sasha_feather: white woman in space suit (Astronaut)
[personal profile] jesse_the_k asked: Is there a childhood goal/ambition/undertaking you're still interested in doing?

Or if not, how do you feel about setting out goals/ambitions/undertakings?

Goals make me nervous and I avoid them unless absolutely necessary.

I asked for an easier question, and she said "How did you decide to become a scientist?"

In junior high, my two favorite subjects were biology and English, which is still basically true, although now I would replace English with "social justice" or media studies, which were not school courses back then. I've gotten less interested in science for science's sake, but I'm glad to do it for my job, and I'm glad to have a job that is just my job, which I don't take home. I like having hobbies and interests that are distinct from my paid work. I'm more of a small-s scientist, and that is fine with me. I have a lot of interests and I don't want my job to consume my whole life.

I like biology because I love nature, and I have a suitably analytical and equivocal mind. I went with biology because it seemed like the work would be more secure than a creative field. I also had an idea that research might be a way to leave the world better than I found it, so to speak. I went with epidemiology because I am good at, and like, seeing the big picture and connections between things.

As a kid I wanted to be a (published, fiction) writer, and it took me until my 20s to give that up. Once I met fiction writers at conventions, and got a handle on the reality of the profession, I realized I didn't fit in with them. I fit in with fan fic writers, and this is where I belong. I actually have published a couple of non-fiction essays and one scientific article, so there's that. I like blogging, writing fan fic, etc, more, because it involves hanging out with other people. I like collaborative work and being around others, sharing in the creation and enjoyment of the work. Anyways, it was actually a big relief to give up that goal! Which is part of why I distrust goals.

I'm a generalist, and as such, I did well in school up until graduate school-- because graduate school encourages hyper-specialization and single-mindedness. I wasn't happy in grad school. I'm pretty happy with the type of work I do because it has a fair amount of variety to it.

I remember thinking that it would be great to be a "Steerswoman" from the Rosemary Kerstein books: a true generalist, who explores, makes maps, collects information and stories, does experiments, and is widely respected by her people. I'm maybe a bit too shy for that job (Rowan has to do some very brave things!), but maybe I could be part of a two-person team and that would make it easier.
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I said something tonight which seemed to surprise my friends, and now I feel the need to talk about it a little, so I'm laying it out here: I don't believe in the "obesity epidemic." I mean that I really don't believe it exists.

My essential reading for this is a 2005/2006 scientific article:

The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? Paul Campos, et al. International Journal of Epidemiology.

Selections follow, but I suggest reading it all. It is scientfic, but readable, and a fantastic article that states the claims the claims the medical/scientific communities have been making, and swiftly knocks them down. For example:

Claim #2: ‘Mortality rates increase with increasing degrees of overweight, as measured by BMI.’—WHO, 2003 (p. 61)2

This claim, central to arguments that higher than average body mass amount to a major public health problem, is at best weakly supported by the epidemiological literature. Except at true statistical extremes, high body mass is a very weak predictor of mortality, and may even be protective in older populations.

Claim #4: Significant long-term weight loss is a practical goal, and will improve health.

At present, this claim is almost completely unsupported by the epidemiological literature. It is a remarkable fact that the central premise of the current war on fat—that turning obese and overweight people into so-called ‘normal weight’ individuals will improve their health—remains an untested hypothesis. One main reason the hypothesis remains untested is because there is no method available to produce the result that would have to be produced—significant long-term weight loss, in statistically significant cohorts—in order to test the claim.


The authors also speculate on social and political factors contributing to this moral panic:

In particular, organizations like the International Obesity Task Force (which has authored many of the WHO reports on obesity) and the American Obesity Association (which has actively campaigned to have obesity officially designated as a ‘disease’) have been largely funded by pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies.

