When Junk Science Meets Junk Food

Laurie and Debbie say:

eating in a settlement house kitchen

Scientists at the University of Toronto have released a report claiming that the very existence and availability of fast food somehow makes us be in a hurry. “Fast food represents a culture of time efficiency and instant gratification,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, who co-wrote the paper with colleague Sanford DeVoe to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. “The problem is that the goal of saving time gets activated upon exposure to fast food regardless of whether time is a relevant factor in the context. For example, walking faster is time efficient when one is trying to make a meeting, but it’s a sign of impatience when one is going for a stroll in the park. We’re finding that the mere exposure to fast food is promoting a general sense of haste and impatience regardless of the context.” They did three experiments, each with less than sixty participants (less than thirty outside of the control groups), all of them University of Toronto students. So we already know we aren’t looking at real science. Their theory, which they “confirmed,” was that fast food logos, such as the ubiquitous Macdonalds’ golden arches, make people more impatient, and make them do tasks in more of a hurry. The experiments consisted of subliminal or peripheral vision flashes of fast food logos during other tasks. (We wonder if the control group got subliminal flashes of Alice Waters and the food at her restaurants.) While they don’t actually say in their paper that they are talking about why poor people make bad decisions, they do talk about “density” of fast-food restaurants, which we all know tends to happen in lower-income neighborhoods. (Fast food isn’t exclusively, or even perhaps mostly, the food of poor people. Know any white men in the tech industry? Any gamers?) Nonetheless, Kathryn Hughes, writing in the Guardian, has an excellent class-based critique: The panic around the moral and psychological damage of fast food … was always [fueled by] a much deeper suspicion of what it represented: ignorance, indifference, a wilful inability to imagine a better way of feeding the future. It’s for that reason that, back in the early 19th-century, moralists including William Cobbett churned out a whole array of “cottage economies” and “penny cookbooks” aimed at stopping the working classes from squandering money in the pie shop. These prim moral primers were full of bright suggestions for turning the scrag end of lamb and on-the-turn turnips into something that not only nourished body and soul but also saved pennies for a rainy day. … What all those Victorian moralists missed – just as the Toronto report ignores – is that fast food is the emblematic product of maturing and late capitalism. Urban workers, forced to work longer and longer hours, do not have the time to invest in cooking from scratch. Those who are obliged to live in shared accommodation and rented digs may not have the right equipment for making real food slowly (Agas don’t fit into bedsits; microwaves do). When you are exhausted after a 10-hour shift, then soup is fiddly to consume on the way home. Burgers and kebabs, by contrast, are easy to eat with one hand and require neither plates nor knives. Far from being the refuseniks of capitalism, unable to master its first principle of delayed gratification, the people who rely on fast food outlets are its honourable foot soldiers. We should salute them. Hughes is right on target for most of her essay, and is invoking a long and fascinating history of missionaries, settlement houses, and other do-gooder efforts aimed to make “the poor” eat “right,”  but we disagree with her that delayed gratification is a capitalist virtue, especially in 21st century capitalism. While she excoriates the study for ignoring how workers are pushed into fast food, she also ignores how consciously and carefully fast-food corporations engineer the attraction and desirability of fast food. Just to be clear, neither we nor Hughes are saying that fast food is a good thing, or good for us. Working through purchasable state legislatures, the corporations work hard to ensure ridiculous amounts of salt and sugar in every school cafeteria. Working with urban planners, they carefully calculate which street corners, neighborhoods, and strip malls will be most profitable for new locations. And working with food scientists, they carefully study exactly how much fat, salt, and sugar will make you reach for the next Dorito. So who exactly is into instant gratification? Who is trying to move fast, make immediate moves that might not be so sensible in the long term? Who is impatient? Well, fast food customers perhaps–but fast food owners, demonstrably. And no one is going to fund tiny, silly studies of what the owners do when their own logos flash subliminally onto a screen. Thanks to Annalee Newitz at i09 for the pointer.

Do Men and Women See Junk Science Differently?

Debbie says:

I’ve gotten to the point where I can sense junk science from miles away, which is what happened when I saw this news article about “how men and women see the world differently.”

My first clue was the fact that the study looks for a gender differentiation where there’s absolutely no evolutionary or biological reason to have one.

My second clue was the study’s conclusion:

“…men have greater sensitivity to fine detail and rapidly moving objects, while women are better at distinguishing between colors.”

This result is so perfectly aligned to simple gender binary expectations in the western world in the 21st century that it smells like the researchers found exactly what they were looking for.

Given these two clues, I went hunting. Here’s the abstract, from the Biology of Sex Differences journal (another bad sign). What I love about the abstract is this sentence, “We tested large groups of young adults with normal vision.” Most abstracts give sample sizes. When this abstract just said “large groups,” my spidey-senses tingled even more than they had already. Fortunately, the abstract takes us to a .pdf of the draft paper (this research isn’t even finalized, it’s just making the science news, because science news loves gender differentiation).

On page 7 of the .pdf, after a lot of technical explanation of why they believe these sex differences exist and how they set out to find them, we find the sample size. Want to guess? “Large groups” should be probably at least 1,000 (that would be a reasonable number for a single “large group,” at least).

Okay, here we go: 36 females and 16 males. No, really. That’s a “large group” for dinner, but not for much else.

Note the disparity between females and males. Since all subjects were volunteers, it sounds to me like more women volunteered than men, and the scientists decided that that wasn’t a problem. So if you have more than twice as many women as men, and you’re looking specifically for differences between women and men, wouldn’t you wonder whether your group of women was going to show wider variation than your group of men, just because of sample size? I would. But they don’t even acknowledge this; they just go blithely on, after saying that the smaller number of men reflects the demographics of the college where they were doing the research (perfectly plausible) and that they rejected all men with anomalous color vision.

Finally, on page 16, they trot out the old and long-debunked “hunter/gatherer” explanation. You see, men are hunters, so they have to be able to make fine movement distinctions. Women are gatherers, so seeing colors helps us find the right crops (and accessorize!). As they have not bothered to find out, this has not been the thrust of anthropological and paleontological belief for some time now (here’s one resource). Besides, fine movements are not how big game is tracked.

Once again, a little research establishes that if men and women actually see differently, these researchers haven’t proved it. And they know it, or they wouldn’t be so cagey about hiding their sample size.