Fat Black Swans

So there’s this thing called “Inductive Reasoning”.  It very basically means that you make future predictions based on your past observations.  So, I observe my neighbor walking his dog every Wednesday morning at 7am,  so I assume that next Wednesday he will walking that poodle.

I’ll bet that without trying very hard you can figure out the problem with using this as a basis for making predictions.  It doesn’t matter how many Wednesdays in a row that I am awakened by the yappy little dog, it is absolutely no guarantee that I won’t be able to sleep in next Wednesday.

Mid-18th century philosopher David Hume put it very gracefully:  “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”

Knowing this massive weakness, the argument for the continued use of inductive reasoning is that it corrects itself overtime as we add new observations and study new phenomenon, thus bringing us closer to the truth.

So, if a scientist observes the first black swan, she starts to question all of her assumptions and conclusions about swans and she begins to ask questions:  Why are they black? How many are there? Is it possible that they actually outnumber the white swans? Can we turn the black swans white? Can we turn white swans black? and on and on.

This is important to me, you see, because I am a black swan.

The conclusion that fat is unhealthy is, at best,  inductive in nature.  Studies show unhealthy fat people, no causality can be found, but based on observation, scientists conclude that fat is unhealthy, thereby making unhealthy fat people white swans.

And yet there are perfectly healthy fat people.  Like me.  Black Swan – right over here.

So, since we’ve known about the problem of inductive reasoning since at least the mid 1700’s, upon hearing that there were healthy fat people, of course all of the doctors and scientists immediately stopped making broad-based assumptions about health and weight and started studying these healthy fat people to see where they had gone wrong in their assumptions.

Or not.

Apparently to modern science, that’s just crazy talk.  Rather than question assumptions about weight and health because those assumptions have been proven untrue in many cases, modern scientists found a loophole in the fact that all humans die.  So just say that all fat people will be unhealthy someday (you gotta love a good VFHT) and keep promoting the OMGDeathFatIsComingForUsWontSomebodyThinkOfTheChildren mess.

Why this happens  is a subject for another blog (Sixty Billion Dollar a Year Diet Industry I’m Looking at You), but what is important to know here is that people who want to run around telling us that they know for sure that fat is unhealthy are wrong based on concepts that have been clear for over 300 years.

I personally believe that if we want to stop the ridiculous obesity health panic that is used to justify a culture of fat  hate,  it’s time to call it what it is:  embarrassingly bad pseudo-science.

14 thoughts on “Fat Black Swans

  1. I personally believe that if we want to stop the ridiculous obesity health panic that is used to justify a culture of fat hate, it’s time to call it what it is: embarrassingly bad pseudo-science.

    I’m so glad you’ve written this post because I’ve been surprised at the way many FA mavens who behave as if it is science (merely because folks decided to pretend it is) and debunk that using analysis.

    Because of course, that’s why people decide to hate people who’ve done nothing to them, science forces them.

    I suppose it could be an idea that if you tear it down using rational means, you’ll force people to confront what they’re avoiding-their own unwarranted hatred-ergo their self imagine of themselves as people of reason will win out.

    The problem is this fake science is as boring as hell, it goes nowhere is predictable and often obscures and lets go far more interesting lines of thought. A lot I’ve seen is going backwards, there was a point before this crisis gathered when there was honest study, now the fakery has obscured that and it is difficult to find and is dismissed as old fashioned.

    If you use science to build your case, its cherry picking, if you use papers to illustrate which disagree with your conclusions, you are dismissed for that.

    Or ignored.

    And above all, you support their premise of a rational basis of hate, which is illegitimate. You make their unreason more worthy of your time than your reason is of theirs.

    I find it hard not to resent trawling through the brain effluent of the privileged few who get to make a parody out of science in this way, when so many people I’ve known who if they had got the opportunity would do it with honour and intelligence. It makes me feel sad.

    I wouldn’t use a lot ‘obesity science/research’ to judge the proper stuff although the fact it has not been called out by other science professionals has been giving me increasing pause for thought over the years.

