This paper first appeared in the Spring Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2012, pp1-2.
In a local newspaper, I recently read of a mother's outrage at being informed that, following tests on children at her son Hayden's school by the local 'Children and Family Team', he was found to have an unhealthily high body-mass index (he was 'very overweight') and had 'an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression'. Hayden himself is reported as saying, 'I'm not fat. I am happy the way I am'.
Systems, organisations, groups, and individuals, to which society grants some form of power and responsibility, almost invariably attempt to over-reach the compass of their legitimate influence. Over time they increasingly claim authority in areas of human life that extend beyond those envisaged in their original remit or, more significantly for sceptics, their capabilities. Governments themselves and our education, health, welfare and legal systems suffer - or, perhaps, more appropriately 'profit'- from this malaise.
A case in point is the imminent arrival in our bookstores of the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Since the DSM was first published in 1952, the size of the publication and the number of disorders classified have both increased dramatically (DSM-IV lists 297 disorders in 886 pages). There is concern that everyday problems in life, and those frailties and vagaries that in the past have been accepted as part of the rich spectrum of human nature, are increasingly coming to be regarded as 'disorders' to be corrected by the ministrations of the psychiatric profession. This trend shows no sign of abating with the fifth edition, which will see the further expansion of diagnostic categories (e.g. 'attenuated psychosis syndrome') and new diagnoses such as 'apathy syndrome' and 'parental alienation disorder', along with increased emphasis on biological theory at the expense of social influences.
Recently the Society for Humanistic Psychology of the American Psycho-logical Association, wrote an open letter to the DSM committee summarising their concerns and requesting a scientific review of the document. The SHP has set up a coalition of organisations that endorse this request, and about 40 have now signed up. Thousands of concerned individuals have also signed a petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/dsm5. But back to Hayden and his body-mass index. Should the government do something about it? Shadow health minister Diane Abbott thinks it should but has failed to do so - see: http://tinyurl.com/7qd68tp.
Politicians and government agencies are indeed exercised about the tendency of the nation's young people to run to fat, blaming poor diet, lack of healthy physical activity, and lengthy periods spent sitting in front of a television or computer screen. (Perversely, they do not mention the ever-lengthening periods of time children and young people are forced or encouraged by the government to sit at desks in a state of complete immobility trying to absorb masses of irrelevant and soon-to-be-forgotten information 'delivered' by teachers and lecturers when they could be otherwise occupied in more healthy, fulfilling activities.)
All experience and evidence about weight control should tell us that there is probably little a government can do about the population's body-mass index. But no political party will ever admit this.