Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Lesson in Skepticism

While taking a client out shopping this afternoon, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a 7-foot high, walking red jelly bean. 1 The towering creature lumbered towards us, its comically exaggerated chef's hat blocking out the sun as it menacingly spread its stubby arms, no doubt intent on seizing us up and stuffing us into its smiling maw. Certain that we were being attacked by a monster, I tensed myself for battle as the beast stalked ever closer.

Luckily, physical combat was averted when an older gentleman wearing a Jelly Belly t-shirt appeared and informed us that we had wandered into a promotional event. The monster, it turned out, was Mr. Jelly Belly himself. The older man gave us each a sample of honey-flavored jelly beans and asked us to take our place in a queue that was forming. My client and I had a hurried discussion, then got in line.

I didn't take my eyes off Mr. Jelly Belly.

We stood in line in the clingy July heat for a good thirty minutes, but this was offset somewhat by the various free samples being handed out. Nothing topped the initial honey beans, although the 7UP-flavored ones were surprisingly good. I also given one that was meant to taste like some manner of peach booze, but it didn't really light my fire. There came a point when we were both ready to go, but we were so close to the front of the line -for what, we didn't yet know - that we had to stay. We were compelled.

In any event, it finally became apparent that we were in the midst of a promotion for a product called "BeanBoozled". According to a brochure I was given, the gimmick is this: In any box of BeanBoozled beans, the majority are regular, tasty flavors, but a few are intentionally vile "gag" beans.2 It's less a snack product than a sinister game of tastebud roulette. I'm not entirely sure how marketable I think that is.

Turns out we were standing in line to spin a wheel of fate that would determine which color jelly beans we'd get to sample, but allegedly each jar of like-colored beans contained a mixture of outwardly identical traditional and "gag" beans. For example, if you were handed a black jelly bean, it might taste like licorice or "skunk spray". If you bravely ate the mysterious jelly beans with which you were presented, you'd be rewarded with filthy lucre in the form of a swanky-cool sticker, a fruit gel, and a bag of mixed, non-gross jelly beans.

I was a little dubious. I paid attention to the folks ahead of us in line, and I noticed that for all the hemming and hawing, all the theatrics and anticipation, no one seemed to get a gag bean. People would worry over their handful of beans, ask the lady handing out the samples if she was serious that the trio of milky white jelly beans might really be flavored like "dirty diapers", cast anxious glances at their friends...and finally gulp them down to find that they were really coconut all along. I smiled at my companion.

"There aren't really any gross ones," I assured him. "It's like that Halloween party game when you're supposedly sticking your hand in a jar of eyeballs but it's really just grapes. It's all about anticipation."

He nodded, and we smirked to ourselves as the last couple of people ahead of us spun the wheel and ate their (non-disgusting) jelly beans. By the time it was my turn to spin the wheel of fate, I was pretty sure I had the game all figured out. I spun the wheel and it settled on "Peach...or Barf". My client and I exchanged mock-worried looks as the Jelly Belly lady dealt me out a couple of beans with a tiny plastic scoop. This was going to be super-cheesy easy.

"Now you may want to try just a sliver..." she began as I popped them unthinkingly into my mouth.

I have to commend the small army of scientists working at Jelly Belly for their masterful recreation of the taste of vomit. It was truly a thing of grotesque beauty.

I walked away today with a free bag of mixed citrus Jelly Bellies and a new appreciation for what it does and doesn't mean to be skeptical. Being a skeptic doesn't mean being unthinkingly cynical and disbelieving, it means taking in all the evidence you can and using it to come to the best possible conclusion. It also means that acknowledging that we can consider all the available information and still be wrong if the information is insufficient or our analysis is wanting. We all know that, but we also all forget from time to time.

I sure remember now.

1.) A word of explanation - I work with mentally disabled folks, and a fair amount of my job involves community integration activities to boost their confidence and ability to interact with new people. That said, I won't use my client's name here to protect his privacy.

2.) Fairly or not, I place the blame for "joke" jelly beans squarely on J.K. Rowling for her creation of "Every-Flavor Beans" in the
Harry Potter novels.


Fox no sox said...

My favorite flavor is still black pepper. The Dr. Pepper and Honey ones are pretty good too.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I had no idea that the honey ones even existed until a couple of days ago. I can see myself putting down a truly worrying amount of those things.