Posted tagged ‘Obesity’

This Is How Bad Ideas Become Received Wisdom: Mark Ambinder, Regulation, and Evil edition

April 16, 2010

I’m not an Ambinder hater.  He knows the mechanics of politics really well, and when he chooses, he’s got useful material to share.

But I’m no fan either — I think he’s allowed himself to play Villager too much too soon.  He’s a good reporter, I think, but his pleasure at being a member of the Washington in-crowd is palpable, and I find his site less and less interesting the more reliably conventional its wisdom becomes.

It’s kind of sad, actually.  He’s too young and too smart to make it pretty to watch him turn into a kind aspiring Broder with internet skillz.  But that’s what’s happening,  I think.

Case in point — look at this reflex in action on what would seem to be a subject pretty far removed from the usual Washington sacred cow.  Ambinder wrote a  very interesting article for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly about  obesity, spinning of his own experience an in depth look at what can and/or should be done about the very real harm obesity is causing in this country.

Mostly, the piece is a pretty good bit of feature writing, with a clear understanding of its subject and its aims.  But even in a matter very near to his heart, and one in which he has already made the (for the contemporary Village) significant leap of recognizing a role of government action in confronting the very complex issue of obesity, he still can’t help straying into the easy, mindless tropes of elite posturing on the evils of policy action.

For example, in one passage, he describes President Obama’s choice of FDA chief, Margaret Hamburg, as “another New York City veteran with a strong nanny streak.”

That would be this Dr. Hamburg

Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.

She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.

And what was Dr. Hamburg’s sin? That under her leadership, the FDA “warned 17 food manufacturers that their food labeling made misleading health claims that needed to be corrected.”

This is, if I may steal someone else’s snark, Your Liberal Media In Action.

Ambinder seems to see as a nanny — by implication, I think, an emasculating female authority figure — someone who helped roll back what many consider to be one of, if not the greatest looming public health crises around these days (TB) — not to mention someone who has tried to plan ahead for a couple of the most significant anticipatable but not predictable medical threats we face as a nation.

I’m not sure what you would call someone who has that skill set and resume, but she’s a nanny only if you think proactive government planning and decisions in the face of real dangers is somehow Satanic Mary Poppins territory.

But that, of course, is the current elite Washington chattering class consensus.  Three decades of hard, effective work by the radical right propaganda apparat — the AEIs and the rest — have produced the unthought conclusion for too many that government action of any sort is an infantalizing, illegitimate assault on the individual’s corporation’s right to lie about the effects of its products.

What’s weird — or rather, telling — is that it actually appears from the passage in question that Ambinder actually admires the FDA’s action in this case. He writes, “This was the most significant FDA enforcement action on such matters in more than a decade.”

But even so, he can’t stop himself from spitting out a cliched epithet that undercuts his own apparent conclusion — and, more broadly, the whole idea that it might make sense for the government to be active in the arena of protecting the public from deceptive practices implicated in a major health concern.

You see this pathology more bluntly in a blog post that Ambinder wrote to follow up on the article, in which he outlined in brief what he thought ought to be done about the American obesity plague.  There he writes that  we should

Accept that regulation is a necessary evil. (Emphasis added.)

Oh FSM.  Not this again.

Easy snark aside, here you have the political editor of The Atlantic Monthly taking as absolutely uncontroversial the idea that regulation, necessary or not, is bad.  It’s a truth universally acknoweledged– in his worldview —  that such government action cannot be better than the lesser of two lousy outcomes.

And this is the problem.  There is no argument that there can be good and bad regulation — as in rules that fail to achieve their policy goals.  But the idea that the tool of regulation is itself evil — now that’s the true accomplishment of the Reaganite long war on the whole idea of public governance, of a public interest.

And, of course, it’s false, a lie, told wittingly by some, unconsciously, I think, here.

This really isn’t complicated:  regulations are the tools we use to ensure that private ambitions do not trump public interests.

Ambinder even gets this, sort of.  In  his longer article, he writes of the ways regulatory change works.  Sometimes it is simply a rule that compels a change in behavior.  Other times, it is process that evokes such changes.  He writes,

There is a creative tension here, and the conversations can be difficult,” said the [National Restaurant Association] president, Dawn Sweeney, of its negotiations with the administration. “Having said that, we have to have real things to offer, because if regulation is in the offing at some point down the road, we want to be out in front of it.”

Well, yeah.

To recap:  what has Ambinder tried to say here?  One — that our current food practices have led to a deeply damaging national crisis of obesity.  Two — that the organization of  our food industry and culture are among the primary drivers of this crisis.  Three — that absent changes in the way the industries involved do business we are unlikely to resolve said crisis.  And four — that such change comes only in the context of explicit incentives to do so, and this administration is using the regulatory process to provide those incentives.

Nothing evil to see here — except, if I may hyperbolize — Ambinder’s swift and sloppy appropriation of a cliche that advances the very political interests that would derail the changes he wants to see here.

