Friday, April 05, 2013

Correlation Is Not Causation: The Surprises Science Brings Us

On my way home from work today, I heard this story on NPR's "Science Friday" program.
Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, researchers write that amyloid-forming proteins, traditionally thought of as enemies to the nervous system, may actually be protective 'guardians' instead. Study author Lawrence Steinman, a neurologist at Stanford University, explains how amyloid injections helped paralyzed mice with a multiple-sclerosis-like disease walk again.
 Listening to Dr. Steinman explain the experiment, what struck me most was his repeated insistence that the experimental results were the opposite of those hypothesized.  Amyloids are present in a variety of neuro-degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.  For a couple decades now, it's been thought they are, if not the cause, certainly a destructive element in the course of these diseases.  Dr. Steinman also noted that recent trials of amyloid-inhibiting drugs on humans had either no effect or, in a few cases, actually sped up the course of degeneration.  Taken together with these findings, I think it is at least possible that a natural response to limit destruction of nervous system tissue has been misinterpreted due to its ubiquity in those effected by these diseases.

While Dr. Steinman was clear enough there were still many questions that need to be asked and answered, as well as caution in interpolating these findings and considering a radical treatment for human multiple sclerosis, at the very least the experiment demonstrates the marvelous way science corrects itself.  It also is a cautionary tale in that marvelous bugaboo that haunts statistical sciences - the appearance of two things together does not define causation.  It only notes what it notes, viz., that two things occur together.  The mechanisms that bring them together may be a variety of things.

Here's hoping there's more research on the effect amyloids have on the nervous system.

Still A Long Way To Go

Two very different stories demonstrate that, despite the enormous strides toward social equality in the United States over the past half-century, we still have a very long way to go.  And, no, this isn't about gay marriage. I think, like many others, it is far too early for supporters of marriage equality to fold up their tents and go home.  As the stories make clear, even those victories many thought complete are not.

First is the story out of Georgia about segregated proms.  A group of friends are complaining because they cannot attend the same prom and, because it's 2013, it might be a nice idea to integrate them.  Call me naive, but I was so appalled by the story when I read it, I quite literally was stumped as to how I felt.  I realize that behind the two proms exists a nagging fear of interracial dating, dancing, and because we all agree with Dorothy Parker's observation about dancing, sex.  Still and all, it's a prom.  A rite of passage for most high school students.  Trying to wrap my head around the excuses/rationale/reasons for such a thing made me sad and angry.  It's nice that it's kids at the high school involved who are pushing to get rid of the segregated proms.  It would be far more nice if there was no need to do so.

The other story is more a meta thing.  By now, most folks should be aware that some high school kid managed to get model Kate Upton to agree to attend his prom (speaking of proms . . .) by putting a video on YouTube in which he outlined all the reasons Upton wouldn't go and asking her anyway.  Now, it seems, Upton has managed politely to back out, for which I say, "Yea."  On Good Friday, Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece at Slate in which she made the point, according to the title of her article, that the kid in question wasn't being cute, but rather more than a little creepy.
Instead of applauding Davidson for this, adults should be appalled. All that's been taught here to young men is that they are entitled to women's attention simply because they ask for it. This lesson not only feeds the unjustified grievances of the Reddit users that Stoeffel describes as "tallying up women's socially obligatory acts of kindness." It also helps build the undercurrent of fear that many women, especially younger women, have to live with in their daily lives. This entitlement we teach men crops up all the time for women, and it's rarely as cute as a silly comedy video: When a man demands that you stop on the street to entertain his proposal of going back to his place and then follows you for blocks because you pretended not to hear him. When a rape victim is told that if she didn't want to have sex, she shouldn't have gone to the rapist's hotel room. When a woman files for a restraining order because she's afraid her abusive husband means it when he says that if he can't have her, no one can.
For Ms. Upton, as Marcotte notes in the prior paragraph, the entire situation was more than awkward; being a celebrity she was trapped in a situation with no good end-game.
Davidson's prom video put Upton in a no-win situation. Say yes, and you have to go through with this prom date that will probably be one of the most awkward and embarrassing nights of your life, where you have to socialize with teenagers while being paraded around like a show pony. Laugh at the obvious ridiculousness of this entire situation, and now you're a big old meanie-head. But what Upton chose to do, which is to let him down easy while pretending to be flattered, isn't really much better. Everyone knows she's just saying that. The lesson learned: You may be a rich and famous model, but any random man can, just by making a video, force you to do a little song and dance about how delightful his attentions are.
These things are neither remarkable nor even controversial.  "Don't be creepy," is a rule far too many young men don't learn.  Part of male privilege is assuming it's OK to act creepy because it isn't creepy to men.  This is made worse in a celebrity-mad society in which women, particularly models, are characters rather than people; characters who have to play certain roles including "being nice to not-famous people who can be kind of creepy".

