Friday, April 07, 2006

Junk Food Education

The April 7th Lawrence Journal-World story entitled “Bill aims to rid schools of junk food options” discusses the problems of junk food in our nation's schools and the recently introduced federal legislation intended to update the nutrition standards for all food sold/distributed in our public schools. However, the article ignored what I thought to be the fundamental reason why junk food has infiltrated our nation’s public schools over the last twenty years. As the general importance that US society places on public education as slowly waned, along with the associated funding, public schools have, in part, resorted to good ol’ fashioned capitalism to make up the difference.

Deals with junk food manufacturers to place their vending machines on school campuses have proven lucrative. But the consequences have proven unhealthy to our nation’s children, and over the long term the increase in obesity (and associated health problems) that this has helped create will further stress our nation’s increasingly dysfunctional health care system.

I agree with the general sentiment that problems often arise when implementing federal legislation and regulation at the local level, often due to inadequate accounting for local variability. But this doesn’t negate the fact that such federal actions are sometime needed to balance the interests of capitalism with the long-term health and welfare of the nation, albeit in a smart, efficient, and effective manner that is accountable for local needs.

What's Impeachable and Why

On the one hand we have a former president for whom impeachment proceedings were instigated as a result of his sexual indiscretion within the walls of the White House. On the other hand we have a sitting president for whom even censure seems highly unlikely, despite 1) apparently authorizing the disclosure of highly sensitive intelligence information to the media in order to discredit Joe Wilson's views that were contrary to the administration's justifications for the invasion of Iraq, 2) authorizing the wire tapping of private citizens, 3) leading an administration that bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the list goes on and on.

As a private citizen this astounds me. But as an anthropologist I find it intriguing to explore how the nature of contemporary American society and culture allows for such a gross contradiction to occur. Certainly the elevation of a very narrow definition of social morality (i.e., social conservative elements based a great deal on evangelical Christian interpretations of western, Judeo/Christian philosophy and history) to the national level has played a part in this. But it's obviously involves more than this alone, and unfortunately, time does not allow me to expand upon it now. But for those who wish to comment, feel free.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Embracing Inequality to Achieve Equality of Opportunity

And again we have more research results demonstrating differing brain operations between men and women. UC Irvine researchers have reported findings that show the amygdala, a part of the brain "involved in processing emotionally influenced memories," behaves differently in men and women. And this specific finding may shed light on the understanding and treatment of various psychiatric disorders that appear to vary by sex/gender.

As an anthropologist, particularly one that makes heavy use of evolutionary theory, the fact that there are very real differences in the brains of males vs. females, and that these differences influence how each sex perceives and experiences the world around them, is to be expected. By far, the majority of human and pre-human history was spent in relatively small groups with many of the daily tasks for survival and propagation of the species subdivided along the line between the two sexes. Not the least of which would have been childbirth itself.

It would be inevitable that evolution over the long term would have modified the male and female brain differently to adapt to and perform these differing tasks more efficiently and effectively. So it would seem logical that in our modern world we should try to account for these differences in everything from medical treatments, to the design of space, to the structuring of learning environments and teaching methods.

Unfortunately politics and ideology often get in the way of this. The far left (including many feminists) often decries such research and its applications as perpetuating white male dominance or other power imbalances. The far right (including many religious conservatives) sometimes uses this type of research to justify its own various male/female dichotomies (including male "superiority").

And such findings also conflict with the popular "myth" in the US that all people are created equal. The fact is we're not created equal - we differ in various forms of physical prowess, various forms of intelligence, various likes/dislikes, the amount of resources available to the families we're born into, etc. The differences in the male/female brain are just another example of how we're not created equal.

Another US ideal - the goal of providing everyone with equal opportunities for success - is also typically not "true" in the sense that it's often not realized. However this is an ideal that we can strive for, but to do so we have to recognize the fact that we're not all created equal - including men and women. If we proceed on the erroneous assumption that we all have the same potential to succeed in any given situation, there will always be individuals playing with the deck stacked against them.

In the case of treating certain psychiatric disorders, by not recognizing the difference between men and women, certain treatments may be placing one gender or the other at a disadvantage in terms of being a success (or both genders may be placed at a disadvantage because the treatment targets neither brain type very well). A somewhat more controversial case is the structuring of education environments and teaching methods to maximize the differences in the mental wiring between males and females. But again, one or the other (or both) may be placed at a disadvantage by not recognizing the mental differences.

Science, in its purest form, doesn't care about politics or ideology. It cares about what the experimental evidence is saying. And its telling us that there are very real differences in how the brain works between males and females. We must acknowledge these differences, these inherent inequalities, if we ever truly want to achieve equality of opportunity.

US Pandemic Simulation

Livescience has a sobering summary of a US avian flu pandemic simulation that has the flu infecting the entire continental US after only 90 days (starting with 10 highly infectious influenza cases in Los Angeles). In addition to concluding that the production of a modestly effective vaccine ahead of time is preferable to waiting to see what the exact strain turns out to be, the researchers also stated that quarantines, school closures, and travel restrictions are the obvious means to slow the spread.

Of course, disrupting our social and economic networks via such government imposed means (as well as by the pandemic itself), will have drastic consequences from the local to global levels. As a species, we're regionally and globally integrated at a scale never seen before in human history. The disruption of our social and economic networks will probably have longer lasting social, cultural, and economic consequences than the pandemic itself, depending on the severity.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Toilets of Terror II

As a sequel to my earlier March 11 post, Toilets of Terror, I noticed that today's Sunday Comics (April 2) has Opus facing a seemingly possessed public toilet with an automatic flush valve. The majority of the frames depict Opus in various stages of dread and apprehension as he approaches (slowly and delicately so as not to disturb) the porcelain beast. In the next to the last frame, as he oh so gently sets his bottom down, the great beast roars to life, sending spray everywhere while shattering Opus' nerves. In the last frame our poor penguin hero is being wheeled out the door, strapped in a straight jacket screaming: "It's alive! .... Alive, I tell you!!"

I would say that depiction within the Sunday Comics is one sign that a social issue, problem, etc., has probably reached the stage where it is having a widespread affect. And in this case I would venture to say that automatic flush valves are a problem with all ages to varying degrees, though the impact is probably greater for pre-schoolers.