Surprising New Findings on Obesity

One of the first Freakonomics Radio podcasts we made was an episode about the (surprisingly tenuous) link between obesity and health problems. A new study in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that "Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality."  Writing for The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz explains:

Compared to people with a normal weight (a BMI less than 25), the overweight (BMI between 25 to 30) had a 6 percent lower mortality rate—and both groups had a rate about 15 percent lower than the obese, especially the very obese (BMI above 35).

The explanation for the finding is uncertain. Perhaps the pleasantly plump but not obese have an extra reserve—a literal spare tire—that confers a survival advantage should they become seriously ill, whereas the lean-iacs do not. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because of a serious illness that, in the course the various studies, killed them. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because they were chain smokers living off Scotch and potato chips. Or just maybe the occasional pig-out does soothe the soul and make for a happier, healthier individual.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

Petitioning the President

The Atlantic has a roundup of the 12 goofiest petitions submitted so far to the White House's We the People initiative.  Our two favorites: "Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016" and "authorize the production of a recurring television program featuring Vice President Joe Biden."  

A petition to "Direct the United States Mint to make a single platinum trillion-dollar coin" has so far garnered only 5,149 signatures (as compared to the Death Star's 33,836 signatures), even though Paul Krugman recently endorsed of the idea. Stephen Colbert has also weighed in on the #Mintthecoin movement.

How Political Are Judges?

Cass Sunstein, writing on Bloomberg View, reviews the research on judicial voting patterns to determine whether judges are really as "political" as people seem to think.  The good news: federal judges aren't nearly as bad as politicians.  "Judges are far from mere politicians; we don’t see anything like the kind of polarization found in Congress," writes Sunstein. "At the same time, judicial predispositions matter, and they help explain why judges are divided on some of the great issues of the day."  

The research also indicates that even judges are subject to a phenomenon called "group polarization."  "[J]udicial voting becomes a lot more ideological when judges sit on panels with two others appointed by presidents of the same political party," Sunstein explains. "For example, Republican appointees side with plaintiffs complaining of disability discrimination about 29 percent of the time -- but that number drops to 17 percent when they are sitting with two fellow Republican appointees."

As for the Supreme Court, Sunstein highlights research from a new book on the political leanings of Supreme Court justices since 1937:

Strikingly, they find that of the six most conservative justices in their entire sample, no fewer than three are currently on the court (Clarence ThomasAntonin Scalia and Samuel Alito). A fourth makes the top 10 (John Roberts). By contrast, none of the current justices ranks among the most liberal six, and only one makes the liberal top 10 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Does Math Make Research "Better"?

Yes -- if you don't know much math, that is. A new study finds that even academic scholars perceived research to be of higher quality if there's some math involved -- even if the math makes no sense. The experiment threw an irrelevant mathematical equation into research paper abstracts, and asked scholars of different fields to evaluate the quality of the research:

Mathematics is a fundamental tool of research. Although potentially applicable in every discipline, the amount of training in mathematics that students typically receive varies greatly between different disciplines. In those disciplines where most researchers do not master mathematics, the use of mathematics may be held in too much awe. To demonstrate this I conducted an online experiment with 200 participants, all of which had experience of reading research reports and a postgraduate degree (in any subject).

FREAK-est Links

1. Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy on the failed war on drugs.

2. Selling beer at college football games worked out pretty well for the University of Minnesota this season: $907,000 in alcohol sales and fewer incidents.

3. The Economist's 2012 in charts.

4. Hedging hackers: firms create fake data to defend against data thieves.

FREAK-Shot: Christmas Ornament Edition

Reader Tim Kelly sends in photo from a store in Lombard, Illinois:

As Tim writes:

I spotted an interesting sign while out Christmas shopping the other day.  The sign stated the company's "breakage policy," where any broken item must be bought, but that the store will only charge half price on the broken item.  The sign continued offered to repair the broken item, free of charge (I confirmed the free repairs from the shop owner, as it is not explicitly stated in the sign).

The sign was located on a mall kiosk selling Christmas ornaments.  I imagine breakage is a big issue for such a shop, as their product is relatively fragile and are highly enticing to bored kids stuck Christmas shopping with their parents.

My initial instinct upon seeing the sign was that this policy seemed to be inviting people to game the system.

Why "Peak Farmland" Is Good News

First there was "peak oil"; now there's "peak farmland." But it's not what you think. Reuters reports that a group of scientists from the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University just released a report detailing their findings:

The amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at a peak and an area more than twice the size of France can return to nature by 2060 due to rising yields and slower population growth, a group of experts said on Monday.

The report, conflicting with U.N. studies that say more cropland will be needed in coming decades to avert hunger and price spikes as the world population rises beyond 7 billion, said humanity had reached what it called "Peak Farmland."

"Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers," says Jesse Ausubel, the study's lead author.

(HT: Free Exchange)

A Solid Fiscal-Cliff Plan

As Republicans and Democrats continue to bicker about spending and taxes, the Onion has stepped in with an excellent plan for averting a fiscal crisis:

STEP ONE: Eliminate school breakfast and lunch programs, Medicaid, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, Medicare, PBS, New Mexico, elk, the Coast Guard, and all dams.

And, our favorite, Step Three:

STEP THREE: Eliminate federal prison system by converting U.S. territory of Guam into an unsupervised penal colony known as “The Gauntlet.”

FREAK-est Links

1. The hyperlink as a microtransaction of trust.

2. Money-back guarantees in the NBA: The Phoenix Suns to give money back if fans don't have fun. (HT: V. Brenner.)

3. Fifty Shades of Grey gives all Random House employees $5,000 bonuses.

4. An interview with George Mitchell, the man who innovated fracking.

5. Felix Salmon explains the fiscal cliff with Legos and toys.

Don't Walk and Text

Our motto has always been “friends don't let friends walk drunk.” We might have to add texting to that list. A new paper from BMJ Group shows that walking and texting is really not a good idea. The study looked at more than 1,000 pedestrians in Seattle, and found texting to be a particularly troublesome distraction:

Texters took almost two seconds (18%) longer to cross the average junction of three to four lanes than those who weren’t texting at the time.

And they were also almost four times more likely to ignore lights, to cross at the middle of the junction, or fail to look both ways before stepping off the curb. 

In a country where more than 4,000 pedestrians are killed each year in traffic accidents, it seems sensible to do what we can to decrease our chances. The authors write:

Individuals may feel they have "safer use" than others, view commuting as "down time," or have compulsive behaviors around mobile-device use. ... Ultimately a shift in normative attitudes about pedestrian behavior, similar to efforts around drunk-driving, will be important to limit the … risk of mobile-device use.