  2. The idea that “fat == unhealthy” has become a sort of cultural axiom, something impossible to argue with, to the point where if a fat person proclaims their health they are called a liar.

    I get the feeling there are plenty of us black swans around, living under the shadow of the VFHT.

    1. I would wear that t-shirt. Can someone with more talent than me design it and send it into threadless.com please??

  3. So I have some thoughts I’ve always wanted your perspective on, and just in case it needs to be said I 100% mean this in the respectful debate sense and not as any kind of attack, and I only hope I can convey it that way.

    I fully support the idea of being a “fathlete” (that’s my new favorite word!) since I am one myself, as a martial artist (I do probably 12 hours of Kung Fu a week on top of my normal boring desk job). But I know the reason I’m overweight is because I don’t view food as just food. I overeat as a coping mechanism because when I was a kid I couldn’t drink my problems away so I ate them away (ha, kidding about the drinking). I don’t think this behavior is okay, any more than it would be if I turned to heroin, because it’s a coping mechanism that lets me bury problems rather than face them.

    I know you’ve harshed on the Biggest Loser, and while I do feel that show has issues, the one thing I notice is that those people seem to have just given up on life. I don’t think it’s ok to hide away from the world, buried in food, going from work to home to pizza box, and it seems like that’s the way a lot of those contestants live. There’s a line in a song I heard the other day that goes “Everybody dies but not everybody lives.” When I was gaining weight, I definitely wasn’t living; before I found Kung Fu I was depressed and doing nothing but eating and watching tv.

    So if overeating is (sometimes) a symptom of depression, then isn’t it worthwhile to stop the overeating as part of the treatment? Isn’t overeating usually a symptom that something else is wrong?

    Now I fully recognize that this is my experience and that not everyone has the same – but by the same token, I’d say that my experience is not particularly unusual in terms of weight gain/depression.

    Anyway I’m really interested in your perspective and I hope none of this came off as being douchey as that’s really not what I intended. 🙂

    1. <blockquote cite="Now I fully recognize that this is my experience and that not everyone has the same – but by the same token, I’d say that my experience is not particularly unusual in terms of weight gain/depression.”>

      No, not everyone’s experience is the same. Yes, if someone has a body type that has the tendency to hold onto weight and they eat emotionally to cope with stress, say from depression, they can gain weight. That is not the only way to gain weight however, and no assumptions should ever be made about someone’s circumstances for gaining weight. Also note that the people on Biggest loser are specifically chosen for the fact that their stories fall into the national stereotype; it makes for better T.V. if it doesn’t challenge people’s already bigoted views.

      Also, if someone is using food to treat their depression, the first thing that needs to be treated is their depression, not their over eating. When someone’s self worth has been dragged down, which often happens to fat people because of public shaming, they do not want to take care of themselves. When the depression is treated, people can find self worth and find comfort in things other than food and return to a more healthy relationship with it.

      I am also of the belief that making an analogy between heroin and food to be problematic at best. Heroin is addictive because it hijacks natural pathways in our brains that are designed to give us pleasure and comfort in food (and sex.) The natural system is there to ensure that we continue to eat and procreate; once hijacked by heroin, the only drive is to obtain and use more heroin. Thus, if you receive pleasure or comfort in food, it is actually a natural thing to have happen and should be celebrated.If it becomes the sole focus of your life, then you have a behavioral problem which needs to be modified, but in no way do you have an addiction. Addiction implies that the cure can be found in abstinence; no one can abstain from food.

      It sounds to me that you may have some lingering behavioral problems that you learned as a coping mechanism for a stressor in your life, and are now learning new coping mechanisms and growing as a person beyond that point. Great! But don’t be hard on your younger self. You were surviving a hard time, and you didn’t take health damaging drugs, you were just coping the only way you knew how at the time. You know better now and are working past those behaviors, but judging your former self and dragging that person down is still dragging yourself down.

      I would like you to look at this website,http://www.haescommunity.org/, and look and see if they can help you in your recovery from emotional eating. It might be of great service to you.


