Tuesday, January 18, 2005

bad science

So a recent study of 5,069 adults suggests that race may affect fitness levels. You can check out the Web site for the American College of Chest Physicians, who covered the study in their journal.

I'm not sure what's bothering me more about this--the fact that the study doesn't appear to touch on social factors at all, or the ugliness of the postings on the message board Yahoo! attached to the article, which I'm afraid you can't see because the link has expired since I started writing this post in December.

A few years ago, I was helping a woman who was working on her nursing school thesis try to get a grip on the writing part. She was studying hypertension in African-Americans, and public health approaches; it was fascinating stuff. And then, a couple of months ago, I was reading Fat Land by Greg Critser about obesity in America, and he raises some of the same points, as well as others.

So while I agree that obesity and hypertension are rampant in the black community--I'm thinking now about my own hometown--being black does not automatically mean that one is just naturally prone to being fatter or less healthy in general. But you're not going to get that much subtlety in this study, which didn't apparently allow for certain factors.

Some of which Critser and my student identified, quite simply:

Fitness correlates with income before it does race. If I remember correctly, Critser quotes studies that suggest that poor whites are just as likely to be obese as poor blacks.

Obesity often begins young, and young black folks are less likely to have consistent exercise--or safe places to do it--than young white folks. Critser points out that programs like AYSO youth soccer tend to start in the suburbs, which are replete with big open safe spaces in which to run.

This my student told me: black folks are less likely to trust doctors, or what doctors say, than white folks. So public health strategists have to take a different tack, but that tack hasn't yet been well-researched. She also pointed out that inner-city families have a harder time getting decent food, and tend to rely on junk and fast foods. My own experience of living in an economically depressed neighborhood full of convenience stores bears that out: I'm completely set for Doritoes here, but have a serious hike ahead of me if I want an organically grown vegetable.

There are a lot of factors, and I'm just touching on them lightly; I highly recommend Critser's book for the full story. What angers me about the article, besides the bad science aspect, is all the knuckleheads who logged onto the Yahoo! message board so they could say stupid things about how black people should be in great shape from running from the police all the time. Or who took the opportunity to post bizarre "Negro Fact Sheets" with masses of numbers that add up to telling us that blacks are sub-human. Ugly, ugly. Research twisted to a bad end.