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Sex, Science, and Politics

October 23, 2018 - 3:33pm

Thanks to a conversation with an individual on Twitter, I now understand that there is a segment of the US population that is in denial about the reality of developmental biology, specifically that people can be born as something other than strictly male or female. I doubt that those in denial about gender identity in the modern age will come to read this post. But, for others who might not understand what the hubbub is about, please, read on.

Gender is not sexual preference. Gender is not the same thing as sex.

Gender is usually something personal. You put on your make-up, or shave your face in the privacy of your home without anyone else’s input. Sex is also personal. It’s not often that the clitoris and penis are discussed openly.

Yet, sex and gender are also a huge aspect of social life, and thus politics. Once upon a time in America, the owning of land was allowed (or dis-allowed) on the basis of one’s sex. If you were born with genitalia that looked male, lucky you. You could be a landowner. This, too, led to determinations of who was allowed to vote. Men could. Women could not. Nevermind that sex and gender don’t always align perfectly.

Our Western society has operated in this sort of binary gender construct for much of its history. But, thanks to science and social media, the last several decades have been filled with voices asking us all to consider the reality that gender is not just binary.

On the basis of chromosomes (XX for women and XY for men), it seems cut and dried. But, sometimes there are chromosomal duplications or abnormalities leading to XXY, X, or mosaic karyotypes. Additionally, hormones play a huge role in development of the genitalia, and excess androgen or estrogen can lead to changes in the appearance of the genitals compared to what is considered normal. Sometimes genetic or epigenetic factors can lead to hormone insensitivity, which means that even though the karyotype and hormone levels are normal, the body doesn’t develop in parallel. It’s even been suggested that environmental toxins are having an increased effect on the abnormal development of sexual characteristics in some parts of the world.

Taken together, this means that the genitals that a doctor looks at to determine a baby’s gender at birth aren’t always representative of the individual’s internal state. And, sometimes because of hormonal factors that difference doesn’t really appear until puberty. For the majority of people, it is fairly straightforward. But, for the millions of people born transgender or intersex, growing up can be extremely confusing and difficult.

Recently, and probably in a bid to drum up their conservative-base, the Trump administration reported that it is considering a change to Title IX that would legally pin-down the definition of sex. According to the NY Times:

“Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” the department proposed in the memo, which was drafted and has been circulating since last spring. “The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

Clearly, considering hormonal influences on gender identity that go beyond what can be determined based on genetic screening, this definition is inadequate to say the least.

My conversation on Twitter let me know that there are many people who don’t care to understand that gender is more than what many of us learned about in sixth-grade sex education classes; who don’t care to understand what it feels like to be a minority; who don’t care to understand how our social policies leave some people out; who live in a state of denial.

And, I do hope that this media play does get people off their butts to vote. Let’s get our Democracy back.

 

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Categories: Science

Oh, The Humanity – Our Urge To Escape

October 16, 2018 - 2:58pm

I understand the need to escape from reality. There come moments when the pressures of the real world just get to be too much. Flight can be easier than fight. It can help to escape into a book, movie, or “mindless” television watching. But, problems arise when this escapism becomes something practiced by society writ-large rather than being momentary acts of individuals. There are two very different places this society-level escapist attitude is openly playing out: willful ignorance within certain demographics and virtual-reality technologists.

People who refuse to look cultural or environmental change in the face in favor of sticking their fingers in their ears and repeating misinformation and disproven ideas are escaping into the comfort of their own identities. When online conversations turn into shouting matches where no one is listening to each other, it is likely because at least one side has escaped from the present reality. When someone refuses to listen to empirical, rational ideas in favor of what they heard on Fox News or read on Breitbart, being willfully ignorant of advances in understanding, it is because what they know is more comfortable than this new information.

When willful ignorance plays out on the wider political stage it begins to have real consequences. It becomes more than a spat between individuals. It holds back progress on large issues like climate change. For, if a large proportion of the public has run away from the scary idea of dangerous impending environmental change, refusing to see the reality, that reality does not exist for them. And, if it doesn’t exist, why does anything need to be done?

The second group, one you would think totally unrelated to the willfully ignorant, are the very well-educated and informed technologists working on developing virtual reality. At first glance, virtual reality with its goggles and gloves seems like it should be categorized along with the personal escapist entertainments like books, games, and movies. But, I see it in a different light when I consider the eventual goal of a virtual reality; that many look forward to the day that we create a construct into which humans will upload their consciousness.

The people working to create the technology that will allow humanity to shed its flesh, are looking forward to escape. They aren’t trying to fix any problems in this reality. Rather, they are building a new reality. One in which they envision no hunger, no poverty, and eternal life. It sounds like Heaven.

