Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Big & Tall Story

In the very, very old days, being fat was a sign of success. You could always spot the success stories as they sat around the castle (and to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, "And I do mean around the castle!" Tish boom.)

Fitting a bit too snugly into the banquet chair obviously meant that you were successful enough to have plenty of food and it probably meant that you didn't have to do physical labor, unlike all those skinny serfs outside.

But of course, all that has changed now. Being fat, in fact, can be an impediment to your business success.

Except here.

There is a report out now showing that fat people in Australia make more money than people who don't sneak in a Snickers during their toilet break. Some academic from Australia National University has taken the data on thousands of Aussie workers and learned that tall people and fat people earn more than their counterparts. At least that explains why clothes cost so much more at the Big & Tall Store.

I am pretty sure this salary discrepancy favoring tall or heavy people here in Oz is because most businesses still pay their staff by having them sit on a scale, which is then balanced with gold coins. Short, skinny people are just plain out of luck. (And, on a tangent, it also explains why women make less than most men. Clearly, this has never been a feminist issue but has to do with body weight.)

This is, of course, just one more example of how academics, researchers and the media draw dumb conclusions. I don't even know if the ANU researcher correctly counted and tagged enough people to conclude that overweight people really do make more than others, but let's accept it for the sake of argument.

The media's headlines - if you are overweight, you are likely to earn more - is one plausible explanation. But I can think of two equally plausible alternatives right off the top of my head.

How about - if you are earning more than most people, you are likely in a sedentary job, work longer hours and are older. So you may tend to be overweight more than those earning less.

Or how about this? Just because more fat people made more money does NOT necessarily mean that there is any connection. Flip a coin a hundred times. Very seldom will you get 50 heads and 50 tails, but it does not mean you are more likely to get heads than tails just because that is what happened in one instance.

This is the sort of stuff that used to drive me crazy when I was publisher. Lazy journalists pick up just about any research that anyone releases and draw conclusions that are seldom logically valid from data that is too often not even close to statistically valid. In other words, it is crap. But it's easy to write the story, so crap gets on the menu again.

At one point I got so frustrated I wrote a long memo to the writers and editors urging them to stop this type of reporting. All of them agreed with me yet none of them changed a thing about how they reported research. (Proving, I guess, that journalists and editors are more likely to lie to their boss than others? I seem to have the stats to prove it!)

I forwarded column after column from Carl Bialik, the Numbers Guy from the Wall St Journal who is a fabulous analyst of research and often shows how the researchers and media get it so wrong. I love his columns, but alas they had little impact on my team of writers.

Nonetheless, this is a nice roundabout way of tying the knot in this post. Last week Bialik wrote a blog post called "How Not to Tell If You're Overweight" about the fact that BMI - the Body Mass Index - is probably a flawed way of analyzing whether you are overweight.

And here I had tried to devise a diet (The Heavy Drinkers Quick Weight Loss Program) to lower my BMI. Now I have to consider that perhaps my BMI is misleading, and I may not be obese after all. It's all very confusing. If you're not really overweight will you still make more money? If I am thin, do I still need to wear XXL sizes?

Thank God the diet's trials are over. I think I need a glass of wine.

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