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Watch for UFOs Tonight!

Tonight Michael Shermer will be featured, along with other UFO skeptics and believers, in addition to SETI scientists, from 8-10pm on the ABC special Peter Jennings Presents. The two-hour primetime special airs Thursday, February 24th at 8 pm ET on ABC. The program will be broadcast in High Definition.

The UFO Phenomenon:
Seeing Is Believing

news release from ABC News, Feb. 4th, 2005

Almost 50 percent of Americans, according to recent polls, and millions of people elsewhere in the world believe that UFOs are real. For many it is a deeply held belief.

For decades there have been sightings of UFOs by millions and millions of people. It is a mystery that only science can solve, and yet the phenomenon remains largely unexamined. Most of the reporting on this subject by the mainstream media holds those who claim to have seen UFOs up to ridicule.

On Feb. 24, “Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing” takes a fresh look at the UFO phenomenon. “As a journalist,” says Jennings, “I began this project with a healthy dose of skepticism and as open a mind as possible. After almost 150 interviews with scientists, investigators and with many of those who claim to have witnessed unidentified flying objects, there are important questions that have not been completely answered — and a great deal not fully explained.”

This two-hour primetime special reports on the entire scope of the UFO experience — from the first famous sighting by Kenneth Arnold in 1947 to the present day. The program draws on interviews with police officers, pilots, military personnel, scientists and ordinary citizens who give extraordinary accounts of encounters with the unexplained. Also included are the voices of professional skeptics about UFOs, including scientists who are leading the search for life forms beyond Earth elsewhere in the universe.

The program explores the facts behind the enduring mystery of the incident at Roswell, N.M., and looks into the strange stories of alien abductions. Among the UFO cases presented:

Minot Air Force Base, N.D., October 1968 — Sixteen airmen on the ground and the crew of an airborne B-52 witness a massive unidentified object hovering near the base.

Phoenix, March 1997 — Hundreds witness a huge triangular craft moving slowly over the city.

St. Clair County, Ill., January 2000 — Police officers in five adjoining towns all independently report witnessing a giant craft with multiple bright lights moving silently across the sky at a very low altitude.

Today if you report a UFO to the U.S. government you will be informed that the Air Force conducted a 22-year investigation that ended in 1969 and concluded that UFOs are not a threat to national security and are of no scientific interest. But as one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists says in the program, “You simply cannot dismiss the possibility that some of these UFO sightings are actually sightings from some object created by … a civilization perhaps millions of years ahead of us in technology.”

“Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing” is produced by PJ Productions and Springs Media for ABC News. Mark Obenhaus and Tom Yellin are the executive producers.

The following is a review by Patrick Johnson of The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos.
(Gotham Books, 2004. ISBN:1-5924-0066-3).

Patrick Johnson lives in Michigan with his wife and seven-year-old son. He has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and currently teaches biology at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. Patrick can be reached at [email protected]

Super Size This!

a book review by Patrick Johnson

You might have heard that we in the U.S. have a bit of a weight problem. If you turn on the television or read the news it is hard to miss the steady sound and fury regarding our current obesity epidemic. In fact, the problem is not unique to the U.S.; according to the World Health Organization, there are at least 300 million obese individuals worldwide. 1

However, with all of the coverage that obesity is receiving these days, there is a notable lack of skepticism about the purported level of danger that it may pose to our health. In The Obesity Myth, Paul Campos addresses this problem and calls into question the validity of the suggestion that obesity is a major threat to public health. Campos is by no means the first person to explore the idea; he points out in the first chapter that researchers have been examining the hypothesis that weight is just a bystander in health and fitness since the 1980s, well before obesity became an “epidemic.”

The Obesity Myth is a book that includes a modest review of the scientific literature, and would hold up well if that were all it contained. However, in the latter sections of the book, Campos, rather than sticking with a scientific approach, offers several anecdotes that are intended to raise hackles by showing the results of irrational fear.

Campos, who is a professor of law and not a health expert, evidently realizes that a book with such a contentious title is going to need to be backed up by some solid evidence, and to his credit, he devotes the first of three parts of this book to examining the scientific evidence that supports his hypothesis. Within this section he briefly cites several good examples that support his point, such as the Seven-Countries-Study. 2 The data from this study indicate that underweight men had nearly twice the mortality of normal and overweight men, and that although those who fit into the obese category showed an increased risk when compared to normal and overweight men, they still fared better than men in the thin cohort. This result, not often cited in news stories on the problems associated with weight, will surely startle readers.

