Here’s Me Gynosplaining My Latest NYT Piece

My latest NYT piece appeared yesterday, and in the last 12 short hours since then, I have been bombarded with email from Agricultural Economists, Agribusinessmen, Deep Thinkers (“what do we mean by ‘farm’, anyway?”), Angry-men-sans-affiliation, as well as my usual helping of incoherent threats of sexual violence that pepper the epistolarity of Women With Opinions On The Internet.

You’d be amazed at the number of people (all men so far) who stayed up late last night writing to explain to me that FARMING IS JUST FINE.  IT’S FINE.  IT’S ALL FINE.

Which is all very well and good except NOPE IT’S NOT FINE. My work in plant biology and environmental science has me worried about (among other things) the very high rates of food waste and food-intake-related chronic disease in America, and I don’t think that we’ll ever make progress on these issues until agriculture joins the conversation as a primary driver.  Also, the nonsensical nature of burning fuel in gas tanks to grow and harvest corn, in order to ferment the corn into fuel, that we then burn in gas tanks — should be recognized for the Möbius strip that it is.

Disclosure: my family has never farmed, though I had a grandfather who slaughtered hogs for a living, and who used to periodically threaten to move the family ‘up north’ and take up potato farming, whilst waving the tattered deed to five acres north of St. Cloud.  This threat was enough to strike fear deep into the hearts of his wife and children, which included my mother — which is to say that farming has never been easy.  I am very grateful to the farmers that have taken the time to share their lives with me over the course of my education, and the ones that continue to do so through the email.  Perhaps they are not representative of all farmers, but that’s the nature of interpersonal relationships.

A lot of readers also told me that I make them have a sad whenever I write, and why must that be?  To this I respond, welp, looking back on the past is an inherently melancholy practice, as is driving long distances while you’re hungry.  For what it’s worth, I am always somehow cheered by a joke told to me since I was a child, and probably to others for decades before that:

A farmer wins the lottery.  

The news station asks him what he’s going to do with the money. 
 
He answers, “Oh I’ll probably just keep farming until it’s all gone.”

I believe that there will always be a group of patriots driven to feed their fellow citizens.  I think it’s a relic trait from the earliest human communities, part of a yearning to take care of each other.  The amount of crap that these patriots will put up with for the privilege of serving is astonishing, as we’ve seen decade after decade since the dawn of time.  I’m not a farmer and I don’t pretend to know how farmers “should” vote, but I do believe that it makes sense to address farming interests seriously and comprehensively during, what was after all, a campaign for the highest political office in the nation. We didn’t see this in 2016, and we haven’t seen it for more than a decade.

 

Do you have a super-angry response to this? For Heaven’s sake, get thee over to the comments section of this blog without delay!

How I Learned to Trust The Needle

Recently, a millennial came to my office and asked me if she should get vaccinated, even though her mom had never wanted her to.  I didn’t tell her what to do.  Instead, I told her why I vaccinate my own son.  Here’s what I said.

 

How I Learned to Trust The Needle

When my son was a couple of months old, I took him to the third of his many well-baby appointments. On that day, our pediatrician approached me tentatively. “This is the appropriate time for his vaccinations,” she informed me in a cautious, even tone.

“Load him up!” I screamed, “Give him a double!” My baby son looked up at us and blinked, unperturbed by the hysterics to which he had become accustomed in utero. I signed some papers, and the doctor vaccinated him against an assortment of maladies. More than a decade has passed since then, and today I have a healthy kid whose only fault is that he mostly takes after me. I am thoroughly grateful, despite the fact that I am not quite sure whom to thank. He is ten years old.

My dad is ninety-one years old, and is equally healthy if not more so. He has concrete plans for becoming 92, and then eventually 102, and Heaven help any medical professional at the Mayo Clinic who isn’t working hard enough to make this happen. As per usual, my good fortune exceeds what I deserve, even to the fact that my father’s exquisite sense of humor has persisted fully intact. His jokes are simultaneously dry yet cheerful, derisive yet kind, ridiculous yet sensible — it is from the juxtaposition that I draw so much delight — and from the fact that I’m never really sure whether he’s putting me on.

My father, born in 1923, tells me stories. They start out fantastically, like the one about the two monkeys living in a concrete cell that served as the town’s “zoo” during the 30s (I never got a straight answer about where they went during the winter). It is uncanny, though, how every story ends on familiar ground: adults harangued children for listening to too much radio, warning that it would rot their minds; political slogans justifying the Second World War were mothballed and then employed verbatim for the Korean War and then trotted out again for the Viet Nam War. When my father tells stories about the past it seems that my life is always the ending, the purpose or the moral. He truly believes my generation to be on equal footing with his, and that our shared present represents a constellation of mistakes and problems that have been solved before and will be solved again.

