Fat Cops; Skinny Scientists

Skinny cop


What makes cops fat and scientists skinny? Before I go any further, let me say that I am quoting an American Journal of Preventive Medicine study and the statement reflects an average. There are outliers. I know a few overweight scientists and I know that there are skinny cops – including the one who will ask for my ID tomorrow morning while I am idling at a stop sign. He won’t be fat and I’ll tell him so, if I get a chance.

Yet it remains that the trend is there – 40.7% of police, firefighters and security guards are obese, according to the Wall Street Journal. Obesity is also over-represented among clergy, social workers, and counselors. Meanwhile the lightweights are economists, scientists, and psychologists – this group has just a 14.2% obesity rate. The contrast – 40.7% vs 14.2% – is significant. These figures are for the States – a place where over 60 billion dollars a year is spent trying to burn excess weight. The battle is not going well.

Fat scientist


What makes fat cops and skinny scientists? This is complicated. Data interpretation can be tough. Causation may be stubborn to tease out of facts. Picturing a chubby cop in his car at a donut shop might miss the story. Let’s look at a few reasons that the facts may be what they are, assuming the facts (based on a 375,091 sample set) are correct.

Lifestyle. Perhaps cops actually do sit too much and don’t walk/run/move as much as geologists, anthropologists, or botanists. A police officer may occasionally bound down a back alley with shoes flying, but an awful lot of time is spend in the cruiser. On the other hand, scientists may be on their feet more – hiking the hills for facts. My hunch is that this contributes to the contrast, but it may be a generalization.

Income. The Preventive Medicine journal indicated that folks with higher incomes have fewer obesity problems.  Police are underpaid. People with more money have more options for healthy eating and exercising. The study found that people with an income over $50,000/year had an obesity rate just 72% of those with an income of $25,000/year.

Genetics. This could be a touchy subject. The vocational choice between peace officer or scientist is not genetically determined, but it is likely that certain ethnic groups with particular genetically-determined body shapes (or inherited weight-related conditions) gravitate towards one or the other occupation.

Intelligence. I know a few overweight know-it-alls. And some very bright law enforcement officers. Especially among Canada’s mounties – who almost always get their man. However, in general, scientists may have brains developed in ways that avail themselves to both mathematical/scientific endeavours and to awareness of nutrition. So there might be some correlation. The charts on the pages of Preventive Medicine show a strong negative correlation between obesity and years of education – people who finished college had only 68% the obesity rate of people with “some college“. This, of course, could reflect personality types more than intelligence.

Lifestyle, again. An inordinate number of geeks are just too busy to eat. As a group, they seem to prefer problem solving to face stuffing. You likely know such people – skipping meals or nibbling on carrots while filtrating lab chemicals. Meanwhile, the stress of law enforcement and shift work may lead to mindlessly foraging upon the typical American fare of sweet sodas, salty chips, cheesy pizzas, and fatty hamburgers.

This fat/skinny cop/geek dichotomy should make us aware of some of the issues that complicate the understanding of any ‘facts’ we encounter. An emaciated version of this same story is given on Time magazine’s Health News webpage (Law Enforcement Is the Fattest Profession, Study Finds), but it is published there without even an inkling of qualification or explanation. Entirely too much science trivia is presented in popular media in this way – without the feeblest effort to encourage introspection. Lacking critical-thinking tools, we may be able to regurgitate facts – but without insight and skepticism, coughing facts into the air does little to foster understanding. This should be the most important role for the science educator. Sure, give the fun facts that attract an audience, but also instill debate and thought into the background and causation of those facts. That’s where the science really is.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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