Meet the Rosetans

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. —John 12:37



a data point on a graph or in a set of results that is very much bigger or smaller than the next nearest data point

Malcolm Gladwell introduces Outliers with a close look at Roseto, Pennsylvania.

“In Roseto, virtually no one under 55 died of a heart attack, or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was something like thirty or thirty-five percent lower than it should have been…There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it.

(Stewart Wolf was a researcher and physician.) His first thought was that the Rosetans must have held on to some dietary practices from the old world that left them healthier than other Americans. But he quickly realized that wasn't true. The Rosetans were cooking with lard, instead of the much healthier olive oil they used back in Italy. Pizza in Italy was a thin crust with salt, oil, and perhaps some tomatoes, anchovies or onions. Pizza in Pennsylvania was bread dough plus sausage, pepperoni, salami, ham and sometimes eggs. Sweets like biscotti and taralli used to be reserved for Christmas and Easter; now they were eaten all year round. When Wolf had dieticians analyze the typical Rosetan's eating habits, he found that a whopping 41 percent of their calories came from fat. Nor was this a town where people got up at dawn to do yoga and run a brisk six miles. The Pennsylvanian Rosetans smoked heavily, and many were struggling with obesity.

If it wasn't diet and exercise, then, what about genetics? The Rosetans were a close knit group, from the same region of Italy, and Wolf’s next thought was whether they were of a particularly hardy stock that protected them from disease. So he tracked down relatives of the Rosetans who were living in other parts of the United States, to see if they shared the same remarkable good health as their cousins in Pennsylvania. They didn't.

He then looked at the region where the Rosetans lived. Was it possible that there was something about living in the foothills of Eastern Pennsylvania that was good for your health? The two closest towns to Roseto were Bangor, which was just down the hill, and Nazareth, a few miles away. These were both about the same size as Roseto, and populated with the same kind of hard-working European immigrants. Wolf combed through both towns' medical records. For men over 65, the death rates from heart disease in Nazareth and Bangor were something like three times that of Roseto. Another dead end.

What Wolf slowly realized was that the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they began to realize why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”

Relationships rule the day again! That alone would be a great oikocentric reason for me to cite the Rosetans. But the point I really want to elevate is a more general one—that any statistical outlier should be researched.

—If the scientific community discovered that, of those who had been healed from cancer, 95% had all received the same treatment, then I believe the oncology world would be obligated to talk about it.

—If a Golf Magazine reporter discovered that, of all of the golfers who had won a tournament championship on the tour over the last twenty years, 95% of them used the same brand of golf ball, then I believe the PGA should look into it.

—If 95% of the MVP’s in all professional sports grew up in your home town, then I believe the Chamber of Commerce should advertise it (after they tested the water).

—If 95% of all believers came to Christ through a close personal relationship, then pastors would be wise to chart a course for their church’s future with that in mind.

By the way, given the proper attention, researchers would discover that only one of those four “ifs” are actually true. I’ll let you guess which one.

It’s unfortunate that oikos continues to be a forgotten outlier, because the stakes are high. People die every day without Jesus. And if everyone living in or even outside of Roseto only died of old age, they’d still be dead.


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