Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Weight loss: It's never meant something good for me

I don't diet. I never have because I don't like to engage in lifestyle changes that are unmaintainable. So when I lose weight, it's not because I've done something special to make it happen. My body on some occasions has just made it happen. And on none of those occasions were the factors involved positive influences on my life or my health.

In high school, I became very thin because I was partying too much, smoking a lot, sleeping too little, and probably not eating enough to keep up with my restless energy expenditure. People who encountered me after having not seen me for a few months would remark with surprise and intended compliments on how great I looked, I looked so thin! But how I got that way? I'm probably still paying the price for it, decades later.

In my early twenties, several coinciding and very disruptive negative life events led to my buying and smoking cigarettes by the carton in an effort to manage my stress, accompanied by a 35-pound weight loss. Everyone had the same reaction: You're so small! So thin! You look great! How did you do it? I didn't do it. Intense stress and nicotine addiction did it for me. The price tag of that on my health is probably still being written.

Just after having my third child, I suddenly lost about 15 pounds. God, it was great. Three children in, and I was at a healthy BMI (don't get me started on BMI, but still, it was great to see that number), able to slip into jeans without feeling them grip my waist like a starving python. Then, I learned that I had autoimmune hyperthyroidism that was so intense and intractable, I had to have my thyroid completely removed. Not such a great reason for weight loss. But boy, did people notice and compliment me on it.

In fact, not once in my life has weight loss been healthy. The thing is, I'm generally not obviously overweight or unhealthy anyway. I am a pretty average-sized woman who wears a size 8 or 10 and who only recently really started having to think about my caloric intake to fight the battle of the menopausal midriff. When I lost weight effortlessly, I wasn't trying to do it, and not once did it happen for good or healthy reasons. It was always for bad reasons, for negative behaviors, some of which I am paying for today in ways that actually interfere with my being healthy now.

Yet, irrationally, I miss how it felt to be smaller. I miss how it felt to have people comment on how great I looked, even though I know exactly what it means for me to lose weight. If I were to suddenly drop some weight today, lose 10 or 15 pounds, I imagine that most people I know would say to me, "You look great! How did you do it?"

And I'd bask in that feeling all over again in spite of everything I know about how weight loss reflects negative influences on me. I'd enjoy how those jeans lightly encircle my no-longer-menopausal midriff, be pleased at the slender reflection of my profile in the mirror. Even though I know that for me, weight loss is a sign of poor health or unhealthy inputs, the positive feedback driven by cultural expectations about my waistline would carry more weight for me than all the threats to my health that those lost pounds imply. That says something about me and my own helpless enjoyment of personal compliments. But it also says something about our insistence on linking thinness with good health, even when evidence suggests a less-than-consistent relationship between the two.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On Autism Speaks' Suzanne Wright, the frustrated savior

Suzanne Wright, founder of Autism Speaks, made some comments at the Vatican (transcribed here at Unstrange Minds), addressing Pope Francis. In her remarks, she practically glows blue herself as she waxes enthusiastic about how awesome she and her organization are for getting people to use blue lights around the world. Throughout, she draws some not-remotely-subtle comparisons to St. Francis, of all people, who was known not only for not Othering his fellow human beings but also for seeing non-human animals as his brothers and sisters. And, lest anyone think she might stray off message, she belittles and demeans and negatively stereotypes autistic people like her grandson. As usual.

Of course, if Wright ever did listen to the autistics speaking to her and her organization, she'd stop using that kind of language. I used to wonder why someone like Wright, who loves an autistic person, would be so hell bent on refusing to seek out and listen to the very people who might have the best insights into what it means to be autistic. Autistic adults have so much to tell non-autistic people about the experience of being autistic. About how complex their inner lives are, even when from the neurotypical perspective, an autistic person can seem "simple," as Wright wants to characterize it. A lack of communicative speech or of communication that neurotypicals can recognize or quantify or understand does not mean--has never meant--a lack of a rich mental life. Intellectual disability doesn't imply an absent rich inner life, either. The inability to understand autistic people doesn't mean they're missing a piece from the puzzle that makes a person whole or missing a vowel. To speak of autistic people--and, I'm inferring, especially autistic people identified as intellectually disabled--as though they had the inner lives of a banana slug is shameful, degrading, demeaning, and shallow. Yet Wright did that. And she got a standing ovation for it, according to Autism Speaks.

