Which would you rather eat right now: a rice cake or an Oreo cookie? Be honest.
You picked the Oreo, didn’t you? Me too. On the one hand, there’s a chocolaty, sweet, fatty treat that lights up all those taste buds. On the other hand, there’s a substance with all the culinary appeal of Styrofoam. That’s why Oreos are a multi-billion-dollar global brand, while rice cakes are gathering dust in the back of the supermarket next to the other “diet” foods.
Rats agree. At least that’s the basis of a small, poorly designed study by undergraduates at Connecticut College. When they served the two food products in different parts of a simple maze, the rats later preferred to return to the part of the maze where they’d gotten Oreos, not where they’d gotten rice cakes. For comparison, the scientists repeated the experiment with rats who received morphine or cocaine injections in one part of a maze, or a saline control solution (I assume) in another part. The rats’ bias for Oreo-land was reportedly as strong as their preference for the drug alley. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the researchers then measured levels of the oncogene c-Fos in the rats’ brains (presumably after killing them), and reportedly saw that c-Fos expression was higher in pleasure centers after Oreo feeding than after cocaine. From that, they conclude that Oreos are as addictive as hard drugs. Or something like that.
The reason I have to guess what controls these investigators used and exactly how they did the experiments is that I can’t read their Materials and Methods. Or their Results. Or any other part of their peer-reviewed paper. There isn’t one. In fact, the only primary source we have for this research is the press release I linked to above. Are you sensing a problem yet?
It gets worse. News outlets worldwide have picked up this story and run with it (no links, just Google “Oreo cocaine” if you didn’t already see this item, and you’ll be inundated). Now everyone everywhere has seen an authoritative headline saying that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine, even though there is, at most, only a flimsy shred of evidence that even suggests such a thing, and it’s presented exclusively in a press release.
Yes, this sort of nonsense is depressingly common in science news today. I even satirized it awhile back, in a post that a lot of people liked but nobody in the news industry really took to heart. The sad truth is that a story that simplifies a complex issue into a sound bite while confirming a widespread but largely unsupported belief is always a huge hit. Criticize it as much as you like, it will still keep selling.
After all, which would you rather read right now: a simple story that affirms the addictive qualities of delicious junk foods, or, for example, a mutational analysis of different types of cancer? The Oreos or the rice cakes?
Sure, this diet of informational junk food is a cheap, easy, shallow experience that leaves us with an empty and slightly guilty feeling afterward, but the short-term hit is great. You just knew junk food was addictive, didn’t you? Aren’t you smart? And you know what? It means you don’t have to feel so guilty about that overprocessed crap you love to eat – you’re powerless against your addiction, after all. Or, if you shop exclusively at Whole Foods and only eat organic, you can quietly feel superior to all those poor junkies who frequent lesser markets. They just can’t help themselves. Whatever your bias – and you do have one on this subject – this story validates it. It’s pure link-bait gold.
The fault, dear reader, is not in our media, but in ourselves, that we’re so gullible.
The only way out of this cycle of silliness is, unfortunately, really hard: think. The next time you see a headline that confirms something you’ve long suspected, look away. Pause for a moment and ask yourself whether you currently have any good, solid, empirical evidence for your belief. Recall that “empirical evidence” is not “my cousin’s wife’s best friend once said…” We’re talking about real data collected systematically and analyzed in an unbiased manner. Do you have it?
Regardless of the answer to that question, try arguing the other side. You think junk food is as addictive as opiates? No, it’s not. Try to come up with reasons why it can’t be: lots of people stop eating it, you’ve never heard of someone hospitalized for Doritos withdrawal, actors never check into rehab to kick a Twinkies habit. In the unlikely event you actually do have data on the subject, think of reasons those data could be skewed: small sample size, effect only seen in animals, study never reproduced, that sort of thing. Finally, go back to the headline and see if you can find the original paper behind it. If there isn’t one, or you can’t access it, or you just don’t have the time, simply drop the subject and move on – but leave the argument in your head unresolved. You should be left with the feeling that this issue is currently beyond your understanding, and if you want to change that you’ll have to set aside some time to look into it. Even if you find the time to do that investigation, the science may simply be inadequate; the unknown will always dwarf the known.
Perhaps that sounds unsatisfying, but in fact we deal with it every day. I don’t know whether plastic or metal water bottles are safer, whether it’s good or bad to have a beer in the evening, or whether my home-cooked meals are killing my family, just to pick a few examples off the top of my head. Now I can also toss a bag of Oreos into the “to be determined” basket. They’ll help tide me over while I’m reading about those other subjects.