Apr 27, 2009

Who's touching these monkeys pigs?

I was at IHOP yesterday with my friends Maggie and Rachel. As soon as we were finished, my phone rang. It was my father, with a dire warning regarding this swine flu outbreak: eight cases in the U.S. and dozens of deaths in Mexico (since then the numbers have gone to 20 and 103 - but still no deaths in the U.S.). I found myself intensely glad that my father hadn't called until after I'd finished my Pork 'n' Eggs.

Mmmmm, potentially contaminated meat.

Joking aside, the idea of animal-to-human disease transmission is kind of terrifying. The most famous cases are probably mad cow disease (from eating the brain or spinal cord of infected cattle) and avian flu (from direct contact with infected birds or their droppings). Since I don't eat beef and am not a poultry farmer, I felt relatively safe from those particular outbreaks. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control website, there have been documented cases of swine flu passing between humans. That's part of the reason the World Health Organization has declared this swine flu outbreak in North America to be 'a public health emergency of international concern.' In other words, "Don't freak out or anything, but this could become a pandemic."

So what's a girl to do - hole up in a bunker to wait out the zombie porcine apocalypse? My dad says that's not necessary... and as a veterinary microbiologist, he should know. Basically, he told me to pretend like it's flu season - wash my hands, take my vitamins, and get plenty of rest. On the plus side, staying warm in this 90-degree heat wave shouldn't be a problem. And at the first sign of sniffles (actually, fever or cough), I'm to report to my doctor ASAP for examination and respiratory swabbing (where they rub long Q-tip along the back of your throat until you gag a little bit). Yay.

The good news is that standard antivirals work well against this disease. While the common flu virus is resistant to such medications, this strain is actually a "triple assortment" - a recombinant virus containing DNA from avian, swine and human influenza. Science fact is always stranger that science fiction. Still, I'm on board with President Obama - we shouldn't panic. But hopefully, once the dust settles, we can take a look at why over 100 people in Mexico died from the flu.


P.S. I'm just kidding about the contaminated meat - you can't get swine flu from eating pork. Also, the title of this post is from the song Think About It by Flight of the Conchords:
"There's people on the street getting diseases from monkeys.
Yeah, that's what I said - they're getting diseases from monkeys.
Now there's junkies with monkey disease...
Who's touching these monkeys? Please,
Leave these poor sick monkeys alone -
They've got problems enough as it is!"

Apr 23, 2009

Latest Toastmasters Speech

As a health care professional, my world is filled with scientists - lab directors and geneticists, doctors and researchers. It comes as a great shock to me when I am confronted by someone who doesn't subscribe to evolutionary theory. For example, I was talking to a ultrasound technician in my office one day, and he asked,
Ultrasound Tech: You believe in evolution?
Me: Of course.
UT: So you believe we came from monkeys?
Me: Actually, I think that we have a common ancestor with -
UT: If we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys in the world? Wouldn't they have become something else by now?
Me: But they did become something else. They became monkeys.

And at that point we just stared at each other in confusion. In my mind, this is the main problem in the evolution vs creationism debate. The two sides just aren't speaking the same language. Moreover, they aren't even asking the same questions.

Creationism is based on a belief in the Abrahamic religions that God created the world, and all the creatures in it, according to His grand design. Of all His creations, man is the most god-like: according to the Bible, God made man in His own image and gave him dominion over the animals. This is an example of "revealed knowledge," an idea considered to be apparent and undeniable, in this case because it is "the word of God." And in a way, creationism is a very ennobling concept. Animals act on instinct; incapable of higher reasoning, they have only two options - fight or flight. By the light of creationism, we humans are better than animals, because we are essentially different. The first Western scientists studying the natural world did so by trying to make their observations fit with this worldview. When they observed changes in populations of animals over time, they posited that this change was goal-directed - God had certain patterns laid out for each animal, and as time went on each animal became more like the ideal God set for it. This concept of structure and purpose of the universe is very comforting: there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, offers no such comfort. Evolution works by a process of natural selection, which involves random variation and "survival of the fittest." There is no structure or purpose to the differentiation of species, because this theory was conceived strictly out of Darwin's observations. He did not start from the basis of God's grand design, and thus was liberated from forcing his observations to fit a pre-existing concept. This is the heart of the scientific method. Scientific theories arise not from "revealed knowledge," but by observation, hypothesis, and experimentation. Nothing is considered apparent and undeniable, because that leaves no room for revision and, therefore, no room for progress. Still, though he knew his method was sound, Darwin also knew that his conclusions would be extremely controversial. It took him twenty years to prepare his theory for publication. But publish he did, and the world was never the same again.

These two disparate ways of thinking, revealed knowledge versus the scientific method, are the reason why the two sides of this debate will never see eye-to-eye. Creationists view evolutionary theory as a threat to the revealed knowledge of the Bible. Thus, they want creationism taught in the science classroom along with evolution. Evolution proponents are offended by this, because creationism does not constitute a scientific theory. This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species ... and we're still fighting about it! What both sides often fail to appreciate is that, beyond speaking in two different languages, they are actually asking two very different questions.

