As I said in my last post, people in the Fat Acceptance/Fat Liberation and Health At Every Size movements are compared to creationists, anti-vaccine activists, and, most frequently, climate change deniers. This actually does get under my skin a bit, since I don’t particularly want to be associated with any of these groups. (But ever since reading an article by William Saletan in which believing in no average IQ difference between the races is compared with being a creationist, critiqued here, it has seemed manipulative to me.) I do ask myself from time to time, “Am I comparable to a climate-change denier?” I think doubt is healthy, so I’m not particularly worried that I feel the need to do that. But I think it’s time to work out my thoughts with a blog post.
And this is why I was happy to come across an article by David Brin that is highly relevant to this issue: Defining Climate Change “Deniers” and “Skeptics”. (Some parts of it are more relevant to the FA/FL movement, and some parts more relevant to the HAES model.) There are two different ways that FA advocacy can be contrasted with climate change denialism: 1) the differences in the science and the mainstream reaction to the science, and 2) the differences in the response to the science. Brin’s article looks at both the science and the climate change denier or skeptic’s response to it, so I’m using it as a jumping-off point for contrasting both point 1 and point 2. The question, as he puts it:
What traits distinguish a rational, pro-science “skeptic” — who has honest questions about the AGW consensus — from members of a Denier Movement that portrays all members of a scientific community as either fools or conspirators?
Already, we have some clues as to how (most of) the Fat Acceptance movement is different from (most of) the climate change deniers. I haven’t seen any attempt to paint scientists as fools in FA. I’ve seen some (IMO, unobjectionable) claims that living in a sizist society and/or the fact that one’s funding depends on “Obesity Epidemic” fears and weight loss industry money leads to unconscious bias. (Off the top of my head, I remember Linda Bacon saying as much. And BTW, if you are a scientist reading this and you are tempted to respond by saying, “scientists would rise above sizism because they were trained to analyze objective data rationally,” I say to you, “LOL” and “Science says you’re wrong”.) I haven’t seen anyone claim that scientists are plotting a deliberate conspiracy to fool society in order to get their money–something that you do see among climate change deniers. Many FA bloggers and commenters take pains to point out that they think anti-obesity campaigns such as Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign is done with good intentions.
Next, Brin discusses several characteristics that he believes separate climate change deniers from true skeptics. I’ve basically gone point-by-point, but I skipped a few that weren’t applicable to Fat Acceptance or Health At Every Size.
WHO IS AN EXPERT? I don’t think we’re on the ‘denialism’ side there. I haven’t seen anyone in FA/HAES claim that they were an expert unless, like Linda Bacon, they actually qualified for that title.
“Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts in the topic at hand. And that experts tend to know more than they do.
“This does not mean experts are always right! But this simple admission separates our Skeptic from the Deniers, who partake in the modern notion that vociferous opinion is worth as much as spending twenty years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.”
THE NEWS I NEED FROM THE WEATHER REPORT
Next, the Skeptic is keenly aware that, after 4,000 years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophesy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan three days ahead pretty well, and more tentatively as far as 14 days, based on a science that’s grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.
The Skeptic further avows that this rapid progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward — a rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.
Deniers also share this utter reliance on improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by… the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks.
Here’s an area that’s more relevant to the difference in the science (point 1) than the difference in reaction (point 2). Science and research related to BMI and health has moved forward in recent years. And a lot of it is arguably moving in our direction–in any case, inarguably away from the calories in calories out, eat less move more, oversimplified model of humans as bunsen burners or bomb calorimeters. Leptin was only discovered in 1994. A new consensus is growing that it is impractical for people to lose significant amounts of weight. There are now many studies confirming the ‘Obesity Paradox’ (or ‘Obesity Paradoxes’, since that term is used both for higher survival after heart attacks, and greater life expectancy for ‘overweight’ people and comparable-to-normal life expectancy for ‘class 1 obese’ people), enough for a meta-analysis.
(Side note: I’m a little disappointed that Brin didn’t address, in his note about the overlap and differences between weather and climate, that it’s easier to predict an overall trend than the little ups and downs within that trend. A metaphor I’ve seen is that it’s easier to say that it will be colder in the winter than what the temperature will be on a particular winter day.)
A LITTLE HUMILITY & THE YOUNG GUNS OF SCIENCE
“Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting up to fight over sub-models. Hence, if an outsider perceives “something wrong” with a core scientific model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider is to ask “what mistake am I making?” — before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.
“In contrast, Deniers glom onto an anecdotal “gotcha!” from a dogma-driven radio show or politically biased blog site. Whereupon they conclude that ALL of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Uniformly. At the same time.”
We cannot say too often that, just because nearly all of experts are in consensus, their paradigm might still turn out to be wrong. Still, the Skeptic admits this is rare in science history. Moreover, a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of experts are wrong. That burden is a moral, as well as intellectual geas.
