It’s Scientific!

So, this post began as a comment at Feministe in response to a post in which Sara argues that we shouldn’t resist scientific findings that offend our sensibilities, because fact just is what it is, and our ethics don’t rely exclusively on science anyway. As in, it doesn’t really matter if men are scientifically proven to be smarter than women, because that’s still no excuse for discriminating against women.

Which I agree with, to a point. The way we treat each other shouldn’t be entirely dependent on what scientists can tell us about the way different human beings are wired. But the point at which I disagree starts right about here:

We’ve gotten good enough at asking the right questions and interpreting the answers to know that men and women (and anyone else on or off the gender continuum) have enough human potential that their gender doesn’t need to dictate how they live their lives.

I don’t even know what to say about that beyond, O RLY? If a study came out tomorrow saying “Yes, it’s true, women really suck at business!” you think that would have no effect on hiring decisions, the stay-at-home-mom debate, the stock of women-owned companies, and the general level of respect accorded to women in this culture — just off the top of my head? Because as a culture, we’re already so enlightened?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I go into why I don’t buy her argument, I need to acknowledge that, frankly, I’m pretty angry at Sara right now. Because, in the course of that post, she also took what I believe is a really unfair swipe at me. She completely misrepresented something I wrote, snarked on an argument I didn’t even make, and then was kind enough to toss me this bone: “I don’t mean to pick on people who don’t have all the specific knowledge that I do.” You see, it’s my lack of a degree in molecular biology that makes me so foolish. And hey, that can’t be helped!

So, yeah, I’m not exactly going into this post with a positive attitude. But the reason I made it a post instead of a comment is that A) it got really fucking long, and B) it grew beyond a mere defense of what I actually said, and my poor, weak, humanities-trained critical faculties. I started out just talking to her, but then… well, read for yourself.

Sara, you know what’s funny? I actually agree with a big part of your point here. But for some nutty reason, I got all hung up on the fact that you nakedly condescended to me in a high-traffic public space, more than a month after we already had this conversation on my blog.

So hung up, in fact, that I’m not going to take the high road and just e-mail you about it.

Here’s how you framed my interpretation of the “zombie fat” study:

… Harding found a news article about a study that showed a link between any history of high weight or obesity in a mother’s lifetime and high-birthweight infants. She thought it was ridiculous: some sort of fat-phobic anti-fantasy about people being forever marked – even through generations – by ever having succumbed to fat.

This is so disingenuous, I don’t even know where to begin. You make it sound as if I believe the connection they found between fat women and fat babies is “some sort of fat-phobic anti-fantasy.” As I already said in comments — and which was perfectly clear in my original post — I don’t dispute the study’s findings, which were that fat women have fat babies, even if they lose weight prior to a pregnancy. This neither shocks nor offends me.

The point we’re arguing about is their speculation regarding the reason why losing weight doesn’t substantially reduce the likelihood of having a fat baby — i.e., a question that there’s obviously no existing factual answer to, or they wouldn’t be speculating.

You think zombie fat is plausible. I don’t. I’ve already acknowledged that it’s possible and publicly offered to buy you dinner if we find out down the line that zombie fat is the real deal. But right now, you, I, and the researchers are all just guessing, so I’m going to stand by my assertion that I don’t think they’ve come up with a very good guess.

For the record, no, I don’t think genetics are the only cause of fat. I do think that, when we’re talking about fat mothers having fat babies, heritability of fat is a highly plausible explanation. Much more plausible, to my mind, than zombie fat. That’s all I ever said. Granted, I said it in an incredibly snarky way, and if I’m proven wrong, I’ll look pretty silly for that. But since my whole point is that I don’t think their explanation is especially likely, I’m obviously not too worried about that. If I’d said it was impossible, you’d have every right to keep telling me why I’m wrong. But I never did.

To expand on where I’m coming from, my opinion is largely influenced by the way they arrived at the conclusions that led to the speculation. They looked at women who were fat prior to having one baby, lost weight, then had another baby. Given what I know about weight loss, I’m guessing there was less than a 5-year gap between the weight loss and the subsequent pregnancies, and those women probably gained the weight back eventually. If they didn’t, then I might be more interested in the zombie fat conclusion; but assuming they did — which, given the statistics on weight loss, is a pretty safe assumption — then I see absolutely nothing to indicate that these women were not categorically Fat Women, even if they temporarily lost weight. Which means all this study really proved is that Fat Women have Fat Babies. Which, again… duh.

So. That’s my opinion. I’ve acknowledged that other opinions are valid and other explanations are possible, because that’s the only intellectually honest position to take. But I really don’t see why I should feel obligated to act as if I believe it is likely that the fat these women lost affected their subsequent pregnancies. And I can’t emphasize enough that that assertion is what I was and am reacting to: the idea that if you lose weight, that fat that is now gone continues to affect you. Is that theoretically possible, given the little-understood hormonal properties of body fat? Sure. But I don’t personally think that’s a better explanation for these findings than an inherited predisposition to fatness. If they find more evidence to support the zombie fat theory, I’ll reconsider. But in the absence of that, I see no reason whatsoever to take a stronger position than, “Sure, it’s possible.”

Now, on to the part where I do agree with you… You’re absolutely right that the way we treat other human beings should remain constant, regardless of what science tells us about why some people are the way they are. And I would never say science shouldn’t explore questions that might yield answers I don’t like.

