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19 June 2012

Spuriousness: Weight and Health

Last week, my wife was watching an episode of ABC's The Revolution. I don't know much about the show, but I wanted to comment on the episode I saw. Here is a link. (Sorry, it won't let me embed.) The bulk of the show is about the changes that a woman had made over five months in her physical activity. Most importantly, with the help of professional trainers, she developed an exercise regimen that was sustainable, rewarding, and effective. The climax of the show, however, was a big reveal in which the woman tore through a life-sized poster of her old self, shocking the audience with her much more slight outward appearance. The message was contradictory: it's about healthy living--no, no, it's really about meeting a culturally specific definition of physical attractiveness.

I was reminded of this post from Sociological Images that shows evidence that, while increased body mass can exacerbate their absence, health is really all about behaviors. (The research calls these "habits," healthy eating and exercise for example.)

Medical science, and thus our larger culture, has been making a common causal error, namely spuriousness. Spuriousness is sometimes a difficult concept to understand so here are some concept maps so that we can visualize the relationship. First, here is how we have come to commonly (and incorrectly) understand weight and health. As you can see below, we tend to believe that being obese directly causes poor health outcomes. Eating bad foods (and too much of them) and not exercising may increase our rates of obesity (or so we think), but it is obesity itself that is deleterious to our health.

Now, here is how the data correctly link weight and health. As you can see below, it is actually eating bad foods and not exercising that is directly deleterious to our health. Being obese can compound that effect, but it does not drive the outcome. There most certainly is a strong correlation between obesity and health, but, correlation is not causation! The supposed relationship between obesity and poor health is spurious.

Back to The Revolution. Shows like this--and it is certainly not alone; these ideas are ubiquitous--do us a disservice by reinforcing an agential and spurious worldview. The ironic tagline "It's about you!" leads women to believe that it amounts a personal choice toward self-improvement (read: "willpower"), ignoring the social constraints on the prescribed outcomes (e.g. work/life balance issues). The focus on improving "self"-confidence is blind to the definitions of beauty that we inherit from others that may be literally impossible for most people to attain. And, we erroneously couch all of this in the language of "health," incorrectly legitimizing harmful cultural values in the name of "science."

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