Not Even Wrong

From time to time, my Seed magazine hosts throw out a question for bloggers to answer. Today’s question is concerns a column by James S. Robbins on global warming in the National Review Online. Robbins claims that global warming will be a great thing if it happens, which he doubts. The question is, does he have a point?

The question of what the full range of effects from global warming will be–both good and bad–is an important one, but Robbins shows little ability to offer an answer. His column overlooks important things, gets various facts wrong, and belies a general ignorance of and indifference towards science. For me, you can sum up everything that’s wrong with the article in one word: micobiotic.


Allow me to explain. Robbins uses this word when he is talking about how we don’t need to care about extinctions caused by global warming.

Granted, there will be some negative impacts in marginal areas. Some rare plant and animal species, hyper-adapted to highly specific climate conditions or micobiotic zones, are already unable to cope with the change. Many may go extinct; some already have. That’s tough, but chalk it up to bad evolutionary choices. When those rigidly specialist species bet everything on a small part of the world in hopes it would never change, they made a very bad bargain. For our part, we have air conditioners, lightweight fabrics, and sunscreen. Why infinitely adaptable humanity has to pay the price for the evolutionary shortsightedness of other life forms is beyond me. [emphasis mine]

Let’s ignore for a moment that a number of studies suggest that extinctions will not be marginal, but quite drastic (see my posts here and here for a couple recent ones). Let’s also ignore the fact that much of the world’s biodiversity have small ranges. Let’s ignore the fact that infinitely adaptable as we are, we still depend in various ways on other species. Let’s just focus on that word “micobiotic.”

There is no such word.

I was pretty sure there wasn’t when I read the column, and then looked at a couple dictionaries on my bookshelf. But to be sure, I gave a quick call to my brother Ben, senior lexicographer for American dictionairies at Oxford University Press. He happened to be surrounded by dictionaries when I called, and could find micobiotic in none of them.

Of course, Robbins might well have meant to write “microbiotic.” But even then he’d be wrong.”Microbiotic” does not refer to a small biological range, as the context in which Robbins uses the word suggests. It’s mainly used as a term to describe soil crusts that contain communities of microbes (see here, for example). It may sound fancy, but in Robbins’s column it would be utterly meaningless.

Who really knows what Robbins had in mind? All we know for sure is that he tossed a nonsense word into his piece and didn’t care enough to check. Nor did any fact-checker or copy editor at the National Review feel the need to flag this gibberish. I’m not saying that one has to be a scientist to join in this debate, but it would be nice if people didn’t just make stuff up.

0 thoughts on “Not Even Wrong

  1. Oh please – people make spelling mistakes all the time. Ever see a printed book with a spelling or grammatical error? I once bought a book that actually had to insert a page of corrections. And while a lexicographer has a place in the world, it’s not important that he’s not familiar with the word. The ultimate question (and the point of the english language) is, does the author effectively convey his ideas?

    In context, “microbiotic” is perfectly sensible. It obviously refer to the “microbiome” – ie, a small, local biome. Now, it seems that online, microbiome is generally used to refer to the collective genomes of bacteria that inhabit a region (crusts or the digestive tract, for instance). However, I was able to digest the word – and anyone who is as literate as yourself should be able to deal with the “micro” prefix to the root word “biome”.

    Complain about the author’s point, but picking on spelling errors is pointless.

  2. >”Why infinitely adaptable humanity has to pay the price for the evolutionary shortsightedness of other life forms is beyond me”

    Tell that to all the adaptable humans who live at or very close to sea level, such as the inhabitants of Manhattan Island, London, south Florida, Bangladesh, etc.

  3. Turn our climatizer at Max, and shrug off the hapless species that will go extinct ?

    That’s the best way to cope he can think of ?

    Why not reduce carbon output NOW, while we can still avoid most of the damage to the biosphere ? For example, by shutting off that damn climatizer ?

  4. Dlamming–Making up words is fine if you’re James Joyce, but not if you’re discussing science. Microbiome refers to a community of microbes, particularly in the gut or mouth. This has NOTHING to do with the range of an endangered plant or animal. It just makes it sound as if the writer knows all sorts of sciencey stuff. Just because it’s possible to guess at what the writer meant does not lessen the error. And if you read the NRO article, I hope you’ll agree that it is emblematic of the whole thing.

    As for the author’s point, my old posts that I linked to about extinctions show that he’s off base about extinctions.

