This week was kind of a bad news good news week for the science of fatties. On the good news front, Dr. Oz got a very public spanking in Congress for continually touting snake oil “miracle cures” for weight loss. Claire McCaskill, Chairman of the Senate’s consumer protection panel, brought Dr. Oz to task for presenting a variety of supplements, potions and cures as effective methods of weight loss without having any, you know, science to back it up. When grilled by McCaskill, Dr. Oz admitted that some of the “miracle” weight loss cures (like green coffee beans) do not pass scientific muster to be presented as fact. But he insists that he has studied them himself and recommended them to his own family. He says he recommends stuff to his audience that he would give his own family. Which is cool, except he is not described on TV as “Papa Oz” or “Uncle Oz”. He’s touted on TV as “Dr. Oz”. And TV watching people are gullible. If a TV doctor tells them that green coffee supplements will make them miraculously thin, many people believe it is so. And they think that if a doctor recommends something, there’s a little more scientific proof that it works than “my cousin tried this and it was awesome”.
The fact that Dr. Oz underwent this very public spanking is in some ways very encouraging. It is in line with many other efforts by the FTC to bring “miracle weight loss” companies to task for making a whole lot of money from lying to people about the effectiveness of their products. But if Dr. Oz behaves in a way remotely similar to these other weight loss companies (including Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers) we should be prepared for some “bobbin’ and weavin'” in the boxing ring. After huge fines were levied by the FTC, Weight Watchers and many other competitors have started to put a tiny asterisk after weight loss claims and the teeny-tiny mousetype on the bottom of their ads says “results not typical”. Which is a start. But let’s face it. When you have three glorious examples of anecdata with startling before and after pictures, that little asterisk has to work pretty darn hard. The FTC said as much in “Gut Check” their new spotters guide to weight loss fraud. Dr. Oz will have to begin including his own “asterisk” regarding his “miracle” weight loss cures. But the guy has his own TV show. He has writers and editors that are extremely talented. I have no doubt that he will find a way to appear to follow the letter of the law regarding truth and weight loss, while leaving the spirit of the law firmly behind.
And in this same week, I came across this piece by budding scientist Rachel Fox. In the piece she describes why she has decided she can no longer pursue a career in science. She has been told in no uncertain terms that she cannot be a scientist because she is fat. And being a scientist and being fat just don’t mix. In the piece, Fox describes the discrimination, both subtle and overt she has experienced as a budding scientist. At one job interview for an exciting student researcher position at a prestigious lab, Fox was told that the work was “collaborative” and that the lab didn’t want anybody on board who “was going to eat more than their fair share of the pizza”. Fox describes other incidents where fellow researchers are appalled that she doesn’t seem to understand the “calories in, calories out” rules of nutrition. And as we’ve seen with Dr. Terrible earlier this year, scientists and academics seem think they are free to draw whatever conclusions they like about fat and self-discipline because you know, science.
It’s important to understand that science is subject to prejudice and politics just like any other field. Scientists expressed beliefs about the flatness of the earth and geocentric nature of the universe long past the sell by date of these notions not because they had evidence, but rather because it was politically prudent to do so. Modern scientists may not find themselves in an actual dungeon. But I’m sure many other scientists like Ms. Fox can attest to the notion that doing science while fat can lead to “The Inquisition”.
So, as much as I wish I could jump up and down with glee over Dr. Oz’s trip to the Congressional Woodshed for “making stuff up” to give us fatties “some hope”, I am simply saying let’s wait and see. When you’ve got a guy with an audience with millions of adoring fans, his own TV show, his own writers, editors, makeup people, lawyers and PR firms, we can expect a whole lot of fancy dancing, and very little scientific fact. In fact, make it up and make it look good on TV might just be the 21st century scientific method.
Jeanette DePatie (AKA The Fat Chick)