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Staring at Goats —

May 14, 2012
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If you’ve spent any time observing the media, you already know that obesity will destroy the world.

In fact, based on a highly-technical series of studies, scientists have estimated that our collective obesity will cause a rotational imbalance in the Earth’s orbit on December 21, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans.

So, before the coming obesity-induced tailspin into the sun, it’s vital that we create an accurate tally of all the other medical and social ills that we, the culpable fatties, have caused. I’m leaving out the obvious relationships, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, because we all know there’s no arguing the fact that obesity causes these issues. Instead, let’s focus on the relationships you may not have considered, but which popular news organizations have been reporting on how obesity causes some of the greatest social ills we are facing today:

Way to go, Fatties.  If it weren’t for your rampant fatness, we’d have solved the problems of sustainable energy, terrorism, and global warming by now. But nooooooooooooo… you had to go fat it up and ruin this world for everyone.

Pardon my sarcasm, but I’m so sick of these ridiculous games that the media plays with obesity research. All it takes is a single study showing a modest correlation for ABC News to scream, “THE FATTIES ARE FALLING! THE FATTIES ARE FALLING!”

And it’s not just the liberal “lame-stream” media pushing the “obesity causes X” hysteria. Conservative encyclopedia, Conservapedia, attempts to link obesity with another favorite scapegoat of the right: atheism.

Most of these correlations are tenuous at best, and those studies that do show a potential relationship between obesity and the social ills in question are typically data dredges. A data dredge is an attempt to show statistical significance, even if that significance is limited or poorly controlled or incomplete.

Not all correlation studies use data dredging to come up with the results, but almost all correlation studies are reporting on just that: correlations.

Now, say it with me: correlations don’t equal causation.

For instance, I have long since assumed that the relationship between poor dental hygiene and cardiovascular health was well established. In fact, it’s so well-established that it shows up in random heart health tips by Yahoo!

People with periodontal (gum) disease are nearly twice as likely to have heart disease as those with healthy gums. While the reasons for the link aren’t yet clear, one theory is that the same bacteria that trigger gum disease may also spark inflammation inside the body, damaging arteries.

So, what comes first is the study pointing to a relationship, followed by theories on the reason this relationship exists. In the case of gum disease and heart disease, some very intelligent people proposed the inflammation theory. If the theory is plausible enough, news organizations, and even doctors, will begin promoting the theory as if it’s already been proven.

But what’s missed between the correlation and the theory are the myriad possibilities that could confound this relationship. In the case of gum disease, perhaps poverty plays a role? After all, poverty and gum disease are all related, according to a 2006 article in the British Dental Journal:

The study, based on a sample of people aged 45 to 64, found that low income was associated with the prevalence of severe periodontitis among whites, and both low education and income levels were associated with severe periodontitis among African-Americans.

And we know the correlation between obesity and poverty are strong. But this kind of interwoven influence does not make it into the fast and furious world of medical reporting, where headlines are generated more to draw readers in than to educate them.

As a result, you get “common sense” manufactured by incomplete or preliminary research. Once that “common sense” takes root in popular culture, it’s nearly impossible to rip it out of the national conscience.

Because although Yahoo! shared its advice on May 4th about  improving your heart health through flossing, on April 19, NPR shared the story of how medical professionals are trying to shatter the belief that this relationship has been proven:

An expert panel of dentists and cardiologists, writing in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, says there is no evidence that treating or preventing gum disease has any direct effect on heart health.

Despite their attempts, the belief that flossing prevents heart disease will carry on unaffected by the expert panel. Once the relationship is reported, it’s nearly impossible to take it back.

So, when we hear about how obesity causes global warming, it doesn’t matter if researchers suggest that global warming could may cause obesity because the relationship has already been established. Or when we hear that obesity increases the risk of suicide, we ignore the fact that studies show suicidal ideations are correlated with the self-perception of weight, rather than the weight itself. And no amount of debunking will convince society that obesity isn’t causing the rise in healthcare costs, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

Once again, when the media implies that obesity causes X, it becomes just another in a long list of problems that obesity, and obese people, are responsible for.

And, to be quite honest, in my more conspiratorial moments I can’t help but believe that this is the intention of many of the correlational studies that are released and never elaborated on.

