In which John Riddell conducts an entirely unscientific experiment and saves himself quite a bit of money

The first weekend of May each year is the opening of the New Zealand duck shooting season. It is a time when rednecks and yokels gather to harvest the surplus of the duck population. Like their cave dwelling ancestors before them, the males of the tribe gather on the night before the Great Hunt and tell tales of previous years. The youngsters listen in awe to the lies of their elders. There is enough male bonding to excite even the most boring anthropologist.

Being both a redneck and a yokel, I was invited by my mate Tony to one such event. On the Friday night we met up at an abandoned house by a swamp. As part of my contribution to the affair I took a couple of half filled whisky bottles. Now before anyone gets excited about how you shouldn’t mix guns and alcohol, it has to be said that serious shooters know that even a small hangover affects your ability to shoot straight. While some shooters might be too macho to admit that they are safety conscious, none of them want their mates to laugh at them when they miss. Even so it is usual to consume small amounts of high quality hooch.

Now I am getting to the bit that might be interesting to skeptics. I had one bottle of Glenfiddich and one of Wilson’s. For those who don’t know much about whisky, Glenfiddich is a single malt scotch of excellent quality. Wilson’s is a locally distilled drop, also of excellent quality. Just not made in Scotland. Glenfiddich is expensive. Wilson’s is not. The reason is a combination of good marketing and snobbery.

Tony thought it might be fun to switch the contents of the bottles and see if anyone noticed. Now Glenfiddich is much lighter in colour than Wilson’s but it comes in a green bottle and we didn’t think anyone would pick up on it. But when poured into a glass the difference is obvious.

But they didn’t notice.. The bottles passed the evening getting lighter and lighter. Tony and I were drinking Glenfiddich out of the Wilson’s bottle. The rest drank Wilson’s out of the Glenfiddich bottle.

We never did tell them.

This story is not only true, it’s an anecdote. People tell anecdotes not only to entertain but also to make a point. In this case I am trying to make the point that people’s expectations affect their experience. Our friends believed they were drinking Glenfiddich, so they enjoyed

the whisky more than if they thought they were drinking Wilson’s. But there is another possible explanation. It might also be that my mates don’t know squat about whisky.

In this case I think both are true.

Even though anecdotes should be printed on perforated paper, people use them as if they were good

evidence. In fact, they should only be used as a starting point.

After you have heard an anecdote, the next thing you do is form an hypothesis.

Hypo meaning under. Thesis meaning Theory. An hypothesis is less than a Theory. My hypothesis is that people’s expectations affect their experience.

Next I have to look for more evidence. More anecdotes. Off the top of my head, people who expect organic food to be tastier, think they can taste a difference. People who believe in the healing power of prayer, feel better after visiting a faith healer.

Now the fans of organic food can find loads of anecdotes that indicate how wonderful it is.

The problem with an anecdote is that it doesn’t eliminate those other explanations.

It may be true that “organic” food does taste better than conventional produce. Or it might be that people’s expectations affect their experience. After the anecdote, you have to perform an experiment.

Our local newspaper, a few years ago, got three “experts” to try and tell the difference between some organic and conventional produce. They gave them three different foods.

They fared no better than guessing. The difference between a controlled experiment and an anecdote is the experiment eliminates the other explanations.

You can try it yourself. Next time you are at the supermarket, get some organic orange juice, and also some not organic orange juice. Make sure both are juice, not cordial.

Get 10 glasses and label them 1 to 10. In half of them put the organic juice and in the rest out the other.

Write down which juice is in which glass. Now this is the important bit. Get someone else who doesn’t know which is in which glass to do the tasting.

If there is a difference they should get it right nearly every time. If they cannot tell, they will still get it right half the time.

This is the second important bit. Getting it right half the time means they are just guessing.

This type of test has been done often enough for me to be confident there isn’t any difference except for the expectations of the taster.

Which is a bit of a shame. Because even though I know Wilson’s is just as good, We still drank the “good stuff”.

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