Thursday, July 26, 2007

Two Posts: Obesity Magic and Nestle Wins

Thursday's Detroit News carries a New York Times news article by Gina Kolata titled:
"Obesity spreads through social networks, study says." The first paragraph says:
Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, researchers reported Wednesday. When one person gained weight, their close friends tended to gain weight, too.
Exactly how obesity spreads from person to person is not explained, but a feeble attempt is made late in the article. For now it just happens like magic.

Before going any further, I want to remind my readers that studies usually report risk in terms of relative risk (rr) which is just the difference between two study groups and should not be confused with actual risk, and that rrs of less than 200% are considered statistically insignificant, caused by hidden biases, confounding factors or plain chance. The article continues:
...people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased a person's chances of becoming obese by 57 percent.
Obviously, 57% is way less than 200% so statistical significance doesn't seem to be a priority with this study. What seems to be important is the strength of the magic regarding friends but no one else.
There was no effect when a neighbor gained or lost weight, however, and family members had less influence than friends.
It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too.
171% might look scary but it's still less than 200%. What's really impressive though is "It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained." Now that's a powerful influence! Still, what is the nature of this influence? How does it work?
Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, says one explanation is that friends affect each others' perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.

"You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you," Christakis said.
So the Dr. is admitting that he believes--and thinks everyone else believes--in social metaphysics. Value is to be determined by what others value. (Carrie at ED Bites has a good post on the inanity of the study apparently from a Washington Post version.) Now we get to the feeble attempt at causality:
The investigators say their findings can help explain why Americans have become fatter in recent years -- each person who became obese was likely to drag some friends with them.
See what's under attack here? Choice, volition, free will and eventually freedom. So if you chose a lifestyle by which you gain weight, those choices magically "drag" others into your sinful, evil ways. Your choices then, become "influences" that compel the actions of others. Or, if you are fat and prefer the victim status, your fatness is not your fault, the anti-social choices of others made you do it. Actually though, the study says that what made you, as an individual, fat doesn't matter.
Their analysis was unique, Christakis said, because it moved beyond a simple analysis of one person and his or her social contacts, and instead examined an entire social network at once and what could have an influence on a person's weight.
Translation: since we can't prove a causal connection between individuals, we'll just dispense with that necessity and infer social "influences" to be the same as causation. What's good for you will not be determined by studying you but by studying the herd to which you belong.

One of the manifestations of Ayn Rand's identification: "Governmental encouragement does not order men to believe that the false is true, it merely makes them indifferent to the issue of truth or falsehood." is that scientific tests and experiments designed to prove (or disprove) causality are being replaced by correlations and associations and links. Why? The thing called evidence is just well, irrelevant.

What is really sad though, is that this study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, supposedly, one of the most prestigious journals on the planet.
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I really don't like to leave my readers in a pessimistic mood so I thought I'd close with this piece of good or at least hopeful news. The same edition of the News carries a story "Nestle wins fight over water." For me the key passages are:
The Michigan Supreme Court effectively upheld the right of the bottler of Ice Mountain spring water to pump from four wells in Mecosta County in a decision that may make it harder to raise environmental claims generally.

The 4-3 ruling held that two families and an environmental group, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, cannot challenge Nestle's pumping operations on waterways the groups don't own or use.
Yes!!! Now if we can just get this logic applied to all the green NGOs.
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