But it’s dangerously naive to think that as a culture, we’ll just take any given findings like a bunch of mature adults and treat each other well anyway — not to mention dangerously naive to assume that any findings arrived at under the banner of “science” represent objective facts. While there would be no reason to hate gay people even if being gay were a choice, or to pass over a qualified woman for a job even if it were proven that, on average, men are better than women at math, there’s also absolutely no reason for gay people and women to roll over and say, “Well, Almighty Science contradicts my lived experience, so I guess that’s that.” Science is one part of the puzzle we’re all trying to work out; lived experience is another; and there are many, many other parts. From your post, I think we agree on that point.

But what your post leaves out is the fact that in the culture we’ve got — as opposed to the one we want — evidence like that would not be dismissed as a scientific curiosity that has no effect on our collective ethical system; it would absolutely be used to justify further discrimination against already oppressed populations.

So if there are any legitimate questions about how the scientists arrived at that evidence, what their biases were, who funded the research, etc. — and there are always legitimate questions of that nature — it makes all the sense in the world to question such findings instead of simply saying, “Hey, it’s science! Must be true!” The ethical implications are not separate from the science, before or after any given study is performed. And I absolutely believe it’s our duty as feminists to scrutinize the hell out of any research that suggests women are intrinsically inferior to men — and our duty as humanists to do the same to any research with a conclusion that can be used to justify bigotry.

If such scrutiny reveals that the methodology was perfect, the researchers and their financial backers are pure as the driven snow, and the conclusions are indeed airtight, then yes, of course we need to accept a difficult truth. But how often does that happen? Until we arrive at that point of certainty, which we almost never do, I believe we’re obligated to keep questioning any findings that can be used to classify some groups of human beings as intrinsically better than others. As often and as loudly as possible.

Scientific research has uncovered a handful of seemingly universal truths that have stood the test of time (so far), but much more often, it uncovers partial truths that might help us put another piece of the puzzle in place but really don’t, by themselves, bring us noticeably closer to The Big Picture. Evolution, gravity, relativity, etc., aren’t your everyday scientific findings. Your everyday scientific findings are usually wide open to interpretation, no matter how scrupulously the researchers adhered to the scientific method.

And I personally believe that’s because The Big Picture isn’t just scientific — it’s social, political, economic, spiritual, you name it. You seem to be saying the same basic thing, but I don’t believe you go far enough. Because the truth about why people behave the way they do, how women are different from men, why bodies are different, why we’re attracted to different people, how intelligent we are, how naturally compassionate we are — none of it can be measured fully and accurately by science. There’s no way to control for all the confounding variables of being human.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to learn about what makes us tick, coming at it from every possible angle. It does, however, mean that when science produces a conclusion that offends our sensibilities, it is perfectly reasonable to question how the researchers arrived at that conclusion; our sensibilities often reflect a whole lot of other Big Picture truths, and science doesn’t automatically trump those. Given the long, long history of “scientific” conclusions that ultimately reflect little more than the hopes, fears, and best guesses of a particular population at a particular time, there’s no logical reason to believe that because a conclusion was arrived at via OMG SCIENCE, it represents objective truth.

Make no mistake: I have tremendous respect for science. I’m fascinated and awed by what scientists do. I just don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all when it comes to answers about the human condition. I don’t think math or literature or history or economics or religion are, either; I think they all play a part. That interconnectedness might be the most important thing I learned in the process of getting my two humanities degrees — followed closely by learning to think critically about texts and consider the flawed human beings behind them.

And of course, I’m just another flawed human being producing texts here. I might be wrong about a lot of things. But so might scientists. So might everyone. That doesn’t mean any of us should stop trying to find capital-T Truth, using the best methods we have — but it does mean we should all be humble in that search, thoughtful about the contexts in which we arrive at particular conclusions, and cognizant that The Big Picture is indeed fucking big — and it includes a whole lot of truths that can’t ever be demonstrated in a lab.

60 thoughts on “It’s Scientific!

  1. The idea of zombie fat is hopelessly Lamarckian. And I have a degree in history of science, which Sara presumably does not, so I guess that my opinions about something being hopelessly Lamarckian trump hers. Because of my expertise. Or something.

  2. *applause*

    I should write more, except it would all be cheerleading “you hit the nail on the head” stuff, and that gets boring after a while. (Or not.)

    I have lots of empathy with you on this one, having recently been lectured in no uncertain terms, by a feminist blogger, that I was dangerously ignorant, deluded, and whiny on matters of medical science, and that obstetricians only have women’s best interests at heart and work in an evidence-based model at all times.

  3. Kate, I don’t think you’re foolish, and I apologize for making it sound like I think that you can’t contribute to conversations outside of your official areas of expertise. What I meant was more along the lines of that you probably weren’t thinking of epigenetics when you were writing your original post.

    I do think that there’s a big difference between ridiculing an idea that is somewhat in opposition to your Unified Theory of Fatness, and saying “Yes, I think it’s possible but I don’t think it’s probable.”

    And I get your point about the ways in which investigators can be biased, and the data they produce can be biased, and the last thing I meant to indicate was that we just need to swallow the interpretations that Psychology Today gives us. The thing that is most likely to be crappy in any presentation of findings is the interpretation. That’s where the “Yeah, but” thing comes in. If men were on average better at math then women – would that make them intrinsically “better?” We find that girls love princess toys, but are we ready to say that it’s becuase girls naturally love pink? No and no.

