The Washington Post has been running a weeklong front-page series regarding the supposed crisis childhood "obesity" poses to the nation. It provides reporters and editors with a blueprint for how to engage in hysterical fear-mongering while committing egregious journalistic malpractice.
First, string together a long series of alarmist claims, backed by a bunch of random and unverifiable anecdotes. Garnish this with a smattering of misleading and context-free statistics.
Second, treat data-free assumptions and speculations as if they actually constituted well-established facts, not contested by any reasonable person.
Third, make sure to throw in lots of stuff about how all sorts of spectacular catastrophes are "expected" to take place in the conveniently distant future.
Fourth, and most important, hoodwink your readers into believing that a highly controversial issue isn't controversial at all, by ignoring the many experts on the issue who disagree completely with the basic thesis of your story.
The Post series is a textbook example of all these strategies. Here are two things its readers would never guess:
1. Ever since public health records began to be compiled in America in the mid-19th century, the following statement has always been true: Today's children are both larger and healthier, on average, than those of a generation ago.
2. In the 1950s and 1960s, government officials claimed constantly that we were facing a public health crisis because Americans in general, and children in particular, were becoming fat and sedentary.
Indeed, the very same predictions being made today about what will happen 40 and 50 years from now were also made, in almost precisely the same terms, 40 and 50 years ago. These predictions turned out to be not merely wrong, but exactly the opposite of what actually happened.
The current definitions of what constitutes an overweight or obese child were invented recently by public health officials, so they could give a scientific-sounding answer to the question of how many children are "overweight" and "obese."
To be precise, children are currently classified as overweight or obese if they occupy what represented the 85th and 95th percentiles of height-weight growth charts in the 1960s and 1970s.
If you're wondering what the rationale for this definition is, the answer is that there isn't one. It's an arbitrary number, which is now being exploited by government officials eager to sell the idea that we face a health crisis (again, American children and adults are healthier now than they've ever been).
Many doctors, epidemiologists, eating disorder specialists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines have concluded that claims we face an "obesity crisis" are either greatly exaggerated or completely false.
One reason why fear-mongering for dollars (described to me by a government researcher as the theory that "we're all going to die if you don't fund my next study") is so perennially successful is that there are almost never any negative consequences for those who engage in it.
Here's one small step that could be taken to address that. The first story in the Post's series cites a 2005 study predicting a two-to-five-year drop in life expectancy "unless aggressive action manages to reverse obesity rates." Jay Olshansky, the study's lead author, is quoted in the story as saying that "five years may be an underestimate."
I challenge Olshansky to the following wager: If, at any decennial census going forward, obesity rates have risen or remained the same, and life expectancy in America has declined, I'll pay him $10,000. If we don't get any thinner but life expectancy has risen, he'll pay me the same sum.
These are, given Olshansky's predictions, quite generous terms in his favor. (If he has scruples against gambling, we can make a charitable contribution in the other's name.)Well?
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos@Colorado.edu.