In a story for NPR, Zhai Yun Tan asks, “OK, Google, Where Did You Put My Thinking Cap?” The story is worth a read and another blog post, but the question that bothered me was, considering how easy it is to look stuff up, why is it that people continue to post erroneous or misleading information on social media, particularly Facebook?
Earlier this month, I described one example of false information being shared on Facebook: the photo of the supposed orphan longing for her mother.
Today, it’s the McDonald’s Happy Meal that refuses to rot.* Again, I’m not trying to be the Facebook police (OK…maybe I am a little) . The story isn’t wrong as much as misguided and, like the photo of the little girl, it’s meant for a good cause, that of keeping kids away from junk food. The meal did, indeed, not rot. What it really did was dehydrate.
Sadly, what’s missing is the education value of really testing what’s going on here: It’s a perfect science experiment, one that would certainly be engaging to students. That’s exactly what J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt did. Recognizing that drawing conclusions based on one burger and fries was not good science, Lopez-Alt set up an experiment that included creating hypotheses, isolating variables and creating controls, all those steps covered in any set of science standards but not always practiced in the science classroom.
And, while he did not wait for five or ten years (he waited 25 days which was about as long as his wife could take it), he discovered that, under similar conditions, even homemade burgers of a certain size don’t rot. They dry out. Here’s his conclusions as well as his issues with the original post:
Pretty strong evidence in favor of Theory 3: the burger doesn’t rot because it’s small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast. Without moisture, there’s no mold or bacterial growth. Of course, that the meat is pretty much sterile to begin with due to the high cooking temperature helps things along as well. It’s not really surprising. Humans have known about this phenomenon for thousands of years. After all, how do you think beef jerky is made?
Now don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a dog in this fight either way. I really couldn’t care less whether or not the McDonald’s burger rotted or didn’t. I don’t often eat their burgers, and will continue to not often eat their burgers. My problem is not with McDonald’s. My problem is with bad science.
If I were a middle school science teacher, this would be my introduction to the scientific method. Partner with the lunch ladies or the home ec teacher and have some fun with food and science!**
Back to the point about Google interfering with our ability to think: it took me one search on “six year old happy meal” to get to the Snopes article and then it was a matter of following the links to find the original research. So, as easy as Google is to use–to the point that it is sapping our critical thinking–is that even too hard to do? Maybe it’s not Google’s fault that we aren’t critical thinkers any more? Maybe we weren’t to begin with? Maybe we just don’t care about good science? Or, as Lopez-Alt comments, “It seems to me that the only thing that can last longer than a McDonald’s hamburger is an internet meme about them.”
*I LOVE that Snopes has this categorized under “Fauxtography.”
**Of course, the kids could just google it and that gets us back to the NPR story that will end up as another blog entry.