    What this was all driven by was seeing so many feminists asking why we were studying x anyway, almost always when the findings showed something ostensibly inconvenient to feminist philosophy. We might not expect non- or anti-feminists to react very charitably to a survey that showed a huge number of women wanting to quit their jobs and have babies in the protection of a strong patriarch, but I would hope that feminists would be interested in finding an explanation that fit with a feminist outlook. I mean, if there’s no feminist explanation, maybe there’s something wrong with feminism. If that’s the case, I’d like to fix it. If it can’t be fixed in a way that it fits reality (or possibility), then I don’t really want to be a part of it. Evidence thus far makes equality for all human beings look pretty reasonable, so I’m willing to ignore a few anomalous findings, but I’m not a feminist because it makes me feel good – I’m a feminist because I think that reality is feminist.

  4. Kate,
    Well said. It is apparent that you have a better understanding of how important critical review is to the scientific process than Sara does.

    Academic and scientific studies are always presented to be as strong as possible. Academics have to defend their studies and promote their findings to get into journals and get published. Everything about how a a study is skewed to make it as interesting as possible from an academic standpoing so that it will stand up to the inevitable scrutiny of the researcher’s peers.

    Wwhen other academics read a study done by a peer they do not read it to talk about how great and interesting the findings are. They read it critically, looking for holes in the methodology etc, the read it this way so they understand where the findings are valid and where they are not. They constantly question eachother’s studies. Often researchers will do a study just to refute someone else’s findings (Or to confirm them with better methodology.)

    The big problem is when these academic studies are presented in a ‘Best foot forward’ manner to the press. The press does not read critically, they take a fairly strong conclusion and turn it into a fact. No one questions it because they don’t understand it and that causes society to have warped and distorted understanding of scientific findings.

    Questioning science is how science gets better. It is unfortunate that some people do not understand this. I applaud you for standing up for yourself and for science!! (Which you clearly understand quite well even without a degree in aerospace engineering or whatever Sara has.)

  5. Also, whoever thought of Zombie Fat needs look up Occam’s Razor.

    In this case however Shinobi’s Razor will apply “If you have to use the name of mythical creatures to describe your theory you should question if your theory is also mythical.”

  6. Sara, thanks for your thoughtful response. And I completely agree with this: I’m a feminist because I think that reality is feminist. You’re right that we should trust in that, on a large scale. On a smaller scale, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in getting other people, including some scientists, to look at that reality.

    @Shinobi:
    “If you have to use the name of mythical creatures to describe your theory you should question if your theory is also mythical.”

    Heh, but to be fair, “zombie fat” was not the researchers’ term. It wasn’t even mine. It was La di Da’s, and I thought it was brill, so I stole it.

  7. Sweet mother of Gouda, i think they put extra crazy in the water or something. Maybe the heat is getting to people and that’s what’s making them all bat-shiat loonball. Like, moreso than usual. I’ve seen a lot of evidence of infighting along the lines you’ve mentioned, and some of it is pretty nasty stuff. I’m sorry you had to deal with that – it’s never fun, and this sort of thing stings more when it comes from someone who’s supposed to be on the same team.

    Kinda makes me glad i’m as on the outside as i am, lol. Being on the fringes of the fringes does have its benefits, apparently.

    In any case. Fat women have fat babies, and you know what? If my being fat means that any child i haven’t won’t be born looking like an Auschwitz victim, i’m okay with that. IMVHO, babies are supposed to have some protective fat on them. I could be incredibly wrong about this, but women in my family have been having fat babies for generations, and the fact that there are generations of them to reference indicate that somehow, we have survived the gruesome tragedy of zomgfatbabies.

    I haven’t been able to find anything vaguely scientific about this, but i swear that somewhere along the way, i read an article indicating that second-born children had a tendency to have a higher birth weight than first-born children.

  8. We sociologists are aware of the fact that there is no such thing as value free science. And science today is more influenced by special interests than ever. It is bought and sold. Not to mention the way the media spins and takes out of context even well done studies. If Sara thinks science is completely free from biases she is CLUELESS!!!!!!!!!! (And I have to say many hard scientist look down on us “soft” scientists, without good reason. They can be very good when isolating a few factors in the lab, but get compeletly lost when having to puzzle together the bigger picture.”

    “Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!”

  9. Kate, It is IS brill. I think the fact that it is a valid description of their theory means my Razor still holds. ;-) But maybe that’s just my personal bias.

  10. The recent NYT article on all those sex surveys that report men having far more female partners than women have male partners being mathematically impossible shows the danger of accepting reports of studies as The Truth.

    Even if Gina Kolata screwed up the mean/median thing a bit. The conclusion was fine, though, and the expert she quoted actually checked the raw data, so he got it right.

  11. Hm, it’s an odd feeling to actually talk out differences and not just be a hothead :)

    And please, folks, I don’t think that anything coming from a dude in a white coat is going to be The Answer. And this is especially true of a reporter telling us what the dude in the white coat is saying. I just get suspicious when we start seeing armchair statisticians or endocrinologists coming out of the woodwork when a data point that doesn’t fit with a simplistic explanation of the world appears. It’s like how all of a sudden, every conservative is all of a sudden an expert in climate science. Progressives are as vulnerable to groupthink as anyone else.

  12. Sara, my issue with your post is that your point was almost completely overwhelmed by what I took to be an attack on Kate. You acknowledged in a comment that you probably ought to have emailed her about it first and you know what? YOU SHOULD HAVE.