Religion is all about giving meaning to existence, answering a multitude of "why's." Why am I here, in this place, at this time? The answers do not pertain to our physical bodies, but our conscious minds, the feeling of spiritual "self." These types of questions are best answered by “revealed knowledge,” a higher ideal that has value in and of itself - something for us to strive towards. Science, on the other hand, tells us not "why," but "how." How did I come to be made - this body, with this particular genetic code? These answers concern the physical world, things we can see and touch. As we begin to answer these types of questions, more questions arise. For this you need knowledge that can grow and change over time - that is, the scientific method. Each way of thinking has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. From this point of view science and religion are not at odds, nor are they mutually exclusive. To argue that one should supplant or challenge the other is ludicrous. Once we understand this fundamental difference, maybe we can finally lay the creationism vs evolution debate to rest.

Apr 15, 2009

The future of blogging

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Apr 14, 2009

What kind of a childish game is this?

Since I don't watch TV news, sometimes it's hard to gauge how "big" a story has become. The upside is that getting my news from teh interwebs allows me to pick and choose the stories that are most interesting to me. Mel Gibson's wife files for divorce? Couldn't care less. How the chemical make-up of elephant tail hair demonstrates how they compete with other species? Oh, hells yes! The downside is that while I am ready to chat around the water cooler about the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (worst acronym ever) study on pachyderms, no one else is. What are the people watching, nowadays? What do they care about? I honestly have no idea.

So I guess I should assume that you all don't know about this Amazon SNAFU, and describe the situation a bit before I rant. Apparently, Amazon has removed a number of LGBTQ books from their rankings and product searches. This had the affect of burying these books, so that they would not show up as easily to consumers. Reportedly, an email complaint about this situation received this response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

"Adult" material included children's books like Heather Has Two Mommies and a YA novel called The Filly, which contained gay themes but zero sexual content. I believe that some of the books involved had nothing LGBTQ in them, and were included in this purge because the authors themselves were gay. And a number of books that feature explicit heterosexual content were left alone.

As you can imagine, when this hit the internet people got so mad their faces exploded. Petitions were created (and soon accumulated over 20,000 electronic signatures). A hacker tried to take credit (to no avail). The Twit-ter lines lit up (while I still don't approve on principle, I have to laugh that #amazonfail became, for a time, the most popular hashtag) And Amazon scrambled to CYA, claiming that this was a "ham-fisted cataloguing error" that wasn't targeting LGBTQ authors or novels - it was all just a coincidence.

I think Gore Vidal said it best: "What kind of a childish game is this? Why don't they just burn the books? They'd be better off and it's very visual on television."

Still kickin' ass and takin' names, after all these years.

My question is this: was it "ham-fisted" or an "error?" I realize this is semantics, but when literary freedom is at stake it seems appropriate. To me, an error is something done unintentionally, while something is ham-fisted when it is an intentional action executed clumsily. And when you're talking website management, errors occur when a computer misinterprets a command. If all of the LGBTQ books had disappeared at once, I would be more likely to believe this was purely an error. But this has been going on for months - and while some titles have been re-ranked, progress is similarly slow. It seems more likely (possibly because of my latent cynicism) that Amazon was trying to reduce the LGBTQ presence on their site. Now that they've realized that this community and its supporters account for a significant proportion of their consumer base, they're scrambling to reverse what they've done. Even if they fix the problem, what's to say they won't find some other way to carry out this intent (i.e. censorship), a way that is not "ham-fisted?"

Will we ever get to the bottom of this? Sure, this story is all over the internet. But until it's in everyone's living room on the 6 o'clock news, inflaming us like a stack of burning books, I wonder if anything will ever be done to find out what caused this "error."

Apr 7, 2009

What's all this, then?

As you may have noticed, I've changed the URL from http://thebiologicalimperative.blogspot.com to http://thebioimp.blogspot.com. I've done this for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I got tired of typing the bloody thing. Secondly, I'm thinking of "rebranding" the site a bit. I know you all love stories of my wacky adventures, and those will continue. In addition to that, I want to start offering a bit more content - maybe something along the lines of topical discussion of the treatment of science and health care in American popular media.

Right now you're probably saying, "jigga-what?" But this has long been an interest of mine (from rolling my eyes at Good Morning America articles to yelling at the TV during Grey's Anatomy). It's not just about accuracy in the work itself - it's about the way misrepresentation lowers the level of discourse. You can't have advocacy or reform without basic health and science literacy. And for good or for ill, CSI and the blogosphere have more direct influence on people's opinions than high school health class or Biology 101.

One of my favorite online comics, Piled Higher and Deeper, really sums up what I'm trying to say here...