Friday, May 3, 2013

Parity of prosthetized athletes

The case of Oscar Pistorius is one that sets a new and interesting precedent for the Olympics, and for the world in general. Not the case of murder, but the case of a disabled athlete running in competition – and coming out victorious – against able bodied athletes at the top of the world. The 2012 London Games could usher in a new era in the Olympics, and the world… or they could usher in an entirely new division in the way the world views “humanity.”  
Pistorius’ prosthetics were at first counted against him in the same category as performance enhancers, with fair scientific reasoning behind it. His carbon fiber and titanium Cheetah’s weigh less than half of what an able bodied runner’s lower leg weighs, which allows him to swing his leg an average of .11 seconds faster than any sprinter with flesh and blood legs. However, there are a number of downsides that mitigate the speed he can manage in a straight line – he cannot run well in wet weather, he can’t stop well, and it takes him more time than most of his competitors to speed up or slow down. (Eveleth)
Pistorius – a man who has no leg bones below the knee, holds the current record for his current event, proving that people who are defined as “disabled” by much of the world can in fact match and outdo able bodied people at the top of their abilities. Whats especially interesting, is that if you compare Oscar Pistorius to the definitions of “disability” within the Americans with Disabilities Act – “whether an impairment substantially impairs a major life activity”, (US Legislative Dept.) defining a “major life activity as including, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, and working.” He can breathe, work, perform manual tasks, and for all intents and purposes, so long as he has his prosthetics, is able bodied. In his own words in an interview, Pistorius said that he “is not disabled by his disability, but able by his abilities.” (Complete News North2South).
            This is great for Pistorius and others like him – Such as the dozens of other Paralympic runners with prosthetic limbs. In a sense, their prostheses can be called performance enhancers – they quite literally enhance someone without the ability to walk, much less run – and they don’t only enhance physical performance. For someone born with a birth defect, or disabled by an accident, the confidence and spiritual enhancement that can come of that functionality being restored can be a massive impetus for them. From an interview with another paralympian and celebrity, Aimee Mullins, “it’s not in spite of or despite their conditions” that makes them push as hard or harder as the able bodied to be extraordinary because of it. (Thnkr) She was born with the same condition as Pistorius, the fibulae of her legs missing, and working against able bodied peers and competitors, became a celebrity icon, doing everything from fashion modeling to continuing to run competitively.
            The original ruling barring Pistorius from competing was one placed by the IAAF – International Association of Athletics Federations, on the grounds that his blades gave him a mechanical advantage and was overturned by the CAS – The Court of Arbitration for Sport – which is the highest tribunal of world sports in an appeal by Pistorius. The possibility of  The secondary ramifications if such a ruling had been allowed to stand could have been destructive, and might well have given a precedent necessary to allow the declaration that people with prostheses or missing body parts were no longer entirely human, and so would be disqualified from participation in the Olympics, from potentially being classified with the rest of us. It makes sense to separate athletes based upon able bodied and disabled to a degree – it keeps things on a level playing field, and ensures that there is no hint of a decision being handed some ones way out of pity.
But when the line in ability becomes one of parity in skill, we shouldn’t be trying to ensure an athlete who can compete at Olympic levels isn’t allowed to – if such a ban stands, then we would likely end up with an Olympics for people “enhanced” beyond their natural abilities by modern technology or bionic upgrades, and an Olympics for un augmented people, who cannot compete on an equal level with the augmented humans. Create a precedent for barring someone once, and eventually it will be used to show why someone should not be able to participate in other activities – its rare that a ban or a prejudice start in a single giant leap, far more often it’s a slippery slope of things that make logical sense.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Visual Advocacy and Prosthetic Parity