    Yes, we, as feminists, need to look at difficult truths. But science is just as subject to dominant social ideas as individuals – because science is DONE by individuals. And, frankly, there have been, throughout history, scientific studies that prove any number of objectionable things including that the different races are arranged along a hierarchy of superior to inferior. Science is the tool of people who are shaped by the same cultural forces we all are.

    Frankly, your insistence that Zmbie Fat is possible makes me question why you are so willing to believe that it is the weight that someone carried ten years ago that has made their baby today large. Could it be that you have internalized negative attitudes about fat that make you more prone to view it as a health risk?

  13. Rotund, I guess I used Kate’s post because I thought it was a good example of some sort of weird findings that we don’t really have the tools to definitively interpret, yet were breezily denounced by someone who isn’t inclined to believe it anyway. Clearly, I can’t tell you what’s going on in the study. And I guess I find the idea of zombie fat to be interesting, and don’t feel like it’s really a moral issue anyway.

    I feel like there’s this tendency to just throw up our hands, though, and say it’s all too complicated, we’ll never know. And I think people are smarter than that. I think that lots of thinking about what questions we’re really trying to answer and what the answers really mean is in order, but I’m not going to wait around for a perfect lack of bias to explore the world around me. I don’t think that’s really what you’re suggesting, but it’s an attitude we need to guard against. In fact, I think that’s doubly true precisely because fat people, women, people of color, etc. have been hurt by bad interpretations of benign facts, so it can be easy to swing around from anti-bad-science to anti-science.

  14. When doctors are talking about large babies, they’re usually talking about babies who are “LGA” or large for gestational age — defined as bigger than 90% of the babies born at that age.

    Part of why it’s assumed to be unhealthy, I think, is because it’s often a consequence of maternal diabetes. (Lots of sugar floating around in the mom’s blood stream = lots of sugar for baby to use to get really big). These babies with mothers with uncontrolled diabtetes have a higher risk of various birth defects. BUT being big isn’t causing the problems — the diabetes in the mother is causing both the big baby and the other problems.

    The only problems directly associated with big babies, and not with something else like diabtes, is that vaginal delivery is going to be more difficult.

  15. Sara, when you title a post “You can handle the truth” there’s a serious implication that your theory in support of the so-called “zombie fat” study is “the truth.”

    Given that the vast majority of science reporting on the subject of obesity is riddled with cultural biases, the fat acceptance movement, and those who are the leaders of it, such as Kate, NEED to be able to take on science.

    About 6 years ago I got so sick I couldn’t hold down food. The doctors I went to didn’t believe me. The tests weren’t “proving” what I was saying so they called it “functional” as in mental. They gave me Paxil. Do you know what happens to a person who takes Paxil on an empty stomach? It ain’t pretty, that’s all I can say.

    A chiropractor started adjusting me, because my stomach literally can’t stay in its place. He still treats me. He gave me my life back.

    So was he playing “armchair doctor” with me, and really I should have listened to the people with higher degrees than him? Or did my doctors have certain cultural biases against me that colored their willingness to hear what was wrong? They couldn’t believe I was telling the truth because I wasn’t skinny, and in their doctorly opinions a chubby woman couldn’t have been in a state of starvation. Not just an assumption on my part, when I weighed in at 144 the doctor laughed and said “Not exactly the weight of a person who isn’t eating!” another one said “At your size, maybe you’re lucky you can’t hold food down, it’ll get you in shape.”

    So you can see, I’m the kind of person who goes by the content of peoples actions and words, not how impressive their degrees are.

  16. I feel like there’s this tendency to just throw up our hands, though, and say it’s all too complicated, we’ll never know. And I think people are smarter than that. I think that lots of thinking about what questions we’re really trying to answer and what the answers really mean is in order, but I’m not going to wait around for a perfect lack of bias to explore the world around me. I don’t think that’s really what you’re suggesting, but it’s an attitude we need to guard against. In fact, I think that’s doubly true precisely because fat people, women, people of color, etc. have been hurt by bad interpretations of benign facts, so it can be easy to swing around from anti-bad-science to anti-science.

    And I think you probably could have addressed all of that, which is an excellent set of points, without actively slamming someone out fo the blue – as a fat person, I read your post and felt that you were attacking people who are interested in debunking a lot of the junk science that is making the rounds about fat. Perhaps if you had chosen a more neutral topic that would not have been the case but you chose to side with Zombie Fat against someone who is quite astute and capable of reading and interpreting biased reports.

    And, yeah, I am not suggesting we wait until the world is a bias-free place. I don’t know if that will ever truly happen! But I DO believe we need to view even scientific results with an awareness that bias exists and influences things.

  17. A-fucking-men.

    I am tired of POSSIBLY being given equal weight to LIKELY or PROVEN.

    But who am I to say this, anyway? I got me no degree, only a dictionary.

  18. Sara, if you are reading this, what do you think about Kate’s belief that genetics, not “zombie fat,” is a more likely explanation of why fat or once-fat women have larger babies? I think that’s her main point, and a really valid one, so IMO it is a little unfair not to address that at all. Even if she has a vested interest in this stuff, as we all do, that doesn’t mean her arguments automatically boil down to “we shouldn’t discriminate against fat people, so this study is automatically wrong.” That didn’t seem to me to be her point, or motivation, at all.

    I am a scientist myself (OK, an engineer, but I have a graduate degree and therefore had to think a lot about experimental design, look critically at how others’ studies are set up and interpreted, etc.) and although I agree with Kate that this does not really give me any special status with regard to The Right To Interpret Data, I do think she does some of the best and most logical critiques around of studies related to weight.

