Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Every now and then I come across a fascinating writer and throw off everything else I'm doing for the sake of scrounging every last word available.  The reason for my silence in the last week is that all my brainpower is bent on Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker Magazine writer and publisher of several books in the general philosophical area of epistemology.  He's particularly adept at taking those little deceptive heuristics (i.e. "everyone knows" that black people are better at sports, that fat people are to blame, that Ivy League schools are better) and taking them to pieces to show the cognitive bias at work.  He also has a simple, elegant writing style that's easy to read.

I don't always agree with his conclusions, of course.  One article packed with ED or body dysmorphia triggers is his piece on the Pima Indians of Arizona.  On the other hand, if you can overlook a few of the fat myths perpetuated, he falls well above the usual pop media simplification of the issues.  His dissection of the cold reading techniques and evangelical language in fad diet books is fascinating.  He openly accepts the genetic factors of body weight, such as setpoints.  He covers the issue so extensively that if you reach a point where you're tempted to give up in disgust (say, when he says diets can still work), keep reading.  A few short paragraphs later, he throws out something that sounds very FA, like this:
"'A lot of studies look at ten-per-cent weight loss," said Mary Hoskin, who is coördinating the section of the N.I.H. study involving the Pima. "But if you look at long-term weight loss nobody can maintain ten per cent.'"
It sounds as if he's contradicting himself, but considering the reasoned quality of his other writings, I truly believe that he's simply considering every available angle, nook and cranny of the idea for the sake of comprehension.  If he could only go a short step further and look beyond the idea of fat as a disease to cure, it would be perfect.  Then again, in 1998 I don't know if a lot of the same research was available.  The HAES paradigm wasn't even a blip on the radar.  BMI wasn't being questioned as heavily. He didn't have available the recent studies showing that fitness levels (completely independent of fat) were the better determinant of health and life expectancy. 

I wonder what he would do with the information now?

1 comment:

mh said...

Love Malcolm Gladwell.