As I said, I used to wonder why Suzanne Wright wouldn't be beside herself with joy at the prospect of being able to learn from the autistic people offering their insights--these adults her grandson will someday become. She'd learn that in spite of her claim that autistic people are "free from the burden of money," in reality, autistic adults experience considerable economic struggles because of the need to live off of disability, the difficulty finding jobs, the struggles of maneuvering alone, without supports, through a world that refuses to accommodate them, that harkens to the negative and damaging stereotypes that Wright and others like her perpetuate. She'd learn that rather than having "simple desires" and "simple needs," autistic people aren't reducible to anything simple but instead are people with complex needs and desires that they can't always communicate easily to people like Suzanne Wright. Why wouldn't anyone want to hear and learn from the people who are having the experiences their loved one has had, is having, may have, is likely to have, and learn all of this?

And then I realized why. Her self-aggrandizing yet groveling remarks before the Pope make it clear. If you admit that others can understand the people for whom you claim to speak, then you cannot position yourself as the savior. The Wrights founded Autism Speaks to save their grandson. When others build a bridge to understanding and acceptance, a savior is no longer needed. The raison d'ĂȘtre of their entire organization crumbles if people start building bridges past and through and around them between non-autistics and autistics. With those bridges, those connections, autistic people and their loved ones don't need Autism Speaks to speak for them. They can speak to each other just fine without it. That must be hard news for a soi disant savior to accept.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Space program or booby shirt? Ladies, start your fainting couches

Yale-educated University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds has favored the world with his op-ed in USA Today (really, USA Today?) about #Shirtgate or #Shirtstorm, depending on your hashtag of choice. If you don't know about #shirtstorm, the short version is this: A scientist heading the team who landed a lander (natch) on a comet--a milestone for humankind--decided to honor the moment by wearing a bowling (?) shirt sporting hypersexualized cartoon women wielding equally hypersexualized guns. After women on Twitter observed that, given the iffy climate for women in STEM, such a shirt might be, yanno, the wrong message to send, all hell broke loose on Twitter, most of it unleashed in the form of the "die, ugly bitch who needs to get laid and is retarded and should get Ebola" sort.

Reynolds was more measured in his response. Harkening back to the good old days when Don Draper wasn't just a retro character on cable TV, civil rights were just a glint in the eyes of the oppressed, and people thought Lawrence Welk might be onto something, Reynolds has eddymacated the world about shirts and space programs. Apparently, bad shirts and good space programs must co-exist or humankind will come to an end. To quote:
Better not to land a spaceship on a comet than let men wear sexist clothing.
These are our options? 

His op-ed is the winning card in blackout anti-woman bingo, so get your bingo chips folks, and let's play. His words are in italics.

So how are things going for feminism? Well, last week, some feminists took one of the great achievements of human history — landing a probe from Earth on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away — and made it all about the clothes. (G14)
Yes. This was just about clothes. You know these women. Always on about the clothes. 

Yes, that's right. After years of effort, the European Space Agency's lander Philae landed on a comet 300 million miles away. At first, people were excited. 
People are still excited. That was goddamned awesome. As humans with brains, we are capable of processing information and emotions related to more than one topic at a time.

Then some women noticed that one of the space scientists, Matt Taylor, was wearing a shirt, made for him by a female "close pal," featuring comic-book depictions of semi-naked women. And suddenly, the triumph of the comet landing was drowned out by shouts of feminist outrage about ... what people were wearing. (B10)
Gosh. I wish women could just be quieter about their outrage. I mean, what are women compared to spaceships and comets? Nope, Reynolds. It was (1) about what HE was wearing, (2) that no one at ESA had talked him into, say, not wearing it while talking about a milestone for humankind on international TV, and (3) ultimately about how abusively so many people responded to the critique that the shirt was inappropriate and not terribly welcoming to women. NB: Matt Taylor has apologized, sincerely. I feel bad for him because this isn't about Matt Taylor--although it must unquestionably feel that way to him. It's about all of the factors that intersect in a male scientist ending up in that shirt in that situation in 2014 at this key moment in human progress.

