The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology


It is a unanimously accepted and widely condemned fact that the population of the world, in the prosperous regions at least, is getting fatter. Obesity, usually linked with declining levels of physical activity, is often cited as the single greatest cause of unnecessary death and disease. Both in fashion and in health science, 'thin is in'. But have the medical and scientific community been complacent in their analysis of the crisis? The Obesity Epidemic argues that the current state of scientific thinking is a complex mix of science, morality and ideological assumptions about people and their lives. The authors question the scientific legitimacy of accepted thought about the causes of obesity, arguing that ideological bias and debatable moral assumptions have had a significant effect on research. The authors examine the 'obesity epidemic' from a variety of angles, exploring both the science of obesity and the construction of the 'obesity epidemic' in the popular media. This is a controversial book about a critical theme in health and exercise studies. It provides much needed, thorough and reflective analysis of the current state of research and is set to contribute a great deal to the debate. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in health and obesity issues, including teachers, scientists, health workers, doctors and policy-makers.



The first section of Steven Jay Gould's (1996) Life's Grandeur is called 'How shall we read and spot a trend?'. Gould's subjects here are nothing less than the meaning of life on earth and the cherished human idea of 'progress'. He begins by discussing people's tendency to use both the word and the metaphor of 'progress' whenever they talk about 'natural selection' and 'evolution', even though formal evolutionary theory suggests no such thing. For Gould, this is a mistake because, as with pre-Copernican and pre-Darwinian ways of thinking, it tries to locate humanity at the centre of creation, constructing it as the crowning achievement of life on earth. The idea of 'progress' also assigns to evolution a sense of inevitability, as if the only reason for there being life in the first place was to produce human kind. So even though we may think humans are the embodiment of 'progress', we should not forget that Homo sapiens is 'only a recent twiglet on an ancient and enormous genealogical bush' (Gould 1996:41).

The idea of 'progress' is also an example of the way people retrospectively impose order on events so that we might understand (or think we understand) what has happened. After all, not only are random events and systems virtually impossible to predict or control, it is also extremely difficult to tell a good story about them. 'Progress' is a good story, something which no doubt partly explains its popularity and Gould shows how people as varied as footballers, artists, journalists and scientists often use the word 'evolution' as code for 'progress'. While we may be inclined to assume that footballers and journalists are more likely to fall into these unfortunate habits of mind than scientists, Gould's message is that this is also a trap - scientists, as much as any other group of people, often think in predetermined, pre-packaged ways which, rather than telling it 'like it is', interpret data so that they fit the story they wanted to tell all along.

Writers and scholars have often noticed that archetypal stories and ideas, such as the idea of 'progress', co-exist within cultures alongside their opposites. For example, the idea of essential human goodness exists, no doubt, partly as a consequence of the opposite idea that at their core humans are self-centred animals acting on base instincts. In the same way, the story of inevitable decline in human affairs is just as familiar as the one about inevitable progress. Gould (1996:79) writes: 'Remember that our cultural legends include two canonical modes for trending: advances to something better as reasons for celebration, and declines to an abyss as sources of lamentation'.

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