The Lone Ranger

The Perfectly Natural Bias for a White Hat

Never underestimate the power of rationalization. Because sounds good, very often, is good enough. Just ask folks selling “natural” foods and drinks. A good story about natural purity fetches premium prices. Also, you should look at new research on white hat bias. Even for researchers, it seems the ends can justify the means. It’s a natural bias.

Consecrated Consumption

100% Natural LabelReligion professor Alan Levinovitz explains that natural foods and drinks can be a form of consecrated consumption:

“Natural” invokes a religious myth, an origin story about pure beginnings. With giant islands of garbage floating in the seas, microplastics polluting the oceans and human-caused climate change ravaging the globe, it makes sense to be suspicious of human tampering.

Wanton disregard for the natural world affects our health and well-being. Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health: physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word “natural” a synonym for “holy.”

No wonder FDA has such a tough time regulating “natural” claims. People are yearning for something that defies definition. If it sounds good, it feels good. And if it feels good, it’s real.

Thus, flavored, canned, and carbonated water can sell itself as natural and innocent. Whole Foods can inspire shoppers with holistic mumbo jumbo. Inspiration inspires big spending.

Questionable Research Practices

You might think that researchers are exempt from rationalizing flawed thinking. But you’d be wrong. That’s because white hat bias comes into play. If a certain line of thinking serves a noble purpose, people naturally want to believe research to support it. Skeptical thinking is unwelcome.

Donald Sacco, Mitch Brown, and Samuel Bruton put this notion to the test. They recruited 107 NIH researchers to evaluate some questionable research practices. But they randomly paired a shady practice with a “good” reason or a “bad” reason for doing it.

For example, a good reason might involve issues of statistical power arising after the study starts. On the other hand, the bad reason would be to fish around for an effect. Either rationale could be the excuse for the same questionable practice – collecting more data after an initial analysis.

And guess what? A noble motive was enough to nudge these scientists toward accepting questionable practices. Without adding in a noble motive, they rejected it.

Subjective Values and Objective Findings

Much of the reasoning about nutrition and obesity comes to us in terms of good and bad. Sugar is bad. Fruits are good. Fruits have sugar, but the goodness of the fruit cancels out that sugar. Food makers are bad. Local food producers are good.

Artificial sweeteners? Forget the data. We’re just supposed to hate them.

Values are important for guiding decisions. But values are not the same thing as objective evidence. Our natural bias favoring a noble idea means we need to be extra careful when making judgements about nutrition and obesity.

We must be clear about what we know – distinct from what we feel.

Click here for the study by Sacco et al and here for the commentary by Levinovitz. For more on litigation about “natural” water, click here.

The Lone Ranger, public domain publicity photo, Wikimedia Commons

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October 15, 2018