The Arrogance of Mitch McConnell and Friends– Or, Flaws in Assuming You Know God’s Will

Maybe it’s all part of a great big ineffable plan. All of it. You, me, him, everything. Some great big test to see if what you’ve built all works properly, eh? You start thinking: it can’t be a great cosmic game of chess, it has to be just very complicated Solitaire. And don’t bother to answer. If we could understand, we wouldn’t be us. Because it’s all — all — ”
INEFFABLE, said the figure feeding the ducks.

-Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

 

As you probably know, I’m religious–Tibetan Buddhist, to be precise–so I do understand the idea of following religious moral rules even if that puts you sort of outside lockstep with modern society. I tend to view religion as a separate (complimentary) sphere to say, science. And while we do things differently across the international religious dateline, I know that a lot of Christian-variations feel the same way.

Part of the reason I know this is because I was raised Catholic.

And that’s why the arrogance of modern Christians is often breathtaking and baffling to me, that they think they know God’s will to the point they’re willing to legislate it. I mean, the last I looked, there were at least six different variations on what you could argue was God’s effort at the clearest commands, the 10 Commandments, which between Exodus and Deuteronomy actually come out to more like 17 Commandments.

But somehow they absolutely 100% know God’s word on fetal tissue used in research.

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When I was a kid, and Mom was still trying her best to raise me as a Good Catholic, I had a book called something like Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen. It was not, as I recall, Catholic-specific, but non-denominationally broad and probably bought as a form of self-defense.1

BankRobberThe book was full of examples of bad things God allowed to happen, and asked questions like “if God doesn’t want you to rob a bank, why doesn’t he just put a giant bag over the bank every night to keep everyone out?” and it was illustrated with something like a Ziploc dropped over a cartoon bank, and a cartoon robber trying to figure out how to get past it.

The answer was always a variation on a two themes: free will and the ineffable nature of God. In short, God wants us to have choices and for those choices to be made with the guidance of his wisdom for the circumstances of our lives, and we can’t actually know what God wants from us, or anyone else, because that Plan is ineffable–literally unable to be known by mortal minds–so we just do the best with the circumstances in front of us and trust that God will trust us, too.

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It seems to me the height of conceit and arrogance to assume a mortal human could understand the will of God, let alone be able to perfectly apply that will to modern life. If you believe, after all, that God can speak to you, where the N of you is Very Quite Large, then why couldn’t God simply reach into the mind of everyone and speak to all at once? Why are some people the special folks God speaks to–not really a question in Catholicism, which has its hierarchy of chatting, but a big, big issue in Protestantism, which holds that everyone has equal access to God.

The minute you start hearing God tell you things, you’re removing yourself from that equal access situation and insisting God has spoken to you and only you in mysterious ways.

What especially boggles me is this: say Marco Rubio continues his NO ABORTION EVER rhetoric, and continues to insist that this is because he knows God’s will. What’s to stop someone else from coming up and saying “sorry, but God spoke to me and said that abortion is okay, because it’s one of his tools for teaching–people learn different lessons from abortion, and hey, it’s also how he gets necessary donated tissues to researchers who will cure all kinds of diseases in His name!”

Now you have belief in God’s word being spoken to you in two separate people, with two separate belief systems, and…there’s no way to balance out who is right or not, short of God actually speaking to the entire world at once.

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Of course, none of this is really about religion. If it were, Mitch McConnell and his Republican cronies wouldn’t have voted to lift a moratorium on the use of donated fetal tissue from voluntary abortions in 1993. Yet many of the GOP members who voted for that medical research are now speaking out against Planned Parenthood, and it’s not because they’ve gotten more religious in the last 23 years. It’s because we’re gearing up to what is going to be a very contentious election cycle for the GOP, and as usual, politicians are pandering to the extreme members of their base–the ones who vote in primary elections–in an effort to secure money and, ultimately, nominations.

