Weight loss

There is a lot of talk in the science blogosphere about weight loss these days. People are talking about their own personal experiences, which are interesting and can start up some good discussions. I have stayed out of them because 1) I’ve been busy and 2) it’s not my place to judge what other people do with their bodies. But bloggers are also posting some questionable scientific support for the benefits of weight loss and dangers of being fat, which are murky at best*… Anyway, I have confused feelings about the whole thing. I support FA and believe pretty strongly that the scientific evidence is much more mixed than the one-sided story generally pushed in the news. Lots of the studies that are spun to present evidence of extreme dangers/costs/impacts from being fat are actually very inconclusive without the spin. A lot of the statistical methods used in the studies that appear more conclusive are pretty much crap. We just don’t know that much, and there is a vested interest in keeping popular opinion firmly in favor of one point of view, science be damned. And scientists are people and are products of this society, too, and it’s hard not to mix your personal experiences into your scientific viewpoint. But a lot of people read science blogs (and Scienceblogs) as a kind of non-peer-reviewed scientific source on many subjects, so I wish other results were getting a little more attention there.**

* I’ll just link to Sandy’s whole series, if that’s all right with you.

** Though I kind of wish that about peer reviewed literature, too. When you design a study to examine possible relationships between health risks and obesity, and deliberately choose a sample pool of fat people with health problems, ignoring all of the healthy fat people (most of them), it’s awfully easy either for you or a journalist to turn around and lazily conclude that all fat people have health problems. There are some methodological problems there.

Accretionary Wedge: Time Warp

This month’s Accretionary Wedge is the time warp! What time in geologic history would I like to visit (no livable conditions required) with this magical new technology? There are so many! How can I choose??

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

With the space warp component included, this is especially difficult. Do I want to see if a plume starts at the core-mantle boundary? (yes!) Do I want to see what happens to plumes and/or subducted slabs at the transition zone? (yes!) What about the production of a LIP, or a major caldera-forming eruption? (yes! yes!) But although I’m really a volcanophile, I think I feel a little more traditionally geologic about this. I want to see a mass extinction — a big, catastrophic, geologic-record-punctuating event. The formation of the moon would be really fun, too, but it’s not as controversial anymore (to most people). There are still poorly-understood mass extinctions — in particular, the biggest one of them all: the P-T. I want to see who’s right and who’s wrong, and I want to see what happened, all for myself.

Though I suppose it would be damn depressing to watch all that death. Maybe I should stick with the moon?

Experts vs. the media

This comic came out while I was writing this post, so clearly I'm not the only one thinking about it!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “experts,” i.e. who we consider credible and who we don’t on any given subject,* and on the roles and responsibilities of those who are widely considered to be experts. When we as scientists conduct studies and publish the results, in general those results and our interpretations of them are complex. Often the conclusions sound like, “We have shown that the one particular scenario we considered does not disprove the model in question, and we encourage further study.” And that one particular scenario is usually just a stone on the path to some bigger understanding of a subset of a subset of a field that studies part of how the universe works.

The problem starts when we have to boil it down. Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose once commented that if you ask an expert for their “elevator pitch” that distills their very complex research down to a sentence or two for non-experts, the answer is usually “… it’s complicated.” I want to amend that, because by the end of grad school we have all had to learn to do that distillation. It’s actually not because communication with the lay public is important (I mean, it is, but that’s rarely structured into a graduate program), or because your advisor wants you to be able to impress friends at parties, but because that’s [part of] how you get funding. Some proposal panels are composed of other experts, and those proposals can be very detailed and complex, but if you can’t describe your work to a general scientific or just a general academic audience, you’ll miss out on a lot of other funding opportunities. We have to be able to make that elevator pitch. That pitch is the “big picture” view of our research — that thing so many graduate students struggle with the most and never remember to include in their presentations and talks. But until you learn to say it, on the spot, you can’t write a good abstract, good conclusions for a manuscript, or good grant proposals. (Of course, if you ask too many questions beyond the elevator pitch, that’s when you’ll usually still come up against the “it’s complicated” answer.)

And then there are press releases. Some journals have staff that write those releases, but in a lot of cases the authors of articles are required to write their own releases. Those big-picture, general, oversimplifying sound bytes that get authors attention (= attract funding) by sometimes catching a science reporter’s eye — what so many people don’t realize is that many of those were written by the scientists themselves.

