Msnowe's Blog

Perpetuating Pseudo Stereo-Studies

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on January 8, 2008

Sometimes, social/medical studies are self-perpetuating cycles of relative facts. Sometimes, the results, though essentially correct in number, have the tendency to not only be presumptive, but actually cause and heighten the findings that they think they found in the first place. In other words, they make people believe that certain things happen for certain reasons, and those reasonsin turn become accepted and studied fact — so why dispute them? It’s a dangerous, never ending cycle, because the studies are meant to make links and prove things, and people see the numbers and believe them, and then act accordingly, reinforcing the study, and so essentially, even if the study was faulty, or based upon inaccurate data or erred presumptions, it proves itself true in the long term.
One of the problems with empirical social data and the studies founded on them is the inaccuracy of the actual reporting and gathering techniques. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tried to fill out the dietary intake questionnaires that thousands of Americans fill out every year, and which form the basis of many capstone research projects throughout the country. This dietary professional found himself unable to do it without fudging the answers. From these misinformed forms, many of the health and nutrition studies we accept without immediate questions come about. The problems with studies based on human data and the human reporting functions are multiple: some simple, others complex. The simplest denominator of this equation is the fact that people lie – even on anonymous tests. Or, if you’re a bit less cynical and more simpatico with your fellow survey guinea pigs, it could be simple human errata – forgive them father, they know not what they circle and check off. Or, it could be that people are swayed by their own beliefs- that they want to make a survey “seem” true, or they even have a stake in how their data will measure in the big scheme of things. In essence, a survey where people are free to report whatever they want is like an election – they may have high ideals, and praise this candidate or the other, but once they go to pull the lever, other emotional and self-serving, or even base instincts still have a tendency to override all those well-proportioned intentions.
But that is an internal problem with these kind of surveys and research findings. The other, and sometimes larger problem is the bias of the researchers themselves. When a researcher wants a particular outcome, the project is already doomed — because human nature, no matter how faint, will skew that person’s vision into the fields it most wants to see. Peripheral vision has a tendency to blur when we have our eyes on the prize, or in these cases, the outcome. The most objective studies are those in which the studiers are essentially open to whatever results they come upon. Modern scientific method teaches the necessity of a theoretical assumption, or hypothesis in which to springboard from; but the best hypotheses are those which, though aim to prove, allow for possibilities outside the norm. The hypothesis, therefore, should be as uncomplicated, and nonrestrictive as possible. The best scientific discoveries have come from either mistakes, where things happened completely out of the blue, or when the scientists made their postulations open, or they themselves were not averse to averse results — their open minds left room for brilliance to enter.
The problem with socially based/anthropological studies is that they essentially rest on prejudices, or preconceived notions of how certain groups of people think, act, and react. In particular, people should take issue with a recent study, supported by the National Institute of Health, and reported in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The basic gist of the article is thus: teenage girls who view themselves as unpopular, or low in social standing, have a higher tendency for gaining weight, or more conclusively, gaining up to two or more BMI points on the Body Mass Index scale. The researchers “adjusted” the study to try and account for factors such as family income, race/ethnicity, baseline BMI, television viewing habits, etc. — but the list they used to adjust is by no means conclusive. But here’s the real question – perhaps the numbers don’t lie, but even if that’s the case, why conduct this study at all? What is so important about proving that young women, who may or may not be overweight at the beginning of this study, should view themselves as unpopular? The connection between social standing and physical standing is a prevalent issue in today’s world – that is an absolute given. The other issue is why is this study only done with the research numbers for teenage girls? Doesn’t it perpetuate the stereotype that girls, popularity, and weight all constitute stronger connections — and doesn’t that do more harm than any good a study like this could possibly do (which doesn’t seem like it could do much good for anyone in the long run?). Isn’t it also a given that when people (not just women and young girls) have a higher self-esteem, self-worth, and feeling of personal respect for themselves and their place in the world, they would also be more likely to take care of their physical bodies?
What could this study possibly say about us as a culture? We currently have a “mean girls” mentality — and it seems like no one bothered to stick around and watch the end of the movie to get Fey’s feminist and pro-self-esteem message. If we care as a culture about young girls and women, then why do we just mask our studies with fancy words like “adiposity” or “the subjective social status,” instead of admitting that what most intrigues us is the ratio between which girls are cool and the relative size of the fat deposits on their ass? Of course, this also brings up the notions of double-standards – in high school and in life in general: where women are judged (and apparently studied) in terms of likability (i.e. pliability… instead of abilities such as intellectual prowess or imagination) and physical appearance (i.e. sexual attractiveness), boys and men can be popular and successful regardless of how many people like them, or the measurement of their waistline (better to be feared and bilious, anyways). It also perpetuates the social jockeying in not only schools and peer groups, but within families, and the world. Parents, on the whole, want their children to be popular, social, and well-liked (how else can you explain the increase in the collective parent’s fear that their child is autistic or socially inept?) — and by creating an aura around weight gain (even in healthy doses) as a problem that encapsulates and orbits the entire social zeitgeist, how do we expect young girls not to get caught up in the false drama, and become a party to its destructive and utterly ridiculous pitfalls? Now, let’s not forget — this study didn’t conclude that obese kids are unpopular – it was calculated to show that girls who considered themselves more popular only gained an average of under six pounds in two years, whereas girls who saw themselves as unpopular gained around 11. That’s roughly a five-pound difference. Are we so harsh? Is an extra five pounds, even in the “normal” weight range, the social kiss of death? Are we also supposed to believe that women who start playing into the belief that they are socially retarded therefore have worse eating habits, or somehow the one is directly correlated to the other? And why this destructive view? Perhaps the “norm” of “popular girls” is actually an abstraction, and the truth is that the one’s who view themselves as higher on the social rungs gain less because of the extreme pressure felt at the top of the ladder, and the socially accepted need to be svelte? No matter how you approach it – this study is disturbing, despicable, and a waste of everyone’s time, yet worth everyone’s ire.

MSNBC story on research study:
More Study Info:
slate story on Michael Pollan:

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