      1. Speaking specifically in regards to food addiction, I believe you make an excellent point, but there are a couple things. First of all, the modern diet is littered with chemicals designed to alter brain chemistry and compel you to eat more. McDonalds spends millions on research & development and it’s not on how to build a better McNugget. So if heroin is a chemical addiction then MSG can be too. Also, people with addictive personalities can be addicted to ANYTHING. I used to read a blog written by an alcoholic who quit booze and became an Ultra Runner (100k + races). She has said several times she feels like she traded addiction to alcohol for addiction to booze.

        I agree that if someone gains weight due to depression, it’s the depression that needs to be treated. And I know Reagan will yell at me for this :), but I think there’s a strong causation between losing weight & recovering from said depression in some cases. When someone uses food as a coping mechanism, it creates an association of food = emotion. So you eat when you’re happy, you eat when you’re sad, angry, bored, etc. I just don’t think that’s healthy for anything – drinking, eating, running, etc.

        Also, thanks for the kind words about coping. I’ll check out that website.

        1. Hi Kate,

          I would never yell at you, especially since you couched the phrase with an “I statement” and the use of “some cases” :). I would say that I don’t think it’s the weight loss that helps pull some people from depression, I think it’s the subsequent societal approval that thin people, especially those who have lost weight, receive. Again I go back to the fact that 95% of those people are likely to be fat again within 5 years, lose the societal approval, and be at a huge risk for going into a depression since they now have to deal with weight loss failure and the loss of the approval upon which they based their self-esteem and emotional health.


      2. Ok that part about the runner should have said addiction to RUNNING. Proofreading on an iPad is hard. 🙂

    2. You totally did not come off as douchey. Your experience is your own and I would never question it, but it is good to remember that we can’t extrapolate that experience to anyone else. To your question:

      You asked “Isn’t overeating usually a sign that something is wrong”. This is a longer question and I promise to do a post on it soon but the question I would ask is “what defines overeating”. If the only way that someone can maintain a BMI in the “desired” range is to eat an 800 calorie a day diet, and they refuse to do that are they overeaters? Is it really never ok to eat because you enjoy the taste of something, even if it’s nutritionally deficient. I think it’s a really tricky question.

      If disordered eating is a symptom of depression, I think that the course of treatment would be to treat the depression, and then see what happened with the disordered eating.

      As for Biggest Loser: I think it’s pretty hard to deny that there are huge social benefits to fitting into the stereotype that a culture values. So, if a culture values thinness, it is possible that becoming thin will help someone with their depression – especially if that depression stemmed from their near constant stigmatization by society. My first issue is that the Biggest Loser treats their contestants in a manner consistent with the definition of emotional abuse. My second issue is that intentional weight loss only has a 5% success rate. The rest of the people end up fat (again), possibly less healthy, and stigmatized within 5 years so I think that the worst thing we could possible do is tell that that weight loss is the secret to curing their depression.


  4. From my personal experiences with family and friends, I have to agree with Ragen. Several members of my family have undergone gastric bypass surgery for morbid obesity. I want to particularly discuss my mother on this one. She was severely depressed about how she did not fit into society’s standard of beauty, and also about how her own family treated her all of her life for being fat. Naturally, she assumed that losing weight would be the key to her happiness, so she underwent this surgery 25 years ago. If you think it is a dangerous surgery now, try doing it 25 years ago. Well, she lost weight, and is no longer considered “morbidly obese”, but guess what? She is still depressed. Putting aside the fact that having this totally altering surgery still could not make her body conform to society’s standard of approval AND the horrific life-long side effects that she now deals with on a daily basis thanks to the removal of most of her intestinal tract, she is still very depressed. What a way to find out that weight loss was NOT the key to her happiness.
    She is not alone, as I have heard anectodal evidence of several other people (both in my family and in the media at large) who have suffered from what they themselves call addiction transfer. Now, I am not speaking to the scientific merit of whether that is actually going on or not, but I will say that for my mother and my aunt, they altered themselves so harshly at the direct urging of their doctors, and the indirect societal backing of our culture, and they are just as unhappy as ever.
    Now I have my doctors telling me (and even my mother, believe it or not) to consider weight loss surgery. You couldn’t get me near that table if my life depended on it (which they all claim it does). I’d rather die fat and happy than thin, disfigured, and depressed.