  5. You don’t get to say that a jargon word means whatever you think it means based on what parts you think it’s made up from; jargon in science exists because it has a specific and non-negotiable meaning.

    Even if “micobiotic” is a typo for “microbiotic”, and even if “microbiotic” is an adjectival form of “microbiome”, it still doesn’t mean, as Carl points out, “small biome”. As scientists actually use it, “microbiome” has a specific meaning.

    It appears that the term Robbins meant may have been “microhabitat”. But his inability to use jargon correctly is a clear flag that his grasp on the science is shaky.

  6. We are very adaptive, and there is no question that changes in climate would povide opportunitities as well as problems. But considering this is our only planet, dickering with the climate does seem a trifle risky.

  7. Micobiotic…nice try. Of course, the Doric dialect did have a word ”mikko” which meant small, but notice it has two k’s, so it should be rendered miccobiotic. Of course, as I noted, Doric is a dialect, and ”mikko” was a variation on ”micro” which gets us back to microbiotic, which is, as noted, wrong.

  8. Scientists get to make up terms all the time (usually while defining them) all the time, and lots of great controversies arise over changing definitions – see “is Pluto a planet”, for instance. For that matter, in biology, certain proteins and genes have many different names (and some names actually refer to multiple proteins). Whoops.

    Different fields can also use the same term for different things – often a cause of great confusion. Microbiome as refering to a community of microbes is a pretty specialized usage.

    Quite frankly, if you don’t take home the meaning of “small biome” from the word microbiome, especially in context, I really just have to assume something’s flawed (or writer-quirky) in the way you read the english language.

  9. Dlamming–Scientists propose new words and give explicit definitions for them, which are debated and then agreed upon. There’s a world of difference between that and a writer tossing out words that sound like they mean something but don’t. This is not a matter of writer-quirky. Scientists often correct me for using imprecise terms, and rightly so. It’s supremely important to them.

  10. Robbins claims that global warming will be a great thing if it happens, which he doubts.

    I’ve never heard of this Robbins guy. sounds lots like rightwing extremist, doodoo head Rush Limbaugh on the “environmentalist whackos” saving the beetles (the majority of endangered species, are bugs / beetles / pests which nobody wants anyway…)

    “On December 9, nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that “[t]here is no evidence that we could destroy ecosystems.” Limbaugh made his comments after a caller asked him for help in “combat[ing] the myth of global warming” that, the caller claimed, had been “spoon-fed” to his son. Limbaugh purported to debunk the “myth” that “humanity is causing” global warming — a process that, according to Limbaugh, “relies on the theory that we are destroying ecosystems.”

    Liberalism believes in doom and gloom. They believe we are destroyers, especially prosperous people. They think that we have no regard for what is here. They try to make it sound like that — well, this is really too complicated for your son to understand, but between you and me, these people think they’re secularists. In truth, they are as — they are as devoted to religion as anybody else is. They just have a different god. And [author] Michael Crichton made a speech once that is eerie in its — in its perceptiveness about the militant environmentalist wackos. Their belief system parallels the story of Genesis in striking ways, except there’s one big difference: There never has been a Garden of Eden. If you go back a hundred years, you find horse manure all over the streets. If you go back 200 years, you find pestilence and disease. If you go back farther than that — we are living in the best times possible. Life expectancy is at an all-time high. Global warming relies on the theory that we are destroying ecosystems. There is no evidence that we could destroy ecosystems.

  11. Quite frankly, if you don’t take home the meaning of “small biome” from the word microbiome, especially in context, I really just have to assume something’s flawed (or writer-quirky) in the way you read the english language…

    Carl’s absolutely correct – until one of the commenters here pointed out that Robbins may have meant something like “microhabitat”, I completely misconstrued this bit – thought that it might (but how?) have something to do with root/fungal associations, or the inhabitants of a ruminant’s gut. If there’s something flawed in the way that I read the English language, blame it on my education in the biological sciences. Which I took the trouble to acquire, unlike this Robbins person.

    Which leads to another point, which doesn’t get mentioned enough but which this particular bit of illiteracy underlines – the profound ignorance of the biological sciences displayed by most (if not all) right-wing commentators upon environmental and evolutionary topics. It smacks of a deep contempt for these fields of inquiry – the natural world is either a painted backdrop for the Biblical story of the Fall and the Redemption, or it’s a passive source of resources and receptacle for wastes. In either case, it’s not worth knowing about for its own sake. You can sense the weary annoyance of someone like Robbins, having to learn, or at least be able to mouth, all of this mumbo-jumbo in order to impress the rubes and out-jargon the sprout-eating lefty environmentalists.

