Folic Acid and Pouilly-Fuissé

Ted and I had just placed our orders when my cell phone started vibrating. It was my mom, and she wanted to know how to use the bottle-warmer. I told my mom what she needed to know, hung up the phone, and almost started crying.

A detailed explanation of the planning and preparation that went into my lunch date would be instructive for anyone who is currently contemplating breastfeeding (and, for that matter, for anyone who would dare to judge a woman who chooses not to breastfeed), but the thought of composing such an explanation seems exhausting to me. Suffice it to say that, if Frances was awake and taking the bottle of milk I pumped for her just as Ted and I were sitting down to the table, a glass of wine with my lunch was out of the question, and a leisurely meal with my husband was in jeopardy.

As it turned out, Frances was happy with her bottle and I didn’t need to rush home to top her up. I was able to enjoy my sandwich—tuna, medium-rare, with wasabi mayo—rather than cramming it into my face, and I got to spend some time alone with Ted. Still, an experience that was supposed to be relaxing and restorative was slightly nerve-wracking. I loved being pregnant, and I love nursing my daughter, but I also kind of miss the days when my body was my own.

Which is why this New York Times article made me kind of nuts. It’s about new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that women of childbearing years consider themselves perpetually “prepregnant”—that is, they should avoid alcohol and cigarettes and take prenatal vitamins. The reasoning behind this shift from prenatal to “preconception” care is not unsound: “The problem, doctors say, is that by the first prenatal visit, a woman is usually 10 to 12 weeks pregnant. ‘If a birth defect is going to happen, it’s already happened,’ said Dr. Peter S. Bernstein, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York who helped write new government guidelines on preconception care.” My problem is with the way these guidelines are meant to encompass even women who are not trying to get pregnant. The reasoning here is a little more shaky: Since more than half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, women should, essentially, plan for an unplanned pregnancy and birth.

Continue reading over at my other blog…

November 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Too much testosterone kills brain cells

Yes, the headline is kind of “No duh,” but it’s always nice to see common knowledge verified by scientific research. Now my husband has yet another reason to thank me for marrying him.

September 29, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intelligent? Who can say? Unconstitutional? Definitely.

In a recent post, I argued that “intelligent design” does not belong in science classrooms because it is not science. It seems that John E. Jones III, the federal judge who issued his ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District yesterday, agrees.

The complete ruling is 139 pages long. You can read it in its entirety if you want to, but MSNBC and the New York Times offer some choice excerpts. My favorite extract can be found at Washington Monthly:

....Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

This bit, quoted at Pandagon, is also good:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

I don’t make a habit of reading legal opinions, so I don’t really know what they usually look like, but I’ve got to say that this one is pretty hot.

December 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A Theocracy of the Mind

I had to take an oral exam for my Spanish class recently. One of the questions—designed to test my knowledge of the superlative—was “¿Cuál es la mejor revista de los Estados Unidos?” My answer was, “El New Yorker.”

I really do think it’s the best magazine in America—better than The Atlantic, better even than Us Weekly. Margaret Talbot’s piece on Kitzmiller v. Dover in the December 5 issue was just the kind of writing I have learned to expect from this fine periodical. For one thing, it was gorgeously written. Talbot is a great storyteller with a good eye for compelling characters. More importantly, though, she makes it very clear that the movement to teach intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution in schools is about more than teaching “both sides of the issue.”

One thing Talbot points out in her article is that, regardless of what some proponents of intelligent design might actually believe—and regardless of what they want the rest of us to believe they believe—intelligent design and creationism were fundamentally interchangeable for leading members of the Dover school board. Their objections to Darwin were religious, rather than scientific, and they regarded intelligent design as a way to get God—their own particular Christian God—into public schools. Talbot describes the situation in Talbot, and the birth of intelligent design, in this Q&A.

This underscores the basic problem with teaching intelligent design in science classes: Intelligent design is not science. This is not my judgment; this is a simple fact. Science is a naturalistic system, one fueled by observation and experimentation and guided by empirical reasoning. Intelligent design isn’t science because there’s no way to test its hypotheses. As Talbot reports, the defenders of intelligent design admit as much.

