Wednesday, May 18

Unscientific Science Marches On

John Stossel tests the waters and decides America is getting soaked.

A few years back Pepsi and Coke both featured taste tests in their ads. Both won. Legitimately. I'll tell you how in a moment, but first...

Stossel's "test" seems designed, first and foremost, to suckle the popular notion that people who aspire to "taste" are just self-deluded snobs. I'll be the first to admit the idea has some merit. I'll also be first to say that reverse snobbery, the idea that there's no difference between chicken livers and chicken shit just because some people can't tell the difference, is just as stupid.

I'm not sure who decided drinking Perrier was "cool", or why I should be worried about how such people spend their money, but being convinced by John Stossel's, and I quote, "unscientific test" is hardly any different than choosing a favorite based on label design. Give me those six waters and five minutes to work up a plan, I bet I could make the rankings come out anyway you specify.

(It's funny, by the way, that eight column inches doesn't leave him enough room to tell us the sample size of give us vote totals or percentages.)

"People" do not know how to taste. This is why there's an elaborate ritual for tasting wine, rather than just gulping it down. It's why tea merchants and parfumiers pay big money to highly skilled "noses" instead of testing products on six people found at the mall. If you pulled a dozen people off the street, sticky sweet soda-pop wine would beat Domaine Romanée-Conti ten times out of ten, and you could ask "Why does this stuff cost $300/bottle?" It does, in part, because knowledgeable buyers know better. (Rarity has a lot to do with it, too.)

There's a couple of telling results in Stossel's little act there. First, Aquafina finishes second, ahead of New York tap water. But Aquafina (product of Pepsi) is filtered municipal tap water from Kansas City. Desani (from Coke) is actually New York City water. K-Mart water has to be the same; they're not bottling from some secret spring somewhere.

Poland Spring comes in fifth, and Evian dead last. But Poland Spring is, oddly, spring water, and Evian is mineral water. Of course unsophisticated tasters expecting tastelessness found them odd. They taste of something. Iceland Spring, which I've never had, finished above them, tied with New York City. So looked at one way, tap water wound up in the basement with the funny-tasting stuff.

This is not to say that bottled water is "worth the price". But, clearly it is to a lot of people, and they aren't all delusional. Lots of tap water tastes "funny", or is heavily chlorinated much of the year. Whether "some people" worry about trace amounts of copper or iron is immaterial. You conducted a taste test; don't try to tell me I can't detect minute amounts of copper or iron or chlorine. And, yes, there are some people out there who prefer the taste of Vichy or Appolinaris. The market serves them. Big whoop.

Oh, those Coke/Pepsi tastes tests? Well, Pepsi is sweeter than Coke. Most people react favorably at first to sweetness, so Pepsi had people take a sip of each. But sweetness eventually cloys, so Coke had people taste repeatedly. This ain't rocket science.


Anonymous said...

Domaine Romanée-Conti

Um, you wouldn't happen to have a bottle or two laying around, would you? 'Cause I'd be happy to take that nasty stuff off your hands, pal. Give you something nice in return, something way better than that frogwash! Ooh, let's see what I have here...unlabeled golden muscatel--fortified!--uh, Boone's Farm Tickle Pink (Stossel's secret favorite!)...and a Metaxa Private Reserve--er, I'm keeping that one.

Whaddaya mean this post was about water?

Anonymous said...

I can't help thinking once upon a time, Stossel would have thought about all that. What happened to ya, man?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I had NYC tap water when I was over there last week, and I thought it was pretty good. (I didn't want to pay for the water from the vending machine 'cuz I'm a cheapass.)

But, I prefer the bottle because, back when I was a kid in rural Kentucky, a cow fell in the reservoir, died, and proceeded to rot. Now that will taint your supply! Said cow was not discovered for some time, and we were boiling the water for weeks!

julia said...

well, as much as I appreciate New York City tap water (although the water from my mom's artesian well tastes better) it's very hard to get cryptospirosis from bottled water and increasingly easy to get it from our tap water.

Anonymous said...

I have long held that the superiority of New York pizza-by-the-slice (and I sense another taste test brewing as I speak) is due in part to the New York City tap water, which does taste pretty good. It's miles ahead of
San Francisco tap, which even so is OK, where I used to live. Now I live in a small town, with heavily chlorinated hard water, and I wouldn't give my cats the crap that comes out of the faucet. So Stossel's "test" started with false pretenses. Why should I be surprised, considering the source? On the other hand, I'm currently drinking a $4 Merlot that is surprisingly tasty. Like Coke, it's better after the first bottle.