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DrinkThisMuchIn his sign-off from The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart said “the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.” You have to decide what your own olfactory tolerance is, but at least for me, when people begin talking about the voice telling them to control the actions of everyone around them, I think a lot less God, a lot more charm and kool-aid.2

If nothing else, ask yourself this: when the federal funds Planned Parenthood receives do not go towards abortion, what do Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and the rest of the GOP politicians gain from defunding Planned Parenthood?


OutbreakChat: A Livetweet of a Movie That Gives People Nightmares,…

Outbreak-ForBlog…and probably not for the reason you think. Outbreak is one of those movies people seem to either love or hate (or possibly love to hate); almost everyone I know who has anything to do with public health, infectious diseases, or virology tends to swear up a blue storm when the movie comes up.

So naturally, a group of us are going to watch it in real-time tonight, drinking and live-tweeting our thoughts on Twitter. This will include fact-checks, snark, and almost certainly questions and answers from the crowd-at-large. Who is doing this? Well, you might remember David Shiffman (@whysharksmatter) from my Virtually Speaking Science interview a few months ago; while he might seem like an odd choice to organize this, remember he has significant experience with pop culture/movie portrayals of sharks, mermaids, and other scientifically incorrect portrayals of the ocean.

Tara Haelle (@tarahaelle) is a freelance journalist probably best known for her excellent article that debunks flu myths. She’s written extensively on science and the need for accuracy in media imagery and discussion.

Nicholas Evans (@neva9257) is a post-doctoral bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, based in the Perelman School of Medicine. He specializes in biosecurity, bioterrorism, and the ethics of pandemic preparedness, and recently wrote a piece for Slate explaining why Ebola is not a bioweapon, despite media myths. (He’s also my husband.)

And what am I (@rocza) doing involved in this? Well, aside from spending much of the last couple of months educating Twitter about Ebola, blogging extensively about Ebola, and doing Justice Putnam’s “The Morning After” radio show to talk about the ethics of science journalism and Ebola coverage, I once upon a time was pursuing a PhD in bioethics and philosophy, looking at how popular media portrayals of medical issues affects our medical-decision-making (a continuation of my undergraduate thesis on autonomy and medical ethics). I’ve taught courses through pop culture (Stargate and Applied Ethics), and one of my most popular and invited lectures was on why we watch reality TV. I also have a weird affinity for Ebola; I once intended to become a virus hunter, and I’ve been studying Ebola, outbreaks, and the research for going on 20 years.

We are, of course, hoping more people will join in the viewing party-both experts and lay people alike. So pop up some popcorn, grab your favourite beverage of choice, and join us at 8pm ET tonight (#OutbreakChat) to see firsthand what set the foundations for the Ebolanoia that has raced through the world these past few months.

Edited to add: Bingo cards are available on Twitter.

Chobani Learns That HowMatters – and so Does Science

HowMattersChobaniDuring the last Super Bowl, Chobani debuted an advertisement focusing on their use of natural ingredients and limited preservatives. It was an innocuous, somewhat bland, typically feel-good commercial, emphasizing that how things are made matters. And it probably would have gone largely unnoticed by media critics, science writers, and scientists, save for one wee problem:

Chobani extended the thought of the commercial to messages inside yogurt lids. But a commercial is 90 seconds of words and images; a yogurt lid is a lot less space. And in that space, they opted for the fatefully bad phrase:

Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists. #HowMatters.

They might as well have painted a bullseye on the label.

Since then, Chobani’s social media team mistakenly tried to take the tongue-in-cheek approach, realized it was backfiring even further, apologized, explained they use science, and reassured consumers that the #WordsMatter and they’ve discontinued the lids.
ChobaniDiscontinued
Overall, I’ve seen worse responses from companies, and chances are excellent that this will blow over and be nothing but Google search memories in another week or so. But a couple of us were chatting on Twitter about what Chobani’s ideal response would be, even if it included a bit more risk for the company.Yeah, I’m giving more helpful feedback even without being paid. What can I say, I’m inconsistent and it became an interesting problem to mull. We spitballed for a bit and then the conversation moved on, but the idea didn’t leave me. During what was undoubtedly procrastination on another project over the weekend, I realized that my ideal? Would be for Chobani to modify their #HowMatters commercial with the opening voice-over from Numb3rs:Numb3rs was an absolutely fantastic TV show created by Cheryl Heuton and Nicolas Falacci. No disrespect or infringements intended in using their voiceover sequence to illustrate how to make something “scary” and “alien” accessible; Numb3rs had several strengths, and one of them was how it demystified science. It remains one of my favourite teaching tools