    And I view the presentation of studies relating to weight in the mainstream media as akin to the types of websites my coworkers frequent that “disprove” global warming. Fat people and the OBESITY EPIDEMIC are a foolproof common enemy these days, so the more sensationalistically a study can be presented, and the more it allows us to feel superior to others (i.e. “fat people are deluded about how much they are eating” or “fat people think they look OK even though they obviously don’t, silly fat people” or “fat people, even if they are no longer fat, are even hurting THEIR UNBORN CHILDREN”) the more likely it is to get into news articles. Media outlets seem to look for studies that fall in line with this type of reporting just as my Al Gore-hating coworkers feel they are “experts” because they’ve visited a web site where somebody with an axe to grind found a bunch of studies promoting something he already thought and put references to them in one place without regard to the quality of the methodology or data interpretation.

    I’m not saying Kate or anyone else is immune to bias, but I think the type of critique she did of the “zombie fat study” is a lot more valid than that because it isn’t just cherry-picking studies that present a certain outcome… which is what I feel the global warming “non-believers,” intelligent design advocates, and the mainstream media (mostly with relation to fat) often do. I would not find this web site at all useful if all it did was rack up a collection of sketchy references to poorly constructed studies “proving” that being fat is OK, or whatever–and accepting these studies uncritically or twisting their conclusions to her own purposes because they support her beliefs. To me THAT would be the danger of assuming that “because it’s science, it’s true.” Rather, she’s trying to provide some perspective and critical thinking on studies that are in the headlines right now and help people avoid swallowing their conclusions (often the conclusions of whoever wrote the article, not even the study authors) whole.

  19. Sara–sorry, a bunch of people posted in there so you did address some of what I was asking about. But I still wonder why you think (if you do) that “zombie fat” is the best way to interpret the results in question. I agree with Kate that just from a simplicity perspective, genetics is more likely.

    I don’t even really think it “matters” in the sense that I don’t see that we really know that larger babies are a bad thing. So I don’t know as I have a particular dog in this hunt though I do in most that relate to weight studies.

  20. And (so sorry, this is getting annoying) I forgot to mention that I’m not even sure bias in the results is that big of a factor here. Kate and others may disagree with me, but I don’t think the zombie fat interpretation is any more or less damaging to the fat acceptance movement than genetics or any other cause for the larger babies. So I’m just not sure this would be a great example of ignoring results that you feel will damage a progressive movement, even if I thought that’s what Kate was doing.

  21. I thought Kate’s original post was a fantastic piece of science writing, describing very accessibly how this study failed to control for a very obvious potential confounding factor – the high heritability of fat – and justifiably complaining about all the credulous media coverage.

    (And I have a PhD in genetics, so ner ner ner, I win, if we’re going to be like that about it.)

    But Sara, I agree with lots of the rest of your argument and I look forward to reading more from you.

  22. “I have lots of empathy with you on this one, having recently been lectured in no uncertain terms, by a feminist blogger, that I was dangerously ignorant, deluded, and whiny on matters of medical science, and that obstetricians only have women’s best interests at heart and work in an evidence-based model at all times.”

    HAhahah.. HAHahahahah. Wow. I just about fell of my chair with that one. Talk about “dangerously ignorant [and] deluded”. How much you want to bet that feminist blogger ends up with Dr. SliceAndDice?

  23. Sara, it seems to me that you’re working two fronts here.

    Front 1: Denouncing scientific findings with which one disagrees, based on one’s personal beliefs, is not good.

    Front 2: Scientific findings which say things we don’t like is no reason to say, “Why is anyone studying this anyway?!” which could be construed as anti-science/anti-progress.

    As far as Front 1 goes, I think the problem is that well… who else is going to? I mean, SlimFast sure as hell isn’t going to object against the results of the “zombie fat” study. You say we shouldn’t wait for a completely bias-free Fantastic Objective Land before we try to study the world around us, and I agree. But just as the world we study things in carries bias, and the people doing the studying carry bias, the people who will form opinions about those studies will also carry bias. It’s how it goes. We are all formed by our experiences, whatever they may be, and as it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise, our best hope for objectivity then is to plainly state our biases from the outset, and make our beliefs plain, so that others may see where we’re coming from and respond accordingly.

    Because otherwise it sounds like you’re saying people with vested interests in certain scientific findings should not be allowed to comment on those findings. That having opinions about fat and what causes people to be fat disqualifies us – especially us non-scientists – from taking part in the discussion.

    As far as Front 2 goes – I agree, but attacking Kate was hardly the best way to make your point, imo. I too have seen a recent rise in people saying things like, “Why are we even studying this?!” which does sound a bit alarming. It sounds anti-science, and while I never did finish my biology degree, I am a big big fan of science.

    However, I do think sometimes it’s a good question to ask. Every time I see a study which seems to come from left field, or seems to too conveniently support the interests of multi-billion dollar industries, I find myself remembering a news story I saw several years ago now – probably five years or so ago. The story, which was terribly short, considering the topic, was mentioning how one of the premier science journals – I believe the New England Journal of Medicine, but it could have been Nature or JAMA – had changed one of its submission policies for publication.

    Previously, it had refused any studies which were funded by corporate interests. However, they had been having such a difficult time for so long in /finding/ studies which were funded by non-biased sources, that they had to give up that prohibition. So started a few years ago, if Coca-Cola somehow did a study which showed caffeine was good for infants (yes, I’m totally making that up), it would be eligible to be submitted for publication.

