Aug 122013
 

View the introduction/table of contents for this series of posts here.

Ingredient-Composition Error

In this first post, we’ll be introduced to the article that contains the first set of examples that I’ll pull from. It is Mio Water Flavoring: Another Ploy to Sicken America.

Let’s ignore the title of the article itself, which I can use as fodder for another article on Occam’s Razor. No telling when that will happen, so you have plenty of time to ponder the topic. Go ahead and take a moment to read the article. It’s a useful example to start with because it’s fairly short, but provides a great source for some of the most common errors.

As you’ll notice, the entire premise of the article is that Mio water flavoring is unhealthy. The author proceeds to list the ingredients and highlight the ones that the author takes issue with. The descriptions of the ingredients is what we’ll mostly be focused on. The first error we will discuss is the following:

Propylene Glycol – a bitter liquid used to prevent food discoloration during storage. This dangerous substance is used in the production of polyester and antifreeze. It is also used to produce fake smog and smoke. Animal studies indicate that propylene glycol may cause serious health conditions when consumed over time.

There are two common errors found in the description of propylene glycol and a few indications of bias. Although there’s enough bias related material in general for an entire series of blog posts, these are closely related to the topic of this post, so we’ll look at them as well. But, we’ll save the second error for another post. The error we are most concerned about here is the following:

This … substance is used in the production of polyester and antifreeze. It is also used to produce fake smog and smoke.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am making an assumption: these statements are made for the purpose of bolstering the argument that the product discussed (in this case Mio) is unhealthy, not for the purpose of purely providing information. This assumption comes from the fact that the statements elicit a negative reaction from the reader, whether intentional or not, and there is no comparative facts that are neutral or positive (discussed in greater detail later). If these statements are not made for the purposes of supporting the argument, then they’re completely extraneous and should not be included or should be accompanied by a better treatment of the underlying subject matter. The only other possibility is that the author is trying to make the ingredient sound unappetizing by associating it with unappetizing things. This is so patently silly that I won’t address it (besides pointing out the pinnacle of such comparisons below).

Back to substantive discussions. My question to you is this: So what? Go ahead and take a few moments and ponder it. Try to explain to yourself how the fact that a first item is used as an ingredient to make a second item says anything about whether the first item is healthy or unhealthy.

After thinking about it, either you came up with some reasoning or you didn’t. If you weren’t able to explain it to yourself, don’t worry, you weren’t supposed to be able to. That’s because the mere fact that something is an ingredient in, or used to make something that is unhealthy does not, in and of itself, say anything about the first product. Let’s break the argument down into its logical components:

  1. A is used to make B.
  2. B is unhealthy.
  3. Because B is unhealthy, A is unhealthy.

There’s something missing: an implied premise. Can you find it?

1a. A first substance used to make a second substance is unhealthy if the second substance is unhealthy.

There are actually a few different variations of this that could be considered the implied premise; because it is implied, it’s in the mind of the reader/author. The most restrictive would be that when A is used to make B and B is unhealthy, A is unhealthy as well. In other words, the implied premise is limited to the particular substances stated. Even if we assume the most restrictive implied premise, however, the result is the same: if we can show that the implied premise does not hold for all substances, then the implied premise is insufficient alone. To put it another way, if we can show that there is a single example of a non-unhealthy substance (i.e., neutral or “healthy”) that can be used to make an unhealthy substance, then one must provide support for the implied premise, even when limited to the most restrictive form. In other words, one must demonstrate why the implied premise differs from any counterexample, even if the implied premise only applies to the particular substances.1

Now it’s time for you to take a few minutes and think again. Can you come up with even a single example of something that is healthy by itself, but is unhealthy when used to make something else? You should be able to, thanks to the many, many examples out there. If not, we’ll go through a few.

Let’s assume for a moment that fog juice (fake smog/smoke/fog) is, in fact, unhealthy to consume.2 While there are various recipes for fog juice, your research should indicate that most fog juice is made of water and glycol and/or glycerin. Did you just skip right over “water” or do you see where this is going? How would you react if you read something along the lines of: “Water is unhealthy for you. It is used to make fake smoke and fake smog.” I may be going out on a limb here, but I would posit that you would immediately be quite skeptical. Why? Because you know that water is healthy…in fact, you know that it’s something you would die without. Replace “water” with “glycol”, and the only difference is that you are probably less familiar with glycol. So, if water is used to make fog juice and water is not unhealthy, how could one use the fact that glycol is used to make fog juice to show that glycol is unhealthy? Just to pile it on, you can apply the same logic to Mio itself. After all, according to this article, Mio is unhealthy and water is used to produce Mio.

