Cookies Are Not Causation

He Who Will Not Be Ignored will not eat M&M cookies; he believes that they make him sick. It’s not a decision he arrived at arbitrarily, it is, in his mind, supported by hard evidence.

Four years ago, while driving him home from a doctor’s appointment, I offered to buy He Who a cookie as a reward for good behavior both at school and the doctor’s office. We stopped at a local farm stand, which is where he spotted a huge cookie studded with M&Ms. I bought it, along with some dinner fixings, and broke off a small piece for him to nibble on during the ride home, then gave him another piece after dinner.

A few hours later, he got sick to his stomach just after he fell asleep. Although this (thankfully) had never been a routine occurrence, we fell into our usual roles: She Who Must Be Obeyed cleaned him up, I stripped and washed the bedclothes. He recovered by the next morning, and by that evening he had a full appetite again. I offered him the rest of the cookie for dessert, but he refused, saying “That cookie made me sick!”

He had formulated a cause-and-effect association that was difficult to argue with. He refused those cookies for years and never got sick, therefore, he had, in his mind, isolated the cause. I used to make the same association with chocolate cake (fortunately, not all chocolate cake, just chocolate bundt cake dusted with powdered sugar) after a particularly gut-wrenching evening when I was about eight years old.

After a recent refusal of a smaller M&M cookie, I decided to test my son’s ability to reason. I purchased two cookies from the same bakery, identical except for the embedded chocolate: one had M&Ms, the other had chips. I offered him the M&M cookie first and he refused to eat it. I offered him the chip version, which he happily devoured.

“Those are the exact same cookie, except for the chocolate chips or M&Ms. Why won’t you eat the M&M cookie?” I asked.

“Because it will make me sick.” he replied.

“Did you like the cookie with chocolate chips?”


“Did you like the way the cookie tasted?”


“I’m going to break off a piece of each cookie from a part with no chips or M&Ms. I want you to try a bite of each piece and tell me how they taste.”

“They taste the same.”

I poured out a handful of chocolate chips and a handful of M&Ms. “Can you eat both of these?”

“Yes, I like them both.”

“So the cookie part is OK, the M&Ms are OK, and the chocolate chips are OK.”


“So what makes you sick?”

“I guess it’s not the cookie.”

“You remember that I always cleaned up the mess after you got sick. I could see what you had eaten before you had stomach problems. Do you know what I saw every time?”

“No, what?”

“Hot dogs.” (There was a two-year stretch, before he became the adventurous eater who wolfs down pig’s head, where forty percent of his diet consisted of hot dogs.) “Maybe you should stop eating hot dogs, because it sems more likely that they made you sick.”

He thought a bit and replied “Maybe it wasn’t the food. Maybe I got sick from some germs, or from another kid.”

“I think you’re right,” I said. Lesson learned.

Two days ago, ten infant deaths from pertussis were reported in California, the latest in an outbreak involving 5,978 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of the disease. Although most of the infants were to young to have received the DPT vaccine, they almost certainly contracted the disease from unvaccinated family members, either children or adults.

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated because they believe vaccines cause autism.

My son is not quite twelve years old, but was able, with some guidance, to disprove a false correlation. No one, with the exception of a hypothetical miffed baker, was affected by his refusal to eat M&M cookies. If dying infants aren’t evidence enough of the necessity of vaccinations, what analogy could we possibly construct to convince these “vaccine skeptics”?

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2 Responses to Cookies Are Not Causation

  1. Mary says:

    Not to disparage your son’s admittedly excellent reasoning skills, but is it possible he could have developed a conditioned taste aversion?

    I wonder because his dislike of M&M cookies sounds similar to my own taste aversion for cooked eggs in all forms. I know, rationally, that the scrambled egg with cheese that I had for breakfast one morning in fifth grade didn’t actually cause me to be violently ill later on that day, but fifteen years later, I still can’t look at an omelet or a frittata without becoming nauseous. Even a soft quiche is too “eggy” for me.

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