Wielding a Red Pen: Correcting a Fear-mongering Ebola Piece with Facts

If you catch me on Twitter, or read the fantastic Red Ink, you might have seen my corrections and edits to the first page of a genuinely awful, fear-mongering piece on Ebola that was inexplicably published by Pacific Standard.Per policy, I won’t drive traffic to horrible pieces. You can find it on your own relatively easily. You might have also realized why:

  1. I was forbidden from grading in red ink when I TA’d (“did you dip that in red ink?”);
  2. I was consistently voted most likely to become a doctor or teacher in those elementary school “most likely” contests.

Sorry about that. Well, at least the second one; handwriting has never been my strong suit. Due to said possibly challenging handwriting, I figured I would go ahead and expand on my comments here.Okay, most of this is taken from a Facebook rant the other day that accompanied a snapshot of the edits I did. I’m not sure if this counts as self-plagiarism or self-citing.
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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.[note]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.[/note] 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:[note]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[/note]

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.[note]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?[/note]

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 misinformation[note]This is not a page of misinformation, but about. I try not to give links to bad information if I can help it.[/note] 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.[note]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.”[/note]


Childless: My Joy is Another’s Grief; Don’t Conflate the Two

This morning, CNN[note]Thanks, Tara, for bringing it to my attention. Or, “thanks.”[/note] ran a piece on misunderstandings and stereotypes of childless women called “Check your ‘cat-lady’ preconceptions about childless women.” Naturally, it’s full of preconceptions, misunderstandings, and stereotypes of childless women. In particular, the women are still discussed by their relationship to/with children, and the voluntarily child-free are conflated with the involuntarily childless and uncertain.

Let’s take a quick walk through the women interviewed for this story:

  • Grell Yursik, 35: she and her husband have not decided whether they want to have children;
  • Laurie White, 43: refers to herself as “accidentally childless”;
  • Melanie Notkin, 45: says she has circumstantial infertility because she’s single and discusses “the pain and grief over not having children,” promotes maternal instincts of childless women;
  • Kitty Bradshaw, 35: heeded advice to wait to have children (portrayed as bad advice in the story), still dreams of having them and has moved to LA to find a husband;
  • Sheila Hoffman, 64: conscious choice to be child-free.

Women, still defined by the activity of their uteruses. Still defending their ability to be maternal,[note]”We are maternal … we get to exercise our maternal muscle on the children we love.”[/note] still looking for someone to create a child with,[note]Note: not a family. You create your family when you marry, when you adopt, when you choose the people you want your children to call aunt and uncle.[/note] still using morally loaded language to justify their childless state as an accident of fate.

In fact, in an article ostensibly about the great life of childless women, four of the five women interviewed discuss wanting to have children and feeling that the circumstances of their lives simply don’t allow it. There are 33 paragraphs in the story, and three–the last three–talk to and about a woman, Sheila Hoffman, who actively made the choice to not have children. None of the paragraphs on Hoffman discuss her choice or how it makes her feel, only the need for role models for women that are not mothers. This, despite the fact that the DeVries Global white paper that at least in part prompted Wallace’s article showed that a full 36% of the 1000 women without children interviewed didn’t actually want children (and another 18% were on the fence).

So why did Wallace’s article spend absolutely zero time on this theoretically large segment of the American population?

Because it’s still not considered acceptable for women to not want children. Even the term being coined for these women, “Otherhood,”[note]Don’t you dare. Yes, you. I’m looking right at you.[/note] emphasizes the Otherness[note]”Othering”, quite simply, is taking a person or a group of people and classifying them as “not like us.” Most of the time, this alienating step is done in conjunction with the assumption of “less than us”; it’s the mindset behind a lot of nasty bits of colonialism and sexism alike.[/note] of women who have decided to skip having children.

What is acceptable is for a woman to want to have children, but to ruefully conclude that she cannot because she is single, cannot afford IVF treatments or being a single mother,[note]Fun fact: I was once told, while studying bioethics, that I should see if any company would harvest and freeze my eggs for me, for publicity, so I didn’t “lose the chance” to have kids–even though I have been clearly “not having children” for at least 18 years.[/note] or has lost her chance for reasons running the gamut from missed love to missing love. Women can and should be apologetic and sad about being childless; it is an accident, or a tragedy, rather than an empowered choice. And that’s reflected in Wallace’s article.

But beyond being infuriating for those of us–a third of the women sampled!–who are cheerful, happy, and decisive about our decision to not have children, the grouping of women who do not have children with women who do not want children is hurtful to the women who do feel that loss in their lives. These experiences–of feeling circumstantially infertile, of accidental childlessness, of deeply wanting a child–should not be lumped in with those of us who happily hug our IUDs, pills, and/or condoms whilst skipping gleefully down the Marvel toy aisle thinking “all for me, all for me.”[note]Is not having children a selfish choice? No more selfish than having children.[/note] Being infertile, circumstantially or medically, is a serious emotional wound that should not be conflated with a joyful and intentional life choice.

Write about the pain.

Write about the joy.

Don’t write about them at once, because that only does a disservice to both.