Soundtrack: Galaxy, “Dreamland”
Appalled doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings that I have when I read about the New England Journal of Medicine’s study, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 years.”
Time magazine summaized the study this way: “The study’s authors suggest that obesity isn’t just spreading; rather, it may be contagious between people, like a common cold.”
I’ve read the “fat is contagious” study, and all I can say is that this is junk science. The gap between the journalistic quality of the New England Journal of Medicine and Weekly World News has narrowed significantly, and not because Weekly World News’s journalistic integrity has improved.
The fundamental flaw of the study’s conclusions is that they confuse ASSOCIATION with CAUSATION. Association means that A is somehow linked to B, whereas causation establishes and clearly illustrates that A causes B. The NEJM study was able to make associations between obesity and social networks, but took liberties when they said that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased when a friend became obese. It doesn’t take into account a third possibility, C, causing both A and B at the same time.
Kate Harding’s blog deliciously skewers NEJM’s article with logic that cuts through the studybabble. Also worth a read is this article published in Poland. On The Whole effectively talks about the frightening implications of such studies actually being taken seriously.
I remember watching CNN as they were talking about this, and anchor Don Lemon said to medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen that the folks in the newsroom were laughing about this notion of fat being contagious, and then added, “But this is a serious study, isn’t it?” Cohen answered in the affirmative. So sayeth CNN, so sayeth the flock.
Of course, Cohen tried to make the study sound like it could actually have implications in helping fat people, suggesting that if a fat person made friends with skinny people, they could actually be helped.
But this reminds me of some disturbing polls right after the U.S. invaded Iraq. In September 2003, a USA Today poll revealed that nearly 70% of the U.S. population believed that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It just goes to prove how capable we are of being fooled. And it worries me how this study could be “dumbed down” even further to increase the hatred of fat people and justify heinous and unproductive interventions in people’s personal lives.
Clearly CNN and other media outlets are involved in some all-out effort to hype the notion of an obesity epidemic. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen CNN’s looping (loopy?) stock footage of people’s ample midsections as they walk down the street. It’s almost to the point that I have the video memorized and can recite the colors of the clothing their subjects are wearing–in order of appearance.
But as I mentioned in a previous posting, the War On Obesity will have the same results as the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty, because, as is true in the previous three examples, they have little clue about what it is they’re fighting.