It was one small shirt for a man, one giant leap backward for womankind. (O34)
The shirt wasn't really that small. And every time women point out ways that we aren't respected or actions and behaviors that we find inappropriate or sexist, we are told that we are making "too big of a deal" out of things, that we need to "get over it." Pushing back against that isn't leaping backward. It's pushing forward. 

The Atlantic's Rose Eveleth tweeted, "No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt." Astrophysicist Katie Mack commented: "I don't care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn't appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM." And from there, the online feminist lynch mob took off until Taylor was forced to deliver a tearful apology on camera. (N74)
First, as anyone paying attention can attest, using the phrase "lynch mob" is loaded and problematic. Here's what lynch mobs did and do. If you can find anything remotely evocative of that in the tweets Reynolds cites above, do tell. And here are some examples of what some men of Twitter said in response to those tweets (highlights (all sic): "fucking retard hope you get Ebola," and "he landed a fukn probe on a comet. ...he can wear a strap on dildo if he pleases." I think folks might want to be careful with the whole "Cool deed outweighs bad behavior" argument). That's not a lynch mob, either, but it's abusive and sexist. Some women involved have been targeted and doxxed. Remind me again who's taking the giant leap backwards here?

It seems to me that if you care about women in STEM, maybe you shouldn't want to communicate the notion that they're so delicate that they can't handle pictures of comic-book women. Will we stock our Mars spacecraft with fainting couches? (I63)
So, a man's shirt is criticized and men react with abuse and epithets and just above, we learn that the man in the shirt was very upset, but women are the ones who need fainting couches? Of course, that very phrase and words like "delicate" used in this way are directly sexist and intended as mockery of women and things womanly. But here's the thing: Calling people on their shit doesn't communicate delicacy or fragility, especially when, after long experience, we know exactly what kind of abuse will be hurled. We've handled a lot more than being confronted by "comic-book women" in the professional STEM context, and what we communicate when we handle it is that we are tired of this shit and will call it out when we see it. And there's more than a smidge of internal inconsistency in accusing people of being a bullying lynch mob while also mocking them as delicate and in need of a fainting couch.

Not everyone was so censorious. As one female space professional wrote: "Don't these women and their male cohorts understand that *they* are doing the damage to what/whom they claim to defend!?" (#notallwomen) (B12)
"Sorry, that page doesn't exist." I guess she reconsidered. [It still exists; copied link from the article was broken] One phenomenon I've noticed in these back-and-forths in social media is a cohort of Cool Girls (read the book) who step in to observe that this just isn't that big of a deal, they don't like labels, can't people just cool it and not be so uptight? I give Cool Girls 10 years, 15 maximum, in science before they suddenly realize how important a label like feminist really is. And before they realize that The Shirt is just one more in a long line of who-gives-a-fuck-about-women expressions in historically male-dominated professions ... or just in, yanno, life. I don't consider calling people on -isms to be damaging the people against whom those -isms are wielded. 

No, they don't. Or, if they do, their reservations are overcome by the desire to feel important and powerful at others' expense. (N44)
Yes. Critiquing a shirt as inappropriate is really about a desire to feel super powerful and bring down the space program ... or something.

Thus, what should have been the greatest day in a man's life — accomplishing something never before done in the history of humanity — was instead derailed by people with their own axes to grind. As Chloe Price observed: "Imagine the ... storm if the scientist had been a woman and everyone focused solely on her clothes and not her achievements." (I39)
The greatest day in a man's life. Perhaps he should have given some consideration to his attire on this, the greatest day, when the world was watching. As for Price's observation, the analogy fails. Women are criticized for their attire and their clothes all the time. Criticizing a woman is punching down and it usually involves sexualizing her in the process. The critique of this shirt comes from those not in power and doesn't involve sexualizing anyone. It simply means that the fellow wore a totally inappropriate shirt--for women, for grade-school students watching, for this purpose. Context simply matters here.