And when your press release catches a reporter’s eye, leading to further investigation into the study so they can write an article, the reporter usually doesn’t ask the questions that lead to “it’s complicated” answers, even though that’s actually the meat of the study. Who wants to write an article about something that’s complicated? That won’t sell! (i.e. “The public is too stupid and impatient to handle it!”) They want the pat answers and the sound bytes, and the press releases and abstracts hand it to them. Scientists simplify because they are required to do so to “communicate the public” (and “get money from non-specialists”), but then those sell-your-research pitches that boil essentially complex systems down to a couple oversimplified points (and if you’re lucky, advice or warnings about what people can or should do, because that will get you more attention) get turned into news stories promoting behaviors. And usually it isn’t actually based on much, in terms of statistically conclusive results.

The communication disconnect isn’t all on the end of the MSM, though they are to blame for trying to turn the simplified stories (meant, say, to convince a funding agency to fully fund what had been an incomplete pilot study) into stories that sell (meant to prey on the public’s need to stigmatize each other and learn new ways to be better than each other. Oh, and on their fear of death). It certainly isn’t the MSM’s fault that there is so much funding for “obesity research” (actually, on second thought… but that’s not the topic of this blog post, so let’s not go there today**), so scientists whose results are statistically mixed and mostly inconclusive will still try to spin them so they support socially appealing ideas about fatness and “health.” And those scientists might be bigots who want to smack down the fatties – but just as likely, they figure the public will never read their abstract (because most studies don’t get picked up), but that abstract or release will make it possible for their next study to get funded. Scientists are trying to use the media’s penchant for picking up sexy sound bytes to get attention, without always thinking about the impact of promoting iffy (but sexy) conclusions.

When you work in a field where the outcomes of your research (even very preliminary, inconclusive research) can be spun to further stigmatize a severely marginilized group of people, you have an extra responsibility to stop and think. The ethics of spinning everything to get more funding are questionable anyway, although we all do it (hell, money is tight, and attention is good); but it’s particularly problematic when it can actually negatively impact people’s lives — often unnecessarily. That money might be the only thing to keep your research afloat, so yeah, it’s important… but it’s not more important than keeping teen girls from starving themselves literally to death (or just jumping the gun by committing suicide because they’re so severely depressed over being a size 12).

*Related to that, and also rolling around in my head, is the question: when is it healthy to be skeptical, and when is it hypocritical because I’ve been convinced by persuasive arguments on other subjects that are considered just as controversial? For example, the idea of treating fat people like human beings deserving dignity and respect, instead of stigma and discrimination, is treated as a wildly controversial position to stand by by seemingly the majority of people in western society. On the other hand, I am skeptical of pretty much all suggestions that humans were visited by extraterrestrials in their past, despite what some consider to be very convincing arguments. Where do I draw the line? It’s clearly not only because of the academic credentials of the people involved, because some people in favor of the alien hypothesis have PhDs, and the most persuasive critical and statistical arguments I’ve heard in favor of fat acceptance have come from bloggers with at most a masters in english (which is not a science field, though I don’t underestimate the critical thinking required to receive a degree in english). Really what’s going on, for the most part, is that I find some critical arguments persuasive because they’re logical, and generally supported by statistical data when I actually look at the numbers, and I find others less persuasive because they are laden with logical fallacies and misrepresent the data (or those data that exist are inconclusive). In the case of the alien hypothesis, I find the suggestion so outlandish that in the absense of any academic credentials or respect from academic institutions, I take every argument I hear with a massive grain of salt. That skepticism is probably just as infuriating to people who believe in the hypothesis (particularly since I don’t really want to go out of my way to read those papers and books, so I even actively avoid becoming more well-read on the subject) as fatphobic bigots are to me when they refuse to consider actual statistics on the subject, because that would challenge their preconceptions. But I suppose there’s also the fact that I’m human.

** What I’m not getting into today: how this is a vicious cycle, because publicly popular topics, which are generally fueled by promotion in the media, catch on quickly in government, which runs the biggest funding agencies. Hot topics in the public quickly become the hottest research topics. So that’s where the money goes. It’s quite a spiral.

ETA: Man, Jorge Cham and I are on the same page lately.

GTCA

GTCA BioRad ad! Link courtesy of Isis. (Go here for the better-quality BioRad video, which WordPress can’t embed because it’s dumb about videos.)

I’m not sure if I like it better than the PCR one, but it’s pretty good. I especially like the pipetting action.

They never make videos like this for geochemistry procedures, though. Come on, BioRad, I use your resins! Make me a viral video ad!

