Onions and Unconscious Bias

I have written before about my work on carrots, and it’s also the case that I have published on onions, in rather the same spirit as the carrot work: an environmental scanning electron microscopy study of onion failure, as well as a thorough study of maintaining viability of onion cells in the electron microscope under different conditions of imaging. They are a lovely system to work with because it is rather easy to get a sample a single cell thick – that layer just inside the skin that slips off so easily when slicing onions.

However, I am no expert in the field of onion science, so I was slightly surprised to receive an email recently beginning

We have learned of your published research on onions. We would like to invite your participation in our publishing program. In particular, I have in mind a new research or review article for an edited collection (invitation only) being assembled under my overall direction tentatively entitled

Onion Consumption and Health

I am ashamed to admit my first reaction was to laugh. The acceptable reason for laughter would be self-mockery, the amusement that someone thought I was expert enough about onions to write a review article, particularly as relating to consumption and health (neither topics which featured in my papers). However, I suspect there was another underlying stimulus for my laughter, the feeling that a monograph on onions was not serious. It is too easy to think that food is not an important subject for scientific study, but I ought to know better myself for the very reason that I have spent many years researching different aspects of food. I always used to get very irritated when others were baffled why I thought, as a physicist, this was appropriate behaviour. So why did I fall into exactly the same trap this time?

The health-giving properties of onions are no laughing matter, because onions are rather good for us. They contain flavonols, a class of polyphenols; epidemiological studies on polyphenols in general have shown that they can protect against vascular dysfunction, promote vascular health and reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Basically, as far as I understand it, eating onions, like drinking red wine (though possibly less enjoyably) allows us to ingest anti-oxidants which give us some protection against cell damage. So, a monograph on onion consumption and health should be of interest to many. My erstwhile onion-collaborators at the Institute of Food Research are interested in the health benefits, but also in understanding how to use them as a link in the creation of a sustainable food chain. One example of this is to find novel uses of waste products from standard routes of food-processing. This could, for instance, include onion skins and other plant-based organic waste co-products (including used brewers’ grain). The aim is to turn this into added value products, maybe food, animal feed or pharmaceutical products and ingredients in the form of biopolymers, phytochemicals, nutrients and micronutrients.

All this shows us not only that onions are good for us, but scientists are additionally interested in how their inedible bits could be put to good use and not just thrown away. So why did I fall into the trap of laughing at that email? I’m afraid it was because I can follow the herd instinct when not concentrating and, momentarily, think that a physicist should work on ‘real’materials like silicon or buckyballs.

UK readers who watch Have I Got News for You will be familiar with the ‘missing words round’ from some ‘guest publication’ at the end of the show, when some specialist publication is implicitly sneered at for its minority interest: Worm Digest Magazine or the Concrete Canoe Magazine would fit right in there. But it’s unconscious bias that makes us do the sneering. One person’s serious scientific project is another’s butt of a joke. Unconscious bias, as I’ve mentioned before in the context of gender, means we make assumptions without realising it. It is all too frequently at work, and if you don’t believe it visit the Project Implicit website and take one of their Implicit Association Tests – you’ll almost certainly be taken aback by the outcomes.

So did you laugh at the idea of Worm Digest Magazine? Their website claims

We are working together in a global context to disseminate earthworm information in a responsible way. We want to spearhead action in the world regarding earthworms that has genuine impact on the environment and issues of technology, scientific research, business, agriculture, literature and education.

Or what about The Concrete Canoe Magazine? Again, referring to the website we find

The concrete canoe competition is a wonderful project for all students in civil engineering.


Concrete Canoe Magazine (CCM) has for main objective to allow students involved in the concrete canoe project to have a magazine dedicated to their beloved project in which they can find relevant information on new techniques and breakthroughs made by different teams or individuals.

[sic, it’s not from an English-speaking university]
So the former magazine appears to be seriously environmental in its goals, the latter an educational resource for engineering students.

