Sunday, April 14, 2013

Who's the Fattest of Them All?

Answer this: Which region of the country has the highest obesity rate?

You said the South? I did, too. And we are wrong. Southerners self-report the highest obesity rate, but when actually weighed and measured by researchers, the West North Central region is most obese, and the East South Central region ranked fifth (out of nine) most obese! What's going on? In phone surveys, Southerners lied less than other people about their weight.

It's no surprise that lying is a very real concern on surveys, especially about sensitive issues like weight, even when the survey is anonymous. In fact, the article notes previous research has found that women under-report their weight more then men, and men over-report their height more than women, and in other cases, researchers have found people over-report how much they give to charity, state they're registered to vote when they are not, and underestimate how much they drink, among other things. What IS surprising is the fact that there is a regional component to the amount of lying.

Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  Normally, people sympathize with this quotation when facts are presented in misleading ways* using poorly done statistics or when numbers are cherry-picked to support only one side of a position, but the truth is even worse: Even good statistics is done on the lies that make up the survey responses themselves!

(weight research HT: MR)

* An oldie but a goodie on this topic is the book How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff.

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