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Broken Clock —

September 19, 2013

Fat HealthFat Science

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I like to be right. If you’ve read this blog for a while or seen me arguing with haters and trolls, you’ve no doubt seem me dig in for a fight. I’m skeptical by nature, which is why I’ve written a ton of blog posts on misleading peer-reviewed research.

What I typically notice isn’t necessarily an error in the data itself, it’s the author’s conclusions or a limitation of the methodology that may even be listed as a short-coming in the body of the research, but not Hammer and Clockin the abstract. If it’s peer-reviewed, you can be fairly confident that the actual data was collected properly, but the strength of the conclusions will also depend on the type of the study and the strength of the data, which is discernible by those who study research.

There is value in being skeptical because the media, which is supposed to be skeptical on our behalf, doesn’t do such a good job of that any more. Hell, Chuck Todd just said yesterday that correcting falsehoods made by politicians isn’t his job as a journalist, it is the President’s job. So if the media isn’t willing to call out misinformation from politicians about laws, what hope do we have that the media will fairly represent the actual results of a study?

When faced with this kind of reality, most of us respond with some fairly-earned skepticism. We see the media promote some obviously bullshit scientific claim in linkbait form with headlines like “Being fat causes global warming, say scientists” or “Being fat actually makes you dumber,” and we know we don’t need to waste our time reading sensationalism based on a single questionable study.

Skepticism is good, especially n a world full of sketchy claims and “native advertising” that pushes the boundaries between news and it’s sponsored sibling. The problem is that this assault on our intelligence is so pervasive and so troubling that our skepticism can easily fall over the edge into cynicism.

Cynicism is understandable, but it isn’t healthy. Cynicism causes us to ignore or dismiss otherwise reasonable information because it doesn’t conform to our existing belief system. Or worse, it causes us to accept or spread flawed information because it does conform. True skepticism, the kind that journalism used to perform as a public service, is absolutely vital if we are trying to find the truth about weight and health. And the truth on this particular subject is very complicated.

An example of a blog engaged in healthy skepticism when it comes to the War on Fat is the Health at Every Size® (HAES) blog run by the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). There are some great discussions of health and wellness as it pertains to HAES, and I value their analysis on health research. But as a skeptic, I still read ASDAH’s articles with a grain of salt. After all, they are a special interest group with an agenda, so a skeptic should naturally question the evidence they present in support of their own beliefs. I often use their resources listed as a springboard to understanding and find that the author has indeed analyzed the research honestly and thoughtfully. These kinds of blogs are immensely valuable.

But then there’s the HAES-ish blog that I’m immediately skeptical of without fail. I’ll explain in detail why I feel this way, but first let me say that in my call for choosing skepticism over cynicism, I hope you understand that I expect you to be skeptical of my work as well. Be skeptical of me when I say what I’m about to say because skepticism is never wrong, so long as it’s in the pursuit of truth. An intellectually honest skeptic will have a much easier time tracking down the truth than a close-minded cynic.

When I first began reading Fat Acceptance blogs, there was one resource that was cited over and over and over in arguments about weight and health: Junkfood Science (JFS) by Sandy Szwarc. And there’s a good reason people cite Szwarc’s work: it’s exhaustive and thoroughly-cited, two things I’ve come to appreciate in analysis. But just because something is exhaustive and thoroughly-cited (my work included) doesn’t mean it’s right. It may contain truth, but how much truth is buried among how much bullshit?

There’s only one way to know, and most people don’t have the time or interest in doing it: you have to read the source material. That’s the only way you can really know.

