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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Super Size Me: How Not To Science.


So, today was going to be Drive, and tomorrow was going to be this editorial, but the episode was only subbed today (which is still incredibly quick, make no mistake) and I've only had four hours sleep, so schedule reshuffling took place.

Anyway, many thanks to Reecey from Nine Over Five for this editorial, which I think is our first documentary-related post ever. Documentaries have always been part of the remit, it's just that I don't watch them, so it's never come up.


Editorial: Super Size Me: 
How Not To Science.

(Guest editorial by Reecey).

Super Size Me is a 2004 documentary film by Morgan Spurlock about the health consequences of fast food, specifically McDonalds.

Well, ‘documentary’.

See, I have multiple problems with this film, largely that Morgan Spurlock went out of his way to make the results of his diet as awful as possible.

The premise was that he would eat McDonalds for every meal for thirty days, however, while he was doing this, he also purposefully limited his exercise from the four to five miles of walking a day typical for a New Yorker to less than one.

Why did he limit his exercise? Well, the in universe explanation was that he wanted to do the amount of exercise that the average office working American would do in a day.

However, I do have to raise the counterpoint that he wasn’t eating like an average American office worker, so why on earth would he feel the need to exercise like one?

This is a problem for two reasons:

One, if he’d kept his usual diet but changed to the new exercise used in the documentary, he would have suffered negative health effects. Of course, nowhere near as bad as what he did get, but over a month, we would have seen some weight gain.

Two, he kept referring to this as an ‘experiment’.

When I was but a wee lass doing secondary school science, we were taught that experiments have independent and dependent variables. The dependent variable is what you’re measuring and the independent variable is what you’re changing.

One such experiment we did was changing the temperature of milk (independent variable) with chymosin in to test what difference this would make to the coagulation of the milk by the enzyme (dependent variable). We didn’t also chuck battery acid in while measuring the effect of temperature.

If Super Size Me had any scientific merit at any point, it went straight out of the window when he added in a second independent variable that would obscure the true effects of the McDonalds only diet on his health. In science, the change in his exercise would be referred to as a confounding variable, which says it all, really.

Apart from the terrible science, there’s also the big problem that no one eats like this?

Yeah, he managed to track down a guy who ate two to three big macs a day, but one, he doesn’t eat the fries, and two, even he doesn’t eat only McDonalds.

During the first day, Spurlock forced himself to eat a meal well past the point of fullness and made himself throw up. Who eats like that?! Who eats past the point of physical discomfort?! This food is so inexpensive that barely anyone is going to make themselves eat to the point of sickness. Hell, it would be a waste of money if they did.

The meal in question was one of the Super Size meals that the film was named for.

I’d like to point out two things.

One, he spoke to an expert who talked about the increased sizes of fast food portions, but not the increase of portion sizes across the board over the last thousand years. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, and it isn’t confined to only fast food restaurants like the film implies.

Two, according to the rules he laid out early on in the film, he only ordered a Super Size meals when prompted.

So, how many did he order?

Nine. Out of ninety.

If he was eating one meal at McDonalds a day, which would very much be in line with what an actual person might do, then he’d only have a Super Size meal less than once a week.

If he’d stayed put in New York, then it would have been even less often than that.

Five of the times he was asked if he’d like a Super Size meal were in Texas. Which says worse things about Texas than it does about McDonalds. Probably largely that it’s incredibly poor, 18.5% of Texans live below the poverty line according to the 2011 census, and not fantastically educated at 39th in the US. That’s 39th in a country that ranks 36th out of sixty five.

Texas has some serious issues regarding poverty and education, which the film didn’t bring up at all.

At no point did this film mention that poverty is strongly linked to poor nutrition, it just concentrated on the apparently ‘addictive’ nature of the food and the fact that businesses have the gall to advertise their products and rely on having a repeat customer base.

Hell, the internal language used by McDonalds categorising people who eat there once a week as ‘heavy users’ implies that even they don’t think that people should eat there all the time.

One of the effects he stated that this had on his health was that he was suffering from sexual dysfunction and that his sex life went down to zero.

As much as I want nothing to do with this guy’s sexlife, he a) brought it up and b) saw fit to have his girlfriend talk about it on camera.

She mentioned that he wasn’t as energetic as he was before, but that he was still perfectly capable of having sex. This was earlier on in the month, but this is the last we heard of this until the end of the film where he said he had no sex life as a result of the diet.

Interestingly enough, he spent some time in Texas and presumably getting there. I’m also pretty sure that he went to California, but the wikipedia page said nothing about that, so maybe I imagined it.

So we have a single mention of his sexlife, and we know that he spent an unspecified amount of time away from his girlfriend. The point I’m getting at here is, if you’re monogamous and your girlfriend is nowhere near you, of course you’re not going to have sex, you dolt.

One of the other problems I have with this film is that, despite keeping a food log, and probably filming most of his meals, Spurlock apparently hasn’t seen fit to release the food log.

Considering the extreme negative effect on his health that his thirty day binge had, even to the point of surprising and baffling his doctors, is it too much to expect him to release the food log?

(He also didn’t release, or seem to keep, a sex log. Which I don’t want him to have done, but if he is going to bring it up, he should bloody well be scientific about it. If Santorio Santorio could weigh himself and his food for thirty years, this guy could keep a sex log for thirty days.)

This is another way in which the ‘experiment’ fails to be good science.

Real scientists release the methodology of their experiments so that other scientists can repeat the experiment and attempt to reproduce their results.

So he’s thrown in a confounding variable and obscured his methodology so that his ‘experiment’ can’t be accurately repeated and his results verified.

I have no idea why anyone who wasn’t biased as hell would obscure their methodology and throw in a confounding variable like this.

Actually, there’s a second confounding variable that I haven’t yet mentioned.

This is a yoyo diet.

Yeah, you usually hear about this when it’s people (usually young women) going on an extreme diet in order to lose a lot of weight quickly, but then go back to a diet that is less healthy or more calorific.

This is really bad for your health. It’s basically better for you to stay at a consistent fat weight than it is for you to bounce up and down. The toll it takes on your body can be incredibly bad. (One of the people they spoke to, a teenage girl, was likely talking in reference to this in a baffling section about body image that I genuinely don’t understand the purpose of. McDonalds isn’t going to judge you if you’re fat.)

The thing is, this is essentially someone doing the exact thing, but the other way around.

It’s entirely possible that if he’d slowly acclimatised to the McDonalds diet, he would have had negative health effects because the change wasn’t so extreme.

Not only do we not have a food log for what he was eating during his so called ‘experiment’, we have no idea what the man was eating prior to it. For all we know, he could have been eating nothing but salad for six months prior to make the yoyo effect even worse.

This science is so bad that it just gives people who disagree with him fuel to dismiss his entire point, and casts doubt on the entire ‘documentary’.

He may very well have just been, well, lying. There’s no way to know because he hasn’t been upfront about any of this.

So let this be a lesson, if you want to do an experiment to prove a point you need to have a single independent variable (to the best of your ability) and you need to publish your methodology as well as your results.


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