ALEX COHEN, host:
From NPR News, it's Day to Day. Just before the end of 2008, we checked in with Dan Engber of Slate.com about their annual tradition, the unexplained explainer. You see, Slate has a regular column called The Explainer, where they answer questions from the public, and they get thousands of questions from readers that they never get a chance to answer during the year. So at the end of the year, they let the public vote on their favorite unanswered questions. We're joined once again now by Slate's Daniel Engber. Hi, Dan.
Mr. DANIEL ENGBER (Associate Editor, Slate.com): Hi there.
COHEN: So, let's refresh everyone's memory. Some of these questions on the ballot were things like, why do women like soup? And if someone with DNA from the Stone Age were born today, would they be normal? So, a little drum roll, please. What is the winning question?
Mr. ENGBER: Why do cockroaches flip over on their backsides when they die?
COHEN: But I understand now, when it comes to answering the question of the year, you're not going to go with that one. Why not?
Mr. ENGBER: This happens every year. Readers write in and point out that some of the questions on our list have been answered elsewhere on the Web. It turned out this year that our top three vote-getters have all been answered elsewhere. So we had to default to question number four.
COHEN: And what is that question?
Mr. ENGBER: That question is, what is the most disloyal dog breed?
COHEN: I have some issues with the premise of that one, but let's get to your answer, first of all.
Mr. ENGBER: Well, this question is going to have to remain unanswered to a certain extent. No one really knows. And the problem is there are plenty of researchers out there who are studying the personalities of dogs, but none of them evaluate any kind of personality trait called loyalty, or anything like that.
COHEN: It's a bit subjective.
Mr. ENGBER: Well, I mean, they do measure traits that we might think of as being somewhat subjective. They measure how playful a certain kind of dog is, or how sociable it is, or how curious or aggressive. They don't measure how loyal it is. And the researchers I spoke to figure that loyalty would be some, you know, complicated combination of other traits.
COHEN: Well, as I mentioned, I had some issues with the premise of the question, and here's why. I would argue that maybe loyalty might be something more about nurture than nature. And wouldn't you, kind of, have to take into account how a dog was raised in addition to what breed it was?
Mr. ENGBER: Well, that's true for a lot of these personality assessments for dogs. It's sometimes hard to separate out nature from nurture. But I think you can - using the traits that are out there in the research literature, you can kind of come up with a version of what it might be for a dog to be loyal. The one I used is, I figured, well, maybe a dog that's really affectionate to its owner but aggressive to everyone else. That might be, say, an index of how loyal a dog is.
COHEN: Dan, a personal question. Are you a dog owner?
Mr. ENGBER: I am not a dog owner. I would say I'm an aspiring dog owner. Just a couple of weeks ago I did a review of robot pets. This is the only kind of pet that I think I would be responsible enough to take care of.
COHEN: OK. So cockroaches was number one. Dogs was number four. What was two and three?
Mr. ENGBER: Well, number two was why don't humans have a mating season? It turned out that there's an entire chapter of a book by Jared Diamond, the author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel," that looks at just that question. And question number three was about a photograph from an old issue of Life magazine showing the descendants of George Washington. The person wanted to know, who is the current living descendant of George Washington? And, I guess, who would be king of America if George Washington had been king? That question has been answered most recently in an article for Ancestry magazine.
COHEN: Slate.com's Daniel Engber. Thank you, Dan.
Mr. ENGBER: Thank you, Alex.
COHEN: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.
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