Portrait of Diego Rivera

Fishing for Associations, Promoting Weight Stigma

The human impulse for bigotry is strong. Lifestyle Medicine, an open access journal, offered up a potent illustration of this yesterday. The journal published a dubious study of a weak association between a poor measure of intelligence and obesity. It’s hard to know why, but scientific merit doesn’t explain it. Nor can any excuse justify promoting weight stigma with a noxious stereotype.

Health psychologist Kiran Bains summed up the problems with such research succinctly:

“This is problematic because it is a misdirection and loaded with stigma. Reminds me of research done on race and IQ which has been used to justify racism in psychology. We don’t need more of this kind of thing.”

Lessons from the Sordid History of Scientific Bigotry

Sarah Zinn is a candidate for a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago. But in her spare time, she won the 2020 Neuroethics Essay Contest of the International Youth Neuroscience Association. Her topic was obesity, cognition, and society. She gave voice to ethical warnings from the sordid history of eugenics and scientific racism.

The editors of Lifestyle Medicine should take the time to read her paper. She explains:

“Powerful ethical lessons from science’s history argue that special care, attention to detail, and counterinduction (Feyerabend, 1975) are essential when conducting and interpreting stereotype-confirming research on obesity, neurocognition, and intelligence – care which is vital both for the ethical conduct of science and for the objective pursuit of knowledge.”

Problems with Intelligence Measures

IQ tests spark controversy for good reasons. They have a history of misuse. In fact, the discredited eugenics movement used them to marginalize people as feeble minded, idiots, and imbeciles. These tests became a tool for denying people their human rights and dignity. Many poor people and people of color endured coerced sterilization as a result.

This is an ugly bit of history. Unethical American policies became a model for atrocities later committed by Nazi Germany.

The specific test used in this particular study, the NART, is not even a very good measure of intelligence. In fact, it is a reading test. The authors of this study admit it, saying that it may have biased their results. It provides “poor estimates of individual IQs” in many cases.

A Serious Lapse in Ethics

The purpose of a scientific journal is to enhance knowledge. But weak science about correlations and stereotypes does just the opposite. It fosters bias and undermines objectivity. Thus we can see no merit in this publication. Only a serious ethical lapse.

The journal should correct its error. It has no business promoting weight stigma.

Click here for the publication and here for further perspective.

Portrait of Diego Rivera, painting by Amedeo Modigliani / WikiArt

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October 21, 2020

2 Responses to “Fishing for Associations, Promoting Weight Stigma”

  1. October 21, 2020 at 11:05 am, John DiTraglia said:

    A la that notorious book “the bell curve.”
    Let’s stipulate that some day some evidence of some tiny difference in intelligence could be found for some subgroup of humans. What would that mean? Absolutely nothing. There are still going to be some people in that group that are smarter than some people in the rest. It would make no difference in how those people should be valued or how much society should invest in them.
    Don’t ever do a study like that and don’t ever put any stock in the findings of anyone who does.

  2. October 21, 2020 at 11:34 am, Ted said:

    Amen, John. In addition, it gives me reason to wonder about the quality of any journal that would publish such an awful study.