Why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear?

I was recently asked by a friend if I have ever had, considering that I have attended university for over a decade, a professor whose ‘accent’ was too difficult to understand. I am sure that in my younger years I complained about this. As a undergraduate, I was fundamentally concerned with grades and often just wanted to be given the information I needed to get an “A.” If the way a professor spoke presented barriers to this, I felt frustrated. I do not think this way anymore. I will never forget what I learned, in a class taught by Canadian author Dione Brand, about the privileges articulated in my expectation that I should understand everything I hear. Brand held an endowed chair in the Women’s Studies department at SFU from 2000 to 2002. In a class on feminist creative writing that she taught, we read a short story (in this book by Jean Rhys, called “In the Rue de l’Arrivée”… I really had to dig into my memory and google to find it!) that had, if I can remember correctly, one or two passages written in French. This class was sometime in 2002, well before the existence of google translate. Since I do not speak French, I had no idea what the passages said, but sensed that they were central to the meaning of the story which I would have to discuss in class. During the class, another student raised their hand, asking the meaning of the passages and complaining that the publisher should have included a translation. Brand said (as I remember it), “why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear? Or everything you read?” These questions instantiated a shift in my perspective on the privilege of understanding. Imagine the humility behind them. My own preferred languages for speaking and hearing emerge from the sum of my personal experiences situated in larger social, political, and spatial nexuses. Others’ preferred languages emerge from theirs. Neither are “right,” and neither are “accented” – in fact, the idea of an “accent” in the first place marks the erasure of privileges which dictate whose pronunciation is the different, difficult one. It is a privilege not to understand sometimes. I am glad I don’t get to understand everything I hear. It gives me the opportunity to check who I am in relation to others, to be humbled by the experiences of others, and to revel in the space that I do not yet, and may never fully, understand.

Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed in news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

Coffee Shop as a Microcosm for Public Understandings of Science

Today at a coffee shop I spied a bit on the greeting and conversation of two men who appeared to be close friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. As one of them went up to get his coffee, he asked the other if he would like one. The man said yes – even though he had already had a lot today. It wasn’t a problem, he said, as he had just heard of a new study which found that men who drink a lot of coffee have lower rates of prostate cancer.

The study he is referring to was recently widely reported in media (CBC, Science Daily, MSNBC, CBS News, etc.). It purports that men who drink 6 or more cups of coffee a day are less likely to get an aggressive form of prostate cancer (original research here).

The men had a little chuckle (and a little more coffee) and went about their reunion, while I started thinking about the encounter as reflective of the relationships between science and publics. In the CBC news article, one of the researchers is quoted:

It is premature to recommend that men increase coffee intake to reduce advanced prostate cancer risk based on this single study. In addition, the effects of coffee consumption on other aspects of health must be considered in making consumption recommendations.

So, as readers we can’t take away much more from the study than “that’s interesting. They should keep working on that.” As a supporter of and advocate for science, this notion resonates with me. But I wonder if that is enough for others.

While cautious statements like these mean much in the context of science which places so much emphasis on qualification and admitting limitations, they provide very little guidance on how publics should act on the knowledge produced. I can’t know whether the study actually informed the decision-making of the man at the coffee shop; however, I think the conversation illustrates a typical disjoint in the translation of the ‘official recommendation’ that comes from science to the everyday lives of people who are plunking along making decisions towards their short and long term health, happiness, and satisfaction. They make these decisions in a context where there is too little known and where too much of what is known is contradictory. And they make these decisions using knowledge that comes from diverse realms of life – not just science.

Since the study cannot offer any actionable advice, how are publics to “digest” the knowledge shared? Certainly if it is the case that the man decided to drink more coffee because of the study, this means that the disclaimer provided by the researchers may not be what “sticks” in the minds of readers about the research. The coffee shop encounter, then, raises ethical questions for researchers who are sharing their work. What if it is later found that the harms of drinking coffee outweigh the benefits? Or that there is some other explanation for the results of the study that are unrelated to compounds in coffee? I could go on – but the point is that uncertainty colours the knowledge produced by this study in many different ways. If it is the case that the man drank more coffee because of the study, their disclaimer does not absolve them of facing the ethical challenge posed by uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Still, if only “absolutely certain” results were shared with the public, well, we’d never hear from science again.

So my questions are: At what point in the production of scientific knowledge is it most advantageous to inform publics of what scientists are doing and finding? How should the knowledge be presented?

Placenta as Protagonist

A casual fireside conversation about the placenta with a new friend last summer inspired a wonderful short story about studying placenta. It’s by Chris Benjamin, author of the new novel Drive-by Saviours. The story is a wonderful mashup of worlds… just like the placenta is a mashup of biological and social worlds occupied by mother, father, and fetus. I’m utterly impressed at Chris’ insight into this enigmatic organ which is typically so little understood and appreciated, and a little tickled that my commentary on the placenta reached into the world of literature. An excerpt from the story:

“Well,” she said, “Thank God I don’t work with the Kaili of Central Sulawesi. I’d never get the chance to study a placenta if everybody buried them.”

I smiled and nodded, wondered if she was perhaps a bit crazy. I hoped so. Crazy women liked me.

“I’m a placental scientist,” she said.

I nodded, as if that was only natural, but the revelation shocked me. “Small world,” I said. “I study ethnographic interpretations of the placenta.”

“Excuse me?”

“Um, I study various indigenous cultures and their treatments of the placenta. What it means to them and what they do with it.”

“Fascinating,” she said.

I smiled.

Chris is always looking for avenues to publish material like this. Contact him here.

