Book review: Suffering Succotash.

What is the deal with the picky eater?

Is she simply being willful, choosing the dinner table as a battlefield on which to fight for her right to self-determination? Or, is the behavior that those purveyors of succotash and fruit cup interpret as willfulness actually rooted in factors that are beyond the picky eater’s control? If the latter, is the picky eater doomed to a lifetime of pickiness, or can help be found for it?

These are the questions at the center of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Its author, Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, survived a childhood of picky eating, grappled with the persistence of pickiness into adulthood, went to culinary school, became a cheesemonger and food writer, and then mounted her quest for explanations of pickiness.

Her book tries to illuminate the origin story of picky eaters. Is it in their taste buds, and if so, due to the number of taste buds or to their sensitivity, to genetic factors driving their detection power or to environmental impacts on their operation? Is it rather their keen sense of smell that triggers pickiness? An overachieving gag-reflex? Their “emotional” stomachs? Or maybe how they were raised by the people feeding them when they were young? Are there good evolutionary reasons for the pickiness of picky eaters — and will this pickiness again be adaptive when the zombie apocalypse renders our food supply less safe in various ways?

As well, Lucianovic inquires into the likely fates of picky eaters. Are picky eaters destined to spawn more picky eaters? Can picky eaters find lasting love with humans who are significantly less discriminating about what they eat? Can picky eaters ever get over their pickiness? (Spoiler: The answers to the last two of these questions here are both “To a significant extent, yes!”)

One of the joys of this book is how Lucianovic’s narrative weaves along the path of science-y question she was prompted to ask by her troubled relationship with yucky foods as with the people trying to feed them to her. Lucianovic leads us on a non-scientist’s journey through science on a quest to better understand features of her everyday life that mattered to her — and, which likely matter to readers who are themselves picky eaters or have picky eaters in their lives. After all, you’ve got to eat.

Suffering Succotash explores a wide swath of the science behind the foods people like, the foods people hate, and the various features that might make some of us pickier eaters that others, without ever seeming like a science book. Indeed, Lucianovic is candid about the usefulness (and limits) of the scientific literature to the lay person trying to find answers to her questions:

When you’re in search of very specific information, pawing through scientific papers is like disemboweling one of those Russian nesting dolls. The first article makes a claim and gives just enough information to be intriguing and useless, unless you look up the source article behind that claim. The source article leads to another claim, and therefore another source article that needs to be looked up, and another and another until you finally reach the tiniest of all the dolls, which hopefully is where all the answers will be found since the tiniest of all dolls can’t be opened. (31)

The literature, thankfully, was just one source of information in Lucianovic’s journey. Alongside it, she partook of a veritable smorgasbord of test-strips, questionnaires, genotypying, and interviews with scientists who work on very aspects of how we taste food and why we react to foods the way we do. She even got to try her hand at some of the relevant laboratory techniques at the Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia.

What she found was that there are not simple scientific answers to the question of why some people are pickier eaters and others are not. Instead, there seems to be a complicated interplay of many different kinds of factors. She also discovered some of the limitations of the scientific tools at our disposal to identify potential causal factors behind pickiness or to reliably sort the picky from the not-so-picky eaters. However, in describing the shortcomings of taste-tests, the imprecision of questionnaires, the sheer number of factors that may (or may not) be at play in making peaches a food to be loathed, Lucianovic manages to convey an enthusiasm about the scientific search to understand picky eaters even a little better, not a frustration that science hasn’t nailed down The Answer yet.

There are many other strands woven into Suffering Succotash along with the scientific journey, including personal reminiscences of coping with picky eating as a kid — and then as an adult trying very hard not to be an inconvenient houseguest, interviews with other picky eaters about their own experiences with foods, a meditation on how parenting strategies might entrench or defuse pickiness, consideration of the extent to which eating preferences can be negotiable (or non-negotioable) in relationships, and practical strategies for overcoming one’s own pickiness — and for moving through a world of restaurants and friends’ dinner tables with the elements of pickiness that persist. These other strands, and the seamless (and often hilarious) manner in which Lucianovic connects them to the scientific questions and answers, make Suffering Succotash the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn’t think he or she wants to read a popular science book.

Plus, there are recipes included. My offspring are surely not the world’s pickiest eaters, but they have strong views about a few notorious vegetables. However, when prepared according to the recipes included in Suffering Succotash, those vegetables were good enough that my kids wanted seconds, and thirds.

Book review: Uncaged.