And when Sandy describes the source material for whatever subject she’s discussing, she often frames it in absolute terms that confuses the complexity of the issue. For example, in this post on the benefits of being fat, Szwarc presents a strong claim:

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, demonstrated this claim isn’t the case. In the CDC’s Epidemiological Follow-up Study following people’s BMI through their lives, they explained that we’ve already seen the long-term effects of obesity on longevity. And what the evidence shows is no association between longevity and BMI, with higher BMIs associated with longer, healthier lives. In today’s anti-fat climate, the fact that the evidence has shown such “obesity paradoxes” for decades sounds unbelievable. [emphasis mine]

That link in her post should go straight to the source material so you can read for yourself that the CDC has indeed found that those with “higher BMIs associated with longer, healthier lives.” Instead, it goes to an earlier post she wrote on the obesity paradox which contains only this reference to the research:

According to Dr. Flegal and colleagues, there is no evidence for concerns of an impending health crisis because of fears being raised by those claiming we don’t know the long-term effects of obesity. As they carefully explained in a 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the CDC’s Epidemiological Follow-up Study in which body weights of Americans were measured a decade apart, found that among adults with normal BMIs only 2% had been obese 10 years previously and conversely, only 4% of obese adults had had normal BMIs while younger.

She doesn’t link to the primary source, but what Flegal’s research has shown is that BMI is correlates with lower mortality up to a point. And there certainly is a correlation to morality and BMIs over 35. But that association frequently doesn’t factor in the fitness of the subjects. Rather than parse this important distinction, Szwarc makes the overly simplistic and factually incorrect claim that higher BMIs are associated with longer, healthier lives.

But even if this particular data point or argument were factually accurate, I would still be highly skeptical of Szwarc’s work for the same reason that I’m frequently skeptical of the work of certain researchers: conflicts of interest.

Whatever her professional qualifications, Sandy Szwarc has written posts for two questionable organizations: TCS Daily (originally created by the DCI Group) and Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The three links are to each group’s SourceWatch page, which is a valuable resource for finding out who is underwriting the work of a particular group. Szwarc has her own page.

DCI and CEI are both lobbying groups promoting “free market” principles, which means that they push for deregulation and a hands-off approach to corporate interests for obvious reasons. But they can’t just come out and say “We oppose global warming legislation because it will hurt our bottom line!” Instead, CEI hires spinmeisters and quacks to convince the public that global warming is a hoax at most and widely debated science at best. (If you disagree with me, I understand, but I’m not going to argue about this issue here. Let me have it on Facebook or Twitter.)

So everything that TCS, DCI and CEI produce is in some way attempting to shape public opinion on an issue that matters to one or many of their clients. Knowing that these are lobbying firms, it should immediately raise red flags when you read Szwarc’s article for CEI on why salmon farming isn’t dangerous (PDF) or a TCS article on why chain restaurant kids menus aren’t as unhealthy as research shows. Also, you might wonder why The Salt Institute (comprised of salt manufacturers) cites Szwarc’s JFS articles on being skeptical of science or the faulty science on diabetes.

Now, it’s true that Sandy Szwarc can work for TCS and CEI and still present factual information, but she’s more likely to spin that information so fucking hard that it’s a twisted version of its former self. And it’s the spin where you must be skeptical. Think for yourself. Read the data points and judge whether a rational conclusion has been drawn. Consider that there may be conflicting evidence that isn’t being presented (a form of White Hat Bias). These are basic principles that apply to all sides of an issue, whether we’re questioning the latest obesity research or promoting the fat and fit philosophy.

I personally do not trust Sandy Szwarc’s work and I will not link to her work to support my arguments for HAES. Whenever possible, I prefer to cite primary sources, and any self-linking is to a post that has the primary sources I’m referencing. I am going to ask our bloggers not to cite her work either, as I believe she takes an absolutist position on weight and health that is toxic to a rational discussion of these complicated issues.

Finally, I would ask that if you a feel a kneejerk reaction to a news story about scientific research, you may indeed be right, but the only way to know for sure is to read and understand the study it’s based on. To dismiss a study out-of-hand just because it’s offensively presented can undermine our own credibility by making us sound like denialists, which Sandy Szwarc certainly is. There’s a reason Szwarc’s work is used by lobbyists who specializes in global warming denialism for oil companies: it’s a useful tool for dismissing evidence that says your product is at fault.

Don’t be a denialist. It’s an intellectual and rational dead end. There are ways to successfully and rationally advance a robust dialogue on complicated issues without resorting to oversimplification and spin. I’ve seen far more progress made between two open-minded opponents than I’ve ever seen made between two denialist opponents. That’s where I want to be and I hope that’s where you want to be as well.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with this fascinating resource I stumbled upon while researching this subject. It’s a Tumblr post about Richard Berman, a lobbyist who runs a bunch of these sham “public advocacy” organizations that promote denialism. There’s more information at Berman Exposed.