Play this before reading

 Imagine that you are an Olympic level athlete. That you are among the fastest, the strongest people in the entire world. You glory in the competition, exalt in that ability. Now imagine that that has been taken away from you, in a single, fell swoop. An accident beyond your control, a disease, maybe even a terrorist attack has taken something from you, stolen that ability from you. Maybe you’ve lost your arm, your leg, your sight. But we’ve advanced medical technology to a point that’s approaching science fiction rather than science writing. That loss can be corrected, you can be given back your sight, your ability to walk, the use of a hand. You’ve made your painstaking way through months or years of physical therapy to get used to it. You’ve rewritten everything in your life, everything you do, every action in such a way that despite a new and differently functioning limb, you can do anything anyone else can. You’ve even managed to claw your way back up through the Olympic Trials to reach the plateau your competitors stand on; only to be told that “We’re sorry, but you cannot compete.” But Why? You can swim faster, run farther, cycle around anyone else on the planet while playing ping pong. You could shoot a fly out of the air, and still hit the bullseye in doing so. “You cannot compete, because the Olympic Games are a competition of the best and strongest humans on the planet… and you are no longer completely human,” by  their definition.
The Olympic committee has begun to apparently consider a policy of disallowing athletes who are not able bodied to compete in the regular Olympic games. Arguments have been volleyed from the Olympic stadium to the halls of discussion about Pistorius’ fitness to compete; not because he cannot compete on an even level with the able bodied runners, but because he competes at a higher level than they can. The issue is that his prosthetic limbs are lighter than the lower leg of an able bodied runner, and give him a marked advantage in the speed that he can run because of this. Thus far, this is being considered as a policy issue to ensure that the athletes don’t hit a point where the newest and greatest method of performance enhancement is to have limbs purposely replaced with bionic enhancements. This implies that those limbs or enhancements would put them on a level that an un-augmented human could not match, and creates a distinction that frankly comes down to whether or not the person in question is in fact fully human anymore.
We cannot allow something like that to happen. People will always attempt to better themselves, and to enhance their performance in any area – drugs, exercises, diets, and bionic enhancements or replacements, necessary or not are frankly the next step in the cycle. Its by no means surprising that people would do something of that nature, either to attempt to improve themselves for their sport, or simply because they think its cool. An attempt to define what “humanity” entails is something that can only lead to problems down the road, and not only in a science fiction sense. It would likely lead to some sort of division between human and enhanced, cyborg, or whatever name would appear to evoke the same intent, which would lead to friction and legal difficulties, and eventually, knowing human nature, open revolt from one side and eventual war. Remember the proof of it that’s happened in the history of not just the US, but the entire world – slaves were thought of as less than human in several cultures; the US worst of all. And eventually, that definition of someone as less than human led to revolt and open rebellion, followed by civil war as people came down on different sides of the issue.
The problem is, there’s already something of a divide between the able bodied and the disabled – much of the time, there is a huge difference in treatment between disabled people and able bodied, not just in the Olympics, but in society, hospitality, and even insurance. The necessity of having handicap accessible restrooms and entrances is one thing. That ensures that we all are on the same level, and keeps everyone that way. But the definition of disability is one that, especially in the legal definition in the US, doesn’t necessarily apply to some people with prosthetic replacements – Oscar Pistorius, for example, by the Americans with Disabilities Act, would essentially be considered able bodied. If this divide becomes one that enters law and national policy, they we could be looking at a new classification of “able bodied”, as enhanced becomes an option. If there becomes a new class, someone is going to take that as proof that they are above or below the rest of us with “natural” bodies, likely on both sides. What we all need to remember is that whatever parts may be missing or may have been added, we are all humans. Its not a matter of altered, able bodied, enabled or disabled. We all need to remember that whatever changes may come, people are people. We cannot throw that humanity away, or assume that it has been thrown away by others to fit them into our view of things. Consider the number of scandals that have come to light of Olympic athletes on performance enhancing substances or methods – they’re still considered human, even though some of what they’ve done to themselves may cause more permanent changes than the removal of a limb would, especially with a bionic replacement or enhancement. If they’re still human after all that, then a man whose legs have been replaced with plastic must be as well.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Blog #10

For this week’s blog post, I’d like you to reflect on the following Huffington Post article.  The article was just posted yesterday – so it’s brand new.  We’ve discussed vaccines and autism...and now this.  Reflect any way you see fit – from a science journalism perspective, ethics viewpoint, public health vantage point, or otherwise.

