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Don't Believe Everything You Read...

I am a skeptic by nature, so when I see something that seems to go against a generally accepted narrative, my attention tends to be engaged. One such counterintuitive story came across the transom the other day. It dealt with the results of a study recently published in the journal Obesity about how all those statistics showing the states of the Deep South to be the "fattest" ones in the country may be incorrect.

Apparently, those studies all use self-reported weights from telephone surveys as their input data, but a study at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in which the subects were actually put on scales by researchers found that it was states in the West North Central (whew! who makes these groupings up?) region—states like Minnesota, Kansas and the Dakotas—that came out significantly ahead of the Alabamas and Mississippis of the Union in obesity rates. The UA-B researchers conclusion on why the discrepancy? Southerners are more truthful about their weight—or at least more blasé about it—than West-North-Centralers.

Now, just because a study is contrarian to an accepted narrative doesn't mean I automatically believe it. I'm too contrarian for that. Just the fact that the study was conducted at a school in the same region that comes off better in the research—nevermind the self-serving "we're just gosh-darned too truthful" hypothesis about the reason—has my BS meter clanging.

Also, while I believe in the pure intentions of scientists, I also believe in the hidden or not-so-hidden biases of everyone—scientists included—toward what is in their own self interest. If you are a researcher in the South who has results showing that the South is getting a raw deal on something, you will tend to draw not only attention but perhaps additional funding from sympathetic state legislators and well-heeled and regionally patriotic private interests.

It's the same reason why any group of scientists at any Institute for the Study of a Certain Potential Super Catastophic Problem will tend to find that their research clearly shows that the Potential Super Catastrophic Problem they've studied is indeed very real and even more serious than anyone thought, and more funding is needed to research it further and see how catastrophic it really is.

See how skeptical I can be?

Anyway, does this invalidate the UA-B study fingering West-North-Centralers as blatant liars and Southerners as dispensers of tonnage truth? Of course not.

Yes, the idea that weight stats are skewed by reporting discrepancies makes perfect sense. Asking people to self-report about anything having to do with diet and weight is asking for trouble. Weight-loss services that depend on self-documented food diaries are serially plagued by self-deluding participants who just KNOW that anything consumed after 10 pm doesn't count. So I can very well believe that West-North-Centralers under-report their weights to researchers who ask.

What I can't quite believe is that Southerners don't do the same thing...

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