So wait – the headline says that one in five cancer deaths (not just cases of cancer, but cancer deaths) is CAUSED by having a weight in pounds times 703 divided by height in inches squared that is equal to or greater than 30. But the subhealine is that one cancer “expert” at a conference warned that heavier people are at a higher risk?
What the researcher actually said was ““The average weight of our citizens is increasing dramatically. We’ve really got a critical mass of evidence where we see this relationship: the heavier people are more at risk [for cancer]” The suggestion that we can go from “heavier people are more at risk for cancer” to “one in five cancer deaths is caused by obesity” is not just embarrassingly bad reporting, it’s dangerously bad reporting susceptible to the common issues that we see in research about health and body size.
And it’s not surprising given the combination of society’s willingness to believe anything bad being connected to being fat, the media’s ravenous appetite for anything to do with fat people, health, and/or weight loss, and the lack of scientific literacy (combined with dramatic laziness) of many reporters.
To demonstrate this dangerous relationship, John Bohannon created a study (in exactly the same way that many of the studies around weightloss, and linking fat people and health issues are created) that showed that people who followed a low carb diet and ate a 1.5 ounce dark chocolate bar every day lost weight 10 percent faster and had better cholesterol readings and higher scores on the well-being survey than those who just did low carb or those in a control group. The study included 15 people and was done over 21 days.
The researchers involved (who included a General Practitioner, PhD in Molecular Biology, and Financial Analyst) said the following things:
- Our study was doomed by the tiny number of subjects, which amplifies the effects of uncontrolled factors
- When asked why they chose to test bitter chocolate the GP who ran the trial said it was because of people’s beliefs around food “Bitter chocolate tastes bad, therefore it must be good for you, It’s like a religion.”
- You might as well read tea leaves as try to interpret our results
They utilized one of the many journals that accepts money in lieu of peer review and will publish anything (the journal editor pronounced the manuscript “outstanding” and said that for 600 Euros “it “could be accepted directly in our premier journal.” and published it within two weeks of accepting payment without changing a word.) Once published in a sciencey-sounding journal they set about getting press. And what amazing press they got, according to Bohannon:
We landed big fish before we even knew they were biting. Bild [Europe’s largest daily newspaper] rushed their story out—“Those who eat chocolate stay slim!”—without contacting me at all. Soon we were in the Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, Cosmopolitan’s German website, the Times of India, both the German and Indian site of the Huffington Post, and even television news in Texas and an Australian morning talk show.
When reporters contacted me at all, they asked perfunctory questions. “Why do you think chocolate accelerates weight loss? Do you have any advice for our readers?” Almost no one asked how many subjects we tested, and no one reported that number. Not a single reporter seems to have contacted an outside researcher. None is quoted.
These publications, though many command large audiences, are not exactly paragons of journalistic virtue. So it’s not surprising that they would simply grab a bit of digital chum for the headline, harvest the pageviews, and move on. But even the supposedly rigorous outlets that picked the study up failed to spot the holes.
Shape magazine’s reporting on our study—turn to page 128 in the June issue—employed the services of a fact-checker, but it was just as lackadaisical. All the checker did was run a couple of sentences by me for accuracy and check the spelling of my name. The coverage went so far as to specify the appropriate cocoa content for weight-loss-inducing chocolate (81 percent) and even mentioned two specific brands (“available in grocery stores and at amazon.com”).
Some dodged the bullet. A reporter from Men’s Health interviewed me by email, asking the same sort of non-probing questions. She said that the story was slated for their September issue, so we’ll never know.
So, it may be helpful to remember that the news that gets to us about weight and health faces the following challenges to being remotely true:
- Scientists creating small studies to help form hypotheses, the results of which get reported as if they are large scale studies and as if the results are absolute truth.
- Scientists creating studies to get the results that they want
- Industries that profit from the results of research and the accompanying headlines funding and creating the press releases about that research
- The confirmation bias fueled by fat bigotry encouraged by the government and found at every level of society
- “Scientific” Journals that will publish anything for money
- “Scientific” journals that have a lowered threshold for evidence when it comes to weight and health
- Reporters who don’t read the studies Ior even the abstracts of the studies) they are reporting on
- Reporters who lack the scientific literacy to understand the studies if they did read them, especially studies that are manipulated by researches/corporations for profit
- The need to draw eyeballs superseding the need for accuracy in headlines (as evidenced by The Guardian article that I opened the blog talking about.)
That’s a few of the ways that the news that comes to us can be very wrong, there are more (and feel free to leave them in the comments if you have some.) Regardless, news in general – and especially when it comes to body size and health – is always reader beware.
The quotes about the chocolate experience are from a truly excellent article that I definitely recommend reading in its entirely
Like the blog? More Cool Stuff!
Book and Dance Class Sale! I’m on a journey to complete anIRONMAN triathlon, and I’m having a sale on all my books, DVDs, and digital downloads to help pay for it. You get books and dance classes, I get spandex clothes and bike parts. Everybody wins! If you want, you can check it out here!
Like my work? Want to help me keep doing it? Become a Member! For ten bucks a month you can support size diversity activism, help keep the blog ad free, and get deals from size positive businesses as a thank you. Click here for details
Book Me! I’d love to speak to your organization. You can get more information on topics, previous engagements and reviews here or just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org!
I’m training for an IRONMAN! You can follow my journey atwww.IronFat.com
A movie about my time as a dancer is in active development, you can follow the progress on Facebook!