I decided that in the spirit of self-flagellation, it might be fun to look at some of the online comments on this article. Here is one:
I felt there were a number of notable things about this comment.
- The Globe and Mail comment system has something they call a score. Anything that makes the internet more like a competition automatically makes it 73% more awesome. I was hoping there was some sort of magical algorithm that calculates the score based on content (e.g.: +4 points for using the phrase “smiling dolphin,” -2 points for “fiscal responsibility,” +3 points for “ravenous thunderclaw,” etc.), but alas, it is simply a super-boring method of “Votes Up” – “Votes Down.” At the time of the screencap, PoliSciMajor has 41 points, and therefore, wins the game of commenting and must have the best comment. I wasn’t able to come up with an objective way of judging this, and I am forever indebted to the Globe and Mail for crowdsourcing this highly distressing process for me.
- Since PoliSciMajor is, presumably, a poli sci major, clearly she is already overqualified to speak on matters of obesity.
- She doesn’t seem to like her roommate that much.
It’s also representative of a good chunk of comments. There are some reasonable people on there, for sure, but most of the high score (THUNDERCLAW!) comments may be summed up reasonably well by “I’m not fat but I think fat people are lazy and eat too much except for the fat people who have clear medical issues that cause them to be fat in the first place in which case I’m okay with them being fat but obviously there are only about 5 people who are actually fat because they are like that so I don’t like fat people because they are whiny and lazy and fat.” This stock comment can be adjusted for desired level of vitriol, spelling, and grammar.
Occasionally, scientists like to do ground breaking research that not only could help humanity, but also allow people the world over understand each other better, fostering respect and creating utopia for all.
However, scientists don’t necessarily communicate their research well to the general public. Or, more accurately, the message is so diluted by the time it hits the media, little science is actually left:
(I had to use this article as an example, seeing as I saw it on Bike Snob NYC, and it turned up in my search for air pollution news, AND I totally wear that outfit every time I’m on a bike. It was too serendipitous to pass up.)
Anyway, this article goes on to tell you that some pollutants cause (gasp!) certain effects on the lungs. And that sometimes it might not happen! If you present the information in this kind of way, you will often get one of two reactions:
- I’m not sure if this is saying anything, so I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.
- THE AIR IS TRYING TO KILL ME SO I SHOULD STOP BREATHING RIGHT NOW!
Granted, a lot of people are pretty low in the spectrum that is scientific literacy, so it’s hard to tell people what this is really saying, which is sometimes you find a statistically significant effect of air pollution on a given health effect (or an endpoint, as it is often called in this medical/epidemiological studies); sometimes, you don’t. One of the reasons we know air pollution is a health problem is that Harvard found a high correlation between particulate matter and dead people. You probably can’t read this article unless you are affiliated with some sort of university library, but I’ll poorly summarise it here:
However, some “endpoints” more subtle than dead people are harder to prove. Epidemiology is kind of fickle this way. I think of this branch of science as having three distinct charms:
- Studies cost a lot of money;
- They take a really long time; and
- They often end up not proving anything.
Anyway, the major result is that you end up getting a big divide between which science and what the general public knows about the subject at hand. Returning to the original topic of obesity, for example:
Trenta, of course, is the new stomach-sized beverage volume that you can get at Starbucks, and is exactly the type of beverage that those fatty-fat-fats like to consume.
Originally, I thought I might look for a review paper that went over the current state of knowledge about obesity. A review article, for any non-scientist readers, is a peer-reviewed article (i.e., an article that has received a gold star of approval from other scientists) in which a scientist talks about the work that a bunch of other scientists have done so that lazy people like me only have to read one paper instead of fifty to get the information they need. I’m not an obesity scientist by any stretch of the imagination (I study air pollution), but I think I could at least get a reasonably decent counter-argument by reading a review paper. Right?
It was very shortly thereafter I discovered that there is an entire goddamn journal dedicated to review articles on obesity research.
Unfortunately for the International Association for the Study of Obesity, they neglected to read online comment boards and realise that solving obesity is simply a matter of eating less, exercise more, and generally doing fewer things that make you a Fat-Ass. They would also have saved themselves the trouble of having to edit three other journals, publishing so much unnecessary research.
The moral of this long-winded story is that if several people are actually doing research on something, chances are we don’t fully understand the issue, and chances are that your conclusions on the subject are horribly misguided. I think the world would be a happier place if we could all just accept this, and then we’d have more time to play outside. (Which is what solves obesity, silly!)
And then, all we would have to worry about is air pollution again: