Saturday, November 9, 2013

No, not back to our regularly scheduled program

The video is now posted at the NASW site.

[Another update: The response linked below has been removed by PLoS blogs. It was not something I had requested, but I appreciate the choice (ETA: in the context of their own writers' agreement, not my personal inclinations; there is a cache of their two posts here) and am glad to see that the comments have been left in place. There is some disagreement over PLoS's decision, but I can't speak to what the folks at PLoS feel they need to do in the context of their writers' agreement. Again, the other panelists and I expect to produce a formal writeup and review of the session and plans going forward once we have the video available as a source.]

[ETA an update: The two people involved in the post I critique below, Tabitha Powledge and Beryl Benderly, NASW board members, have posted their comments about my critique here. I will let their two responses speak for themselves and just reassert that the original post was an example of the problem in having foregrounded men in every aspect, from text word counts to links included to who was named and quoted to art to tags to "the most powerful and significant statements came from men," and that the tone of "back to our regular program" was inappropriate. Further, I add that because I was commenting on a high-profile summary of a very high-profile and edgy situation that is critical to our community, one written by a board member of NASW and featured on the site of another NASW board member, I also vetted my commentary with half a dozen relevant people before posting it. As for a formal post about the NASW panel from the panelists themselves, of which I was one, we await availability of the video recording of the proceedings so that the overview will be complete.]

Perhaps that's part of what got us where we were in the first place, this willingness to lapse back into the programmed complacency of sexual inequality and unreported sexual harassment. The "where" was a panel on women in science writing, and the "we" were the six women--Christie Aschwanden, Deborah Blum, Maryn McKenna, Kathleen Raven, Florence Williams, and I--who made up that panel. There were six of us who sat there, who presented, paneled, and answered questions, yet in this writeup on the session at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conference in Gainseville, Fla., where our panel convened, one of us doesn't even get a mention. The writeup appeared at PLoS blogs on the site of NASW blogger Tabitha Powledge, but Beryl Benderly, NASW treasurer, wrote the XX panel summary. [ETA: The NASW board has clarified that the board did not request the blog post, edit it, or even become aware of it before it was published.]

Instead of highlighting what each of the six of us said, the post, in what I must characterize as "business as usual," not only leaves out mention of a member of our all-women panel but also treats the standing-room only plenary session as an aside, something to roll into a longer section that talks about ... life on other planets? Indeed, of the 2285 words that make up the post at PLoS, 1335 are devoted to the possibility of Earthlike planets and life elsewhere instead of the possibilities of the lives of at least half of us right here. 

And of the 950 words allotted to the XX science panel at the NASW meeting, 264 were devoted to what the men in attendance at the session had to say. That stands in contrast to the 238 words given to what women on the panel and in the audience at this session on women in science writing had to say, words that trail off in the post without even an end punctuation. Not only that, but the section devoted to the men's commentary begins with, "But some of the most powerful and significant statements came from men."


Six women sit on a panel before a standing-room only audience, show data (courtesy of unable-to-attend Kate Prengaman) demonstrating the monstrous inequality of recognition and work that women in science writing receive, deliver powerful personal stories about the multitude of experiences they have had over their careers--some of them jaw-droppingly unbelievable--but the "most powerful and significant statements came from men."

As if that overshadowing weren't enough, in the post, the "art" included with the 950 words devoted to the panel is a huge graphic that references "The Blogfather." That would be Bora Zivkovic. That would be the very person who one of the panelists has revealed sexually harassed her. Yet instead of including images of the panel or of any of the panelists or even of a woman, this post on a women in science writing panel that addressed, among other things, problems of sexual harassment of women science writers, includes only an image that references someone who has ... a record of harassing women science writers.

As a sort of coup de grace, the post tags are as follows: aliens, astronomy, Bora Zivkovic, exoplanets, intelligent life, Kepler spacecraft, Milky Way Galaxy, On Science Blogs, science blogging, science journalism, science writing, Scientific American, sexual harassment, Tabitha M. Powledge, women. Not one of the names of the women who were on the panel appears in the metadata. A summary of the post on the NASW Website focuses, like the post itself, on astronomy and gives a single line to what ought to be a major issue for a national association of science writers representing its membership.

