Life as an Extreme Sport

Rights and Passage

It seems like it must be a passage of adulthood, a rite that no one wants to pass but everyone eventually does, that one of authors becoming people, people flawed and awful. For some of us, that rite of passage is picking up beloved books of childhood comfort and realizing just how horribly racist they are, and that no amount of the warmth from Polgara’s kitchen can change the fundamental bedrock of racism that forms the faults and seams of the stories.

For others, the stories remain beloved comforts, heavy and warm and rich with the scent of a fresh bound book slowly worn by the repeated readings, the track of the digital scrolling past on a thin electronic tether to the most wonderful libraries. For those people, the rite of passage is different, worse and better, because what changes isn’t the story but the author, who reveals that they weren’t the person who wrote the beauty that comforted, consoled, and inspired you. But in some ways, you’re lucky. The text? It no longer belongs to the author; it’s your love that sustains it, that breathes life into it, that forms the bonds between people with that shared passion and love. You can take it and make it what you want and will; you never have to give the author another cent, never have to support them, never have to acknowledge them, and you can still have the beautiful, inspirational people living within the boundaries of that book binding, digital or otherwise.

You might have to let them go; it might be the only way you can handle the taint of the author, to turn away forever. But it’s a choice. You can keep the characters, and get rid of the author. They began living beyond the author when you began reading, when your mind gave them form. They are embodied by your imagination, your passion, your love.

It’s not just gods that are made real by your belief in them.

Another Kind of Fake News: Covert Marketing As Academic Research

Fake news and bad reporting (faithless journalism, perhaps) have been in the news pretty extensively since the election, and folks are trying to detangle trust, knowledge, and facts from fake news and click-bait headlines. One topic I haven’t seen addressed much is news around science articles – oh, I see the discussion of click-bait headlines and the flipflops of EGGS GOOD/BAD/WHO KNOWS. But what I don’t see so much of is a discussion of author affiliation.

For example, the Washington Post published a Wellness article about choline last week that caught my eye. There were an awful lot of claims being made about this supposed wonder-nutrient we don’t get enough of, and reading the original article seemed like a good idea. So I did.

Now, something that might not occur to folks is a normal part of reading academic articles for me: looking at author affiliations and disclosures for conflicts-of-interest. And in this case, it didn’t take long to find one. Sure, the first and corresponding author seemed okay on the surface (a professor of nutrition at George Mason), but the second author? Oh that second author.

That second author, a Victor Fulgoni the Third, is employed by Nutrition Impact, LLC. Who are they, you ask? Well hell, I didn’t know until I looked – but that’s the point. I looked. And I found:

Based in Battle Creek, Mich., USA, Nutrition Impact has helped one client successfully complete a new health claim petition (plant sterol esters and heart disease), helped another client successfully complete a Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) notification authorizing another new health claim (potassium and blood pressure/stroke), and helped a third client obtain a new nutrient content claim (choline).

Emphasis mine.

This, of course, calls the entire research paper regarding choline into question, because the job of the second of two authors was to make choline a noted and noticeable health claim (almost certainly a supplement company looking to goad consumers into purchases), and the Washington Post fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Is this fake news? Certainly not of the Facebook-style fake news generators, but it is a kind of fake news: it’s hiding a company agenda in the veneer of academic research, and thus eroding trust in both academic research and science/medical journalism.

The Centers for Disease Control & Hypocrisy?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a highly contentuous new Vital Signs post on women, pregnancy, and alcohol. The main message was, essentially “don’t drink, ever, if you could possibly be using your uterus to store more than endometrial tissue, fibroids, or intrauterine devices.”

Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.
Oh, nice try CDC. I see they finally changed their graphic, a week after the uproar. Unfortunately for them, the internet is forever. This is the original, infuriating, graphic.
The impetus for the post appears to be the fact that roughly 52% of pregnancies in America are unplanned, and many women are pregnant for 4 to 6 weeks before they realize they’re pregnant; in that time, there’s the possibility of consuming alcohol.

