Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Warning: News headlines cause cancer

Earlier this week, according to numerous news headlines, the World Health Organization declared bacon just as carcinogenic as cigarettes and asbestos. "Red alert for meat eaters: WHO study finds hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer," declared the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. The Telegraph proclaimed "Processed meat ranks alongside smoking as major cause of cancer, World Health Organisation says." The New York Post ran the story under the headline "OMG! Bacon causes cancer"; in related news, whoever wrote that headline should be arrested. Partisan sites weighed in with their own spin, with Fox News reporting "Meat producers blast WHO report linking processed meat and cancer" and PETA titling their story "Bacon-Wrapped Cancer."
Problem is, none of those headlines are an accurate reflection of the WHO study.
Here's the problem with scientific journal articles - hardly anybody actually reads them. What we read is some journalist's attempt to make the story more palatable to the general public. Most people don't realize that by the time the scientific study reaches our eyeballs, it has usually been shunted through a long and complex game of telephone.
The Skeptics with a K podcast did a story back in June explaining how it is that science headlines manage to get things so terribly wrong. The team explained that after a journal publishes an article, a press release is issued discussing the salient points. The press release is likely written by someone who didn't actually participate in the study, so that's step one in the telephone game. The press release ends up on the desk of a reporter, who probably does not read the actual journal article, and may or may not understand the science discussed in the press release. That reporter churns out a story, and that's step 2 of the telephone game. So it turns out that reporters usually don't write their own headlines, that's generally done later by a headline writer. The headline writer skims the article, which they may or may not understand, and gives it a headline, step 3 of the telephone game. Once the story is released into the wild, websites pick it up, often replacing the headline with a more sensational headline, designed to attract as many clicks as possible, telephone game step 4. Then of course there are the pundits and editorialists and bloggers who twist the data to serve their own ends, and the actual message ends up looking nothing like the one we started with.
So a few days ago, the journal Lancet Oncology published Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat by a group of scientists acting on behalf of the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Yawning yet? It gets yawnier. Those scientists performed a metadata analysis on all recent studies regarding the link between red and processed meats and cancer. They found that the majority of reliable studies show that people who eat a lot of processed meat have a slightly (but statistically significantly) greater risk of contracting some types of cancer. So they concluded, "On the basis of the large amount of data and the consistent associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat across studies in different populations, which make chance, bias, and confounding unlikely as explanations, a majority of the Working Group concluded that there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meat."
The WHO did not say that bacon is as bad as smoking - that misconception comes from the fact that the WHO labeled processed meats a Group 1 carcinogen. Group 1 does include cigarettes and asbestos, but it also includes sawdust, the sun, and alcoholic beverages. To be in Group 1, research must show significant evidence that the agent causes cancer; Group 1 doesn't care about the degree of carcinogenicity or the amount of the agent that the subject must be exposed to. The article doesn't make any of the outlandish claims that the headlines alluded to - in fact, the group clarified that "the latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer."
It worries me that newspaper headlines can make us more, rather than less, ignorant.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Revisionist Taxonomy

A couple of months ago, a Reddit user started a board challenging people to give animals more descriptive names. Some of the replies:

