Thwarted!

Jan. 4th, 2012 08:35 pm
liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
Grr, I got most of the way through drafting a long post about this article on brain sex differences when I discovered that the article in question had gone behind a paywall between my starting my post and being ready to publish it. Somebody posted it on Twitter, I think [personal profile] ruthi but now I can't find the link I was looking for, so perhaps it was somebody else?

My point was going to be that I think it might be an interesting starting point for discussion with people who justify sexism because sex differences have a supposedly innate or biological basis. Eliot doesn't sound as polemically feminist as people like, say, Cordelia Fine or Deborah Cameron, both writers I strongly admire, but that's coming from the standpoint of someone who basically accepts their conclusions already. But since the article has now been hidden from public view, I can't discover whether I'm right that it might be more persuasive to a skeptical reader. Most annoying; I really do hate charging readers for access to scientific papers.

Anyway, the bit of my post that I'd already written compared Eliot's article with the NYT article about dieting that everybody was linking to at the end of last year. So I've put the half-written post behind the cut since I think the topic is still at least somewhat interesting even without the key point I wanted to make.

A couple of interesting articles picked up from Twitter recently. I want to make a note of them because I think they may be somewhat useful in communicating two issues that are important to me to skeptics. They're not going to convince conspiracy theorists or people whose whole identity depends on not accepting the relevant point of view, but I think they are likely to be more persuasive than activist polemic to people who are willing to examine the evidence with an open mind, but start out from being inclined against the conclusions. Also, both are good examples of summarizing a whole raft of scientific data in a concise article.

The first is the NYT article The Fat Trap, which pretty much everybody has been retweeting. If you're already on board with fat acceptance / Health At Every Size, you probably don't need this article and may even find it offensive (thanks, [livejournal.com profile] j4). But I think it may be acceptable by an audience who are inclined to accept the conventional wisdom that being fat is unhealthy and everybody must try to lose weight at any cost. It doesn't really challenge that paradigm at all. Harding's article contains many of the same facts as Parker-Pope's, but it will scare off readers who aren't already on side, because it questions cherished assumptions, and also it's written in Harding's characteristic combative style. Parker-Pope takes it for granted that weight loss is medically and socially desirable, yet she reports clear evidence that sustaining significant weight loss is extremely hard for the majority of people, and that previously fat people who have lost weight do not have exactly the same health profile as people who were thin to start with. There is such a thing as a natural set-point for weight, and it is partly influenced by genetic factors.

Conventionally, everybody "should" be as thin as possible. And conventionally, "all" fat people have to do to achieve this thin ideal is to stop being so lazy, eat less junk food and give up sugary fizzy drinks. The first view is very hard to challenge without sounding like an extreme political activist, because it's such a widely accepted concept, in the medical establishment as much as in the media. However, the second can more readily be countered with facts such as those presented in Parker-Pope's article: to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally... [People who maintain a 30lb weight loss for more than one year] are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.

I hope that people who believe in a moral obligation to lose weight can at least accept the body of scientific data showing it's a pretty major undertaking. There are plenty of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum between irredeemably greedy and lazy, and committed enough for an hour's exercise every day coupled with watching every calorie and keeping yourself constantly hungry. For a naturally thin person, simply eating reasonably and not being a total couch potato may well be enough to keep them thin. So it's easy to assume that all fat people get that way by stuffing their faces constantly with sugary, fatty food and never doing any exercise at all. In fact, for a naturally fat person, simply leading a generally healthy lifestyle with a reasonable diet will probably keep them fat; they need to follow quite an extreme regime to get and certainly to stay thin.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-01-05 10:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pw201.livejournal.com
Did you see the report from a panel on neurological sex differences at meeting of the Society for Neuroscience: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2011/11/boys_brains_girls_brains_how_to_think_about_sex_differences_in_psychology_.html ? Eliot was on the panel, I think.

Reporting of this stuff in the popular press sucks and you shouldn't believe those stories saying that "scientists have shown that men are better at parking because it would have enabled them to hunt antelopes on the savannah", not least because the scientists concerned probably didn't say that. Then again, there are people who will deny there are any brain differences because of their ideological commitments. There's a sort of feminism which has it as an article of faith that everything is a social construct, say: recently I ran into one blog where mentioning evolutionary psychology in the comments was banned by the comment policy, not that I wanted to, but still... there's little difference between those people and creationists.

Not sure what I think of the fat thing: the fact that it's hard to lose weight for some people must be orthogonal to the question of whether fat is intrinsically unhealthy, no? If it were true that fat was intrinsically unhealthy and it was hard for some people to maintain a healthy weight, that'd be unfortunate, but the world might be that way.

I guess I'm suspicious of activism where the belief is that "the medical establishment are wrong". Not because the medical establishment are always right, but because it's unlikely that any given set of activists knows more than the best doctors and other researchers. Is there a good way to distinguish the "health at any size" aspects of fat acceptance from anti-vaxxers, for example (assuming we're both agreed that the latter are wrong)?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-01-05 10:47 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
If the truth is "fat is unhealthy but impossible to loose" then it's on a par with saying "cancer is unhealthy but impossible to cure". It might mean fat people should see their doctor more often to monitor for certain diseases; but it shouldn't mean being told they should do something impossible (become thin), and it certainly shouldn't mean non-doctors butting in to give other people pseudo-medical advice that they don't want/need (and people should never bully other people over their medical conditions whatever the cause of those medical conditions).

I'm a bit suspicious of "medical establishment is wrong" activism; but on the other hand I am really really in favour of activism aimed at telling people to stop bullying other people. Most of the "health at every size" stuff I have read is not-so-much about claiming that being fat is healthy; but much more about claiming that if you are fat there's not much you can do about that so lets move on and work with what you've got.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-01-08 08:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pw201.livejournal.com
I'm a bit sceptical of the idea that fat is impossible to lose, as at a certain level, it's just thermodynamics. Based on the article Liv linked to, it looks a lot like an addiction: it's psychologically and biologically difficult to shift the body away from the weight it thinks it wants to be. So treating it like that would be better than assuming that fat people are lazy and need to be bullied more.

The problem is that you're up against the halo effect (http://lesswrong.com/lw/lj/the_halo_effect/): people who look pretty are assumed to have other good qualities, and the reverse is true as well.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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