Yes, feminists have been telling us for years that women can wear whatever they want, and for men to comment in any way is sexism. But that's obviously a double standard, since they evidently feel no compunction whatsoever in criticizing what men wear. News flash: Geeks don't dress like Don Draper. (B82)
News flash: One reason we don't dress like Don Draper is that a lot of us are not even men. And again, this situation isn't about commenting on this man's sexuality or sex appeal or the right not to be raped, which is what feminism's insistence that women be able to dress as women has been about. It's commenting on attire that under any circumstances in almost any workplace would not be OK. It leaped out particularly to women in STEM because of, yes, context. 

Meanwhile, Time magazine last week ran an online poll of words that should be retired from the English language. The winner — by an enormous margin — was "feminist." That's fitting. With this sort of behavior in mind, it's no surprise that so many people feel that feminism has passed its sell-by date. (G38)
Yeah. Argumentum ad populum. By way of a Time online poll, no less. Which Time now regrets

Only 23% of American women and only 20% of Americans overall identify as feminists, even though most are in favor of gender equality. (O23)
So most are feminist. And see "already cited fallacy," above.

Feminists, who like to say that feminism is gender equality, are unhappy with this, but I think the poll captures a truth. (I61)
Confirmation bias. Of course Reynolds thinks that. Time magazine online poll backs him up.

Whatever feminists say, their true priorities are revealed in what they do, and what they do is, mostly, man-bashing and special pleading. (G57)
Asking for a respectful and non-objectifying workplace is not "special pleading." And man bashing? Does it involve rape and death threats? Just asking. Regardless of what Reynolds wants the Time magazine poll to tell him, the true priority of feminism is gender equality. Question for the floor: If I wore a bowling shirt covered in cartoonized erect penises and cartoony weaponry to, say, teach a class or talk science on international TV ... what would the response be to that?

When you act like what pioneer feminist Betty Friedan once called "female chauvinist boors," you shouldn't be surprised to lose popularity. (O25)
Popularity, like the kind we can measure with Time online polls? Here's the thing, dude: When you've got Beyonce on your team, you've got popularity.

"Mean girls" online mobbing may be fun for some, but it's not likely to appeal for long. If self-proclaimed feminists have nothing more to offer than that sort of bullying, then their obsolescence is well deserved. (N55)
He wishes. Feminists aren't going away just because someone tries to mock them with fainting couches. And mobbing? He cites two people who mildly critiqued a shirt, in context, and that's mobbing. Bullying, too. Sniff. Methinks that women are not the ones in need of the fainting couch here.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Academic science is sexist: We do have a problem here

The New York Times has featured an op-ed in the Sunday Review with the provocative title, "Academic science isn't sexist." For the limited percentage of US readers who give a shit, that title probably set all sorts of antennae aflutter. After all, how could anyone with any actual experience in academic science say something like that with a straight face?

I can't speak to the symmetry of the faces of those who penned the op-ed, but I can certainly highlight their inability to align their own words with their own data, or even their own words with their other own words. Their editorial and their paper are riddled with self-contradictory observations and internal inconsistencies. They seem to be arguing that the problems with gender imbalance in science aren't the fault of sexism in the academy but instead trace to kindergarten and grade school and to the 'choices' that women (actually, girls) make. I'm all good with recognizing the problems with early inculcation in gender stereotypes, but that doesn't exculpate the academy, and neither do these authors' data. It's also unclear to me why they believe the 'academy' needs a rousing defense against these valid accusations of sexism--and worse--as though it were a much-beleaguered long-suffering warrior fending off an undeserved piling on. 

In their op-ed and their paper that they tout therein, Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci offer some variation on their theme. I begin with a showstopper:
As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things. 
First ... link, please? From what I understand, girls are very flexible in their choice of play and toys, and the gendered nature of play is more complex than "Girls, living things; boys, wheels." And second ... have these folks ever heard of David Attenborough and Ada Lovelace? Finally, are they aware of which sex is (still) responsible for the vast majority of scientific research published about living things? This statement evokes girls going gaga over furry bunnies while the boys operate mini-ditch diggers in the background. If anyone wants to look for the sexism in the academy, this op-ed looks like a great starting point.