    Oh, and great word, Carl – “sciencey”. Encapsulates this sort of spurious jargon-slinging nicely.

  12. Anyone see 20/20 tonight? Carl’s post was perfect timing.
    #1 threat.. global warming.

    “Last Days on Earth” is a program that could change the way you see your world and yourself. The world’s top scientists, including Stephen Hawking, considered the foremost living theoretical physicist, describe seven riveting scenarios detailing the deadliest threats to humanity. Some can destroy the planet, others have the ability to render us extinct, and all have the power to destroy civilization. How likely are they to occur, and what exactly would happen if they did, and could we survive? “Last Days on Earth” goes beyond science fiction to science fact.

    They compared the denials of global warming to the rubbish of holocaust denial and tobacco companies denying tobacco is addictive or dangerous to health. Armadillos moving north, and spring coming weeks earlier.. London and Florida dissapearing from the map… Greenland melting away…
    20/20 listed top threats to our planet. Missed the first 15 minutes :o/
    Informative two hours.
    A gamma burst? roaming black holes, bacteria… and an asteroid that could hit us on the second of two Friday the 13th’s in the 2030’s… same asteroid, six years later…

    Frightening stuff.

  13. I don’t think Robbins had in mind anything “micro biotic” or “micro biological” or anything other than zones of restricted climatic variability, for which he used a word that in his ignorance seemed to have the right sound. Ironically, I think it’s in the world of small organisms that global warming may have the most serious conssequences–some of those critters may do very well, at human expense. And cranking up the air conditioners will only exacerbate the situation.

  14. Two points on micobiotic:

    1) It seems to me that Carl, our host, is playing the role of Alice while Mr. Robbins is occupying that of Humpty Dumpty.

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

    `Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, `what that means?’

    `Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

    `That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

    `When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

    `Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

    `Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, `for to get their wages, you know.’

    2) Sciency stuff is on the right track, but we need something more concise, closer to truthiness (but see this too)

  15. The current (and future) environmental damage is not due to frogs or penguins “evolutionary shortsightedness”, it is being caused by human industrial shortsightedness.

    It is still possible for humanity to mitigate the environmental damage, or even avoid the foreseen century of strife, famine and wars, but the attitude, “theres no Global Warming and if there is, let’s just crank our A/C at max, and invade Canada if it becomes convenient” is not the proper way to deal with the looming catastrophy.

  16. Echoing the others, it is important. It’s very telling how much importance a person really places on a subject, and how much knowledge of that subject he has, if he can’t even be bothered to get the words right. Try calling your spouse by the wrong name sometime and then see how much effort it takes to convince him/her that it doesn’t matter exactly what you call something, as long as everyone knows what you’re referring to.

  17. Looked up micobiotic on Google. It has 140 hits, so its obscure, whatever it is.
    5th hit on Google. I wonder if he got his meaning from this website.
    [PDF] A Model of the CO2 Exchanges Between Biosphere and Atmosphere in the Tundra
    “…of large micobiotic communities and hinders decomposition. As oxygen decrease in this very wet environment, oxidation is replaced…”

    [Sharon: Whatever the case may be, a reduction in oxygen doesn’t sound like a positive for humans, though micro-organisms do thrive on carbon dioxide. Funny how the earth has been reigned for billions of years by microbes, higher life-forms only emerging in past millions, because oxygen was too scarse in the atmosphere to support higher life forms. Not an expert, but mankind is churning out the carbon dioxide like there’s no tomorrow (and, there won’t be at the rate things are going)/ because of folks like them, maybe one day earth will be returned to its desolate one-celled origins for a few more billion years.]

    “Northern ecosystems are characterized by very low temperature and the presence of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) impeding soil drainage, creating high soil moisture. This in turn inhibits the development of large micobiotic communities and hinders decomposition. As oxygen decrease in this very wet environment, oxidation is replaced by anaerobic decomposition leading to the formation of methane and CO2. Climate change could affect the net soil carbon balance in two ways:
    (1) changes in mean daily temperature, precipitation and cloudiness,
    (2) changes in surface conditions. Since the amount of CO2 in the northern soils is very large, a small change in their decomposition rate would have a significant impact on northern ecosystems carbon balance.”

    micobiotic looks like a mis-spelling to me.