In our modern world, many of the things that contribute to the mostly smooth running of our day-to-day lives are largely invisible to us. We tend to notice them only when they break. Uncaged, a thriller by Paul McKellips, identifies animal research as one of the activities in the background supporting the quality of life we take for granted, and explores what might happen if all the animal research in the U.S. ended overnight.

Part of the fun of a thriller is the unfolding of plot turns and the uncertainty about which characters who come into focus will end up becoming important. Therefore, in order not to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet, I’m not going to say much about the details of the plot or the main characters.

The crisis emerges from a confluence of events and an intertwining of the actions of disparate persons acting in ignorance of each other. This complex tangle of causal factors is one of the most compelling parts of the narrative. McKellips gives us “good guys,” “bad guys,” and ordinary folks just trying to get by and to satisfy whatever they think their job description or life circumstances demand of them, weaving a tapestry where each triggers chains of events that compound in ways they could scarcely have foreseen. This is a viscerally persuasive picture of how connected we are to each other, whether by political processes, public health infrastructure, the food supply, or the germ pool.

There is much to like in Uncaged. The central characters are complex, engaging, and even surprising. McKellips is deft in his descriptions of events, especially the impacts of causal chains initiated by nature or by human action on researchers and on members of the public. Especially strong are McKellips’s explanations of scientific techniques and rationales for animal research in ways that are reasonably accessible to the lay reader without being oversimplified.

Uncaged gets to the crux of the societal debate about scientific animal use in a statement issued by the President of the United States as, in response to a series of events, he issues an executive order halting animal research. This president spells out his take on the need — or not — for continued biomedical research with animals:

I realize that the National Institutes of Health grants billions of dollars to American universities and our brightest scientists for biomedical research each year. But there comes a point when we must ask ourselves — that we must seriously question — has our health reached the level of “good enough”? Think of all the medicine we have available to us today. It’s amazing. It’s plenty. It’s more than we have had available in the history of humanity. And for those of us who need medicines, surgeries, therapies and diagnostic tools — it is the sum total of all that we have available to us today. If it’s good enough for those of us who need it today, then perhaps it’s good enough for those who will need it tomorrow as well. Every generation has searched for the fountain of youth. But can we afford to spend more time, more money, and — frankly — more animals just to live longer? Natural selection is an uninvited guest within every family. Some of us will die old; some of us will die far too young. We cannot continue to fund the search for the fountain of youth. We must realize that certain diseases of aging — such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s — are inevitable. Our lifestyles and nutrition are environmental factors that certainly contribute to our health. How much longer can we pretend to play the role of God in our own laboratories? (58-59)

In some ways, this statement is the ethical pivot-point around which all the events of the novel — and the reader’s moral calculations — turn. How do we gauge “good enough”? Who gets to make the call, the people for whom modern medicine is more or less sufficient, or the people whose ailments still have no good treatment? What kind of process ought we as a society to use for this assessment?

These live questions end up being beside the point within the universe of Uncaged though. The president issuing this statement has become, to all appearances, a one-man death panel.

McKellips develops a compelling and diverse selection of minor characters here: capitalists, terrorists, animal researchers, animal rights activists, military personnel, political appointees. Some of these (especially the animal rights activists) are clearly based on particular real people who are instantly recognizable to those who have been paying attention to the targeting of researchers in recent years. (If you’ve followed the extremists and their efforts less closely, entering bits of text from the communiques of the fictional animal rights organizations into a search engine is likely to help you get a look at their real-life counterparts.)

But, while McKellips’s portrayal of the animal rights activists is accurate in capturing their rhetoric, these key players who are central in creating the crisis to which the protagonists must respond remain ciphers. The reader gets little sense of the events or thought processes that brought them to these positions, or of the sorts of internal conflicts that might occur within animal rights organizations — or within the hearts and minds of individual activists.

Maybe this is unavoidable — the internet animal rights activists often do seem like ciphers who work very hard to deny the complexities acknowledged by the researchers in Uncaged. But, perhaps na├»vely, I have a hard time believing they are not more complex in real life than this.

As well, I would have liked for Uncaged to give us more of a glimpse into the internal workings of the executive branch — how the president and his cabinet made the decision to issue the executive order for a moratorium on animal research, what kinds of arguments various advisors might have offered for or against this order, what assemblage of political considerations, ideals, gut feelings, and unforeseen consequences born of incomplete information or sheer ignorance might have been at work. But maybe presidents, cabinet members, agency heads, and other political animals are ciphers, too — at least to research scientists who have to navigate the research environment these political animals establish and then rearrange.

