Friday, May 04, 2007

Peppermint party

As Rio Americano headed into the second week of STAR testing, a new test-preparation strategy was brought to bear. The tradition of providing snacks for student test-takers was continued as it had been practiced since the implementation of STAR testing lo those many years ago. But with a twist. Classroom snacks distributed for this week's tests included carefully counted and bagged peppermint candies.

The prescription, provided by the school's administration was to "hand one peppermint to each of your STAR testing students prior to taking the test." Why give students mint-flavored candy before a state-mandated assessment? The directive from the administration explained, "It is a proven fact that peppermint has been known to stimulate the human brain."

I was unaware of this "proven fact." My skeptical hackles were raised. I reflexively "reply to all-ed" with a request for evidence and some light-hearted criticism of the idea. Then I looked for the evidence (or lack thereof) on the web. There were some popular press items about peppermint aroma and cognitive tasks. But they seemed sketchy. There were also dismissals of those studies.

From the "Ask a scientist" column at Cornell Center for Materials Research, "Will eating peppermint candy help you to do better on a test? Probably not; there is no solid scientific evidence that peppermint will boost test performance."

From, "...on the basis of [a] newspaper article, some teachers are giving their students peppermint candy because 'research proves that candy improves memory.' Is it any wonder that some neuroscientists are beginning to accuse educators of engaging in pseudoscience or worse, becoming "snake-oil salesmen" for products and programs that have no real scientific foundation?"

I broadcast links to the dismissals to my colleagues, and the results were somewhat predictable. Though I took measures to couch the "bad news" in humor and good cheer, I was criticized for being such a curmudgeon. This wasn't my first rodeo, so I anticipated that result. Most people who have confronted woo among friends, family, or co-workers quickly learn that in polite company, woo is supposed to be given a free pass. Given the ironic twist that the peppermint strategy was deployed for the STAR tests in science, I couldn't just stand by.

I launched the topic as a thread on the James Randi Educational Foundation's Education Forum. The resulting banter was more enlightening than what occurred at school. Still though, you can always count on JREF forums for contrarians. And one did due diligence in an attempt to bolster the peppermint story. He fell short in my estimation, but not for lack of effort.

In the end, there's just no experi-mint-al evidence for this odoriferous claim. I made a funny!

ADDENDUM: JREF Forum member Suggestologist sent me the link to the NPR story on peppermint. They hasten to confess a lack of scientific support. But the story was just too tasty not to air. I'll be here all week; don't forget to tip the wait staff.


Matt said...

I am slightly annoyed that I took this test, yet failed to receive said candy. If my scores suffer from peppermint deficiency, I will be suing the school.

Dean Baird said...

But Matt, suppose you got the candy from the school and then upon your next visit to the dentist, a cavity were detected. What would you do then?

Anonymous said...

I would sue the school for giving me the cavity. It's a win-win situation for me.

Dean Baird said...

Well, a win-win for your attorney anyway. Frivoious lawsuits don't always go as planned for the frivolous.

Darren said...

But, but--what about the Placebo Effect? or even the Hawthorne Effect? or some unnamed effect?

Anonymous said...

Stevie Ray Says:

What about the "Dufus Effect" - a condition rampant among those in high school adminstrative positions.