After that series of what I can only describe as mounting offenses, the XX panel summary comes to an abrupt end, offering a segue into the bulky remainder on Earth-like planets by saying, "We Now Return You to Our Regularly Scheduled Program." 

Based on the content and emphasis and oversights of that post, it looks to me like we never left that program. The old emphasis on male voices and the attitude of "phew, that's over" are the same old regular programming we've been watching and living for decades. And that, my friends, is the problem that put the six of us in front of a standing-room only crowd at NASW in Gainesville in the first place. And--I believe I can say this with certainty--not a single one of the six of us is content to return to that regular programming. There will be no sliding back into complacency this time.

[UpdatePZ Myers at Pharyngula offered up a critique, as well, making some very similar points.]

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bright afternoon with sculptures at Crissy Field

Click first image to view as slide show.

Sculpture at Crissy Field. More on this Mark Di Suvero exhibit here.

Cairns at Crissy.

Catching a wave at Ft. Point.

Under the bridge.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Woods and meadows, Mother's Day

For slide show format, click on this first image.

All images, (c) Emily Willingham

Thursday, May 9, 2013

California dreaming, redux

In 2004, we pulled up all of our stakes, stuffed everything we owned into a bright yellow Penske truck, and took off for Northern California, my first time to live anywhere outside a 100-mile stretch of I-35 in central Texas. It was thrilling. I thought that coming to northern California would light my literary fire, make me want to stand by crashing waves on rocky shores and write write write, burning with inspiration courtesy of Steinbeck, Kerouac, and Frost.

Instead, I found myself wanting to lie down on the grass in Golden Gate Park, basking like the pond turtles in the Aboretum, sunning myself in a drowsy torpor for hours, periodically extending a hand or foot for maximum sunning experience.

So it was with great reluctance in 2004 that I sat myself down to write these first paragraphs of this moving experience. There was a literal move, from Texas to California, but there were also deeper moves. Emotional moves, generational moves, life-changing moves, I-can’t-believe-I’m-living-in-the-land-of-earthquakes-and-urban-mountain-lions moves…

Our first time around in California, we lived in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, not the shadow, but it was visible and large just outside our home and the foghorns rattled the walls. I sat and wrote next to an uncurtained picture window, 10 or more feet high, which looked out onto…eucalyptus, mostly. A grove of tall, fragrant, short-lived trees planted by the U.S. Army decades ago for reasons that are murky to me. Their drooping shapes have taken over this tip of the peninsula, where it leads to the Golden Gates. 

My mother, who formed the last in a line of visiting relatives just after our move, noted with surprise that the bridge itself is not golden, but an unexpected deep orange-red, the color of smoldering sunset. I told her that the “Golden” probably refers to the arms of land that reach out from juxtaposed peninsulas, striving to touch one another’s once-golden shores across the San Francisco Bay. The shores were straw-colored with seagrass, a soft gold you can still see in areas that the U.S. Army and other improvers of the early twenthieth century didn’t cover with introduced plants.

But looking at eucalyptus through that picture window and peering through that dense grove, I could get a tiny peek at the bay. I liked to think of it as 'the sea' because that idea suited my literary pretensions better, but it’s really the bay. In the evenings, we would go to the beach, throw rocks at the waves, chase “eagulls” (as our second son, my then-one-year-old, called them) and listen to foghorns and sea lions. This trip a block from our home was a long way away from Austin's 100 percent humidity, 90 degree heat, pestilent mosquitoes, persistent drought, and a single decent hike-and-bike trail around a murky polluted lake designed to serve a metropolitan populace. 

Things are, as I thought to myself almost every minute -- and still think -- very different here in California. Bigger. Deeper. Richer. Delineated. Just like that bridge.

