Since I began my own apple experiment last week, it appears as though now hundreds of apples have been subjected to cruel abuse and endearing flattery in the interest of scientifically testing Nikki Owens’ hypothesis that speaking to apples will affect their decomposition. I’m very interested in how they’re coming along . . . you can follow the progress on the Facebook group or on some YouTube channels like SkepticallyPwned, who really brought the emotion, and Hayley Stevens who FYI is adorable. I’ll post another blog entry to publicize their results (and any others I find with good controls) when they’re finished.
For my own experiment, I used three pieces of the same apple: one was spoken to lovingly, one with hate, and one with neutral statements (“the control apple of indifference”). If we assume that any three pieces of apple will decompose at varying rates, we could assume that each apple has a 1/3 chance of producing the desired result, so by chance alone we’d expect to see one apple of our three correspond. If Nikki Owens’ theory was correct, though, we would expect that 3 out of 3 apples would correspond, meaning that the love apple would look the best, the hate apple would look the worst, and the neutral apple would be somewhere in the middle.
Read on to discover if that’s what happened.
After I posted my first video, many people offered adjustments to the study in order to control for all variables. These included sterilizing the knife and cutting board to ensure no microbes would transfer to one piece but not another, and holding each jar for the same amount of time to control for variations caused by the transfer of heat from my hands.
The most interesting thing to me was how many of Nikki Owens’ fans offered adjustments, too. They suggested I use “love” and “hate” labels instead of mustaches, because mustaches are inherently funny and would cause the hate apple to “feel” better. They also suggested that I should use halves instead of quarters (because that’s what Owens did), and that I get angrier at the hate apple.
And you know what?
They’re absolutely right.
Many of us might laugh at the idea that mustaches instead of labels might affect the mood of an apple, because let’s face it, that’s completely absurd. The apple slices couldn’t even see the mustaches. If they’d had eyes. But think of it this way: these people, who bought into Owens’ story without question, were questioning me in a very skeptical way. Owens didn’t record her process, or even note how she prepared the apples and jars. She also didn’t acknowledge the statistics involved: with two apple halves, there is near 100% certainty that they will decompose in unique ways, which means that there’s a 50% chance that the “love” apple will look better than the “hate” apple.
My on-call mathematician Matt Parker commented on this statistical quirk, saying, “when people have done the ‘positive words’ experiment at home with two halves of an apple, 50% of people have gotten a strong ‘positive’ result, and 50% a strong ‘negative’. It’s not hard to guess which half went rushing to upload their photos and which half thought they might try it again. It explains the supply of seemingly supporting photos of apples halves.”
The point is that my experiment was much better than Owens’ because I described my process, considered the variables, used a control, and publicized every step. But as many people pointed out, my experiment was far from perfect. Even after I posted the photos here on Skepchick and asked you all to tell me which apple looked the best and which looked the worst, you all quite rightfully pointed out that there were too many shadows in the pics and that each apple slice should have been shot with direct light, preferably from multiple angles.
I think it’s awesome that so many of you and so many of Owens’ fans are thinking about this admittedly silly experiment in a critical manner, because it exposes exactly how much the press and believers missed when Owens presented her “results.”
That said, I’ll be repeating the experiment next week with all the controls suggested.
But first: on to the results!
Your votes were, according to Matt, were quite conclusive on both polls:
I’ll quote Matt’s results in full so you can see the statistics:
You don’t have to do much maths to see that Apple 3 has a mighty big bar. I’ve still crunched the numbers and your confidence value is off the proverbial chart. (Also: the literal chart. Yes, I drew a chart. It was off it.)
For both cases, Apple 3 definitely is the best (or least worst). There is a zero chance this is by chance, either it does look the best or everyone is playing a trick on you.
I then discounted damn Apple 3 and just looked at Apples 1 and 2. In both cases the difference between them is “very significant” in a statistical sense. Your voters had a very definite preference for Apple 1 looking better than Apple 2.
If you want to stick some numbers on it, if Apple 1 and 2 actually did look identical and voters were just picking at random which looks best, there is only a 0.36% chance you would that difference in votes (anything below 0.5% is “very significant”).
Matt has offered to write more about the statistics for a future post, for you math geeks.
So basically what this means is that Apple #3 looks the best, Apple #2 looks the worst, and Apple #1 is somewhere between the two.
Though my photos weren’t ideal, I will say I photographed each slice in the same place under the same lighting, and I’ll also mention that your results mirror my own in-person notes. Apple #3 was just about as discolored as the other two but had no mold spores. Apple #1 had a spot of mold, and Apple #2 definitely had the most mold and the most discoloration.
Exactly what we’d expect by chance! Apple #3, voted the best looking, was in fact the love apple. But the control apple, which received no love and no hate, was Apple #2, voted the worst looking. The hate apple, Apple #1, was somewhere in between.
Conclusion? The experiment failed to prove Nikki Owens’ hypothesis that saying loving or hateful things to an apple will affect its rate of decay.
Did you do an experiment? Leave the link in the comments and I’ll include it in a follow-up post!