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Obesity Apocalypse

[ 72 ] August 4, 2008 |

Even by the remarkably mendacious standards of the “obesity” racket some of the claims in this story are beyond belief.

The most laughable is the idea that by 2048 everybody in the US will be “overweight” or “obese.” This result was derived via statistical extrapolation, the crack cocaine of social science analysis (by similar methods one could prove that within a few generations Olympic sprinters will be running at speeds that will hurl them into low Earth orbit and everyone in America will have a plasma TV seventeen miles wide).

In fact there has been no weight gain at all over the past 30 years in the thinnest quartile of the population — whatever (poorly understood) factors have caused Americans to weigh more on average now than they did in the 1970s have had very different impacts across the weight spectrum: thin people have gained no weight, people in the middle weigh 10-15 pounds than they did 30 years ago, while the fattest people have gained a lot of weight, which is exactly what one would expect. Furthermore, as even this story manages to note, there’s quite a bit of evidence that the trend toward weight gain in the populace in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have plateaued.

But this is a side point. The most significant and symptomatic aspect of this story is it’s completely uncritical attitude toward the current definitions of “overweight” and “obesity.” Those definitons are BMIs of 25-29.9 and 30+ respectively. (You can look up your own BMI here, and I encourage you to do so).

I really can’t emphasize enough how utterly without scientific foundation these definitions are. This can be shown in a hundred ways, but here’s one particularly striking illustration.

The best epidemiological data on the U.S. population is the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). This is universally recognized as the gold standard for such surveys, in particular because it’s a nationally representative sample that directly measures its participants. NHANES has been ongoing since the 1960s; the most recent data that allows for significant followup is from NHANES III, which was assembled in 1988-1994.

Now if we’re facing an “apocalypse” because of “overweight” and “obesity,” we should see evidence of this in, at the very minimum, increased relative risk of mortality among people in these categories. Here’s the relevant data from NHANES III on mortality risk. The following statistics use the mortality risk found among supposedly “normal weight” (sic) people (BMI 18.5-24.9) as the referent group. In other words, the mortality risk for this group sets the baseline for comparison to other groups in terms of their mortality risk. A group that has a higher mortality risk than the referent group will have excess deaths over the baseline risk. A group that has a lower mortality risk will have fewer deaths than would be seen in the group if it had the same mortality risk as the referent group of “normal weight” people.

Most recent excess deaths estimates from NHANES III:
Underweight: 38,456
Normal weight: 0
Overweight: -99,980
Obesity Grade I: -13,865
Obesity Grade II and III: 57,515

Underweight less than 18.5 BMI, normal weight 18.5-24.9, overweight 25-29.9, Obesity Grade I 30-34.9, Obesity Grade II and III 35+ What these numbers mean: In the US population at present, we are seeing about 100,000 fewer deaths per year among “overweight” people than we would if “overweight” people had the same mortality risk as “normal weight” people. Note that the majority of people in the US who according to the government’s current classifications weigh too much are in this group. The “overweight” category is to the obesity panic what marijuana use is to the drug war: stories about an “epidemic” of fatness depend crucially on classifying the 35% of the population that’s “overweight” as being at some sort of increased health risk. This is simply false, and is known to be false by the researchers who are quoted in stories like the one linked above.

But the situation is much more egregious than even this suggests. Note that the NHANES III data reveals that most people who are classified as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal weight people. About two-thirds of “obese” Americans have a BMI of between 30-34.9, and currently we’re seeing about 14,000 fewer deaths per year in this group than would be expected if the group’s mortality risk was the same as that of “normal weight” individuals.

Only when one gets to roughly the fattest 10% of the population does the NHANES III data begin to find a relative mortality risk higher than that found among the supposedly “normal weight.” And even here, the relative mortality risk results in about three times fewer deaths per capita than observed among the “underweight” (there are approximately four times as many people with BMIs 35+ than there are people with BMIs below 18.5).

In short, it’s difficult to convey the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the standard discourse surrounding weight and health in this culture.

Update addressing a couple of common themes in these sorts of discussions:

(1) I don’t think that the higher mortality rate among “normal” (sic) or “optimal” (sic) weight people provides any real evidence that someone with a BMI in that range should try to gain weight. The bogus idea here is that a narrow range of weight is optimal for all people. In fact the differences in mortality across an extremely broad range (roughly BMIs from the high teens to the mid-30s) are statistically trivial, and represent the kinds of differences in relative risk that nobody would ever pay attention to if not for cultural considerations that make body mass a subject of great symbolic (though not medical) importance.

(2) It really is astonishing how ready people are to accept the most dubious evidence for the proposition that everybody should try to be thin, while engaging in sophisticated arguments about why evidence to the contrary can be explained away. That this blatantly inconsistent attitude is characterized as the essence of science is also rather remarkable.