From every perspective, this article makes very little sense. Theres no evidence whatsoever supporting Vanoli's viewpoint that vaccinations cause homosexuality, or any changes in the brain chemistry. At the very least, there were studies done on the connection between autism and vaccines. Vanoli might be simply making unfounded conclusions based off of that data, though. There is no real science in this article, as far as I can tell - I see no mention of any experiments performed by Vanoli, or of any experiments he references. Its not a national awareness piece, because its the Huffington post rather than an Italian site or an Italian newspaper. There isnt an expectation of legal or policy reform, and its frankly not even campigning for same sex marriages. It simply seems to be stating that this nutball is out there, spouting unfounded and groundless ideas about how vaccines affect the soul and the mind, and homosexuality is a disease, rather than a simple fact of life. I honestly dont know how to respond to this piece, because there really isnt anything to attempt to respond to. There seems to be no problem in journalistic ethics, because its a simple statement that "this man says this". The only real problem I can see with it is in calling it "science writing"; its written about a scientist, for given values of "scientist". As it is its simply a factual notation that this man has said this in Italy, and coincidentally mentions that there are some serious difficults for the gay rights agenda in Italy. But so little detail is gone into on the issues mentioned in the last few lines, that its a bare mention rather than an attempt at advocacy of any sort. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Blog prompt #9

Several times in class we’ve discussed the issues of fairness and balance as they relate to science journalism.  Interestingly, the catch phrase of Fox News is “fair and balanced.”  However, a recent study (click here for a summary) suggests that exclusive Fox News viewers know less about certain issues than those who watch only CNN or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”  In fact, people who watched no news outperformed those who watched Fox News.  Does this mean that “fairness and balance” leads to a misinformed audience OR that Fox News viewers are less informed than others because their source of information is not “fair and balanced” but rather has different goals OR might it mean something entirely different?  How might the goals of a media outlet affect their audience’s knowledge?

First off, there is a paramount, obvious problem with the idea that those who don't watch fox news being better informed than those who do. Those people who dont specifically "watch" any news are most likely people who get the majority of their information about the news and current happenings in the world from the internet. Fox news is a news network, which has the inherent problem that they physically cannot cover everything that happens in the world in the span of 24 hours that they have to broadcast. Especially because once you consider actual broadcast time, they have on the order of 2-3 hours in a given day to be able to broadcast everything that happens. They can fit five to six major stories into the hour they have, maybe four or five more minor events or stories. They have other programs on at any given time than the news. Sometimes something especially pertinent or newsworthy will break and overshadow everything else, but usually not. The internet, on the other hand, has millions of people posting on events at any given time as well as ALL of the major news networks running their own sites, blogs, stringers, clips, and the like. And thats not even including all that ends up on youtube, video sites, and other miscellaneous places. 

Fox may be Fair and Balanced in what they do end up reporting, but they simply dont have time to cover everything. So even if they do cover things in a balanced light, the things they cover are more likely to be ones that follow and forward their ends, goals, and ideals. Mostly, people being less informed than those who dont watch the news at all is a symptom of people attempting to get all their information from a single source, when theres too much going on for a single source to adequately report. The goals of the media outlet affect what they actually present, which in turn affects the audiences knowledge especially. If the outlet decides not to report on something, or simply not to report everything about it, then everything they know is compromised. People with different sources of news have completely different frames of reference, because two different networks arent going to phrase things exactly the same, and are going to give different emphases for their viewers to take in. Its not a matter of unbalanced or unfair, its a matter of time available versus content happening.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blog prompt #8

To get at the question of “balance” that Dean Winegar posed to the class yesterday, I’d like to return to the Chris Mooney piece we read in the second week of class (  As you’ll recall, it covers the decline of the newspaper, media conglomeration, and the development of new media, among other things.  In this article, Mooney also brings up what he believes to be one of the huge failings of the current state of science reporting in the media.  He says:  “Then there's the problem of "balance"--the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different "sides" of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming "skeptics" and scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon's human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community's very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking "balance".

Reflect on Mooney’s quote for this week’s blog post.  Is Mooney right?  Or is “balance” always something to strive for in science journalism?

It is our responsibility as science writers to inform the readers, one way or another. Our perspective and the track which we decide to take in the long run is, one way or another, going to reflect our truthiness on the subject, which means that if there are two sides of an issue, we are going to already be aligned with one of them. But that doesnt mean that we can simply ignore the existence of one side and one school of thought entirely. We cannot waffle and simply give equal space to two sides of an issue, unless we are inherently uncertain and ourselves conflicted on the truth of one side or the other. We may even think that both sides are right. But all this combines to cement our responsibility to make the attempt to put both sides positions, and at least some of their information forward. 