Chobani uses science every day:
to pasteurize milk, to tell temperature, to isolate probiotics.
Science is more than formulas or equations;
and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries facing food production and safety in America.They could even go for a much cheekier take on the final sentence, although I think it might be too much: “Science is using our minds to solve the biggest mysteries we know–like how to get great-tasting yogurt from farm to factory to your refrigerator.” Note: If you’re from Chobani and reading this, talk to Heuton and Falacci to find out who owns the rights to the Numb3rs sequence and properly secure permissions, okay?

How does matter, and so does the science behind our yogurt. At Chobani, we’re committed to using the best advances in science to benefit everyone. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but our minds are in the right place.

#HowMatters
#SoDoesScience

Chobani is right: how they got to 100 calories matters, and they have a great opportunity to support and boost the positive benefits of science and STEM in America, peeling back the curtain a bit to let people see how science is truly part of everyday life. In a society where fear of chemicals (and thus science) is growing, thanks in large part to misinformationThis is not a page of misinformation, but about. I try not to give links to bad information if I can help it. and lack of education, and when we need more rather than less people interested in STEM, this would be a small but significant gesture of goodwill–and it’d probably generate some positive PR, too.According to David Kroll, Chobani also has a personal apology to all scientists: if you were miffed by their message, follow this link to their customer loyalty contact page. Kroll says, “Simply fill out the form with your name and address and indicate in the message box that you are a scientist who was miffed by their message. You might also consider elaborating with a message like that of commenter memsomerville below. You’ll receive a coupon in the mail.”

Vogue Gives Lena Dunham the Fantastical Impossible Treatment, Somehow This is Jezebel’s Fault

While one corner of the internet was up in ire about Nature publishing bad commentary, and another was up in arms over both The Guardian and The New York Times taking out inaccurate attack op-eds on Lisa Adams, a third corner of the internet was poking fun at or flat out criticizing Jezebel for offering $10,000 for unretouched photographs of Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover. Within hours, Jezebel had several of the images, although not the one I admit I’d been hoping to see. (See above right, and click to embiggen. I’m just so curious: what was so offensive about her left arm?)

The general editorial commentary seems to be along the lines of “what was Jezebel hoping to accomplish,” along with a healthy dose of “all Jezebel is doing is shaming Dunham.” (There’s also a lot of commentary about click bait, which is kind of amusing if you think about it for a second, but I digress.) As a whole, the issue seems to be summed up as “it was okay when Jezebel did this in 2007, because they asked for any magazine cover and any woman,” (and got the rather famous Redbook/Faith Hill photoshopping), “but it’s a problem when it’s Dunham because Jezebel is making it about her body.”

With this, I disagree. While it is about Dunham’s body, that’s not Jezebel’s doing. It’s because Lena Dunham has been very outspoken about her body: not only is she fine with her non-model-ideal body, she’s fine showing it naked on television, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem and you don’t have to look at her. It’s something you even find in the Vogue profile of her; Nathan Heller writes:

For almost as long as Dunham’s work has been in the public eye, she’s spoken openly and often about her body type, pointing out that not every strong and enviable woman on the air must resemble a runway model.

And that’s why seeing what Vogue decided to edit about and from Dunham’s body is important. Because Dunham has, at this point, spent years talking about how much she likes her body as it is, and how comfortable she is in it, and how she’s not interested in changing it to fit the social gaze. Anyone who knows who Dunham is likely has heard at least some variation on that theme at this point.

