Friday, April 15, 2011

International Ask an Atheist Day

I know this event was aimed at campus freethought groups, but I figured why not do my part. I'm a big believer in normalizing mistrusted fringe groups by as many people as possible being public about it. Works for nursing in public, works for atheism!

So I printed out a couple stickers to wear, and I changed my Facebook profile picture to the sticker and put up a status welcoming questions.

I was very disappointed with the non-reactions to my stickers. I wore them at the YMCA, but no one asked me any questions. Facebook didn't yield much more. My best friend asked me if I think people are intrinsically good or bad (short answer: yes), and we had a bit of a conversation with another friend who jumped in and confirmed she was an atheist. So it was cool to realize that other friend was a non-believer. And another freethinking friend said she liked my picture.

And that was it.

Well, wearing the sticker did have one big effect: I was exceedingly polite all day. I'm naturally very friendly and courteous, but I was certainly more aware than usual of trying to project a positive image. Perhaps we should all wear nametags identifying our cherished group memberships - as representatives we would probably all be nicer to each other!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Speaking of eating placentas . . .

When some folks I know started talking about having their babies' placentas made into pills so the mother could ingest them, I asked the obvious question - why would you want to do that?

Answers were passionate and certain, full of bare assertion and lacking all but the slightest actual justification:

"prevents post partum depression and helps with milk production!"

"give you back your energy too"

"all the hormones that your body needs...its like your own specialized concoction of vitamins and hormones that are made especially for you"

"I think that every mammal eats the placenta after birth... the placenta holds all the vitamins that the... body is depleted of during pregnancy, so it makes sense to put those back into the body after birth"

One person linked to a blog post that had this citation:

"181 out of 210 women who were given dried placenta to increase milk supply had positive results and saw an increase in their milk supply.
Placenta as a Lactagogon; Gynaecologia 138: 617-627, 1954"

Now, first let me say, if you would like to consume your baby's placenta on the off chance it will do you good, I suppose you should go for it. I don't see much harm. If it does nothing, you'll lose some money to a professional encapsulator. Of course safe handling is important, just like with raw beef or chicken or whatever. But really, whatever floats your boat.

I'll also grant that it's possible that placentophagy could have some benefits. It's not completely ridiculous, the way homeopathy is. It's at least feasible that recouping iron and hormones could be beneficial.

But here's my problem - this is at best a hypothesis. It's testable, but hasn't really been tested (as far as I can tell, that study didn't use a control group, and the sample is small to boot). It's a pretty big leap from "animals do this" and "it contains hormones" to "ingesting dried placenta prevents depression and low milk supply."

And why are people so eager to make that leap? Because it's "natural." You won't see this wide-eyed credulity when it comes to vaccines, for damn sure. People who avoid ingesting acetaminophen or corn syrup jump at the chance to chow down on placenta, because that's what sheep do. It just doesn't make sense to me. And I'm worried about the general mentality because it leads to distrust of science-based medicine and encourages faith in altmed woo.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I've got my conclusion, now where's some evidence for it?

This seems to be the way our brains naturally work. If we didn't model the world with a mental construct resistant to change, we probably wouldn't have survived very well. But science and rationality are all about minimizing the effect of this tendency, and I would hope that's something we aspire to.

Of course, we see this faulty arrangement very blatantly in Creationism. Step 1: Assume God created the world as told in Genesis. Step 2: find evidence that appears to support this conclusion.

But I see this all too often in the alternative parenting world. Step 1: Assume breastfeeding is totally sufficient and perfect. Step 2: find some way to twist or ignore evidence that babies might need Vitamin D supplementation.

Most recently, I'm seeing some troubling tendencies from Nancy Mohrbacher, the author of the new reference book used by LLL Leaders. She has come out against swaddling. And she hasn't done it in a terribly thoughtful way, laying out what the benefits are or were perceived to be, and comparing new information that may advise caution or revision of our use of swaddling. Nope. Swaddling is Evil seems to be the message, and she is willing to be disingenuous in supporting this conclusion. In her initial post, she notes that "While swaddling may be helpful when used occasionally, routine swaddling during the first months associated with greater risk of . . . SIDS in prone sleeping positions."

Now, in my experience, most people do not understand the word "prone," mistaking it to mean "lying down." It actually means lying face down (supine refers to lying face up.) So I find this misleading, possibly intentionally. And of course, we already know that sleeping face down is a huge risk factor for SIDS. Telling people they shouldn't swaddle their prone-sleeping infants is like telling people to buckle up when they drive drunk.