Moral panics are typical during times of rapid social change and involve an exaggeration or fabrication of risks, the use of disaster analogies, and the projection of societal anxieties onto a stigmatized group.47,48

Public opinion studies also show that negative attitudes towards the obese are highly correlated with negative attitudes towards minorities and the poor, such as the belief that all these groups are lazy and lack self-control and will power. This suggests that anxieties about racial integration and immigration may be an underlying cause of some of the concern over obesity.49–51

Previous work indicates that moral panics often displace broader anxieties about changing gender roles.49,53 While this hypothesis deserves further research, a recent advertisement that ran in a major American newspaper suggests that this may be at play in the obesity panic. This advertisement blames ‘30 years of feminist careerism’ for an epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes: ‘With most mothers working, too few adults and children eat balanced, nutritious, portion-controlled home-cooked meals.

However, other works suggest that some portion of the population's weight gain can be attributed to smoking cessation,56 which runs counter to the assumption that the country's weight gain is evidence of both moral laxity and a harbinger of declining overall health.
[bolding mine]
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I was interviewed for this great article by s.e. smith at

Where are all the disabled scientists?
sasha_feather: trinity from The Matrix (trinity)
Or, spirit of the staircase!

I participated today in a free screening for oral and throat cancers. It took 5 minutes and I was feeling uncharacteristically talkative to the people running it. For example I told the woman taking the forms: "You should have check boxes for male, female, and other." (I doubt she took me seriously.)

So after I finished having the screening (the doc looks in your mouth with a flashlight), I was talking a man who was passing out the flyers. He was a friendly middle-aged guy that was sort of easy to talk to. He told me the risk factors for these cancers are tobacco use, alcohol use, and HPV (human pappilloma viruses).

"Well," I said, "Hopefully that will go down because now there is a vaccine." (Gardasil.)

"Or, teens could just have regular sex!" he joked, and laughed. He was referring to the fact that oral sex, ie blow jobs, are a risk factor for HPV causing cancers of the mouth and throat.

"Well, that's not going to happen, they just need to get vaccinated!" I said at the time.

What I wished I had done is either gotten scarily calm, or scarily angry, and scared him into NEVER SAYING THAT AGAIN. It was totally inappropriate for a number of reasons.

1. "Regular sex" is a figment of the imagination that exists in a subset of straight people's minds, and is centered around penis-in-vagina hetero sex. It erases queer sex, oral sex, manual sex, kinky sex, etc etc etc.

2. His so-called "regular sex" still transmits HPV-- to women, who can then get cervical cancer.

3. There was more than a strong whiff of victim-blaming to what he said-- if people get cancer from HPV, it's their fault.

People are such assholes! This guy told me he used to be a study coordinator!

ETA I just occurred to me that this man could have been attempting to flirt with me by making a risque joke about blowjobs. Such a lesbian am I-- I was totally oblivious.
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Trying to Explain a Drop in Infant Mortality
By Erik Eckholm

Full article with pictures and links at NY Times

MADISON, Wis. — Seven and a half months into Ta-Shai Pendleton’s first pregnancy, her child was stillborn. Then in early 2008, she bore a daughter prematurely.

Soon after, Ms. Pendleton moved from a community in Racine that was thick with poverty to a better neighborhood in Madison. Here, for the first time, she had a full-term pregnancy.

As she cradled her 2-month-old daughter recently, she described the fear and isolation she had experienced during her first two pregnancies, and the more embracing help she found 100 miles away with her third. In Madison, county nurses made frequent home visits, and she got more help from her new church.

The lives and pregnancies of black mothers like Ms. Pendleton, 21, are now the subject of intense study as researchers confront one of the country’s most intractable health problems: the large racial gap in infant deaths, primarily due to a higher incidence among blacks of very premature births.
Read more... )
sasha_feather: a head full of interesting things (head space)
Not! Actually! Filtered! As [ profile] mystickeeper says, "This shit is gonna get real." Well maybe.

