Chucks on the Wall of the Red Line

A Bright Red Line Between Research and Proving a Point

We occupy an interesting dwelling place at the intersection of advocacy and science. By doing so, we have the gift of constant reminders to pay attention to a bright red line. That line marks the very important distinction between doing research and proving a point. Too often in obesity and nutrition, we have lost sight of it. And when we do, we wander into dangerous territory.

Four decades of little success with obesity prevention provide a case in point. Interventions urging people to eat less and move more have been omnipresent through these four decades. Perhaps they’ve had some effect. But they clearly have not had the effect of slowing the rise of obesity prevalence. Not a bit.

So You Want to Study Obesity?

A remarkable scientist and dean of public health at Indiana University, David Allison, has some advice for folks who aspire to study obesity:

The first thing that I would hope every student would do is to take a long, hard look in the mirror and look themselves in the eye and ask: Am I in this to actually collect data and learn something? Or just to advance an idea that I’ve already decided is true?

He urges them to make an unwavering commitment to test ideas, not just promote ideas.

Enough of Dogma

This advice gets to the root of the problem of bias in obesity. We encounter many people have a commitment to cherished dogmas that don’t line up with facts. And they won’t let it go. In the midst of Obesity Care Week, we saw this from HAES advocates, insisting that “there’s no evidence higher weight causes health problems.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we see WHO promoting the idea that breastfeeding is a great way to prevent obesity. Breastfeeding has many benefits. Obesity prevention isn’t one of them.

Bias is a way of avoiding a full perspective on scientific truth. From such bias about obesity and nutrition comes bias directed at people with obesity. Thus we have a doctor using an influential newspaper to promote his idea that people with obesity shouldn’t feel good about themselves – that it stops them from saving their own lives. His claim is utterly, factually false. Self-stigma causes great harm. But that doctor’s bias allows him to ignore the facts.

The antidote to all of this is objectivity and scientific curiosity. It’s all about looking for the truth, rather than proving a point. If you want some excellent perspective on this, we highly recommend this podcast, featuring Dean Allison.

Chucks on the Wall of the Red Line, photograph © Alfonsina Blyde / flickr

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March 8, 2020