  5. Okay, so I read this a couple of days ago, but wanted to wait to comment on it until I had time to sit down and write a proper response.
    As I’ve mentioned in other comments, I’m a professor of philosophy. But as a researcher, I actually specialize in epistemology and my primary research deals with this very problem – the problem of induction in special sciences.
    While I appreciate the point you were trying to make here, I think it’s problematic – for a number of reasons – and the primary one is that failure to understand to the nature of induction and what the problem of induction really is leads people to all kinds of bizarre and ultimately wrong conclusions about truth, reasoning, and (importantly) science.
    First, for anyone who’s interested in a thorough (but mildly technical) explanation of the problem posed by Hume, and its relation to contemporary philosophy of science, here it is: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/
    First, you define induction as “[making] future predictions based on your past observations.” This is an incorrect characterization of induction. Inductive inferences are inferences whereby you draw a universal conclusion from a set of non-universal facts. So the claim “All swans are white” is a universal claim: “For any swan, if it is a swan, it is white.” or “No non-white things are swans.” That’s different than a predictive claim, which is more qualified: “Based on past observation, I predict that future observed swans will be white.”
    This may seem like a pedantic difference, but it’s not. The Problem of Induction isn’t about the making of predictions per se, but about our believe in general and universal laws of nature. These are arguably two different things, related only by the fact that natural laws enable or license certain types of predictions. There are also divisions in kinds of induction: causal induction, statistical or enumerative inductions, inference to the best explanations, etc.
    The second problem is this: “Knowing this massive weakness, the argument for the continued use of inductive reasoning is that it corrects itself over time as we add new observations and study new phenomenon, thus bringing us closer to the truth.”
    That’s not actually correct. For a long time – actually between the logical writings of Aristotle all the way up to the time of David Hume – most logicians viewed inductive inference as specious and unjustified. They sought a way to reduce inductive inferences to truth-guaranteeing deductive inferences. Hume’s major contribution to epistemology was to say two really important things about inductive reasoning: first, that it simply cannot be reduced to deductive reasoning, however nice we think it would be to do so, and second, that inductive reasoning is ineliminable – it simply cannot be got rid of. We use inductive reasoning pretty much constantly – far more than we use truth-guaranteeing deductive reasoning. The fact that I drink a glass of tap water without testing it for poison, that I assume my car will start when I go to drive it, that I assume that I’m not dreaming right now as I write this, etc. etc. are all instances of inductive reasoning.
    So, the real Problem of Induction, according to Hume, is this: What licenses some inductive inferences, but not others? In other words, how can we tell the difference between a good inference and a bad one?
    You can’t argue for a “continued use” of induction because we can’t stop doing it. We cannot function without it – no person can go, for instance, a whole day without making an inductive inference. Assuming that I’m not dreaming right now, what the weather will be like, that the tap water will not kill me, that my office or desk at work will be where it was when I last left it, etc. are all inductive inferences. The only thing we can do with inductive inferences is figure out how to tell the difference between good ones and bad ones. You can’t live without them, so you need to figure out how to get rid of the bad ones, or, put alternately, become a better inductive reasoner.
    Fast forward a century or so. The rapid growth of scientific knowledge that occurs as we move through the 19th century and into the 20th century fascinates epistemologists. We are particularly keen on science because it is so damn successful! Something about the scientific methods allows us to discover all kinds of facts about the world, as evidenced by success in applying these principles to generate technological and medical advances. These advances occur extremely rapidly. And the scientific method does this despite the fact that it is based ENTIRELY on inductive reasoning, something that we haven’t really been able to sort out. (The processes of evidence gathering and statistical analysis are highly refined versions of inductive reasoning, called enumerative or statistic al induction.) So, Hume’s problem – how do we decide what inductions are good and what inductions are bad – remains unsolved on a philosophical front, but despite the total lack of understanding of the procedure, scientists have clearly figured out something, because they’ve got induction working really, really well. Scientists have become very good, on balance, and determining which inductive inferences are licensed and which aren’t.
