Will it work? How do we know?

Michelle Obama thinks childhood obesity among poor children is the result of nutritional food deserts in low income urban areas.  To solve the problem, she wants to start a government program and spend $400 million.

To many people, the First Lady’s hypothesis sounds reasonable and her good intentions appear admirable.

But that shouldn’t get in the way of realizing that her hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis.   A hypothesis is an unproven possible explanation (“food deserts”) for the observed phenomenon (“childhood obesity”).   Which means it may be wrong.

I’ve seen people charge critics of Michelle’s hypothesis with “hating”, racism (ad hominem fallacies) and questioning whether her intentions are good (red herring fallacy).  None has anything to do with whether her hypothesis is correct.

I learned about hypothesis in my 7th grade science class.  The fact that many in society can’t seem to recognize and differentiate a hypothesis from facts and good intentions is disappointing.

What’s wrong with asking, will it work and how do we know?

If you were investing your own dollars in a new business venture or donating your money to a new charitable venture,  a sensible person would ask these questions and want to see some evidence that the hypothesis is correct.

If Obama is correct, it seems like it would be easy to find some convincing evidence on a small scale.  Go to an urban area, evaluate the availability of healthy foods against a control group of wealthier areas.  If there is less healthy foods available, you may ask the store owners why.

But, I wouldn’t suggest trusting the store owners’ answers.  I’d ask if I could bring in healthy foods to the stores and see how well they sell.  I might even try giving some away for free to see how much impact that has.

Finally, I’d watch kids and see if their eating habits and weight (end result) change.  Weight can change fast, usually within a few weeks, so that experiment should be able to give me a good read.

If it works to reduce obesity, great.  Now I would have tested Michelle’s hypothesis and shown that it is correct.

Instead of  funding the solution with a government program, I’d suggest donations.  Food banks don’t have much trouble attracting a plethora of food donations.  I don’t suspect that a proven, healthy food island charity would have trouble either.

This seems reasonable to me.  It certainly seems more reasonable than committing $400 million on an unproven hypothesis, which means that it may not even have the desired outcome of reducing childhood obesity.  Especially considering that probably means $400 million annually for a program that will likely face political pressure from going away whether it is working or not.

At the very least, we certainly should be able to discuss the validity of her hypothesis like adults and not have to resort to fallacious tactics like name calling and red herrings.

My hypothesis:  Childhood obesity is caused by poor personal diet choices.

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One thought on “Will it work? How do we know?

  1. Pingback: Hypothesis testing | Our Dinner Table

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