Bits of Knowledge

(Un)becoming Brontosaurus

This beautiful, becoming image was painted in 1897 by Charles R. Knight when there were still brontosauruses. Not, of course, when brontosauruses actually lived. Rather, it was painted when ‘brontosaurus’ was what we called the prehistoric animal that so captures our imagination with its long neck and tail and tiny (relatively speaking) head. This painting is a delightful mashup of imagination, art, taxonomy, naming, competing truth claims, and the historicity of knowledge – that is, the ways in which knowledge is not ‘truth’ that is ‘known,’ but an evolving production (if you will excuse the pun), an accumulation of past events, be they ‘discoveries,’ ‘namings,’ postage stamps or movies (like Jurassic Park). This is a production in which ‘non-scientists’ participate, even to the chagrin of scientists. We’re now supposed to call this beast Apatosaurus, but most of us don’t, and I think there’s  something political in that. Trumping the conventions of naming that fueled the bickering described in Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus, it insinuates imagination, culture, and memory into the fold of scientific knowledge. 


Dinosaurs are a favorite topic of mine to read about on the internet. When I do this, I’m participating in a phenomenon we might call ‘internetting,’ an activity I think many of my generation, milieu, and proclivities spend a great deal of time doing. It entails seeking and consuming vast amounts of information from the internet, following the links to the next interesting subject that catches one’s attention. This comprises a chain of knowledge consumption that can go in wild trajectories.

What is significant to me about internetting are the ways in which it adds dimension to our understandings of the role of knowledge in everyday life. The purpose of internetting is not to find out information that I need in order to do or accomplish something; it is similarly not a form of study for the purposes of gaining competency or expertise. Internetting is experiencing information for the purposes of enjoyment. It is about experiencing knowledge, and finding pleasure in that experience beyond any ‘use value,’ including even retaining the information to memory.

The idea that knowledge is pleasurable is not new, but perhaps the incredible accessibility that some people have to the knowledge that fuels this pastime is unprecedented. I’d love to see a qualitative study  that analyzes the nuances of knowledge enacted by internetting. I suspect that like myself, other prolific internetters must be spurred by great curiosity.

Digital Painting by Katie Scott

Carol J Adams: Animal Activism vs. Transdisciplinarity?

Graduate students in the Department of English at Queen’s University organized a great conference last weekend entitled “Animals and Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences.” I attended the workshop entitled “Ethics and Activism: Living with and for Animals” by animal, food, and feminist activist Carol J Adams. Carol J Adams is perhaps best known for her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she makes links between meat-eating, the treatment of animals, and gender politics. She also frequently referred to her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook. Adams’ workshop was incredibly thought-provoking and her experience and wisdom were apparent.

Adams’ informal and interactive talk gave participants a chance to voice some of the ethical dilemmas and burdens they experience with regards to animals, vegetarianism/veganism, research, and activism.  How we can deal with with the trauma experienced from witnessing a world that is cruel to animals as well as the difficulties of living as a vegetarian/vegan in a meat eating world were significant themes. I had a rather specific set of concerns with regards to the topic of the day’s workshop. This is because I research scientists who do research with laboratory animals.

My contribution to the discussion (well, I did my best to articulate it) was to point out that while I am certainly someone who cares deeply about animals, the ethics of relations with animals that Adams is advancing don’t seem to be compatible with transdisciplinary research. Adams suggested that researchers in that position could think of their fieldwork as “covert” or “undercover activism,” where the costs of participating in something “unethical” is outweighed by the potential benefit of being able to expose what happens to animals in lab. However, such a position, in my opinion, is not tenable with regards to the legal, professional, and ethical codes by which social scientists are bound. I think it would constitute a form of deception if researchers did not disclose to participants that they intended to “expose”  the “secrets” of animal research; in addition, this may cause them harm. We are bound by these codes to put our human participants first. The scientists, within this system, are the ones who are responsible to the animals, and they are bound by their own professional and ethical codes in that regard. This system does not appear to permit “covert activism.”

I have a further, perhaps more philosophical, concern, but one with considerable practical implications. My work is transdisciplinary. It involves mutual interrogation and transformation of disciplines that normally do not engage each other. Much of the literature on transdisciplinarity suggests that in order for this to occur, the assumptions and commitments of disciplines need to be laid bare. Only then can dialogue happen, and only with dialogue can we begin to bridge the significant gaps between the disciplines. How could a social scientist  study the health sciences in manner that moves beyond simple critique and towards collaboration if they do as Adams had suggested? It seems that Adams’ suggested form of activism is incommensurate with transdisciplinarity. At a practical level, if it were exposed that transdisciplinary researchers were undertaking research with “covert intentions” they would never be invited back by any researcher and their transdisciplinary work would be over. It is also very unlikely that scientific researchers would take their criticism seriously or make any changes. The “us-versus-them” dichotomy that is implied by the idea of “covert activism” is not, in my opinion, compatible with the collaborative nature of transdisciplinarity. And all of this assumes that there is, in fact, something to “expose.”

I stick with what Donna Haraway (in When Species Meet, 2008) says about eating when thinking about the questions of animals in labs:

Maybe God can have a solitary meal, but terran critters cannot. In eating we are most inside the differential relationalities that make us who and what we are and that materialize what we must do if response and regard are to have any meaning personally and politically. There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace. (P. 295)

There are no absolute answers with regards to the ethics of animal research. And since there can be no final peace, we must always be reflecting and transforming. Is that possible if transdisciplinary research is not possible? I’m not so sure.

Apart from these tough questions, my favorite thing she said that day was this excellent bit of advice for the budding scholar:

This is either going to be published, or it’s going to be perfect, but it’s not going to be both.