Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 4th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 4th: Gillian McKeith

One of the more jovial Christmas Carols is ‘Santa Clause is coming to town’. However, many people have pointed out that the lyrics are somewhat alarming.

“He knows when you are sleeping, he’s knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake”. This lyric is less suggestive of a kindly old magical gift-dispensing man and more indicative of some sort of vigilante. At some heavy guitar riffs and this song could be the ideal theme to the cartoon ‘The Punisher: The high school years’.

There’s also the line ‘You’d better not shout, you better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why’. This is also alarming, suggesting that any normal, emotional human reaction to the individual being discussed will not be tolerated and met with serious retribution. This is not the sort of behaviour one would normally attribute to Santa Clause, it’s more suggestive of the Borg. Resistance is futile, after all.

But one individual who does seem to inspire this sense of foreboding and dread in people is Gillian McKeith, the millionaire nutritionist guru whose qualifications have as much genuine substance as the magic food bars she sells.

People may be encountering Gillian McKeith’s work a lot after the festive period. Christmas for many is a time of calorific indulgence, with the guilt not setting in until the new year. And we do tend to go overboard a lot. It may be Band Aid’s fault. When they said ‘Feed the World’, perhaps they could have been more geographically specific?

But Gillian McKeith is known to many as just ‘the diet woman from the telly’, so when they hope to shift the festive weight gain they may reach for any books or products that feature a familiar (if rather alarming) face. But it’s not all bad, because Gillian McKeith provides several excellent examples of how science works.

Wait! Come back! She does!

Firstly, any defender of Gillian McKeith, when told about her scientifically ludicrous claims and complete lack of real qualifications, will state that she ‘gets results’. And this appears to be true, according to the TV shows she does. The overweight people whose lives she invades do end up losing weight. Skip all the pseudoscience guff, and what happens is a 3 step process. 

  Overweight person is shown how much they eat [excessive]
·         Overweight person is made to eat less and move more
·         Overweight person loses weight

Although dressed up in her surreal gibberish language, what is actually happening here is an excellent demonstration of physics, such as the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of mass. Essentially, overweight person consumes excessive chemical  energy, which is stored as fat. Overweight person then reduces chemical energy intake and increases chemical energy requirements. Hopefully, a new equilibrium between input and output is achieved. Nothing to do with vibrational energies and vitamin gremlins, just good old physics.

But how does she get a compulsive overeater to reduce their intake in the first place? It’s seemed like quite a chronic problem before she showed up, why would they stop just because she told them to? Surely she must have some sort of skill or power to achieve this? No. Once again, it’s proper science to the rescue.
If you give a rat chocolate, it will eat and enjoy the chocolate. Understandably, it’s delicious. It will develop a taste for this unfamiliar but pleasant treat. If you then give a rat chocolate followed immediately by an injection of lithium chloride, it will feel incredibly sick (as in ill, not ‘throwing up’ sick, as rats can’t do that). If offered chocolate again after this, it will reject it. It has undergone aversive conditioning. The previously pleasant stimulus has now been associated with a deeply unpleasant sensation, using pretty much the same mechanism that Pavlov discovered all those years ago.

So, you’re an obese person who constantly indulges in fatty foods. Then suddenly, whenever you reach for a cream bun you’ve got this scary looking harridan shouting abuse in your face and talking about magic beans or what have you. What’s going to happen? Pretty soon, you’re going to associate your usual, unhealthy foods with Gillian McKeith. Again, it’s simple process.

·        Obese person eats junk food.
·         Obese person eats junk food and Gillian McKeith appears
·         Obese person associates junk food with Gillian McKeith
·         Obese person wants Gillian McKeith to go away
·         Obese person stops eating junk food.

Simple associative learning is the answer. Junk food means Gillian McKeith, who is essentially the personality equivalent of electroshock therapy. Once the overweight person makes the association and reduces the junk food intake, the physics can take over.

So there you have it. Feel free to indulge in whatever you like at Christmas, but try to exercise some self control, for if you go too far, the unintentional avatar of science that is Gillian McKeith may come for you. You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry...

Twitter: @garwboy


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