Does anyone know what a meme really is any more? Or, 3 misused scientific theories that will astound you

As a science communicator, I get annoyed when scientific concepts are misused. And especially if they are used wrong and overused. And double especially if they are misused, overused, and used in a way that discredits the term’s inventor.

Which brings me to memes. First of all, what a meme is not: a photo with a caption uploaded to Facebook. Seeing it used to mean any trivial fad that zooms around social media for a while — or, even worse, the actual concrete image or text that gets shared and liked 438,962 times — just makes me bang my head against my desk.

A quick recap of what memes really are: the term was coined by British geneticist and atheist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It is arguable that he was just looking for a metaphor for the self-replicating nature of genes, but he hit on something that had not previously been so well expressed. He noted that “cultural entities” can be self-replicating, like genes, moving quickly through populations and having marked effects on human behaviour and culture. While some of these can seem trivial — popular songs, fashions — many are ideas or skills that take hold and change the way people do things. Furthermore, there are arguments that some of the most popular things in culture, including music and clothing, become popular because they in fact reflect or signify underlying shifts in the zeitgeist. Cultural theorists have seized on the meme concept to explore how culture changes and why — questions in anthropology and sociology. Understanding memes could help explain social movements that are positive (the Arab Spring) or negative (anti-vaccination beliefs in North America).

The misinterpretation of the meme is the latest, but hardly the worst, example of mangled scientific theories. In fact, how scientific ideas become twisted and watered down even as they become popular is probably something those meme theorists should study. I have two other examples from the history of scientific ideas to help the academics get started.

Paradigms lost

I have heard paradigm shift used to mean a radical change in one’s personal or professional life (this one from a self-improvement course) or a significant social change (from one of my public policy professors). Neither was what Thomas Kuhn meant when he coined the term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Just for the record, he meant what happened when a scientific model (paradigm) shared by the scientific community had to be completely jettisoned and replaced when an anomaly was found that did not fit the model. But as soon as the idea was released, it was applied in many contexts that Kuhn clearly did not foresee. Almost any change was dubbed a “paradigm shift” just to make it sound more significant. It came to mean a “sea change” (which is not what Shakespeare meant in The Tempest either, but that’s another subject for another blog). I would use the term if a widely held model was completely upended in any field — not just science. But it does not mean an unexpected election outcome or someone’s decision to walk away from his or her job.

Origin of the Specious

After Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, its concepts of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” were swiftly misapplied to justify mistreatment of one social group by another on the basis that it was “natural” for weak people to be crushed underfoot and for strong people to do the crushing. This was used to justify unbridled capitalism, eugenics, racism and so on — a trend later called “social Darwinism.” Never mind that Darwin was referring to a strictly biological process that often required hundreds of years of adaptation. This one is easy to see in hindsight, but ask yourself how often today we take it for granted that there are social losers and winners and that the decisions affecting people are “just business decisions.” Maybe the social Darwinism meme was more lasting than we care to admit.

From real research to misguided meme: the case of chocolate milk

One of my bugbears is the misinterpretation and misuse of research studies. An excellent PhD Comic illustrates how a researcher’s tentative, qualified conclusion is stripped of doubt and injected with pop power by the media. Soon, it’s on everyone’s lips. Biologist Richard Dawkins called these phenomena of rapid and wide cultural diffusion memes. While many science-based memes are simply byproducts of curiosity-driven research (everyone knows what a Higg’s boson is now, right?), others are either created or latched onto for purposes of selling something.

Nowhere is science more twisted to suit marketing than nutrition. I remember reading the original paper in Science about the discovery of a compound in several edible plants that shrinks cancer tumours in mice. Oh, boy, I thought. This will be big. As a result of that study, everyone knows about resveratrol today, and it is the number one rationalization for drinking wine (since resveratrol is found in grapes). But did you know it’s also in peanuts and mulberries? No, I didn’t think you did. I’ll have another peanut butter sandwich with mulberry jam, please.

Which brings me to chocolate milk. I’m a runner, and over the past few years I keep hearing runners telling other runners to drink chocolate milk. My latest iRun magazine lists chocolate milk as a super-food for runners.

But I was skeptical. This had all the hallmarks of scientific research going meme, with no complaints I’m sure from dairy companies.

I don’t know how you spend your day, but I look up original research papers. “Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid” was published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in 2006.

The study involved 9 male, healthy, highly trained cyclists. They first cycled at intervals of 90% and 50% of perceived maximal exertion (2 min each), with the hard interval progressively stepped down. They kept going until they couldn’t maintain their cycling cadence because of glycogen depletion, about 40 min. They were given recovery drinks right after the exercise and 2 h later. After 4 h loafing around the lab, they got back on the bike and cycled at 70% of their VO2 max until exhaustion, an average of 40 min.

The drinks tested were low-fat chocolate milk, Gatorade and Endurox. What the researchers looked at was how long the athletes could exercise and how much work (in physics terms) they could do in the second cycling trial. That is, which drink worked best to restore their energy?

The results showed that the athletes who drank chocolate milk could do more work than athletes drinking Gatorade (relative numbers only given ~sigh~, but it looks from a graph like about 30 kJ difference) and much more than athletes drinking Endurox (200 kJ). The athletes who drank Gatorade cycled the longest before becoming exhausted, but on average just a few minutes more than those who drank chocolate milk. Both drinks added an average 13 minutes more to the time before exhaustion compared with the Endurox.

So, doesn’t that make chocolate milk good?

Sure, in highly trained athletes exercising to exhaustion, whose glycogen is depleted and needs to be restored to do the next tough bout. According to the authors, the reason chocolate milk works so well is that it restores fluid levels and glycogen, through carbohydrates. It should also be noted that milk contains plenty of protein and vitamins, which may help account for its value.

But here’s the catch: for most of us, chocolate milk has the same nutritional value as regular milk but with two added items – fat and sugar. These athletes drank low-fat chocolate milk to avoid the fat, and the carbohydrates they were getting were from sugar.

I went down to my local store and photographed the nutritional information for regular and chocolate milk. Of course, I hang out at a healthy food store with many organic and alternative products. They stocked the low-fat chocolate milk so, if you read closely, you’ll see the chocolate milk had the same fat content as regular milk. But it had lots of sugar. 29 g per 250 mL compared with 11 g per 250 mL for regular milk. Athletes usually drink about 500 mL to recover, so they would get 58 g sugar, rather than 22 g from regular milk. Multiply that by the number of times an athlete would drink a recovery beverage during the week, and it’s getting up there.

Regular 1% milk nutritional information
Regular 1% milk. Note sugar content

Chocolate milk nutritional information
Low-fat chocolate milk. Note sugar content

For the average recreational runner, who may be trying to eat healthy and watch his or her weight, it is really not good to consume extra fat and sugar. You don’t need the extra carbohydrates unless you are exercising again in a few hours; those are only for endurance athletes or athletes in high-performance training.
If you want a really good recovery drink, low-fat milk has protein and fluids.
The moral of the story: studies in one group (high-performance athletes) should not be generalized to other groups (recreational runners); studies in one situation (repeated bouts of exhausting exercise) should not be generalized to other situations (recreational exercise).
Oh, there is one use for chocolate milk: getting children who don’t like milk to drink it for the value of the other nutrients. But you’re all grown up now, aren’t you?