David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Jack Alan Reynolds
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Social Epistemology 21 (4):391 – 423 (2007)
In 2000, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson mobilized the US public health infrastructure to deal with escalating trends of excess body weight. A cornerstone of this effort was a report entitled The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. The report stimulated a great deal of public discussion by utilizing the distinctive public health terminology of an epidemic to describe the growing prevalence of obesity in the US population. We suggest that the ensuing controversy was fueled in part by the report's ambiguous usage of the evocative term “epidemic.” In some passages, the report seems to use “epidemic” in a literal sense, suggesting that rising prevalence of excess body weight should be defined technically as a disease outbreak. Other passages of the report present the same key term metaphorically, leaving readers with the impression that the epidemic language is invoked primarily for rhetorical effect. Here, we explore dynamics and implications of both interpretations. This analysis sheds light on the ongoing public argument about the appropriate societal response to steadily increasing body sizes in the US population; likewise, it capitalizes on the accumulated knowledge that the field of public health has garnered from combating diverse historic epidemics. Our interdisciplinary approach deploys critical tools from the fields of rhetoric, sociology and epidemiology. In particular, we draw from metaphor theory and public address scholarship to elucidate how the Call to Action frames public deliberation on obesity. We turn to the applied public health literature to develop a reading of the report that suggests a novel approach to the problem—application of the Epidemic Investigation protocol to streamline the public health response and reframe the public argument about obesity.
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