Dan Engber points me to an excellent pair of articles by Dave Johns, reporting on the research that’s appeared in the last few years from Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler on social contagion–the finding that being fat is contagions, and so forth.
More precisely, Christakis and Fowler reanalyzed data from the Framingham heart study–a large longitudinal study that included medical records on thousands of people and, crucially, some information on friendships among the participants–and found that, when a person gained weight, his or her friends were likely to gain weight also. Apparently they have found similar patterns for sleep problems, drug use, depression, and divorce. And others have used the same sort of analysis to find contagion in acne, headaches, and height. Huh? No, I’m not kidding, but these last three were used in an attempt to debunk the Christakis and Fowler findings: if their method finds contagion in height, then maybe this isn’t contagion at all, but just some sort of correlation. Maybe fat people just happen to know other fat people. Christakis and Fowler did address this objection in their research articles, but the current controversy is over whether their statistical adjustment did everything they said it did.
So this moves from a gee-whiz science-is-cool study to a more interesting is-it-right-or-is-it-b.s. debate.
This is a controversy that I’m pretty well-qualified to comment on, except that I haven’t taken a careful read of any of the articles under discussion. I could imagine a world in which I was a science journalist and was paid to definitively track these things down. That would be fun, but it’s not the job I actually have.
Actually, I think I blurbed Christakis and Fowler’s “Connected” when it came out–I liked the book a lot–but, as you can see, I was careful when summarizing their claims:
Christakis and Fowler are best known for their work connecting social networks and epidemiology, in particular the fact that obese people are more likely to have obese friends. As one wag put it, they find that obesity is environmental and voting is genetic. I guess that sort of interpretation is the inevitable outcome of man-bites-dog reporting, with the real story being that obesity is more determined by social behavior than we might have thought, while voting behavior is more tied to genes than we might have thought.
If Christakis and Fowler did make a mistake, I’d cut them some slack–it’s not like they proved a false theorem or anything. I expect that tonight, while I sleep, these guys are hard at work on the computer, running all sorts of regressions and making all sorts of graphs to try to figure out what their data are saying.
A historical perspective
One thing that was cool about Dave Johns’s article was that he didn’t just write about the current controversy. He also put it in historical context of how contagion has been viewed in earlier periods.
In one way, though, I think Johns goes too far in his criticism. He writes:
As Fowler told Stephen Colbert in a January interview, the research suggests that people don’t really make individual decisions at all but, instead, function as part of a “human superorganism”–like a herd of buffalo or a flock of birds.
Johns describes this as “an assault on a lot of traditional social science,” but I wouldn’t quite say that. There are some behaviors that are really hard to change individually but do seem to change en masse. Consider smoking or even something simple such as seat-belt use. The superorganism or herd-of-animals analogy doesn’t seem too far off-base to me, especially when modified to allow for social networks, so that different countries, for example, can have similar trends to the extent that there are many links between them. Friends and family aren’t the only things–the news media (and even bloggers?) play a role too–but the general idea of studying network patterns makes sense to me. I guess what I’m saying is that the network-research paradigm is more general and important than any specific claims about contagion. John talks about homophily (“birds of a feather flock together”) as an alternative to social contagion, but homophily is itself a consequence of network behavior, no? You can’t “flock with” someone if you don’t know where he or she is.
Anyway, it’s good stuff. A great piece of scientific reporting. I’m looking forward to the follow-up in a year.
P.S. Apparently Fowler was on the Colbert Report. Perhaps Colbert can have another show pitting him against one of the researchers who claims that his findings are all artifacts. If this ever airs, could someone tape it for me? You can record this on the same tape that already has the Laurie Abraham vs. Malcolm Gladwell debate, the Bartels/Frank WWF bout, and the one where they challenge my namesake to see if he can read two full pages from his oh-so-well-reviewed opus of some years ago without the entire studio audience falling asleep. Oh, and if there’s room, you could throw in that clip of Johnny Carson and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s cat. . . . It’s starting to get pretty full, but if you record in super-long-play mode, I think you can fit 6 hours on a standard VHS.