Certainty is the New Obesity: A New Epidemic

I ran across an article that I found very interesting on the involuntary neurological roots of the feeling of “certainty”.  It also combined fairly nicely with my last post about what I believe.

This article “On being certain: The Certainty Epidemic” works to explain the difficult concept of “certainty”.  What does it mean to be “certain”?  Is it an “epidemic” that so many people are certain of so much; that “a public change of mind is national news”?

What does it mean to be convinced? This question might sound foolish. You study the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and make a decision. If the evidence is strong enough, you are convinced there is no other reasonable answer. Your resulting sense of certainty feels like the only logical and justifiable conclusion to a conscious and deliberate line of reasoning…

[D]espite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us…

It’s not easy, of course, but somehow we must incorporate what neuroscience is telling us about the limits of knowing into our everyday lives. We must accept that how we think isn’t entirely within our control. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to substitute the word “believe” for “know.”

Hearing myself saying “I believe” where formerly I would have said “I know” serves as a constant reminder of the limits of knowledge and objectivity. At the same time as I am forced to consider the possibility that contrary opinions might have a grain of truth, I am provided with the perfect rebuttal for those who claim that they “know that they are right.” It is in the leap from 99.99999 percent likely to 100 percent guaranteed that we give up tolerance for conflicting opinions, and provide the basis for the fundamentalist’s claim to pure and certain knowledge. (Emphasis mine)

Now simply apply all of this to fat hatred arguments.  All of these “evidences” and “truths” about obesity and health; those things you just “KNOW” about fat and its evils; take them and look at them again.  Change “know” to “believe”.  There are limits to knowledge and even to the ability of science to perfectly define the world around us.  Giving up all tolerance for opinions or research that challenges what some claim to be “pure and certain knowledge” is merely, I believe, a stubborn denial of progression.

[I]f the goal of science is to gradually overcome deeply embedded superstition, it must be seen as a more attractive and comforting alternative, not as inflammatory exhortation and confrontation with a none-too-subtle whiff of condescension…

F. Scott Fitzgerald described an easy-to-accept but difficult-to-accomplish solution: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This juggling act requires us to keep in mind what science is telling us about ourselves while acknowledging the positive benefits of nonscientific or unreasonable beliefs. Each opposing position has its own risks and rewards; both need to be considered and balanced within the overarching mandate — above all, do no harm.

Just as we learn to cope with the anxieties of sickness and death, we must learn to tolerate contradictory aspects of our biology. Our minds have their own agendas. We can intervene through greater understanding of what we can and cannot control, by knowing where potential deceptions lurk, and by a willingness to accept that our knowledge of the world around us is limited by fundamental conflicts in how our minds work.

Which leads us back to the beginning. Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. Science has given us the language and tools of probabilities. That is enough.  We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty.  (Emphasis mine)

I think that very often we DO forget that nothing, short of death and taxes as I suppose the saying goes, can be counted on for certain.  While many different studies are called upon to help arguments on both sides of the obesity epidemic; one thing we all have to remember is that NONE of them are 100% certainties.  While that might mean that we may NEVER know for 100% sure if FAT is the oogie boogie death-harbinger of modern health-scare tales or simply a mis-represented cell longing to be accepted; it doesn’t lessen the need for the FA movement.  Fat Acceptance and its proponents exist to remind us that no matter WHAT your opinion or view of the science; shaming people for how they look is wrong. 

Judging a person’s character or health or moral integrity based on their size is NOT the same as arguing for or against the possible health consequences of different body sizes.  As others in the FA blog realm have mentioned, one of the few things we can all agree is that prejudice will never be acceptable.  We may differ on our views of diets, health, fashion and more; all of which is of course up to discussion and intelligent consideration.  A lot of time, though, it seems that those wishing to argue FOR the current media-fanned fires of obesity rhetoric insist on combining the two: Judgement/Prejudice and Logical Arguments.  No.  Stop that.  The two are NOT mutually inclusive.  Accepting the current line that Fat Kills does not give you a free pass into Shame the Fatties with Impunity Land.  No, not EVEN if you’re a fatty who chooses to believe that your own fat is deserving of shame. 

If you want to believe that fat is unhealthy, you are welcome to think and even to argue for that case.  I will argue the counterpoint since I do NOT believe that thin is the same as healthy or that fat is the same as unfit.  We can even discuss the various components of this.  However, when you start pulling in shaming behaviors, start doling out judgements and begin slinging slurs to those you feel fit your definitions of “Fat”, then you really need to reconsider whether you are a proponent of the supposed science or just another person out looking to pass around blame and shame to those you want to consider as “lesser” than you.  Insisting upon denying that other research could possibly exist; refusing to even consider that things you KNOW might be no more than things you BELIEVE, is childish.

I personally happen to BELIEVE, with 99.9999% confidence, that fat is NOT the evil bringer of untimely death that it is currently so vehemently made out to be.  I BELIEVE that BMI is a nasty and incredibly flawed tool which does nothing to promote science or our understanding of size and it’s possible relation to health.  I BELIEVE that the media and marketing gurus have a vested interest in playing off of human insecurity for profits.  I BELIEVE that government measures to “fix” obesity are misguided and cause harm to those they are supposedly intended to “cure”. I BELIEVE that the current media obsession with obesity is harmful to the mental and physical health of our society. I BELIEVE that fearing FAT is harmful to our society’s ability to raise self-accepting and others-accepting people. 

Size-prejudice is wrong and hurtful.  The size of your pants or shirt or waist or boobs or body has NO BEARING on your decency as a human being or on your moral values.  Your size is not a visual cue by which your health can be 100% accurately ascertained.  One way or another we will all end up as food for the worms.  These are the few certainties I still maintain as being more than just beliefs. 

I can tolerate uncertainty in life; it gives a nice spicy flavor to keep me going all day long.  What I cannot tolerate is the stubborn insistence on a belief in certainty that somehow trumps all else.

It is what we think we know that keeps us from learning.
Chester Barnard


2 thoughts on “Certainty is the New Obesity: A New Epidemic

  1. Thanks for this- I’ve often thought that the 5 magic words necessary for any real conversation to take place are “but I might be wrong”.

  2. Absolutely; but the need for certainty is nothing new. It’s probably what religion and superstition arose out of. All those pesky things we don’t understand about the world… just put them in them in a black box and make up a story.

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