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The True Science of Spinach and What the Popeye Mythology Teaches Us about How Error Spreads

How a misplaced decimal point created a beloved pop-culture hero.

During my teenage years, given my athleticism, my insatiable appetite for spinach, and my last name, friends were quick to latch onto the stuff of pop-culture legend and nickname me Popeye. But it turns out that besides perpetrating the crime of the too-obvious-for-its-own-good pun, they were also perpetuating one of history’s strangest and most egregious scientific errors.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library) — the same fascinating volume that explored how Gutenberg’s press embodied combinatorial creativity and the predictable patterns of how knowledge growsSamuel Arbesman illustrates how error spreads by debunking the Popeye mythology through the curious story of the scientific error that precipitated the misconception.

Popeye, with his odd accent and improbable forearms, used spinach to great effect, a sort of anti-Kryptonite. It gave him his strength, and perhaps his distinctive speaking style. But why did Popeye eat so much spinach? What was the reason for his obsession with such a strange food?

The truth begins more than fifty years earlier. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach, among many other green vegetables. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams. To put this in perspective, if the calculation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.

Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio executives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!

This error was eventually corrected in 1937, when someone rechecked the numbers. But the damage had been done. It spread and spread, and only recently has gone by the wayside, no doubt helped by Popeye’s relative obscurity today. But the error was so widespread that the British Medical Journal published an article discussing this spinach incident in 1981, trying its best to finally debunk the issue.

Arbesman uses the Popeye story as an allegory of admonition against the all-too-human ego and our chronic propensity for shortcuts, the combination of which makes us too lazy to look closer and too afraid to admit we’ve been blind and wrong:

Ultimately, the reason these errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.

But perhaps the most fitting reflection on what the Popeye story teaches us can be found in Dorion Sagan’s fantastic meditation on why science and philosophy need each other, in which he observes:

It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

Complement The Half-life of Facts with Galileo on critical thinking, Michael Faraday on how to cure our propensity for self-deception, and Carl Sagan’s timeless Baloney Detection Kit.

Public domain photograph via State Library of New South Wales

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Kids on Gender Politics: Amusing and Poignant Responses from Children in the 1970s-1980s

Minors counter major hegemony with disarming clarity.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin observed in her wonderful design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a singular way of seeing even the most complex of cultural phenomena with disarming clarity. From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us the story of how feminist magazine Ms. sparked the “social media” storm of women’s empowerment and Pete Seeger’s delightful solution to gender politics in language — comes this charming selection of children’s responses to the cultural climate of the second wave of feminism. Amusing, poignant, and infinitely telling, the letters epitomize the signature Ms. “click” moment — a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from an anecdote that just “clicks.”

My four-year-old niece was sharing a snack of cheese and crackers with her grandfather. Halfway through the plate he noticed she was gobbling it up at a pace rivaling his own. He proclaimed, “Boy, Erin you’re really a ‘cheeseman’!” Amused at his obvious error she replied, “No, Papa! I’m a cheese ‘person’!”

This wasn’t a statement of the influence of feminism; it was an innocent recognition of an obvious mistake in word usage. At four years old, Erin was aware of someone’s casual denial of her womanhood. Before long she may no longer notice it and begin to accept it …. not if I can prevent it.

Name Withheld
June 24, 1981

I thought you might enjoy hearing a discussion I heard between my son and his neighbor friend. They were playing together and the little boy got the giggles. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” he giggled, whereupon my son replied in a very condescending tone, “What are you, Danny, some kind of chauvinist? In this house we say “her-her-her-her!”

Her who laughs last,

Name Withheld
August 7, 1975

Recently my nine-year-old son and I were looking around the house for a ruler for his homework assignment. I observed to him that when I was growing up, most rulers had the golden rule printed upon them. “What’s that?” he asked. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “I know where you got that. You got that at all those ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] meetings.” Click!

Betsy Brinson
Richmond, Virginia
August 1980 Issue

I offer the following excerpt, taken from a school assignment written by my seven-year-old grandniece, as evidence of the future good health of the feminist movement:

“George Washington’s brother had died. In those days women did not get to own there own home. So George Washington’s sister did not get the house. George got the house. . . . He became the first president. And then he was put on a nickel.”

Name Withheld
March 11, 1979

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

I was observing in my daughter’s class during a sixth-grade open house when the discussion turned to immigration. Why did people immigrate to America? The teacher and the class discussed pestilence, war, persecution and then addressed famine. “What is famine?” the teacher asked one of the boys in the class.

“Discrimination against women.”