Alas, these rather mundane observations - mundane, yet still important to make - are too much for some on the Perpetually Aggrieved Right.  For some reason, Marcotte's noting that a creepy act is creepy, and an example - yet again - of men believing they have the perpetual right to a woman's attention just because he noticed her is, in this case, wrong-wrong-wrong.  Why?

Like everything else on the right, the answer is the same: Because I say so.

It is with a sad shake of the head that I realize how much further we still have to go.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Gay Marriage: Some Pastoral Thoughts

There are currently nine states that have legalized same-sex marriage.  Illinois is poised to be the tenth (if the lower chamber of the State legislature can get its act together).

What is a United Methodist pastor to say to a same-sex couple who happen to be members of a congregation?  "Sorry, but you'll have to go to an Episcopalian, UCC, Unitarian, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church"?

We either face up to the fact that we will, for all practical purposes, practice discrimination and admit it and announce it; or, we practice penance toward our members who are sexual minorities, and humbly offer them space and blessing for their wedding vows.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Rape Again? Really?

For some reason, a certain kind of right-winger just can't get enough mileage talking about rape.
Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I've read, was not even aware that she'd been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?
After adding some thoughts and clarifications, he edits his "thought experiment" to clarify the issue(s) involved:
Some commenters have suggested that Question 3, unlike Questions 1 and 2, involves a violation of property rights. T his seems entirely wrong to me; in each case, there is a disputed property right - a dispute over who controls my computer, a dispute over who controls the wilderness, a dispute about who controls my body. To appeal to a "respect f or property rights" solves nothing, since in each case the entire dispute is about what the property rights should be in the first place. 
Not only does he attempt to compare our reactions to pornography to our reactions to the discovery we have been raped; he then insists the whole matter boils down to "property rights".

Another point of clarification reads:
I'm having trouble articulating any good reason why Question 3 is substantially different from Questions 1 and 2. As long as I'm safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits? And if the thought of those benefits makes me shudder, why should my shuddering be accorded any more public policy weight than Bob's or Granola's? We're still talking about strictly psychic harm, right?
If a person is having trouble articulating why outrage over pornography and outrage over environmental destruction are substantially different from rape, I think there are more issues than bad analogies afoot.  The second sentence, with its ending phrase "reap the benefits", certainly offers a view of moral choice that raises more than a few red flags.

Why would anyone believe it acceptable to use a rape victim as an example in a thought experiment?  Are people like this so atrophied in their moral faculties that it doesn't occur to them this is yet another violation?  What the hell is wrong with these people?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Concern Trolling: An Adventure In Real Life Parenting

Just about midnight Sunday, our older daughter returned from a 10-day trip to the Caribbean.  About a year and a half ago, Moriah's life-long friend and this friend's family invited Moriah to be a part of her friend's "Sweet Sixteen" present: A Caribbean Cruise.  The only cost for us were the passport (they were stopping in the Bahamas) and the airfare to Ft. Lauderdale.  After a red-eye from O'Hare and a couple days lounging around a hotel pool, Moriah and her friend spent a week aboard this ship:
Not too shabby for a 15 year-old, right?

To say that we sent her along on this trip without a care in the world would be ludicrous.  Dad, in particular, had a bit of a freakout moment her last morning with us.  I think it was the relentless stories about the Steubenville rape case, but I had a sit-down with her about safety and etiquette that, once done, made me feel better.  The best part of that whole encounter was, for the first time in a long time, I told Moriah something and she didn't roll her eyes and sigh, "I know that, Dad."  Because she didn't know that, and was wise enough to hear what the old man had to say.

We were very happy to let Moriah go on this trip.  I, for one, said over and over that this was the opportunity of a lifetime.  What a joy to help her experience something like this.

Alas, there are always those who believe it necessary to point out that giving children opportunities to experience new and exciting things is bad parenting.  And they aren't afraid to let you know.

For all those folks who wondered aloud how on earth is was possible we let our child, our baby, out of our sight and out of our country without being attached to us at all times, all I can say is this.

Mind your own goddamn business.

Listening to the folks who real-life concern trolled me, I thought, "Don't you have your own lives to screw up?"  I was asked several times if I thought about possible scenarios that ended with Moriah's rotting corpse turning up months from now in a shallow grave in some Caribbean paradise.  The truth of the matter is, of course I did.  Because I'm a parent.

