Yesterday was a sad day for scientific integrity, as two high-profile studies misread and exaggerated the prevalence, causes, and costs of obesity. Unfortunately, errors and overstatements likes these are becoming commonplace in the public health community, where the pursuit of scientific fact is often trumped by a covert political agenda.
Study 1: The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) was all over today’s headlines with the claim that every state except Oregon gained weight in the last year. But a closer look at TFAH’s own data shows that perhaps our trust was misplaced. Between 2003 and 2004, fourteen states actually saw declines in obesity rates. The discrepancy comes from a little creative math from TFAH, which used three-year averages, not raw data from 2003 and 2004, to arrive at favorable numbers.
In an almost unbelievable case of statistical malpractice, THAF went on to report that obesity is responsible for 170,000 deaths per year — 60,000 more than the CDC’s recently revised estimate. The group arrived at this inflated number by using the high end of the CDC’s estimated range. Imagine a survey where ten percent of the population supports obesity litigation, when the survey actually reported the number as five percent with a margin of error of plus or minus five percent.
When we asked the Trust why they chose the upper-bound of the estimate, rather than the CDC’s reported result, a spokesman hemmed and hawed, offering a classic non-answer. He told the Center for Consumer Freedom:
I hear your concerns. I think we have a whole lot of data in that full report and, you know, certainly, I think, the vast majority of the stuff we stand behind. I mean, we stand behind this as well. I hear your obvious concerns that this is a larger part of hype, or what not, but the vast majority of the report is pretty comprehensive and fair and balanced look at the various policies and rates and trends going on.
At least they stand behind the “vast majority” of the report.
As for “fair and balanced,” it’s important to point out that THAF ultimately falls in line with the nation’s gastronomical Gestapo, suggesting radical government regulations like fat taxes, which would ultimately restrict our food choices.
Study 2: Comparing fast food restaurants to gun dealers and calling for “stricter controls on fast-food restaurant sites,” a second study published in The American Journal of Public Health claims that restaurants “cluster” around schools. The study served up the predictable spin for the food cops at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which declared: “New Studies Show How Food Industry Targets Children.” But the study showed nothing of the kind. A closer read reveals no evidence whatsoever that fast food restaurants target schools.
All the study indicates is that restaurants are likely to be found in areas of high commercial activity — the same places you might find a bank, a clothing store, a grocer, or a gas station. Restaurants locate where people work and shop. Schools located in commercial areas may tend to be close to a fast-food restaurant. But according to the study itself, when schools aren’t in commercial areas, they’re not likely to be close to a fast-food restaurant either.
In an accompanying editorial in The American Journal of Public Health, diet dictator Marion Nestle strangely blames Ronald Reagan’s efforts to deregulate the agricultural industry for the so-called epidemic of childhood type-2 diabetes. Apparently, Nestle missed a recent study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente, which found that many doctors were mistaking genetic diabetes (type 1) with type-2 diabetes. The Associated Press reported:
[R]esearchers found that one out of three children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes were found to be Type 1 after they were given a more sensitive test.