My dad tells a story about when he was seven and his friend’s father (who had been in World War One) decided that it was high time for both boys to learn how to shoot a gun and specifically took them down to the elementary schoolyard to practice because it was the only place where you could be certain that you wouldn’t hit anybody’s horse. My father also tells about his first day of school in 1929, when only half of his class from the previous year showed up. The other half was being kept at home either by polio itself or by their mother’s terror of it. He keenly remembers being a frightened child helpless against a monstrous fear that had subjugated even the all-powerful grown-ups that seemed all to be speaking in hushed tones about 1916. My father goes on to tell about how happy he was in 1955 to learn that a polio vaccine would be available for his own children. And so in 1975, I stood in line and claimed my magic sugar cube while US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts shared orbit; the Space Race was finally over and we had all won. From my father’s perspective, vaccinating me was an act of love and care, of freely giving me something that he never got. And this is the core practice of parenting, or so I am learning. I often tell my son about my miserable month-long bout with chickenpox when I was twelve, and about how glad and grateful I am that he will not have to go through the same. For he is, of course, precious to me – just as precious as unvaccinated children are to their unconvinced mothers.

I am a laboratory chemist (more or less) whose original techniques have found a serendipitous utility within medical research. When I first began to apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health, my then-institution required me to take an extensive online course in human subjects research ethics. Eager to do anything that might lead to funding, I launched into many hours designed to impress upon me the significance and necessity of the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki, which is the international standard document of ethical principles for medical research. Within that course I learned about the horrible, almost inconceivable, abuses in medical research that have taken place in America, from Tuskegee to Davenport, from Holmesburg Prison to the Stanford Prison. And not as any Wikipedia summary, either, I had to learn the details — the design of these experiments and the sad goals under pursuit – how rationale had been misguided and then transfigured by madness time and again. “Holy Hell,” I remember thinking to myself, “You’d have to be out of your tree to agree to participate in medical research in this country.” During the next several years, however, my alarm was tempered by real-life interactions with medical researchers at three different institutions, all of whom have won my unqualified trust, respect and admiration, and some of whom suffer me to call them at any hour of the day or night while we strive quixotic to address what feels like an insurmountable problem: America’s sugar addiction.

Lately I’ve been dismayed to see that in response to the recent measles outbreaks, Science communicators have launched an energetic campaign attempting to shame and/or guilt parents (particularly mothers) into vaccinating their children, to ostracize unvaccinated children from public and private institutions and to generally slander the intellect of anyone who dares to publicly mistrust the science of vaccination. Now, I don’t claim to be some sort of sci-comm expert or anything, but I do know that this approach will not work. How do I know that? Because people are constantly going around telling me what to do, and I respond by go around never doing any of it. When I actually do do things, there’s a pattern. I do what has been consistently modeled for me by the people whom I trust. I’ve internalized this trust as learning and concrete benefits have come to me by way of its application. In contrast, I see no benefit in further alienating the people in whom Science has made no such effort to foster trust, particularly while the stakes are so very high.

Science’s self-righteous disdain towards what we deem to be ignorance is an expression of our fear. It is posturing meant to protect us from what we dare not face: that the public’s mistrust is something that we have earned. In no arena has mistrust been more fully earned than within medical research, with egregious examples occurring even in our present century. The true pity is that although desperate malignity within scientific research is extremely rare, Science routinely reinforces the public’s mistrust with our everyday foibles — by talking down to people, by excluding people, by sending mixed signals while seeking attention, by not insisting upon subtlety and complexity from the journalists who interview us. To actually address why parents opt out of vaccinations, Science must ask itself difficult and uncomfortable questions about why such a large and fundamental trust-gap exists, and what we plan to do about it.

I trust Science because I am consistently exposed to its best side. As a research scientist, I interact daily with women and men who are working very hard for very little, in decades-long pursuit of dreams that, with luck, might come true once in a century. For my part, I know only the basics of how vaccines work, but my direct life experiences make me confident that the testing of these vaccines and the scrutiny of their results are conducted with the same care and integrity that was hammered into me during my scientific training. I willingly and eagerly vaccinate my child because I trust that the needle delivers 0.25 cc of the best of what our generation is capable, though my eyes are also open to the damage that medical science has wrought. The world that my father grew up in was plagued by many ills – war, hunger, injustice — and most of them are still with us. Polio is not. The polio vaccine, the smallpox vaccine, the measles vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine, the chickenpox vaccine, and the rest, are more than medicine: they are the precious few concrete examples of how we can rise as a people, and how Science is most noble when it labors in the tradition of that rising. Every year, I honor that tradition first by vaccinating my son, and then by returning to my lab to work yet another long day.

