a place I put stuff

The Onion Approach

Posted on January 22, 2018

I was once watching a lecture on TV – where I’m from there’s an over-the-air channel that’s just university lectures. Anywho, there I was, listening to a botanist, geneticist, or food chemist (don’t know which) talk about all the health benefits that eating raw onions confer. But raw is the operative word, there are all kinds of organic sulfur compounds that break down when the onion is cooked. Knowing this, we have two choices:

  1. Breed onions that have boat loads of the healthful organic sulfur compounds that we’re looking for. These would be super onions and would accordingly be super healthful to eat.
  2. Breed onions that have as little as possible of those same healthy sulfur compounds. These would be meh, nutritionally speaking, but would still have some oomph.

Well, duh, breed Onion 1, right? Here’s the twist. Scientists are clever about what the data really means. They also found out that nobody would actually eat Onion 1. It would simply be too strong to tolerate eating it raw – raw is the whole point.

To optimize the amount of these valuable organic sulfur compounds that people actually ingest, we’re drawn to the counter-intuitive notion that we should breed Onion 2.

I smell a lesson here that bums me out a little. For any approach that would improve everyones’ lives1, but they’d also find unpalatable, we’re kinda forced to abandon it. Or if not abandon, being realistic, we shouldn’t get our hopes up that people will take it up in droves. We should look for things that minimize unpalatability so that people will adopt it eagerly. Even at the cost of most of the benefits, this is a net win, maximize by minimizing. If we can find things that are both palatable and have a big benefit – hold onto your hats. But my suspicion is that lots more things are in the tradeoff category.

  1. For any real-world thing, this is hard to say. For notoriously-hard-to-study software, where studies don’t seem to say much definitively, even more so. But let’s just us friends pretend that we’ve got a slam-dunk here.