Brawn, Brains, and Grains of Truth

David L. Katz, MD, MPH


April 03, 2014

In This Article

Memetic Brawn

One would like to think that our refined brains are resistant to the brawn and brute force of fashion or fad, the percussion of repetition. But any such conviction would be the triumph of hope over experience. The most indelible warning of this vulnerability is perhaps the allegorical tale of the emperor's new clothes,[1] but the tendency reverberates routinely through our culture with implications of far greater moment to public health than imperial nudity.

One example that springs to mind is the notion that more nutritious foods cost more. Certainly, diets made up of highly nutritious foods cost more than diets made up of highly processed junk.[2] But what about the comparison among likes: more and less nutritious breads, more and less nutritious spreads, more and less nutritious soups or nuts? Ask yourself how many times you have heard that more nutritious foods cost more, then ask yourself how many times any data were attached to the assertion.

My colleagues and I studied this issue and found no meaningful price differential when more and less nutritious foods within given categories were compared.[3] The problem is more one of people's inability to identify the more nutritious choices reliably, but that is a topic for another day.[4] The assertion is in larger part urban legend than truth, testimony to the power of repetition -- a power to which the professionally trained mind is apparently about as vulnerable as all the rest.

We might refer to this as memetic brawn: the compelling cultural force of a repetitive cycle of hear and repeat. The follies of history have shown abundantly that such irresistible force need have little to do with truth. Rather than learn from these follies, we seem inclined to repeat them.


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