Maybe this is an instance of the author grappling with the same challenge researchers face: you can’t build a realistic model without accurate and detailed information about the system you’re modeling. Maybe making such a large cast of characters more nuanced, and drawing us deeply into their inner lives, would have undercut the taut pacing of what is, after all, intended as an action thriller.

But to me, this feels like a missed opportunity. Ultimately, I worry that the various players in Uncaged — and worse, their real life counterparts — the researchers and other advocates of humane animal research, the animal rights activists, the political animals, and the various segments of the broader public — continue to see each other as ciphers rather than trying to get in each others heads and figure out where their adversaries are coming from, the better to be able to reflect upon and address the real concerns that are driving people. Modeling your opponents as automata has a certain efficiency, but to me it leaves the resolution feeling somewhat hollow — and it’s certainly not a strategy for engagement that I see leading to healthy civil society in real life.

I suspect, though, that my disappointments are a side-effect of the fact that I am not a newcomer to these disputes. For readers not already immersed in the battles over research with animals, Uncaged renders researchers as complex human beings to whom one can relate. This is a good read for someone who wants a thriller that also conveys a compelling picture of what motivates various lines of biomedical research — and why such research might matter to us all.

Book review: Coming of Age on Zoloft.

One of the interesting and inescapable features of our knowledge-building efforts is just how hard it can be to nail down objective facts. It is especially challenging to tell an objective story when the object of study is us. It’s true that we have privileged information of a particular sort (our own experience of what it is like to be us), but we simultaneously have the impediment of never being able fully to shed that experience. As well, our immediate experience is necessarily particular — none of us knows what it is like to be human in general, just what is is like to be the particular human each of us happens to be. Indeed, if you take Heraclitus seriously (he of the impossibility of stepping in the same river twice), you might not even know what it is like to be you so much as what it is like to be you so far.

All of this complicates the stories we might try to tell about how our minds are connected to our brains, what it means for those brains to be well, and what it is for us to be ourselves or not-ourselves, especially during stretches in our lives when the task that demands our attention might be figuring out who the hell we are in the first place.

Katherine Sharpe’s new book Coming of Age on Zoloft: how antidepressants cheered us up, let us down, and changed who we are, leads us into this territory while avoiding the excesses of either ponderous philosophical treatise or catchy but overly reductive cartoon neuroscience. Rather, Sharpe draws on dozens of interviews with people prescribed selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for significant stretches from adolescence through early adulthood, and on her own experiences with antidepressants, to see how depression and antidepressants feature in the stories people tell about themselves. A major thread throughout the book is the question of how our pharmaceutical approach to mental health impacts the lives of diagnosed individuals (for better or worse), but also how it impacts our broader societal attitudes toward depression and toward the project of growing up. Sharpe writes:

When I first began to use Zoloft, my inability to pick apart my “real” thoughts and emotions from those imparted by the drug made me feel bereft. The trouble seemed to have everything to do with being young. I was conscious of needing to figure out my own interests and point myself in a direction in the world, and the fact of being on medication seemed frighteningly to compound the possibilities for error. How could I ever find my way in life if I didn’t even know which feelings were mine? (xvii)

Interleaved between personal accounts, Sharpe describes some of the larger forces whose confluence helps explain the growing ubiquity of SSRIs. One of these is the concerted effort during the revisions that updated the DSM-II to the DSM-III to abandon Freud-inflected frameworks for mental disorders which saw the causal origins of depression in relationships and replace them with checklists of symptoms (to be assessed in isolation from additional facts about what might be happening in the patient’s life) which might or might not be connected to hunches about causal origins of depression based on what scientists think they know about the actions on various neurotransmitters of drugs that seem to treat the symptoms on the checklist. Suddenly being depressed was an official diagnosis based on having particular symptoms that put you in that category — and in the bargain it was no longer approached as a possibly appropriate response to external circumstances. Sharpe also discusses the rise of direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs, which told us how to understand our feelings as symptoms and encouraged us to “talk to your doctor” about getting help from them, as well as the influence of managed care — and of funding priorities within the arena of psychiatric research — in making treatment with a pill the preferred treatment over time-consuming and “unpatentable talk-treatments.” (184)

Sharpe discusses interviewees’, and her own, experiences with talk therapy, and their experiences of trying to get off SSRIs (with varying degrees of medical supervision or premeditation) to find out whether one’s depression is an unrelenting chronic illness the having of which is a permanent fact about oneself, like having Type I diabetes, or whether it might be a transient state, something with which one needs help for a while before going back to normal. Or, if not normal, at least functional enough.

