This week in my introductory logic class I was teaching informal fallacies. These are, in brief, bad arguments– that is, they are groups of sentences which purport to provide evidence for some claim, but in fact provide no evidence at all. And they tend to reflect some flaw or vulnerability in our capacities for reasoning. So we would do well to avoid them. However, they are taught in part because we see them everywhere, all the time.
I try to use good and timely examples of fallacies in class to help the students better understand how they work and also how bad their effects can be on us. Of course, politics provides us with a bounteous and 24/7 supply of fresh fallacies, which I have been making use of.
But I just read an article called “The Big Problem with Oprah and Other Celebs Who Tout Diets”, and was struck by how handy the dieting business and dieting approach to health is just chock-full of fallacies. We of course know these, but in the interests of combining my love of fallacies with my hatred of all things diet-ish, I thought I’d put a prominent one out there: Appeal to Authority.
What is Appeal to authority? This fallacy happens when we accept some claim just because some putative authority says so. Who remembers Oprah coming out on her show, hauling a wagon of fat to demonstrate how much weight she has lost (and of course how disgusting fat is, and how disgusting we who still have the fat are, and how she’s not disgusting anymore because she got rid of the fat– I could go on…)?
Now, Oprah has a new cookbook out called Food, Health and Happiness, featuring what looks like a thinner version of herself, and a softer message for everyone who yearns for… what? A more ideal version of themselves? A slower, more idyllic life that includes time to massage kale, make spelt bread, and gather apples from their own trees out back? Oprah says you can have this. Just click here.
In the article I mentioned above, the author points out a few problems with even this kinder and gentler approach to the d-word. Here they are:
1. Celebrities Don’t Look Like They Do Because Of Their Diets
Stars look like stars because they’re either genetically blessed with high metabolisms and lean bodies, driven to perfection, or both. What’s more, actresses, models, celebrity yoga instructors and the like get paid the big bucks to look fantastic. And a good thing, because it costs a pretty penny to employ an entourage of experts to keep up appearances.
2. Diets Don’t Work
Diets reliably promote weight gain, not loss, thereby increasing the very weight-related health risks they aim to decrease. It’s cruel but statistically true: A five-year study of 2,500 teens showed dieting is an important predictor of both obesity and new eating disorders.
3. Celebrity Diets Are Even Less Likely to Work
Celebrity diets backfire big-time for all the same reasons and more. Diets of the rich and famous tend to be expensive, costing dieters time and money they don’t necessarily have. Some go to wacky extremes, eliminating such an idiosyncratic list of foods that social occasions become stressful events. What’s a restaurant-goer to order on Gwyneth’s 10-day detox, which excludes gluten, soy, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, white rice, shellfish, raw fish, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, corn… ?
Celebrity diets are beyond doomed because of the toxic mix of negative comparisons, shame and self-criticism they inspire. As inspiring as it might be to watch your favorite celebrities diet down to size, the airbrushed photos of celebrity dieters looking like they’re doing better than you tend to make you feel worse and exacerbate the very eating issues their diets are meant to alleviate.
All of these reasons reveal the ways that we fall for the appeal to celebrity authority. We see in minute detail the path that celebrities take to go from X pounds to X-Y pounds. We see the splashy photo shoots, the results of the labors of an army of hair, makeup, wardrobe and Photoshop staff. In Oprah’s case, there’s more documentation of her weight gains and losses than probably any other celebrity.
Appeal to authority celebrity diet claims also help us see how diets don’t work– that is, if the goal of a diet is to lose and maintain weight loss over time, Oprah (who arguably has more money than God) is living proof that it’s just not possible for everyone to meet that goal.
Finally, the celebrity diets that are put out there can be expensive, time-consuming and hard to prepare– all features that make them poor choices for someone who is looking to change their eating habits. A quick look at the Amazon page for Oprah’s cookbook yielded these comments:
Beautiful book, but the recipes are too time consuming for this working mom and many ingredients are hard to find.
This cookbook is for the rich or for the chefs of the rich, not your everyday housewife or working mom. It is … more a picture of Oprah’s extravagant, pampered lifestyle. If you like recipes with like 25 ingredients, many of which you’ve never heard of, and recipes with like 2 pages of directions, then this is the cookbook for you.
Why are there no serving sizes?
I admit that I love cookbooks– they are aspirational, inspirational, and good (for me) at pulling me out of a cooking rut. But I’m under no illusions that a celebrity (or any) cookbook will be a sure-fire way to catapult me into a different pattern of eating.
Readers, do you rely on cookbooks to help you with changes you want to make in your eating? Have you relied on some and been pleased? Disappointed? I’d love to hear from you.