Jeremy and I came up with a few of our own.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Whenever there's a mass shooting, people who support gun rights start lining up around the block to call for better mental health care. They're implying, quite disingenuously, that people with mental illness are responsible for most killing sprees. It's a lie and they know it's a lie. Watch John Oliver tear the lie apart far better than I ever could.
In fact, so many intelligent people are finally sticking up for people with mental illness, that those who want to vilify us have had to take a different tack. Instead of blaming people with mental illness, they're blaming people with mental illness who dare to seek treatment. 
There have always been rumors claiming that SSRI medication can cause violent psychotic episodes. However, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, the conspiracy theorists doubled down.
In April of 2013, gun rights advocate Dan Roberts published a screed titled "Every Mass Shooting Shares One Thing In Common and; It's NOT Weapons"* on the medically reputable site In it, Roberts (not a doctor, scientist, or anything of the sort) gives a bunch of examples of people going off SSRIs and onto murder sprees - evidence that might actually mean anything if he gave any sources at all. Other websites give similarly weak anecdotes but no scientifically credible data as to the danger of SSRI drugs.
What the conspiracy theorists don't understand is that their false information does real harm to people like me. It's a low blow to a group of people who have already been kicked below the belt far more times than we deserve. 
Every time someone makes one of these false claims, people with mental illness get a little bit more stigmatized, and we're stigmatized more than enough already. And you know what else? SSRI drugs can be problematic for people prone to mania, a very important fact that you can't find by doing a Google search for SSRI side effects because there are so many websites dedicated to giving false information about SSRI drugs that the true risks of SSRI drugs are hidden.
Every time someone repeats an unsupported claim about SSRI drugs causing violence, they're reinforcing the notion that people with mental illness are dangerous, and we're vilified plenty enough already. And you know what else? SSRI drugs can have an adverse effect on fetal cognitive development, but severe depression in mom is also bad for fetal development. Moms with severe depression have to weigh the risks and benefits of SSRI drugs very carefully, something that's really hard to do when every website they visit screams what horrible monsters they are for even considering exposing their babies to such poisons.  
Every time someone online makes an irresponsibly hyperbolic claim, people like me get a little bit more terrified to seek the help we need, and having a mental illness is terrifying enough already.
Conspiracy theorists can sit in their basements and feel smug and superior and it doesn't cost them a god damn thing. It costs people like me.
Look. SSRI drugs do have side effects, and some of them are very serious. This is true of every drug. It is very important to weigh the risks of any drug against the possible benefits. But right now if I do a Google search for "SSRI Risks," the actual research is going to be nearly impossible to find because it is buried under pages and pages and pages of unsubstantiated conjecture from people who aren't doctors and aren't scientists and don't have any expertise and have no reason to weigh in other than the desire to feel superior.
Some of us need these medicines just as surely as a diabetic needs insulin, as urgently as a cancer patient needs chemo. There's not a person with mental illness who doesn't wish they didn't have to take pills just to function. You look at the risks of taking the drugs and weigh them against the risks of living without them, and you talk to experts and you do what is best for you. That's hard to do when people are shoving misinformation down your throat for no good reason.
I'm not sure why people with no skin in the game and no idea what they're talking about think I should consider their opinion when deciding what is best for me. Don't they know these drugs are a matter of life and death for some of us? Don't they know that when they spout off their nonsense opinions, it makes it that much harder for people living with mental illness to find actual information about our treatment? Mental illness is god damn hard enough already.

Who the hell do they think they are?

* Actually, they kind of, by definition, have "weapons" in common.

By the way, if you want actual information without the fear mongering, check out - you can read the actual studies behind the headlines.

Monday, October 19, 2015

You Suck

In England and Ireland, people don't vacuum with a vacuum cleaner, they Hoover with a Hoover, whether that Hoover is a Dyson or a Bissell or a Shark. 
It just occurred to me that this is really weird. I live in Canton, Ohio, birthplace and headquarters of the Hoover Company, and we do not Hoover with Hoovers. We don't even vacuum with a vacuum cleaner; here in Canton we sweep with a sweeper.
The first device to be called a vacuum cleaner was invented by a Herbert Cecil Booth around 1901, though it ran on an internal combustion engine and had to be pulled along on a horse-drawn carriage. Legend has it that when booth first got the idea for using suction to remove dust, he tested the idea by placing a napkin on a restaurant seat, putting his mouth up to the napkin, and sucking. Which is probably the grossest way he could have tested this ever. If he was at a restaurant, one assumes there were tables, which are a lot less likely to play host to people's butts than chairs. And why exactly wouldn't he use a clean table and cover it with, say, cookie crumbs, rather than sucking years old bits of food and dirt off a chair in a public place? Herbert Cecil Booth: good at inventing things, bad at testing them.
The first portable electric vacuum cleaner started its life as a Bissel carpet sweeper. A carpet sweeper is one of those mechanical do dads that restaurants use when they want to fail to pick up crumbs without disturbing guests. In 1908, a janitor named James Murray Spangler got tired of failing to pick up crumbs, so he tweaked it - adding a soap box, a fan, a broom handle, and a pillow case. He sold his patent for the device - then called the Electric Suction Sweeper - to a leather goods maker named W.H. "Boss" Hoover. Thus the Hoover Company was born.
Still doesn't explain why Brits call it a hoover while Cantonites call it a sweeper.