In another example, which is cited by Campos as the largest epidemiological study ever conducted, 3 the data show that the highest life expectancy occurred in individuals who are overweight by our current standards and that the lowest life expectancy occurred with those who were defined as underweight. Furthermore, the individuals observed in this study who fit into what is deemed the ideal weight range had a lower life expectancy than those who were classified as obese. Another large-scale study that was conducted in Canada, though not discussed by Campos in his analysis, reveals similar results. 4

Despite his repeated assertion that obesity is not a major public health problem, Campos makes it clear that he is not advocating sloth. This is not a manifesto for couch potatoes, and Campos directly and forcefully addresses the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. He points out, however, that most of the studies that examine obesity fail to control for physical activity levels:

Over the past twenty years, scientists have gathered a wealth of evidence indicating that cardiovascular and metabolic fitness, and the activity levels that promote such fitness, are far more important predictors of both overall health and mortality risk than weight. Yet none of the studies most often cited for the proposition that fat kills makes any serious attempt to control for these variables. And indeed, when studies of this type do claim to make such attempts, the methodology employed can be almost farcical. (34-35)

Campos cites as an example of “farcical” methodology, a study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998. 5 This study, which purported to control for activity, did so by asking subjects the following question at the beginning of the study: “How much exercise do you get (work or play): None, slight, moderate, or heavy?” This question is not only extremely vague, but it also relies on self-reporting, which, as noted by Campos, is notoriously inaccurate. He goes on to point out that several studies that used treadmill tests to directly assess the subjects’ fitness levels, show a significant health benefit of regular cardiovascular exercise independent of body weight. Indeed there are a host of studies that indicate that mortality is higher in thin sedentary individuals than it is in overweight and obese people who perform regular vigorous exercise. 6

In his scientific analysis, Campos is quite persuasive when he simply lets the data speak for themselves. However, rather than doing this throughout the entire section he spends a good deal of his focus on “four of the most cited studies for the proposition that ‘overweight’ is a deadly epidemic in America today” (13). It is here that Campos shows himself less than proficient at scientific analysis. For example, he states that the authors of what he refers to as the “single most cited medical study for the proposition that even small amounts of ‘overweight’ pose a grave health risk” (14), 7 were only able to show a detriment associated with increased body weight “by removing smoking from the equation, in order to compare thin non-smoking women to fatter non-smoking women, and by exaggerating the meaning of the data this questionable tactic produced” (15). Campos is incorrect in calling this a questionable tactic because it is necessary when doing research to control for variables that may confound the outcome, and it is well known that smoking influences mortality.

Campos is correct, however, in his observation that the authors of this study exaggerate the magnitude of the difference in mortality rates by using percent changes to report the results. According to Campos: “A classic strategy for making small risks seem larger than they are is to note elevations in very small risks, and then to argue as if the impressive relative percentage of increased risk that such elevations often generate is in and of itself something to be alarmed by, even if the overall percentage of risk remains tiny” (15-16).

The latter two sections of The Obesity Myth are not designed to gain scientific sanction, but rather public approval. In the second section, entitled Fat Culture, there is a chapter that focuses on the story of a family in New Mexico who lost custody of their “obese” baby daughter because the State’s Child, Youth, and Family Department decided that, despite the fact that by the time she was a year old she was nearly twice as tall as the average child her age, since she had a body weight that was considerably higher than average, the parents were deemed guilty of abusing her. The parents eventually regained custody of the child, but they were subsequently forced to keep her on what was ultimately reported to be a diet of 550 Calories per day, well below the minimum daily requirements recommended by physicians and health experts. Moreover, the parents are now under constant scrutiny, forced to justify themselves if their daughter is seen eating so much as a spoonful of ice cream. Although the information in this chapter is unsettling (it is meant to show the dramatic effects that fear has on public policy), it says nothing with regard to whether obesity is a threat to our physiological health.

