1 June 2015

Dieting by eating Chocolate and Attitudes Towards Gay Marriage: If it Seems Too Good to Be True and You’d Love to Believe it, it Probably isn’t True

On Academic Fraud and Scientific Stunts

I have to admit that I have a weight problem. I’m not obese, but I could surely benefit from losing 10-20 kg (22-44 pounds). Occasionally I try to diet, in the sense of eating more vegetables, less meat, as little as possible fat, avoid sugar (particularly added sugar) etc. And, YES, if you want to diet, you have to give up wonderful things such as bacon, chocolate, bagels and deep-fried food.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a dieter could hold on to one of these incredibly tasty ingredients?

Of course!

But, what if one such ingredient would actually help to lose weight?

What if EATING FRIED BACON would help you lose weight?

Who wouldn’t want to eat fried bacon and still lose weight?

Without being a nutritionist (I just mentioned I’m overweight), but being able to pass biology in middle-school, I know that eating fat is not going to make anyone slimmer.

Things are similar when it comes to other (guilty) pleasures of food. Eating chocolate, bagels, donuts, ice-cream and sweets etc. is very pleasurable and there is a reason for it.

A few million years ago, when our evolutionary ancestors (pre-homo sapiens species) lived, it was very good for them to eat as much sugar and fat as they could. This is simply because sugar and fat were extremely scarce back then. (Remember, we are talking about a few million years ago).

Whether we like it or not, we have inherited this natural appeal for sugar and fat, but in today’s (western) world these ingredients are (way too) abundant. Therefore it is not in our own benefit to eat as much of them as we can, even if our instincts tell us to.

But what if the facts above are wrong? What if, eating donuts is good for our health? It would be great! We could indulge in sugar and fat (read donuts) without guilt and even with a sense of pride since we are doing something good for our health.

This would be something many of us would love to be true. We want it to be true… and because of this, often we skip the scepticism that is so often needed.

A journalist, John Bohannon, managed to fool lots of people into believing (considering as true) that eating chocolate is actually good for dieting. He devised a real experimental study in which this result was statistically significant.

Unlike many dieting gurus, John Bohannon didn’t do this study in order to sell his books, workshops etc. and make a fortune by selling desirable illusions. He did it to prove a very valuable point: we are not critical enough with the results that are presented, particularly with the methodology of the study.

You can read his full explanation here (open in new tab and read later).

In very, very brief the methodology was flawed and the over-emphasis on statistically significant results is a two-edge blade.

In a different part of the (scientific) world, a new scandal on academic fraud (faking data) erupted. This time it concerned political science and the main reason why this scandal made such a big bang is that the study published (using fake data) became very popular.

One of the reasons for which it became so popular was that the study was published in Science. For the people who don’t know what Science is: for scientists it is similar to the Hollywood walk of fame for actors and the Rock and Roll hall of fame for musicians.

Another reason for which the paper became popular was the fact that Donald Green (a super-star in political science research) was one of the co-authors. Mr. Green claims that he was not involved in the actual running of the study and that the other co-author (a grad student) brought the data.

However, the main reason (in my view) for which the study became so popular is that it told us what we wanted to hear about a rather sensitive topic: gay marriage.

The study claimed that attitudes towards gay marriage can change (from negative to positive) after a 30 minutes visit from a canvasser who disclosed that he or she is homosexual.

You can read a detailed description of the fraud and how it was discovered here

The fact that occasionally some people fake data should not surprise anyone. Academia is not immune to cheating and fraud.

What I find very interesting is that this case has some similarities with the chocolate helps in dieting paper. Obviously both are methodologically utterly flawed. But there is more than just poor methodology.

Telling people that attitudes towards a sensitive topic such as gay marriage can be changed by a 30 minutes interaction with a gay person is very similar to saying that eating chocolate (or bacon) is actually helpful in dieting.

Both are things many of us want to hear and both are a bit too good to be true (once you become critical).

The beauty of behavioural science and other branches of science is that they prove our intuitions wrong, that they show asymmetries (i.e. small input, large output) and that they promise actionable means for practical applications.

There is, however, a difference between counterintuitive and too good to be true.

Whereas counterintuitive things go against our initial beliefs, things that are too good to be true confirm what we want to believe.

Both chocolate helping dieting and changing attitudes towards a sensitive topic after a 30 minutes interaction are in accordance with our desired utopias. Many of us would love to eat chocolate and lose weight; nonetheless this seems utopic. Similarly, many pro-equality supporters would love to have found a way to change conservative views on gay marriage in just 30 minutes; again this seems utopic.   

If it Seems Too Good to Be True and You’d Love to Believe it, it Probably isn’t True 

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