MYTH MAKING (UPDATED)
Updated: Jun 10
My world wobbled today; not by much, not off its axis, but enough to take a tiny chip out of my version of reality. As a child, I never ate vegetables. The scope in our house was pretty limited anyway - peas and carrots - but even here I put up a good defence. As an incentive, my mother promised me that eating carrots would help me see better in the dark. I'm sure yours did too, right? Of course, we didn't really believe our mothers; it was just one of those old wives tales handed from generation to generation. A universal saw, as old as Methusula. Apparently not. According to Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science, its source is one of the great disinformation coups of WW2. The Germans couldn't understand how British pilots could see their planes coming from huge distances, even in the dark. To mask the development of radar, the Brits started an entirely made-up nutritionist rumour: we had been feeding our chaps huge plates of carrots to help them see more clearly. Not only did the Germans fall for it; so did my mother.
Reading this reminded me of another made-up truth that I discovered a few years ago: the Ploughman's Lunch. It's been the mainstay of pub grub since the Agricultural Revolution, right? Nope. It was invented by an advertising agency in the 1960s on behalf of the Milk Marketing Board. Farmhands almost certainly ate cheese and bread while out in the fields, but the 'branding' of that combination is completely fictious. It's made up, it has no historical basis. Neither of these two 'facts' are earth-shattering; indeed, their inconsequential nature are part of their charm. But their discovery does beg the question 'How many other assumed axioms are no more than fabrications?' How many were designed to distort our perceptions, and somewhere in time have slipped into the vernacular as Truth? If you have any more examples, break them to me gently.
UPDATE: Sept 17, 2018
A new made-up truth has bubbled to the surface: The 10,000-steps-a-day regime.
Like the Ploughman's Lunch, 10k steps comes from a 1960's marketing campaign. Trying to cash-in on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Yamasa company created a device called the manpo-kei, which translates as “10,000-step meter”
But, according to Prof David Bassett at the University of Tennessee, “There wasn’t really any evidence for it at the time. They just felt it was a number indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy.” .
Since then, global health organizations have adopted 10,000 steps as the norm.
But in recent years the veracity of this number has been increasingly called into question.
Indeed, most of the 'scientific' studies that have been conducted to try testing whether 10k a day is optimal for health are themselves relatively arbitrary. The number keeps being reinforced because of the way research studies are designed.
According to Prof Catrine Tudor-Locke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “A study might find that 10,000 helps you lose more weight than 5,000... then the media report: ‘Yes, you should go with 10,000 steps,’ but that could be because the study has only tested two numbers. It didn’t test 8,000, for example, and it didn’t test 12,000.”
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, said: “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.”
Without a number - or a fashionable device on his wrist.
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