I noticed the first difference when I opened the morning paper. This was back in 2004, when we still took the paper, didn't get our news from Twitter or online news sites. It was the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the writers approached the lyrical. There was an apparently endless series on wine, which I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about, coming from the land of Shiner and Lone Star. The comics were limited, and some were older than my great-grandmother, with a sensibility that made her seem hip, even from beyond the grave. The advice columnist was Dear Abby, except it was really her daughter Jeanne. Then there was Liz Smith, whose raison d'√™tre publi√© had mystified me for at least a decade.

But it wasn't the lifestyle pages that magnetized me. It was the headlines in the front two sections. Killer whales attacking humpback whale calves in Monterey. Divers arrested for scoring too many endangered red abalone. Mountain lions wandering around elementary schools in Palo Alto. Kite surfers fearing great white sharks during an epic surf from the Farallons to the bay. This metropolis—this cosmopolitan, world-class, world-renowned city—is a wild, wild place. Back 'home', as I periodically referred to Austin, the headlines would be about the heat or the drought or maybe Spamarama, an annual celebration of a canned meat product held next to the above-mentioned polluted inner-city lake. But wild? No.

Sharks. Whales. Sea lions. Red abalone. Otters. Seagulls. Falcons. Mountain lions. Seals. As I wrote this, I was listening to a woodpecker clack against a tree. Every night, walking along the bay, we'd see a pair of sea lions that liked to hang around a pier near “our” beach. We'd see ducks and seagulls and herons in an adjacent wetland and what I think were cormorants. Pelicans flying low, in tight formation, gliding in bodily stillness over the currents.

In Austin, excitement was seeing one of the two white swans that inhabited inner-city Town Lake. Here? We might as well have been walking around with grassy straws or hay poking out of our hair, a family of country mice awed by the big city and the Big Nature, still doing the tourist thing and going to Pier 39 to ogle the sea lions. But it’s not the big city that’s the pinnacle of awesome here, although it is mighty and vivid and historic and marvelous. It’s the Big Nature. That's what left me moved.

Moved enough, in fact, to come back again, seven years after our first departure. Older, more childed, greyer, and very, very different in less visible ways. But still so dazzled and startled by all the wild around me. And still falling in love all over again every time I see that bridge, painted like a smoldering sunset.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Acting like an American in Paris

Bastille Day, Paris, 1984. I’m at the Moulin Rouge in my best clothes, throwing up under the table. My companion, whom I had met on a tour, stands up to help me, but instead throws up also, all over me. Our embarrassed driver, Ali, takes us through the streets of Paris to our bus. We vomit all the way, mocked by Bastille Day revelers. It was an embarrassment of astronomical (gastronomical?) proportions. reported yesterday on an "extremely informal" Conde Nast survey suggesting that Americans visiting abroad might not live up to the ugly American traveler stereotype. According to some of the people whom U.S. travelers encounter, anyway, we're really not "all that bad." I guess that depends on what you define as "bad." In my experience, U.S. citizens visiting other countries can embarrass us as much as any Washington political shenanigans. We all know the American stereotype—loud, boorish, uneducated. I’ve seen my countryfolk acting just that way in every country I’ve visited. As the opening paragraph must make clear, I’m certainly no exception.

In 1984, I was 16, and the Moulin Rouge serves champagne. Never should American sweet sixteen and champagne meet like that. Everyone at the table got a half-bottle each. I drank my own and my neighbor’s. My last memory just before I passed out on the table was of a semi-naked woman swimming around in a huge tank with a dolphin (I think it was a dolphin. I'm sure it was a half-naked woman). Two hours later, I awoke and put on my own eruptive performance in front of a full house of bemused tourists and Parisians. I haven’t been able to drink champagne since, but that was a tough and embarrassing lesson.

Later, as an adult, I took a group of young teenagers to Spain, joining another group of students from our area. Before leaving, we cautioned our tweens about what to wear and how to behave. Certainly, I recalled my own display years before as I discussed particulars of dress and comportment with the girls in our group. Drinking was out of the question (middle school and all). Our female students knew that shorts and short skirts would be culturally inappropriate for many of the sites we would visit, especially cathedrals. They had to order food in Spanish at restaurants. They knew how to say, “Gracias” and “por favor.”

