“That’s like comparing apples and oranges,” says the famous expression, when someone tries comparing two things that aren’t really comparable. And yet apples and oranges are pretty similar, as objects go. You can compare apples to oranges on various levels, and more than one scientist has published a research paper proving this. 

In 1995, a NASA scientist, Scott Sanford, compared an apple to an orange using high-tech means. He dried both fruits slowly in an oven, treated the samples with bromide salt, and compressed the result into pellets. He then analyzed them both using an infrared spectrometer. They were chemically quite similar, he noted, which makes what differences they did exhibit easy to note. 

He published that in Annals of Improbable Research, which is a satirical journal. A second study, while also written as a joke, made it all the way to the British Medical Journal. This one took a more grounded approach, comparing an apple to an orange in terms of sweetness, color, size, weight, and more. it also compiled scientific papers that had used the phrase “apples to oranges,” feigning outrage over how few if any of them actually concerned comparing fruit. 

Those scientists must have had fun with those papers, but if anything, they only proved how STEM isn’t enough to make you an all-around educated person. “That’s like comparing apples to oranges” is a perfectly fine phrase, and these arguments against it miss the point. 

Of course, you can look at one apple and one orange and judge that the apple’s sweeter. But that’s not a meaningful comparison. Apples in general are sweeter than oranges in general, so comparing a couple apples to a couple oranges doesn’t give you a good idea of how sweet those apples are compared to how they should be or to how they’re expected to be. Same deal with, say, peel thickness. You can observe that an apple has a thinner peel than an orange, but that doesn’t tell us anything. The two fruits are eaten in different ways, so a thick apple peel can be a problem even though a much thicker orange peel is not. 

We should replace the phrase with something that mentions two obviously incomparable things, suggests the paper, like “Let's not compare walnuts with elephants.” But apples and oranges works in the phrase because even if you can’t fairly compare them, they’re similar enough that people might wrongly be tempted to. People like the study authors, for example.

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