Tag Archives: science

What’s In a Headline? That Which We Call a Scientist …

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Laurie and Debbie say:

We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December.  Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.

We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.

Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:

While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.

In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.

And he was a remarkable human being:

“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”

Beyond direct mentorship, Barres repeatedly spoke up for groups who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, including women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. He would repeatedly talk about the biases and systemic barriers that keep such groups from succeeding in their careers, often raising the topic in the middle of keynote talks about glia. “Since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain … I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science,” he once told neuroscientists at a conference in Lake Arrowhead.

 

His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.

An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.

“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”

The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.

Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:

By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.

The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central  gender history.

Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article,  his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.

So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.

And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.

Choosing Midwives: Science Is Not Exclusively Male

Laurie and Debbie say:

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One of the many ways male hierarchies keep women’s skills at bay is by associating myths with women, and facts with men, magic with women and science with men. In this context, Therese Oneill detailed and informative essay at Jezebel on the tension between doctors/men and midwives/women tension helps reveal the persistent and culturally accepted myth which associates men, science, doctors and hospital births with cleanliness, safety, and infant survival.

There was nothing wrong in wanting those who attended birthing to be clean, educated and accountable, but the doctors were going for self-interested gatekeeping. Requiring official licensing was the first step in shoving women out of the field all together. You couldn’t get licensed from just an apprenticeship, which was the norm for midwifery. Official training and state licensure cost money, an expense passed on to clients. It undermined the centuries-old purpose of the midwife as an affordable option to assist births. Instead, went the parallel argument, physicians wanted the poor to give birth in charity hospitals—where tired, apathetic attendants and untold diseases and infections awaited them. …

[The 1906 study of 500 interviewed New York midwives, described in Oneill’s article] included only one, one, “West Indian Negress.” It seems unlikely that an urban population the size of New York had so few black mothers as to warrant only one midwife. It is possible that white midwives served black mothers, but highly unlikely in an era and place where ethnocentricity was king. It is more likely that black society, North and South, experienced far less interference from campaigns intended to improve society.

Women could, of course, go to medical school to become fully licensed obstetricians. But the number was minuscule clear into the 1980s. According to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, in the 1970s, only 9 percent of enrolled medical students in any field were women.

[Side note: Lots of factors kept women out of medical school. Debbie’s mother was admitted into medical school in the 1930s, defying quotas on both women and Jews. But her parents, who could easily afford it, refused to pay for it, reserving the money “to educate their two sons,” one of whom never went past high school. ]

But that changed, and it changed fast. According to The US National Library of Medicine, female residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology quadrupled from 1978 to the present. Women now account for 71.8 percent of OB/GYN residents….

It’s not just that there are more female obstetricians, either. Midwifery, far more sanitary and scientific than its ancient ancestor, is booming again after a near 200-year lag. The difference between the two is most salient in terms of their technical training: obstetricians have gone through medical school, are able to perform C-sections, suturing, circumcision, and are skilled in handling high-risk pregnancies. Midwives come in different flavors, but the majority are medically trained and licensed in all things related to normal pregnancy and birth.

None of this is new information to people who follow this kind of history. The persistent, deep belief that doctors are better than midwives is not just about pregnancy  and birth (so much of history is about men trying to figure out how they can own children!), but about how Western science was created and defended as a male domain. Science was developed (mostly) by men, promulgated (mostly) by men, and made available (almost exclusively) to men. Thus science became male, despite the fact that there are no “insert penis here” slots in any scientific test or accomplishment we’ve ever heard of.

In the last few decades, the presence of women in the sciences has shifted substantially (though we may be losing ground). In the same period,  the perception of science as male has shifted less.

If men “own” science, then whatever women do, by definition, isn’t science. That’s how you get to Teresa Oneill’s husband’s reaction:

“Yes! A midwife!” … “Because I was thinking to myself, ‘Who are we going to get to wave burning sage over your stomach and chant to Gaia while the baby dies?’ CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE!!”

While it seems very likely that some significant percentage of early midwives worked in filthy conditions, as Oneill points out, hospitals were filthy then also. Yet, the discussion implies men=science=clean and women=ignorance/magic=dirty.  We’d bet the rent that a good history of midwifery would point out many instances where midwives figured out sanitation and disinfection issues on their own, through experience and observation.

The association of women solely with magic and myth is one way that male culture uses its own myths to denigrate and trivialize those who work outside it. Let’s hope that this one remains dead for two centuries and more, while midwives continue to use science and intuition, caring and disinfectant to combat the risks of pregnancy and birth.