    Right there, the vaunted (over-hyped) objectivity of scientific pursuit took a huge hit. Now, more than ever, it’s up to us feminists, fat activists, LGBTQ advocates, environmentalists, etc to stand up and make our voices heard when these studies get thrown around by the media as if they’re unassailable fact.

  24. “The only problems directly associated with big babies, and not with something else like diabtes, is that vaginal delivery is going to be more difficult.”

    And this is by no means certainl the correlations are very unclear indeed, when you get down to nuts and bolts and un-interfered-with labour.

    I seem to have been surrounded lately by a string of newborns weighing 8-10 pounds and born normally without any particular difficulties at all. (Many at home.) One troublesome birth was a six-pound baby; and another an elective C section booked for “ooooh, it’s a very large baby dear, better cut you open” had a seven pound babe. (And that last has happened more than once just in my social group, and there is no excuse for it; it’s outright malpractice.)

    The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but it seems the primary determinants of ease of birthing lie somewhere far away from baby size, within certain obvious limits (not teeny preemie, not over about 11-12 pounds, though I have seen one 13 pound baby born vaginally also.)

  25. Just to clarify, I’m not angry at Sara, I’m just trying to explain to her why I’m not terribly impressed by people with fancy degrees. I think her responses to Kate and the rest of us have been well thought out.

  26. Rotund, I guess I used Kate’s post because I thought it was a good example of some sort of weird findings that we don’t really have the tools to definitively interpret, yet were breezily denounced by someone who isn’t inclined to believe it anyway. Clearly, I can’t tell you what’s going on in the study.

    So you don’t know what’s going on in the study, you acknowledge that we don’t have the tools to definitively interpret the findings, yet you take a swipe at someone who’s taking a look at the zombie fat hypothesis and saying it just doesn’t make logical sense on the basis of her not having the same degree you do?

  27. Science! Who needs it?!

    I only believe what they tell me in Cosmo and Vogue. I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, and boys won’t like me unless I lose ten pounds and learn some really great oral sex techniques.

  28. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia entry on Lamarkian evolutionary theory. It is in a nutshell the theory that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring.

    Though Lamarck has been widely discredited, it’s somehow seems germane to the conversation to point out that his followers believe that only BENEFICIAL acquired traits would be passed on to offspring.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckian

  29. “I just get suspicious when we start seeing armchair statisticians or endocrinologists coming out of the woodwork when a data point that doesn’t fit with a simplistic explanation of the world appears.”

    I get suspicious when no one questions a datapoint that does not fit a reasonable explaination of the world. It is possible that there are extraordinary reasons for some findings. More likely there is a simple explanation, that something has been left out or a factor overlooked in explaining the findings. In order for the “zombie fat” theory to hold any water then it is the responsibility of the researchers to exclude more reasonable explanations, like genetics.

    As far as Armchair statistics, anyone can learn about research methods and statistics. In fact a lot of people are forced too. Every student at my university took a basic statistics class and part of what we taught in that class was critique studies like this, and critique reporting on research. From English Majors to Computer Science everyone learned what did and did not constitute a valid study. Just because someone wouldn’t necessarily qualify to be on CNN as some kind of expert, doesn’t mean they can’t understand and critique research. (Personally I’d find them more credible than the folks on CNN.)

  30. Like other’s I think a lot of what Sara had to say was valid, but boy did she pick on the wrong point to illustrate this!

    The point about La di Da’s brilliant ‘zombie fat’ quip, is that it is a joke, it exposes, the way too many scientists/researchers minds are pointed. They simply must show that fat is bad bad bad.
    This is just one of the ways that this crusade is tripping people up. Scientists have already noted that, fat people that lose weight are not slim people, they are fat people that have lost weight they coined the term ‘reduced obese’. Here’s an example of its use, check the date of this study;

    http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/69/6/1189

    .
    When a fat person loses weight, the body struggles to regain its losses you combat this with enforced calorie restriction and/or increased calorie expenditure to thwart this. The baby either reflects this &/or genes.That fat is gone.

    Whilst I do not think by any means we have the answers, we fat accepters, are underrated. Yes that seems to be immodest, but IMHO it’s true. Not out of innate superiority, but because the opinion of our worth is so base it would be impossible for any human being to live down to it.

    Also, something that doesn’t seem to be properly acknowledged, we previously, for huge swathes of our lives some of us! Trusted totally in the scientific explanations of weight and it’s regulation. Some of us did ourselves tremendous harm and yet we still, accepted fully that we were wrong, and that reality was not real, science was. If you think we are just saying nay for nay’s sake, you have got it arse backwards.

  31. Hi, Kate–I’m the Julie from the Bloomingdales’s post. Listen, I’m actually married to a molecular biologist–honestly. And I can tell you that half of these scientific studies are b.s.–I take them with a grain of salt. There was just a study done about fat people marrying fat people, and people marrying from the same race and socioeconomic group. Well, it’s not always true, and me being married to a 145 pound man from India kind of shows that. There’s always questions you must ask when reviewing a scientific study–what size was the control group? How often has the study been repeated? Have there been other findings? Etc…To me it just makes sense that a lot of fat has to do with biology/heredity. Some people, in my mind, are naturally slim, and some are naturally heavier. My own husband doesn’t believe half of the scientific studies he reads. You know? They used to say coffee was bad for you, now they say coffee can be good for you.Sometimes it takes years of research to make a conclusion, and even then, it may be overturned. That’s the nature of science. No one had a right to get high and mighty with you. Do you want me to beat anybody up? Hee, hee….