  18. “Carl’s absolutely correct – until one of the commenters here pointed out that Robbins may have meant something like “microhabitat”, I completely misconstrued this bit – thought that it might (but how?) have something to do with root/fungal associations, or the inhabitants of a ruminant’s gut”

    For what it’s worth, I assumed he meant something analogous to a “microclimate”, but with living things. I guess that would be a microhabitat. If I were speaking extemporaneously, not being a scientist, I might well use “microbiome”, which seems intuitively to be to “biome” what “microclimate” is to “climate”. It wouldn’t occur to me that “microbiome” is a biome of microbes.

    So, as a layman, I’d cut him some slack on the terminology. The overall point is bunk, of course.

  19. Something no one seem to have much time for is the very obvious reward the survivors of any cataclysmic disaster gain.
    After the plague, after the famine, after the war, after the meteor strike, the flood whatever.
    There’s a generation or two or ten of readjustment, and then the centrality of the bios is reconfigured.
    People make money off war – fortunes even, animals that survive at the margins of one phase of an ecology become the dominant players in the next.
    Our shrew-like ancestors scurrying under the feet of saurian holdovers, etc etc.
    Sometimes I think men like Robbins and the criminally ignorant fools in Washington are representing the next phase, where the passing of what we think of now as central to the human presence will be celebrated by what takes its place.
    Thus making them not criminals, in that context, to that thing, but pioneers, ancestors.

  20. I think men like Robbins and the criminally ignorant fools… making them not criminals, in that context, to that thing, but pioneers, ancestors.

    the eye of t.s. Ernesto is passing overhead, and I wish they (Robbins and Limbaugh) would go “extinct”.

    a generation or two or ten of readjustment,

    NOAA forcasted many flash flood and tornado warnings… and, Ernesto is making landfall right now.

    Just blogged ‘zis
    I wish the people of Louisiana could know exactly how much C02 pollution (and lies by R. Limbaugh and those like him, keep pressure off the big money powers that be, to clean up their act and do their share to clean up the planet) these guys had everything to do with the devastation they suffered in New Orleans… people there should be outraged, everytime somebody like Rush Limbaugh denies global warming even exists. They think people are scientifically illiterate. ABC 20/20 summed it up real simple: CO2 from pollution traps the sun’s heat energy in the atmosphere where the heat cannot escape back into space, and that’s what’s causing temperature to rise, and these really bad storms. The energy has to go somewhere! The atmosphere is simply balancing out the sun’s energy, trapped in earth’s atmosphere.

    Thanks Carl, for bringing up this whole issue.

  21. I wonder if it isn’t simple lack of charity in interpretation that’s at work here. I’ve noticed that when scientists comment on topics outside their specialties, such as the philosophical dimensions of the scientific enterprise, including matters of methodology(!), one frequently encounters a mangling of language. Should we make a big deal of it every time someone calls an inference an implication, a criticism a refutation, etc, etc, etc? Or should we (charitably) try to discern some serious point behind the verbal garbage?

  22. It is quite possible that there will be benefits global warming. It might well be a net gain for Canada, as he suggests. However, I live in the US, a country that is gifted with an unusually mild climate, particularly well-suited to agriculture. The ironic thing is that the US–the country with the most to lose by rolling the climate dice again–has been the slowest to confront global warming.

    The other major concern, of course, is that global warming means that there is more energy available to power extreme weather. While it is by no means certain that Katrina was related to global warming, current simulations support the view that a warmer world means more violent weather. We could be looking at a future in which disasters like Katrina happen every year or two.

  23. While it is by no means certain that Katrina was related to global warming, current simulations support the view that a warmer world means more violent weather. We could be looking at a future in which disasters like Katrina happen every year or two.

    You are absolutely correct. There is no absolute proof, and because there’s nothing written in b/w (i.e., denying cigarette smoke leads to lung cancer, etc) — sure, it can be denied by those who choose to lie to themselves and others… people will lie for many reasons, money often being one of the leading incentives… for every cause there’s somebody to defend it. That’s precisely Limbaugh’s excuse to lie to millions and claim “no evidence” for human-induced global warming causing change in climate, destructive weather patterns, etc. But by putting some facts together, it’s a closed case (according to 20/20 it’s a closed case, global warming is a fact, and it is harming our planet), but people like the Robbins character will stand in the way, until its possibly too late. i.e., locally the chief meterologist, George Elliot, explained on television, hurricanes are merely the atmosphere balancing out the heat energy of the sun. He mentioned the amount of heat energy that’s involved in a typical hurricane, and compared it with the energy being released in an atomic bomb…

    A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20×1013 watts and converts less than 10% of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.

