Monday, March 31, 2014

Medical Students Learn to Cook!

Some good news regarding my previous post. Some medical students can now take cooking courses! It's about time. I hope this catches on, everywhere!

Friday, February 14, 2014

3. Include at Least One Full (Mandatory) Nutrition Course in All Medical Degrees

Been away for longer than I planned. Some medical problems of my own, early in the year, and many illnesses in the people around me. Judging by what's been going on, it is easy to believe that there's an epidemic of cancer - but, of course, that's just the cluster effect talking.
It's important to keep an open mind and remember the big picture. That means keeping to the facts as much as is humanly possible.
Of course, the facts are always changing. Difficult to follow a moving target!
All the more important, then, to learn as much as possible about a subject before drawing conclusions. In medicine, even relatively simple problems have a multitude of factors, yet many physicians seem to focus on a few at the expense of others (more or less guaranteeing that they won't see the big picture).
Take one example. One of my friends with cancer told me that not one of the several doctors he has met with in the past six months has ever asked about his diet. Considering that his cancer is located in his digestive system, you would think that that inquiry is a no-brainer. I had similar experiences with chronic but non-fatal problems of the gut, several years ago. No one asked what I ate. For all they knew, I and my friend could have been living on cheeseburgers, fries, and Pepsi. No one asked, and gentle hints went nowhere. 
Not because the doctors didn't care, but because they didn't know.
It took me a long time for me to find out why. The average medical degree provides only one hour of human nutrition instruction in the entire four- or five-year program!! Appalling. The biggest interface between the body and the environment--nutrients, toxins, indigestible matter--occurs in the long tube called the alimentary canal, more than skin or lungs. How can the study of those daily interactions be overlooked to such an egregious extent? Why hasn't anyone called attention to this already? The connection between eating habits and health goes beyond obvious disorders such as anorexia nervosa and obesity. Food affects everything from energy levels to mood, immunity to healing.
If medical students everywhere had to take a full-term course in human nutrition and the diseases related to poor or excessive nutrient intake, more patients would be able to have the conversation with their MDs that I wanted (and still want) to have.
"Doctor, am I eating the right things in the right way in order to stay healthy?"

Friday, December 20, 2013

Science Fiction's Designs for the Future

In the New Yorker online (Dec. 12 posting), Tim Kreider examines science fiction's fondness for social commentary. Through depictions of the future (which cannot be anything but fictional), SF writers provide possible-world design for better societies, a better Earth. From obvious utopias to hard-science tales of space exploration that seem written for 15-year-old boys and their adult equivalents, alone, the genre has always been a showcase for the imaginings of society's critics. In more recent years, the criticism has been leveled at environmental problems more than anything else - and with good reason.
If only these ideas were not restricted to flights of fancy. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more scientists could conduct symposiums with SF writers - and that attendance for political leaders would be mandatory?
Kreider spotlights bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose environmental bugbear of choice (and there is plenty of choice) happens to be anthropogenic climate change. More than few politicians are "climate skeptics": they could certainly do with reading his books, at very least.
The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:

  • common stewardship—not ownership—of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace—which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations—and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.
Hmm, these do sound familiar! 
Robinson is hardly the only such concerned SF writer. Margaret Atwood's recent triology, which concluded with Maddaddam, deals with a dystopia full of genetically modified organisms. Countless other books warn us of the hazards of an overly technological society. Yet others talk about a more corded planet, where people become little more than numbers. The list is long and fascinating.
But it remains to be seen if we will listen to any of these prescient authors - or simply go on treating their thoughtful and thought-provoking prose as anything other than entertainment.
Have you read any books that hope to bring attention to an important issue by setting a story in the near or distant future? Please share the titles (and summaries, if you like).

Monday, December 9, 2013

2. Start Questioning Cultural Traditions

Every society has at least one culture in its midst, and that culture can be divided further into subcultures, all different in subtle or fairly major ways. The defining trait of a culture or subculture is transmission. Cultural traditions are passed down from present or past generations to the young, with the assumption that they, in turn, will pass the practices and beliefs to their descendants. In life, there is very little truly written in stone, but a high degree of immutability characterizes most traditions. That’s what gives them form and strength, and a means of comforting us. 

