My Tablet magazine column this week is about a children’s book that is nominally about being short. But it’s really a book about media and science literacy. Wait, where are you going? I swear it’s unboring. In Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All, author John Schwartz debunks all the “research” about short folks being less happy, stupider and poorer than their taller counterparts, and he does so in a chatty, funny way that mixes memoir (the guy grew up teeny in Texas) and reported non-fiction. The book awesomely teaches kids to question the way studies are constructed and funded…and it teaches them the right questions to ask. Does this study distinguish between correlation and causation? How big is the sample and how well-designed is the study? Do the researchers have an agenda — are they, say, trying to sell humane growth hormone? How did the media report the study’s findings, and is the headline-driven approach really representative of what the study actually FOUND?
Josie, my book-devouring 8-year-old, is reading Short now, despite being tall. And being a girl. I’d say it’s really aimed more at boys. (I think short girls face different challenges from short boys, mostly surrounding cuteness and authority and sexuality, and girls’ issues manifest more in adolescence — this book is for younger readers, aged 9-12 or so.) But Josie is old enough to be interested in marketing and media and the misuses of science, and she’s intrigued. (She’s also young enough to be horrified that there are people out there who think they are “too flat-chested,” as the book mentions. I explained breast augmentation surgery to her and she just stared at me, open-mouthed. “No. Way.” I had to tell her “Way.”)
As I read Schwartz’s book, I kept thinking about the research about weight and health that Crystal Renn and I presented in Hungry. The bias toward fat people is even stronger than the bias toward short people. It is very difficult to show the difference between correlation and causation when it comes to ill health and fat. (Does fat cause illness or are the two merely correlated, so that if you’re predisposed to certain conditions you’re also predisposed to be fat? Does losing weight and keeping it off — two very different propositions, give that between 90 and 95% of people who lose weight gain it back — make people less likely to have the conditions correlated with obesity? How much of the negative health outcomes associated with obesity are actually caused by dieting or by fat bias? Is the research on fat being conducted by people who run weight-loss clinics or who are trying to sell diet drugs?) We asked a lot more questions about genetics than Schwartz does, but I was still struck by the similarities among research into shortness and research into fatness. I was also interested to see how INGRAINED people’s beliefs about short people are, despite all evidence to the contrary. And of course, how hidden agendas run rampant. (Schwartz tells the story of a researcher whose work indicated that short kids don’t grow up to be more miserable than tall kids, who then found his work quoted by the FDA as justification for the need for human growth hormone treatments, since short kids have such worse outcomes than tall kids!)
Anyway, I think it’s a really good book. It’s a quick, thought-provoking read for grownups, and I think an important one for kids. Full disclosure: I know Schwartz virtually through The Well, the virtual community we both participate in, but we’ve never met.