They go on to state:
Our analysis reveals that the experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts: They are more likely to receive hiring offers, are paid roughly the same (in 14 of 16 comparisons across the eight fields), are generally tenured and promoted at the same rate (except in economics), remain in their fields at roughly the same rate, have their grants funded and articles accepted as often and are about as satisfied with their jobs. Articles published by women are cited as often as those by men. In sum, with a few exceptions, the world of academic science in math-based fields today reflects gender fairness, rather than gender bias.
Emphasis mine. Eliding words like "roughly" and "generally" and "for the most part" set my antennae atingle. So I looked for some examples of supporting data for these statements. Look at Table 3, which contains the data to support the statement that articles published by women are cited as often as those by men (obviously, this can't be a raw numbers comparison). Take a look at Figure 14 in their paper. The analysis suggesting that women are cited as often as men is weird and selective, but this graph is pretty clear: Men are still published significantly more than women. There are so many significant difference asterisks on those graphs, they look like a tiny galaxy. I know the H index is a hot new thing, but which one matters more still on your CV: Your citation count or your publication list?

Check out Figure 15. Go ahead. Just for fun. And scroll on down to Figure 16. Look at the salary values on Table 4. Look at Figure 18. See the job satisfaction results in Figure 19. Take a gander at Figure 5. Figure 4. I don't understand how they wrote the paper or the op-ed they did while looking at the same results I see in their paper. Nothing about these data says, "OK, folks. Our work in the academy is done. Let's focus on those kindergartners."

And evidently, the implications weren't manifest to them, either. Even as these authors say there's no sexism in the science academy, they write:
... we actually found a greater exodus of women from non-math-intensive fields in which they are already well represented as professors (like psychology and biology, where 45 to 65 percent of new professors are women) than from fields in which they are underrepresented (like engineering, computer science and physics, where only 25 to 30 percent of new professors are women). Our analyses show that women can and do prosper in math-based fields of science, if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.
Emphasis mine. See, the problem here is that women don't choose to enter these fields in the first place. But that's not because academia's not unwelcoming to them or anything.

We don't have a problem here, do we?
As we found, when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome.
We don't have a problem here, do we? Oh, except this. And this. And this. And this
The transition from graduate programs to assistant professorships shows more pipeline leakage in the fields in which women are already very prevalent (psychology, life science, social science) than in the math-intensive fields in which they are underrepresented but in which the number of females holding assistant professorships is at least commensurate with (if not greater than) that of males. That is, invitations to interview for tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields—as well as actual employment offers—reveal that female PhD applicants fare at least as well as their male counterparts in math-intensive fields.
It's as though that poor, evidently badly constructed pipeline were so flooded with women (at 50% representation, y'all) that those gals simply overflowed the limits and slipped right outta there. What about the other 50% of the people in that pipeline, the ones who aren't women? Do they slip right out, too? 

If we have a plumbing problem here, it starts in kindergarten, it seems. Sure. These gendered assumptions and obstacles start early. But just as these authors blamed women for not pursuing math-intensive science degrees, they throw the blame for the earlier loss from the pipeline on the girls themselves and their choices:
As adolescents, girls express less interest in careers like engineering and computer science. Despite earning higher grades throughout schooling in all subjects — including math and science — girls are less likely to take math-intensive advanced-placement courses like calculus and physics.
That poor warrior academia needs defending, see.

But soft! It's not the girls' fault. Indeed, in their paper, the authors write:
The results of our myriad analyses reveal that early sex differences in spatial and mathematical reasoning need not stem from biological bases, that the gap between average female and male math ability is narrowing (suggesting strong environmental influences), and that sex differences in math ability at the right tail show variation over time and across nationalities, ethnicities, and other factors, indicating that the ratio of males to females at the right tail can and does change. We find that gender differences in attitudes toward and expectations about math careers and ability (controlling for actual ability) are evident by kindergarten and increase thereafter...
So, as it turns out, it's not the girls who are expressing less interest. Society is expressing less interest in the girls' potential interest... very early on.