The other group that joined our tour had obviously not had the benefit of such sage advice from teachers or parents. The students, male and female, wore cutoff denim shorts and large T-shirts with U.S.A.! in red-white-and-blue lettering. The girls often wore culturally inappropriately short skirts. They rudely talked unchecked while frustrated local guides attempted to lead our tours. Worse, shopping was their only interest. In this, they received guidance from their teacher. As we approached Toledo, her biggest worry, one that repeated itself throughout the trip, was that her students would not have the chance to shop because of siesta. The horror. Only one student in the group spoke Spanish.

A hallmark of the American traveler seems to be monolingualism. Because learning a second language still gets no real emphasis in the United States, comparatively few people from monolingual families gain facility in another idiom. In our strange education system, any intensive instruction in a second language begins in secondary school. Other countries have long recognized the benefits of early, intensive language instruction. German and Japanese students, for example, begin learning a second language (English) early in their schooling. 

Of course, language instruction and cultural instruction often go hand in hand. Understanding why one refers to a body part in Spanish using definite articles rather than personal pronouns (“the stomach,” not “my stomach”) also means understanding something about Spanish culture. Learning expressions that vary according to dialect means learning something about the geography and history that originated the differences.

Are Americans too insular in their approach to travel and learning about other countries and cultures? On the whole, I'd argue yes. I have experienced travel with students whose only dining interest was McDonalds, no matter where we were. In the McDonalds, I see other American tourists, fearful of the unfamiliar. They want the T-shirt announcing their visit—“Hard Rock Cafe, Any City”—but learning takes a back seat.

In all of my travels outside of the U.S., I find that Americans tend to want America to go with them wherever they roam. Immersion in an unfamiliar culture—in the language, geography, customs, and cuisine of a country—is a far more satisfying travel experience (to me, at least), but one many American travelers seem reluctant to explore. As always, exceptions are out there, but not in force enough to change the preconception. Perhaps my most telling experience was in China, where the American adults we encountered seemed no different from the students I observed in Spain. No interest in the regional food and very, very focused on gift shops and in particular a market where deals Beanie Babies by the bushel were of greater interest than Tiananmen Square. Beanie Babies.

Many Americans go overseas loud and rude, ignorant, and oblivious to the idea that cultures differ and offenses vary. We should know better. I should have known better in 1984. The other teacher should have known better in that summer in Spain. Those grown men and women in pursuit of Beanie Baby deals most certainly should have known better. We all should worry less about what we can buy overseas and more about what we can learn—before we go and while we're there.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Kids, cows, and country

Elmo, my grandfather who preceded the red-furred muppet by almost a century, was a huge man, with gigantic rough hands and a practical attitude born of growing up barefooted and picking cotton. Every sentence he uttered ended with the phrase, “on it,” as in, “I’m going to check that heifer in the south pasture, on it.” He raised cattle in deep East Texas, where he had a small house on a lake and a yard full of ticks. His feats of apparent fearlessness frightened and magnetized his city-bred grandchildren, my younger brother and me, who spent a few weeks with him every summer.

Brother and I were relative city folk, coming from the great metropolis of Waco, Tex., and country life left us alternately bored and trepidatious. Bored if we weren’t bumping slowly over the back roads, unbuckled in the front seat of a pickup, feeding cows. Trepidatious when we found ourselves surrounded by a dozens of cattle, mooing, lowing, and bobbing their heads at us. I always had to remind myself that cows are not carnivores -- they were just after the cow chips.

One terrifying cow encounter involved an unhappy bull that suddenly started rearing and snorting, jumping around like a mad animal. Elmo roped him, yanked the rope hard, then whapped the bull upside the head with his cowboy-booted foot in one smoothly executed high kick. Watching from a fence, we never doubted the outcome: Elmo would win. The bull paused in his fit, shook his head, and immediately simmered down.