Great Power Confrontation for its Own Sake

[ 0 ] August 4, 2008 |

I know that most people don’t have time, but this diavlog between Francis Fukuyama and Bob Kagan is really worth watching in its entirety. I think Fukuyama goes a bit easy on Kagan, but then many of Kagan’s arguments are self-refuting; in particular, his claim that if China were actually a status quo power, then it would maintain a much smaller military than its economic and geographic positions indicate is laughable both from a realist theoretical point of view and in the context of the massive military buildup that the US has pursued over the last eight years.

Lineuppers vs. Sidezoomers

[ 0 ] August 4, 2008 |

The problem with this article on traffic styles is that it fails, in the end, to get to the core of the dispute between lineuppers and sidezoomers. The problem is this; the former are morally upstanding individuals, and the latter are evil beyond redemption or understanding. A fair handed article would have taken this into account.

More On Winters

[ 2 ] August 4, 2008 |

Kathy G has more on his silly argument on behalf of Tim Kaine. Particularly crucial is this:

Except . . . in 2004, voters were asked:

“Would you support or oppose the Catholic Church denying communion to Catholic politicians who are in favor of legal abortion?”

Their response? 68% were opposed to denying communion, with only 22% in favor. But that was just among the general public. Among Catholics themselves? 72% opposed, 22% in favor. In another poll, denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians was opposed by 72% to 19% among the general public, and by a whopping 78% to 15% among Catholics.

So this is, in fact, pretty much an non-issue which most Catholics see as the political posturing it is. And when you ask yourself how many of that relatively small minority would vote for a Democrat under any circumstances…this is about as specious as a pundit’s fallacy can get.

Angry Old Man Outlives Soviet Union

[ 39 ] August 4, 2008 |

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, fair to say one of the most important voices of the 20th century, has passed.


I was a little bothered by the obit’s line that read “[his books] inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person’s courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire.” For those keeping count, the “one person” in media accounts and obituaries who brought down communism has now been Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Boris Yeltsin, and now Solzhenitsyn. Maybe after the fifth “one man” dies, they’ll get the picture that the Soviet Union and Communism “fell” for a wide range of reasons.

Um… what?

[ 24 ] August 3, 2008 |

Vice Admiral Barry McCullough:

However, in the current program of record, the DDG-1000 cannot perform area air defense; specifically, it cannot successfully employ the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2), SM-3 or SM-6, and is incapable of conducting Ballistic Missile Defense. Although superior in littoral ASW, the DDG-1000 lower power sonar design is less effective in the blue water than DDG-51 capability. DDG-1000’s Advanced Gun System (AGS) design provides enhanced Naval Fires Support capability in the littorals with increased survivability. However, with the accelerated advancement of precision munitions and targeting, excess fires capacity already exists from tactical aviation and organic USMC fires. Unfortunately, the DDG-1000 design sacrifices capacity for increased capability in an area where the Navy already has, and is projected to have sufficient capacity and capability.

Say again? We’re spending untold billions on a destroyer that has, apparently, no air defense capability, and that is less capable than its immediate predecessor of hunting submarines? That the DDG-1000 cannot employ the Standard air defense missile is simply shocking, and runs counter to the claims that the Navy has been making about the destroyer’s capabilities for the past several years.

Galrahn is beside himself:

Who would possibly confuse the 6 small combatants with 500 missiles that is dependent upon escorts for defense from air attack as outlined in the arsenal ship program, with 7 enormous independently capable stealth combatants with 2 big guns and 750 shells? After all, as long as the enormous stealth combatants had SM-2s they were completely different ship profiles. Without the SM-2, what is the difference between the Arsenal Ship and the DDG-1000? Different primary weapon, the DDG-1000 is bigger, and the DDG-1000 costs more. That’s about it.

The distance between a DDG-1000 cited with SM-2s on every public website on the internet, and a ship that cannot support SM-2s is the same distance in the Navy’s credibility gap when it comes time to discuss surface combatant requirements. Keep in mind, the existence of the SM-2 has driven every assumption in the public domain about the DDG-1000 for the last three years. How is it possible the DDG-1000 is a “ship which meets the requirements for which it was designed” and the whole time Congress and the American people have been told the cost of the DDG-1000 is justified because the DDG-1000 has all kinds of multi-mission capabilities that it really doesn’t have? Allison Stiller testified the Navy has already spent $13 billion in both R&D and SCN budget funding to build the first two DD-1000 Arsenal Ships, and apparently Congress didn’t even know what they were really doing. Is the DDG-1000 really a “ship which meets the requirements for which it was designed?”

This is absurd. Whereas we thought we were getting a warship intended to destroy the Iraqi Army as it invaded Kuwait but also capable of a number of other missions, it turns out that we basically get nothing. I’m wondering now whether we’ll see a housecleaning in the Navy similar to the one that Robert Gates has performed on the Air Force…

Book Review: Enemies of Intelligence

[ 0 ] August 3, 2008 |

This is the fourth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

  1. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
  2. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
  3. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
  4. Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts

Over the years, Richard Betts has written extensively on intelligence issues. Enemies of Intelligence is a restructuring and amalgamation of many of the arguments that he’s made over the years in a variety of different outlets. While some collections of this sort prove disjointed and repetitive, collecting Betts’ various argument together and refining them makes a lot of sense; the book is, on the whole, coherent and readable.