Name Withheld
April 1, 1981

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety, at once timeless and infinitely timely in bespeaking the struggles we still face as a society striving for equality in all dimensions.

Public domain photographs by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House

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The Science of Beauty

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit.”

“That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express,” Francis Bacon observed in his essay on the subject. And yet for as far back as humanity can peer into the past, we’ve attempted again and again to capture and define beauty. For Indian philosopher Tagore, beauty was the Truth of eternity. For Richard Feynman, it was the mesmerism of complexity. For E. B. White, it was the power of simplicity. For the influential early art theorist Denman Waldo Ross, it was a supreme instance of order. For legendary philosopher Denis Dutton, it was “a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors.” But despite all these metaphysical explanations, we continue to strive for a concrete, tangible, material answer.

That’s precisely what Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff sets out to unearth in Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (public library) — an inquiry into what we find beautiful and why that frames beauty as “the workings of a basic instinct” and explores such fascinating facets of the subject as our evolutionary wiring, the ubiquitous response to beauty across human cultures, and the universal qualities in people that evoke this response.

Etcoff begins by confronting our intellectual apologism for the cult of beauty:

Many intellectuals would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential. Since it explains nothing, solves nothing, and teaches us nothing, it should not have a place in intellectual discourse. And we are supposed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, the concept of beauty has become an embarrassment.

But there is something wrong with this picture. Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody has stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight. Turning a cold eye to beauty is as easy as quelling physical desire or responding with indifference to a baby’s cry. We can say that beauty is dead, but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it.

Etcoff admonishes against confusing beauty with all the manufactured — and industriously exploited — stand-ins for it:

Madison Avenue cleverly exploits universal preferences but it does not create them, any more than Walt Disney created our fondness for creatures with big eyes and little limbs, or Coca-Cola or McDonald’s created our cravings for sweet or fatty foods. Advertisers and businessmen help to define what adornments we wear and find beautiful, but … this belongs to our sense of fashion, which is not the same thing as our sense of beauty.

“If everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty,” Darwin famously reflected, and Etcoff echoes his admonition in turning to the menacing domino effect of this proposition in action and what it robs us of:

The media channel desire and narrow the bandwidth of our preferences. A crowd-pleasing image becomes a mold, and a beauty is followed by her imitator, and then by the imitator of her imitator. Marilyn Monroe was such a crowd pleaser that she’s been imitated by everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Madonna. Racism and class snobbery are reflected in images of beauty, although beauty itself is indifferent to race and thrives on diversity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of beauty, however, is how bound it is with judgment, and self-judgment in particular. One of the products of our narcissistic bias, Etcoff argues, is that we greatly exaggerate the minute fluctuations in our outward appearance:

To the outside world we vary in small ways from our best hours to our worst. In our mind’s eye, however, we undergo a kaleidoscope of changes, and a bad hair day, a blemish, or an added pound undermines our confidence in ways that equally minor fluctuations in our moods, our strength, or our mental agility usually do not.

Equally, we direct our real-time assessments of appearance towards others:

We are always sizing up other people’s looks: our beauty detectors never close up shop and call it a day. We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar. Beauty detectors scan the environment like radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second (150 msec. in one psychology experiment) and rate its beauty, even give it the same rating we would give it on longer inspection. Long after we forget many important details about a person, our initial response stays in our memory.

She traces the cross-cultural, age-old extremes to which people go for “beauty” — or, really, for control of those judgments, whether by self or others:

In Brazil there are more Avon ladies than members of the army. In the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. Tons of makeup—1,484 tubes of lipstick and 2,055 jars of skin care products—are sold every minute. During famines, Kalahari bushmen in Africa still use animal fats to moisturize their skin, and in 1715 riots broke out in France when the use of flour on the hair of aristocrats led to a food shortage. The hoarding of flour for beauty purposes was only quelled by the French Revolution.

But our fixation on beauty is so profound that it even permeates the most elevated of human spirits. Etcoff gives Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s most remarkable hearts and minds, and Leo Tolstoy, enduring sage of human wisdom, as tragic examples:

When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked if she had any regrets, her response was a poignant one: she wished she had been prettier. It is a sobering statement from one of the most revered and beloved of women, one who surely led a life with many satisfactions. She is not uttering just a woman’s lament. In Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “I was frequently subject to moments of despair. I imagined that there was no happiness on earth for a man with such a wide nose, such thick lips, and such tiny gray eyes as mine.… Nothing has such a striking impact on a man’s development as his appearance, and not so much his actual appearance as a conviction that it is either attractive or unattractive.”

