Off with Their Head

The Loudest Voices Inform the Least on Obesity

Hello darkness, my old friend. Welcome to the sound of silence. Social networks, conceived to connect and inform us, have evolved in a way to polarize and misinform us. Loud voices dominate public narratives on a wide range of subjects and leave us little room for the development of well-informed and nuanced views. Certainly we see this happening in dialogue about eating behaviors, body image, and obesity, where the loudest voices inform the least.

Loud Extremes and Silence in the Middle

Tess Winston, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, describes this phenomenon playing out at an elite academic institution where the thoughtful exchange of diverse perspectives is essential for learning. But it’s not happening. Because at the extremes of left and right political views, small numbers of students stigmatize and intimidate people in the middle. She writes that although the far right students are “a small and unpopular camp … their words and actions have an outsize effect.”

Loud voices at the other extreme come from a somewhat larger, but still small group, she says:

“The far-left students have a dismissive shorthand for fellow students whose politics they consider not sufficiently progressive: future prosecutors. The message is loud and clear – prosecutors are the bad guys. But also: Be careful what you say.”

The result is simple. Expressing nuance is taboo. Unless you want ostracism.

Polarizing Views of Eating Behaviors, Body Image, and Obesity

It should be plain to everyone that eating behaviors, body image, and obesity are all important for personal health and public health. Science is advancing to give us better options for dealing with these complex and nuanced subjects.

And yet, our polarized culture is driving nuance out of discourse about all of these subjects. Replicating the scenario at Stanford Law, a professor of psychology declares:

“I usually love the Eating Disorder Research Society and they have very high quality science.

“But I absolutely cannot continue to support an eating disorder society asking for work on the treatment of ob*sity.”

This is her response to the suggestion of a symposium on a theme of “evidence-based advances in treatment and prevention of eating disorders and obesity.” The message is clear. Utter the word obesity and you risk ostracism.

Similar small clusters of intolerant voices shout down suggestions that obesity is a problem of physiology and not gluttonous behavior – check with Bill Maher on this one. Then there are voices in public health ridiculing suggestions that catastrophizing obesity goes too far.

Bubbles of Like-Minded People

Living in a bubble of like-minded people can be dull, but comforting. Social media and fragmented publication environments make this very easy. But it also fuels the spread of misinformation and drives further polarization. Economists Marina Azzimonti and Marcos Fernandes describe some of this in their recent paper. Libby Jenke also suggests that affective polarization leads people to believe misinformation and that education alone may not be adequate to overcome it.

Clearly, we need to work harder at having nuanced conversations. If we allow small clusters of the loudest, angriest voices to shut down civil discourse about eating behaviors, body image, and obesity, then shame on us. Progress will become even more difficult.

Click here for the essay by Winston, here for the paper by Azzimonti and Fernandes, and here for the paper by Jenke.

The Queen Never Stopped Quarreling and Shouting “Off with Their Head,” illustration by Arthur Rackham / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


April 9, 2023