There has been a lot of talk lately about fake news, or has some people refer to it, about propaganda. While concerns around fake news are valid and should definitely be of concern in the post-truth culture, I have similar concerns about the failures of mainstream media (real news), to report information in accurate and useful way for the public. We’ve seen MSM in the United States struggle with this with PEOTUS, who is unwilling to distinguish between a truth and a lie.
And it isn’t only the MSM in the United States that engage in irresponsible reporting. Here in New Zealand, the media has once again failed in their reporting around issues of fatness, and failed to present useful information for the New Zealand public. In a story entitled, “Claims of a NZ obesity epidemic are ‘fearmongering’, says academic”, it is reported that a “dramatic jump in the number of children considered overweight or obese is expected to hit New Zealand within the next nine years. By 2025, it is expected about 32 per cent of children will be considered overweight or obese….By 2025, more than one in four Australian children will be considered overweight or obese.”
The article concludes by listing the obesity rates for adults and children in communities around the country. The article is framed around the narrative that the sky is falling, and I am Chicken Fat, running around disputing the claim.
Let’s set the scene, shall we? I’m sitting in the lounge at the airport, waiting to fly up to Auckland. My phone rings, and caller ID tells me that it is the local paper. I answer and speak with a reporter who is keen to get my thoughts on a press release from the Royal Australian College of Surgeons. He wants my thoughts, and of course needs them ASAP, so I suggest he email me the media release and I will read it and get back to him.
Here is what he sent me,
ROYAL AUSTRALASIAN COLLEGE OF SURGEONS
Obesity Epidemic Already Upon Us Say Medical Professionals
Thursday 27 October, 2017
The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has issued a dire warning to Australians and New Zealanders about their countries’ weight problem, as alarming statistics highlight the prevalence of the problem in young people.
This warning comes as the Obesity Surgery Society of Australia and New Zealand (OSSANZ) holds its Annual Conference in Sydney starting today to discuss some of the more difficult areas of Bariatric Surgery and as the Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges (CPMC) prepares to convene a National Health Summit on Obesity in Melbourne on 9 November to discuss ways in which obesity can be reduced.
According to projections, by 2025, more than one in four Australian children aged between five and seventeen will be considered overweight or obese. This is up from one in five at the turn of the century, with a clear trajectory towards a one in three figure.
The numbers are even worse in New Zealand, where the one in three figure will almost be reached by 2025, when it is expected approximately 32 per cent of children will be considered overweight or obese.
RACS Fellow and President of OSSANZ, Mr George Hopkins, said that the increase in Australia and New Zealand had reached crisis point.
“We often refer to the obesity epidemic as a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, but the reality is it already has. You don’t have to spend long in any public shopping centre to work out how widespread it has become,” Mr Hopkins said.
“This is having flow on effects for the rest of the health system. There are strong links between obesity and a myriad of other health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancers.”
“Furthermore, obese people have a 50 -100 per cent increased risk of dying prematurely compared to people of normal weight.”
Mr Hopkins works as a gastrointestinal surgeon in Brisbane, where he has performed weight loss surgery on thousands of patients. He says there had been a noticeable increase in the number of obese patients requiring surgery, but most startling has been the rise in the number of children.
“When I am required to operate on younger people it is usually after every other weight loss strategy has failed. Compared to when I first started working as a surgeon it is alarming how common it has become for people to require this sort of intervention at such a young age.”
“With so many people now overweight this is not just placing an enormous strain on individuals, but it is also creating an untenable situation for our health system. There is only so much pressure it can take before it collapses.”
“Childhood obesity is preventable, but something needs to change urgently. Weight loss surgery has proven to be an effective measure, but it should not be viewed as a silver bullet or a cure.”
“We need to look right across the spectrum for how we are going to tackle this crisis, from education, to nutrition, to promoting more active lifestyles. Those figures are damning, clearly what we are doing at the moment isn’t working.”
So I read the release, and Google to learn more about the Obesity Surgery Society of Australia and New Zealand (OSSANZ). Because this press release has been released on the first day of the OSSANZ’s annual conference in Sydney, and understanding the Obesity Surgery Society is central to understanding the press release. Unsurprisingly, I learn that the OSSANZ is an organisation that is comprised of obesity surgeons and works, among other things, “to form a closer association of the obesity surgeons of Australia & New Zealand for the advancement of the obesity surgery & management”; it is also part of the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, which itself is a “federation composed of national associations of bariatric surgeons”, because these national associations, like the OSSANZ, are everywhere.
My main reaction to the press release was that it made a lot of claims about rising rates of obesity in New Zealand and Australia, but did not direct the reader as to where one could go to find the evidence to support the claims made. So, this was my response:
As they haven’t referenced/cited where they are getting their evidence/statements, I can only really speak to the tone of the piece. Which is fear mongering; it feeds into the existing moral panic we are having about obesity.
And it’s especially dangerous when targeted at children. We are already seeing the effects of the war on obesity in kids – the hostility & bullying of fat kids (by both peers & adults) is increasing, as are the numbers of eating disorders being diagnosed in youth. Further efforts to fight obesity will only increase stigmatisation of children’s bodies. Fat kids are living in hell, and non-fat kids are engaging in undesirable behaviours to avoid becoming the fat kids.
What we need are approaches to health that are independent of weight. And we can do this. We can teach kids about health seeking behaviours, without it being attached to fear or shame about weight. We can assess and measure the health of a population in many meaningful ways without using BMI.