Its been said in class a few times; "Its almost impossible to prove things with science, our only recourse is to dis prove things." Or something along those lines, anyway. In this, its a failing of liberal arts educations, where most journalists stem from - in liberal arts practice, especially in papers, we have to support our papers and construct them by showing, showing understanding of, and sometimes disproving the counterpoint to our own arguments. This is a good trait in a paper doing a critical analysis of a text or expounding a philosophical question. Less good when we are charged with writing a factual, informative article. 

So yes, I would say that it is our responsibility to show at least some balance, but not to the point of giving equal article space to both. Rather, we should make our argument and our intent clear, and, for example, with global warming and such, say "there are some who place the causes of global warming at different sources, as well as some who deny the existence of the phenomena." All that needs to be said on the topic, and it gets the point across. We do not need to be the scales of justice, perfectly weighting the heart of the issue against a feather. We simply need to let it be known that there is an opposing school of thought, and that they may eventually be able to prove something about their hypothesis, if they ever get so far as formulating one. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Blog Prompt #6

Blog Prompt #6

We often follow our gut when we make decisions.  When I was offered an assistant professor position at Ursinus in 2002, I accepted it over other offers because it felt right, in my gut.  Eleven years later: I love my job and I’m certain I did the right thing by following my gut (thank you, gut!).  You may have based your decision to come to Ursinus on the very same gut reaction. 

There are, however, other types of decisions where following your gut may not be the best mode of action.  Like those where science has something to say, such as:  Should I lease my land to Acme Gas for hydraulic fracturing?  Should I get a flu shot?  Should I eat less Cheetos?  Should I wash my hands before I eat Cheetos?  If I take green coffee bean supplements, can I eat more Cheetos?  Should I get more sleep?  Is it safe to eat genetically modified foods?  How about that apple juice in Wismer – should I worry about its arsenic levels?  Should I take my umbrella today as I walk over to Wismer?

In class yesterday, Dean Winegar introduced Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness.”  (If you missed class or need a refresher, watch this).  In this week’s blog post, discuss the extent to which you rely on truthiness to make decisions in your life in which science has something to say.  Then consider whether you, as a science writer, should base your stories solely on the truth (as far as you can tell), or whether it is acceptable/responsible/ethical to write in a manner that is merely truthy.  Why might science writers sometimes choose to tell the truthiness?  Consider how the substitution of truthiness for truth in the media might affect the sorts of decisions individuals, policy makers, and corporations make.  

Truthiness has its importance in what we do, unquestionably. Its sometimes the best way that we can make a decision; to take the road less traveled or to follow the pack, to attempt something new based on a gut feeling that its the right things to do. We all convey information in whatever way we believe to both get the information across the most clearly and to be as believable as we can - even this is an aspect of truthiness. And truthiness in writing can be a good thing; the things we are truthy about are the ones that we believe in the most strongly. But theres a very important, very small word in that sentence; can. Conviction that ones own views on something are right is one of the definitions of "truthiness"... and the majority of the groups that champion vaccine exacerbated autism are being truthy in their portrayal of the facts. And as opinion, thats alright... some of the time. If you're spouting off about the actual state or caused of disorders or diseases, then you should be certain that you at least have hard, conclusive data to support your position - and I stress position. Even if you have that supporting data, without secondary proof or secondary study, you have posed no more than a hypothesis.

So yes, as science writers and as writers in general we have the responsibility to ensure that our writing is not only "truthy" but supported by truth, data, and the american way. By which I mean it needs to have independent verification by a neutral source to be even counted as a theory, much less convincing "truth". We all make assumptions on science, or at least I know that I do. When we hear something that sounds improbable, or like theres no way that our knowledge of science can support it, the general response is either "bullshit" or "No way, that cant be true." We all have a tendency to apply our own truthiness to things, especially when they are things that we dont know a great deal about. It is acceptable to write in a truthy manner. It falls under ethical so long as you arent telling people that "this is the truth absolutely, I am the voice of all things scientific, I am Oz, the great and powerful!" or anything of the sort. So long as we science writers couch our writings with the reality "we are making a series of educated guesses based on what we know, the information that has been revealed to us, our own conclusions, and the work of scientists", then it is legally, ethically, and morally responsible to put forth our findings and our writings.

