These Are Exciting Times
Just received this email from my employer:
“Employees must not smoke or vape recreational cannabis on campus during their working days, to ensure workplace health and safety.”
Wow. That’s something I never thought I would see in an official email ever. Wow. Strap in, folks, it’s going to be a weird and wacky time in Canada for the next few years.
Just got back from Montreal where I was representing my university as a trustee of the CAUT Defence Fund. Know what I never tire of? Hotels that make me feel special, as in this greeting on my room’s TV screen:
I go to Montreal many times per year. But there’s always some weirdness going on, like in this mall where a bunch of people were just sitting about exploring the world of virtual reality like a bunch of doofi:
I Was a Writer Once, You Know
My former student (and published co-author) Eleni R. sent me an email that she went to visit her mother in Ottawa and found the following on her bookshelf:
Now, that’s a mother with taste! (Just don’t focus on the Dan Brown book, or else the “taste” comment doesn’t really work.)
The same week, one of my oldest friends (M.E.D.) was going through her house when she came across this set of folders:
What is it? Well, long before I was a professional writer, I wrote endless short stories just for fun. There was a series of goofy science fiction detective stories I wrote about a character I called “The Invisible Worm” (yes, based upon the William Blake poem). I so loved the character that I named my first company “Invisible Worm Communications”, and “iworm” is still my login on several extant discussion fora and bulletin boards.
M.E.D. read every single one of those damned tales, and preserved them for posterity. I think I will publish them as a young adult collection sometime next year. *Sniff* it brings a nostalgic tear to this middle-aged eye. *Sniff*
As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m a relatively new vegan. (You’re aware because vegans can’t stop talking about being vegans. Throw in some cross-fit, and it’s game over.) I chose this path for specific medical reasons that I won’t share publicly just yet; but I plan to, so stay tuned. I also chose this path for ethical reasons, because I love the animals that we slaughter for food.
This is not a screed against carnivores. I used to be one. I get it. You do you. I just can’t do it anymore, at least not to the extent that I used to.
I actually love most vegan food. And because I fast every day –well, more accurately I engage in “time restricted eating”– I get to look forward to my first (and often, only) meal of the day for somewhere between 16 and 20 hours every day. As a result, I give a lot of thought to that first (and often only) meal. So it’s actually quite exciting to choose the panoply of vegetables, the array of micronutrients, of which that meal will consist.
The recent social trend toward creating meat substitutes has made this process even more exciting. I love veggie burgers, especially the SOL branded ones. In the USA, the “impossible burger” and “beyond meat” products are gaining traction, mostly because of their ability to eerily simulate the meat-eating experience. (The Impossible Burger even bleeds, I’m told, via beet juice.)
The Beyond Meat product finally made its way to Canada in the form of the A&W Beyond Meat Burger, which sold out quickly this summer when I tried to get one. I was finally able to track one down this weekend in Montreal:
It’s the size of a basic fast food burger, not huge, but costs close to $9. Here’s how the interior looks:
It tastes just like a medium-quality fast food ground beef burger. Just like. So if you’re a vegetarian needing a meat fix, this will tide you over.
But I will never eat another one. While the Beyond Meat Burger satisfied my yearning for the taste of flesh without requiring me to actually consume a dead animal, it is not a healthful meal. Its calories, overall fat and saturated fat content are almost the same as a comparable beef burger. But its sodium content is an order of magnitude greater.
I believe it’s made of processed pea protein isolate and refined coconut oil, plus some other things. The extreme amounts of artificial processing needed to make it taste and feel like meat strips away any health advantage the beast might offer. The same goes for most processed veggie burgers, I would think, that rely on a high saturated fat content, which in turn ups the caloric density and which might trigger spikes in serum cholesterol.
Beyond the ethical advantage, the one nice thing about a veggie burger like Beyond Meat is that it does not contain or elicit the production of TMAO, which meat tends to, and which is known to lead to heart disease.
Mind you, the burger I ate had mayonnaise on it, which is made of egg yolks, which is high in both cholesterol and TMAO. So I might as well have had a piece of steak; it would have been much more healthful, especially since beef has less TMAO than do eggs. (Disclaimer: the science of nutrition is, IMHO, still in the stone age. We know so little about metabolic pathways, the role of gut microbiomes, individual variation, and how different foods interact. Guaranteed some food “bro” is going to take offence to what I’ve written here and send me endless studies to show how wrong I am. Please don’t. The science is so uncertain around all of this, that I really have no idea who is right about what.)
That same afternoon, though, I had a big bowl of quinoa chili from Copper Branch, my favourite non-Indian chain of vegan restaurants:
Now, I’m shameless enough to declare to the world that I made a very very good meat chili back in my shameless carnivore days. In fact, the only two meat items that I regularly miss in my new role as annoying vegan are my mother’s Guyanese chicken curry (sigh) and my own beef chili… both of which are best consumed with my mother’s Guyanese roti.