  32. Well, it’s not always true, and me being married to a 145 pound man from India kind of shows that.

    Julie, completely off-topic, did you post wedding pics of yourself on Fatshionista in a red sari that didn’t hang right at the bottom? If so, both the sari and you are gorgeous! I still remember that post! (If not, you’re apparently not the only fat chick married to a tiny Indian man. :) )

  33. Ha, ha!!! No, Kate. It wasn’t me! Fat chick w/Indian guy!! OMG, it’s an epidemic…If fat was indeed contagious, wouldn’t my hubby be fat after five years?? Or was that my friends who were supposed to gain weight? Oh, that didn’t happen either. I guess they all haven’t picked up my self-destructive habits yet. That’s science for ya.

    My sari was red, too, but I am way too scared to put my pics up. Maybe someday I’ll grow a pair…You rock, Kate. Keep fighting the good fight.

  34. It’s because I am a big fat skeptic and have a tendency to Science Nerd-dom that I discovered that fat is not a death sentence nor a lifetime of health tragedies. If a well-done study (or preferably more than one) can show that body fat has an adverse effect on some part of one’s health, I can accept that. For instance, sleep apnea. Some people do have lots of fat on their neck which can cause or exacerbate breathing during sleep. The trouble is that many health professionals and “obesity” researchers just assume that all fat people have or will have this problem, and that if they are diagnosed with sleep apnea, losing weight will magically fix it. In some cases, less neck fat will relieve the apnea, but it’s not a guaranteed cure or relief, and we all know how effective long-term weight loss is. And some fat people (like me) would have sleep apnea even if every last ounce of fat was liposuctioned from my body – construction of the ear nose and throat system is not ideal in many people. And plenty of thin people get sleep apnea too. The “fat snorers” assumption even makes it difficult for thin people with apnea to get diagnosis and treatment.

    My point being that even where it is a certainty that fat may have a negative effect on health, there’s so much more to it than “OH NOS FAT IS EVIL HERE IS PROOF” and “If you lose weight your troubles will be over”. Because of the stigma attached to fatness, however, the general public aided by a seemingly lazy media is disinclined to believe anything else; and certain doctors, scientists and those in the health industry are also disinclined to believe it either because they are also part of that general public, and they also have intellectual, emotional and financial investments in the idea that fat is a “scourge” and must be eliminated. Which can and does affect their supposedly impartial and bias-free research.

    (Like the stomach-mutilation peddlers who contributed to a UK recommendation that fat people have compulsory weight loss surgery.)

  35. Oops, I meant seven years…two of dating, five of marriage. Hubby eats like a horse. I am so jealous sometimes! That could be a post in itself. “Fat chick married to skinny guy who eats like a horse, jealousy ensues.”

  36. Fat chick w/Indian guy!! OMG, it’s an epidemic

    Skinny Indian guy, no less! Heh.

    I live with a fat guy who eats less than I do most of the time, so at least I don’t have the jealousy issue. :)

  37. Argh, that left out a whole chunk of my comment.

    It was about how yeah, the Zombie Fat Hypothesis study doesn’t stand up to anything like the scrutiny of studies about sleep apnea, so I’m not putting it in the same category. For the life of me I can’t find it but I’m quite sure I’ve even seen an apnea study that concluded “Well, fat might not help but weight loss is bunk so just forget it and actually treat people.” Which was, sadly, mind-bogglingly different to nearly every other study on practically anything (“We recommend weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight.”).

    PS – zombie fat graphic in the works. It’s a slow work week. :)

  38. Great post, Kate. As for the idea of accepting studies, I think this goes a little too close to the convenient “fat people just don’t want to believe the facts” defense. Is it particularly feminist to trust the authorities anyway? Shouldn’t we question the assumptions scientists make if we want to build a fair society?

    I just don’t think it has that much to do with emotion vs. facts. I think it’s findings vs. prejudiced conclusions drawn based on them, and what I see Kate doing is dispelling myths about studies. It’s not necessarily very emotional at all, even if there’s emotion behind it, as there should be in this type of writing.

    This comic reminded me of this convo:

  39. Kate–I guess both our situations show that the whole “calories in, calories out” theory is pretty lame. I hate it when people say “It’s just simple math.” Yeah, simple math that does not work. That’s why 95% of dieters gain back the weight in five years. I finally decided to give up dieting after so many years after reading your blog. I’m just going to try to focus on healthy foods and exercise. No more calorie counting. I was going insane. My husband is so relieved that I have stopped dieting. I’m just going to try to be as healthy as I can. I’m not going to let the media or a BMI chart dictate my body size. That is my own business. I am finally learning how to love myself, and that has nothing to do with what the number says on the scale. I finally feel alive again–sorry to sound so preachy. It’s just that the hate and the condescension can be so sickening, you know?

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  41. “i read an article indicating that second-born children had a tendency to have a higher birth weight than first-born children.”

    I read that article too, and most of the doulahs and midwives I know (it’s weird that I’m a post-menopausal lesbian and know so many doulahs — but I do — just an accident of acquaintance) say that it tends to be true that each successful delivery is followed by a larger baby — as if the body is saying “I delivered that one safely — how about THIS one!?” Low birth-weight is a survival factor for mammalian babies of all species. Also — I can’t remember — did the study actually study how “fat” the baby was, rather than how “big” the baby was?