    Contemporary philosophers of science (like me) have inherited this problem. What we are trying to do is figure out, essentially, how to solve Hume’s problem, by using science as our exploration field. We mine data from world of scientific practice – its methods, its history, its successes, and its failures – to try and figure out why some inductive methods work and others don’t, and to find a systematic account that explains what works and what doesn’t.
    So, let me shed some light on what I think is going here, epistemologically speaking. At the end of the day, I agree with you to some extent when you say that what is going here is “embarrassingly bad pseudo-science.” The question is why. And I think that, even though there is something bad going on here, there is a reason why that goes beyond merely (but does include) the facts people are cruel and biased, and that massive corporate financial interests are at work here.
    Nutrition and fitness science are relatively young players in the scientific world. I’d say that they are no older than 60 or 70 years, and maybe that’s even a generous estimate. If you look at the first 100-150 years of any science, you see a lot of embarrassingly bad stuff going on. That’s because those sciences have yet to work out their internal methods and standards of success. They’ve yet to sort out the fundamental concepts, the ontology (or what non-observable entities the science supposes exists), and separation between theoretical and observable. Psychology is the second most recent example, I think, with nutrition/fitness sciences coming after. Looking at early psychology – like Freud, for instance – some of the practices and theories that were taken seriously seem absolutely ludicrous to us. That’s because those early scientists were delving into unknown territory and trying to map it out and break up the blooming, buzzing confusion into a conceptual space that works. That takes time. Nutrition and fitness sciences are in this phase now, a phase philosophers of science call nascent science.
    As a nascent science, the nutrition and fitness sciences will face all kinds of obstacles. One of them is, certainly, the overwhelming fiduciary interests that influence both professional work and public opinion on the subject. Another is definitely the role of people’s entrenched attitudes, which probably result from those fiduciary interests.
    But there are other problems, too, that are maybe rendered invisible by the corporate interests you continually refer to on this blog. One of them is – something made quite clear by HAES and the entire online community surrounding it – is the fact that human psychological weakness colors the entire nascent scientific discipline. People get angry, blame, get hurt, and are deeply psychologically affected in all kinds of ways by what happens in these sciences, in a way perhaps that is totally idiosyncratic to this science. (Geology, for instance, is not as personally affecting.) That could seriously affect our ability to take this nascent science and make it into a real, grown-up science with good standards of evidence and allow us to develop a knowledge base that would actually help people be healthier, even if there were no major corporate interests involved.
    Only time will tell whether or not the sciences themselves will breach these obstacles. But I think it is unwise and inaccurate to suggest that the use of induction – even the erroneous use of it – renders a science “embarrassingly bad pseudoscience”, or that the early failures of a nascent science mean it should be tossed. In fact, historically a nascent science’s early failures are often crucial in establishing its later successes.
    Nascent sciences are characterized by a number of different features. One is the theoretical dominance of entrenched theories that often go beyond their evidential grounds. Another is the characteristic mistreatment of novel theories. Novel theories often take a good deal of work to get off the ground when a dominant theory is so entrenched, and especially when there are non-scientific interests involved. (Consider the cases of Copernicus or Galileo and the Catholic Church, for example.) So, to that extent, the present state of Health/Nutrition Sciences is not historically anomalous. In the aforementioned cases, for example, the continued push on Ptolemaic models despite the growing problems with the theory actually helped establish a Copernican model in the long run. It also means those non-scientific interests can be overcome, as long as there are thinkers willing to push against the dominant theories.
    But the minority theories face problems, too, and not just the problems of being politically unlikable. Each competing theory has its own set of internal problems. HAES, for example, has some issues that I really do think need to be tackled. I’m not saying that I think HAES is fundamentally wrong, but I do think, for example, there are data that are unexplained on the HAES theory – like, for example, why there seems to be an increase in average weight in the US population over the last 50 years that correlates with certain dietary changes, or why the introduction of certain food substances changes weight gain/loss in populations. And although you’ve offered some (good) speculations on why certain correlations exist between weight (the quotes are to indicate that I think this is concept that definitely stands in need of conceptual clarification) and other poor health indications (i.e., stress and stigmatization, negative health impacts of yo-yo dieting, etc.) and some (good) reasons to think that such correlations may not be exclusive to the higher end of the weight spectrum, those hypotheses – however plausible they are – are far from definitively proven in a scientific sense.
