptors that benefit night vision.

Even if the boy somehow managed to procure similar eyeballs to a cat, all those attributes come at a cost. A cat cannot, as the article states, see “as clearly as most people do during the day.” In exchange for better night vision, the cat gives up the ability to focus on near objects and the handy tool of depth perception (edit: sorry, I meant “good depth of field” – kitties can’t focus on anything outside things at just the right distance). Their greater number of rods results in fewer cones, removing their ability to see sharp detail and rich color.

The point is: you can’t have your night-vision cake and eat it in broad daylight, too.

Here’s where else your bullshit detector should have rung. The Sun’s only offered explanation for this eerie happening is the following sentence:

Experts believe he was born with a rare condition called leukodermia which has left his eyes with less protective pigment and more sensitive to light.

Leukodermia, also known as vitiligo, isn’t associated with cat-like super-vision – it’s most often associated with Michael Jackson, since it happens to be that disorder in which you get blotchy patches on your skin and hair.

A study of 100 patients with the disorder did find a strong correlation with vision problems, so if anything, the kid would be worse off. The article suggests that the disorder makes one more sensitive to light, which is true, but not in the idiotic way that The Sun suggests. “More sensitive” means that it is painful for people with certain ocular disorders to see in daylight, which impairs their vision, not helping it.

So what’s the real explanation?

Well, it’s hard to say, since the article doesn’t give us the name of the hospital, the doctors involved in these “medical tests,” or even a god damned picture of the mysterious glowing eyeballs. Oh, and this is the very same newspaper that previously brought us a story on the Lost City of Atlantis with a photo of Patrick Duffy and a sidebar written by Plato, the deceased philosopher. (Turns out, it was just the path of the boats used to collect the data. Whoops!)

More likely? It’s a hoax propagated by a poor family looking to make a quick profit by selling a cheap parlor trick to a laughably gullible journalist.

Thanks to Steve for sending us the link!

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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39 Comments

  1. My personal favorite was the story of the 3 inch baby. I particularly loved the follow up story where the baby was learning to walk in the palm of his mother’s hand.

    I’ve always considered the Sun comedy and I can’t understand anyone taking it seriously.

  2. @tkingdoll: Tabloid rags don’t usually make stuff up on their own. They just keep a rolodex full of nutters that they can go to for “information”. That way, they can always claim their source led them astray. “I was just quoting Mr. Crapshispants!”

    Made up shit about bat/cat boy is safer than made up shit about celebrities because bat/cat boy rarely sues.

  3. The Sun appears to be blocked by my company. I’d like to think they’ve done this to protect me and my esteemed colleagues from drooling credulity, but more likely it’s on account of all the bewbs.

  4. “In exchange for better night vision, the cat gives up…the handy tool of depth perception.”

    You’re kidding, right? I’ve heard that siamese cats tend to have trouble with crossed eyes, but in general don’t cats use stereopsis in their vision? I thought that’s what the forward-facing eyes and the special purpose neurons in the visual cortex were for.

  5. @TheCzech: Some of the mad people are genuine, some are yes, entirely fabricated (anagrams are popular) or real people who work in other departments and are mates of the journo, and some are supplied by PR companies, who in turn follow the same pattern of real/invented/bloke from Accounts.

  6. My cat is at this moment chasing the cursor across my screen.

    As a cat geek, that old cliche about cats seeing in the dark always gets my hackles up. I almost got them up when you almost suggested that they didn’t see depth. But then you corrected yourself, so it’s all good.

  7. @xenu: I tell you what is fascinating about Sun reporters, they’re not the scummy ‘oy mate, wotcher’ cockney types that people expect, they’re often very highly-educated Oxbridge types. This is because the Sun is the biggest-selling newspaper and can therefore afford the highest salaries, and therefore attracts pretty who it wants.

    The spin and spurious headlines for the masses are not the product of idiots in charge, but the product of some rather clever minds.

  8. The point is: you can’t have your night-vision cake and eat it in broad daylight, too

    Not true.
    Tarsiers have excellent night-vision, good color vision, and good depth-of-field. The catch is that they have very large eyes. Make sure you scroll down and take a good look at the skull.

  9. @tkingdoll: I don’t know how true this is but I’ve heard that the Hacks who work on The Times and The Guardian, the “quality press”, are the leery drunken stereotypes.

    Except Polly Tonybee, who I’ve met, who’s actually quite nice and not the hatchet faced harpee you’d think her to be.

  10. @tkingdoll: Oh and I don’t think The Sun set out to mislead “the proles” as some sort of Orwellian masterplan (although they do tend to support anything that’s good for Murdoch’s empire), but rather they have a very close relationship with their “typical reader” and know what “their” readers want and give it to them.

    The Daily Mail is the perfect example of a newspaper that knows and understands it’s readers throughly and rarely fails to provide them with a daily dose of racism, bile, little-englander, right-wing propaganda sweetened with a pinch of chocolate box, constable’s hay wain, nostalgia

  11. “More likely? It’s a hoax propagated by a poor family looking to make a quick profit by selling a cheap parlor trick to a laughably gullible journalist.”

    With respect, I’m more inclined to believe the opposite: the cynical journalist taking advantage of the poor family. These are the people peddling the parlor tricks to the masses, after all.

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