This is most recently exemplified by the media reports that obesity increases the risk of autism. As this made the rounds, less sophisticated blogs, such as Pregnancy.org, which posted (then deleted) an article titled “Obesity in Pregnancy Causing Rise in Autism Cases.”

Retractions aside, the damage is done.

Once the suggestion has been made, once the coverage begins suggesting that fat mothers are producing autistic children, the recrimination sets in. The anti-obesity zealots tally another shame-point for the fatties, while the mothers of autistic children are left to deal with the guilt and self-blame that they may have affected their child’s neurological development.

I spoke with a few mothers of autistic children, including one of our regular readers, Karen, who saw the coverage and expressed these feelings of doubt and shame and self-loathing. “How could I do this to my child?” they have asked themselves over and over. At the same time, how many fat women who want to have a child have been given pause because they fear the damage they may do to their potential child?

This sick and sadistic parlor game the media plays with research and statistics infuriates me more than anything else. I do not fault the researchers outright because they are doing their job of trying to understand what causes autism. But our society is not research-literate and no matter how nuanced the study, the public representation will always exceed the actual findings.

In essence, they’re playing Telephone with science. Researchers release a study with minor implications and the media, always on the hunt for a sensational story, take those implications and make them bigger and stronger than they really are. Viewers take a headline like “Obesity increases risk for autism” and turns it into “Obesity causes autism” and they spread this ridiculously flawed conclusion through their social circles until it’s just accepted that autism is all the fault of the fatties.

I’ve grown accustomed to the tail-end of the telephone, when some monosyllabic trolls rattles of the list of destruction caused by obesity without much knowledge of the source. But when I spoke with Karen about her response to the news reports of obesity and autism, I felt that we had to do something more.

So, this week we are hosting another theme week: Autism Week.

We’ve got some great guest posts lined up for you from various perspectives, including an in-depth analysis of the original autism study, a critique of Autism Speaks, Karen’s account of learning the news, and, finally, the story of a mother who is watching her autistic son take flight into self-sufficiency.

I realize these topics aren’t all pertinent to obesity and health, but I want this week to be a resource for those mothers of autistic children who also happen to be obese, so that they do not feel responsible for their child’s development in any way, shape or form. But also so that the parents of autistic children do not see their child’s particular neurological vantage point as something to worth feeling bad about in the first place.

Autism is a complicated condition and we have barely scratched the surface of understanding it. So, I’m proud to offer Fierce, Freethinking Fatties as a forum this week to perhaps broaden our understanding just a bit more.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2012 4:59 pm

    I contributed to this week by writing primarily about Autism Speaks, but if it’s not shameless self-promotion, let me also send a link to my blog post I wrote a while back about being a fat Aspie – appropriately titled Fat Aspie. These two topics are more connected than people think.

    • Kala permalink
      May 15, 2012 12:20 pm

      I did my undergrad at a polytechnic institute, and you get a fair number of people on the spectrum there. I noticed this past year, quite a few posters talking about autistic self-advocacy, that I hadn’t seen in the past. I guess a group formed on campus to self-advocate, and I think they had a problem with Autism Speaks as well (there were puns on the posters).

  2. JeninCanada permalink
    May 14, 2012 8:43 pm

    Looking forward to reading this week’s posts and learning a lot. This is an excellent start, Shannon!

  3. Fab@54 permalink
    May 15, 2012 8:04 am

    My interest is peaked. I look forward to it. I think we should all be well-armed against the “Obesity Causes Autism” wave of accusations that is surely headed our way….

  4. May 15, 2012 11:06 am

    Thank you for looking into this subject. I have a grandson with autism. Has there been a study to “show that obesity also causes” downs syndrome! I like your sarcasim.

  5. The Real Cie permalink
    May 22, 2012 5:31 am

    I have figured out what causes global warming. It isn’t industrial pollution or vehicle pollution or anything like that. It’s beans.
    That’s right, beans.
    We need to ban beans, because people eat beans, and then they fart. This is increasing the methane in the atmosphre and causing global warming. Fat people are, of course, to blame because they eat more beans than other people.
    This makes great sense, because we all know that big business, big oil, and other corrupt and greedy industrial practices cannot possibly be to blame for global warming.

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