 

Do you wish to obtain vaccinations? This site can help you figure out where to go, and how much it will cost (if anything). 

In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Note: this post is triggering. Are you sure that you want to read it right now? 

 

In Defense of The Trigger Warning

Getting triggered is no fun. The first place that I feel it is in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet as the initial shock wears off and an inflammation feedback cycle begins. The extremities of my hands and feet begin to burn and itch and flush bright red. I’ve come to recognize this odd sensation as a harbinger of further symptoms, which never fail to materialize. My reaction progresses into a sickening onslaught of anxiety, as if my nervous system had been torn out of my body and relocated naked to the surface of my skin. I feel as if I were seconds away from taking a prolonged oral exam in a subject that I have never studied in front of a panel of Supreme Court judges whose verdict will decide my fate as to the guillotine that restrains me, even while my mind is lucidly aware that this is hardly the case. Left unabated, my panic can cascade until it becomes “unmanageable,” to parrot a canonical clinical understatement. In order to disrupt the cascade, I take a low-dose of prescription alpha-blocker that incites sleep, which somehow serves to reboot my neural hard drive. This is good because I’ll eventually wake up more or less ready to face a new day on my own terms.

I know right? It sucks. It interferes with deadlines, teaching, driving, getting to little league on time – you-name-it. The arguably biggest part of the reason that it sucks so bad centers around my inability to accurately predict when and where I might be dealing with the experience described above. Rationally, I understand that because I was in abject terror once a long time ago, my body over-anticipates danger in the naive hope of ensuring my future safety absolutely. Unfortunately for me, this rational understanding of the process cannot, in itself, make it stop – and so I must merely try to manage my reaction until it passes. It happens less and less as the years go by, so that’s good anyway. Every survivor is a unique individual and the triggering process is equally specific. I can’t speak to anybody else’s symptoms or experience, no matter how similar our trauma, but I sure as hell can speak about mine. If you happen to know of a sure-fire better way to manage the above, then I’m all ears. My own method is the result of more than a decade of deliberate trial and error governed by trustworthy medical input.

I am similar to a lot of survivors in that descriptions of sexual violence and its aftermath – even rather clinical ones – are reasonably likely candidates for triggering. But then again, not always. Here’s something that you may find puzzling: there’s this short story that I read about once a year (“Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson). I’m not necessarily suggesting that you read it; I just provided the link as reference. Trust me when I tell you that it can hold its own against snuff pornography in terms of its Trigger Index. It includes first-person descriptions of starvation, homelessness, sexual violence and involuntary abortion. It is also the most novel, daring and skilled writing that I’ve ever read concerning climate change. It’s a narrative of apocalyptic environmental deterioration that explores the potential for disastrous social consequences specific to women’s lives. Maybe I keep reading it because I am a perverse and obsessive masochist. Maybe I read it because it is an exceptional piece of literature that also triggers an explosion of imagination that made me view Global Change in a whole new light. Maybe both. I will not stop reading it because what I gain from it out-balances the price that its reading exacts. I do not include it on the syllabus for my course on Global Change, and I feel somewhat conflicted about this. I can’t quite figure out how to write an appropriate trigger warning and until I do, I’ll teach a different text.

Some apparently believe that trigger warnings encourage survivors to indulge themselves in trauma-avoidance. In fact, I’ve read more than one article that comes dangerously close to suggesting that getting triggered is actually therapeutic for survivors. To this I respond, “LOL if only it were that easy!” The truth is that trigger warnings empower me. They give me a precious modicum of control over when and where I may anticipate the symptoms that I described within the first paragraph of this post. This is of great value to me. My placement of this value does not reflect a belief that it is the world’s responsibility never to trigger me. Indeed, I believe that trigger warnings are a courtesy. I also believe that you probably have no idea of the true depth of my gratitude when this courtesy is extended to me. Have you ever felt bad about sexual violence and wondered what you could do about it? Idea: you can put a goddam trigger warning on the sensitive materials that you request others to read. It won’t hurt the people who don’t need it, and it might slightly smooth the rocky ground that some of us must traverse indefinitely. It is a gift that, for whatever crazy messed-up reason, you have the power to give. Will you give it? I fear that I’ll sound like a postmodern cliché when I tell you that writing a post about triggering is in itself sort of triggering, but it will serve to explain why you won’t find me yukking it up on Twitter for a bit. If you’re reading this, I weighed the pros and cons, and then decided to go ahead and post. Because that’s what my life is when it comes to the topic of sexual violence. Because constantly evaluating the trade-off between bodily risk and uncertain gain is what women’s lives are.