Brother and I managed many times on our visits to highlight our city-mouse ignorance. Elmo took us fishing a few times, mostly for bluegill in a nearby creek. As he caught fish, he would string them on a line and leave the line in the creek. I was unfamiliar with this procedure. Frustrated after hours of sitting on that creek bank, catching nothing, I suddenly saw several fish that appeared to be swimming at the water’s edge just downstream. Excited, I tiptoed toward them, anxious not to scare them away. Slowly, I dropped my line -- which dangled from the requisite bamboo fishing pole -- into the water. My bacon bait swayed enticingly before the nearest bluegill.

Then, in a flash, the fish went for the bait. I had caught one! I started pulling it in, when I noticed that several other fish seemed to be following it. At first, I didn’t understand. Then, with embarrassment, I realized the truth -- I had caught a bunch of fish that had already been caught. Elmo thought it was hilarious, on it.

The realities of country living sometimes were too much for us to understand. When Brother was four, Elmo took him out to feed the cattle. On the road, they found one of my grandfather’s bulls, seriously injured. Elmo got out of the truck with his rifle and dispatched the animal in one shot.

When he got back into the truck, Brother asked him why he had done that. “He was sick,” Elmo replied, briefly, as if that were explanation enough. They got home a few hours later, and my brother asked to use the old rotary phone. When he got my mother on the line, he immediately asked her to come get him. “Why?” she asked. “Because,” he replied, “if you don’t, and I get sick, Grandpa’s gonna shoot me.”

In the end, Brother decided to go ahead and stay, but neither one of us owns a single cow today – we’ve opted for dogs, instead. Yet those were interesting times, that riding around in a beat-up truck, being the focal point of a cow’s life when it hears the horn honk, visiting the older folk who lived miles from one another (and maybe they were lonely or maybe they liked it that way), eating huge country breakfasts because you really did need fuel for the day, and talking about a special visit into “town.” I guess what we never truly understood was how difficult such a life was, taking its toll on finances and health. To us, it was a completely different world, a place to visit and learn and grow to appreciate, at least some parts, anyway. On it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Nature deficit disorder in nature

Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire that Delicate Arch has “the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit.” I can only imagine how startled Abbey’s senses would have been if he’d seen the teenaged boy on a sunset visit who dropped his pants, urinated on the arch, and hollered, “Look, I’m making a waterfall!” None of the shocked onlookers threatened to strap him to a spire on the Primitive Loop for his behavior, but they probably should have.

We make tracks for places like Arches National Park to get away from people and into nature. The reasons underlying our need for escape range from the obvious (noisy, crowded cities) to the subtle (we are part of nature, too). The wilderness draws us to solitude, even though we are naturally social animals. But what I don’t understand are the people who get into the wilderness and then proceed to act like socially dysfunctional jackasses. And I still haven’t figured out exactly how to deal with them.

We’ve all seen them. They ignore the signs, feed the animals, urinate on arches. They sleep through backcountry orientation or think they’re above the rules. It makes me want to whap 'em upside the head with an organic carrot. Or at least force them to listen to a lengthy diatribe about the consequences of their behavior. We can’t beat them with carrots, so lecture is our best alternative.

Yet it’s tough to get up the gumption at the critical moment. I once saw a mother and her young son hiking on a trail in Banff National Park in Canada. As I watched, horrified, the mother, anxious for a good picture, pushed her child within one foot of a nursing elk cow with her calf. At every trailhead, park signs warned about the dire consequences of approaching these animals, especially females with young. But this mother seemed to think her child’s life was worth a good photo opportunity. Strangely, I hesitated to say anything, somehow unwilling to correct this grown woman’s behavior. Thankfully, the elk cow exhibited more common sense than the humans and walked away. 

An incident in the Grand Canyon showed that others also hesitate to step up to the soapbox. If you know how much water to carry, per person, per day on a hiking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, raise your hand. If you answered “at least one gallon,” you know a lot more than the two fellows who found themselves stuck midway down the Hermit’s Trail on a blazing July day.