The exploration in Coming of Age on Zoloft is beautifully attentive to the ways that “functional enough” depends on a person’s interaction with environment — with family and friends, with demands of school or work or unstructured days and weeks stretching before you — and on a person’s internal dialogue with oneself — about who you are, how you feel, what you feel driven to do, what feels too overwhelming to face. Sharpe offers an especially compelling glimpse at how the forces from the world and the voices from one’s head sometimes collide, producing what professionals on college campuses describe as a significant deterioration of the baseline of mental health for their incoming students:

One college president lamented that the “moments of woolgathering, dreaming, improvisation” that were seen as part and parcel of a liberal arts education a generation ago had become a hard sell for today’s brand of highly driven students. Experts agreed that undergraduates were in a bigger hurry than ever before, expected by teachers, parents, and themselves to produce more work, of higher quality, in the same finite amount of time. (253)

Such high expectations — and the broader message that productivity is a duty — set the bar high enough that failure may become an alarmingly likely outcome. (Indeed, Sharpe quotes a Manhattan psychiatrist who raises the possibility that some college students and recent graduates “are turning to pharmaceuticals to make something possible that’s not healthy or normal.” (269)) These elevated expectations seem also to be of a piece with the broader societal mindset that makes it easier to get health coverage for a medication-check appointment than for talk-therapy. Just do the cheapest, fastest thing that lets you function well enough to get back to work. Since knowing what you want or who you are is not of primary value, exploring, reflecting, or simply being is a waste of time.

Here, of course, what kind of psychological state is functional or dysfunctional surely has something to do with what our society values, with what it demand of us. To the extent that our society is made up of individual people, those values, those demands, may be inextricably linked with whether people generally have the time, the space, the encouragement, the freedom to find or choose their own values, to be the authors (to at least some degree) of their own lives.

Finding meaning — creating meaning — is, at least experientially, connected to so much more than the release or reuptake of chemicals in our brains. Yet, as Sharpe describes, our efforts to create meaning get tangled in questions about the influence of those chemicals, especially when SSRIs are part of the story.

I no longer simply grapple with who I can become and what kind of effort it will require. Now I also grapple with the question of whether I am losing something important — cheating somehow — if I use a psychopharmaceutical to reduce the amount of effort required, or to increase my stamina to keep trying … or to lower my standards enough that being where I am (rather than trying to be better along some dimension or another) is OK with me.

And, getting satisfying answers to these questions, or even strategies for approaching them, is made harder when it seems like our society is not terribly tolerant of the woolgatherers, the grumpy, the introverted, the sad. Our right to pursue happiness (where failure is an option) has been transformed to a duty to be happy. Meanwhile, the stigma of mental illness and of needing medication to treat is dances hand in hand with the stigma attached to not conforming perfectly to societal expectations and definitions of “normal”.

In the end, what can it mean to feel “normal” when I can never get first-hand knowledge of how it feels to be anyone else? Is the “normal” I’m reaching for some state from my past, or some future state I haven’t yet experienced? Will I know it when I get there? And I can I reliably evaluate my own moods, personality, or plans with the organ whose functioning is in question?

With engaging interviews and sometimes achingly beautiful self-reflection, Coming of Age on Zoloft leads us through the terrain of these questions, illuminates the ways our pharmaceutical approach to depression makes them more fraught, and ultimately suggests the possibility that grappling with them may always have been important for our human flourishing, even without SSRIs in our systems.

Blogging and recycling: thoughts on the ethics of reuse.

Owing to summer-session teaching and a sprained ankle, I have been less attentive to the churn of online happenings than I usually am, but an email from SciCurious brought to my attention a recent controversy about a blogger’s “self-plagiarism” of his own earlier writing in his blog posts (and in one of his books).

SciCurious asked for my thoughts on the matter, and what follows is very close to what I emailed her in reply this morning. I should note that these thoughts were composed before I took to the Googles to look for links or to read up on the details of the particular controversy playing out. This means that I’ve spoken to what I understand as the general lay of the ethical land here, but I have probably not addressed some of the specific details that people elsewhere are discussing.

Here’s the broad question: Is it unethical for a blogger to reuse in blog posts material she has published before (including in earlier blog posts)?