So I used some of my few spoons this week to go to the Michael Pollan lecture on campus. I haven't gotten around to actually finishing any his books yet, but I seem to have absorbed a lot of his ideas through reading articles and seeing interviews, and maybe just the cultural zietgiest. I went with a bunch of friends. [ profile] antarcticlust and I were whispering furiously and annoying the guy in front of us; yes-- I was being That Guy! Going to the Special Hell for talking in the Theater! Well, the hockey arena, in this case. Antarcticlust took notes. There were people there in t-shirts that said "In Defense of Farming", apparently as a protest, and we talked about that some. The t-shirts were the same color as the volunteer t-shirts, which we thought was Quite Interesting, since it seems to assume a defensive position--as in, they are trying to blend in and not be tossed out. But we also thought it was brave of them for coming and protesting, even if we thought it was misguided (see below).

Michael Pollan seems to like discourse, controversy, and arguing--he does not seem at all threatened by disagreement and does not seem to get ruffled. I kind of envy this trait-- it shows great security and patience and humor, I think, and also an equivocal mind that is willing to considering other points of view. He addressed the protesters and said he agreed with their slogan: "Eat food, be healthy, thank a farmer," or some such. He said he thinks farmers hold the key to 3 crises facing America: the health crisis, the energy crisis, and the environmental crisis. (At "environment," antarcticlust inhaled and mouthed "no".) Pollan is very pro-farmer in many ways-- what he is against is big agri-business. The most damning moment was when he said that the American food industry made over 800 billion dollars last year, and less than 10% of that went to farmers. A greater share went to people who make packaging for processed foods.

Pollan is an engaging and clear speaker. I liked a lot of what he had to say. He talked a lot about "the rise of nutritionism", how that benefits processed foods (and businesses) and how it contributes to moralistic eating. Since we can't sense nutrients, we must rely on experts to tell us how to eat. He compared this to a type of religion where if you can't sense God, you must rely on a priesthood to tell you God's will. Then there are "good nutrients" (calcium, fiber, beta-carotene), and "evil nutrients" (carbs, cholesterol, trans fats, saturated fat, etc), and we are looking for these instead of eating food. Also we are chasing after health (good or bad) with each meal, instead of eating for pleasure or community or other reasons.

He and many other people have gone after "high fructose corn syrup" because it's a marker for highly processed foods. But now savvy marketers have found a way around that: by advertising their products as having "real cane sugar". They are marketing their products by saying, Look! SUGAR! Which is bizarre.

He talked of many other things but that is what stands out for me.

On twitter @ThatKarenB said, "Was anyone protesting Pollan's attitudes towards fat people? AFAICT, that's more accurate than the "anti-farming" thing."

Which I think is a good point, and I am going to talk about that now.

I would say it's not Pollan's attitudes precisely, but that he is uncritically adopting the wider cultural attitude of fatness as a disease. Several times he said that the Western diet is responsible for "heart disease, Type II diabetes, and obesity."

I have been thinking and thinking about this, and I need to think about it some more, because it's complicated and it makes me uncomfortable. One thing that helps me is reading Kate Harding: Don't You Realize Fat is Unhealthy?

Also I think it's weird to pathologize a body type. Diseases are socially constructed; what is and is not a disease is not so easy to say. And I think it's weird to say that being fat is a disease. I think it's OK to say that some things associated with being fat are diseases, that being fat might make you more likely to have certain diseases, but even then you should remember that it is not a one-to-one situation and does not apply to everyone: it's only true at the population level, and association does not necessarily imply causation, either. It is more complicated than that!

It's a false equivalancy: people like to think that being fat means being unhealthy, automatically. They like to think that being thin (but not too thin!) means good health. Well guess what, that is not always the case either. It's more complicated!

I'm not sure if Pollan would even disagree with me on these things. It's just that I want there to be less hatred of fatness and bodies, and I think his agenda (which I think is a good one) and mine can coexist. I've also been thinking about intersectionality with disability, since there is this fundamental concept of not assuming that disabled people need or want to be fixed. ("But surely-- surely being disabled is bad? Wouldn't you be fixed if you could be? Wouldn't you be thin if you could be?") (Say it with me: it's more complicated!)

Just things I'm thinking about. I'm aware not everyone will agree with me here.

ETA: there are some great comments at LJ!


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