Thursday, 25 August 2011

How Popeye won the war and lost the truth

I WANT to tell you a funny story about Popeye. But first I want to tell you how I came across the story, because that’s quite funny too.
I read it in the Journal of Criminology, which is not a publication I often read, and not a place you might expect to find stories about pipe-chomping cartoon sailors.
To be more precise, I read it on the Internet Journal of Criminology – and the internet, of course, is a place you might find almost anything.
Including, as it happens, a lot of stuff about Popeye. Some of which you may have heard, some of which may be dimly familiar, some of which, as a result, you may believe.
You know Popeye, of course. He may even have convinced you as a child to eat your greens.
As he said in 1931 in a ‘special letter to me children frens’: “Dear kids – the reasin why I yam so tough an’ strong is on account of I has et spinach when I was young.”
Good old Popeye. Quality propaganda, that.
It’s been credited with bringing about a huge rise in America’s consumption of spinach, and indirectly even with influencing the outcome of World War II.
“America was ‘strong to the finish cos they ate their spinach’ and duly defeated the Hun.”
That’s how TJ Hamblin put it in a 1981 British Medical Journal article entitled Fake.
He went on, however: “Unfortunately the propaganda was fraudulent. German chemists reinvestigating the iron content of spinach had shown in the 1930s that the original workers had put the decimal point in the wrong place and made a tenfold overestimate of its value. Spinach is no better for you than cabbage, brussels sprouts, or broccoli.”
So there we have it. A neat object lesson in checking your facts – and, incidentally, in the power of lies, or oft-repeated mistakes.
Except that this lesson comes with a huge footnote. Because Hamblin himself appears to have got his facts wrong, or at least a little muddled.
And he didn’t cite his sources, which is the main reason he’s taken to task in the Journal of Criminology by Dr Mike Sutton (who presumably published his paper there because he’s its editor, not because he was uncovering anything criminal).
As Sutton tells it (and he does provide copious citations):
• Spinach probably is no ‘better for you’ than other greens
• It may contain more iron than beef, but not by as much as is sometimes claimed
• The rise in its popularity in America began before 1928, when Popeye was created
Most crucially, that misplaced decimal point, which has been referred to hundreds of times online and in more-or-less learned articles, was probably made up by Hamblin.
Despite popular assumption, the sailor character wasn’t invented to advertise canned spinach – he only started recommending it in 1931, three years into his career as a newspaper strip.
And – at least as drawn by his creator EC Segar – Popeye never actually claimed spinach as a source of iron.
The first time he’s seen eating spinach (raw leaves from the ground, not out of a can), he explains: “Spinach is full of Vitamin ‘A’ an tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty”.
Which is at least partly true.
As teachers and propagandists have known for centuries, humour is a good way of passing on information and getting it remembered.
Unfortunately, it can help just as much in the planting and nurturing of lies, either deliberate or inadvertent.
As does repetition. Those factoids about Popeye, spinach, iron and that apparently fictitious decimal point are much more widely disseminated than Sutton’s careful research on the subject – and no doubt more widely believed.
It’s all part of what Sutton calls “socially embedded codswallop”.
And there’s more than plenty of that around.
Sutton relates it to racism and hate crime; problem gambling; drug, alcohol and child abuse; online urban myths, hoaxes and scams.
I think he’s right. I also believe most of what he reports in his article.
Even though I only read it online.

THERE can hardly be a better summing-up of what science is all about than the motto of the Royal Society, “Nullius in verba”. Or, roughly translated: “Take no one’s word for it.”
Dr Mike Sutton refers to the Bellman’s Fallacy, so named for the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s great comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, who claims: “What I tell you three times is true.”
Sutton says: “There is no scientific law which says the more frequently a belief is voiced, or the more people that believe it, the more likely it is to be true or become true.”
Those who believe, for example, that what is good for “the market” or the Stock Exchange is good for the rest of us, take note.
Likewise those who believe that the British economy can only be saved by hacking the public sector to bits.
It’s seldom been put better than by Ira Gershwin: “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”