A lot of people who write blogs are using them with the clear intention (clear at least to themselves) of developing ideas for “more serious” writing projects — books, or magazine articles or what have you. I myself am leaning heavily on stuff I’ve blogged over the past seven-plus years in writing the textbook I’m trying to finish, and plan similarly to draw on old blog posts for at least two other books that are in my head (if I can ever get them out of my head and into book form).

That this is an intended outcome is part of why many blog authors who are lucky enough get paying blogging gigs, especially those of us from academia, fight hard for ownership of what they post and for the explicit right to reuse what they’ve written.

So, I wouldn’t generally judge reuse of what one has written in blog posts as self-plagiarism, nor as unethical. Of course, my book(s) will explicitly acknowledge my blogs as the site-of-first-publication for earlier versions of the arguments I put forward. (My book(s) will also acknowledge the debt I owe to commenters on my posts who have pushed me to think much more carefully about the issues I’ve posted on.)

That said, if one is writing in a context where one has agreed to a rule that says, in effect, “Everything you write for us must be shiny and brand-new and never published by you before elsewhere in any form,” then one is obligated not to recycle what one has written elsewhere. That’s what it means to agree to a rule. If you think it’s a bad rule, you shouldn’t agree to it — and indeed, perhaps you should mount a reasoned argument as to why it’s a bad rule. Agreeing to follow the rule and then not following the rule, however, is unethical.

There are venues (including the Scientific American Blog Network) that are OK with bloggers of long standing brushing off posts from the archives. I’ve exercised this option more than once, though I usually make an effort to significantly update, expand, or otherwise revise those posts I recycle (if for no other reason than I don’t always fully agree with what that earlier time-slice of myself wrote).

This kind of reuse is OK with my corporate master. Does that necessarily make it ethical?

Potentially it would be unethical if it imposed a harm on my readers — that is, if they (you) were harmed by my reposting those posts of yore. But, I think that would require either that I had some sort of contract (express or implied) with my readers that I only post thoughts I have never posted before, or that my reposts mislead them about what I actually believe at the moment I hit the “publish” button. I don’t have such a contract with my readers (at least, I don’t think I do), and my revision of the posts I recycle is intended to make sure that they don’t mislead readers about what I believe.

Back-linking to the original post is probably good practice (from the point of view of making reuse transparent) … but I don’t always do this.

One reason is that the substantial revisions make the new posts substantially different — making different claims, coming to different conclusions, offering different reasons. The old post is an ancestor, but it’s not the same creature anymore.

Another reason is that some of the original posts I’m recycling are from my ancient Blogspot blog, from whose backend I am locked out after a recent Google update/migration — and I fear that the blog itself may disappear, which would leave my updated posts with back-links to nowhere. Bloggers tend to view back-links to nowhere as a very bad thing.

The whole question of “self-plagiarism” as an ethical problem is an interesting one, since I think there’s a relevant difference between self-plagiarism and ethical reuse.

Plagiarism, after all, is use of someone else’s words or ideas (or data, or source-code, etc.) without proper attribution. If you’re reusing your own words or ideas (or whatnot), it’s not like you’re misrepresenting them as your own when they’re really someone else’s.

There are instances, however, where self-reuse presents gets people rightly exercised. For example, some scientists reuse their own stuff to create the appearance in the scientific literature that they’ve conducted more experimental studies than they actually have, or that there are more published results supporting their hypotheses than there really are. This kind of artificial multiplication of scientific studies is ethically problematic because it is intended to mislead (and indeed, may succeed in misleading), not because the scientists involved haven’t given fair credit to the earlier time-slices of themselves. (A recent editorial for ACS Nano gives a nice discussion of other problematic aspects of “self-plagiarism” within the context of scientific publishing.)

The right ethical diagnosis of the controversy du jour may depend in part on whether journalistic ethics forbid reuse (explicitly or implicitly) — and if so, on whether (or in what conditions) bloggers count as journalists. At some level, this goes beyond what is spelled out in one’s blogging contract and turns also on the relationship between the blogger and the reader. What kind of expectations can the reader have of the blogger? What kind of expectations ought the reader to have of the blogger? To the extent that blogging is a conversation of a sort (especially when commenting is enabled), is it appropriate for that conversation to loop back to territory visited before, or is the blogger obligated always to break new ground?

And, if the readers are harmed when the blogger recycles her own back-catalogue, what exactly is the nature of that harm?