Living In Sin
Adrienne Rich

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own--
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I will please

And now for some fun facts about the placebo effect. Placebo is the Latin word for I will please, and it refers to an inert substance that has medical benefit nonetheless. Before it was that, it was the "name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, 'I will please the Lord in the land of the living' (Psalm cxiv:9)," according to Because the people who carried out the rite were paid to do so, they were often considered insincere, and so it came to be that people associated the word with phoniness. 
I think a lot of people see the placebo effect as a trick for the gullible. Maybe, some folks think, if the placebo effect works on you, you weren't actually sick or in pain to begin with - you just thought you were.
But actually, the placebo effect can impact anyone - regardless of their intelligence or general level of gullibility. Placebos work on about a third of the people who try them, give or take. And in recent years, scientists have found that the placebo effect doesn't just effect a patient's perception of their own symptoms.
A couple of years back, Harvard opened a Placebo Studies institute, which I like to believe is a school where half of students aren't actually learning anything, about one third of whom will think they actually did learn something. Anyway, the institute has made some startling discoveries. When they gave Parkinson's patients a placebo injection, not only did the patients feel better, they actually produced more of the dopamine that the disease destroys. Placebos change brain chemistry. They change vital signs. 
They even work when patients know they're getting them. A few years back, researchers gave IBS sufferers a placebo - and told them they were getting a placebo. Despite this, patients on the placebo showed greater improvement, both in objective and subjective assessments than did patients who took nothing at all. 
Of course, placebos work better when a patient doesn't know they're getting placebo. The more a person believes the placebo will work, the more likely it is to do so. And the type of placebo matters too.
Red placebos make patients feel jittery. Blue placebos make them sleepy. Capsules are better than tablets. Two pills are better than one. Placebos disguised as brand name products work better than generic placebos. Placebos work better the more the subject thinks they cost. Placebos even work better if the person who provides them is wearing a lab coat.
In general, less pleasant placebos fare better. Injections work better than pills, electric stimulation better than injections, sham surgery (which is horrifyingly a thing) works best of all. Placebos that have unpleasant side-effects (or those that come with a warning of unpleasant side effects) work better as well. 
All of this raises some interesting ethical questions. Would it be ethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo if a proper medical treatment wasn't available? Are homeopathy and other complete shams okay if they can make people feel better? (No. More on that in a future post). If a placebo has real medicinal value, can it really be called a placebo?

Info from The Placebo Effect on and The Power of Nothing by Michael Specter, in The New Yorker.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

No body's business

It's like a game of tennis. Vogue puts a size 8 model on its cover, and commentators declare it the fashion apocalypse.

Some nobody posts a childish rant about fat people on YouTube, and big girls take to social media to show off just how gorgeous curves can be.
But fat people are so unhealthy.
One really important fact gets ignored in all of this give and take. Our bodies are ours. We don't have to defend them or prove them worthy of existing. Our bodies aren't there for other people to judge. And we have the right to opt out of the game.
No girl should starve herself because some online bully called her disgusting. No man should judge his worth by what a fashion designer thinks his body should be. 
Look, like it or not, our bodies are ours. All our lives, other people have tried to tell us how our bodies should be - what size they should be, what clothes we should put on them, which flaws we should be ashamed of now.
Nobody should have to bargain for the right to live in his body. No one should have to prove her body's worthy of existing. Nobody has to beg for the right to live in their own skin.
The truth is that our bodies are not up for a vote. Our bodies aren't for other people to pass judgement on.  
I believe this with all my heart, and yet honestly, sometimes I feel a little sick when I look in the mirror. We don't need to be told what other people think of our bodies, we've heard the message loud and clear. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It is most definitely about the money

