The headlines called it “incredibly condescending” (Alexandra Petri, ComPost), “unrealistic” (Jia Tolentino, Jezebel), and “bonkers” (Olga Khazan and Julie Beck, The Atlantic.) The post from the aptly named Brandy Zadrozny at The Daily Beast) was headed “CDC Slut-Shames Boozy Women.”
They were all decrying a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that claimed, “More than 3 million US women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, having sex, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.” The report recommended “that women who are pregnant or might be pregnant not drink alcohol at all.”
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can indubitably cause birth defects such as organ damage, including brain damage. They are known collectively as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), but it’s possible there are more subtle abnormalities too. And it’s not at all clear whether there are particular times of vulnerability in fetal development or whether some women and their fetuses are more susceptible to injury than others. Is there any safe level of drinking during pregnancy, or any safe time? Unknown, which is why advice from professional organizations has long been: “Better safe than sorry; don’t drink.”
This latest iteration from the CDC caused a freakout on Facebook (Blake Neff, Daily Caller.) Bloggers interpreted the report as a profoundly creepy example of nanny statism (Katherine Mangu-Ward, Hit & Run), victim-blaming (Alex Zielinski, ThinkProgress), overstated and behavior policing (Sara Coughlin, Refinery29), shaming all women in their childbearing years (Kate Schweitzer, Popsugar), flat-out ridiculous (Katherine DM Clover, Romper), and the objectification of women’s bodies as little more than conduits for human spawn (Diana Tourjee, Broadly.)
TEMPERATE ASSESSMENTS TOO
There were more temperate assessments too. At Latina, Cristina Arreola said the recommendations were unrealistic but perfectly sensible. Francie Diep told Pacific Standard readers that the recommendations are sound but reflect “an idea in public health that’s faced a lot of criticism: treating childbearing-age girls and women as ‘pre-conception,’ regardless of whether or not they actually intend to conceive.”
Erin Schumaker, at HuffPo, tried to correct erroneous media (and social media) readings of what the CDC said. Media “interpreted the report as a mandate that all women of childbearing age who aren’t on birth control shouldn’t drink. At all. Ever.” That’s not quite what the CDC said, Schumaker pointed out. The nation’s health agency “intended to inform women about the risks of alcohol and pregnancy (both expected and unexpected) — not to control the behavior of women who aren’t trying to have a baby.”
So the media and commentators are guilty of careless reading. But the CDC is guilty of careless writing too. The agency must know that the topic of women and alcohol and pregnancy or intended pregnancy has long been a hot-button issue. Incidental economist Aaron Carroll blames media but also the CDC, and is particularly critical of the CDC’s new infographics. The Mary Sue’s Carolyn Cox tackles the infographics too.
Given all the fury and accusations of sexism, I wonder why more of the commentators didn’t argue that CDC shouldn’t be applying their alcohol-free rules to women only. I ran across only one post, Carolyn Gregoire’s at HuffPo, pointing out the evidence that drinking damages men’s biological contributions to their children too.
An opportunity missed for avoiding sexist prescriptions. Not to mention achieving healthier babies. Missed by the CDC, but missed by bloggers too.
ONCE MORE, HOW MANY MICROBES IN/ON THE HUMAN BODY?
My heretofore favorite science statistic, the claim that each of our bodies is composed mostly of bacteria, fungi, and archaea rather than our own “human” cells, has been debunked. (HT to Paul Raeburn, who knew of my longtime, and to him puzzling, devotion to this topic, for alerting me to this debunkery while my mind apparently was elsewhere.)
Scientists (and we journalists who quote them) have long held that the human body consists of 10 times more microbial cells than human ones, although it’s a statistic that has been called into question from time to time. The new estimate argues that the ratio is more like 1:1. So say scientists who have done the math and published it in an open-access (!) paper in Cell.
Microbes still have a bit of an edge in the average man, about 40 trillion microbes to 30 trillion human cells, the researchers say. As Tina Hesman Saey points out at Science News, the estimate is not superfirm. The numbers are likely to vary enormously, not just between individual people but within each of us. For one thing, the number of body cells varies.
For another, the numbers of microbial vs human cells are so close that, as the researchers point out, “each defecation event may flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.” Which prompted Ed Yong to reflect philosophically on the fleeting nature of man’s dominion over nature in his Atlantic post: “You gain temporary dominance over your own body with every flush.”
See also Alison Abbott’s Nature post, reprinted at Scientific American. She quotes a bioinformatician as denying that the new estimate has any biological significance.
MAYBE SO. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE NUMBER’S PSYCHOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE?
I have written here at On Science Blogs several times about attempts to nail down this persistent bit of science folklore. See here and here and here. I won’t deny that the new paper saddens me, both as a science journalist and as someone dazzled by science’s continual ability to boggle the mind. The pleasure of having my mind boggled is one of the reasons that I, born to be an English major, became also a science observer in my youth.
I’m mournful about having to abandon a stunner like the idea, now apparently the myth, that we’re mostly microbes. The fact that we, and every other surface on Earth, are sheathed in unseeable organisms, that they are a dominant force in Life, is not news in these precincts. But for most people, who live life assuming that what they see is what they get, it’s a shock.
Pretty startling to learn that you are awash in invisible lifeforms inside and out, and that you wouldn’t exist without them. Wearing my journalist hat, the fact is that 10 to 1 is more impressive than 1 to 1 for conveying that point to people who didn’t know that they live entirely encased in microbes.
Yes, hurray for science, getting us closer to the truth every day. But still. %^(