Had to listen to my mom complain about Nelson Mandela for almost half an hour today and then got in trouble for interrupting her to explain who he was and what he did to my brother.
This week struck me as a particularly exhausting one when it came to that certain brand of provocatively-headlined-but-probably-not-what-you-think-it-is science news that we know and
As usual, it’s the science media click-machine that’s to blame, which is a polite way of saying that there exists a gaping void of careful, cautious, skeptical, dare I say scientific science writing out there amidst the great internet knowledge machine. It’s desperately hard to get people to read your articles or watch your videos, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to disengage the gravity of reason and drift off into the aether of just-so stories.
PHD Comics has summed up this vicious form of the science news cycle very well:
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s some real diamonds that we can regularly depend on to shine through amid the soiled throngs of pseudointellectual beggars out there, and I, along with others, try to highlight their work regularly. I shall do so again here.
Here, I present two cases of “science things that were badly reported” and some links to better explanations. As usual, the defendants come from that tenuous intersection of neuroscience and behavior, because studying the brain is hard stuff, folks.
1) Mice Can Inherit Memories: No they can’t. Well, maybe they can (although I doubt it), but that’s not at all what this widely-reported paper in Nature Neuroscience says. The poor authors of that study are probably at home, drinking, wondering how, after years of hard work, their paper about how mice may pass on sensitivity to smells got so twisted. Headlines ranged from declaring this the source of human phobias to saying that Assassin’s Creed is based in real science.
What the researchers did was to condition some male mice to associate a smell (cherry blossoms) with a mild electric shock, which is mean, because that’s a nice smell! Naturally, the mice began to avoid the odor. The weird part is that their offspring, even two generations down the line, also seemed to avoid that specific cherry blossom odor, without ever encountering it before (and without their dads showing them). The dads’ noses all had more of the cells that smell that odor, as did the noses of their offspring. This did not happen with female mice and their offspring.
These kind of things aren’t supposed to be possible in a single generation. A mouse dad shouldn’t smell something, become afraid of it, and then be able to pass on a change to his kids. That’s precisely the kind of thing that got Lamarck and his giraffe necks laughed at more than a century ago. But it is possible that these mice were transmitting some sort of epigenetic change.
It’s possible that there was an epigenetic change passed down. But it’s not for sure. Beyond that, the way that statistics are applied to mouse behavior studies make it possible that the differences they see are just due to sample sizes, or not including certain controls, or some other random factor like that the humidity on a particular day happened to make the mice very jumpy. There’s also the fact that there is no known way for nerve cell changes or chemical responses within the olfactory bulb to be communicated to the testes, where sperm are made (there’s literally a blood-testis barrier to prevent that kind of thing).
Read this instead: At National Geographic, Virginia Hughes goes through the research in great detail, including comments from several people in the field who remain, shall we say, less than convinced. Extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence, and that’s lacking, at least in part. “More work needed” as they say!
2) Men and women’s brains are wired differently, therefore men are better at reading maps. That’s almost a verbatim headline from this news outlet. It speaks of “hardwired differences” (our brains are not hardwired) and is loaded with brainsplaining and neurosexism. This story is frustrating notsomuch because of the science, which is so-so, but because it is being misapplied by the media to reinforce cutsie-pie stories about what men are good at and what women are good at and never the twain shall meet and boy is it funny how men and women argue over getting lost?! GUFFAW!
Read this instead: At Discover, Neuroskeptic explains why the spatial resolution of the techniques used are like making a road atlas, while on the moon, using a pair of binoculars, and how the only real difference here may be that men’s brains are just slightly bigger than women’s (which doesn’t account for any noticeable difference in abilities, but can mess with scans a lot). And if you’d like a nice introduction to the idea of neurosexism and pigeonholing gender-based brain research into outdated social molds, might I suggest you read this article at The Conversation?
The fact is that men and women are mostly the same when it comes to their brains, but “Everyone can probably become pretty good at reading maps whether or not they are male or female, suggests common sense, not needing to be backed up by neuroscience” doesn’t make a very catchy headline.
None of this is to say that any of the results presented in the scientific papers are patently or provably false. But as we communicate the vagaries of Science In Progress, we must include the Don’t Knows and the Possiblys and all the other fine (and frustrating) forms of cautious optimism. It doesn’t kill the excitement. It just comes with the territory. I read it on a map somewhere.
Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.
Mannequins Modeled After People with Disabilities —
Changing Contexts and Transforming Experiences
Just two days ago, I said that I couldn’t wait until designers recognized that people with disabilities wore their clothes and made sure their clothes complimented all kinds of bodies. Well, someone must have heard me because today we have progress! Small progress, but progress nonetheless.
In addition to Giving Tuesday, December 3rd is also the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pro Infirmis, a disability organization, created a mannequins modeled after people with disabilities that will be used in store windows. The project is called Because Who is Perfect? The video above shows the process of creating the mannequins, the reactions the models had seeing mannequins in their image, and the reactions of people as they walk past the mannequins on display.
There is a whole lot going on this video. A whole lot. And, I have so many thoughts swirling around my head, but two thoughts are clear.
There are so many moments in this video that reference back to dark, stigmatizing experiences in the lives of disabled people, including my own, but because this project drastically shifts the context of these experiences they become transformed into something generative, validating, and positive.
The process of taking detailed measurements of bodies made me think of fittings for casts, braces, and other corrective devices. And, historically how these measurements were used to determine the extent of someone’s impairment in a kind of anthropometry and in order to justify their need for treatments and therapies. The measurements in this video are not received with fear of a cold brace that corrects a perceived defect but with eager anticipation for the creation of an object that embraces and appreciates disability.
The store window made me think of freak shows and medical theaters, forums for gawking, staring, and objectifying disabled people. Again, within the store front window, the history of disabled people being stared at gets transformed. Store front windows are sites that arouse admiration, desire, and aspirations for the future. When you look at a store window display, you are meant to be able to see yourself wearing the outfits or wish you could see yourself in that outfit.
Although the stage has changed, the puzzled reactions of onlookers is similar to what people with disabilities have experienced for an incredibly long time, but, perhaps this project puts us a few steps closer towards shifting those reactions.
I was literally just logging on to share this!
Check it out, seriously. This is some badassery right here! ;)
Im saving this as a draft for proper commentary and full txt reblog when i get to a comp
I am tired, not of arguing in favour of equality, diversity and tolerance, but of having to explain, over and over and over again, why such arguments are still necessary, only to have my evidence casually dismissed by someone too oblivious to realise that their dismissal of the problem is itself a textbook example of the f*cking problem.
I am tired of being mocked by hypocrites who think that a single lazy counterexample is sufficient to debunk the fifteen detailed examples they demanded I produce before they’d even accept my point as a hypothetical, let alone valid, argument.
I am tired of a**holes who think that playing Devil’s advocate about an issue alien to their experience but of deep personal significance to their interlocutor makes them both intellectually superior and more rationally objective on the specious basis that being dispassionate is the same as being right (because if they can stay calm while savagely kicking your open wound, then clearly, you have no excuse for screaming).
I always feel bad for the nurses when my heart rate goes from the 70s to past the 130s just from standing up. They always look slightly terrified.