(It is especially ironic and demonstrative of the oppressive power of such ideals that Roosevelt famously wrote, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”)

Still, the mesmerism of beauty and its grip on us, Etcoff argues, is too deep-seated to be undone by its mere intellectual recognition:

Appearance is the most public part of the self. It is our sacrament, the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible, inner self. This assumption may not be fair, and not how the best of all moral worlds would conduct itself. But that does not make it any less true. Beauty has consequences that we cannot erase by denial. Beauty will continue to operate — outside jurisdiction, in the lawless world of human attraction. Academics may ban it from intelligent discourse and snobs may sniff that beauty is trivial and shallow but in the real world the beauty myth quickly collides with reality.

Framing beauty as a “basic pleasure,” Etcoff argues that our response to it is actually the sign of a healthy human mind. Conversely, the absence of such a response is one of the key symptoms of severe depression, one that goes hand-in-hand with anhedonia — the inability to take pleasure in things that once pleased us.

Although the object of beauty is debated, the experience of beauty is not. Beauty can stir up a snarl of emotions but pleasure must always be one (tortured longings and envy are not incompatible with pleasure). Our body responds to it viscerally and our names for beauty are synonymous with physical cataclysms and bodily obliteration — breathtaking, femme fatale, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous, bombshell, stunner, and ravishing. We experience beauty not as rational contemplation but as a response to physical urgency.

She offers some exquisite examples of beauty’s contemplation from the annals of literary history:

The most lyrical description of an encounter with beauty — solitary, spontaneous, with an unknown other—comes in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Stephen Dedalus sees a young woman standing by the shore with “long, slender bare legs,” and a face “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty.” Her beauty is transformative and gives form to his sensual and spiritual longings. “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy.… A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”

Ezra Pound had a moment of recognition that inspired him to write a two-line poem “In a station at the Métro,” which comprised these brief sentences: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals, on a wet, black bough.” Later, Pound described how he came to write it. “Three years ago in Paris I got out of a Métro train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy or as lovely as that sudden emotion.… In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

Etcoff argues that we each possess an intrinsic beauty “template” that we intuit, against which we measure everything we observe:

People judge appearances as though somewhere in their minds an ideal beauty of the human form exists, a form they would recognize if they saw it, though they do not expect they ever will. It exists in the imagination.

[…]

The human image has been subjected to all manner of manipulation in an attempt to create an ideal that does not seem to have a human incarnation. When Zeuxis painted Helen of Troy he gathered five of the most beautiful living women and represented features of each in the hope of capturing and depicting her beauty. There are no actual descriptions of Helen, nor of other legendary beauties such as Dante’s Beatrice. Their faces are blank slates, Rorschach inkblot tests of our imaginings of the features of perfect beauty.

But as unique as we would like to think we are, these inner templates turn out to be far more uniform. Etcoff cites the work of anthropometrist Leslie Farkas, who measured the facial proportions of 200 women, including 50 models, as well as young males and kids, and asked a large sample of participants to rate their appearance, then compared the results with the conventions of the classical beauty canon. The surprising findings, Etcoff argues, illustrates how measurement systems have failed at producing a formula for beauty and instead reveal something profound about the brokenness of the prescriptive canon:

The canon did not fare well. Many of the measures did not turn out to be important, such as the relative angles of the ear and nose. Some seemed pure idealizations: none of the faces and heads in profile corresponded to equal halves or thirds or fourths. Some were inaccurate—the distance between the eyes of the beauties was greater than that suggested by the canon (the width of the nose). Farkas’s results do not mean that a beautiful face will never match the Renaissance and classical ideals. But they do suggest that classical artists might have been wrong about the fundamental nature of human beauty. Perhaps they thought there was a mathematical ideal because this fit in a general way with platonic or religious ideas about the origin of the world.

And yet beauty is a very real piece of the human experience and bespeaks some of our greatest existential tensions, such as the mortality paradox. Etcoff writes:

Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit. We view the body as a temple, a prison, a dwelling for the immortal soul, a tormentor, a garden of earthly delights, a biological envelope, a machine, a home. We cannot talk about our response to our body’s beauty without understanding all that we project onto our flesh.

Though at first glance borderline reductionist in its excessive reliance on evolutionary explanations, the rest of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty goes on demonstrate why science and philosophy need each other and how the social sciences fit into the intellectual debate on beauty. Complement it with Etcoff’s compelling TED talk on the surprising science of happiness — a fine addition to these essential reads on the art and science of happiness — in which she explores the evolutionary explanations of beauty:

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