Yesterday, Business Insider ran the story "I took the challenge where I could spend only $125 on food last month — and it was easy" by Cameron Merriman.
This is exactly what bothered me when this whole "Poverty as a Science Fair Project" nonsense began. Merriman's right - most of the celebs and other people who tried to play the poverty game lost, not because $125 is not enough money, but because they played the game poorly. If you're smart enough and frugal enough, you can live on a lot less money than you think. As long as a whole lot of other stars align.
See, Cameron Merriman lives in San Francisco, where nutritious food is more expensive than the national average, but also much more accessible. Merriman would have had a much harder time if he was one of the 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts. A food desert is a low-income area where there are no grocery stores within a mile (or within 10 miles, in rural areas where car ownership is more common). People who live in these areas and who do not have a way to get out of these areas often shop at corner stores and gas stations, where the food tends to be low-quality, unhealthy, and very, very overpriced. Merriman's purchases included fresh produce, organic chicken, eggs, pancetta, and a lot of other food that one could probably not purchase at a corner store or gas station.
Low-income areas with limited access to grocery stores - USDA
Even when there is a grocery store nearby, it's not likely to be Whole Foods. At Whole Foods, you can buy a single egg. At Save-A-Lot, you've got to buy a dozen. Merriman bought bulk foods, including oatmeal. Many stores in poorer neighborhoods don't have bulk food or weighed produce. You want bananas - you've got to buy a dozen. The prices are good, but you're likely to have to buy more than you can eat.
I also wonder how Merriman got himself to the grocery store. I suspect it had something to do with a Prius. But let's say he took public transit. That puts him at an advantage over the nation's millions of rural poor who don't have access to public transit.
As for public transit - I see seven receipts, so that's seven trips to pay for. Without money to pay for seven round-trip bus rides, we're right back at the price-gouging corner store.
Merriman also takes quite a bit for granted. For one, he has a home - people living on the streets can pretty much only purchase food for a day at a time - no bulk food, nothing perishable. 
Merriman has electricity and running water - many don't. He has working appliances - a fridge, a microwave, a stove, a crock pot. Sure, most apartments come with some of those appliances, but that doesn't mean landlords are willing to keep those appliances working. Limited access to appliances means more prepared foods, which cost more money and are less nutritious. He's got pots, pans, plates.
Merriman doesn't appear to have serious food allergies to worry about. He doesn't appear to have health concerns that require a special diet. He doesn't have any of the myriad extenuating circumstances that people in poverty so often do.
But actually, I didn't really need to tell you any of this. Everything you need to know about Cameron Merriman can be summed up by his position on free food. Merriman says that people in poverty must have, "coworkers, friends, and family who are willing to help out a little." He has no idea that there are people who are alone in the world. He has no idea what it is like when everyone you know and love is just as bad off as you.
And he talks at length about all the free food that apparently flows like water in his city. He thinks that the fact that because men who look and dress and live like he does get free food, everybody gets free food.
Let them eat cake.
Langston Hughes
Advertisement For The Waldorf Astoria - Langston Hughes
Funnily enough, while he's dead wrong when he glibly says "It's about mindset, not money," he wouldn't be wrong to say it's not just about the money. I do believe that food assistance should come with money management resources. When I worked at an adult group home, I had the hardest time getting folks to understand concepts like cost per ounce and buying in larger amounts to save money. We need better schools and better neighborhoods and less crime. You could give people a thousand dollars in SNAP benefits and it wouldn't come close to solving the problem.
But poverty is not a game to be won. It is not a puzzle to be solved. We don't get to say "Well, I was able to eat on the cheap for one month of my life. Case closed."