If researchers discovered that, contrary to popular belief, carrying a few extra pounds might not actually be that bad for our health – that it could in fact be better for long-term health than being a size zero – would you want to know? Our guess is: Yes, absolutely.
Now imagine a doctor who has worked all his life to combat obesity and promote healthy lifestyles, who has tirelessly preached the dangers of excess weight throughout his career. You can understand that a new report such as this would deeply trouble him – that he might even take steps to prevent its dispersal to the general public.
This is not a theoretical tale from some overly dramatic medical soap opera. The report is real: A review of 97 independent studies, including nearly 3 million people, headed by Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics. Published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Flegal’s study revealed the surprising news that what is medically classified as “overweight” is actually associated to lower mortality rates than both obesity and normal weight.
This of course challenges basically everything we thought we knew about weight and health (apart from the consensus that obesity unhealthy.) And this is where Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department, enters the picture. A highly quoted nutrition expert, Willett’s research focuses on diet and lifestyle habits (namely alcohol, red meat, birth control pills, and artificial sweeteners, among others) and their correlations with different forms of cancer. Willett is now the subject of considerable public scrutiny for expressing some less-than-professional opinions on Flegal’s report. In an interview with NPR, Willett commented, “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.”
Unfortunately, dismissing such a comprehensive report as Flegal’s as “a pile of rubbish” might have been the worst move of Willett’s career. Science is, by definition, a critical and collaborative field. Its findings have power and influence in our society because we trust the scientific method; and we trust it because, presumably, the research is tested, challenged, and peer-reviewed. Willett’s comment reveals a fundamental disregard for this equilibrium, no matter how noble his intentions.
There is certainly something to be said for simplicity in scientific reporting. If the general public needs to hear that excess weight leads to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illness in order to adopt healthy eating and lifestyle habits, then maybe we can believe that’s all researchers are responsible for reporting. If, on the other hand, we trust that the general public is thoughtful and discerning enough to consider shades of grey and make informed lifestyle decisions, then it would be dangerously irresponsible for scientists to censor their findings. The obsession with weight in our culture has undermined the promotion of healthy body image, self-esteem, and eating habits, particularly among teenagers and women. If Flegal’s report could introduce a bit of breathing room, then it is worth the effort that may need to go into explaining and elaborating on those pesky shades of grey.
What do you think? Can we handle subtlety in scientific reporting? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below!