Fat, Health at Every Size, Media, Miscellaneous


So, every now and then I get tagged for one of those “Reveal 8 Weird Things about Yourself” memes. And I don’t respond because honestly, I can never think of ONE weird thing about me, let alone eight, that I haven’t already plastered all over the internet. I mean, “I think it’s perfectly fine to be fat” is plenty of weird right there.

But here’s a weird thing you probably didn’t know about me: despite not having a corporate job and fervently hoping I never will again, I read business books for entertainment. Usually marketing books. I love them like I love mystery novels, for real. Because marketing books — 99% of which are fluffed up 10-page whitepapers with only 3 noteworthy points — are really sociology and/or psychology books. Only, they’re the dumbest possible version of sociology and/or psychology books. So, instead of having to slog through a bunch of academic jargon and abstract theory, I can just skim all the fluff and come away with about one to three new(ish) insights into human behavior. It’s so much more fun than really thinking.

And that is how I came to be reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. I haven’t finished it yet, but the chapter on “Credibility” (one of the 6 components of “sticky” ideas, according to the brothers Heath) rang some bells.

The Heaths start off by telling the story of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, the researchers who discovered that H. pylori causes ulcers. When they were first trying to convince the medical community that ulcers were caused by a bacteria, Marshall and Warren had very little credibility — and those who did have credibility in the field thought they were off their rockers.

And now, I quote:

There were no celebrations for Marshall and Warren, who had almost single-handedly improved the health prospects of several hundred million human beings. The reason for the lack of acclaim was simple: No one believed them.

…At the time of the discovery, Robin Warren was a staff pathologist at a hospital in Perth; Barry Marshall was a thirty-year-old internist in training, not even a doctor yet. The medical community expects important discoveries to come from Ph.D.s at research universities or professors at large, world-class medical centers. Internists do not cure diseases that affect 10 percent of the world’s population.

The final problem was the location. A medical researcher in Perth is like a physicist from Mississippi. Science is science, but, thanks to basic human snobbery, we tend to think it will emerge from some places but not others.

Emphasis mine.

Marshall eventually got people’s attention by drinking a load of H. pylori, developing ulcer symptoms, and curing himself with antibiotics, all in a matter of days. It still didn’t convince people, but it got their attention. It was a start.

10 years later, the National Institutes of Health finally said yeah, antibiotics are the best way to treat ulcers. 11 years after that, Marshall and Warren won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Happy ending.

But for Marshall and Warren? I’m guessing that was a looooooong fucking 20 years.

And that is all I really have to say about the ongoing debate between Paul Campos and Walter Willett. That and, if your best argument is, “But he’s a LAWYER, not a doctor! He can’t understand the complexity of it! I’M FROM HARVARD!” you might want to seek advice from someone who knows more about debating than you do. Like, for instance, someone with a background in law.

10 thoughts on “Credibility”

  1. This is what happens when we use shortcuts to determine credibility. If he’s got a Ph.D., he must know what he’s talking about. If she raised three children, she must be an expert in childcare. If he’s wearing a stethoscope, he must know better than I what’s best for my body.

    I also think we place too much emphasis on credibility as a way to avoid thinking too much. It’s a lot easier to say, “He’s a lawyer, so he can’t know anything about fat,” than to examine the actual ideas and discover if they have merit.

  2. Concur.

    There’s a similar story behind the “discovery” that fen-phen causes mitral valve prolapse — the hospital that made the connnection between the two is somewhere in the midwest, and not terribly chic, and therefore their concerns were conveniently ignored long enough for a lot more people to be become profitably and grievously ill. (See Dispensing With the Truth for the whole story.

  3. This is one of the things frustrating Neal Adams with his science theory. He claims he can’t get any fair hearings because, while he’s developed the theory over a number of years, no “experts” will listen to him because he’s “just a comic book artist,” not a scientist.

  4. Personally, I think my reaction to this blog has just proved to myself that the BMI Index is nonsense…

    After reading the Campos/Willett arguments, I found an online BMI calculator.

    Now, I weigh 14 stones, which is roughly 90 kg, and according to the BMI scale, I’m severely obese. Firstly, since when has being a UK 20 been obese?

    Secondly, my partner hates how thin he is and has even been going to the doctors to find out why he’s so thin suddenly (6ft and roughly 70kg). According to the BMI scale, he’s the perfect weight.

    Excuse me?? That’s the last time I let anyone use that crappy diagnostic tool on my weight :oP

  5. If Campos was a doctor, I doubt Willett, et al, would be falling to their knees and kissing his ring. They’d find some excuse to invalidate it, like, “He screwed his way through medical school; he only got good grades because he was sleeping with his professors.” No sillier than anything else they’ve come up with, eh?

    I just think it’s rather hilarious that Willett, already quite thin at a BMI of 23.5, thinks even his own BMI should be five points lower (assuming he includes himself in his lifestyle prescriptions, of course). I mean, yikes, you know?

  6. Last year, Mayo Clinic researchers published a well documented study in The Lancet stating the BMI standard was “seriously flawed”. And there’s so many other studies telling us it’s bullshit. So much for Willett’s credibility – I just cannot believe anyone with a medical degree can still cling to this ridiculous mathematical/statistical standard, that was never designed to “calculate” health anyway.

    Campos’s credibility? Just read the first forty pages of his book (‘Fat on trial’) and find out why a law professor can actually be a very good judge (ha, no pun intended) over the “issue” of fat. He just looks at the “evidence”, plain and simple. And finds out there isn’t any.

  7. great, eye opening post. i had no idea about these BMI politics.

    when discoveries come from unexpected places, they are often ignored and/or belittled by the establishment. arrogant people mock and reject that which they don’t understand or are too afraid to consider.

  8. Campos’s credibility? Just read the first forty pages of his book (‘Fat on trial’) and find out why a law professor can actually be a very good judge (ha, no pun intended) over the “issue” of fat.

    Exactly, Dutchy. Campos earned his authority on the matter by making a sound argument. Willett earned a position at Harvard, which is something, but given the quality of his argument, it’s not something that means much to me.

  9. ooooh man. Media business books? have you got any other recommendations?

    Im doing my dissertation soon and i need some excellent insight into how advertising works. My subject is along the lines of how the beauty industry manipulate women to sell products. Keep us insecure, keep us always searching for more, for ‘perfection’ etc.

  10. an AWESOME book of this ilk, which i am re-reading right now, is the social life of information by john seely brown and paul duguid. (it’s published by harvard biz school press).

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