Unnatural (Or: On evo psych, gays, foods, and having too many atoms)

Lately I have found myself feeling less and less tolerant of pseudoscientific talk on the subjects of chemistry and consumer materials. Now, I think I’m a pretty good little liberal, and I have great respect for the crunchiest of my liberal compatriots. I also work to respect other cultures and look for value in traditions and accumulated cultural knowledge from around the world. I’d be the first to tell you that there are many good reasons to prefer eating one kind of food over another, or to choose one soap over another, or even a soapless existence if that’s what works for you or saves the puppies. But I’m not talking about making personal choices, or even about what may or may not be a beneficial choice from an ecological or broad social standpoint. I’m talking about the words themselves, about the pseudoscientific framing that informs discourse about how certain things are better or worse for you or society because they are more “natural,” “real,” or, my favorite, “chemical-free” (though I mean, who doesn’t love a good vacuum). These words are used a lot these days, but I especially hear them from people who belong to a particular social class – relatively affluent, generally white, often but not exclusively liberal. This talk sometimes goes hand-in-hand with similarly pseudoscientific advocacy for medicinal treatments that may accomplish something beneficial for a person, but that are not backed up by hard science: things like gall bladder detoxes, fruit juice purges, and yoga positions that heal your pancreas.* Oh, and weight-loss talk.**

There are so many examples of this that I’ll have to limit the topics I can address in a single blog post. But here is a list of topics within which some chemical compounds and substances might be designated as falling into categories such as natural/unnatural, real/fake, or even plain old good/bad:

  • Foods and food ingredients
  • Detergents
  • Soaps and shampoos
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Clothing
  • Frankly, almost anything else.

On its surface, this could sound like a semantic argument put forward by an annoying chemist pedant. And okay, maybe there’s a little of that. But actually, I think these terms, particularly in marketing, really do encourage people into very unscientific thought about the world and our resources. Morality is very tied up with these words. I want to unpack that a little.

Continue reading

Women in Science and Technology

I’m killing a couple birds with this post. Zuska is hosting this month’s Diversity in Science carnival, on the topic of “Women Achievers in STEM – Past and Present,” and bloggers everywhere have also been called-upon to observe Ada Lovelace Day by pledging to post on the topic of an amazing woman in “technology,” broadly speaking.

I feel like these topics are different and new, but still so closely related to the recent Scientiae carnival about woman role models in STEM fields (as well as the Smithsonian slideshow I posted about below) that at first I was having trouble coming up with someone new and exciting to talk about. Hence the stalling until the post deadline. I have already talked about a woman role model in science who was extremely important in my career, albeit anonymously. A lot of amazing women were also recently discussed at length in the last Scientiae (for example: I have considered Vera Rubin to be an incredibly inspiring woman and role model since I met her many years ago, but I don’t have much to add to the recent post about her). But! Then I was inspired. No one has done more than briefly mention Florence Bascom in these recent discussions of women in science and technology!

In 1893, Florence Bascom was the first woman to to receive a PhD from Johns Hopkins (where she had to sit behind a screen so the male students would not know she was there, I shit you not), and at that time, the only woman to hold a PhD in geoscience in the United States. After earning her degree, she founded the Geology Department at Bryn Mawr College, a small, prestigious women’s college in Eastern Pennsylvania. Bascom developed both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum herself, and she continued to teach there as a professor until she retired in 1928. The Bryn Mawr department was considered to be the “locus of training for the most accomplished female geologists of the early 20th century” (GSA Today, July 1997) and is where almost all professional woman geologists were trained in the first third of that century. While working at Bryn Mawr, she became the first woman hired by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1896 (she worked with the USGS seasonally, working on a huge number of the Survey’s 15-minute geologic quadrangle maps). To this day, we use maps based to a great extent on her original mapping work in Eastern PA and New Jersey. Bascom continued her work with USGS until forced to fully retire due to poor health in 1936. She was the first woman elected to serve on the council for the Geological Society of America, and later became the first woman officer for that organization when she was elected as its vice president. Florence was an extremely well-regarded and important contributor to the fields of mineralogy and petrology.

Women in science

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

Sciencewoman had this fabulous link to a Smithsonian photo collection of amazing women in science up today, and I just had to spread it around the blogosphere. A couple of the people included are, in my opinion, not scientists (a literature professor? a pilot?), and it’s a very biology- and medicine-heavy list (there’s not a single geoscientist!), but it’s nonetheless an inspiring group of people.

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