Betts’ central argument is that the TANSTAFL principle applies to intelligence. The Intelligence Community will catch some threats to the United States, and miss others; intelligence reorganization is as much about which threats will be caught as about the final batting average. Every effort to solve one intelligence problem creates a problem somewhere else. For example, there is no a priori reason to prefer a regional to a functional division of intelligence responsibilities within an organization; both approaches do some things well and leave gaps. Adding coordinative layers can help, but can also substantially slow down analysis. Demanding clear statements of probability can lead to mistakes, while overfocusing on mistakes can produce mushy intelligence estimates. Similarly, the politicization of intelligence is bad, but intelligence product must be politically savvy in order to be of relevance to policymakers. This may all seem obvious, but in the wake of a public failure of the intelligence community, almost everyone seems to forget these lessons; every failure produces calls for a reorganization (without an evaluation of what that reorganization will do), calls for an elimination of red tape (without a recognition that red tape exists for a reason), and calls for more resources (without much attention paid to just how much added value such resources will produce). This is a particularly serious problem in intelligence, because while failures are public, successes are not; if Atta and his comrades had been identified and arrested months before 9/11, a few people would have noted it as an intelligence victory, while most wouldn’t have noted it at all.

Betts does sometimes allow a bit too much “on the one hand, on the other handism” to creep into his analysis. Given his focus, this isn’t surprising; when you argue that intelligence reorganization is a zero-sum, or possibly low positive sum game, then it’s critical to recognize that different approaches inevitably have different pluses and minuses. Similarly, Betts is not a strong partisan; although he strongly opposed the Iraq War, he’s best characterized, I think, as a Cold War Democrat most comfortable with the idea that a broad consensus on foreign security policy is both possible and desirable. As such, he’s not interested in battering the Republican party and the way that its partisans think about intelligence. This leads him to be a bit too kind to ventures like Team B, which in my view (and in the view of a lot of other people) were enormously destructive endeavours without notable redeeming qualities. Then again, he does point out that the WMD fiasco was, above all, a policy failure rather than an intelligence failure; it would have been irresponsible of the intelligence community to conclude that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, and the real problem was that the presence of such weapons should not, in fact, have justified intervention. A better report would have added caveats about the circumstantial nature of the evidence and the weakness of the case, but could not have concluded that the weapons were absent, and likely would not have stopped the war.

Enemies of Intelligence doesn’t include a tremendous amount of detail about the workings of the Intelligence Community, and Betts could have illustrated his argument with more examples. The book amounts to an abstract case for an abstract caution, with some detail in order to make specific points. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling case, and a useful antidote to the entertaining-but-non-analytical arguments made in a book like See No Evil, or even Legacy of Ashes.

Brad Ziegler

[ 16 ] August 3, 2008 |

This is a pretty nice stat line. Ziegler’s story has Billy Beane’s and thus Bill James’s fingerprints all over it. A 20th-round draft pick out of college who spent a few years struggling in the low minors, the A’s converted him to a submarine-style pitching motion last year (James has always been a big believer in the theory that submarine pitching motions aren’t used enough, mainly because of old-time baseball men’s prejudice against throwing under-handed. Hmmm, does the use of the term under-handed to mean devious encode this semantically?).

Well now the guy has given up one earned run in 56 innings of AAA and MLB pitching. His major league career is 32 innings long and no one has gotten an extra base hit on him.

An odd footnote to all this is that his skull has been fractured twice in the last four years — once by a line drive in a game, and then this past January in a freak accident at a baseball camp by a stray baseball.


[ 40 ] August 3, 2008 |

While messing around with my computer this morning, I accidentally uninstalled Civilization IV, and I’m not sure where I put the installation disks.

So now I’m wondering; should I panic, or embrace this development as my last, best chance to pursue tenure?


[ 34 ] August 3, 2008 |

On this, I agree with Michael Totten:

If you’re using Internet Explorer 7, do yourself and me a favor. Stop it. Seriously. It’s crap. Use Firefox. It’s free and vastly superior.

Even if the Sitemeter problem has been cleared up, the general point remains entirely correct.

Subtraction by Addition…

[ 18 ] August 2, 2008 |

Given that the White Sox appear to have been historically terrible in terms of center field defense this year, I suppose that the Griffey acquisition makes sense, even allowing for his demand to return to center. I’m kind of glad, though, that I didn’t take time out of my precious DC visit to go and see the Nationals and my beloved Reds last night, although I suppose that attending while wearing my Griffey t-shirt (which bears Griffey’s 2005 number, to boot) would have had some anachronistic value. In any case, dumping any of Griffey’s salary for anyone who might contribute in any way to a future Cincinnati playoff team is a good move for the Reds…

Send in the Clowns

[ 0 ] August 2, 2008 |

In other news, TIDOS Yankee shows the world once again why he’s The Champ.