Explaining Cherry-Picked Childhood Obesity Statistics
A new analysis in Pediatrics puts forward a mighty attempt to explain some cherry-picked childhood obesity statistics. Yet the analysis shows that changes in risk factors for obesity, like eating behaviors and physical activity, cannot explain a supposed drop in early childhood obesity.
Beginning with a report in 2014, the folks who are working to reduce childhood obesity have been touting some selected NHANES statistics as evidence that their efforts are effective. The cherry-picking comes from selecting two points in the time series graphed on the right – the high point in 2003/2004 and the lowest point after that, 2011/2012. By excluding other points in the time series, fantastic claims of a decline in obesity rates among young children are possible. It’s a drop from 13% to 8%.
But when all of the data in the series is considered, as in a recent study by Asheley Skinner and colleages, “there is no evidence of a decline in obesity prevalence in any age group.”
In an effort to understand the changes observed between 2003 and 2012, Ashley Kranjac and Robert Wagmiller applied regression decomposition techniques to try to make sense of the numbers. Kranjac commented on her findings, saying:
Even though maternal and child health behaviors changed in important ways, none of these changes contributed to the decline in obesity overall or for boys or girls.”
Buried in their paper is a key explanation:
Moreover, the weak impact that well-established predictors of childhood obesity had on change in the obesity rate over this period indicates that the decline in obesity may, at least in part, be a consequence of sampling error or random fluctuation in the obesity rate over time.
In other words, this drop that has been so widely touted doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny precisely because it comes from two points plucked out of a data series that can randomly jump up or down from time to time. To get at the truth, you have to look at all the data. You also have to understand that the trend is still emerging.
Unfortunately, the story of impressive declines in childhood obesity statistics is so appealing that it continues to be repeated as if it were true.
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” – Winston Churchill
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May 24, 2016