In the third section, entitled Fat Politics, Campos makes the claim that the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton was directly related to our cultural loathing of fat. He proffers the argument that Linda Tripp was only able to manipulate Monica Lewinsky into incriminating the President by playing on her insecurities about her weight. However, the fact is that even if the argument is persuasive, it is only possible to speculate about motivation. Furthermore, the impeachment of the President was not the end result of a single factor such as this.

The problem that can result from a book that is structured this way is that Campos will likely have no trouble convincing those who want to believe him. Conversely, the skeptic, who wants the scientific evidence, may justifiably find him or herself alienated by the emotional anecdotes and arguments. However, for better or worse, the anecdotes that hurt the scientific integrity of the argument also have the potential to affect public opinion enough that people challenge those of us who are health scientists and educators to reexamine the old idea and either defend it based on the reliability of the evidence, or to accept the possibility of the new idea.

Weight loss is an issue so fraught with emotion that virtually everyone who has an opinion about it is operating from a perspective that is biased; Campos is guilty of this himself on more than one occasion in the book. Nevertheless, it is apparent from the scientific evidence presented in The Obesity Myth that many of the current popular fears about obesity are based on hyperbole. Therefore, although Campos leans a bit too heavily on anecdotes intended to play on readers’ emotions, he successfully builds a case in favor of a skeptical reexamination of the danger that is attributed to obesity both by the well-meaning professionals and the profit-driven charlatans. With The Obesity Myth, Campos has brought a legitimate controversy to light.

References & Notes
  1. World Health Organization. Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. 2004.
  2. Visscher, T.L., Seidell, J.C., Menotti, A., Blackburn, H., Nissinen, A., Feskens, E.J., Kromhout, D. 1998. Underweight and Overweight in Relation to Mortality Among Men Aged 40-49 and 50-59 Years: The Seven Countries Study. Am J Epidemiol, 151 , 660-666.
  3. Waaler H.T. 1984. Height and Weight and Mortality: The Norwegian Experience. Acta Med Scanda Suppl 679, 1-56.
  4. Hirdes, J., Forbes, W. 1992. The Importance of Social Relationships, Socieoeconomic Status and Health Practices with Respect to Mortality in Healthy Ontario Males. J Clin Epidem 45:175-182.
  5. Stevens, J., Cai , J., Pamuk E.R., Williamson, D.F., Thun, M.J., Wood, J.L. 1998. The Effect of Age on the Association Between Body-Mass Index and Mortality. New Engl J Med 338, 1-7.
  6. Barlow, C.E., Kohl, H.W., Gibbons, L.W., Blair, S.N. 1995. Physical Fitness, Mortality, and Obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 19: S41-S44; Blair, S.N., Kohl H.W., Paffenbarger, R.S., Clark, D.G., Cooper, K.H., Gibbons, K.H. 1989 Physical Fitness and All-Cause Mortality: A Prospective Study of Healthy Men and Women. JAMA 262: 2395-2401; Lee C.D., Blair, S.N., Jackson, A.S. 1998. U.S. Weight Guidelines: Is It Important to Consider Cardiorespiratory Fitness? Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 22:S2-S7; Lee, C.D., Blair, S.N., Jackson, A.S. 1999. Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Body Composition, and All-Cause and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality in Men. Am J Clin Nutr. 69: 373-80; Paffenbarger, R.S., Hyde, R.T., Wing, A.L., Hsieh, C.C . 1986. Physical Activity, All-Cause Mortality, and Longevity of College Alumni. New Engl J Med. 314: 605-13; Ross, R., Katzmarzyk, P.T. 2003. Cardiorespiratory Fitness is Associated with Diminished Total and Abdominal Obesity Independent of Body Mass Index. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 27: 204-210; Wei, M., Kampert, J., Barlow, C.E., Nichaman, M.Z., Gibbons, L.W., Paffenbarger, R.S., Blair, S.N. 1999. Relationship Between Low Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Mortality in Normal-Weight, Overweight, and Obese Men. JAMA. 282:1547-1553.
  7. Manson, J.E., Willett, W.C., Stampfer, M.J., Colditz, G.A., Hunter, D.J., Hankinson, S.E., Hennekens, C.H., Speizer, F.E. 1995. Body Weight and Mortality Among Women. New Engl J Med 333, 677-682.
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