To teach intelligent design in a biology classroom requires a paradigm shift; basically, it requires the substitution of a system of belief for a system of knowledge. Many of the supporters of intelligent design know this, and they approve. Talbot’s story includes an anecdote about a Dover civics teacher who wrote to the school board asking, facetiously, if they had any advice for someone preparing to teach students about the Supreme Court. The head of the school board replied that they were planning to update the social studies curriculum next.

Obviously, the fight for intelligent design is about more than evolution. It’s about more than biology or the sciences in general. The New York Times recently ran a couple of articles about Christian high schools and their struggles to get their courses recognized by state universities. Basically, the universities are arguing that Christ-centered pedagogy might be good catechism, but it’s seldom good American history or English lit. One of these articles includes excerpts from some disputed textbooks, and it’s not too hard to see that the universities have a point. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University:

Dickinson's year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her "religious" views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle "the one thing needful." A thorough study of Dickinson's works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.

This critique of Emily Dickinson looks a lot like the critique of Mark Twain included in the same text, and they both resemble criticism of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives found in United States History for Christian Schools, also from Bob Jones University.

The educational worldview presented by these textbooks is one in which God is the right answer—the only right answer—to every possible question. There is nothing here to foster real critical thinking or problem-solving. There’s no room for creativity or indepent ideas. Faith, in the form of received wisdom, takes the place of actual thought. It’s chilling to imagine public schools in which this might be the educational norm, and it’s heartening to know that all the Dover school board members who voted for the anti-evolution speech were voted out of office in the last election.

December 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Perfect Language

As a religion major specializing in New Testament studies, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Gospel of Mark. It’s a puzzling text, full of paradox and ambiguity—that’s what drew me to it. As I tried to understand why, in this narrative, Jesus’s closest followers consistently misunderstand him, I decided that it was a linguistic problem: Jesus’s divine language was just too big for the all-too-human ears of Peter, James, John the brother of James, and the other lads. Essentially, they couldn’t pick up what he was laying down.

This led me to the conclusion that the Kingdom of God isn’t a temporal event, coming in the future, but a cognitive one, immediately available: Those who can both hear and understand Jesus’s message are in—right now and forever—and everybody else is out. The task of the reader of Mark’s good news, then, is to read until she understands. I thought of my thesis Wednesday, while I listened to an NPR story about the ability of babies to think abstractly.

Two researchers—Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard and Sue Hespos at Vanderbilt—used conceptual differences in English and Korean to explore the possibility of abstract thought in infants. At the heart of their study was this conceptual distinction: English uses prepositions like “on" and “in” to describe the relationship between two objects; Korean, on the other hand (to use a rather Anglophonic metaphor), distinguishes between objects that have a “loose fit” with another object and those that have a “tight fit". For an English-speaker, a cup sits on a table; for a Korean-speaker, the cup has a loose-fit relationship with the table. For an English-speaker, a pea is in a pod; for a Koreans-speaker, a pea has a tight-fit relationship with its pod.

So, anyway, these researchers found that babies raised in English-speaking homes were able to recognize the tight-fit/loose-fit dichotomy, while English-speaking grown-ups were not. (If you want to know more about the details of this study, listen to the NPR story or check out the July 22 issue of Nature.) Thus, in the words Spelke, “These findings suggest that humans possess a rich set of concepts before we learn language. Learning a particular language may lead us to favor some of these concepts over others, but the concepts already existed before we put them into words.”

This conclusion has interesting—possibly vital—implications for competing theories about language acquisition. According to one theory, language grows as a child grows, and we develop abstract thoughts only when we have attained the means to express them. Other linguists claim that the learning of language doesn't build cognitive abilities so much as it winnows them. In one model, language plants seeds that blossom into abstract thinking; in the other, language prunes away at the wild brush of the infant mind until well-tended shapes emerge, shapes that have meaning within that language. Obviously, this study supports the latter way of thinking.