I make a half decent bean chili, as well, which has certainly adequately quelled the hunger pangs. But, everyone knows that there is a quality to beef chili that just cannot be matched. I always thought it was the fat content.
But the Copper Branch chili is… and I say this without exaggeration… the very best chili I have ever tasted –meat or otherwise. I was stunned by how good it was. For a little less money than the A&W Beyond Meat Burger cost me, I got an enormous bowl of the stuff. It has a fraction of the fat of any veggie burger, a lot more fibre, is less calorie dense (which, to me, is a good thing), and a lot more satisfying. The only down side is that its sodium content is sky high. And I really don’t know what else they put into it, but I’m assuming it’s mostly natural, whole foods. I’d be curious to know exactly how it’s made.
(Their website describes this masterpiece as consisting of: “tomato, organic quinoa, house-baked red beans, house-baked black beans, kale, olive oil, organic corn, tomato paste, onion, fresh garlic, turmeric, organic cane sugar, spices.”)
Speaking of Veggie Burgers
It’s that time in the blog post for me to list my recent meals. Yes, yes, there is a reason for this. It has to do with me documenting what goes into my belly as I attempt to address a medical issue nutritionally. I will reveal all eventually… a little later than I’d originally hoped, mind you. But it will happen.
Oct 13. I was at a conference in Montreal. The buffet featured ALL meat options. So I was stuck with a bread roll, some broccoli salad, a pickle slice, some roasted veggies on the side, a slice of bread, fries, and a sugar pie. Not exactly healthy, but hey:
Oct 14. Found this fantastic vegan restaurant in Montreal called “Invitation V.” Brunch was a fake omelette (made from tofu) with vegan Hollandaise sauce:
Data *Is* (Are?) Reality
It’s hard being an Epidemiologist sometimes. In recent years, I have retreated somewhat from public engagement. We no longer produce episodes of Science Monkey (though there are two in the can that I have yet to publish). I’m not really that motivated to write more Huffington Post columns, or to contribute to any newspaper. And these days I’m more likely to say “no” to media interview requests.
Why? Because while it has always been true that media is more focused on the narrative than on the truth, in very recent months and years that disconnection has been mostly tainted by ideology, as even media members are wont to take sides at times when they shouldn’t.
I’m being deliberately vague here, but maybe you can read between the lines. Too often of late I have come across media deliberations –or have been invited to participate in such– that are not so much about finding the truth, but about supporting one side over another. And facts be damned.
As a practitioner of a science that purports to be the final arbiter of objective truth (in medical sciences, at least), insofar as some estimation of objective truth can be had (an important disclaimer there), this genuinely saddens and frustrates me.
I was zipping through the channels yesterday and came upon a CBC panel discussion with the regular talking heads. I honestly don’t know what the topic was that was being discussed. Maybe that bit of ignorance taints my appreciation of what transpired. But I watched abut 2 minutes of the back and forth, and was floored by the following exchange.
Right-leaning journalist John Ibbitson said something like, “I have the data. There is much less poverty in the world now than ever before.”
Left-leaning journalist Tanya Talaga responded with, “You may have your data, but I have reality.” That’s pretty close approximation of what she actually said.
Now, I reiterate that I really didn’t catch what the topic of conversation was. But that little exchange just left be dumbfounded. How is (are?) data different from reality? Sure, data can be biased. But the implication in Talaga’s words was that “lived experience” (how I hate that term…. is there any experience that is not lived?) is somehow closer to the objective truth than dispassionate (largely numerical) data.
Both Thomas Sowell and Stephen Pinker have experienced this dissonance, as well. More so Pinker, since Sowell has the endless good sense to stay above the mewling fray of shouting lesser intellects. Both have presented data that, of the measurable things like poverty, democracy, safety and opportunity, the world is on an undeniable upward trajectory.
Before his untimely death, the legendary global health epidemiologist Hans Rosling was also proclaiming that the world is getting better. Rosling’s premature departure spared him the predictable online attacks that have become so fashionable of late. To dare question the orthodoxy of “everything is crap and we need to tear it all down” is to essentially brand oneself a fascist, it seems, if the Twitterati are to be believed.
Here’s what needs to be said and repeated: just because you still see problems in the world doesn’t than there are fewer of those problems. Similarly, just because you don’t see problems doesn’t mean that those problems don’t exist.
I don’t see antibiotic resistance at all in my everyday life. It does not seem to affect anyone I know in any real appreciable fashion. But, let me tell you, the data are clear: antimicrobial resistance is a genuine global human crisis and one of the new horses of the Apocalypse.
Hey, it was a cold winter last year. How can there possibly be a thing called “Global Warming”? My “lived experience” tells me that I’m still spending crazy amounts of money heating my house every winter. Well, the objective dispassionate trend data show us that Climate Change is a real thing and it is accelerating fast toward the Apocalypse.