I’m afraid Onion Consumption and Nutrition would fit the same mould, looking ‘daft’ but actually really serious. From time to time we should all reflect on whether we are being led astray to sneer at, mark down or turn away from something that is not within our normal comfort zone but about which we really shouldn’t be making such judgements.

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9 Responses to Onions and Unconscious Bias

  1. KristiV says:

    When my father started his career decades ago, biochemistry was a new field, and biochemists in the US typically worked in nutrition or agricultural science departments. Nowadays, many biochemists would dismiss those disciplines, perhaps because they seem too applied or practical. When I was in grad school, we got our fertile quail and chicken eggs, for embryo experiments, from the poultry science department of the agricultural and engineering university up the road. I foolishly and snobbishly thought then that my developmental biology research was somehow more pure, and therefore better, than anything they could have been investigating up the road. Of course I was wrong, and now I’m sometimes sorry that I didn’t study something more practical, and perhaps applicable to feeding humans or livestock. As an undergrad biology major, I also thought that plants were rather boring – now I find them endlessly fascinating, and wish I knew more about them.

    Onion skins can be used to dye wool and cotton yarns all sorts of beautiful brown, yellow, and orange colors. I keep meaning to set up this rather messy project in the garage, where drips from the dyed yarns and boiled-over dye pots won’t matter.

  2. Ah, but the interesting thing to me about your invitation is that it has to be from a dodgy journal – otherwise why would they be inviting you to write an article? A good journal would be edited by someone who knows the field well enough to invite only people who are pubishing relevant work in the area. I get the same kind of invitations – sometimes hilariously inappropriate. Even worse, I get invitations to join editorial boards of journals that specialise in topics about which I am completely ignorant. I can only assume that the journals in question are a form of vanity publishing.

  3. csrster says:

    I admit that I get my most of my knowledge of nutrition from Ben Goldacre, but I was under the impression that there was no convincing evidence of any beneficial health effects from anti-oxidants.
    (e.g. http://www.badscience.net/2007/12/epistemological-indulgences/ )

    • crster, I am a great fan of Ben Goldacre, but I would translate that post of his along the lines of ‘don’t think by eating antioxidants you’re eating healthily over Christmas’. My source for what I said I took from the Institute of Food Research’s website http://www.ifr.ac.uk/info/science/NaturalProducts/polyphenols.htm, where nutritionists are specifically studying polyphenols. It’s not my field, although I used to have a lot of interactions with the IFR researchers and have heard quite a lot of their science on the matter. However, nutrition does seem to be a moving target.

  4. I recall having a similar reaction to the news that the university where I was an undergraduate and post-graduate student had just awarded its first Ph.D. in mid-wifery, in fact, to someone from my class at school. At the time I was delivering a workshop on unconscious bias.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I expect you were invited because you know your onions. ‘That Athene Donald,’ they said. ‘She’s someone who knows her onions’.

    (runs away)

  6. ricardipus says:

    I’m reminded that at one time (i.e. my postdoc) I used to read the Worm Breeder’s Gazette, the de facto non-peer-reviewed publication of the C. elegans research community. It was a very valuable forum for discussion of pre-publication findings – now probably superseded by the internet.

    As a kicker to your implicit bias post, it seems clear that the title of the WBG is *meant* to be funny, playing on bias that the publisher(s) know (or suspect) to be there – “ha ha ha, it’s a gazette about worm breeding.”

  7. Frank says:

    It is an interesting question – what is the reason for this unconscious bias against certain topics? Is it because, as applied or inter-disciplinary subjects, they place less emphasis on formal, coherent theoretical frameworks? Botany and zoology seem so much more grown-up than plain old natural history, for instance.

    Just don’t mention media studies…

    I remember many years ago seeing a list of journals/magazines that the British Library was going to cancel. The most exotic was the Polish Pigeon Fanciers Gazette. where is it now, I wonder?