They’d already drunk the single quart of water they’d brought for their overnight trip. Their reasoning? They mistakenly believed there’d be plenty of water along the way. People charitably shared some of their own water with the parched pair. Maybe the two even learned a lesson. But they should have paid attention when the ranger said, “You need a lot of water. You’ll die without water. We don’t want to have to come after you because you didn’t take enough water.” The cost of rescuing them could have run into the thousands. But according to reports, no lectures accompanied the water handouts that may have saved their lives. 

Every year, the most popular parks spend thousands of dollars rescuing foolish people from foolish situations and remediating the damage caused by thoughtless hooligans, from the woman walking her four dogs on the Alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park to the fellow who repeatedly has to be rescued off of a Rocky Mountain cliff face because he's too inexperienced but keeps going back. My radical idea? Everyone should have to swear an oath to verbally pummel anyone they catch breaking the rules. Authorizing officiousness in the backcountry could save sensitive habitat and human lives—and your lectures to the foolish would have government backing.

But even keeping the rabble in their cars and off the trails might not be enough. The worst incident I’ve witnessed in a national park occurred early one summer at Yellowstone. Bison grazed in the fading sunlight, about 100 yards from where my husband and I stood watching them. As we peered through the trees, we saw something that to this day I have trouble believing.

A car with New Jersey plates and carrying three young men drove several hundred feet into the meadow straight up to one of the bison. The driver flashed his brights on and off and honked the horn repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of the impassive beast. As the bison blinked wearily at the commotion, one of the passengers filmed the actionless excitement with a hand-held camera.

Anyone who’s ever been to Yellowstone has seen the signs that depict a bison catapulting a park visitor 50 feet in the air. Never mind the signs that tell visitors to keep their cars on the roads. As I stood in the trees watching this spectacle, I kept imagining these poor bison suddenly losing it and charging the car. Over and over, I played the scene of several of the herd closing in on the small vehicle and one by one, plucking out each young man and hurling him into the air. But it didn’t happen. The bison moved away, and the stupid young men sped off across the meadow. 

We escape into the backcountry hoping to get away from people like that. But they’ll find you out there, where they will build illegal fires, feed dried apricots to chipmunks, and use streams instead of chemical toilets. Many of us—including me—might find it hard to speak out and lecture people who look like adults, but act like children. But we should share our common sense with the backcountry Homo sapiens who lack it, for their safety and to preserve the outdoor experience. Or we could hope that they pick up some tips from other species. The elk cow in Banff walked away. The Yellowstone bison didn’t charge the car. And even a jackass knows how to behave at the Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Preventing Autism: Most ill-targeted PR pitch on earth? Possibly

This morning, I received the below. I've annotated it in red with my reactions as I read along. But first, I had to throw up. The hatefulness of releasing a book called Preventing Autism on World Autism Awareness Day and what some of us call Autism Acceptance Day surpasses my ability to comprehend. No, I haven't read the book. No, I won't be purchasing a book called Preventing Autism and have that in my house where my autistic son can see it. ETA: As a counterpoint to the cynical nastiness of someone who could write a book like this and release it on this day, please see this post from Shannon Rosa at BlogHer.

PR pitch:
I am working on a book that will hit stores today, April 2 (World Autism Awareness Day hurl), that can help parents aggressively act to prevent autism At this point, I'm so offended and pained as a parent and then affronted as a scientist I could barely read on in their unborn and young children. In order to practice prevention, you have to know the causes AYFKM?

Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP, AYFKM? a prominent pediatrician because, you know, Jenny McCarthy practicing in Santa Monica, California, of course he is. Why would he practice in inner city Chicago? and a UCLA Professor, is the author of Preventing Autism: What You Can Do to Protect Your Children before and after Birth (Wiley, April 2, 2013, Trade Paperback Original, $17.95). Throwing up occurred here. He's a pediatrician. Not a neurodevelopmental expert. And he wants to prevent people like my son. Dr. Gordon? AUTISTIC PEOPLE CAN READ. In following the plan outlined in the book, parents have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Particularly if they don't get suckered in to shit like this. The CDC has suggested that the huge increase in the number of environmental toxins to which young children are exposed might explain why autism numbers have exploded Really? Because they JUST PUBLISHED their study based on survey data that suggested WIDER DIAGNOSTIC CAPTURE.  Dr. Gordon addresses how to avoid these toxins. (He also addresses the "vaccine issue." Oh, I bet he does. How else will he sell his book?)

