Getting to the Bottom of a Nasty Rumor

A listener recently told Ira Glass, host of the NPR show This American Life, that he was told that pigs’ rectums were being sold by packing plants to be used as artificial calamari. The newsworthiness of such a story, if true, was not overlooked by Mr. Glass, who proceeded to investigate. There was much debate and questioning as to whether the listener’s claim was true (it was), and if so would it be possible, really, to pass off that lowly body part as a well-loved Italian culinary standard?  Various chefs and other food experts were interviewed and opined that it might be possible but that it would always taste like …; well, it wouldn’t taste right no matter how you tried to pre-prepare or prepare it. All of this discussion by experts led inevitably to a taste test. Yep, you got it. None of those who tried the artificial version could tell it from the real thing. 

I loved this episode, not just because it was funny (it really was) or ended up siding with the pig (a nice touch). What I liked about it was that the show’s host first sought the data to support the wild claim and thereafter stopped talking about rumors and possibilities and questioning and hypotheticals and put the matter to an empirical test. He actually wanted to see whether everything he was being told was true:  

- Is it possible to make the substitute look like the real thing? Not quite, but close enough.
- Can you tell the difference in taste between the two? No one could, really.
- Does it taste, you know, like … funny? No, not at all. Tastes like calamari.  

How many times has each of us engaged in lengthy discussions with someone about something that did or did not happen, could or could not be, would or would not work? Heated discussions. To the point that we are yelling at one another and walking around slamming doors (not me, of course, but people I know). How many times have we debated whether a business practice or a management decision will or will not work, in the abstract?  I don’t wish to denigrate the value of thoughtful discussion, especially when real losses to people or companies are at stake if an action is taken injudiciously. But, I would point out that the proof of the pig rectum was in the eating. When caught in seemingly endless debate over hypotheticals, collect data and find out. It is asinine not to, whether it is pig parts or other even more important things. Show me the data!  

I end by noting that hearing the story made me happy to remain a vegetarian.

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Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.