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(Kraft Foods)
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Cocaine, Oreos and our rat-like taste for credulous news Add to ...

The story variously reported this week as “Oreos are equally as addictive as cocaine,” “Wanna a new drug? Try Oreos” and, almost lyrically, “Oreos are as addictive as cocaine to your brain” was picked up by the news media like a fresh doughnut off the tray at the morning meeting. The study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed or published, was performed by undergrads at Connecticut College under the supervision of psychology professor Joseph Schroeder.

The students put rats in a maze, one side of which contained Oreo cookies while the other contained rice cakes, then measured the association between “drug” (cookie or rice cake) and environment. Unsurprisingly, the rats spent more time on the cookie side of the box. Similarly, rats offered a choice between hanging out on the side of a box where they were given morphine or cocaine and the side of a box where they were given injections of saline instead, lingered on the cocaine side. Although some claimed they were only there for the music.

The Oreo-conditioned rats turned out to be as devoted to the cookie side of their maze as the cocaine-indulging rats were to theirs. As someone who’d choose a saline injection over a rice cracker, I’m surprised these numbers weren’t more Oreo-side skewed, but what this study proves is only that rats prefer Oreos to rice crackers. In fact, the press release whimsically noted, without concluding that inner Oreo was more “addictive” than outer Oreo, the rats ate the filling first.

In order for the tenor of the headlines to match the facts of the study, not merely the press release (which actually claimed “America’s favourite cookie ... is just as addictive as cocaine”), the rats, once they ran out of Oreos, would have had to have forgone the rice crackers, broken out of the box, sold their children to a pet shop and then robbed a liquor store.

The study did find similarities between the brains of the rats who had eaten Oreos and the brains of the rats who received cocaine. In fact, eating Oreos activated more neurons in the brain’s “pleasure centre” than did the drugs. However, the notion that everything that brings pleasure is “addictive” rather than possibly a “habit,” a “compulsion” or, if this study was used as model, “better than doing taxes while eating rice cakes” is perhaps detracting from our ability to address with compassion and understanding genuine addiction.

Clucking over and clicking on articles about “porn addiction” like specious comparisons to smart-phone use and crack use prove only that, placed in a maze with actual science on one side and populist link-bait on the other, we’ll stampede toward the “playing video games releases dopamine and therefore World of Warcraft is literally heroin” side.

The only debunking of the Oreo-crazed rat story I could find occurred on a few blogs and on Twitter – both frequently maligned as arenas plagued with rage or, increasingly, as media that actually make people behave angrily.

I take a more materialist view. The existence of Twitter, for example, doesn’t make people “angry,” although I’d say “critical” is frequently a more accurate word anyway. Rather, the enormous success of Twitter stems from the fact that it’s meeting a need in the intellectual market.

The mainstream media have become increasingly credulous and advertorial, often virtually reproducing press releases from everyone from politicians to pantyhose companies. Twitter has absorbed and swelled as it took in the skeptic diaspora.

Newspapers and television are in danger of becoming places where every actor is selling a great movie, and anything less than celebrating all authors indiscriminately is judged to be cruel and tantamount to book burning.

This is sad in terms of cultural criticism, but potentially dangerous in terms of science journalism where misinformation, such as claims of a link between autism and vaccination, can cause deaths.

Of course, there was much sharing of the rats-are-junk-food-junkies story on the Internet as well, but it’s where rodents-are-junk-food-junkie debunking happened. Whereas, with all due respect to the students – an amount of respect considerably larger than that due to most of the journalists who reported it – the manner in which this story was covered was about three degrees above reporting observations garnered from a cursory glance at someone’s high-school science-fair project as front-page news. Breaking: Vinegar and baking soda are an actual volcano.

Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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