Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cause and Effect

A week or so ago, I had the late news on TV while I was doing some household chores, and I heard a teaser for what was coming up that caught my interest. They were announcing a breakthrough in research offering new hope to people who suffer from migraines. I have several friends who suffer from severe migraines, so I ran back into the living room to be sure not to miss the item. Guess what the breakthrough was? Turns out that the main cause of migraines is … drum roll please … you guessed it, obesity! Since the two people I was hoping to be able to tell that their days of suffering are over are both painfully thin, I turned off the TV in disgust.

A week later, a news headline in the elevator at work – those of you who read my last blog are going to suggest I stop reading those headlines – announced that the common thread linking people who had died from the H1N1 virus is – da da da da – yup! obesity again! More specifically, “stomach obesity,” leading to the headline, “Fight The Flab To Fend Off Swine Flu.” Okay, I admit, I’m not an epidemiologist, but I found it really hard to believe that among Mexican college students, New York schoolkids, Argentine workers and Indian computer programmers, everyone who was fat got H1N1 and died from it and no one who wasn’t obese did. Of course, my skepticism turns out to be right – the obesity-swine flu-linkage data are only for the U.S., the samples are small, most of the research was on mice, and the people doing it were, not surprisingly, obesity researchers.

Last week it was hot dogs. Apparently the hot dogs they sell at ballparks cause colon cancer – at least, that’s how they reported it on the news. Cause for concern, even panic. I thanked my stars that I’ve never eaten a hot dog at a ball park, and haven’t eaten a hot dog period in over 35 years. But wait. If eating hot dogs caused colon cancer, then at least 10% of the population would have colon cancer, because surely at least that percentage of people have gone to a ball game and eaten a hot dog there. So maybe that’s not quite what they mean. Presumably what they meant to say is that eating hot dogs increases your risk for colon cancer. In fact, the spokesperson from the group suing to get warning labels on hot dogs says, “Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer,” so he sort of splits the baby, implying cause-and-effect without quite asserting it.

I learned about causation and risk factors years ago in the AIDS movement. The issue of whether the HIV virus causes AIDS is one that has been rumbled about in activist and scientific circles for years. In general, the scientific community put it to rest in 1993, by modifying the definition of AIDS to include the presence of HIV. But before that, most of us accepted that HIV, along with other risk factors, does cause AIDS, while a small but vocal group who became known as “AIDS deniers” insisted that HIV was a harmless virus that happened to be present in people who had a collection of unrelated illnesses with no known cause. In between there were some scientists who generally accepted the HIV-AIDS linkage but were troubled by the existence of a few people who had HIV but never developed AIDS and a few cases in which people seemed to have the symptoms and other markers of AIDS but no HIV. The AIDS deniers seized on this data to point out, correctly, that in order for something to be the “cause” of something else, it needs to be present in every case.

A friend from the AIDS movement, who had been homeless for many years and is a housing rights activist, used to get furious when people suggested that drug use and alcoholism “cause” homelessness. She would point out that if that were true, then Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford and Ted Kennedy, among many others, would be homeless. I got her point, but also felt that in making it she seemed to want to deny that there was any connection between alcoholism or drugs and homelessness. I’ve definitely known people who were housed when they weren’t using drugs or alcohol, and homeless when they were. It’s true that their homelessness was also caused by poverty, because when their friends/roommates/girlfriends threw them out, they had no alternative to the streets, while if they’d been rich, they could have gone to hotels or rented apartments. But if our definition of “cause” and “effect” is that there has to be a one-to-one relationship, then poverty is also not a “cause” of homelessness because plenty of poor people are not homeless. We can’t say that capitalism or greedy landlords or even our general lack of compassion as a society causes homelessness, because most of the people who live in this wretched capitalist uncompassionate society still have homes, however tenuously they’re clinging to them.

Once I started thinking about these contradictions, they kept popping up everywhere. Most recently, they appeared in my reflections on the controversy over today’s showing of the film “Rachel” at the Jewish Film Festival.

The Zionists constantly claim that Hamas is the cause of Israeli violence, and in fact, that Arab intransigence is the cause of the entire conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and its neighbors. And I wonder how anyone can make that claim, when Hamas never existed until 20 years into the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 40 years after Israel conquered most of the land that had been allocated by the U.N. for a Palestinian state. It seems quite clear to me that the root of the problem is Zionist aggression and insistence on having a Jewish state in land that other people had been living on for generations. But to them, that is a mere outgrowth of the underlying problem, of which Hamas and the Palestinians and Iran are a symptom, which is the irrational, inevitable and omnipresent hatred of the Jews.

Inevitably this line of thinking leads me to the desire to be rid of my association with this group of crazy fanatics who call themselves the “Jewish community.” As I went from the Women In Black vigil outside the movie, “Rachel,” about the death of Rachel Corrie, to a huge rally in solidarity with the people of Iran (where, according to an Iranian friend, many people were carrying monarchist flags – yuk!), I told myself, “These people cannot make me hate being a Jew. They are not fomenting all this hatred and attempting to censor everyone who disagrees with them because they’re Jews.” But how can I say that, when they insist that they are doing it because they’re Jews? How can I say that their Jewishness is not the cause of their viciousness, if they say that it is? Just because I’m not like them and I’m a Jew, my friends from Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network aren’t like them, isn’t that just like saying, but there are poor people and alcoholics who aren’t homeless?

Does it matter which is the chicken and which is the egg? Does it matter if eggs or chickens are more likely to cause obesity? Isn’t the thing that really matters that both the chickens and the eggs be able to enjoy their chickenness or their eggity? Has anyone studied the negative health impact on “obese” people of constant haranguing about the health risks of their weight? Probably not, because what obesity researcher wants to know that, but a recently released Harvard study found that “only women gain weight when stressed about strained family relationships, while men gained weight when stressed about their lack of decision authority and their ability to learn new skills at work.” As if that told us something we didn’t know, or needed to know.

I decided some day, if I get rich enough to fund studies (you’re holding your breath on that one, I know), I’m going to commission a study on the health advantages of political activism, because I’m pretty sure that’s what accounts for my having fewer health problems than most people I know, despite my love of fried things and ice cream.


  1. I have no doubt at all that political activism contributes to health. :-)

  2. "not surprisingly, obesity researchers."
    I stopped reading here because of laughing.