Fat People Can’t Get PhDs: It’s Science

NYU's Geoffrey Miller has done a groundbreaking study connecting obesity, and particularly the consumption of simple carbohydrates, with failure to complete doctoral dissertations.

NYU’s Geoffrey Miller has done a groundbreaking study connecting obesity, and particularly the consumption of simple carbohydrates, with failure to complete doctoral dissertations. Well, actually, he’s just an evolutionary psychologist visiting the business school. And it was a tweet, not a study:

Miller, who specializes in evolutionary psychology and is teaching at NYU’s Stern School of Business, tweeted on Sunday: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”


Miller, a tenured professor at the University of New Mexico, quickly deleted his tweet—but not before others had the chance to take screenshots of the message and circulate those images on various social media platforms.

Most of the people I knew in graduate school subsisted on pizza, Chinese food, and beer. Then again, most of them failed to complete their dissertation, so Miller may be on to something.

Naturally, NYU is taking this in stride:

According to the New York Observer, Miller won’t lose his post at NYU. But his future at UNM is less certain.

“We are deeply concerned about the impact of the statement, which in no way reflects the policies or admission standards of UNM,” UNM said in an official statement issued on Monday. “We are investigating every aspect of this incident and will take appropriate action.”

I’m pretty sure the “appropriate action” is doing nothing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    The interesting thing is that “evolutionary psychology” gets right to the core of his “claim.”

    It’s not like he is necessarily falling victim to The Fallacy of Competency Transference.

    He at least has correlation going for him. Among 25 to 34 year olds the obesity rate for high school graduates is 34 percent, while that for Bachelor’s Degree or higher is 20 percent.

    I suspect the PhD numbers would show a further reduction … if only because it is hard to stay in the house on the couch while earning a PhD.

  2. JKB says:

    On the other hand, not being able to stop drinking has a long and storied association with scholastic achievement and literary genius.

    And if we know one thing, it is that obese Ph.D. candidates and the few who’ve made it past the gatekeepers to like real Ph.Ds. are unfit to do is sit around and think of stuff. To weigh and contemplate. To assimilate information and synthesize new knowledge.

  3. JKB says:

    @john personna: I suspect the PhD numbers would show a further reduction … if only because it is hard to stay in the house on the couch while earning a PhD.

    Well, my experience with marine biology grad students was that they starved through the winter then fattened up while the food was free on research cruises and field camps.

  4. john personna says:


    And now they only drive ROVs rather than jumping into cold water!

  5. ptfe says:

    @john personna: Ah, evo-psych…where 98 percent of claims are made based solely on statistical correlations in low-volume test groups, most of them with absolutely no prospect of testability for causation. You think big boobs means your woman will have successful kids, so guys all think big boobs are attractive? Sure! Sounds great! Red = berries and women do the gathering, so women prefer red? Sure! Sounds great!

    I think the entire field’s motto should be: “Did you know that there’s a direct correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity? Think about it!”

    But perhaps I’ve made my disdain for evo-psych a little too clear.

  6. rodney dill says:

    I guess honorary doctorates, like Chris Christie’s don’t count.

  7. john personna says:


    I’m fine with some level of disdain, but when does the backlash go too far?

    At a minimum we should stipulate that we have evolved brains, and that evolved brains may produce a behavioral phenotype.

    Behavioural phenotypes: causes and clinical implications

  8. CSK says:

    @rodney dill:

    Well, Christie does have an earned J.D. from Seton Hall–but perhaps he was a sylph when he obtained it.

  9. john personna says:


    I gotta comment on those up-votes.

    On another day you’d fault Republicans for not believing in evolution, right?

    The liberal resistance seems to be in thinking that evolution could have anything to do with us. I don’t really understand that. Is it a fear that genetics leads to racism? I don’t think so. In fact I think the opposite.

    The non-racist has nothing to fear from genetics.

  10. john personna says:


    I’ll be patient, downvoters, and let you explain a rational or scientific objection.

  11. Franklin says:

    My take on it:

    It sounds like a bold, offensive statement (simplified, it basically reads “fat people are stupid”). Which might be okay if it is definitely true. So if you’re going to say it, you ought to back it up with data, and be prepared to qualify it with the words “general trend”.

  12. ptfe says:

    @jp: My problem with evo-psych is not the hypothesis, which clearly has merit, but the application. Proponents are quick to declare universal truths off limited data sets, making assumptions that are scientifically invalid.

    The field is riddled with pseudo-science and guesswork. There are some legitimate attempts at defining behavioral evolution in scientific ways, but in my experience. – not vast, as it’s rather far from my expertise, but enough that I feel comfortable commenting on it – most researchers are guilty of pushing correlation as causation, overextending results into areas where it’s inappropriate, and declaring general theories without thoroughly exploring possible tests that could negate them. This is triple negative science.

    Just to give one example, the small data set of red-loving American women was declared by the field as evidence that human women were selected for gathering berries. Seriously. Ignoring, of course, that no such universal color preference exists cross-culturally, and that berries come in many colors, and that humans are social animals with keen vision and a habit of fully exploiting available resources when they enter an area.

    Also consider that evo-psych suggests most if not all of our behaviors are selection-driven, whereas biology considers selection the source of adaptive change but not all mutation. Evo-psych assumes population behaviors are universal, but biologists know – and anyone who knows about Darwin’s finches understands – that populations evolve through selection more rapidly in isolation, and that populations cut off from one another do not share all traits. Evo-psych doesn’t like at broad-spectrum studies, it falls back on small data sets and sweeping conclusions.