Friday, 15 August 2014

When science and politics collide

Content note: fat-shaming
Today I took notes in a first-year biochemistry lecture. The students are starting a big module on metabolism, it seems, which is obviously a major part of human life and health. First-year health science papers tend to have a different lecturer every time. They’re often grad students or teaching fellows, but today we had a senior lecturer from the Biochemistry department with dozens of publications to her name. So, not somebody who I’m in a position to call out for bad science in her own subject.
And in this introductory metabolism lecture, this authority on biochemistry and health told a hall full of students that there is an obesity epidemic in the Western world and it’s all due to basic thermodynamics – people eating more joules than they burn off – and it’s causing a raft of health problems that she didn’t detail.
Now she didn’t say or imply that obese people are all lazy gluttons; in fact she pointed out that one problem with exercise is it makes you want to eat more. She didn’t say anything whatsoever about willpower or self-control. She did show us a list of countries ranked by the percentage of obese people in the population, and joked (by way of warning the class not to confuse correlation with causation) that speaking English is evidently a major cause of obesity.
What’s bothering me is that I could find dozens of sites, just a click or two a way from this blog, that say obesity is not something you can fix by changing your eating and/or exercise habits, and that weight as such doesn’t cause the health problems, and that the things today’s lecturer said are myths and constitute fat-shaming. And it’s quite clear that shaming people about their weight doesn’t help them in any way. In general, I think if you look at someone who has a problem that you don’t have, and your immediate response is “That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just—” no matter what you think they should just, you’re wrong. Sometimes people are stupid, but millions of people are not so stupid that they live in thrall to something you can solve with a snap of your fingers.
The point is that politically I agree with the latter group of people. Shaming people about their appearance is a heinous thing to do, regardless of whether they have a “choice” about it or not. But I can’t say that they must have science on their side just because they have morality on their side. Reality is regrettably amoral. If it’s true that Western diet and exercise patterns cause obesity and obesity causes health problems, then it’s true and no amount of cultural repositioning will change that. Equally, if it’s not true it’s not true and no number of people who think it is true will change that.
I’ve written at some length about the parallel issues I have with evolutionary psychology. There I concluded that most of what you see in the popular media is indeed bullshit but there is a core of science underneath that isn’t so easily discredited. I don’t know whether that’s the case on this issue. I would dearly love to stand with my political fellow-travellers here, but I can’t if they’ve got the facts wrong.
Of course scientific assertions are always open to correction. If there are facts I’m missing which support the “there is no obesity epidemic” side, I would love to hear them. But they will have to be facts that a published expert in the biochemistry of metabolism are likely not to have heard of.


  1. Pretty sure that if you gave a hyper obese person only lentils, brown rice, chicken, eggs, fish, nuts, fruit and green veges to eat, they would lose some serious weight. Assuming that's all they'ed be eating. Even if they eat as much as they like. To me that's not an unattractive diet. Actually it's pretty much what I eat and I eat as much as I like. Now I weigh 10 kilos less than when I ate all manner of junk food (maintained for the last 10 years). And I exercise less than I used to, sleep better and have more energy. I don't see what's so bad about that.

    1. That might be true (the science doesn't actually seem to be as intuitive as you'd think) but no-one's proposing giving people access to better food (especially not for free as your example implies). Instead we are given TV programmes where the entire premise is "shout aggressively at fatties for half an hour" and people who dare to suggest that being fat might not be the monstrous sin it's painted as get targeted by Cameron Slater (ironically enough).

  2. When I was in high school, I sat through a guest lecture assembly. Some bright spark professor from a university showed up to tell myself and my fellow classmates how fat people are dirty, lazy, and a bunch of other not awesome statements.

    I sat through this as one of five people in that room with about 500 people in it who had a weight problem.

    Those were some fun times! NOT! :(

    I do not know if it was that lecture or just something in me got sick of the bullying but over the next 12 months I lost all of that extra weight I had been carrying. I was a size 8 for the first time ever!

    And guess what? People still treated me exactly the same as they had when I was overweight. :(

    Then, the deputy principal of the school - the one responsible for all the punishments and detentions - died. People at school were *gleeful* about it. I was utterly disgusted.

    I transferred to another school for my last year and it was a fairly ground breaking school in my state - a campus where adults and "school" students were in the same classes. It was the best thing I could have done, and it was the best year I ever had at school.

    It is not just the overweight - people are awful to anyone who is different. :(

  3. >It is not just the overweight - people are awful to anyone who is different. :(

    Amen. Why make this political with "fat shaming," "slut shaming," and all the other taxonomies of shaming? The only reason that I can see for labeling like this is that it forestalls debate and criticism. Why not just _not shame people_? Do we really need a label for fat shaming so that people will realize that they're being bullies? Must we have a label for every fine grade of crappy behavior? It is not "fat shaming" or being an apologist for fat shaming to open an honest debate about obesity, as you have done here.

    It is harder for some people to lose weight, for many reasons. A major one is socioeconomic. Eating healthy can be time-consuming and expensive. Exercise is time-consuming. "Just fifteen minutes a day" is disingenuous, because you're going to sweat. You need to get dressed, to take a shower, to change clothes. You have to do more laundry, pay for more water.

    With genetic and existential factors weighing -- sorry -- against them, it's not practical for some people to maintain a healthy weight. We should promote the social policies that make it practical.