Which is to say Ambinder has to choose, as must all the rest of us, which side of this rhetorical and real divide he wants to defend.

*Ambinder himself notes this problem, writing, inter alia, that “wide evidence suggests that advertising feeds obesity, triggering what the psychologist Robert Cialdini has called the brain’s “click-whirr” response.”

Images:  James Gillray “A Voluptuary, under the horrors of digestion” (a caricature of the Prince of Wales, later George IV) 1792.

And why not two  Weird Tales covers in one day, this one, dated November 1942, vol. 36, no. 8, featuring Nursemaid to Nightmares by Robert Bloch. Cover art by Richard Bennett.

Why science writing is hard — Andrew Sullivan (and surrogates) illustrate.

July 29, 2008

Outsourced largely to a e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

The back story: A study in the journal Obesity (press release here) extrapolates from current data to suggest an enormous increase in the percentage of Americans who become obese (defined as possessing a Body Mass Index over 30). If this comes to pass, it would evoke a huge amount of spending to deal with health consequences of such American expansion.

The claim gets picked up in Wired, which then lands it in a drive-by post on Sullivan’s extremely popular blog.

The only problem: no one in the expanding circles of puffing this very slender piece of work took note of the key phrase which, to the original study author’s credit, did make it into the press release that otherwise over-hyped its subject. The release said: “Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.” (Italics added.)

Here’s the comment that — also to his credit — Patrick Appel (subbing for Andrew) then published:

It never fails to impress me the fact that people see a journal article and then turn their critical reasoning skills off. Looking through the actual paper in question, it’ll be figure 1 that’s giving the headliner quote of 86% fat by 2030. Except that this is wrong….

…the kicker: these are *linear* extrapolations, taken out well beyond where they actually tell us anything. The tell-tale hint? Take those projections out another 15 years and they say the overweight plus obesity fraction will be 100% before 2045. Yes, that’s right. Not a single healthy person left alive in the US. Marathon runners? Triathletes? Starving supermodels? Richard Simmons? All of them obese. Presumably from the fresh vegetable blight of 2040, forcing every last one of us to subsist entirely on Chicken McNuggets and Spam.Oh, and that trend they’re talking about is extrapolated from 3 data points. Sure, it’s suggestive, but I wouldn’t scream bloody murder from these stats.

….Yes. Chalk this one up there with, “According to current trends, housing prices will keep rising, allowing us to take on LOADS of bad debt!”

Exactly so.

The moral of this story is one I and my colleagues at the MIT science writing grad program try to drum into our students very early. Just because a press release or a paper says something doesn’t mean you can suspend your bull-shit sensor. Science writing is a specialized beat because claims are asserted in technical language, and in many cases, in forms that require at least a bit of statistical due-diligence to assess.

Simply glossing a press release with a hip-ish reference to Wall-E (Wired), and then passing on the news as fact (Appel-for-Sullivan) ain’t close to good enough; in fact, I would say, this kind of slapdash reporting (or transcribing) that does a fair amount of damage to the public’s willingness to pay attention to scientific results — not as much as the overtly fraudulent kind of stuff that comes out of the Discovery Institute or climate change denialists — but still, this kind of stuff doesn’t help matters.

Now — professional or credentialed science writers are hardly immune to all kinds of flaws of their own, ranging from the cheer-leading problem (in which science writers only tell the “good” stories – and miss, for example stuff like this. (Abstract only — full article costs $).

Then there is the context problem – it’s possible, for example, to get so absorbed in the particular fashion in a field that it becomes hard to remember — and report, that there is more to physics than string theory, for example, or that the identification of the gene “for” something is only a tiny part of the biological knowledge needed to comprehend most of what’s going on in an organism.

And certainly, plenty of science writers don’t possess in themselves enough specialized knowledge to smell out dicey stories in much or most of what they cover. I could not do any of the science I have covered over the last quarter of a century. What I have learned (with some hard lessons, to be sure) is to check not just the facts of any story I want to write — but its meaning as well.

In this case, the facts were fine. A study does exist that says what the Wired item and the Appel post say it does. But it was the interpretation of those facts that was off. In this case, as the commenter above points out, the issue was simple — any trend line that suggests incidences exceeding 100 percent coming soon ought to raise a couple of alarm bells.

Ideally, this kind of first-order BS test should not require specialized beat-centered training. Anyone writing for the public about more or less anything ought to know enough about numbers to get that one; it is or ought to be as much a part of a liberal arts intellectual arsenal as is the skill of writing a clear sentence.

To that end, I wish I could publish here the guide to mathematical reasoning my colleague Alan Lightman has written to introduce the science writing grad students at MIT to the tools they can use to make sense of the hype factor in science news. He”s getting ready to turn that material into a short book, I believe, and it can’t come to soon.

In the meantime, this concise and funny book is a good place to start.

Image: Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.