 

Heaven knows that the internet hasn’t been stingy in its supply of discussion as to the legitimacy of the trigger warning.  Everybody and his brother have an opinion about it, ranging from the New Republic to the NYT to the AAUP, each of whom have graced us with their cyber-statements.  I wrote this because no where within this raging verbstorm can I find a convincing description of triggering, which (for me) is a physiological phenomenon.  And I think it matters.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Since I contributed this Op-Ed to an issue of last month’s New York Times, I have received a massive amount of reaction to it. For the most part, I have been listening but not talking. Now after thinking carefully, I find that I have a few more things to say.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Commenters have raised several issues: foremost among them is that my story, as well as my very self, are not representative of all women. This is a valid criticism. I have told my story with accuracy and honesty after long contemplation, but it is my story only. I will not presume to tell another woman’s story.

The study by Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford and Katie Hinde reports data gained from hundreds of women. My experience differed from the majority of respondents in Clancy et al. 2014 in some critical ways. Most importantly, my assault involved a stranger who was not a fellow scientist. In contrast, women respondents within Clancy et al. 2014 reported that “their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”  This makes the following a crucial piece of information: The threat of assault is most likely to arise from within the cohort of travelling scientists.

Commenters have noted that my piece does not treat the multiple issues of race and class that intersect with violence against women. This valid criticism is a part of a much larger ongoing discussion examining the exclusionary history of mainstream feminism. I recommend this post by Ambika Kamath as particularly insightful about my piece; her follow up is also important.

Many commenters also noted that violence against women is hardly a problem unique to Science. As I wrote, I believe violence against women arises from the “fundamental and culturally-learned power imbalance between men and women” (my words), a pre-existing condition within virtually every sphere of our lives. It is equally valid to specifically question whether women are safe while practicing Science as it is to question whether they are safe anywhere while doing anything.

Commenters have critiqued the Colonizer mentality that drove the reconnaissance that I attempted. This is absolutely valid. The idea that an establishing scientist must go into an unstudied locality and claim it as one’s own was a model in common use twenty years ago. Since then things have changed for the better, and my grantsmanship demonstrates how my own approach has evolved. The best international field programs are now shared ventures with extensive local participation. Scientific funding agencies actively promote and often require the prior establishment of international collaboration to support foreign fieldwork. The rise of the internet after Y2K made the process of opening correspondence with international colleagues immeasurably easier, and smartphones have made travel easier, and safer, as well.

I would like to address the emails that I have received, because I will not be able to answer them individually.

To the college students who have written to ask me if they should pursue Science given the realities that I have named: I have experienced great joy while working as a Scientist, and I cannot imagine my life any other way. I have also experienced great fear and I have tried to describe its effect on me to the best of my ability. In the end, I would not trade my career for any other calling. I have given all my efforts to Science and it has rewarded my imagination with riches beyond description. Observations that I have made will live on in libraries long after I am dead. I will always believe that being a Scientist is the best job in the world.

To the administrators who have sent me drafts of new policy guidelines for fieldwork: I regret to tell you that I will not be able to evaluate them or give you input. There are women and men at your institution who have valuable insight into what is needed. But before you ask them to pour effort into creating new policy, you must find a way to free them from some of their other duties.

To the people who have written to ask me how to prepare their daughters for a career in Science: Prepare her the same way you prepare her for Life. Tell your daughter that she is more than her body. Tell her that she has a precious heart and mind and soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. My parents and I have not always seen eye to eye, but I have never doubted that they believe this about me. This is what got me through. You must tell this to your daughter often, so that it builds with interest like savings that she can count upon if she is ever in need of a very large withdrawal.

To the people who have written to tell me their own stories of pain and anguish: What happened to us was wrong and evil and not our fault. Hear me: you are more than a body. You have a precious heart and a mind and a soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. I believe that about me, and I believe that about you.

