Monday, 21 March 2011

Breaking News: Apples will kill you

In my introduction I mentioned that I had written a huge long essay for a project on pseudoscience. I'll be posting modified extracts from the project every now and again but unfortunately nobody comes out particularly well from it - homeopaths are accused of being paranoid, astrologers accused of intellectual shaming and my shoddy writing style is exposed for what it is.

That said, let's crack on with it anyway...

My first survey was created with the aim of mimicking the health scare stories often seen in the media, in particular in tabloid newspapers such as The Daily Mail. These stories often contain a lot of scientific terms such as full names for chemicals and are short on explanations into how the experiment supplying the data was carried out. The aim of these articles is to sell as many newspapers as possible and this often comes at the price of scientific accuracy. While creating as much drama out of a news story as possible makes commercial sense, it can have far-reaching and potentially harmful consequences as seen during the MMR-autism link scandal. The survey which was intended to create a similar level of fear compared to these news stories read as follows:

 ‘A substance which is freely available to the general public has been found to reduce the chances of developing colon cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer and reduce cholesterol levels. It can be beneficial when taken in specified amounts; however, the side effects include stomach upsets and (in some forms of the substance) severe tooth decay.

The substance also contains a poisonous chemical called amygdalin, which is potentially dangerous to humans and is considered to be too poisonous a chemical to be used for cancer treatment.’

The 64 participants were then given four options: ban the substance, regulate it, keep it free or undecided. They were also given space to ask any questions about the substance in question, which gave rise to some very interesting ideas. Many of the questions received asked about the severity of the side-effects but out of the 64 people who replied only 12 of them actually asked what the substance was called - I was expecting far more people to ask about that.

Worryingly, 25% of participants were willing to take the article at face value and asked no questions while choosing to regulate the substance. It was interesting that almost everyone who took the survey reacted with disbelief or said they felt stupid when the name of the substance in the survey was revealed: the humble apple.

So why were 57 people so quick to regulate or ban apples after reading the article? If I had asked the participants if they wanted to regulate apples in plain English even after describing their benefits and drawbacks I would’ve been laughed at, but I’ve somehow managed to manipulate this response from the majority of the people who took the survey. It’s likely that people weren’t familiar with the chemical amygdalin and were fearful of the potentially lethal side effects despite the fact that it’s only found in small concentrations in apple pips. This is an example of obscuring key facts about case studies as some health scare stories have been guilty of.

Even though it's a small sample size, the results are still very interesting. 89% of people asked were fine with banning or regulating apples and the remaining 11% were undecided. Remaining undecided on the issue was probably the best answer, given the risks and hazards described in the article but I would've expected at least one person to want to leave it free.

Try not to remember any of that information next time you look at your fruit bowl, by the way.


  1. Well, we all know that apples are bad for humans don't we? I blame that pesky snake myself...

  2. That's why they float isn't it? They're a very evil fruit.

  3. Interesting article. Good to see your writing outside CiF. Will look forward to more.