Poison Apple

Picking Your Poison: Bias in Public Policy for Obesity

How much evidence is necessary for enacting sound public policy for obesity? Yesterday at EB2017, the Obesity Research Interest Section of ASN brought together diverging views on that fundamental question. An economist and a public health professor warned about two different biases. Either of them can poison policies intended to improve public health.

Bias for Action

Professor Michael Marlow of Cal Poly brought the caution of an economist to warn about the unintended consequences of a bias for action. As a case study, Marlow took a look at the probability that food labeling will nudge consumers toward behaviors that produce better health.

Fanciful assumptions suggest that nutrition labeling will lead people to make better decisions that improve their health, he said. But the harsh reality is quite different. Modeling the likelihood of nudges translating into a chain of behaviors, he found little chance for success. It might be a high as 6%. it might be as low as 0.01%.

In the end, he said, much work remains. A bias for action can lead to well-intentioned, but ill-advised policies.

Bias for Self Interest

Professor Laura Schmidt warned about the bias of self interest. Starting with the statement that she has no conflicts of interest, she described the standards of evidence that can inform health policy making. But she warned that industry-funded research can introduce a large bias into the evidence base. She did not discuss the biases that other sources of research funding can introduce.

Unfortunately, we have to pick our poisons. Schmidt described good practices and standards for translating evidence into policies. But biases will inevitably guide the process. Or you might call them values.

The only mistake would be to think that people and policies can be free of bias.

Click here for more from Marlow on the gap between assumptions and reality in policymaking. Here you can find more from Schmidt on translating evidence into health policy.

Thanks to Professors Marlow and Schmidt for sharing their slides and to Professor Emily Dhurandhar for contributing to this report.

Poison Apple, photograph © SamahR / flickr

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April 24, 2017