I love a great dessert and in our household, ice cream is an obvious and always welcome favorite. Tasty ice cream is an amazing treat. It is delicious, creamy and sweet. Maybe you look at this image and feel yourself smiling and perhaps even longing a bit for a scoop of ice cream right now.
Maybe you then catch yourself and feel a little guilty, because this is also clearly not healthy, so you just know you should not eat a lot, perhaps even resist entirely!
One of those things, right? It tastes so good, but it is so bad. Well.
I recently came across one of my favorite kinds of article: One that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
In Nutrition Science’s Most Preposterous Result, public health historian David Merritt Johns discusses a curious phenomenon. Research data over the years has apparently suggested that there may be health benefits to the consumption of … ice cream.
According to the numbers, tucking into a “dairy-based dessert”—a category that included foods such as pudding but consisted, according to Pereira, mainly of ice cream—was associated for overweight people with dramatically reduced odds of developing insulin-resistance syndrome. It was by far the biggest effect seen in the study, 2.5 times the size of what they’d found for milk.
[…] men who consumed two or more servings of skim or low-fat milk a day had a 22 percent lower risk of diabetes. But so did men who ate two or more servings of ice cream every week. Once again, the data suggested that ice cream might be the strongest diabetes prophylactic in the dairy aisle.
Obviously, my daughter (10) welcomed the news and gleefully asked for more ice cream. That is not really surprising.
The findings of course contradict what we just know to be true, right?
The Harvard researchers didn’t like the ice-cream finding: It seemed wrong. But the same paper had given them another result that they liked much better. The team was going all in on yogurt. With a growing reputation as a boon for microbiomes, yogurt was the anti-ice-cream—the healthy person’s dairy treat. […]
I have no particular knowledge about nutrition or about research in that field. There are apparently open questions to be explored with respect to the actual health impact of ice cream consumption. When that happens, over time we will arrive at clearer and more accurate answers.
What I find the most interesting about this story is the role of bias with respect to the counterintuitive.
Your encounters with the surprising are opportunities to learn about it and about you.
There are things we know well and other things we know much less about. We all have biases that influence our thinking and our beliefs. They influence how much we pay attention to some things over others, how much weight we give them. Blind spots mean that we are blind in those spots. They make it difficult to see or understand what we see.
Common sense is relative. What is intuitive to you, depends on you and on it, on what you know and how you look at the world.
What effect does the mention of ice cream or the image above have on you? Perhaps you smiled with anticipation or maybe you worried about the effect on your waistline. The author of the aforementioned Atlantic article refers to the ice cream effect as the (positive) effect that ice cream may have on people’s health, based on the data observed.
I merely mean to propose one more, different ice cream effect as well:
You encounter an answer that is so counterintuitive that you are likely to dismiss it.
Or perhaps more strongly:
An answer that seems too good (or perhaps too funny!) to be true — and you are very likely to dismiss it, perhaps by default. (This is too good, it must be bad, cannot be right!)
If I find myself with a similar choice in the future, I hope I will remember to ask: Could this be one of those?
That might just help me arrive at a clearer view of reality — or at least yield some interesting thinking.