    Heat energy is what’s being trapped in the atmosphere, because of C02 (carbon dioxide). If I can understand this, anyone can, even the poor and moderately uneducated… including pinheads like Rush Limbaugh.

    “The study finds there has been no general increase in the total number of hurricanes, […] But the proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 or 5 ? with wind speeds above 56 metres per second ? has risen from 20% in the 1970s to 35% in the past decade.”

    A massive global increase in the number of strong hurricanes over the past 35 years is being blamed on global warming, by the most detailed study yet. The US scientists warn that Katrina-strength hurricanes could become the norm.

    Worldwide since the 1970s, there has been a near-doubling in the number of Category 4 and 5 storms ? the strength that saw Hurricane Katrina do such damage to the US Gulf coastline late in August 2005.

    “We can say with confidence that the trends in sea surface temperatures and hurricane intensity are connected to climate change, says Webster’s co-author Judy Curry, also of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The team looked at the incidence of intense tropical storms and the study results are the strongest affirmation yet that Katrina-level hurricanes are becoming more frequent in a warmer world.

  24. In and amongst all of the learned points of view already represented I think we should consider the harm we do to each species, and each individual of each species, that we destroy. Nature is extremely harsh, but we don’t have the excuse of being morally blind. Whatever the effect global warming will have on people, it will be much worse for species such as the polar bears who are already dying.

  25. The funny thing about global warming is that IDists seemingly accept it. At least when they believe that this could be used as an argument against Random Mutation and Natural Selection:
    Over at uncommondescent PaV discusses a report in New Scientist about

    Balanya J et al.:Global Genetic Change Tracks Global Climate Warming in Drosophila subobscura.
    Science. 2006 Aug 31; [Epub ahead of print]

    PaV tries to interpret similar inversion frequencies in Drosophila subobscura at different lattitudes in America and Europe:

    One of the basic tenets of NDE is that geographically isolated species will diverge to take their own evolutionary paths, sometimes to develop into dramatically different organisms. The strange thing here is that all three groups of regionally isolated fruit flies had the same genetic changes, with such regularity that the change can be observed to move north because of a warming climate. If the changes were truly random, there should be three different adaptations for the three different regions.

    Thus, there must be some type of specific mechanism at work that is systematically affecting the genomes of the flies. This means there might be some sort of system of genetic change that we’re only beginning to comprehend (if I’m not mistaken, similar mechanisms are looking more likely in the way that microorganisms adapt to new demands). Such a system might provide for a great deal of variability within a class of related organisms, but not to bring about unlimited change.

    So what do those you who believe that random mutation is the means of genetic variation think about this astonishing regularity in the fruit flies climate adaptation? I’d be very interested to hear.

    Obviously, PaV does not know the difference between inversion frequency and inversion rate. Thus he believes that new identical inversions occur if appropriate to environmental changes. Since he rejects Random Mutation and Natural Selection he is speculating about

    be some sort of system of genetic change that we’re only beginning to comprehend

    However, as the third comment in the thread stated

    The inversion was already there so I am not sure if any change to the genome took place other than through reproduction

    thereby giving a clear hint that the data should not be interpreted as new mutations. Indeed the inversions were either present in the population that first arrived in America or they have been later imported by one or several immigration waves.

    I have posted a comment at UD with links to freely available articles about the issue. However the never showed up. Instead, the discussion continued on the same level of incomprehension.

  26. You all seem to assume that global warming is occuring and that it is human-induced because we burn fossil fuels. How did the fossil fuels get there? From the middle of the Devonian period through the Carboniferous period (375mya to 300mya) atmospheric concentations of CO2 dropped by an order of magnitude from 4000ppm to near present-day levels of 400ppm. Where did all that excess CO2 go? It got fossilized. How did life survive CO2 concentrations an order of magnitude higher than today? Look around you.

    How bad a greenhouse gas is CO2? Back in the Ordovician period 475 mya, CO2 concentrations were 4400ppm yet the Earth suffered an ice age. Clearly, the Earth’s temperature does not correlate very well with CO2 concentrations.