Moriah isn't a baby.  While she has yet to learn how to turn off the television when she leaves the room, by and large she is far more sensible and responsible than many 15 year olds; certainly more than I was.  She is a fifteen year old, not a baby, not even a child.  As an adolescent, she is in the mid-way period of life.

One person asked me, "How could you let her do this?"  I responded, "How could I not let her do this?"  I'm so happy for her, and looking at the pictures she took and hearing her talk, I am even more happy because she worked very hard to see and experience pretty much everything she could.  She appreciated the entire time, knowing it was special.

The world is a dangerous place, to be sure.  Which is why you teach your kids how to be safe, to think and use some common sense; and then you open the door and out they go, and you keep your fingers crossed and you pray and in the end you know none of that guarantees they'll walk back through the door.

You can't keep that door closed very long, though.

We let Moriah go because we are her parents and we love her and want her to do things and see things even though it's a big, scary, dangerous world out there.  Anyone who thinks otherwise really should pay attention to their own children.

The Best Yet

The head of the Republican Party in Georgia is so precious:
Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party, told the Marietta Daily Journal in a story published Saturday that once gay nuptials are legally permitted, there will be nothing to stop a straight person from exploiting the system in order to claim marital benefits.
“You may be as straight as an arrow, and you may have a friend that is as straight as an arrow,” Everhart said. “Say you had a great job with the government where you had this wonderful health plan. I mean, what would prohibit you from saying that you’re gay, and y’all get married and still live as separate, but you get all the benefits? I just see so much abuse in this it’s unreal. I believe a husband and a wife should be a man and a woman, the benefits should be for a man and a woman. There is no way that this is about equality. To me, it’s all about a free ride.” 
As an argument against marriage having any legal benefits over single-living, this is perfect.  As an argument against marriage equality, we have an example of EPIC FAIL.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Side-Note To The Easter Event

[T]he resurrection of Jesus radically ruptures the natural order of the universe. Everyone dies and dead people stay dead – what is more certain than that? But this provocative Galilean rabbi – he dies alright, but he doesn’t stay dead. Here, in a graveyard in Jerusalem, the world breaks open – and its reordering begins. - Kim Fabricius 
I have written many times that there are several words with which I would do away had I that kind of power.  One of them is "nature" and its adjectival form, "natural".  Like the other words I'd discard, they are too often used thoughtlessly, as if both speaker/reader and hearer/reader knew exactly what the words mean.

As Christians, it is usually a good idea to start thinking all sorts of things from the point of the resurrection.  Doing that, we realize that our usual, casual understanding of what constitutes "nature" and "natural" becomes, like the rest of the creation, crucified with Christ and, as Fabricius says further down the sermon quoted above, unrecognizable precisely because it is the new creation, unrecognizable for who and what it is.   As such, talking about "nature" as if it were a thing unaffected by the death and resurrection of Jesus is, as with so much of our talk without reference to this central point of all creation, is just jabber, meaningless babble that leaves us wondering what, exactly, anyone's talking about.

In Revelation, the Lamb sits on the throne and says, "Behold, I make all things new."  That means all things.  The usual order of our experience, the round of days and nights, the cycle of seasons and years, the coming in to being and passing away of things both living and inanimate; all these will disappear as death, the final enemy, is destroyed and all creation, made new, gives praise to God in Christ through the Spirit who gives us new life, eternal life.

Oh, and I would highly recommend reading the whole sermon Fabricius printed.  It is, as a really good Easter sermon should be, shocking and, like the resurrection itself, overturning of all our expectations.

Happy Easter, all.

And He Shall Reign Forever And Ever

When first composed in 1741, George Frideric Handel's The Messiah was intended as an Easter oratorio.  It debuted in Dublin in April that year, then in London the next spring.  Somehow through two and a half centuries, it has morphed in to Christmas music.  Looking at the text and plan of the whole composition, it's clear enough, however, that Part I, dealing with the Old Testament prophetic declarations of the coming Messiah had their fulfillment in Part II, which concerns itself with the Passion.  The third part celebrates the resurrection of the dead and the final consummation of the covenant in the New Creation.

With its grand and glorious praise for the risen Christ (not the newborn Christ; that's dealt with, if at all, in Part I), the finale for Part II is, perhaps, the one piece of classical choral music that is recognizable by people who know nothing about Easter or choral music.  The "Hallelujah", in which the chorus declares praise for the risen Lord, and proclaims the Good News that "He shall reign forever and ever", sets up what is to come, the declaration of the promise that this reign, inaugurated in the resurrection of the Son of God, is for all of us.

On this Easter Sunday, let us all with one voice declare, "Hallelujah!  Christ is risen, indeed!"

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