Fat Outbreak

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In a bit of unintentional self-satire, the CDC has dispatched a crack team of epidemiologists to West Virginia in an effort to figure out why people there are so damned fat. The CDC's investigators are charged with assessing potential disease vectors such as bad sidewalks, skimpy produce sections in local grocery stores, and a lack of low-fat sour cream in school lunch rooms. But some naysayers are questioning whether the CDC is taking its "obesity epidemic" rhetoric a bit too literally:

Daniel McGee, a professor of statistics at Florida State University who has analyzed obesity data, burst out laughing when he heard about it. "My God, what a strange thing to do," he said.

"They'll find out what we all know–that the country is no longer set up for physical exercise," Dr. McGee said. And that schoolchildren "don't get a nutritious diet." And that "there is a lot of high-fat food on the shelves of every supermarket."

But, he said, "that doesn't tell you much."

"I'm sure skinny people go to those same restaurants," Dr. McGee said. "Skinny kids go to those same schools."

David DeMets, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Wisconsin, was also extremely skeptical.

"We get a lot of false positives from that kind of investigation," Dr. DeMets said. "We get people worried," but there is no way to know whether what is found–a lack of fruits and vegetables in the schools, for example–has anything to do with the obesity epidemic.

The statisticians may laugh, but they still seem to accept the premise that people's girth is a "public health" problem ripe for collective action. How long will it be before the CDC starts quarantining fat people or removing the handles from the doors of fast food restaurants?