Raise gas prices to slim down America?

…so claims this headline. Only the story screws it up.

The article highlights this dissertation research by Charles Courtemanche at Washington University in St. Louis. Courtemanche’s thesis is that the rise in gas prices causes more people to walk, ride bikes, or take public transportation (which they’d also have to walk to), as well as eat at home instead of going out; therefore higher gasoline prices can result in a thinner population. Sounds plausible. I won’t get into all the details of his research (the .pdf is available from the above link for anyone interested), but just by reading the abstract I can see a glaring error in the report, which makes the gas price hypothesis sound a lot bigger than it is. See if you can spot it:

From Courtemanche’s dissertation abstract:

I use a fixed effects model to explore whether this theory has empirical support, finding that an additional $1 in real gasoline prices would reduce obesity in the U.S. by 15% after five years, and that 13% of the rise in obesity between 1979 and 2004 can be attributed to falling real gas prices during this period.

From Reuters:

The report, written by Charles Courtenance for his doctoral dissertation in health economics, found that the 13 percent rise in obesity between 1979 and 2004 can be attributed to falling pump prices.

Do you have keener eyes than Reuters’ editors? And who wants to wager how frequently this mistake will be cited in future stories on this topic, rather than the data that Courtemanche actually presents?

13 Replies to “Raise gas prices to slim down America?”

  1. Good grief that’s a big error. What do you want to bet that a politician will grab onto this as proof that rising gas prices are “essential for America’s health.”

  2. I’m always fascinated that such little words like “of” can be so problematic to a presumably literate “journalist”. (Scare quotes just for decrepitoldfool.)

    One has to wonder if some “misreadings” are truly unintentional.

  3. Sadly, only 13 percent of the people will catch this error, 13 percent of the time.

    Alternatively, all of the people will catch 13%of the error.

  4. I’m surprised. We’re fat because of cheap corn, as journalist Greg Critser shows in his book “Fat Land.” It’s Earl Butz’ fault, basically. You’re posting from the midst of a sea of corn, so you should be aware of this. It’s subsidized corn that brings us high-fructose corn syrup, cheap corn-fed beef and pork, and dirt cheap, high calorie sodas. American soda pop is basically liquid corn. Michael Pollan has also discussed this at length in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Does Courtemanche touch on any of this?

    Without cheap energy, corn will not be so cheap, and low-calorie food based on corn becomes more expensive. Which means poor people won’t be able to afford as many calories, and they should slim down. They’ll also be moving more, as Courtemanche shows.

  5. Courtemanche is obviously another shill for the “high calories/no exercise causes obesity” orthodox scientific establishment. Can he isolate a calorie? I think not!

  6. Wow, that’s a terrible error! Journalism is getting sloppy.

    I don’t often follow up on the primary sources of a news report as often as I should. Sometimes I know something about the subject being reported, and I spot an error. However, over the past three years or so I have noticed a sharp increase in spelling and grammatical errors in news articles. I see these types of errors much more frequently than errors of fact. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that factual errors are also on the increase, but I would need a lot more data to make that estimation.

  7. I just think that the whole idea behind the study is a little weird. Lazy people will still find ways to be lazy. Who knows, if more people end up taking public transit they will probably create more pickup spots for the buses, meaning that people would still not walk as much as suggested.

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