The Statistical Ingenuity of Chocolate

or: What I would have written in my stats test if I wasn’t such a chicken

Thomas Edison

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” said Thomas Edison. Maybe that’s why he never won a Nobel Prize. What he should’ve done, instead of working relentlessly in his lab covered in sweat, is, eating chocolate. No kidding. According to a recent study by Dr. Messerli, there is a “surprisingly powerful correlation between chocolate intake per capita and the number of Nobel laureates in various countries”. With the reassuring knowledge that r=0.971 (and who could possibly argue with that?), his study is a resounding call to institutions of higher education to provide their students not only with adequate study facilities, but also offer free weekly rations of chocolate. (The dark kind, that is, not the sweet one which is bad for your teeth. Milk-chocolate would probably cause healthcare expenditures to skyrocket… but that’s just me guessing, no pretty r-value to support that claim.)
Isn’t that a wonderful promise? Forget about critical thinking, the value of persistence and an inquisitive mind. “… since chocolate consumption has been documented to improve cognitive function, it seems most likely that in a dose-dependent way, chocolate intake provides the abundant fertile ground needed for the sprouting of Nobel laureates”. Translated from scientific mumbo jumbo into common sense English this statement reads “eat enough chocolate and you’ll eventually win a Nobel Prize”.

But I’m not here to pick a linguistic bone with Dr. Messerli. Mind you, a real doctor surely knows that it would be immoral to use scientific language to make people believe his poppycock. Or is there nothing about morals in the Hippocratic Oath? My wider point here is that even if the provision of chocolate is unlikely to become a mainstream strategy in higher education any time soon, the study has already left its mark: “…try and convince the school to invest in free weekly rations of high-quality chocolate for all […] students as an obvious way of increasing student productivity”. Such phrasing presupposes Messerli’s interpretation as true. It turns something that is merely a hypothesis, the idea of a man who had “nothing else to do”,  into an a priori truth.
What happened to critical analysis? To the kind of independent thinking that questions the known and the unknown thus stretching the boundaries of science and ultimately meriting the Nobel Prize?

Edison also believed that “the world is ruled by infinite intelligence”. I’d like to believe that’s still true. I’d also like to believe that the distinction and honor of the Nobel Prize depends on more than one’s consumption of chocolate. And I’d like to believe that education is about the critical exploration of the world around us, and not about believing something simply because it comes in the coat of scientific vocabulary and numerical values.    *)

*) Some of the more interesting reactions on Messerli’s study can be found here, here, and here.

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