You might have heard the statistic currently buzzing around the internet that “7% of Americans think Chocolate Milk comes from brown cows.” Shocking – right? How could Americans be so scientifically illiterate?
When I read this “fact” I initially feel some of the same outrage that I have seen my students reflecting in their posts about “Sloppy Science” and “Shocking Truths“. Many students have written about how scientists are “lying” to the public and using deceitful practices.
While I agree that biomedical research needs to avoid bias, use strong study design, and be more transparent, I would encourage my students to stop and think before judging the scientists. Are the scientists “lying,” or are we, as the public, simply too eager to accept “truth”?
Let’s take the chocolate milk statistic as an example. Some questions we need to consider:
(1) How many people were surveyed?
I am an “American,” but no one asked me about chocolate milk. According to Lauren Griffen and Troy Campbell at phy.org, the data was from “nationally representative sample of 1000 adults.” Representative of what?
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 325,344,115 people in the United States. If I did my math right, it seems the the Chocolate Milk survey asked the question of 0.000003% of the total U.S. population. That is a very small percentage!
(2) Who were these people?
The publicly available information I can find does not say. The survey claims that the question was posed to a “nationally representative sample.” There would be a BIG difference in responses if the question was asked to 1,000 Ann Richards graduates versus 1,000 random people in New York versus 1,000 people in rural Texas, etc.
(3) What, exactly, did the survey ask?
The Columbia Journalism Review makes a good point that the question matters. Glendora Meikle writes:
How exactly was the question phrased? Were those the only three options – two cow colors or “I don’t know”? And did this mean that even someone who plainly knew that chocolate milk was simply any milk that had been mixed with chocolate and sugar was not given the option of choosing anything resembling the correct response?
So, do 7% of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows? It’s hard to tell. What we DO know for certain is that 7% of the people who responded to a particular question selected the answer “brown cows.” Any other conclusions drawn come from our own minds.
I write this post not as a criticism of the survey methodology or of the American public, but to encourage my students to stop and think before they judge the scientists in Rigor Mortis too harshly. The information the scientists present is probably factual and represents their data. The question for us, as interpreters of the data, becomes “who,” “what,” and “how” about the study.
I don’t think the scientists are lying (usually), I think that “truth” can be interpreted in many ways and that is where the responsibility lies (pun intended).