To my colleagues near and far: Everything I learned during my scientific training tells me that Clancy et al. 2014 represents quality research that should be used to change the world. When I read it, I encountered the data of hundreds of broken hearts and it broke mine open also. Please do not harden yours against its findings, even if they make you uncomfortable. We can still make Science into the noble institution that we hoped it would be. Print it out, take it to your Chair or Dean, and start the conversation.

Scientists all over the United States are already planning for their next field season. I cannot see a way to make these endeavors safer that does not involve all of us starting to talk openly about these issues. This year, as during every other, our universities, colleges and research institutes will send thousands of women into the field in order to study our natural world. I spoke out because I know that their safety is more important than my discomfort, and yours.

 

Here’s one more link to Clancy et al., 2014.  Please read it and distribute (it’s Open Access).

 

 
 

32 Minutes of Fancy Words Coming Out of My Head

Here’s a thirty-two minute interview that I did for the Breaking Bio podcast, within which the intrepid Tom Houslay basically triggers an eruption of verbal phytophilia, within which I explain that plants are beyond amazing and ever so important to study and fund me please.

If you prefer, you are welcome to skip to the last five minutes [starts at 26:30], within which I discuss my ups and downs on social media, within which I emphasize how grateful I am for readers like you.

Why not follow @BreakingBio to get updates on each new episode, within which are usually featured people more interesting than me?

Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Here’s a blog about something that happened today that’s kind of about me but also kind of not about me.  It’s hard to tell sometimes. 

Dear Colleague,

Good evening! We’ve worked together for a few years now. Today you sent an email to the Chair that described my work as “pathetic” and asked, “Do she otherwise contribute to the Dept? [sic])” Only you didn’t send it to the Chair of our department. You sent it to me. Oops!

The truly unfortunate thing about your error is that it brings forward my worst behavior, my “bad side” if you will, and you’ll see this demonstrated in a moment. Your email made me feel almost all teh feels. It made me defensive. “She do contribute!” I wanted to remonstrate, “Oh how she do!” Then I realized that there is nothing I can show that will convince either of us that I’ve done enough work and accomplished something good. I wasn’t raised to believe that about myself, and my guess is that you weren’t raised to believe that about me either. What a pickle.

Your email made me rageful. However much disgust you feel towards me is now reciprocated in the disgust that I feel towards you. I will remember both you and your words, to the detriment of us both. Wow. It wasn’t very ladylike of me to admit that, now was it? See, now I’m failing to absorb your contempt gracefully. Sigh.

Things are further deteriorating, because your email also made me think, and thinking is one of my worst behaviors. I thought about all of the times that I’ve gotten the clear message that I don’t belong in Science. Gee, your email was a love-letter compared to some of the stuff I heard as a student. And because I know I’m not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who work in Science. And because I know we’re not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who have left Science because, unlike me, they had at least one other option that looked better.

It made me wonder. “Why the f*ck are there any women in Science at all?” I keep asking myself. Is the price that I paid and keep paying worth it? I am sure that you believe that you’ve struggled during your career. Did you ever skip a holiday in order to meet a deadline? Me too! Did you ever spend a night in a Turkish police station trying to explain the concept of rape? No? Well, I did. It can really disrupt your field season, Boy howdy. I really wish that I could say that I am special in this respect. I know that I am not.

Your words impressed me. When I read them, I felt a tingle down my legs as my endocrine glands pumped fight-or-flight hormones into my quadriceps. I became physiologically prepared to run away from the university. Do you ever feel that way at your desk? When you read a paper that contradicts your findings? When you get a proposal rejected? Do the small disappointments of our calling threaten you viscerally, like a hunted animal who has recognized the smell of her predator? Could your career come apart like a sweater unraveling, one that you have knitted all of your life? No. Supposedly mine can’t either. But I feel as if it could. Gosh, your words have power.

Guess what, I did you a favor. I forwarded your email without comment on to its intended recipient, and I put you in the cc: field. I can explain to you how that works if you ask me nicely. I’m sorry for the awkwardness, but trust me, it won’t last. We’re just the latest contestants on everybody’s favorite game-show Let’s Pretend Nothing Happened! I’ll take print-it-out-and-shove-it-in-a-file for $400.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I am going to give you some anyway: Learn to use your email. That “to:” field is not there just for decoration and I seem to remember “reply-all:” tripping you up more than once during the last few years. But don’t be discouraged, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already learned how to type out what you really think and send it out into the world. I am just now learning how to do the same.

Sincerely Yours,

Hope Jahren

Why am I writing all this stuff? Because I can’t help it. You can read more about that here.