    This [url=]chart[/url] might aid understanding.

    Throughout the Ordovician, Gondwana shifted towards the South Pole and much of it was submerged underwater.
    The Ordovician is best known for the presence of its diverse marine invertebrates, including graptolites, trilobites, brachiopods, and the conodonts (early vertebrates). A typical marine community consisted of these animals, plus red and green algae, primitive fish, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, and gastropods.

    From the Early to Middle Ordovician, the earth experienced a milder climate in which the weather was warm and the atmosphere contained a lot of moisture.

    However, when Gondwana finally settled on the South Pole during the Late Ordovician, massive glaciers formed causing shallow seas to drain and sea levels to drop. This likely caused the mass extinctions that characterize the end of the Ordovician, in which 60% of all marine invertebrate genera and 25% of all families went extinct.

    Anyway, on a more positive note.
    “I have spent a career in the oil industry finding hydrocarbons and have been involved in finding 700 million barrels over my career. That is a lot and those in the industry are impressed by that number. We shouldn’t be. It is less than a 2 week world supply. for the past 20 years, the oil industry has found less oil than we pumped out of the ground. That means that in the not too distant future, the world’s reserves will not be capable of supplying the requisite energy to the world. Some think we have already reached that point.”

    – Glenn Morton

    I found the most interesting little radio and flashlight at Wal-Mart. I recall back in the 80’s or 90’s when these things were invented. If I recall correctly, it was a fellow in England who created them for people in third world countries, so they could hear the radio — and keep up with the outside world. You’ve seen them? They have a handle you crank, and it can even store a charge. Never needs batteries. You can google “battery free crank” or this brand, “innovage outdoor”. It would sure be nice if more renewable energy resources like this could be created… the toaster, television and air conditioner, at least a fan! That sure would make it lots more comfortable, when those big hurricanes blast through and tens, hundreds of thousands left without electricity up and down the coast.

  28. battery free hand-cranked, never needs battery flashlights and radios… can we make hand-cranked microwaves and computers… or eventually, a home generator.
    benefits for the planet?
    … needless to mention unlimited savings on electric bills.

    I know, that dreaded thing called exercise, having to hand-wind appliances to make them work. For some people, it would be all the exercise they get, and that can’t hurt.

    Is religion making us fat?
    Cathleen Falsani
    August 25, 2006

    “America is becoming known as a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem,” says Ken Ferraro, a Purdue sociology professor who studied more than 2,500 adults over a span of eight years looking at the correlation between their religious behavior and their body mass index.

    “If religious leaders and organizations neglect this issue, they will contribute to an epidemic that will cost the health-care system millions of dollars and reduce the quality of life for many parishioners,” he says.

    Casserole as sacrament
    Ferraro’s most recent study, published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, is a follow-up to a study he published in 1998, where he found there were more obese people in states with larger populations of folks claiming a religious affiliation than elsewhere — particularly in states with the most Baptists.

    So it’s not surprising that Ferraro’s latest study found that about 27 percent of Baptists, including Southern Baptists, North American Baptists, and Fundamentalist Baptist, were obese.

    Surely there are several contributing factors to such a phenomenon, but when Ferraro accounted for geography (southern cooking is generally more high-caloric), race and even whether overweight folks were attracted to churches for moral support, the statistics still seem to indicate that some churches dispense love handles as well as the love of the Lord.

    In religious traditions where drinking alcohol, smoking anything and even dancing are vices regularly preached against from the pulpit, overeating has become the “accepted vice,” Ferraro says.

    Or, as Homer Simpson so eloquently put it on his way to a First Church of Springfield picnic: “If God didn’t want us to eat in church, he’d have made gluttony a sin.”

    ‘Overgrazing of the flock’
    “Baptists may find food one of the few available sources of earthly pleasures,” Ferraro says.

    Exhibit A: The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Baptist king of the Christian right.
    Falwell has been accused (rightly) of being many things.
    Chubby, for instance.

    Often gathering around food
    “A gathering congregation has to gather around something, and it’s often around food,” Sack says.

    Perhaps, as Ferraro suggests, more churches might want to consider turning the fellowship hall into a gym, putting down the Krispy Kremes, and gathering instead around a plate of crudite before taking a brisk walk with the pastor after church.

    Because, ya know, blessed are the weight watchers.

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