Virgos, AIDS, Intellectuals and Chickens

It’s been a trying week.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post the sort of thing I’m about to post, for fear that the people involved might recognize themselves. But in this case, I need for some of you to feel my pain. And I’ll be as vague as possible to protect the identities of those involved; or at least to protect me from their recriminations! Followers of my tweets will know this shit already, but I thought I’d bring the rest of you on board, as well.

Where to begin?

Last week, I was pleased to be able to speak to some high school kids who were brought to the university to learn more about health sciences. I love talking to teenagers about their potential career paths. In general, they are interested, engaged and wholly present. I sometimes forget that I am now several generations separated from them, and what I once considered common knowledge is no longer so common.

I was giving examples of interdisciplinarity in science.  I was going to use an example concerning HIV/AIDS.  So I asked the group, “What causes AIDS?”

Someone answered, in all seriousness, “Chickens.”

At first I thought it was a joke. But no one laughed. I stared in shocked silence for a heartbeat. Then stupidly asked, “Are you on drugs?” Because, frankly, that’s the only thing my terrified mind stumbled upon.  That, too, got silent stares.

I don’t know how to react to this. AIDS was the global plague of my youth. It still dominates much of the discourse in the global health field. Most people in the world are daily inundated with HIV/AIDS messaging. I thought, for sure, here in the industrialized West, the one thing everyone knows is that…. well… AIDS doesn’t come from chickens.

Perhaps the asker had once misheard an older boy commenting, “Dude, some chick gave me AIDS,” and faultily assumed that “chick” meant “chicken.”

Or, as a friend suggested, maybe he was confusing AIDS with avian flu… in which case, I hope he’s not hoping to avoid the flu by wearing a condom.

I don’t even think a chicken can contract human HIV, let alone pass it on.  Even if one were to cloacally violate a chicken then inject it intravenously into your bloodstream, I doubt it could give you AIDS.

Sigh.  I just don’t know anymore.

Later in the same session, I decided to tell them about the history of Epidemiology, which was founded, I explained, “by a man named John Snow, who lived in England about 200 years ago.”

Upon hearing this name, one girl eagerly put up her hand to ask, “Is that the guy from Game of Thrones?”

Once again, I thought this was a joke. But no one was laughing.  We all stared at each other in silence for a few moments.  So I found myself having to explain that Game of Thrones was fiction, and that the history of Epidemiology was historical fact. More to the point, England of 200 years ago did not feature dragons or ice zombies.

I really don’t know how to react to all this. If some of those kids are reading this now, I’m not picking on you. I’m just wondering how we, as a society, have done you such a profound disservice, in terms of your secondary school education. I fear we may be at a point of crisis on that front!

Mind you, it’s not all about the kids.

I had a massage therapist come to my home the other day for an in-home treatment.  Being a dork, I don’t listen to music, I listen to economics lectures on Youtube. So I explained to her, “Hope you don’t mind, but I relax by listening to these academic lectures in the background.”

And she responded, “That’s okay. I’m a Virgo. I’m an intellectual, too.”



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