Now, while studies don’t support the idea that mild drinking while pregnant will harm a fetus, the CDC (and many commentators) have latched onto this rather ludicrous THE RISK IS REAL DON’T TAKE ANY RISK approach for alcohol and pregnany, even going so far as to say it’s not worth risking a single IQ point.1 Let’s say we accept this fearmongering approach, ignoring the lack of scientific support for the assertions, ignoring the victim-blaming nature of the infographic,2 even ignoring the fact that the CDC conveniently forgot not only a man’s role in conception but the damage drinking can do to sperm and how that can affect fetal development.3 Any risk is bad. Wrap pregnant women up in cotton, leave them in a padded room, and don’t let them do anything in case they happen to be in the process of 9.5-odd months of gestation.

Really don’t let them smoke, right? I mean, the risk is real! Smoking while pregnant can cause fetal death, low birth weight, preterm birth, affect the integrity and function of the placenta, is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome–oh my gosh! This list is just as bad, if not worse, than the risks of pregnancy and drinking for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Certainly with the release of new data on the risks of smoking and pregnancy–completely separate from the other known risks that smoking has on health, such as cancer, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and death–the CDC has created an equally dire infographic and message saying that the risk is real, so quit smoking, why take the risk?

Yeah, nope.WaitWhatYoureKidding

We didn’t even get an infographic.

Instead, we got a very sensible, calm, factual question-and-answer style statement from the CDC explaining how smoking can harm a pregnancy and baby, the number of women who smoke while pregnant, benefits of quitting, effects of second-hand smoke, and further resouces, with various facts hyperlinked within the article itself.

It’s almost an ideal example of how to present facts about a risk in order to allow women to do an analysis of the situation based on their own agency and autonomy.

The CDC did everything right this week with their publicization of new information about smoking and pregnancy data and risks. As Sarah Richardson and Rene Almeling noted in the Boston Globe on Monday, “[w]omen are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy,” and rather than add to the growing list of simplistic injunctions of an “omg if you do that you will kill the baby” variety, the CDC provided pregnant people with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.

And yet. And yet. In the light of last week’s NO RISK IS ACCEPTABLE message regarding women and pregnancy, it’s a stark difference in approach and messaging, and both underscores the hypocrisy of their “ABSTAIN OR ELSE” message regarding alcohol while further damaging their credibility as a trusted source of health information and regulation.


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.4 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:2

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.3

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 misinformation4 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.5


Prop H8 Supporters Continue Their Quest to Look Stupid

Normally, I try for some small modicum of tact. (I can hear you laughing from here, Michael. Shut up.) But this latest tactic from Prop 8 supporters can really only be boiled down as “stupid:”

In another jab at the federal judge who ruled against Proposition 8, sponsors of the gay marriage initiative asked a district court Monday to set aside the ruling on the grounds the judge was in a long-term same-sex relationship that posed a conflict of interest.

Attorneys for ProtectMarriage, the group that sponsored the 2008 ballot initiative, said in a legal motion that Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who retired from the San Francisco-based district court earlier this year, had a duty to disclose his relationship and step down before deciding whether a ban on same-sex marriage violated the federal Constitution.

“Judge Walker’s ten-year-long same-sex relationship creates the unavoidable impression that he was not the impartial judge the law requires,” said Andy Pugno, a lawyer for ProtectMarriage. “He was obligated to either recuse himself or provide full disclosure of this relationship at the outset of the case. These circumstances demand setting aside his decision.”

So let me get this straight (heh) – only heterosexual judges can rule on legal cases involving gay civil rights (the right to marry, in this case)? Really? How far does this particular brand of stupid and/or crazy “logic” extend? Does this mean a judge who is married cannot rule on divorce cases? Or does the judge have to be divorced? Which is the conflict there? What if the judge is separated?

If the defendant is African American, is it okay if the judge is African American? What if the plaintiff is Caucasian? What is the acceptable race for the judge? Do we have to find someone who has mixed heritage? Or does that only matter if it’s a civil rights related case?

This is clearly a very complicated matter, and I look forward to Andy Pugno and/or ProtectMarriage stepping forward and offering us clear and uncomplicated flow charts to indicate just who may reside over a trial at any given time.