Speaking of Feminist Woo

via  Bitch Magazine, which reviews Hot Pantz: Do It Yourself Gynecology

In addition to promoting dubious “natural remedies” (e.g. douching with herbs to treat STIs), the review makes several erroneous statements.  For example:

“Herbs predate history; women have been using herbs to treat cramps and bring on their menses for a long time. It’s no secret that natural medicine has been swept under the rug because of the pharmaceutical industry (Read a bit about the suppression of natural remedies in the US here). While medical advancements have certainly provided more access to birth control and hormone therapy than ever before, I have a hard time believing the multi-billion dollar industry that creates these hormonal drugs is super concerned about women’s health. While we have access to these drugs, we do not have control over what goes into them, and pharmaceutical companies are not required to tell us.”

First off, it’s not true that drug companies are not required to tell us what’s in their products — they not only have list active and inactive ingredients, they have to include a patient package insert that lists all the possible side effects and contraindications. Can the same be said of natural remedies? Not likely — they aren’t subject to FDA law because they’re considered dietary supplements, not drugs.

If proponents of alternative medicine want to gain legitimacy, they should apply to the RFPs from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and find solid scientific evidence to back up their claims.

The link to  natural remedies above describes naturopaths from the 19th century who treated tuberculosis using water therapy and herbs.  Well, since I know something about the history of medicine, these folks did not “cure” TB — they simply sent the illness into remission.  Today we have antibiotics that, when used appropriately, can cure most cases of TB.  The reason we have multiple antibiotic resistant strains are that patients don’t always follow the full course of treatment (which takes up to a year of daily pills) and/or have HIV AIDs.

As a historian of medicine and public health, I know all too well what used to happen in the “good old days” before antibiotics. Part of the reason the death rate was so high during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic was that many died not from flu per se but from secondary infections such as pneumonia. Millions more died from tuberculosis and syphilis.

Yes, some people are allergic to some antibiotics — for example, I’m allergic to amoxicyllin, but I can take other antibiotics.

Everyone knocks FDA but they aren’t in the pocket of Big Pharma — in fact, the agency is quite rigorous (e.g. the recent rejection of the so-called “pink Viagra“).  As I said earlier, there is no regulatory oversight over natural remedies to ensure they are both safe and effective.

Vague phrases like “herbs predate history” are annoying to those of us who actually look at the primary sources written by and for women instead of making shit up speculating about what women did in the past without any solid evidence to back it up.  For an excellent analysis of the medieval European period, see Monica Green’s book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine and Katherine Park’s Welch award winning Secrets of Women.  For examples from early America, see Laural Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer prize winning book A Midwife’s Tale, and Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, & Family Limitation in America.

As to the advice in Hot Pantz — don’t try this at home, or if you do, caveat emptor!

Sexism in Science, or Why There was no Alberta Einstein

via NYTimes.com.  Oh boy, here we go again. John Tierney tackles another controversial topic by “daring” to side with the tired sexist conventional wisdom  that the reason there are fewer women in science than men is because of innate differences in intelligence.  Various replies in the comments section have nicely addressed the various studies that have demonstrated persistent social barriers to women in science, starting with social conditioning in childhood (e.g. boys are given trucks and tools, girls dolls and dresses.  Boys are praised for being smart, girls for being pretty).  For a great round-up of how women in STEM are addressing sexism in science, see the blog Geek Feminism.

Since I’m a historian, I’m going to limit myself to addressing this  one of the nearly 300 comments:

“When the Summers controversy erupted, I wondered why there was no Alberta Einstein and no Roberta Fisher. Solitary study of physics or chess doesn’t require much more than obsessive dedication, a piece of paper and a pencil or a chess board. Albert Einstein didn’t need an expensive lab, nor did Bobby Fisher. Both were clearly extreme in many ways. Equally extreme women could have duplicated their efforts, but not one did. Where are the extreme women?”

As an homage to Virginia Woolf’s reflections on what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister name Judith. here are my thoughts on why there was no Alberta Einstein. In this case, I don’t have to make up a fictional talented sister.  There is already a real-life example of  a woman of this era who equaled or even surpassed Einstein in terms of ability and performance as measured by professional accolades:  that would be double Nobel laureate Marie Curie.

First, let’s deflate the myth that Einstein was a lone genius scribbling out his theories in pencil while laboring in a Swiss patent office.  While Einstein did face the not insignificant social barrier of Antisemitism, he was well-connected to the academic and scientific institutions of the era.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich in 1905 and in less than a decade was a full professor at the University of Prague.  In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the photoelectric effect. He was forced to flee German during the Nazi era, and spent the rest of his life at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Here’s a summary of Marie Curie’s career.  Curie was fortunate enough to have a family who supported her educational aspirations.  She attended a prestigious gymnasium for girls in her native Poland, and later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she met her future husband Pierre.   Despite her academic achievements, she was denied a position at Krachow University solely because she was a woman.  Instead, she married Pierre and together they did the groundbreaking scientific research that led to them being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.  Eight years later, Marie received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”   Despite being the only person, male or female, to be awarded two Nobel prizes by that time, she was denied entry to the French Academy of Sciences, again, solely because she was a woman.  She never received an academic appointment but did manage to get funding from the French government and private sources to run her own laboratory.

So, this is what happened to the most talented female scientists of Einstein’s generation.  For numerous other examples of women scientists from this period and beyond, see the excellent and exhaustive work of Margaret Rossiter.

This reproductive health article needs a Reality Check

via RHReality Check.  In an article entitled “A Natural Alternative to the Pill?” a “social media professional/Twitter lover” who goes by the name “jaz” expresses some healthy skepticism about the outpouring of praise surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Pill.

Unfortunately, the article contains a lot of misinformation as well.  So, here’s a reality check.