I have always preferred that way of thinking myself, but it was only as I was listening to this NPR story that I understood why: In every creation myth, chaos precedes order. There may be, as in Genesis, a nothing before there is anything, but, even then, before there is anything, there is everything. Isn’t that the experience we all have, as we grow from wild children into social, rational beings but also again and again as we encounter existence at its most vast and overwhelming? Life, at its biggest moments, more often than not surpasses our ability to describe it. Love, grief, transcendence: These are states only poets can contain with words—and even then only provisionally—but we all can feel them. Our most intense experiences are the ones we are least able to articulate; they remain, nonetheless, true.

Once upon a time, people believed in a perfect language—the language Adam and Eve spoke, the language before the Babel Tower fell, the language in which the thing corresponded perfectly to its sign. Once upon a time, people believed that a child raised without hearing the debased, fragmented tongue of his own time and place would speak that language. The search for that primal mind has produced legendarily tragic results. But what if it belongs to us all, what if each of us retains the latent, neglected potentiality to comprehend fullness? What if we all have ears big enough to hear the language of God?

July 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

My Scientifically Selected Ideal Mate: Woman Seeking Woman

So, I took the Physical Attraction Test at again, this time as a woman seeking women. While I found most of the men thrown my way during this test just plain depressing, the chicks were hot! I don't think my taste in men is that much more exotic than my taste in women, but not one of the gents I looked at made me go all gooey, not even Mr. Ecto-Mesomorph, while all the ladies were at least marginally attractive, and many of them were knock-outs. Why no hot guys, Are the guys hotter when you're a man seeking men than a woman seeking men? I hope so, because no self-respecting gay man of my acquaintance would give the time of day to the out-of-shape, poorly coiffed fellows I encountered taking this test.

My Favorite RackI was also a little surprised to discover that, while I was invited to judge general body types for both men and women, I also got to choose from a variety of breasts while looking at the ladies. There was no corresponding opportunity to judge a man's package during my trip through the test as a heterosexual female. What the hell?

March 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Better Dating Through Science

My typeI gather that this is already making the rounds, but heaven knows I luv a personality test. While the good people who manage the personals ads for The Onion helped me find a fiancé, has harnessed the awesome power of face-recognition technology to select my perfect mate. Allow me to introduce Mr. Ecto-Mesomorph, otherwise known as "Pretty Boy." Sure, I've always known that I've had a type—I like skinny hipster, mostly, preferably with glasses—but now I know my type with scientific certainty:

Some may call one of your types "Pretty Boys," but all you know is that they're gorgeous. The combination of classic good looks with small noses, beautiful eyes, and full lips is hard to resist. These guys tend to be clean shaven, have clear skin, and get good hair cuts. They're taking good care of themselves so they can be "pretty" just for you! (Well, you and the 1 in 3 women (33%) that are also after them!)

I also know that I have a sub-type:

A subgroup of men you picked can only be described as "Hunks." They have a clean-cut, "All-American" look. They're very handsome, without being either "pretty" or overly "rugged." Their face shape and jawline are typically very masculine and strong, while the "inner face" brings more delicate features like a small to medium nose, beautiful eyes, and full lips. It's a balance between the masculine and the feminine that make these guys so irresistible. In fact, these guys have been chased after all their lives, by 1 in 3 women (35%).

It's interesting to note that Ted, my fiancé, falls more into my sub-type than my primary type, except that he has a beard, which is neither "clean-cut" nor "All-American." Call him, instead, "Professor Hunk".

It's also interesting to note that I had trouble getting into this test, because whenever my instinct was to label a guy a total "turn-off", I would hesitate and think, "But maybe he's really nice. Maybe he's smart and funny and talented." I am such a girl, but apparently not the only one who encountered challenges on her way to an ideal mate. Ms. Lindsayism writes, "nearly all of the choices were unattractive because I didn't like their haircuts and I kept having to squint and imagine them with better hair and holding guitars."

March 26, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack