These biases exist everywhere, they’re part and parcel of being a human being. We have to try to use our knowledge of the world to avoid being taken in by these biases. Turning your back on most insights that come from people who actually work in the real world putting ideas into practice, and embracing most of those that come from academia, is not a really smart way to do it. In the realm of weight loss (among others), I’d much prefer to listen to experts who are actually running successful programs than to academics who are publishing immaculate studies. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose, and try to listen to both.

And in further reference to Kaiyala’s note: I’m fascinated to hear he’s known only three people in his entire life who have lost and kept off weight. If he says so. Maybe it’s geographic—I know more people on my block who have pulled this off than he’s known anywhere in his entire life, go figure. Sure, those who succeed are a small percentage of those who try—thanks to the inappropriate approaches most people take to trying to lose weight, approaches they frequently read about from our leading science writers in our leading publications, supported by the findings of published studies. But I don’t think the success stories are quite as rare as Kaiyala’s personal observations would suggest.

In any case, I wonder how Kaiyala’s three acquaintances defeated the supposedly enormous forces of genetics arrayed against them? And whatever the means, why couldn’t others do it, with the right support? How did the vast majority of the human race pull off this amazing, biology-defeating feat for thousands and thousands of years, up until the past few decades? Again, we need to apply common sense. This isn’t all about biology. It’s about the interaction between biology and the environment. We can’t much control biology (even though it’s what most scientists, and science writers, focus on), but we absolutely can control our environments. That’s what a behavioral program does.

How have so many scientists and science writers missed these obvious points? Let me suggest an answer: Because behavioral approaches are complex and messy—like human beings and the world around us—and don’t lend themselves to single-variable randomized, controlled trials. That means they don’t make for highly publishable papers, they don’t give editors the breakthrough, study-backed revelations they’re looking for, and they don’t give the public the silver-bullet solutions it craves. Science writers who can’t tell the difference between highly publishable claims and claims that hold up in the real world are doing society a disservice.

I join the commenters in urging people to read Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine article about the near impossibility of sustained weight loss in its entirety. I didn’t criticize the article for being discouraging to dieters. I criticized the article for being wrong. And I noted that being wrong, in this case, creates needless discouragement to dieters that could in theory be measured in thousands and perhaps even millions of person-years of life lost.

Amy Alkon objects to my taking Gary Taubes’ very-low-carb-diet-promoting Times Magazine article to task, noting that Taubes has been a tireless campaigner against misleading studies. That’s true. Taubes (who is a friend) is in many ways a role model for the appropriately skeptical science writer. But I do think he’s off track with the very-low-carb stuff, mostly because people have so much trouble sticking with that sort of extreme diet. But people should read Taubes for themselves and decide. At a minimum, the’ll learn a lot about the problems with misleading studies.

Rebecca X objects to my omitting the institutions I work with, including The Atlantic and Johns Hopkins, when criticizing the insufficiently skeptical transmission of study findings. OK, The Atlantic and Johns Hopkins do it, too. Every publication and organization I work with does. I do it myself, all the time. Am I credible now?

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in The Observatory

Climate coverage rebound?

Read More »

David H. Freedman is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a consulting editor at Johns Hopkins Medicine International and at the McGill University Desautels Faculty of Management.