First, Jaz claims that  “With the Pill off the table, we are left with very few options besides condoms (or diaphragms and cervical caps which are essentially out of existence and have lower effectiveness rates), or more permanent solutions like the IUD and sterilization which do not make sense for younger women or women who want to have children in the next few years.”

According to this table, male condoms have a 2% failure rate if used “perfectly” — i.e. every time a couple has intercourse, and the condom doesn’t break or fall off.  Diaphragms have a 6% failure rate.  IUDS are not the same as sterilization either.

Second, the article tries to suggest that herbal contraceptives are effective. Jaz discusses an herb called wild carrot (aka Queen Anne’s Lace) and mentions the work of Robin Rose Bennett which “has been surrounded by controversy and naysayers in her efforts to bring this to American women.”  Well, count me in as one of the naysayers.  Even Bennett says that her study was unscientific, i.e. was not a controlled clinical trial.  Her sample was also very small — only 13 women — and three of them became pregnant.  So far, not a good alternative to barrier methods.

Jaz implies that this natural remedy is safer than oral contraceptives.  According to Bennett, wild carrot is an estrogenic herb — in other words, it contains the same chemical as many birth control pills.  So, the same contraindications for use of oral contraceptives would apply to wild carrot.

The underlying assumption of the article is that natural remedies are safe because, hey, they’re natural.  Well, those who are looking to try this method on their own better be sure they can tell the difference between wild carrot and poison hemlock.  Even jaz says she’s “a little wary of making my own contraception, since it’s more serious than making a smoothie or a mojito, though I do want to experiment with my inner alchemist and my green thumb!”

She should be just as wary of herbal treatments prepared by so-called experts.  Since herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements,  they not regulated by the FDA as are drugs.  This means no one is checking to make sure the health claims are valid.  Also, there is no national system of licensure or certification for herbalists.  This means that anyone can hang out a shingle and call her/himself an herbalist.

[NB: if you take St. John’s Wort be aware that it can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives].

So, while I agree with jaz that “women deserve to have a wide range of options readily available to make the ideal decisions for their bodies and sexual health,” they also need accurate and reliable health information.  RHReality Check usually does this and gives guides on how to detect inaccurate information.  In their section, “Fact v. Fiction,” the editors write:

“One trademark of the far right is misinformation. They make ideology sound like fact, belief sound like scientific data. We bring you the most widely circulated fictions about reproductive health, and the facts and resources to dispute them. If you are confused about how to determine if a study is real, this primer provides you with a great framework to evaluate any research study you read.”

Too bad the editors of the site didn’t apply these same criteria to misinformation from the left.  Women deserve better.

Added later:  RHRealityCheck has reposted this entry on their website.  Please join the discussion.

Discloser: My research is funded by the National Library of Medicine and the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors Research Grant.  I have no financial ties to pharmaceutical companies of any kind.

It’s not just in our heads, or the reality of mental illness

During the past week, I’ve read several articles discussing the alleged excesses of the psychiatric profession.  One of the most annoying is this one by Edward Shorter in the Wall Street Journal.   Although I agree with Shorter’s critique of the shady practices of some pharmaceutical companies, he goes too far in claiming that anti-depressants are nothing more than placebos (Irving Kirsch makes the same argument in The Emperor’s New Drugs).  As I said in my comments over at University Diaries, I’d really like to see Shorter’s evidence for all these claims [especially the dubious one that benzodiazapenes are not addictive]. While there may be some truth to the argument that psychiatric disorders are overdiagnosed, he hasn’t presented very solid evidence that this is the case. Readers should also know that he’s a strong proponent of electroconvulsive therapy — which may have its uses in intractable cases but has serious side effects of its own.  How is the direct-to-consumer advertising for anti-depressants any different from those for other drugs? I’m a critic of Big Pharma too — but Shorter throws out the good with the bad. I really don’t appreciate Shorter’s implication that I’m a fool for taking SSRIs. If Shorter had made this argument about treatments for arthritis or diabetes, would anyone take him seriously?

Shorter is not a scientist: like me, he’s a historian of medicine. He has no experience treating patients with mental illness. He’s made similar claims for patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome — basically saying that these diseases are not real but all in the heads of the patients (a large percentage of whom are women — in other words, women are stupid.  For an excellent feminist critique of this view, see FWD/Forward).   There needs to be a middle ground between critiquing the pharmaceutical industry and acknowledging the reality of mental illness. Unfortunately this is not a sexy enough topic to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

Media dis&dat: AMA says there’s no more need to research link between vaccines, autism

Media dis&dat: AMA says there’s no more need to research link between vaccines, autism.

Because there isn’t one!  The real danger is that vaccine rates have dropped to the point where childhood diseases are reappearing. I hope this puts the issue to rest, but given the tenacity of crackpot erroneous theories on the Web, I doubt it.

If folks are really interested in helping persons with autism, how about helping teens and adults get a college education?

Mind Hacks: Race bias and the menstrual cycle

Translation:  the usual BS about women and their periods.  As one commenter observes, how come no one studies the psychological impact of male hormonal cycles?  In a culture that objectifies women and still treats violence against women trivially, perhaps there are logical reasons for women’s “risk avoidance”?

Mind Hacks: Race bias and the menstrual cycle.

Scientific Fraud in MMR/Autism study

Media dis&dat reports that  Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who published a study allegedly linking MMR vaccine and autism, has been accused of “cooking” the data to fit his theory.  Wakefield’s findings led to a sharp decline in the percentage of children receiving vaccinations for MMR and other childhood diseases, leading to a resurgence of these diseases in areas where herd immunity is lower than optimal.

I just received a copy of Paul Offit’s book, Autism’s False Prophets, which I hope to read soon (after the pile of papers I just received from my disability history class!)