Mo'Nique at the 2010 HRC National Dinner

An Accidental Infographic on Bias and Stereotyping

So…this happened. The Journal of Internal Medicine published an open-source article on race and obesity. In doing so, the journal paired it with an infographic incorporating a racial stereotype, apparently lifted from a movie. Furthermore, the imagery depicted a diet of honey, soda, and cupcakes. Our primary conclusion is that the journal has published an accidental infographic on bias and stereotyping.

Altimetric tells us the infographic is a real attention grabber. In fact, the article is scoring in the top five percent of all the research. But that’s because twitterers are clearly unhappy with this piece of work. This is not the kind of attention that anyone should seek.

Missing the Point

Of course, some people don’t get it. A cardiothoracic surgeon (@ifixhearts) who’s a low-carb/keto/carnivore/intermittent fasting fan asks, what are you objecting to? He sees an opportunity for low-carb “interventions” for people of this sort. “Hopefully…they will respond better,” he tweeted.

When you get right down to it, stereotyping is a lousy way to make sense of the world. Combine a racial stereotype with a fat-phobic stereotype and you get an especially toxic result. It poisons the human mind and vaporizes objectivity. When people get hopping mad, reason and scientific discourse flee. Responses to this imagery are mostly profane and indignant. Twitter tells us the authors of this paper don’t approve of the infographic and have requested its removal.

The journal clearly screwed up.

Learning from Mistakes

Perhaps one of the most enlightening responses to this accidental lesson on bias and stereotyping came from Briana Ruíz Christophers:

We literally just wrote (and many others have written) that using race as a proxy for genetics is dangerous *sigh*

#MedEd perpetuates institutionalized #racism by encouraging trainees to develop heuristics that
may perpetuate the very social inequities we should be working to address.

Implicit bias has a firm grip on us. Whether the bias is about race or size, it doesn’t matter. This misadventure reminds us that it can be both. But it hurts every one of us.

Click here for the paper that sparked all of this and here for the paper by Christophers on how medical education portrays race.

Mo’Nique at the 2010 HRC National Dinner, photograph © David / flickr

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May 9, 2020

2 Responses to “An Accidental Infographic on Bias and Stereotyping”

  1. May 09, 2020 at 6:55 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thank you, Ted, for featuring this learning* opportunity.

    And for a timely and similar situation around nicotine, see this tweet from Prof Cris Delnevo of Rutgers regarding the cover of the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health:

    While the cover is, ahem, problematic, the content of the Experimental Forum inside is a welcome collection of a wide range of viewpoints–including at least some that align with my priors!


    My employer, PinneyAssociates, provides consulting services on tobacco harm minimization on an exclusive basis to JUUL Labs, Inc., a manufacturer of nicotine vaping products. I also own an interest in an improved nicotine gum that has neither been developed nor commercialized.

    *if learning means that we remember that we are all humans, together.

  2. May 11, 2020 at 8:41 pm, Ted said:

    Update May 11, 2020:
    It looks like the journal has now removed the graphical abstract.