Spinning a Web

Spinning for a Noble Purpose Defeats the Purpose

“We know what to do to reduce obesity,” says public health professor Simon Chapman. It’s a common sentiment. But data don’t always line up with that sentiment. When that happens, spinning the data – putting negative results in a positive light – becomes tempting.

The PR team at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health provides a new case in point.

Testing Obesity Prevention in Two Low-Income Communities

The Massachusetts Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration project is ambitious. The goal is to reduce childhood obesity prevalence through improved health behaviors. A new study presents results from two low-income communities receiving the program. Nine matched communities with no intervention provided the control group. Rebecca Frankel and colleagues published their results in Obesity.

No Improvement vs Controls

The results of the primary analysis were clearly disappointing:

Overall, we did not observe a significant decrease in the percent of students with obesity from baseline to post intervention in either community in comparison with controls.

With a bit of digging through the data, the investigators found some reason for hope. Kids drank less of sugary beverages. Seventh graders in one of the test communities saw a drop in obesity. But it didn’t happen in the other community. And it didn’t happen in other grades.

Spinning the Results

Faced with results from an important study that didn’t meet expectations, the spinning began. No overall effect became an “association with a modest reduction” in the study abstract.

That was all the PR folks needed to issue a press release that exclaimed:

Community-Wide Effort to Fight Childhood Obesity Shows Promise

From no overall effect to promising results is a big leap.

But the real problem here is the supposition behind it all – that “we know what to do to reduce obesity.” At best, it’s an unproven string of hypotheses. At worst, it’s self deception. Such deception can distract from more ambitious research to devise more potent ways to prevent obesity.

Hype is hype. Spinning for the noble cause of reducing childhood obesity defeats the purpose. It obscures the facts and the true nature of the challenge.

Click here for the press release and here for the study.

Spinning a Web, photograph © Steve Byrne / flickr

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July 10, 2017

5 Responses to “Spinning for a Noble Purpose Defeats the Purpose”

  1. July 10, 2017 at 7:36 am, Gail Kaye said:

    Conducting community based studies is extraordinarily challenging. What is a modest association can be a ‘big deal’ particularly when looking at the impact for larger numbers. I’ve been concerned about what I believe to be a metabolic bias that seems to be implicit in your posts. While metabolism is a piece of it, it’s not everything. I believe we have a pretty good idea of how to curb childhood (& adult) obesity. However, the challenge is in practical implementation within a social context that does not foster needed changes in the sociopolitical arena. An easy default is ‘find a pill that will alter metabolism’ vs ‘change policies for the betterment of the community.’ Please be careful not to create your own spin to create news. As you point out, it defeats the purpose.

    • July 10, 2017 at 8:04 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Gail, for sharing your view. “A pretty good idea,” if it’s not backed by real evidence that it works, is not good enough.

      I favor any intervention that can be shown to really work. We need effective prevention options. We need effective treatment options. But all we have right now are options with modest effects (dietary & pharmacologic treatments, community-based prevention), or surgery, which is very effective, but very daunting to most people. Presenting these facts is the very opposite of spin. It’s candor.

      We can do better on all fronts. And we must.

      And finally, regarding bias, every one of us harbors bias. I certainly do. But I am especially suspicious of people who claim to have none.

      Again, thank you for taking time to share your views.

  2. July 10, 2017 at 6:59 pm, Michael said:

    Just bearing down on the science a little… Isn’t there good epigenetic evidence that a) obesity in parents increases the offspring’s lifelong predisposition to obesity and b) weight loss by parents before conception decreases this predisposition? If we want to lower the prevalence of childhood obesity, shouldn’t all parents with obesity be made aware of this significant hazard they are imparting and given every support to sustainably lower their weight prior to conception? Are we afraid of being criticized for putting (more) blame onto parents?

    • July 10, 2017 at 7:45 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Michael, for your perspective.

      In my experience and in the data on weight bias, it’s clear that people already feel the burden of plenty of blame and guilt. What’s lacking is access to interventions that will truly give people a shot at beating obesity. The options we have are only modestly effective, with the notable exception of bariatric surgery. And on top of those intrinsic limitations, we add limitations limits to accessing care.

      So, I agree that we need to give prospective parents access to effective obesity care as you’ve suggested. I also think we need to be careful about adding to the burden of blame and guilt. It prevents people from taking action.

  3. July 19, 2017 at 8:01 pm, Greg said:

    Bravo ConscienHealth: We are all for policies that work, but the fact is that we really don’t have an intervention that produces consistent, sustainable weight loss. Any diet that creates an energy deficit will generally work over the short term. Exercise interventions require considerable effort to control compensatory eating (and increased sedentary time with high level exercise programming), pills will work as long as you take them and are willing to deal with side effects and cost, and surgery works pretty well over the short term, but with rebounding weight gain over the long term. This paper is just another example of poor scientific rigor and “white hat bias”. Is it any wonder that so many confused people just decide to quit trying to control their weight? And that is the real shame of it!