Dr. Gordon feels he can make a difference (in his bank account).  So do noted child development experts Halle Berry, Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady, Jennifer Grey, and Mariska Hargitay— who combined to write the forward (like the Borg or what?).  Julia Roberts added a blurb. AYFKM?

More info:
·     Of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use today, only 3,000 have been tested for their harmful effects. I use that many chemicals by simply consisting of them. CHEMICALZ!!
·     The rise in autism parallels the rise of the chemical age after World War II not really and the use of untested chemicals they are tested. Data safety sheets exist for them. in manufacturing, our food supply, house cleaning products, and our personal grooming products this one is gonna hit the Hollywood types hard. Oh, and also parallels in increase in consumption of organic foods and increased global warming. Alrighty then.
·     It is no longer a leap to say we can prevent autism No, it's not a leap. It's a lie.  Even mainstream medicine recognizes that the environment affects genetics (Yes, in approximately the early 20th century).  The science of epigenetics—“on top of genes” --studies what changes gene expression or what causes certain genes to turn on or off That's the science of "genetics".  

·     At Stanford University, 192 pairs of identical twins were studied in which one twin was autistic and one was not.  Scientists found that genetics accounted for 38% of the risk of autism and environmental factors 62%.  Prime example of a half truth. What they leave out is what the team concluded were the effective factors involved--the womb. Actually, this is, at most, a quarter truth.
·     Our definition of autism has expanded from a genetic disorder originating in the brain to a possible interaction of immune and neuro-inflammatory disorders with genetics in the brain. Another half truth, as this is hypothesized, possibly, for a subset. Not demonstrated.   Developing nervous and immune systems –before and after birth--are vulnerable to the thousands of toxins that surround us. Because the placentas have just given up, you see. But IF YOU DON'T BUY THIS BOOK AND TRY EVERYTHING IN IT, LADIES, IT'LL BE ALL YOUR FAULT IF YOUR CHILD IS AUTISTIC

·     If you can identify a cause for autism, you can find a preventive treatment current understanding is that autism traces to multiple factors and probably thousands of genes. Good luck with that. And did I mention that autistic people CAN READ?  Preventing Autism explores the known neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors you know what? This is my field. And no one's linked these to autism. But they sure are a nice, sell-y buzzword, ain't they?  and offers a plan for eliminating or reducing their presence before and after your children’s birth. This is wrong physiologically, developmentally, ethically, socially, and in terms of reality.
·     The NIH has begun a $6.5 billion study of a generation—a 21 year long study of 100,000 children to determine how the environment affects development from before birth to adulthood.  We cannot let an entire generation be at risk. Yes, because a study like this means a generation is at risk We have to do something now. Please start by NOT BUYING THIS BOOK.

Please let me know if you're interested in speaking with Dr. Gordon and/or seeing a copy of Preventing AutismAYFKM?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The ballad of moving hell

After five more years in Texas
We said, "It's time to go."
But go where? we had to ask.
That's what we didn't know.

We'd developed kind of an attitude
About our southern latitude
And the hordes disrupting the stasis
Of the last liberal Texas oasis

Our minds turned to Colorado
The land of four season fun
Goodbye, Llano Estacado
Hello, Rocky Mountain sun

With drought-dried hell in the rearview mirror
We took everything we owned
And thrilled as we came nearer and nearer
To the land of the legally stoned

Twice in that land we packed up our things
And piled them again in a truck
Our furniture sustained big cracks and dings
And we acknowledged that moving does suck

The land of the stoned wasn't all that we'd hoped
In spite of the mountains and rivers and streams
By the end of two years, we were less than stoked
And had realized it wasn't the land of our dreams

So at last we did what we'd known all along
Was right for the whole family
We knew of a place where we all belonged
At the edge of this land, by the endless blue sea

The last move was one of epic proportion
It required four months and considerable grief
We put ourselves through unpredicted contortions
And lost our TV to a mover-slash-thief.