Yet, in their op-ed, the authors write that the biggest culprits in the absence of women from science tracks in academia are
rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.
It's our choices, you see. Our preferences. Not anything to do with institutional sexism. Except for all of those differentials in their own paper showing that academia overwhelming favors being male. 

But we don't have a problem here, do we?

In spite of the authors' assertion that the problems arise outside of and before the academy and that the academydoesnothaveaproblemnothingtoseehere, they then say:
Women are also less likely to declare college majors in math-intensive science fields... 
....and also show data in which women drop out of the academic track after the bachelor's degree in greater numbers than men. 

So sure, there's a root to this problem that starts early on. But women aren't being hindered only from kindergarten and only outside of the ivory tower. It's silly to argue that society inflicts these biases on girls from an early age but that somehow, those biases stop at the doors of the august, gender-blind academy. They don't, and as many women can and have and will continue to attest, the manifestations of these biases range from daily microaggressions to unconcealed contempt and misogyny.

There's much more of this kind of thing in the op-ed and parts of the paper--an assertion alleging an inference from the data that those data don't seem to support and statements that demonstrate a clear presence of sex bias within the academy but that the authors don't seem to realize do so. And, of course, they don't address the opening issue that they lay out in the lead paragraph of their op-ed:
Our country desperately needs more talented people in these fields; recruiting more women could address this issue. But the unwelcoming image of the sexist academy isn’t helping. 
Their data show lower salaries for women in academic STEM compared to men, almost across the board (Table 4 and Figure 17; note the drop in salaries for female assistant professors from 1995 to 2010 and that they're at 85% of what male assistant professors were paid); lower job satisfaction for women (Table 19); fewer publications than men across fields (with one exception) in early career, whether we have children or not (Figure 16); fewer publications than men in most fields even when we're full professors (Figure 14); more hours worked than men (Figure 15, not significant); scarcely breaking 30% representation in the "math-heavy" STEM fields (Figure A1; damn you, kindergarten! and Figure 1--note the lumping of life sciences with psychology and social sciences--I have a problem with that, and this paper is one example of why); and a dropping off of women from the pipeline between BS and PhD (Figure 2). Where I come from, we call that institutional bias. I gotta say, though, that when it comes to psychology, women sure are representin'.

But we don't have a problem here. Right?

As for that "unwelcoming image" of the beleauguered academy that women keep pushing on the poor, gullible world in the absence of all of the data sitting right there: Geez, ladies, if you'd just stop with the "almost daily reports" about hostile workplaces and physical aggression, maybe academic science could move on already and shine up its image.

Evidently, the selling point for that image is the closing words of the NYT op-ed: "We are not your father's academy any more." Hmm. While I'll accept that the data indicate some improvements on my "father's academy," it still looks a whole lot like my mother's academy has done for decades. When do "we" just get to call the academy our own?

What we have here, it seems, is still a problem.
Update: Thanks to a full-time job, a family, and Halloween, I missed an entire conversation about this article on Twitter yesterday. Luckily, Alberto Roca @minoritypostdoc Storified it. Pay special attention to the deep critiques from @kevinshawnhsu and @othersociology, who are particularly well acquainted with this literature.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Antivaxxers make The Onion. Not for the first time

Ever ripe for accidental self satire, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) is at it again. As always, don't let the name fool you. Indeed, the only accurate word in the name might be "center," as one could argue that their current location is conceivably at the center of something (a maelstrom of some sort, perhaps?). But the rest? The 'national' might imply something government related or at least nationally useful. It is not. The 'vaccine' might imply something vaccine related. Only if by "related" you mean, "want them not to exist." The 'information' seems to imply that this group supplies information, perhaps even information related to vaccines. Hmm. Information.

And now NVIC has made The Onion, bringing the satire full circle to bite them on their own behinds. Vaccines are a frequent topic in The Onion. Perhaps no Onion article is as succinct in satirizing the irrationality of anti-vaccine claims as this one, a list of the pros and cons of vaccinating (Sample pro: "Flies in the face of science by discrediting single unanimously refuted paper from 10 years ago." Sample con: "You have to go to a place."). But just in time for Halloween, Onion writers have brought together NVIC and candy in a deliciously sweet installment of their "American Voices" department in which they mock NVIC's plan to stick anti-vaccine messages onto Halloween candy (Sample voice: "Medical advice always seems more legitimate when stapled to a box of Milk Duds").

