Kate’s stepmom is not the only one who thinks that the FA movement is about “the opposite of science.” I can’t count the number of times we’ve been accused of cherry-picking the studies that agree with us, and rejecting the ones that don’t. And I’ve got one thing to say to that: Well, duh.
Guess what: we all cherry-pick. Scientific research, especially when you move into the “softer” sciences, yields masses of complex, sometimes contradictory information. Studies aren’t always designed well, and they aren’t always completely thought through or even fully finished (did you know physicists refer to PNAS as “Premature News About Science”? I just found this out). And even a beautifully designed study risks running up against a previously unconsidered confounding factor. As my dad always says, it’s fruitless to wait for a “killer study” that clarifies everything in one fell swoop; we achieve clarity, or at least sense, by sifting through the morass of imperfect research using the best tools at our disposal. In other words, we cherry-pick.
As a really exaggerated example, I reject any study that finds evidence for extra-sensory perception. I believe that if you scratch pro-ESP research findings, you’ll find bias and criminally poor methodology. Just because that research exists doesn’t mean that I need to incorporate it into my outlook. Certainly it’s scientifically valid to just do indiscriminately huge amounts of research on whatever is around and hope it gets you closer to the truth — replicating others’ research, using past results to inform new studies, and trying out new models and methods all help with this. (This is actually — sorry to those of you with romanticized ideas — pretty much how science really happens. It’s messy and kind of haphazard.) The brute-force approach comes recommended by Francis Bacon, so that’s a point in its favor, and on the whole I think it works fairly well. But part of what you have to do, in order to avoid drowning in results, is use your existing knowledge to filter and structure your findings. In other words, we cherry-pick.
So yes, I don’t give a lot of credence to the studies that say fat, in and of itself, is a killing word. Meanwhile, the people who believe that fat is behavior-based are forced to ignore studies about confounding factors like genetics, gut flora, and metabolism changes from dieting, not to mention studies showing that eating can’t make naturally thin people permanently fat. People who think diets work ignore studies on HAES and the metabolic and psychological effects of starvation (in that study, “starvation” means up to twice the caloric intake of some doctor-recommended diets). People who think fat will kill you also have to ignore HAES studies, not to mention new research showing that certain behaviors are salutary no matter your weight, that a higher BMI may have a protective effect, and that people who worry about fat are at least self-reportedly less healthy than people — even fat people — who don’t. People who want us to think about the children ignore studies about the real effects of diet culture on children, both their mental health and their weight. In other words, they cherry-pick like CRAZY.
No real difference, except that the studies I disagree with get much more airtime, analysis, and hyperenthusiastic media commentary. Well, and except that the studies I choose to discredit generally have serious methodological flaws, like assuming that fat is coextensive with overeating and sedentary lifestyle, or failing to take into account the effects of dieting, or failing to control for comorbidities that could cause both obesity and ill health. All studies have flaws, but I think it’s pretty major for someone to hang an argument like “fat is caused by unhealthy behaviors” on a model that assumes all fat people have unhealthy behaviors, or to point to the deadliness of fat without considering that the fat subjects’ history of dieting might be more dangerous than weight alone. And even more importantly, the studies I choose to discredit are generally either conducted or sponsored by groups with a vested interest in the results — anti-obesity crusaders, bariatric surgeons, pharmaceutical companies. Fat is big business, and I find big business-funded research to be less trustworthy.
I certainly don’t think that, if we did have a Killer Study, it would find that it’s on the whole healthier to be fat than thin. I actually don’t think that body size, in and of itself, would turn out to be a health risk. Honestly, here’s what I think it would find: that death is inevitable regardless of your habits; that certain habits contribute to greater quality of life, no matter your size; that the degree to which you engage in these habits matters somewhat, but that you can have too much of a good thing; that these habits are practically worthless if you don’t take pleasure in them and look after your psychological well-being; that the human metabolism is complicated and affected by many factors; and that the existing correlation between fat and ill health, or between fat and poor habits, is explained by an overarching causal relationship between dieting, poor habits, fat, and ill health. (In other words, that people who restrict their eating are more likely to be heavier than they otherwise would be, more likely to be in poorer health, and more likely to have a troubled relationship with food and activity, and moreover that dieting causes these things rather than merely being related.)
That’s just my hypothesis, and it’ll remain a hypothesis, because there is no Killer Study. But it’s as consistent with research data as the hypothesis that eating and inactivity cause fat, that all fat people overeat and are inactive, that being thin is simply a matter of willpower, and that food restriction is the answer. In fact, given recent studies that challenge established hypotheses about fat, it may already be more consistent. And it doesn’t require me to actively ignore any studies — it’s not as though I think that research showing that fat is unhealthy never happened, I just think it failed to consider crucially important factors.
I’m proud to say I engage in educated cherry-picking. I’m only peripherally a scientist, but I know a fair bit about biology, I’ve looked at a reasonable amount of research, and I’ve developed an understanding of the issue that is not only consistent, but allows me to both engage in and promote physical and mental health. Sure, if I focused on those studies that the media promotes, I could come up with a different (and, I believe, less consistent) interpretation that said I was doomed to poor health and early death unless I exercised constantly-increasing vigilance, plus that I was probably secretly a compulsive eater and a liar. But that one doesn’t make sense with my experience, and it doesn’t makes sense with the experiences of people I know. And it doesn’t sound like any way to live.
If you come up with a Killer Study proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that my adipose tissue comes from my constant invisible donut binges and will kill me despite my cholesterol, then please, be my guest. Until then, I’m laughing all the way to the data bank.