What we do, though, is use weight as a proxy for health. And that isn’t helpful for anyone, except those who make their living performing weight loss surgeries.
I specifically mention that I can’t comment on their claims about the numbers in New Zealand in 2025, because the press release itself doesn’t provide evidence or any citations for how those projections are made. I specifically mention that all I can speak to is the tone.
The piece itself – presents the claims of the press release without question, and presents me as Chicken Fat. Read the first two sentences from the piece:
“A Manawatu academic has slammed a warning about a projected spike in child obesity as “fearmongering”. A dramatic jump in the number of children considered overweight or obese is expected to hit New Zealand within the next nine years.”
A bit later in the piece, we get this: “However, that projection has been criticised by Massey University human development senior lecturer Cat Pause, who says such messages are dangerous when aimed at children.”
I didn’t provide a criticism to the projection; I noted that it wasn’t supported by evidence. The only feedback I provided was to the tone of the release. And yes, it was fear mongering. Specific examples of the fear mongering in the release include (emphasis mine),
- “alarming statistics highlight the prevalence of the problem in young people”
- “the increase in Australia and New Zealand had reached crisis point”
- “We often refer to the obesity epidemic as a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, but the reality is it already has”
- “it is alarming how common it has become for people to require this sort of intervention at such a young age”
- “There is only so much pressure it can take before it collapses”
While I am annoyed by how I was misrepresented in the story (a common experience for Fat Studies scholars and fat activists – see this and this on suggestions for how to not get stitched up by the media), it is not my biggest concern. My biggest concern is how the information itself – the facts – was misrepresented. The reporter simply repeated the projections from the press release, without providing links to further evidence – or noting that the press release itself didn’t provide evidence or citations. Or even repeating the projections as claims made by this particular group (with a particular dog in the fight). It could easily read, “The OSSANZ claims that by 2025, 32 per cent of children will be…” And while the word projection is used once in the article, the presentation of the projections read like established facts,
- “By 2025, it is expected about 32 per cent of children will be considered overweight or obese, according to Australian and New Zealand obesity surgeons.”
- “By 2025, more than one in four Australian children will be considered overweight or obese.”
Most people reading the article will come away believing that these are realistic projections supported by scientific evidence. But are they? Without any reference to the evidence, we can’t know. There is no doubt, however, that these projections are great for the OSSANZ. Who benefits from obesity fear mongering? Obesity surgeons – bariatric surgeons – the professionals who can present themselves as the only ones with the answer to the problem (as Mr George Hopkins in the press release notes), benefit greatly from these projections. But where is the evidence? I’m not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the OSSANZ, or even the larger Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. We have too long a history of being taken in by projections – of judgments – from obesity science; these past proclamations have done a great deal of violence to the fat community.
For example, in 1999, David Allison and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that asserted that obesity caused 300,000 deaths a year in the United States (while noting several times that this was probably a low estimate). It’s since been cited by over 2,000 other papers and that number (300k) spread everywhere. Picked up by policy makers, healthcare providers, and NGOs alike, it is still often used in documents. Allison and colleagues received a great deal of criticism for the methodology they used to determine this number, however. In the paper itself, they note “…our calculations assume that all (controlling for age, sex, and smoking) excess mortality in obese people is due to obesity”. This means that they concluded that all the fat people who had died had died of their fatness.
Another popular assertion is, “Because of obesity, this is the first generation of children that will not outlive their parents” – ever heard anything like that? In 2002, the Houston Chronicle ran a story that included the dire warning of Dr. William Klish of Texas Children’s Hospital, “‘If we don’t get this epidemic [of childhood obesity] in check, for the first time in a century children will be looking forward to a shorter life expectancy than their parents.'” When pushed for evidence to support his statement, Klish acknowledged that he didn’t have any, but that it is based in his own intuition.
Similarly (albeit in a scholar journal, rather than the MSM), Jay Olshansky, David B. Allison, and colleagues published a piece in a 2005 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine that made a similar claim to Klish, “youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly even shorter lives than their parents”. Towards the end of the paper, Olshansky and his co-authors acknowledge that their dire prediction relied on their “collective judgment” rather than empirical, scientific evidence. “It is important to emphasize that our conclusions about the future are based on our collective judgment”. When pressed for further explanation by a reporter for Scientific American, Allison responded, “These are just back-of-the-envelope, plausible scenarios…We never meant for them to be portrayed as precise.” (If you want to read the entire story in Scientific American, entitled, Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic? you can find it here and here).
Both of those talking points – obesity kills 300k people a year, and children will have shorter life expectancy that their parents – are still kicking around the Internet, government policy documents, and the scientific literature. MSM still repeats them when useful – and rarely does the use of either talking point include an acknowledgement that there is NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT EITHER. That these shouldn’t be taken as fact. As truth.
And there is also NO consideration given to the violence that is done by statements like these. Whether through government policy, structural discrimination, workplace programmes, or bullying/harassment enacted by family, friends, and strangers, make no mistake that those talking points bolster (and in many cases justify) the oppression of fat people.
In a democracy, a free press has the responsibility to provide the readers with factual information to inform their lives and decision-making. This requires not simply parroting back information found in press releases, especially where a conflict of interest may be apparent (like, obesity surgeons making predictions about how many obese patients there may be one day needing their surgeries, without evidence to support it). So for the Manawatu Standard to repeat those predictions, without providing any context to the reader, is incredibly irresponsible and gross.