The news of this plan broke, as far as I can tell, at io9, which features an NVIC-created image of their antivaccine message taped to Kit Kat bars, ready for distribution to unsuspecting and probably already vaccinated children on Halloween. I'm not sure how many children the NVIC folk have been around, but if they're imagining that the wee little tots in their Frozen costumes and ninja duds are going to select a Kit Kat, carefully examine the wrapper for vaccine-related messages, and then carefully preserved said message for their parents -- well, that scenario is about as accurate as the NVIC name.

The one reader here who might have read The Moonstone would recognize that this NVIC attempt to proselytize the unsuspecting stranger is redolent of the Victorian practice of handing out evangelical tracts to sinners, each tract containing a cautionary tale deemed suitable for the sinner's transgression (sample tract described in The Moonstone: "A Word with You on Your Cap Ribbons"). The tracts in the novel ended up discarded, unread. I have almost no doubt that any related missives adhered to the wrapper of a chocolate bar will meet the same fate. And they're too late anyway. If you're old enough to trick-or-treat and eat Kit Kats, odds are that you're well into your childhood vaccine schedule.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering if the anti-GMO crowd is now considering putting a dueling message on the Kit Kats, given the candy's reputation for being a gateway food to a Monsanto addiction.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Newsweek misrepresents autism and misrepresented me

Update, 10/23/2014: The article now features an updated headline that is an improvement on the initial choice, although the URL still contains the original wording. In addition, they've corrected some language around the paragraphs involving an article of mine, and they no longer read as though I accused a fellow scientist of "cashing in" on her work. It has been brought to my attention that in that context, my self-perception was of a scientist being viewed as unjustly accusing another scientist of "cashing in" and being accused of not having read a research article sufficiently, both greater professional offenses than being an op-ed writer--which is also a reasonable interpretation--saying the same or being accused of the same. So while the factual correction was needed, a request to me for comment would have been more of courtesy than a professional necessity. Such was the nature of carrying on dual careers.

I'm hoping now that some autistic bloggers or engaged parents will address in greater detail than I the article's shortcomings in the context of broader media influence and perceptions of autistic people.
Newsweek's featuring a new article about autism. When you finish girding your loins or gathering your spoons, take a look at it. OK. Forget the horrible outline. No, wait. Don't forget it. Substitute in "Did a son's paraplegia drive a woman to murder?" or "Did a son's deafness drive a woman to murder?" How does it feel at your moral center, that offhand reference to a child's disability driving a parent to murder? Seem ethical, right, OK, defensible to you? Keep in mind that the son in question was an 8-year-old boy. What feature, what characteristic, of any child would justify a headline claiming that it could "drive" a woman to murder?

No need to turn to disability for blame, of course. The person who drove that woman to murder is the woman herself. At least in this case of a woman who was fabulously wealthy and very unwell who murdered her autistic son, no one could argue that a lack of resources was an issue, as others so often try to do. I imagine that plenty of people will address in necessary detail the rest of the problems with the article, including the egregious language regarding autistic people and presumptuous determinations about what qualifies as a worthwhile life. The discerning reader will be able to do that, as well, thanks to terms like "ravages" and "illness" and the tiresome and easily disproved assertion that only "high-functioning" autistic people have an interest in or benefit from the neurodiversity movement. It's the usual dimissive writing about real people, written by a person who appears intent on interpreting and writing about autism in the most retrograde, willfully misapprehending way possible. Let's just say that the article is written as though 10, 20 years of autism research, understanding, and activism never even happened.

The writer of the article, Alexander Nazaryan, however, is proud of it. Naturally. It's a "longread," which is the new black of online writing. He's talked to autistic kids, my friends, autistic kids who, by golly, can discourse on the Mezozoic or can only moan. This is rich, layered stuff here, folks, with that awesome human interest angle of how that mystery of mysteries, that fascinating puzzle piece snuggled into a baffling blanket of engima can so understandably drive a wealthy, entitled, mentally ill mother to murder her eight-year-old child. Right?

