oDR: Opinion

Fat shaming politicians won’t end capitalism

A recent scandal over a scientific article once again raises thorny issues of who produces expert knowledge - and why.

Pavlo Shopin
3 August 2020, 9.14am
CC BC NC ND 2.0 Petri Damstén / Flickr. Some rights reserved

A new academic paper claims to have identified a correlation between the body-mass index of post-Soviet officials and political corruption. Some people find it amusing, yet this kind of research is not only misguided, but also harmful.

Last month, an academic journal, Economics of Transition and Institutional Change, published an article “Obesity of politicians and corruption in post‐Soviet countries”. The article claims to identify a useful relationship between the body-mass index of politicians in post-Soviet states and political corruption. It uses a computer vision algorithm to identify the BMI of cabinet ministers in 15 post-Soviet states from 2017, measuring 299 frontal face images and then relating the results to conventional measures of corruption.

The paper, by Pavlo Blavatskyy, a faculty member of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Chair at the University of Montpellier, concludes that “physical characteristics of politicians such as their body-mass index can be used as proxy variables for political corruption when the latter are not available, for instance at a very local level”.

I have seen many comments that criticise the study and highlight its unscientific nature. I have also seen people celebrate it: the paper seems to prove that politicians are “literal fat cats”, and thus can be shamed for their obesity and corruption. The knee-jerk reaction to this work is to dismiss it out of hand, blaming its publication on a shoddy peer review process and unscrupulous research practices. But it is worse.

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The body-mass index and AI analysis of human faces would not be used to identify political corruption in the west, but it is acceptable to use these techniques elsewhere because it diverts our attention from the failure of capitalist development policies in this region. (Indeed, the journal is affiliated with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.) Despite the use of AI, the study has more in common with physiognomy and the work of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminality could be identified by physical traits, than modern science.

Just imagine how western bureaucrats, investors and bankers could use algorithms to identify BMI of politicians in poor countries in order to decide whether to give loans, support or funding to local communities or whether the local authorities are too corrupt and should not be trusted. The bureaucrats do not need to leave their London or Brussels offices, and instead can scan a few photos of local politicians somewhere in Kyrgyzstan or Ukraine to decide on how to allocate resources, using a proxy for political corruption approved by peer-reviewed research. This gets even worse if we consider the results of the policies.

What is happening to western academia? Why are the poor blamed for their poverty? Why is physiognomy back? How can scientists push back against such harmful approaches? Why do some of them choose to advance such prejudice?

Why did international policies of mass privatisation lead to increased mortality in post-Soviet countries? According to liberal economists, the failures of international development are not due to bad policies, but because of all that red meat: post-Soviet authoritarians failed to cope with the challenges of early capitalist transition.

This goes back to an old debate about the reasons why certain policies of international development have led to social disintegration, higher mortality rates and rampant corruption. The blame is laid on local cultures and authorities as they are seen as corrupt. I agree that it is possible that officials are corrupt, authoritarian and often feudal “at a very local level” (to use the article’s words), but measuring social realities through AI face recognition technology and the BMI is nothing short of racist. This discrimination is not an accident. It is there by design.

In 2009, David Stuckler, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee published a seminal paper (“Mass privatisation and the post-communist mortality crisis: a cross-national analysis”) in The Lancet medical journal. The finding was that “mass privatisation programmes were associated with an increase in short-term adult male mortality rates of 12.8% [...] with similar results for the alternative privatisation indices from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.” This paper showed that the policy of privatising industries in post-Soviet countries led to higher mortality rates.

In 2017, a rigorous empirical study by Aytalina Azarova, Daria Irdam and others in The Lancet indicated that “fast privatisation was strongly associated with higher working-age male mortality rates both between 1992 and 1998.” The study controlled for age, marital status, material deprivation history, smoking, drinking and socioeconomic status. The policies of international development in post-Soviet countries have led to devastating results in public health, rather than a unique relationship between political corruption and obesity.

In response to this empirical research, there was backlash from liberal economists saying that the failure of capitalist development in post-Soviet states was due to local mentality - the latter being unable to come to terms with capitalism and its demands. In effect, these proselytisers of free markets and privatisation said that capitalism does not work because of all the corrupt people in post-Soviet countries. Of course, corruption is a problem, and culture has played a role in what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the focus on personal responsibility and political corruption does not fully explain poverty, depopulation and social disintegration.

The forceful meddling of western state and academic missionaries in eastern Europe’s “experiment” with liberal democracy makes a mockery of the whole notion of the region’s fawning “imitation” of western ideals. There is a tradition of blaming local cultures for the crass damage done by international development policies around the globe. The paper in question is the pinnacle of this modernising discourse, steeped in physiognomy and pseudo-science. But the editors let it be published - and peer reviewers approved this fatphobic paper - because it fits the narrative of blaming the failure of policies of international development on local contexts.

At the same time, in July this year, the peer-reviewed Society journal published an article “Poverty and Culture”, in which the author, Lawrence M. Mead, claimed that “the ultimate solution to poverty is for the poor themselves to adopt the more inner-driven individualist style.” Speaking about the American context, the author argued that Blacks and Hispanics, who are not European, are “unprepared” for the “individualist culture” in the country. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care at the University of Oxford, eviscerated this racist screed on Twitter and started an open letter calling on the editor of the journal to withdraw the paper. The article has since been retracted by the journal, which stated it had been “published without proper editorial oversight”.

What is happening to western academia? Why are the poor blamed for their poverty? Why is physiognomy - the art of judging character by facial characteristics - back? How can scientists push back against such harmful approaches? Why do some of them choose to advance such prejudice?

The cause of poverty could be the culture we inhabit – the culture of greed, violence and oppression. These systemic problems entangle humanity on a global scale and affect both personal and collective interactions.

Western academia might continue to explain the failures of international development as the world burns down around us due to rampant capitalist exploitation and extraction. We might have insightful treatises on the failures of local cultures to adapt to the glorious global progress of capitalism; but the point of research is to change the world, not only to understand it.

In an essay for openDemocracy (“How does it feel to be studied? A Central Asian perspective”), Syinat Sultanalieva addresses the problem of colonialism and privilege in western scholarship, saying that “changing the status quo would require a whole new political economy, which might prove difficult. Just as many other of the currently urgent global issues, the question of coloniality in knowledge production may not be in the interests of those with power to address it - let alone change it.”

Post-Soviet states are dominated by international capital, authoritarian leaders and oligarchs, who are well organised and work together. This cannot be resolved without a firm grasp of the problem, and the paper by Blavatskyy is proof that establishment economists distract the public and each other from the real causes of corruption, poverty, depopulation and social disintegration. As a classic saying goes: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The problem is capitalism, not people’s appearance.

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