This really irritates me because maybe swaddling is something we should rethink, but if you try to manipulate me with misleading statements, it's just going to make me want to discount everything you say. And more generally, I think a balanced, empathetic approach that allows for the feelings and beliefs of the community before demonstrating something that is incompatible with some of those beliefs is going to bear more fruit than this underhanded style.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unconditional Parenting

I really do pride myself on being open-minded. I try to be a true skeptic - willing to accept new evidence even if it overturns my beliefs.

I found just such an opportunity when some friends started discussing Alfie Kohn. At first I was very dismissive. When people objected to time outs as "love withdrawal," I scoffed. I wasn't withdrawing love, I was separating an out of control kid from society until she could be civil and safe again. But, since I'm intrigued by ideas that challenge my beliefs, I started reading some of Kohn's articles online. Then I bought his book Unconditional Parenting. And it totally transformed the way I see parenting.

The thing I most appreciated was his use of actual research to bolster his suggestions. And perhaps the fact that his suggestions often seem more like questions. Just questions I never thought to ask before, such as, "Is training a child to comply compatible with helping her become a fulfilled, happy, confident person?"

The other essential ingredient for me was a clear statement that this is not mere permissiveness. I've seen way too many advocates of "gentle discipline" whose children were unholy monsters, dangerous to themselves and others.

For me, Unconditional Parenting can be boiled down to two ideas. First, my children deserve to feel that they are loved unconditionally, just for being them. It's not enough that I do love them unconditionally, but that they perceive that I love them unconditionally. Second, children should be respected as people. They aren't just robots that emit certain behaviors when certain input is received. They are human beings with internal lives of thought and emotion. And I need to keep that internal life in mind when their behavior conflicts with my desires, not just run roughshod over them for my convenience.

There are a lot of details that go along with those basic ideas. Some of them are quite important and challenging, such as the damage praise can do to the development of a confident and engaged person. But quite early in my reading I zeroed in on the underlying philosophies above, and they are becoming my touchstone as I try to react with unconditional love, and still keep appropriate limits, in day to day life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Scene from an Acupuncturist's

Patient: So, I've never done this before. Can you tell me how this goes?

Acupuncturist: Well, first I clear an hour for your appointment. We spend a lot of time sitting and discussing your problems, your life, and what you're looking for in treatment. I try not to talk too much, but just to listen to you.

Then I have you get comfortable and completely relaxed in our treatment room. It is decorated in a serene theme, and has scented candles and soft, tranquil music. You lie down on our padded table and close your eyes.

In my practice, I focus on respecting you as a complete person. I don't treat you like a broken machine with one part that needs fixing; rather, I concentrate on supporting your total wellness, including mental and emotional health.

I provide caring, supportive human touch in a professional context that is all about you and what feels good for your body.

Oh, and I also stick needles in you.

Patient: Maybe we could just skip that last part?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My take on Worthless Women

Single Dad Laughing has a thought-provoking post called Worthless women and the men who make them. His premise is that men should take some responsibility for creating self-loathing in women when they ogle perfect specimens of beauty.

It's an interesting read. But I think the article itself suffers from chauvinism. Women are positioned as helpless victims of men's actions. Our self-definition rests entirely on the regard of men. It doesn't ring true.

I don't really think the problem is that men like to look at hot women. That's normal, and in the right context is OK. I think the problem is our entire societal attitude towards women. Instead of valuing beauty as one of many desirable traits, we tend to value women primarily (or even only) for sexual attractiveness.

How many times have you seen people write or talk about being disgusted by someone's appearance - not because they were filthy or covered with running sores, but because they were fat, or wrinkly, or had a big nose or crooked teeth? And how many times are such comments directed at women, versus men?

There is an underlying notion that we women owe it to others to be attractive. Thus you get women apologizing for their flaws, often by pre-emptively insulting themselves. "My hair is a mess today." "I'm way too fat, I'm disgusting." "I don't wave anymore because of this jiggly triceps, ha ha!"

We also get people saying, "I don't want to see that!" or complaining that fat people (especially women) make them physically ill. We get jokes about "butterface girls" - everything is beautiful but her face. (Also, have you noticed that fat women in movies are often depicted not only as comical and repulsive, but as hypersexual and in constant pursuit of unwilling men? What's up with that?)

When did "not sexually attractive" become a synonym for "offensive?" What's it to you if someone (who probably has no interest in dating you, by the way) has acne or cellulite or crow's feet? Why do we take it as a given that all people, but especially women, should be judged on their attractiveness?

