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Jewish World Review August 15, 2001 / 26 Menachem-Av, 5761

Paul Campos

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Media blithely foster 'big' lie -- ONE of the pleasures of writing a weekly column is hearing from readers. Unlike much academic writing, anyone who writes columns doesn't have to wonder if anybody out there is paying attention. It's always nice to hear from mainstream readers who like one's work (keep those cards and letters coming), but in some ways it's even more fun to hear from the fringe, whether its residents like one's work or not.

The fringe is where the hardcore dissenters hang out, composing their e-mail rants on everything from the sacredness of the Constitution (a document which, for many of these people, appears to be imbued with almost magical qualities), to the unappreciated greatness of Fidel Castro, to the vast conspiracy being carried out by (you name it) to deprive the correspondent of his or her rights.

Most of these people are nuts, of course. Nevertheless, hearing from the fringe is useful for all sorts of reasons, not the least being that even the most delusional fringe-dwellers usually have at least the beginnings of a valid point lurking somewhere beneath the bad grammar and rhetorical excess.

Consider the first paragraph of a major story in last week's Wall Street Journal. Now, the Journal is a terrific newspaper. But when even a media source of this quality is reporting a story whose substance contradicts one of Those Things That Are Generally Understood To Be The Case, strange things tend to happen. Here is the first graph of the story: "Losing just a modest amount of weight can cut the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in half for people who are at high risk for the disease, according to a new large-scale study."

It just so happens that the study in question concluded nothing of the sort, although this is the kind of detail that would only be noticed by someone who read the Journal's summary of the study with a critical eye. The study tracked several thousand fat people for at least three years. Some of these people began engaging in a very moderate exercise program (basically, walking several times per week), and started eating a healthier diet. These people weighed, on average, about 220 pounds. After three years, they weighed an average of 212 pounds.

In other words, most of the people who changed their diet and exercise habits lost little or no weight. Yet this group reduced its risk of contracting diabetes by 58 percent! (Another group, which took a drug designed to stave off diabetes, got results that were little better than half as good). This is just one of several recent large-scale studies that have demonstrated that the health benefits of avoiding a sedentary lifestyle and eating a well-balanced diet are immense, completely independent of whether such changes result in any weight loss.

This, of course, is not a message that the $50 billion-per-year weight-loss industry (or for that matter the "obesity" researchers whose work is largely funded by that industry) wants Americans to hear. It is crucial to those who profit from America's obsession with weight and body image that the almost wholly false idea that "obesity" is a serious health issue remains firmly in place.

Those on the fringe, when they see this sort of distortion in the major media, tend to interpret that distortion as evidence of the conspiratorial manipulation of the news. Things are almost far more complicated than that, though. After all, it's not as if the American media is being paid off to hide the truth about the relationship between weight and health. They perform services of this kind quite unconsciously.

And that's a story that's worth pursuing -- whether from the fringe or from the most respectable middle of the mainstream.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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06/27/01: The corruption of the critics
06/20/01: McVeigh fired our dark joy of vengeance
06/13/01: Outrageous verdicts are genteel theft
06/07/01: Martin ruling only further handicaps us
05/16/01: The thin line between hero and hated
05/11/01: Nature defies advent of true meritocracy
04/23/01: Being fat is OK
04/04/01: The screams that go unheard
03/28/01: When a day care provider dumps her baby should her liscence be revoked?
03/21/01: While markets are rational, most people are not
03/14/01: Jesse's racialist bluster
02/27/01: Can 673 law professors be hypocrites?
02/21/01: There is a certain irony in all the foaming at the mouth Bubba's latest Excellent Adventure
02/14/01: The Napster thrill
02/08/01: War on drugs worse than drugs
01/31/01: Racial imbalance not always racist

© 2001, Paul Campos