But, who needs Heaven if you have a computer generated existence? Or, well, who needs to fix anything here and now, if we have an escape hatch?

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Categories: Science

The Pivot

August 28, 2018 - 12:27pm

I’ve hit a moment in my life where I think it is time to make a change. I look around at the science communications landscape, and it is FULL of amazing people communicating science. The YouTube space is now overflowing with intelligent, energetic young women explaining science. And… I feel aged out.

I’m not old, but I’m not young anymore either. It’s hard to believe that I could be a mom or even grandmother to most YouTube viewers. So, why do I keep doing the same things – producing content that is now being produced by younger voices and faces?

Like I mentioned in my last post, I’ve started a small video production company, and that is part of my pivot. I can use my experience to help others tell their stories. I don’t need to be the face in front of the camera any more.

However, I like to talk with people. I like to use my voice. So, I’m considering working on new shows beyond the weekly science news of TWIS. I want to produce shows that have personal value to me, and that set me apart from the pack of youngsters I no longer fit into. I’d love your feedback on my thoughts and experiments, so that I can really figure out what works and what doesn’t.

First, I’d like to interview more people – scientists, primarily, but I’m also thinking about a focus on women and the various issues that crop up as we age. My concern here is that although this is something that I am very personally interested in, it is a HUGE shift from what I have done historically, and away from the audience that I have built up over many years. Not that it’s a bad thing to do that. It’s just fear-inducing to consider something so different.

And, second, I’d like to do something with my son. I think it would be extremely rewarding to spend time creating a science-based show with him. This would also be targeted at a different audience, but the same amount of fear isn’t there because this show wouldn’t be about me as much as something to experience with my son. He has expressed interest, but seems to like the idea of a gaming channel more than science at the moment. So, we’ll see whether this idea gets any traction.

Finally, as far as helping other scientists tell their stories goes, I’ve also been thinking about putting some videos together about story-telling and video production for science. Maybe a weekly or monthly video workshop would be helpful for people…

Anyway, it’s time to pivot. I have ideas. I just need to start moving forward on execution. And, like I said, I’d love your feedback on what you think will be both useful and enjoyable.

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Categories: Science

Getting What I Want

August 22, 2018 - 8:44pm

I am… I think… finally, starting to see my work for the past year or so beginning to bear fruit. It’s a wonderful feeling to have clients and to be doing work that I enjoy. The best feeling in the world is actually completing projects to send them off into the world.

My little video babies…

Lol. Now I’m making my self laugh. Which is good. For the soul, for the heart, for me.

A few years back I decided that I would really make an attempt at running my own video production business. At first, I was full of excitement at the idea, but then anxiety about my abilities took hold (Would I actually be able to do the things I say I can? Am I actually just full of myself? Am I crazy to try this new thing?), which was followed by the depression, which led to me not doing anything to make the business move forward. Ugh.

That couldn’t go on forever. It was making me miserable to have a goal and NOT be acting on it. Thank you, therapy, for helping me to take actionable steps (yes, they were little baby steps) toward me facing my anxiety head-on so that I could get back to being productive.

Skip forward, and I’m working at building a small business in video production that focuses on telling science stories to the point where I now have sufficient business to keep myself busy. I might be too busy though…

I don’t know. Maybe my level of busyness is just right. It’s summer, and I (like everyone else) would rather be lounging on a river or beach than working in my office during these beautiful days, which are a VERY seasonal occurrence in Portland, OR.

Part of my decision to work for myself is based on wanting to be able to spend time with my son. And, yet, now that I am beginning to get the success I am aiming for as a video-maker, I find myself handing him the iPad so that I can work. This is a less than satisfying result for my soul. These years with the child will be gone before I know it, and there are no do-overs in this game.

Still, I also feel as though I haven’t taken a real break for a very, very long time. I went from working, to having a child, back to working, and then there was the anxiety and depression, not to mention the move to Portland, struggling for money, creating a new life in a new city, still working… and I’m still working.

Thankfully, I do love my work. And, I don’t think I could have kept it going this long if my work didn’t feed my soul. But, I think I’m tired, and I don’t know how to fix that because I made my decision to create a business that requires constant attention. Between work and family and my crazy brain, I honestly don’t know when I will be able to rest.

Maybe it’s time to hire some help? (That idea panics me because hiring people would mean that I realio, trulio am running a business, which is a bit scary and exciting to consider.)

Anyway, as I work through the emotions of balancing work and life, I’d love to hear from other parents. Do you work for yourself? As an entrepreneur, what do you do when the beautiful season hits? How do you make ends meet, and not feel like you are working all the time? If you work a steady job, how do you handle the summers when kids are home?

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Categories: Science