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This place matters

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fun with fallacies: correlation vs. causation

You may recall last month when a story made the rounds, revealing that singles who used emoji had more sex. This led, naturally, to a 100% spike in old creepers propositioning girls via rebus. 

Of course, the study didn't really find that people who use emojis have more sex - because in reality, younger people are more likely to use emojis, and younger people have more sex.
This fallacy is funny when it applies to emoji, but it is somewhat more serious when it's being used to make people terrified of their food.
We've all seen the dire warnings on Facebook about all the ways our food is killing us. Sometimes, the stories are true, or have a kernel of truth. For instance, there's a story that periodically makes the rounds on Facebook about baby carrots being marinated in chlorine to preserve them and make them more aesthetically pleasing. It's actually true that produce is sometimes cleaned with chlorine, but it isn't soaked in it, and it's to kill germs, not preserve it. Now, it is worth asking whether chlorine's the best thing to clean our food with. However, stories like this always seem to veer off into wild and catastrophic claims about the toxic effects of "chemicals" on our produce. Rates of autism and ADD and Alzheimer's and obesity and cancer have skyrocketed since we started using pesticides (or genetic engineering, etc.), they claim, and it's all because of the food we eat.
There's nothing irresponsible about eating organic, or protesting pesticide use, or questioning the safety of GMOs. What is irresponsible is making wild and unsubstantiated claims. 
See, a great many families simply can't afford to shop at World Market each week. And as Slate's Melinda Wenner Moyer points out:
...if the research literature is clear about anything regarding fruits and vegetables, it’s that eating more of them—conventional or organic—does good things for the body. One review concluded that the quartile of Americans who eat the most fruits and vegetables, organic or not, are about half as likely to develop cancer compared to the quartile who eat the least.
So perpetuating the idea that veggies can kill, especially to people who can't afford organic, could be more hazardous to their health than even the most pesticide-riddled apple could be. 
Meanwhile, we actually know the real causes for rising rates of dread diseases, and some aren't even bad. For one thing, people are living longer - Aunt Ethyl got Alzheimer's at 90 because she didn't drop dead of a heart attack at 60 like her mom did. And autism diagnoses have gone up because we've drastically, drastically changed the diagnostic criteria for autism - so perhaps the biggest reason for rising cases of autism is the rising number of autism diagnoses. 
Americans' sedentary, vehicle-dependent lifestyle puts us at greater risk for just about every disease there is, so it is way more helpful to encourage our loved ones to get more exercise than to be afraid of carrots. We know for a fact that junk food, especially stuff that's full of fat and sugar, can cause huge health problems, so it's way better to post warnings about those things on Facebook than posting dire but unsubstantiated warnings about the foods people should be eating. We know for a fact that unhealthy lifestyles cause diseases, so it is a good idea to make sure and address those things before blaming factors that correlate with diseases but aren't shown to cause them. 
And for the love of God, people, Snopes that shit before you repost it. 
Some other food myths that deserve to be dispelled (according to Snopes): 

  • There's never been a single documented case of a Chinese restaurant serving dog or cat, so jokes about household pets in your General Tso's aren't just racist, they're also ignorant. Also, unoriginal dude, and that's maybe the biggest crime of all. 
  • Monsanto-grown cucumbers don't cause genital baldness. Though eating these tainted cucumbers would be way cheaper and less painful than waxing. 
  • The gold flakes in Goldschlager don't cut up your insides to get the alcohol into your bloodstream afterwards. Jeremy will have to find another excuse for his antics that one New Year's Eve.
  • Neither chocolate nor bananas are going extinct. Chocolate covered bananas for everybody!

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