He's tweeted out a link with the assertion that "The murder of an 8-year-old by his mother lays bare the ravages of an autism diagnosis." He seems unable to grasp the fact that the real, fundamental reason an autism diagnosis is "ravaging" isn't the autism itself, which by the time a child is diagnosed will typically have been around for years, but the way the news media--precisely the way he himself and his magazine--present it as "ravaging," devastating, mysterious, impossible to understand, and as justification for murder. Ignorant members of the news media have long perpetuated the 'autism as ravager, monster, thief of your child's true self' narrative, and what parent wouldn't, in the absence of any other exposure, not find that terrifying? In fact, what Nazaryan's article lays bare is the ravages of the news media against autistic people, a violation that some seem bent on committing over and over and over again. So much harm done.

All of that is personal to me and personally offensive and also, as time has made abundantly clear, generally dangerous to autistic people and their families. But there's a little more, something much more limited but still important to me. For reasons that are a smidge unclear, Nazaryan inserted my name into his longread like some randomly gathered and pasted bit of paper from a paper shredder, right in the middle, along with the name of a fellow contributor of mine at Forbes. He namechecks the two of us while writing about an autism researcher, Judy van de Water, who like all researchers has her own ideas that she fosters in her own corner of the research world where she produces work that supports those ideas. Some of her results aren't terribly compelling to me, and they weren't to my fellow contributor, Steven Salzberg, either.

A little over a year ago, each of us wrote a piece addressing some published work from van de Water's team. My article is here, and Steven's is here. In my article, I take a close look at the research paper in question and analyze the data, tables, and findings and comment on how poorly the news media interpreted it. In addition, for this article, I consulted with a couple of other autism researchers, one of whom I cite, and reference the work of another science writer. My analysis is sincere and serious, and I end it with some questions that I think must be answered before findings related to maternal antibodies and autism can be considered compelling. Here's how Nazaryan characterizes what I wrote:
“They didn’t really read the paper carefully,” (van de Water) says of her critics, including two science journalists for Forbes, Steven Salzberg and Emily Willingham, who seemed to take particular relish in dismantling the maternal antibody findings while accusing van de Water of “cashing in” on her work. They are as vehement in their convictions as van de Water is in hers.
See that part where she's quoted as saying, "They didn't really read the paper"? I cite data from the paper in my article. I analyze several elements of the paper in detail. I link to the open access version of the paper. It is clear that I read the paper and that I read it carefully. And I don't rely only on what I intepret but include an interpretation from another autism researcher. And here is this accusation, in Newsweek, that I didn't read a paper that I then wrote about, which is a pretty serious accusation to make against a science journalist--and did Nazaryan contact me to ask about how I might respond to this published accusation? No. He did not.

Of course I read the paper. And so did Salzberg, a computational biologist and professor at Johns Hopkins and someone who, yanno, might be expected to both know how to read a research paper and evaluate the math. 

And then there's that other assertion, the one where Nazaryan avers that Salzberg and I took "particular relish" in dismantling the findings while "accusing van de Water of 'cashing in' on her work." Salzberg used the phrase "cashing in" in his headline, but I did not use it anywhere, and I make no allusions to anything of the kind. In addition, I can't speak to Salzberg's personal relish, but nothing in what I wrote implies "relish" at dismantling, and while I understand that vehemence is in the eye of the beholder, I don't detect vehemence in my post. It's an analysis of the work, a serious one about a serious subject that can have serious consequences, and one that I didn't leave in my own hands but also double checked with another scientist.

I take issue with being misrepresented in this way in a reported article in Newsweek, without a request for response to an accusation from a quoted source, without confirmation of the "relish" in what I wrote, and with an outright misstatement that I accused another scientist of "cashing in" in this instance on some aspect of her research. I believe that Newsweek owes me a correction on that score. But that's nothing compared to what Newsweek owes the autistic community, part of a debt that the news media have been accumulating for years.