Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Obesity Contagion? Debunked Again.

Another critique recently came out of the now-famous (and infamously irritating) obesity-is-contagious study, which was all the rage in the media a few years ago. This research was published despite the common sense notion that homophily or the tendency for people to associate with people like themselves, was both a more obvious and rational explanation for why people in the social networks of fat people might also be fat. (For example, I share 90 friends with Marilyn Wann on Facebook--fat people and fat activist folks are literally my largest social network.) 

The first critique, in 2008, used the homophily argument. And there have been others. It seems there is a mass of work building which debunks the obesity-is-contagious silliness. The latest critique looks at the statistics and statistical models used by the the researchers. According to Indiana University Math Professor Russel Lyons':
"The problem is that their methods were deeply flawed from bottom to top: The models used to analyze the sparse data contradict the data and the conclusions, and the method used to estimate the dubious models does not apply," he said. "The statistical significance tests that were applied to the questionable estimates do not show the differences they have proposed."
There are a couple notable items in the article I link to above, which speak to the state of science and health research in particular. First, one of the obesity-is-contagious researchers had a profit motive:

"Christakis built on his research to form a company, MedNetworks, which proposes to help pharmaceutical companies get doctors to prescribe more of their drugs"
As if doctors didn't already have enough pressure from pharmaceutical companies on prescribing medicine. Maybe they should do a study on that sort of contagion

Second, Lyons' experience makes it clear that--although it's sometimes easy to publish crap research like the obesity-is-contagious study--publishing critiques of popular and widely celebrated research, if that research supports the status quo and the fat panic paradigm, can be quite difficult to publish. According to the article,

"Both of the leading, prestigious journals that published research by Christakis and Fowler -- the New England Journal of Medicine and BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) -- rejected Lyons' critique, the first declining to give a reason and the second saying the work would be better placed in a specialist journal. Rejections then came from three other leading journals on the grounds that they had not published the original research. A statistics review journal rejected Lyons' paper on the basis that the original research of Christakis and Fowler was itself not sufficiently important."
 What does Christakis have to say about it all? According to the New York Times article, he doesn't say he was wrong but skirts the issue by chalking it all up to the scientific process.

"“This is how science proceeds,” he said. “We came up with a fact that no one ever thought about before. We published our methods. We published our data. We said, ‘Look, we think this is important. You should help us figure out how to do this better.’ ”
He's not wrong, exactly. The point is to do science, duplicate it, test it, critique it, make it better and do it better. Though he kind of leaves out the critique part, and his words leave me with the sense that he thinks people should be helping him better prove obesity contagion rather than proving him wrong.

I'll leave you with a quote, which I think is apt:
"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." -Tolstoy

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Charles Horton Cooley on the Self, Oppression, and Inhumanity

Upon reviewing some fantastic Charles Horton Cooley this morning, I came across this gem:

The immigrant has for the most part been treated purely as a source of labor, with little or no regard to the fact that he* is a human being, with a self like the rest of us. There is nothing less to our credit than our neglect of the foreigner and his children, unless it be the arrogance most of us betray when we set out to "americanize" him.--Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, pg 262
I find it jarring that this is still so relevant and significant in 2011. I don't know if hatred of immigrants is at an all-time high as compared to earlier periods in our history, but it's certainly at a peak right now in the U.S. In a country that looks down other countries for human rights abuses, we often offer citizens of other countries no better treatment, if not worse. Somehow being an immigrant (or being perceived as one) means your human rights are stripped. Immigrant folks who aren't "americanized" enough stand out and are at risk for the greatest abuse. 

Cooley goes on, noting other groups of people treated as less than human:

The negro** question includes a similar situation. There is no understanding it without realizing the kind of self-feeling a race must have who, in a land where men* are supposed to be equal, find themselves marked with indelible inferiority. And so with many other classes; with offenders against the law, for example, whom we often turn into hardened criminals by a treatment which destroys their self-respect--or rather convinces them that their only chance of self-respect is in defiance of authority. The treatment of children, in and out of school, involves similar questions, and so of domestic workers, married women, and other sorts of people more or less subject to the arbitrary will of others.

Again, the relevance of this passage is striking, despite social progress of the last 100 years. Charles Horton Cooley, keeping it real since (at least) 1902.

*I must note, of course, Cooley's androcentric language. Using "he" and "man" as universal serves to render women (including the married women he mentions) invisible, outside of the universal, other. Though, of course, this was common in Cooley's time.

**Since I often have to remind my students of this, I'll leave a note here as well. Words like "negro" and "colored" used to be acceptable and common terminology. When used in a quote, it is appropriate, but that does not mean it is appropriate for use outside of a quoted context. Similarly the term "people of color"--a currently acceptable and self-determined phrase--is not interchangeable with the phrase "colored people," nor does it signify that the term "colored people" is a currently appropriate term.