At the last stage, we felt we were almost done
That the end of our travels was in sight
And the only mishap was a pod overturned
Which the movers and I soon had upright.

And now here we sit in a house in the hills
With the Pacific a few miles away
The salt air and the trees have soothed away ills
So we think here's the place we will stay.

... possibly.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Autism and metals: not a lot of there there

Some first thoughts about the Adams et al. paper reporting higher measures of lead, thallium, and tungsten in a group of autistic children compared to non-autistic children. The tl;dr version? All values, whether for autistic children or non-autistic children, were in the very low range of reference values (often below detection levels), and they did some weird things with their data. My favorite is this one: "One of the typical children had an unusually high level of tungsten (2.7 mcg/g-creatinine); when this is removed from the analysis, the difference between the groups becomes larger." Ya think?

Finally, the authors state that they have no competing interests to declare. But one of the authors, David Quig of Doctor's Data, is involved in research with a company that is trying to develop a chelation product for ... heavy metal toxicity. The Adams et al. paper cites "Vitamin Diagnostics" as also playing a role in analyses; that's odd because according to this page from Health Diagnostics and Research Institute, 'Vitamin Diagnostics came of age with a new name' ... in 2010. And Vitamin Diagnostics is the home institution of paper author Tapan Audhya. He also has written a "comprehensive review" articles about 'mercury intoxication' and autism ... with discredited quack David Geier and another familiar Geier associate.

These folks have built among themselves an ever-shrinking echo chamber, presumably made of some kind of non-toxic metal. The problem is, people seeking confirmation bias for their long-held but debunked beliefs about heavy metals--particularly mercury--and autism, will and already have turned to this study, calling "proof, proof!", in spite of its lack of independence from the very belief system and infeeding network they hold dear.


Table 2 from Adams et al.

Some comments: For reasons that are unclear, they converted the RBC values, which seem typically to be reported in micrograms/g into ng/g. This conversion has the effect of giving larger actual numbers, obviously, if you're not looking at the units; for conversion to compare to reference values, 4.3 ng/g arsenic = 0.0043 micrograms/g; for lead, 19 ng converts to 0.019 micrograms/g.

If you compare these values to existing reference values that labs use, including the lab that the authors themselves used, you'll find that all of these values fall in the low range of what's typical for a general population (although I note that these are adult reference values). Some of them, such as lead, are very, very low. See below for reference values from the lab these authors used with a couple of side-by-side comparisons, keeping the ng-->microgram conversion in mind:

This is the toxic metals reference interval information from Doctor's Data, the lab that did the analyses for this paper and that is reportedly the go-to place for certain sectors.

Here are their average values for whole blood from Table 2 of their paper. Compare to reference intervals.

These are the reference intervals for urine from Doctor's Data, given in micrograms per gram of creatinine. Compare to
the urine values given in the table below (Table 2 again); you can see that the measured values are very low
and fall into the lowest range of the reference values in many cases.

Finally, look at the numbers above in Table 2 and follow the +/- signs in the columns and draw your own conclusions about the ranges these imply. Also note that the medians are given, but not the interquartile ranges, which is out of common practice. Even more confusing, in their Figure 1 (below), they give means--"rescaled to the average neurotypical value (?!why?)"--and then give 25% and 75%iles. That's weird.  All of that's weird, and it makes evaluating their data for yourself damn near impossible. See below:
Because they didn't do this rescaling (or mention it, anyway) for the values in their table 2 and didn't give interquartile ranges there, we cannot take these data and graph them appropriately using median/interquartiles as boxplots and evaluate their relevance for ourselves. In the table, they give standard deviation, but they don't use those values here, and again, we don't know if they converted the table data the same way they did for this figure or not.

Any time I see unusual presentations of data that are amenable to fairly common analyses and presentation, I get a little ... skeptical. How about you?