Paul Campos and his enablers in the media — a new low

(What follows is a virtual duplication of a comment I posted earlier today to a column in today’s Denver Post. )

Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post has written a badly misguided column, bordering not only on excessive and unabashedly biased cheerleading for someone Carroll once in some sense supervised, but also on irresponsibility from a public-health standpoint.

I’ve written about Paul Campos’ off-kilter “analyses” of fat science many times on this blog. That he has been energetically pursuing his scientifically vacuous crusade for over a decade now does not make him a “debunker.” He is an attorney by training, someone whose job is to argue, not seek truth. The former he does admirably well; in the latter he is a dismal failure.

His latest piece in the New York Times has been thoroughly and expertly fisked by medical professionals (who, the columnist might have noted by now, are conspicuously absent from his various irrational screeds about the “hysteria” surrounding the “exaggerated” claims about obesity). Please see this piece by David Katz, M.D.

The points that Carroll raises in a desultory attempt to lend Campos’ arguments credibility are tired canards by now. Just because the BMI is not a perfect tool at the individual level doesn’t mean that people carrying an excess of body fat aren’t at increased risk for certain health woes (and one of Campos’ favorite tricks is to use obvious outliers like hypermuscular NFL linemen to “prove” that the BMI is meaningless, when anyone with a pulse knows that the overwhelming majority of people with a BMI over 30 are not fit, they’re simply heavy).

Collins also observes that “Campos has never dismissed the danger of being seriously obese.” So how is it that thin folks and really obese ones have a higher health risk as a result of how they are built than people who just happen to represent the majority of people who read the anti-scientific rants that Campos — who also happens to be portly but not fat, or at least this was the case when I was trading barbs with him years ago on a now-defunct running forum — unflaggingly excretes?

But this is perhaps the worst: “When he began addressing the topic, he noted, alarmists were predicting declining longevity in the U.S., which hasn’t occurred.” This is a neon-sign-caliber straw man. No credible health professionals have ever asserted any such thing. Life expectancy has been rising steadily for decades. Does that mean that the health risks of HIV, cancer and playing with live hand grenades are overstated as well?

Finally, life expectancy per se is hardly a stand-alone measure of a society’s health. Consider this:

“[N]ew research from Eileen Crimmins, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Hiram Beltr??n-S??nchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, shows that average ‘morbidity,’ or, the period of life spend with serious disease or loss of functional mobility, has actually increased in the last few decades.”

Thus the fact that we can ably keep people with diabetes, CAD, severe hypertension and other chronic diseases alive without relieving much of their debility does not spell a lack of a negative impact of obesity on America’s health profile.

I should add in conclusion that arguments concerning how overweight people are portrayed in the media, personally maligned both consciously and subconsciously, etc. are completely independent of medical facts and should not be conflated with same, tempting as it may be. I abhor the idea of mocking anyone who might already feel intense shame simply because of how they look and always have, as I am very far from perfect in myriad ways myself.

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