This “health news” tidbit, in which we’re told that a new urine test proves that obese people are not actually reliable reporters about what they eat, deserves comment for a couple of reasons.

For starters, it illustrates a major shortcoming of many studies about health and lifestyle (and other matters as well) that rely on people’s memories, perceptions, and honesty about what they have done or experienced.

Actually, it’s intuitive that so-called “self-reporting” – which basically boils down to anecdotal evidence multiplied for a whole bunch of individuals – is a lousy way to get accurate information about anything, and that to dignify such a procedure as “scientific” data-gathering is a dubious claim, at best.

Psychologists and psychologists have long known – based on experimental study of subjects under controlled conditions — that the sort of report used to provide direct “eye witness” testimony for court cases, for example, is not at all impeccable. Why? It seems that when people witness something, they take in information selectively and/or distort what they have seen with emotion or interpretative bias. Or they may simply remember things erroneously or imperfectly.

Yet we’ve been badgered by the media for years with studies based on people’s memories of the past – often the distant past – in an effort to “demonstrate” propositions such as the dangers of ETS and other hypotheses. Time after time, we’re told that “a new study” shows a “link” between ETS and disease, or shows that ETS “may cause” this or that. Every time, the “evidence” comes from self-reporting, brewed up into a politically correct cocktail with statistical manipulation. And when the study comes out, it’s added to the pile of previous studies, similar in nature and usually chock-full of other problems, that are collectively said to “prove” that ETS “kills”.

The usual claim about studies conducted in this fashion is not being made here, where a real discrepancy between fact and memory has been identified in an apparently reliable way. Indeed, we’re told that a gap between the “scientific” data and what actually happened is something that “many have suspected for some time: obese people are not able to tell us what they actually eat."

If that is true, it follows that when people are surveyed about either their own or (often someone else’s) smoking habits in the past, a similar distortion can be expected. But if “many” suspect (or know) this, don’t expect rueful confessions – major research grant money is a stake, and no researcher is going to risk getting kicked out of the palace court for suggesting the emperor has no clothes.

Our second comment is this: since there’s now a new urine test that can be used as a “tool” to see whether people are following a doctor’s dietary recommendations, we predict that the “tool” and similar ones will increasingly be used to police people’s diets and impose authoritarian control over their mealtimes.

Fasten your seatbelts for witholding of medical coverage, threat of job loss, disciplinary pay cuts and other “interventions” – all lovingly designed to help people help themselves. Just another brick in the wall in the 21st century’s creative interpretation of liberal democracy.



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