I got trolled at a talk I gave, and it was kind of hilarious. Here’s what happened: A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called The Positive Body. The talk was open to the entire University as well as the public.
When I got to the part of the presentation where I discuss the research around the failure of dieting, behaviors rather than BMI as the best predictor of future health etc. a hand shot up. Someone sitting in the farthest corner of the very back row, reading questions out of a notebook. These are all the red flags of a troll. Though it doesn’t happen often, this has happened before – someone comes with the intent of interrupting my presentation as often as possible and debunking what I’m saying. It’s fine with me because it allows me to show that I’m a professional, to engage them respectfully, and they invariably help me strengthen my position. Plus they encourage questions from other participants – win, win, win.
When I got home I found out that this guy was from a specific fat hate site and that he and his fat hate buddies had spent literally all day prepping- them telling him questions to ask, everyone speculating about how I wouldn’t be able to deal with the interruption. Everyone forgetting, apparently, that I’m a professional who does this for a living and they are just a bunch of bullies in a forum on the internet.
His account to them of what happened was a fascinating, if not altogether accurate, testimonial. I thought that they would make a lovely post to give people an idea of what this kind of trolling typically looks like. If you are reading this and you are one of the people who helped prep this young man, I’m sorry to say that I think he failed you. Even having written everything down in his notebook he still wasn’t able to properly match research to questions, and though it wouldn’t have changed the outcome if he had, I thought you should know that he wasted your time and efforts.
This actually never happened. What I said was that health had many components and that we are not in control of all of them. Then I listed off the examples of including genetics. He asked a question about staying at the same weight but didn’t include anything about genetics in the question. I don’t want to accuse the young man of lying so I’m just going to assume that his recall is as faulty as his listening comprehension.
Also, I couldn’t help but notice that even in his own internet forum, where his behavior is celebrated and supported, he still remains anonymous.
I fumbled alright, because – as often happens when you’re reading questions that someone else told you to ask – his question didn’t make sense. The study I was discussing was Matheson et. al. I had just finished explaining that smoking and drinking were variables that were studied within the research. A confounding variable is an extraneous variable, the presence of which affects the variables being studied. I fumbled because I was trying to decide if I wanted to stop the presentation and give a remedial vocabulary lesson to this dude or just move forward. I told him that it was explained in the study, which he could read, and moved on.
Poor guy, it seems like he just had a lot of trouble understanding what was going on. (My apologies for his ableist slur, it seems sadly par for the course.) My explanation was that when the body loses around 10% of its weight a number of mechanisms kick in with the express purpose of regaining and maintaining weight – including changes in hormones like ghrelin, leptin, and metabolic changes, and that studies have repeatedly shown, and an NIH panel of experts has confirmed, that almost everyone regains their weight within about 5 years and this changes might be why. There is a more full explanation here.
This sort of happened. Though it wasn’t I who got mad. It seems to me that at this point he was quite frustrated (maybe because his questions were helping me support my position and he couldn’t really understand what I was talking about.) Perhaps because of the frustration he forgot to mention that he was asking the question because studies show that people’s accounts of their caloric intake are not accurate, so he just said “Have you kept a food diary?” in a way that seemed frustrated, accusatory and inappropriate for the space, and so he just came off as angry and rude.
In his account, he left off the second part of my sentence. What I actually said was that my eating disorder had made me a virtual calorie calculator, and that yes, I had kept a food log. He said “you did?” I said “yes” he had no follow up. I can’t confirm that he shook his head in disgust because I couldn’t see him well – hiding, as he was, in the corner of the very back row.
After that a reader in the audience talked about how she has two fat sons and gave me a lovely thank you for my work. The group applauded and, though I had remained calm an composed in the face of views that didn’t agree with mine, he proved himself incapable of the same, slinking out under the cover of the enthusiastic applause.
The moral of the story? I’m not really sure, maybe it’s that if you’re going to send people to troll my talk you should probably try to find someone who can keep up with the conversation. These are complicated issues and there’s no shame in struggling to understand but if you came to the talk to repeatedly interrupt and try to debunk it then you might want to have a really good grasp on what’s happening. In my talk the previous day to a group of wellness care providers several people there were childhood obesity researchers and, despite our disagreements, we had very productive discussions, some of which we’ve continued over e-mail.
For me the fact that I’m upsetting people who are benefiting from the status quo is a sign that I’m doing the right thing, so I consider these incidents proof positive that I’m doing the right thing in my work.
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