Channel 4, Fat and the Facts

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Watching Supersize vs Superskinny, Channel 4’s latest venture into the ever-popular fat voyeur genre, I was struck by one thing in particular. Unlike the casual viewer, it wasn’t the enormous quantities of food that participants consumed (or actually in this case were forced to watch their ‘superskinny’ counterpart struggle down), nor the gratuitous footage of even bigger Americans in undignified situations, nor even the perma-tan and blonde highlights of the creepy Dr. Christian. Instead, having spent much of the last 4 years analysing the way political actors make sense of and argue about obesity, what stood out for me was the constant stream of facts and figures that viewers were bombarded with. From Perspex containers filled with kilograms of sugar and fat (a ‘shock’ technique filched from Jamie Oliver) to the sober clinical assessments delivered by the good doctor,  the show seemed to be jam packed with references to scientific claims on obesity and its impact on health.

This observation aligned neatly with what I had found in my research—a seemingly universal fetish for ‘the evidence’ whenever the issue of obesity comes up. Indeed, every policy actor I have come into contact with in both the UK and Australia, whether in public or private, seems to share this obsession. The evidence of my own gathered over this time shows that these actors typically litter their comments on the subject with facts and statistics, make extensive and deferential reference to ‘the evidence’ in general, and speak of the need for (or at least of the faint hope for) policymaking around this issue to be ‘evidence-based’. Now, to be clear, these actors disagree vehemently about the nature of obesity as a problem and about how public policymakers ought to react: for some, the obese are lazy oafs sponging off the NHS; for others, they are helpless victims of an ‘obesogenic’ environment poisoned by the wicked food industry; and for others still, they are objects of a moral panic inflamed by special research and pharmaceutical interests. Yet all share an obsession for the evidence, such that these conflicting accounts are all avowedly ‘evidence-based’. So how does that work?

An elegant explanation is that evidence is just a discursive resource that actors can draw on; that the fierce debate over the ‘obesity epidemic’ and its implications for public policy are just another case of science falling victim to politicisation. What I argue in this article (or view for free here), recently published as part of a special issue for Policy Sciences on ‘Evidence and Meaning’, is not that this is explanation is entirely wrong – I absolutely concur that ‘the evidence’ is not some innocent, neutral object beyond the dirty reality of politics and policymaking—but that it is overly simplistic. The debate over obesity is not a case of fixed coalitions drawing on scientific evidence solely for the purpose of reinforcing their preconceptions. It is a complex, dynamic one in which apparent ‘allies’ frequently and often openly contradict each other with respect to ‘the evidence’.

In light of this rather more optimistic stance, I ponder what this might mean in democratic terms. I acknowledge, of course, that the primacy of ‘the evidence’ has some drawbacks in this regard. While all the actors engaged in this debate (including and perhaps especially public health experts) also draw extensively on alternative forms of knowledge—common sense, professional experience, personal anecdote, etc—these claims are always enfolded within or made subordinate to claims about the evidence. This has pretty obvious exclusionary implications. But, on the other hand, the common refrain to the evidence has two key benefits. The first is that the currency given to evidence keeps all actors on board, even when they do not feel they are getting their way. They have faith that ‘the truth will out’; that the evidence proving their case will mount and become so compelling that policymakers will have no choice but to pursue their preferred course of action. The second benefit is that by committing to justifying their claims with reference to ‘the evidence’, all actors across this debate are submitting their accounts to a common standard of assessment. By demanding so publicly and vociferously that policymaking on obesity be ‘evidence-based’, they run the risk of being ‘hoisted with their own petard’ if their own use and interpretation of the facts is not seen to add up.

Which leads me back to the sums being done at Channel 4. If the show’s researchers are so concerned about facts and figures, then perhaps I should point them to the growing evidence that Dr. Christian’s methods of shock and humiliation do appalling damage to self-esteem and (as a result) are almost always counter-productive for weight loss and health in the long term. But something tells me the channel may be about as committed to improving public health in Supersize vs Superskinny as it is to advancing social welfare through Benefits Street.

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