A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science and Politics don't mix

 A little bit about the Barbara Ellen post natal depression furore, another cheap shot at Santorum and why science and hardline ideology don't mix

There are some things that just don't really mix;  fire and water, caviar and cream soda, small children and high voltage power sources etc. In bad pairings, one of the elements twists and dominates the other; But there are even less comfortable bedfellows in the form of science and politics. And predictably, it is science that is all too often twisted and abused.

It would be very easy to illustrate this with an attack on the American right; their propedency to climate change denial, creationism, frankly repugnant attacks on reproductive rights, occasional hilarious diatribes about croco-ducks and Rick Santorum makes them ripe for parody this side of the Atlantic. Here in liberal-ish Europe we roll our eyes and shrug, which we do very well, having learnt the Gallic shrug from our French brethren and then go back to our wine drinking, beer brewing, love-making, or David Hasselhoff listening depending on where in the continent we are.

If you do all these things at once,it's called the Pan-European.

Liberal in Europe isn't the denigrating kind of insult that it is in America; it doesn't lead to mass outrage, public disowning and cross-burnings. We reserve that bile for the Eurovision. If you're based in the US it is entirely another story, and I highly recommend you visit my friend Dr. Jen Gunter's blog on how the American right are attacking reproductive rights. As a European left-leaning liberal , it would extremely easy to use the American right as an example of politics trying to twist science to fit its rhetoric; it is precisely the kind of fact twisting, truth bending, outright denialism that too often occurs when an ideology encounters actual research on the subject. When the ideology proclaims one thing, and the actual  research finds something else, it is the science which tends to be attacked or dismissed, not the rhetoric.

You know Rick, they say those most repressed are the most homophobic...

There's no question the American right do this regularly, but I feel I would be remiss and hypocritical to not notice such bad form in ideologies I tend to support; now, here is a little piece by an Observer journalist Barbara Ellen, ostensibly on my side of the political spectrum; I'm not linking to the piece as I feel the piece is an utter troll piece designed to produce controversy and clicks, a more highbrow version of the Samantha Brick fiasco - which I also won't link to. But allow me set discuss the tone of the piece.

Must.... resist....urge...to...feed... troll!

Oh wow. Straight from the tagline it goes for the jugular, and throws in a scientific clanger for good measure; Ellen immediately claims postpartum depression is directly related to the physical act of childbirth, which is not supported by any scientific literature. Sure there is some evidence that it is linked to hormonal factors, and yet other evidence indicating hormonal factors do not play a huge role. There is also the evolutionary psychology theories to boot. Ellen casts doubt and trivialises the medically established fact that men can and do suffer severe post partum depression. In her article, there are numerous other horrendous smears and a total lack of understanding about depression. But while I'm troll feeding, allow me to quote her cinching line -

"One hesitates to use the term womb-envy, but what else could it be? Can't females have anything just for themselves, without men barging in, not even a foul, debilitating condition directly related to the physical act of pregnancy and childbirth? What next: women staking a claim to the trauma of penile dysfunction? It was a long, hard road for womankind, getting postnatal depression recognised as a condition, and also to receive medical attention or even routine sympathy. It seems to me that saying men can also get it is just cheapening this achievement."

And there you have it; not content with re-writing medical science, Ellen casts it in a pseudo-historical light. Post partum depression is not some new trendy concept that men has 'stolen', it has been recognised since the time of Hippocrates. This is text-book bending science to fit an ideology. I wonder if Ms Ellen has been told yet that men can get breast cancer too ? "Cheapening the achievement" is a shockingly distasteful line - I have both male and female friends who have suffered dreadfully from postpartum depression, and is it no achievement -  regardless of etiology, depression is a serious illness and requires help. I admit while I usually laugh trolls off, this line caused me to sputter a little, especially as I lost a friend to depression just last year - oh, and she was female too, not that it matters - That is just the point; gender, race, age do not matter when it comes to mental health.

Now, Barbara Ellen exists to generate controversy, and I know this; either that or she is some empathy deficient individual who thinks it's ok to refer to depression as "sulky self-interest". The comments on the article are almost universally negative towards the piece, and many commentators in medicine and psychology on twitter were quick to correct the inflammatory post. One of my favourite psychologists on twitter, Dr. Petra Boynton promptly responded

Owned: By science!

Mind hacks wrote an equally cutting academic demolition of Ellen's diatribe; It wasn't just academics who took issue with the piece - Mic Wright wrote a powerful piece called "Belittling depression: Barbara Ellen is the Jan Moir that Twitter doesn’t seem to notice". Jan Moir by the way, is the political opposite number troll from the Daily Mail who tried to link the tragic death of Stephen Gately from a pulmonary edema to his homosexuality - another example of trying to bend science to politics, and no, I'm not going to link to it either. Mic's piece is visceral and powerful, and well worth a read. You would have thought that was the end of the story; troll piece gets torn apart, science blows it out of water, we all have biscuits. After all, that's the rational approach. 

Emmm... not quite. Some personally attacked Wright for his piece, which can still be viewed on his Twitter timeline; everything from being a misogynist to "appropriating women's conditions - what next, will you claim you get PMT?!" sneers. Wright also received at least one emailed death threat, and that is a little jarring even if it is totally unlikely it will be carried out. What is worse is these all came from self described feminists and that makes me sad - I AM a self described feminist. I've taken stick for my pro-choice work and believe in equality regardless of a person's gender, race, sexuality or anything else. Yet these people do not speak for me and I suspect the vast majority of feminists would see Ellen's work for the bile it is. It is not misogynistic to criticize a piece; that the author is a woman is incidental. That the piece was wrong and spiteful is what invites that criticism.

Yet this just goes to show that no matter what the ideology, right or left, liberal or conservative that there will be elements who don't need proof, and will not change their opinion in the light of new information. These people scare me, and are the reason science and politics don't mix; science demands that in the light of evidence, even the most hard held belief can be adjusted. Ideology all too often denies evidence to preserve faith in it. Until we learn to think in an evidence based manner rather than a rhetoric based manner, there will be no easy solutions.

1 comment:

  1. Men getting PND is exactly like a woman suffering from penile dysfunction - any sufficiently close couple will suffer equally from anything which affects either member. It's human nature to empathise with others to an extent which can be dangerous at times. My brain, it hurts.....

    The Samantha Brick thing was hillarious, but I only watched it via facebook. Getting more involved in that felt like it would be too easy.


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