Activists like Talaga need to understand that it is possible for it to be simultaneously true that too many people are impoverished and suffering AND, that there are fewer (in terms of proportion) of those people now than at any other time in human civilization’s history.
Think about it. Let’s say I tell you that leprosy has been on the decline for several centuries now, and someone in the room piped up and said, “Tell that to the 16 people still living in a leper colony in Kalaupapa!” I think you’d understand that the “lived experience” of those 16 people tell us nothing about the global trends of leprosy.
Now, I have written extensively on how we measure poverty. A lot of energy goes into monitoring the extent of human economic suffering globally. The numbers are illuminating. We really are trending toward greater wealth for all, though an increased gap between rich and poor in many places. So the story is complicated.
However, Ibbitson was correct: there is profoundly less economic suffering in the world today than there was even a couple of decades ago, let alone a century ago. (I gave an entire public lecture on this topic a year ago.) That doesn’t mean we have to let our foot of the pedal and cease being concerned about the extent of severe suffering that still exists today. It is possible to have this conversation, to develop programs to address economic indigence, while at the same time leaving most of our politics aside and not foolishly eschewing dispassionate, objective data.
Nine-ure, Tenure, Eleven-ure….
Interesting news today that the University or Regina has tabled a proposal for a formal process for revoking tenure. This comes on the heels of some high profile firings, perhaps most famously of late of the firing of Rick Mehta for… well, it’s unclear for what. It seems the university has a good argument that Professor Mehta was fired for using class time overly on matters unrelated to the class content, whereas Mehta claims he was fired for his outspoken –and unpopular– political views.
Here’s the thing. You might celebrate the dumping of Mehta because you find his positions unpalatable. (He has said some pretty shocking things.) However, once you open that door, nothing prevents the firing of another professor for expressing untraditional views that maybe you passionately agree with.
I don’t know the details of the Mehta case, so this is not about that. I merely mention him as the obvious test case for any policies that might arise. But here’s the thing: either tenure is a thing or it isn’t. It was invented so that scholars could have the economic security to say dangerous things that would get them fired in other instances. That’s why it exists. So when a scholar says a dangerous thing that would get them fired in other instances…. tenure is supposed to protect them.
I’m less upset that Rick Mehta said hurtful things than I am that most tenured professors don’t use this fantastic societal gift to be similarly outspoken. That doesn’t mean we have to have extreme political views or to offer our opinions on every matter or even to be activists (something I struggle with from an ethical standpoint). It just means that we’re supposed to be fearless, in whatever way that fearlessness allows us to do our work.
If the University of Regina wants to put the fear back into fearlessness, then that is a scary proposition indeed. As Professor Marc Spooner said in the linked article, “If you can rescind tenure you don’t have tenure.”
Speaking of Herr Doktor Professor
I can’t say I disagree with her on most of it. Someone once pointed out to me, “Ever notice how no one with a PhD in Physics calls himself a ‘doctor’, but everyone with a PhD in Education does?”
I have a PhD in Epidemiology & Biostatistics. But I also have an Education degree. (Because I was once terrified I would never have a job, so wanted to secure the backup career of public school teacher. Thank Zod that never came to pass!) The person who taught my science education course had a PhD in Chemistry. He told us to call him by his first name, but to never use “Doctor.” He said that if you wanted to be formal, then call him “Professor” because that was what he was most proud of: being a teacher. That statement had an impact on me. I know because it’s the only I remember about that useless program.
As a policy, I never tell my students what to call me. I let them choose, and I sit back and try to see patterns in who chooses what. Some call me “Professor”, some “Doctor”, some “Ray”, some “Raywat”. One or two even call me “Mr Deonandan”. And that handful that recognize my purchased title and call me, “M’Lord” are going to get special attention like nobody’s business.
(Most common, believe it or not, is “Doctor Ray”, which makes me feel like a chiropractor or pediatric dentist.)
In other words, I don’t really care what you call me. I really don’t.
But some people do. And some have a good reason for caring. I’m told by my female colleagues that they have a harder time getting respect from students unless they create a barrier of authority. For them, the “Doctor” title seems to have a social utility that I had not considered.
It is important to understand, though, that in the world of medical research, physicians are accorded automatic deference for no particular reason, even when they are not expert in the issue being discussed. That is why I use my “Doctor” title liberally in research meetings involving physicians. Egos are at play, and sometimes you have to assert your expertise titularly or get run over by the condescending medical mob.
Mind you, there are so many fake disciplines these days, and so many degree mills, that a doctorate means less now than it has ever meant. We are rapidly getting to the point where your title of “Doctor” means as much as my title of “Lord.”
That Is All
That is all for now. Go. Begone.