The Denier, in contrast, cares little about the history of science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young Guns in any scientific field… the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors… are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel laureates and make a rep for themselves, in a manner much like Billy the Kid. (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)
Here’s another section that’s relevant to point 1 as well as point 2. There seems to be more disagreement among researchers about the interaction between weight and health than on whether anthropogenic global warming is happening. Not all the researchers who are questioning things are in complete agreement with Fat Acceptance; probably most of them aren’t. But there are scientists like Steven Blair, Jeffrey Frieden, Arya Sharma, and Linda Bacon, most of them Not-So-Young Guns, who question either part or all of the mainstream view of obesity. And Fat Acceptance and HAES advocates glom onto studies more than anecdata.
WHO ARE THE MORE LIKELY CONSPIRATORS?
The guys who benefit from keeping us on the oil-teat are… foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon. That is where the money flows.
Our Skeptic admits that these fellows have Trillions (with a T) staked on preserving things as they are — on preventing America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence. He admits that a conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems more plausible than some convoluted cabal to “push green technologies” — a supposed conspiracy involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.
This part is a pretty strong contrast to the situation in obesity research. There isn’t any money in Health At Every Size. There are no big corporations interested in promoting Fat Acceptance. The big food corporations want to say that their food doesn’t make people fat, and that as long as you get some exercise you can stay thin, not that being fat is okay, because in general, their customers don’t want to be fat. They want to promote products like Special K and 100 calorie packs (with a big premium for the health benefits or the individual packaging) and “diet” products–they’ve already incorporated the Obesity Panic into their business model. Meanwhile, weight loss is a >$60 billion dollar industry. And of course there are government grants for the anti-obesity crusade as well.
THE “1% PRECAUTIONARY” PRINCIPLE
Clearly, the Skeptic accepts that some things ought to be done, urgently and with full force of national and public will, even-though and even-while he nurses doubts about the likelihood of the full Global Warming scenario. She does not armwave vaguely against “rash actions,” but actively engages in negotiation over which urgent efficiency measures to promote. Even if only as a precaution.
Let’s look at the “which actions are rash actions” bit first. If you are overweight and listened to the mainstream advice and lowered your weight to a normal weight, assuming that you were able to maintain your new weight successfully, you may have just lowered your life expectancy. “May” because we aren’t sure whether switching weight categories really switches your risks to those of your new weight category. And it is a lot of work, for the rest of your life, even if you’re successful–and a lot of work for nothing assuming you aren’t–perhaps most comparable to a “rash action” that would have a significant negative effect on our economic growth, with only a 5% chance of having an effect on global warming, and with the additional caveat that if it does have an effect, we’re not sure it would actually reduce warming much or at all [“reduce warming” is “improve health” in this metaphor]. Attempting a radical weight loss corresponds to a genuinely ‘rash action’ rather than prudent risk minimization.
On the other hand, HAES corresponds to a sensible risk minimization strategy that should work whether or not the obesity epidemic hype is accurate. Many FA/HAES advocates say that they would be in favor of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program if the language about weight was removed. Many HAES advocates point out that if eating healthy and getting enough exercise leads to ‘healthy weights’, obesity fighters have nothing to lose by promoting HAES. Most HAES advocates are in favor of measures to remove food deserts and ensure that people have access to opportunities for safe, fun movement. (Coercive measures to get people healthy, on the other hand, are generally opposed.)
THE ROLE OF PROPAGANDA MEDIA
Further, the Skeptic admits something pretty darned creepy and suspicious — that the main “news” outlets pushing the Denier Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls who have benefited from delayed energy independence. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch’s debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own other portions.) Because of this, the Climate Skeptic has moved away from getting any of his news or sense of “reality” from propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in “culture war.”
Elaborating a bit: the Skeptic has noticed that the Denier Movement is directly correlated — with almost perfect predictability — with a particular “side” in America’s calamitous, self-destructive Culture War.
Nope, there’s no real money in promoting Fat Acceptance or Health At Every Size. And all I see is equal-opportunity fat-hate from the left and the right. The form of the fat-hate and the proposed solutions tend to be slightly different, but both sides of the Culture War scapegoat the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ on their favorite villains. On the left we’re symbols of overconsumption; perhaps we’re innocent dupes as in WALL-E; perhaps we’re dumb lazy rednecks. On the right we’re a symptom on the weakness of current generations; we just lack willpower and self-control; we’re the natural outcome of a generation of “everyone gets a trophy.” (This supposed ‘generation’ seems to have been going on at least since Generation X, and yet I was born in the early 80s and don’t remember getting a whole bunch of trophies.) Fighting obesity is seen as apolitical and safe enough that it’s the ideal campaign for the First Lady. The two sides of the Culture War may have a lot of disagreements, but they can set them aside when it comes to the War On Obesity.