Thats not to say its easy to be absolutely truthful and straightforward, especially with an audience. If we couch things in pure data, people are going to get bored and not want to read it. That means we have to simplify and make things interesting. If we do that, then our writing is no longer entirely scientific or entirely true, necessarily, but we can only do the best we can. Its easier to keep a stable of readers with the truthiness than it is to keep them with the science, especially when sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This could affect any number of things as people who read our writings make decisions of policy, corporate direction, research, and even employment based on what we simplify, synthesize, and put forward for them to look at. If we keep things as close to the truth as possible, rather than as close to the truthiness, then we ensure that at the very least, those who make these decisions are well informed, and able to make these decisions based upon their own truthiness, and not a twisted version of truthi-falsehood that comes from twisting our chain of truthiness and assumptions into a mobius strip of information interpreted in different ways or assumptions based upon other assumptions. Truth is what we need to attempt to keep to - truthiness is all well and good, but in the end, like Jenny McCarthy, its all opinion.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Blog prompt 7

Describe your set of drawings and analyze the gender, age, facial expression, clothing, grooming, and physical characteristics of your scientists.  Pasted below are a few drawings from Seed magazine.  If your drawings are like these, then you probably have a bunch of older white males dressed in a lab coats with crazy hair.  But do these drawings really look like the scientists you know (consider your Ursinus professors in biology, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, psychology, etc.)?

In your blog post, consider whether your drawings reflect a certain stereotype about scientists, and why this stereotype not only might be bad for science but also might make your job as a science writer particularly difficult.  Finally, consider whether the general public’s mistrust in science we talked about a few weeks ago might not lie with science itself but rather with certain myths many of us have about scientists (e.g., “Scientists are not like us, so we shouldn’t trust them.” or “Scientists are dull, strange, and slightly inhuman; but that Jenny McCarthy – she is a mom who is caring and real.”)

In general, there are a number of substantial similarities that turn up when people are asked to draw or describe a scientist. The common factors are usually a white lab coat; messy, disheveled hair flying off in crazy directions, and glasses on a middle aged white male. That was the general subset of my results. Scientists can and do come from all backgrounds, cultures, walks of life and heritages, working at all ages and in every country. However, the majority of scientists in mainstream media are played by, portrayed by, or exemplified by males, generally middle aged white men. Edison, Einstein, and Tesla, are the three most famous non - fictional scientists of our age, and all of them can be described as... middle aged white men, with crazy, disheveled hair. But beyond the actual existences of well known scientists and inventors to not only rationalize, but proliferate the idea, in most fictional media, scientists, be they megalomaniacal geniuses hell bent on taking over the world, absent minded inventors who release a terror to plague the world, or valiant geniuses, creating technology on the level of Deus ex Machinae to save the day, all tend to have a few similarities in portrayal... most wear white lab coats. Many more have wild, disheveled hair, giving them the drawn out and expected scientist look. And one overriding factor tends to link them together; Nearly all of them are middle aged, white males. 

Media has a massive tendency to shape peoples expectations of professions and people, changing what we expect them to be and coloring our perceptions of what they actually are. Deep in our hearts, we expect scientists to be mad geniuses, laughing madly as lightning dances around them. We expect archaeologists to be whip wielding supermen, able to take on any foe and solve any problem dashingly. And because the reality pales, we stick to our illusions. This makes difficulties for both scientists and science writers, as the general populace tries to consider the work they are doing against a fictional matrix, expecting flying cars and hoverboards to be the reality that is created, rather than minor advances in improving efficiency of fuel cells, or oxygen production of algae. If we cant manage to make things that interesting, the public will be disappointed, less interested, and more likely to just drop the article and move on to the funny pages. That stereotype make people tend to disregard science, or brush it off as "just one of those things". And we as science writers, if we only assume that reliable or interesting scientific developments and information are going to come from middle aged white men in lab coats with crazy hair, then we cut out a sizeable portion of the scientists in the world, and for all we know could be taking scientific policy advice from a mental patient. 

Its entirely possible that our media fueled expectations that all scientists are Viktor Frankenstein style mad scientists shape our actual views on science as a whole, and perhaps even probable. But that shouldn't lead to a public perception of "scientists cannot be trusted because they aren't like us" or because they are "dull, strange, and slightly inhuman." There is no such thing as "normal" in this world - everyone is different and strange in their own ways. And at least to my point of view, its not scientists that cannot be trusted for the listed reasons, its celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. Scientists have far more in common with us regular people than celebrities out to "make a difference"... and gain themselves a great deal of publicity and public sympathy.