Is it possible we could start valuing people for other qualities, while still enjoying the sight of a beautiful person? I think this might be yet another area where women deserve to share in what men already have. Men are surely judged by looks and sexual attractiveness to some degree, but I'd say usually we judge men by what they do, what they think, and what they produce, and way down the list is attractiveness. Women seem primarily judged by sexual attractiveness, then perhaps how well they take care of other people, and quite a bit down the list is what they do, what they think, and what they produce. And neither sex seems particularly valued for kindness and compassion.

I don't think we need to make average women feel more "worthy," meaning "pretty." We need to upend our definition of "worth."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Quick and Easy Guide to Spotting Altmed Bunk

Immersed in the world of breastfeeding and attachment parenting as I am, I am unfortunately bombarded with loads of alternative medicine hogwash. As I dutifully (and usually futilely) research and dissect the latest advice from someone's naturopath, or the information they got from their chiropractor, I have noticed certain signs that will cause my bullshit meter to bury the needle. What follows isn't a detailed discussion of why altmed practices are unscientific, or how to decide if a research study is reliable, or a treatise on the philosophy of science. It's just a quick and dirty list of features that anti-scientific quackery tends to share.

1. Most of the hits on Google are sites that promote or sell the product in question. Typical site names are,,,, and so on. Many strive to look like health information sites, but if they have only good things to say, and an easy link to purchase the product, you can bet it's just a commercial site shilling. If you get a high proportion of hits like Webmd, Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, and maybe stuff like CNN or ABC stories, it has a much greater chance of being a real thing.

2. The remedy is promoted as a solution for vague and ubiquitous maladies. Usual suspects are fatigue, insomnia, body aches, headache, mood problems, low sex drive, weight gain, nausea, and constipation. Now these can be real symptoms of real problems. But when you see a product promoted as solving a long laundry list of these issues, it's time to raise an eyebrow. These symptoms are typically experienced by most people at least some of the time, especially in a culture plagued by poor diet, low rates of exercise, too little sleep, social isolation, and chronic stress.

Most of these symptoms are self-limiting, or can be alleviated by lifestyle change. But most people don't relish a prescription of "eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and get 8 hours of sleep a night." Lifestyle changes are difficult to initiate, harder to maintain, and are frankly a total drag. But give us a pill, a cream, or someone waving their hands over us once a week, and we perk right up - seems easy!

3. Self-diagnosis is encouraged. Whether it's checking off the laundry list of vague symptoms, or buying a test kit you can do at home, do-it-yourself is the name of the game for quacks. And if you did get tests at the doctor's office, they encourage re-interpretation. Doctor says your thyroid levels are fine? Well check your number against this web site's "more accurate" scale. Doctor says your hormone levels are healthy? Take a saliva test to find out more!

4. Remedy is promoted by an actress of fading fame. E.g., Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers.

5. Proponents laud how natural the remedy is, and decry the toxins in the environment and/or conventional medicines. Arsenic is as natural as it gets - it's an element! Hemlock is a plant (make sure you get organically grown). Meanwhile insulin for diabetics is synthetic. Using "natural" as a synonym for "good" doesn't make sense. (Also look for the keyword "allopathic" to describe conventional medicine.)

6. Relies on testimonials, anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority. Approaches that work don't need this type of weak support, because they have strong scientific evidence - the kind that attempts to sweep away all the human foibles that can prevent us from seeing what's really happening, and determine if an intervention has a real effect.

7. Provides citations as though they refer to peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the cited material is actually a book, presentation, or web site of an individual proponent of the remedy. It doesn't matter how many letters are after your name - just because you say it doesn't make it reliable. Publication in a respected journal indicates your claims have been examined and probed for mistakes and found robust. Publication on a website means you successfully Googled GoDaddy.

8. Users respond to skeptical inquiry and questioning of the evidence by saying, "I KNOW this works - it worked for me." When the people trying to sell you on something have no clue about placebo effect, confirmation bias, coincidence, self-limiting conditions, and general methods for removing human perceptual bias, you can dismiss pretty much everything they say.

9. Praises or demonizes according to fad. Acai berries are magically delicious, but VDTs, power lines, electrical transformers, cell phones, Wifi is evil.

10. Invokes the Pentaverate. Promoters wave away criticism as the result of wide-reaching conspiracies involving doctors, pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and other entities.

11. The remedy is said to have no possible side effects or risks. Generally if something can have an effect, it can have a side effect. If it can change your body in some way, that change might turn out badly for you. Even such benign and universally prescribed practices as exercise and high fiber diets have risks and side effects.

12. Oprah.