So when Dunham shows up on the Vogue cover with her neck taken in; shoulders dropped to increase the perceived length of her neck; and her face and jaw narrowed to make her eyes and lips appear larger? Yes, it’s a problem, because it sends a very mixed message: Lena Dunham is proud of and comfortable in her non-stereotypically-Western-ideal-body, so here is her body changed to conform to that stereotypical ideal.

Dunham’s explanation, as I’ve seen it, is this:

A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism

This is all well and good, except it’s pretty divorced from reality. There are, at this point, decades of research to show that looking at thin and ultra-thin representations of women distort self-esteem, that body image takes a hit when exposed to these unrealistic images, and that notions of the real are eventually affected.

What ends up happening is not the cognitive dissonance of “I thought Dunham didn’t have issues with her body, why is Vogue nipping and tucking her?” but one of “oh, that’s who it was implausible for Patrick Wilson’s character to have a tryst with? Guess she’s just Hollywood Homely.”

By changing Lena Dunham–a woman who, as the original unprocessed photos show, is already quite pretty without any Photoshop help–into yet another slender, long-necked, physically impossible image, Vogue manages, in a single stroke, to undermine Dunham’s message and broadcast the idea that the ideal woman is one that quite simply cannot exist.

As Clara Jeffery, the co-editor of Mother Jones notes, a retouched photo is radically different from a Photoshopped photo. When you’re creating and promoting anatomically impossible images of women and passing them off not as fantastical, as Leibovitz does beautifully in her Disney Dream series, but real and actual, then yes, there is a problem, and it’s one that’s highlighted particularly well when Vogue gives a woman who is vocal about loving her body the way it is the fantastical impossible treatment.

Shame, Stigma and Angelina Jolie’s Breasts

As reactions continue to race around the internet about Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery – the actual discussions, not the Monday-morning quarterbacking of her decision or the utterly vile “but what about her boobies” reaction from that particular subgroup of men who manage to amaze me by their continued ability to manage basic functions like breathing – I’ve been sent links. And more links. And then a few more. Most are relatively easy to dismiss because they’re quarterbacking a personal decision or they’re vile, but then you get the ones that tiptoe closer to decent – and they still have problems.

One that’s been flying around the internets today is the Maria Konnikova piece on Salon. I’m actually not terribly fond of this piece, or other pieces that hinge their complaint on the cost of testing and Jolie’s supposed privilege by virtue of her wealth. For one, let’s put the cost of testing squarely where it belongs: on the fact that Myriad owns the patent for the test (something that is being challenged in front of SCOTUS this June).

Secondly, almost no one remembers that the Affordable Care Act considers BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests to be part of preventive care, and that by January 2014, it must be covered for everyone, period. Yes, the pre-existing condition limitations and grandfathered insurance clause limitations means some women won’t have coverage for the test between now and January, but it’s not the doom and gloom exclusionary process that seemingly everyone wants to focus on when it comes to cost.

Finally, and most importantly, the notion of reducing stigma and shame by simply talking about these things – and in Jolie’s case, taking ownership of a body that has been extremely sexualized in media and popular culture – is incredibly important. In particular, even though we’ve moved society to a point where people talk about breasts and cancer together, it’s still in a “race for the cure” dialog, rather than in mastectomies and surgeries and things that shame. For example, within a day of Jolie going public about her mastectomies, Zoraida Sambolin (CNN) announced her own breast cancer and the mastectomies she’ll be having in June – and she credits Jolie for her decision to go public with her own health concerns.

This is dialog that’s important. It continues to de-stigmatize and remove shame from very basic aspects of women’s biology, and doing so is only a good thing: we need people to be able to talk openly and honestly about medical issues, illnesses, and diseases that affect women, not just men, and the sooner we can normalize aspects of the dialog that include frank discussions of biology and body parts in non-sexualized terms, the sooner we can embrace the idea that a woman – and her sexuality – is more than her breasts.