    Maybe here’s a good way to put it. While I think HAES is psychologically useful, and that pushing against the dominant OMGdeathfatz paradigm is a good start, and is obviously personally beneficial to lots and lots people who are deeply entrenched in bad ways of thinking and reasoning that are harmful to themselves and others, it’s not enough to show that there are conceptual problems in the nutrition/fitness sciences as is. To make a real scientific contribution, a positive argument (an argument for a particular scientific model) must be made alongside the negative argument (an argument against a particular scientific model).
    As a result , I think in particular those doctors who work on these issues and advocate this perspective need to do a lot of scientific work. Of course, this work takes time and it takes a lot of labor by early scientists to get research movement off the ground. We need to look to other successful sciences and find what methodological tools, concepts, and standards are useful and try to fit them in to speed the growth of a new scientific paradigm along.
    In effect, this is what it seems to me like HAES starts to do– it uses the standards espoused by other health sciences for statistical significance, evidence of bias, methods of proof, etc. and attempts to impose that on a body of research that is largely poor. Coming up with standards of good vs. bad research – or fruitful vs. not fruitful research – is I think a large part of what the HAES movement has to contribute. It also points out a conceptual conflation between, i.e., health/wellness and size. This is all important work of a nascent science, but it is – importantly – inductive and equally theoretical. HAES does make some conceptual assumptions that are not as yet justified by scientific research – because the research and conceptual tools are not yet there.
    This is true of any nascent science, and definitely true of early theories within a nascent science – they all make inductive inferences that are not necessarily licensed by the empirical evidence. For instance, your evidence – and much of the evidence available for HAES – is largely anecdotal. But those inferences – unlicensed though they might be – really have be taken in order for any scientific theory to move forward. When those assumptions, though, are not appropriately rejected, revised, or altered, we push the limits on what’s acceptable for even a nascent science. That, I think, is more accurately the problem with the OMGdeathfatz view. The initial assumptions for testing may have been acceptable – because you have to make some assumptions to test – but they haven’t been sufficiently revised in light of evidence.
    Anyway, that’s really a much, much longer discussion than I intended to write – and I’m not sure it even makes any sense. I’m curious about this, though, because I am using these kinds of examples a lot in my research about science and epistemology, so if you do happen to have thoughts, responses, or questions, feel free to toss them my way – and I’ll try to answer them. I’ve gotten so much knowledge about various aspects of HAES out of your blog that I feel compelled to return the favor, and hopefully contribute to the dialogue. 😉

    1. What an interesting response. It deserves a far more in depth one than I’ll give here tempting though that is.

      I’ll just stick to what you’ve identified as the heart of the matter.

      When those assumptions, though, are not appropriately rejected, revised, or altered, we push the limits on what’s acceptable for even a nascent science.

      That’s it in a nutshell obesity science will not allow itself to self correct and because of this is less like a science and more a parody of one.

      That may sound hugely emotive possibly insulting, but it isn’t. It’s like an aspect of scientism;

      ….whereby the study and methods of natural science have risen to the level of ideology.

      I’d replace ‘ideology’ with religion, similar happened with Freud, whose theories (hypotheses) were asserted to be scientific and assumed a quasi religious cultism until his theories were examined more closely by people like Jeffrey Masson.

      His theories were accepted and rejected as scientific in a relatively short space of time. Far shorter than obesity science which if young certainly most of its redundant hypotheses are not.

      But even that is an unfair comparison, because it’s pretty clear despite the emotiveness what the purpose of Freud and the use of his theories was.

      It’s very hard for anyone taking a clear hard look at ‘obesity science’ to figure out what it’s purpose is apart from continuing its own existence.

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