By now you should be considering all the things that water is an ingredient in or is used to make. Cookies? Concrete? Window cleaner? Vodka? Get the picture yet? I’m going to move on, so you can find your own counter examples. But here’s a hint: consider foods that are considered “unhealthy” and look at each ingredient in the recipe. Like cake. Do you consider all of the ingredients that go into cake “unhealthy”, even though most people would classify cake as “unhealthy”? Oh, by the way, what are some of the ingredients in feces? You wouldn’t eat feces, right? SO WHY WOULD YOU EAT ANYTHING?

You can do the rest.

Now consider some basic chemistry.3 A chemical or substance generally consists of one or more molecules. Each molecule consists of one or more atoms that are bonded together. The arrangement of atoms and the way they are bonded together make up the chemical formula. Many time when you modify this chemical formula, the result is one or more different chemicals. For example, take water, which comprises two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, or H2O. The molecule consists of each hydrogen atom bonded to the oxygen atom. If the molecular bonds of a water molecule were broken, would the resulting hydrogen and oxygen atoms have all of the same properties of water? No. For example, while water is liquid at 70 degrees F, both oxygen and hydrogen are gases at 70 degrees F (at least with standard pressure).

What does this mean? Just because something such as propylene glycol is used as an ingredient does not mean that the ingredient is anything like the resulting product. It’s entirely possible to use a particular chemical as an ingredient and the resulting product contain only a small part (such as a single atom) or even none of the particular chemical used due to chemical reactions involved in the process. Knowing this, why would one assume that an ingredient has the same properties as the resulting product? You can’t, and thus arguing that a particular ingredient is unhealthy because the resulting product is unhealthy is wrong.

So what does it all mean?

Relying on the fact that a first item is used to make a second item, the latter of which is unhealthy, to argue that the first item is unhealthy is worthless. Thus, one must show that the first item is unhealthy independently of the resulting item, or otherwise explain why the use of the first item to make the second item also makes the first item unhealthy. In reality, it will almost always (if not always) be easier to show that an ingredient is unhealthy independent of the resulting product than explain why the ingredient is unhealthy because the resulting product is also unhealthy. Further, once you establish that the ingredient is unhealthy independently of the resulting product, whether the resulting product is unhealthy is completely irrelevant! That a resulting product is more or less healthy than a particular ingredient in the product doesn’t change how healthy the ingredient is alone or in combination with other ingredients. So, at the very least, anytime you come across an argument, implicit or explicit, that a particular chemical/substance/food/anything else is unhealthy (or dangerous) because the resulting product is unhealthy (or dangerous), you should at least ignore it.

Evidence of bias

Knowing that this type of argument is worthless, what does this tell us about the author? First, it might tell us that the author doesn’t actually understand this. Second, if they do know that such an argument is irrelevant and worthless, it tells us that the author is willing to make intellectually dishonest claims to support their position. In other words, they’re biased.

Now, if the author doesn’t understand the weakness of this argument, the obvious conclusion is that the author’s analytical abilities are lacking. Thus, why would you trust the rest of their arguments unless you were able to independently verify them? If you have to independently verify their arguments, why bother using them as a source of information anyways?

If they know the weakness of this argument, yet use it anyways, it tells us that the author is willing to purposefully mislead the reader in order to support their position. Once again, why would you waste your time reading the rest of the author’s arguments or analysis of a subject matter knowing that they’re so biased they’re willing to purposefully mislead readers?

One of the fun things about this example is how well it illustrates an appeal to emotion. For example, it’s fairly common knowledge that “antifreeze” is known to be deadly, and there are periodic reports of babies or pets consuming antifreeze and dying. Further, the initial reaction most people have when they see a statement such as that is that they are, essentially, eating the product that is made using the ingredient. Thus, the illogical connection (driven by the emotional portion of the brain) is that by consuming propylene glycol you’re also eating some form of antifreeze, polyester, and fog juice. Once you override that part of your brain, you begin to realize that your initial reaction is generally not the most accurate reaction you could have.

There are a couple of other things in this description that should, at the very least, raise a red flag or two. For example, what is the purpose of describing propylene glycol as a “bitter liquid”? What does the fact that it is bitter have anything to do with whether it is part of “another ploy to sicken america”? We consume bitter things all the time. Sometimes we even sweeten them to counteract the bitterness. Similarly, if you’re going to legitimately show that propylene glycol is dangerous, why would you have to describe it as a “dangerous substance”? Shouldn’t your argument speak for itself?