    At any rate — when it’s as easy for a scientist to get a grant to study the possible health benefits of fat as it is for them to get a study to study the health risks of fat, I might ease up on my scrutiny of the “scientific” evidence that is being used to fuel fat-phobia. Oh . . but . . that would be a very cold day in hell, wouldn’t it?

    When scientists discovered that being fat had some health benefits for heart-attack victims, etc., this was discovered through research that wasn’t expecting to find that result, and you certainly haven’t heard it shouted from the roof-tops by anyone but those in the fat-acceptance movement.

    Fat Phobia is an industry. Fat Acceptance is a grass-roots movement of real people.

    Who do you think is going to get the grant money?

  42. Ah, so this is my first post on the blog after lurking for about a month. I love love LOVE your moxie, Kate! And just about everyone here: as Julie said above, keep fighting the good fight!

    I will share a sad story. It is a tale of a (working-on-accepting-her-)fat woman in medical school. Can you already imagine? On a daily basis I am told in no uncertain terms that I would be doing my patients a disservice if I did not check their BMI at every visit and chastize those that did not comply with the body-hating regimens that are medical weight-loss recommendations. “Just eat less and move more!” they chirp relentlessly as they talk about how Every Disease is caused by Teh Fat. (Oh, and can I just gush about how much I love that phrase?) Got a cold? You’re stressing out your immune system by being so fat. Got headaches? Probably from the fat that’s compressing your carotids. Poor vision? Well, Christ, if you didn’t have fucking Crisco stuffed in your orbits you’d have 20-20, you pathetic slob. Skin disorders? Caused by your grotesque inability to keep your filthy folds clean. I am not making this shit up. (Okay, well, maybe I’m utilizing a slight dollop of hyperbole, but the fat hatred is very very real.)

    Don’t even ask me about the comments that flew through the cadaver lab.

    So, in closing, I just wanted to say here that a) I feel sort of like a scientist and I agree that most research is ultimately performed by Big Pharma Whores (TM) and b) I am listening, to myself and others, on what fat people need to hear from their doctors. Now can someone direct me to the multitude of literature that I can throw in their faces pass on with a pleasant smile to those who think that fat kills?

    PS–forgive me if that HTML didn’t work. My geek literacy is very low.

  43. Phledge, I fixed your HTML so the end of your comment would be more readable. You came SO close. :)

    And welcome! Also, I would love it if you sent some of the med school experiences you outline here to fathealth at gmail dot com. We’re collecting stories about fat prejudice in health care for a blog that’s going to launch soon. I’d love to have your perspective!

  44. I used to edit a little feminist body acceptance zine and our science section was called “It’s True Because It’s Science!”

  45. Phledge, I can’t give you a bunch of literature to throw at your fellow students refuting their inane “fat kills” approaches, but I can point you toward the guest blog I wrote here a little over a month ago (so perhaps before you started reading Kate’s blog? I’m not sure) to let them know that regardless of whether or not fat kills, fat hatred kills just as well.

    It’s here and if you do share it, I suggest you also take along the comments. My mother is not the first, and sadly will not be the last person to prefer death over facing the fat prejudice of their doctor.

  46. Thorn, I DID read it! I suspect that, among many other issues, my mother died of fat hatred too–so your post certainly pulled at some heartstrings. I literally made the comment to a couple of faculty that “people with weight problems” (because goodness knows I couldn’t call them fat; that’d be unprofessional, y’know) tend not to seek medical care. One, who is in family practice with an emphasis on weight loss, gasped, “WHYEVER would they not go to doctors?!?” I smiled and said, “Because I’ve had doctors assume that all of my problems were due to my weight. I fired them and went in search of my own healthcare.” A couple of us are trying to get a speaker for our class to talk about how to provide compassionate yet comprehensive care for larger patients; I fear it might be one of those “make sure they understand how DANGEROUS it is to be overweight!” things but we’re trying…

    Oh, and I don’t know where I saw it, but whoever is doing the demand feeding thing/recommended “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies?” I owe you big time. Is currently changing my life. Gave it to my body-hating thin sister. :)

    Kate, I will email experiences to the address as they arise (and as I have time; derm is kicking my derriere hardcore because, well, wouldn’t you know, I get queasy looking at crusty skin lesions). Thanks again for the phenomenal website!

  47. Thorn, I DID read it! I suspect that, among many other issues, my mother died of fat hatred too–so your post certainly pulled at some heartstrings. I literally made the comment to a couple of faculty that “people with weight problems” (because goodness knows I couldn’t call them fat; that’d be unprofessional, y’know) tend not to seek medical care. One, who is in family practice with an emphasis on weight loss, gasped, “WHYEVER would they not go to doctors?!?” I smiled and said, “Because I’ve had doctors assume that all of my problems were due to my weight. I fired them and went in search of my own healthcare.” A couple of us are trying to get a speaker for our class to talk about how to provide compassionate yet comprehensive care for larger patients; I fear it might be one of those “make sure they understand how DANGEROUS it is to be overweight!” things but we’re trying…

    Oh, and I don’t know where I saw it, but whoever is doing the demand feeding thing/recommended “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies?” I owe you big time. Is currently changing my life. Gave it to my body-hating thin sister. :)

    Kate, I will email experiences to the address as they arise (and as I have time; derm is kicking my derriere hardcore because, well, wouldn’t you know, I get queasy looking at crusty skin lesions).

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  50. I had an eyedoctor who attributed my prescription reduction to recent weight loss. I actually think it had more to do with having a new eyedoctor.

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