Saturday, April 28, 2012

Circumventing the Middle Man

Well, my post on justifiable skepticism (Paranoia is just good sense if people actually are out to get you) certainly was the big winner for traffic/comments this week.  I was happy to see that...I had a lot of fun putting that graph together and thought the outcomes were pretty striking.  Thanks to Maggie's Farm for linking to it.

It was my post on food deserts however, that got me the most IRL comments.  Both my mother and my brother commented on it, and not terrifically positively.  In retrospect, I wasn't very clear about the points I was trying to make, though to be fair I had spent a lot of the day on an airplane.

My issue with food desert research, or any similar research, is that what we're really talking about is a proposed proximate cause to a larger issue: obesity.  In my experience, just having people tell you why they think something's happening, isn't good enough to prove that's the actual reason.  Thus my quibble with much of the theorizing about obesity have to make sure that what you're theorizing is the cause is actually the cause (or one of the causes) before you start dumping money in to it.  You cannot make the middle man the holy grail if you haven't established that it's really a cause.

Unfortunately, people love to jump on good ideas before truly establishing this link.

Example:  A few years ago, it was discovered that 22% of school children were eating vending machine food.  This school had an obesity problem, the food in the vending machines was unhealthy, so a push began to remove vending machines from schools.  Schools balked, as they make money from vending machines, but the well being of children came first.....until of course this study came out proving that reducing access to vending machines didn't actually effect obesity rates.   Oops.

It's really a simple logic exercise...proving that kids are (a) obese and (b) eating from vending machines does  not actually prove that getting rid of (b) will reduce (a).

That's why I liked the research in to the difference food deserts make in obesity.  It's a question that needs to be asked more often when trying to address a large issue:  are we sure that the issue we're trying to address will actually help the issue we were concerned about it the first place???

If you haven't established that it will, then be careful with how you proceed.  Addressing food deserts (or vending machines or whatever) is  a means to an end, and you shouldn't confuse it with the end itself...unless you have really good data backing you up.


  1. "You have to make sure that what you're theorizing is the cause is actually the cause (or one of the causes) before you start dumping money in to it."

    Should be printed on a plaque mounted to the wall in direct view of every legislator everywhere!

  2. Unless your actual goal is to merely look like you are doing something about obesity, not actually affect obesity. Then getting rid of vending machines works just fine.

    There is an added complication that people don't want to blame the poor for bad decisions, because it seems like kicking them when they are down, blaming the victim. Therefore, if the more acceptable culprits can be shown to have any effect at all, they must become the focus. And if they have no effect, that's probably because we haven't looked hard enough because Of Course it must have an effect if the healthy food/unhealthy food is right there/isn't right there. Because it just makes sense to people, because they can make a story that seems right, the story remains until forcibly dislodged.

    One of the correlates with obesity is no Dad in the home. That seems like an odd story to people, because they don't picture Dad as being the enforcer of food choices (in popular culture, quite the opposite). So they think, well then, maybe the single mom's are more frazzled and...

    But it could just as easily be genetic (epigenetic, prenatal, whatever). Unlike the old days, most absent dads are not dead, but away, even uninvolved. If one has an inability to delay gratification, then fathering children you aren't supporting is more likely. As is choosing cute guys who aren't necessarily going to be good dads. Or both. Or milder impulse-control problems, further down the continuum, of Dads who are sorta there sometimes, etc.

    But that's just a story. Some will find it persuasive, others abhorrent, but either way, it's just a guess, as far as I know. No data I've run across, for or against.

    However. Delaying gratification is a problem for the poor, who unfortunately need it most. And a connection between obesity and delaying gratification seems plausible.

    This suggests that government is increasingly going to get into nagging-us-for-our-own-good. Creating PSA's will be a growth industry.

  3. Schools balked, as they make money from vending machines,

    I knew of a small city where a member of the school board had the vending machine contract. It is an interesting coincidence that the school superintendent at the time, who went on to supervise much bigger school districts, eventually got fired for making big bucks making a speech for someone who was a contractor for the district. Two cases of conflict of interest.

    I have no idea if the school board member still has the vending machine contract.

    1. I always questioned my schools lunch was a tiny private school, and we couldn't do bake sale fundraiser's during lunch because she'd veto them. It felt a little wrong at the time...still does.

      I don't know if the AVI will read this, but if you do, can you ask Jonathan and Ben if I'm remembering that correctly? I'm pretty sure we all wondered who she was connected to. We needed some trust busting going on there.