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Tom Friedman’s furrowed middlebrow


This column is a few months old, but it’s a particularly good example of something illustrated by any number of Thomas Friedman columns, or indeed any amount of free-wheeling high-profile punditry. Various aspects of the argument strike me as absurd (the idea that the only really big problem the world had when Friedman was a kid was the fact that the Soviet Union was a nuclear state) to at best dubious and strained (the analogy between increasing U.S. government debt and increasing carbon emissions). But what struck me about it at the time, and why I remembered it this week, was something else: the breezy style in which Friedman issues pronouncements on three immensely complex subjects — nuclear proliferation, the world’s financial system, and climate change — as if these are straightforward matters that he, Thomas Friedman, has sufficient expertise to comment on in a useful way because he slept in a Holiday Inn Express last night or something.

I was reminded about that this week because I’ve spent a lot of time doing media stuff on the childhood obesity panic (I’ll be on CNN tomorrow at 7:45 PM eastern Update: link to video here), and I was struck, if I might indulge in a bit of liberal condescension, by how much I know on this subject, at least in comparison to almost everybody who is commenting on it.

Now this isn’t because I’m some sort of genius, but simply because I’ve spent literally thousands of hours studying the subject of the relation between weight and health. I get a bemused smile when somebody in a comment thread starts pontificating about the “fact” that very thin people have high mortality rates because people lose lots of weight right before they die. As anyone in my position would be, I’m intimately familiar with the methodological debates about what to do to control for occult wasting in observational studies. Indeed I’m hip to all the tricks researchers use when trying to squeeze certain conclusions out of the data. That’s why people like, to name names as they used to say back in the 1950s, Walter Willett and JoAnn Manson of the Harvard School of Public Health hate me with a visceral passion — and I welcome their hatred.

Normally, people like Willett and Manson can shut dissenters up, or at least make them extremely cautious and mealy-mouthed, through the raw exercise of institutional power. They review articles for publication, consult on grant proposals, invite people to conferences, write tenure letters and letters of recommendation, place former students in key positions, and even hold press conferences to denounce researchers who publish inconvenient truths, to name just a few of the many tools at their disposal.

But hey I’m not a doctor, as I’m so often reminded. No kidding — which means, among other things, that I’m off the grid. They can’t do anything to me and it drives them nuts. It’s hardly a coincidence that the most trenchant criticisms of the obesity orthodoxy are coming from academics who are mostly outside the public health establishment: from political scientists and sociologists and historians and physiologists and yes even a law professor or two. These are people who don’t have to curry favor with the obesity powers that be to get hired and funded and tenured and promoted.

[Update: A few comments in this thread and in the torture/body stigmatization thread take the rather inexplicable view that I’m claiming “academia” is out to get obesity dissidents. To the contrary, academia enables obesity dissidence, as the links in the post indicate. The parallels between obesity dissidence and global warming denialism are interesting, but also highly problematic for all sorts of reasons. That’s a subject for another post].

Anyway, back to Tom Friedman. One advantage of actually knowing a lot about something is that (unless you’re an egomaniac) you have a keen sense of how little you know about almost everything. Here’s what my opinion is worth, on the margin, to debates about nuclear proliferation in an age of terrorism, and managing the U.S. debt in the context of the world financial system, and dealing with the problem of anthropogenic climate change: Nothing. If I studied one of those things intensely for say five years I might have something to add. But I haven’t and I don’t. So I try to draw a distinction (at times unsuccessfully no doubt) between opining on subjects on which I actually know something (there are about two others besides fat), and everything else. I doubt, however, that someone like Friedman could do what he perceives to be his job if he drew a similar distinction.

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