Last, why is it described as used in the production of “fake smog and fake smoke” and not “fake fog”? Being a big fan of electronic music and clubs, I’m frequently exposed to the discussion of fog machines. Although I’ve heard of it referred to as “smoke”, the vast majority of the time it is referred to as “fog”. I’ve never personally heard of it referred to as “smog”. There are other applications, such as smoke grenades and what not, but that doesn’t explain why the author omits the most innocuous term in place of the two less frequently used, more negative sounding terms.

Now, let’s be clear. It is certainly possible that the use of “bitter” and “dangerous” is not evidence of bias, and may be completely accurate. It also does not necessarily mean the author was being malicious and intentionally used those words, knowing their connotation. Similarly, the author may not have been familiar with fog machines and fog juice, and didn’t intend to use the more negative descriptors. However, upon seeing such usages, you should recognize the possibility of bias, and use that information to guide your judgment of whatever the source happens to be.

Stop reading more into this than you should…

I’m not, at any point in this post, arguing that  propylene glycol is healthy or unhealthy. Nor am I suggesting that you should or should not consume products with it. I am merely pointing out that if  propylene glycol is unhealthy and/or dangerous, it is not because it is used as an ingredient in antifreeze, polyester, or fog juice. In other words, if you read this and you feel the need to argue that  propylene glycol is or is not healthy/dangerous, you completely missed the entire point.

The only goal of this post is to introduce you to the above error and explain why it is an error. From now on, you should be able to spot this error when you come across it. Even if you can’t explain why it’s wrong, you should at least know that you should question the source. However, you should not assume that the source’s conclusion is incorrect because of the error, but that if the conclusion is correct, it’s in spite of the error.

Conclusion

When discussing whether a product is healthy or unhealthy, statements trying to create a relationship between whether an ingredient is healthy or unhealthy and whether the resulting product is healthy or unhealthy only serve two possible purposes: to imply that the ingredient is unhealthy because the resulting product is unhealthy; or, to attempt to make the ingredient sound unappetizing simply by associating it with something else that is unappetizing. The latter is trumped simply by pointing out that at least some portion of just about everything you eat ends up as waste matter.

The former, alone, is demonstratively irrelevant, as there are plenty of counter examples to a bare statement that an ingredient is unhealthy because the resulting product is unhealthy. Thus, one must further establish the why, which is unlikely to be any easier than establishing that the ingredient is unhealthy independently. Thus, if the source does not establish the unhealthiness of the ingredient independently, the source must provide an explanation for why inclusion of the ingredient in the resulting unhealthy product also makes the ingredient unhealthy. If the source does not establish either, the source can be considered highly questionable due to lacking basic analytical capabilities or being willing to intentionally mislead readers in order to support their position.

Additional Example

I just came across this additional example that’s not really worthy of an additional, separate post. But it highlights the pervasiveness of this error and just how blatant it can be:

If a diet full of algae does not sound appetizing, know that you actually consume algae on a regular basis. That slice of pizza you had last night for dinner and the bagel you had this morning for dinner all contain derivatives of algae.

This quote is from FoxNews.com. In what world is algae and algae derivatives the same thing? How would you respond to someone telling you that by eating cheese, butter or ice cream, you’re actually consuming milk? Or what if someone told you that your steak was actually grass, because cows eat grass? This particular example is shockingly blatant because the author states, essentially, that eating algae derivatives is eating algae. Such a statement is ridiculous on its face.


1. What this really boils down to is that if you can demonstrate that one thing can be true in some situations, you must also demonstrate that the opposite can be true in other situations, if you wish to argue the latter. I’m not really sure how to explain it more simply, as it seems like it’s pretty intuitive. For example, let’s say you and I run a 100m race and you win. Afterwards, I say “Yeah, well I’m faster than you up hills.” If we have never raced up a hill, you’d immediately be skeptical and call for a demonstration. From a logical standpoint, the situation discussed in this post is no different.

2. I say “assume” only because I’m not interested in taking the time to support either position, simply because whether fog juice is healthy or unhealthy is irrelevant to the topic. Please don’t assume it is an implicit statement that I disagree.

3. I don’t really know much about chemistry. I’d say I know enough to get myself into trouble, but even that’s not the case. So feel free to laugh at my high school-level examples.

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