That resistance to change also makes traditions potentially dangerous. 
Tradition in its various forms helps guide us when faced with difficult situations—either familiar ones we might find new, like seeking a life partner, or entirely novel ones, such as certain ethical dilemmas. Traditions soothe us in a hectic world: if, for example, we know that a wedding in our county “is always like this” and not that, that knowledge means there are no surprises in that area at least, even if chaos reigns elsewhere. Traditions bring order and predictability, thereby relieving stress. They bring us into closer fellowship, even a sort of pseudo-kinship, with people we are not necessarily related to but who share our tribe or group—and those people may live far away or be long dead. We cannot possibly feel totally alone if we are part of this web of connection across time and space, and despite other differences.
Tradition also locks us into anachronistic thoughts and deeds. Some practices may have been extremely useful at some time in history, and been maintained down the centuries because no great harm came of them. But, in contemporary times, these firmly held ideas have to be examined, especially when they repeatedly run up against new realities: 
  • proximity to other cultures and their traditions and beliefs; 
  • scarcity of materials and other resources necessary for upholding the tradition; 
  • more, shall we say, enlightened practices born of philosophical progress; 
  • financial considerations, often closely linked to issues of scarcity.
When tradition is held onto without sufficient debate—if it is sealed within a glass jar instead of open to the air of inquiry—it can leave the wrong legacy for future generations, and even deprive them of the ability to exercise that practice at all, e.g., when a particular “useful” animal becomes extinct.
There are many cultural practices presently under debate, sometimes within the culture (usually, but not always, by the young), but often from outside the culture. (Other traditions barely merit a look, but I predict they will be examined within the next decade.)
The debates arise when we can no longer ignore matters of (1) sustainability, (2) ethics, (3) human rights, (4) “animal rights” (I’m personally not fond of the term), as well as the disparate levels of (5) disgust and aversion that emerge when immigration forces once geographically separate peoples into co-existence.
Here are some examples of currently debated (and in some cases partially abated) traditions.
-         Shark fin soup served at Chinese weddings (1, 4, 5);
-         Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa (2, 3, 5);
-         Songbird massacres during spring and autumn migrations in southern Europe and Egypt, among other places (1, 4);
-         So-called “honor killings” practiced in many developing countries, carried forth by their emigrants to more industrialized nations (2, 3, maybe 5).
Here are a few examples of traditions that could do with open and frank debate.
-         The prevalence of large families in fundamentalist religions, with or without arranged marriages; 
-         The mechanisms of corporate culture and capitalism in general—it may not be connected to a country or society like other cultures, but in most other ways it conforms to the definition and, thus, has traditions that go largely unchallenged;
-         The assumption in almost all cultures around the world that animal food is the most important part of a person’s diet, and that anything necessary for finding those animal products should be pursued, hang the cost (ethical, ecological, etc.). (See shark fin soup, songbird hunts, ad infinitum.)
What do you think should go on this partial list? What do you think of my initial choices? 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

1. Treat Every New Chemical Brought to Market as Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Pouring chemical -
Every year, thousands of new chemicals are introduced into the environment. That is, to the air, water, and soil—to the food we eat, to the fabric we wear and rub against, and the products we use without a second thought. If you heard even a few horror stories about some of these chemicals, you’d wonder if anyone gave them more than a second thought before releasing them into the world, to affect human and nonhuman beings, maybe even helping to change weather patterns.
The overriding philosophy in the chemical industry—the people and corporations that brought us everything from plastics to oven cleaner to Agent Orange—is “Innocent until proven guilty.” That is a wonderful way of dealing with a human suspect, but extremely dangerous, not to mention unethical, when applied to chemical compounds. Most aren't even considered “suspect” in the first place.
Yes, there are tests for certain materials meant for direct contact with human beings and, occasionally, their food or companion animals. These tests are conducted at high dosages on lab animals that may or may not closely resemble human physiology. They are often cruel, and that cruelty is in vain if the tests do not accurately reflect their later impact on human health and environmental integrity. Inadequately tested, they go into cosmetics, food, toys, fabric, and other household materials, and used as medicines, disinfectants, pesticides, preservatives, weapons, and so on. Anyone or anything that comes in contact is, in effect, part of an ongoing experiment.
Some of the numerous, egregious effects include birth defects, endocrine disruption (putting human and nonhuman animal hormones out of whack), oncogenesis (initiation of cancerous growths), cognitive impairment (temporary fogginess or actual I.Q. reduction), and behavioral problems.
These chemicals are part of our daily lives. Only when sufficient and irrefutable evidence mounts up about a chemical’s dangers does anyone do anything about it. And sometimes, not even then.
The chemical industry has given us many truly amazing innovations, no doubt about it. I’m not calling for the whole edifice to come tumbling down, only for a few renovations to its uncontested principles—ones that affect us all. 
As long as we maintain this approach in order to protect big business interests, people and the natural environment will continue to suffer.
Tell me: what chemicals do you wish had been more carefully tested or monitored before being released? Do you have any experience with something that caused an allergic reaction - or worse? 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Introducing my new blog

In the next few months, I hope to post some observations I have accumulated over the years about the state of the world. I seem to spend a lot of my time worrying about things close to me as well as very, very far away. I have always wanted to fix things - and when I do, I'm very good at it. Maybe it's time I threw some of my more philosophical solutions out into the world to see if they stick!
The average person sounds like a Miss America contestant when she's asked, "What kind of world would you like to see?" Everyone wants "world peace," "racial harmony," and enough food for all. These are all very good, but too vague, too large, and they involve too many contingencies.
One of the most effective ways to solve a problem is a step at a time. A series of smaller imperfections or outright problems handled before the bigger picture comes into view.
World peace! There are so many geopolitical, psychological and logistical obstacles to overcome before TWO countries draw up a mutually agreeable treaty, let alone all the world's nations! How about healing the political system, one level at a time perhaps? Change the voting system. Review long-held assumptions. Those sorts of things.
I am a generalist with a solid footing in the arts and the sciences. I read a lot. I'm always thinking. But I really want to hear from my readers. Everyone has insight - whether it's on their own corner of the planet, or about the whole human race. Please share your thoughts about what I say - and what I leave out!
Looking forward to reading your comments!