Richard Berman

Here’s a list of his projects:

Advocacy Groups

I have nothing but respect for skeptics and I hope you will challenge yourself to stay skeptical, not cynical.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Theresa permalink
    September 19, 2013 1:31 pm

    Know what I wish? I wish all high-school students were required to have this information before graduating. Maybe they could call the course “Understanding Media: Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything You Read.” It would make the world a smarter place.

    • Nof permalink
      September 19, 2013 5:17 pm

      In my perfect world, schools would heavily emphasis critical thinking skills, and everyone would have a grounding in scientific methods, cross-disciplinary skills, and media literacy. If only.

      I would’ve dreaded taking statistics in school, but I’m kind of sad I never took it (perhaps I’ll look at the local colleges for night classes or see if I can find a textbook at the thrift store). To understand a lot of these studies, you need to understand stats.

  2. vesta44 permalink
    September 19, 2013 2:25 pm

    I have to say that I started out my journey to FA by reading JFS every time a new post came out (and it’s been a while since Sandy quit posting there). While a lot of what she wrote just affirmed for me that it wasn’t my body that was wrong, it was the so-called “science” that researchers used that was wrong in some way or another, I still realized that she had an agenda just like every one of those researchers. While I’m grateful to her for removing the blinders from my eyes, in more ways than one, I still wish she could have done the work in a more honest manner, without the spin and absolutism (nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong, there are just too many shades of what-if/maybe in there for it to be that way). And while I have a healthy appreciation for skepticism, I’ve been around long enough that there’s also a bit of cynicism in the mix.

    • Nof permalink
      September 19, 2013 5:18 pm

      I wish we had a blog like that–I know atchka does some, but so far as I’m aware there isn’t a dedicated blogger breaking down these studies so that more people can understand them.

  3. Dizzyd permalink
    September 19, 2013 4:35 pm

    I used to read JFS a lot, and I found it edifying though I admit deep down I wondered what her sources were. The only issue I would have with your article is that I would hate it if ppl jump all the way to cynicism (‘cuz that could happen) and decide that EVERYTHING she posted is suspect, and not only that, but anything that sounds close to it – like being fat and fit. I know you’re saying simply don’t take things at face value, but it’d be easy – TOO easy – for the trolls to use it to say ‘See? We told you so!’ and for those who are maybe new and don’t know better to start wondering whether all the fat-positive stuff is actually true, or just more slanted propaganda. Remember that the diet industry has plenty of ‘experts’ on their side, and while I agree in calling out someone who may have a conflict of interest, I just worry this could become a double-edged sword.

  4. August 3, 2015 5:53 am

    I think you raise a really important set of points in this article. Thank you. One point to add comes from one of my San Francisco State journalism professors. He advised us to get our information from the greatest variety of sources, because all sources have their biases, just as all people have their biases (standpoints/viewpoints.)

    He told us, for example, to one day read the SF Examiner, the next, the SF Chronicle, the next, Wall St. Journal, then the NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, atheist publications, left-wing, right-wing, communist, socialist, capitalist, the local homeless street sheet, international news, etc., to get different perspectives, and therefore, a more accurate overall picture.

    • August 3, 2015 6:00 am

      And to add, we must always cite our sources, citing the *original source.*

      Since information is only as good as its source, if the original source isn’t cited, such that the information can be traced back to that source, the information should be *presumed* to be inaccurate and worthless.

      In other words, if you can’t look up the original source and read it, based on the citation provided, the data claimed to be from that source should be presumed inaccurate.

      One thing I notice among lefties is that there is increasing laziness in providing citations along with statistics. I get political mailings and newsletters all the time with statistics claimed, but no citations. The material comes off as weak, because it is weak: it’s worthless. If liberals/progressives or anyone else wants support for a cause, it pays to take the time to look up one’s facts and cite the source fully, to ensure that we have our facts correct.

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