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Book Review: Choices: A Novel

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Choices: A Novel is a must read for teachers, parents and teenagers, everywhere. A combination of coming-of-age textbook, conversation starter, bite-your-nails, and gotta finish book, it took me by surprise. Laughter, tears, and some great conversations have filled our home this week as we read Choices.

In a nutshell, the main character, 15 year-old Kara, lives in a very sheltered world, attends a girls school, is an outstanding student. Kara seems to know very little about her own feelings and body, and less about those of others, until the star jock from a local school catches her eye and introduces her to the world of parties, drinking, drugs, and sex. Fearing that she is losing his attention, Kara binge drinks, has non-consensual unprotected sex, and gets pregnant. Her life is immediately turned upside down and Kara feels like she is all alone. Read more »

This post, Book Review: Choices: A Novel, was originally published on Healthine.com by Nancy Brown, Ph.D..

Book Review: The Water Giver

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EverythingHealth strongly recommends a wonderful new book called “The Water Giver” and I predict you will not be able to put it down. Author Joan Ryan is a remarkable writer who takes the reader on a journey she lived when her son, Ryan, sustained a near -fatal severe head and brain injury on a skateboard. It is both a medical drama and a meditation on motherhood.

The book begins with Joan’s description of her son’s learning difficulties and years of psychological and developmental testing. Her style as a mother was to intellectualize, do research and try to fix what was “wrong” with her son. The years went by with family stress and teachers conferences and medical consultations but it wasn’t until the day he fell, that Joan realized some things are too big to be studied and fixed.

The nightmare began when he was 16 and went skateboarding without a helmet. The fall on a hill near their home caused a huge brain bleed that obliterated much of his brain tissue. He remained in a coma for weeks and underwent multiple surgeries to relieve pressure. The book chronicles months of near death events in the Intensive Care Unit that nearly drove his parents insane with worry. I will let you read it to find out how it turns out. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style

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Preamble

I’ll never forget the day when I argued for protecting parents against misleading and false information about the treatment of autism. I was working at a large consumer health organization whose mission was to “empower patients with accurate information” so that they could take control of their health. My opposition was himself a physician who requested that our organization publish an article that advised parents of children with autism to seek out DAN! practitioners and chelation therapy.

I prepared my remarks with the utmost care and delivered them to a committee of our lay executives. I cited examples of children who had died during chelation treatments, explained exactly why there was no evidence that chelation therapy could improve the symptoms of autism and in fact was based on the false premise that “heavy metals” in vaccines were implicated in the etiology of the disease. I concluded that it would be irresponsible for the company to publish such misleading advice/information for parents, and would in fact be counter to our entire mission.

My physician opponent suggested that it was our company’s duty to inform parents of all their options, that we should not be judgmental about treatments, and that I was part of a paternalistic medical establishment that tried to silence creative thinking.

The committee ended up siding with my opponent. I was flabbergasted and asked one of the committee members what on earth they were thinking. She simply shrugged and said that my opponent was more likable than I was.

This experience marked the beginning of my journey towards fighting fire with fire – understanding that being right is not the same as being influential, and that “winning” an argument (where lives are on the line) requires a different skill set than I learned in my scientific training.

Book Review

And so it was with great interest that I picked up Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style. I was pleased to see that other scientists had experienced the same revelation – that we need to be more communication-savvy to become more societally-influential.

Olson’s book outline is simple: four “don’ts” and one “do.” Don’t be so cerebral, literal-minded, poor at telling stories, or unlikeable. Do be the voice of science. He begins his book with a captivating story: a marine biologist goes to Hollywood and is shredded by an acting teacher for being incapable of raw emotion. Most scientists will get a good chuckle out of this narrative and will relate to Olson’s culture shock.

As the book winds along, the reader is introduced to a series of the author’s former girlfriends. He reminisces:

She would listen to me talk and talk and talk to the old folks and finally, by the end of the day, she would have had enough. So her favorite thing to do in the evening was, when I was done talking, to look deeply, romantically, lovingly into my eyes and say in a soft and seductive Germanic voice… “You bore me.”… p.82

Another girlfriend developed an affectionate nickname for me, “Chief Longwind,” which she would abbreviate when I’d get going on something and just say, “That’s enough for tonight, Chief.” p.83

Unfortunately, as these ladies noted, Olson’s strong suit is not compelling dialog – a tragic irony for a book written to inspire more effective science communication. Nonetheless, since scientists are rarely deterred by boredom, I think that there are some conceptual gems worth unearthing.

These are my top 5 take-home messages:

1. Communicate in a human way – be humorous, tell stories, don’t feel as if you have to present all the details. The goal is to get people curious enough to ask more questions.

2. Broad audiences prefer style over substance – learn to be bilingual (to speak with academics versus a general audience).

3. Marketing is critical for influence. The creators of Napoleon Dynamite spent a few hundred thousand dollars on production and $10 million on advertising/marketing. The movie grossed $50 million. Scientists who wish to be influential (or get their message across broadly) must bow the knee to the marketing gods.

4. Some people are naturally good communicators, others are not. Find the good ones and make them  spokespeople. “The strongest voice is that of a single individual.” p. 166

5. Likability trumps everything. People make snap judgments about whether or not they like you, and your message’s impact is dependent upon your likability factor. Likability is related to humor, emotion, and passion. p. 148

And so, Don’t Be Such A Scientist offers some great food for thought – and I suppose if it hadn’t been written by a scientist it might also have been a more engaging read! But who am I to say, I’m still trying to bend my mind around the idea that Americans don’t care about facts.

Book Review – Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

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Michael Gighlieri and Thomas Myers are coauthors of Over the Edge: Death In Grand Canyon, which is one heck of an interesting read. It is an encyclopedic rendition of all of the fatal accidents known (at the time of the writing) to have occurred in the Grand Canyon. The over-arching observation, made by the authors and almost certainly by the readers, is that the vast majority of these deaths were avoidable. Failure to recognize risk, or frank disregard for hazards, led to tragic loss of human lives. For every person who died, countless more suffered.

Early in the book and at intervals thereafter, the authors apologize for the graphic descriptions and for articulating the opinion that the fatalities were avoidable. They are apologizing for accurately observing that people can be uninformed, or informed and foolish. There is, of course, an element of risk inherent in many outdoor recreational activities, but the authors present an entirely different spin on risk – namely, unambiguously unnecessary risk. They are correct – too many people have paid the price, in the theme of this book, with loss of life and great emotional suffering (presumably) to family and friends.

There is a bit of adventure in the telling of tales, but this is not an adventure book. It is, rather, a series of accountings, some written in great detail and some more superficially. There is nothing boring about this book, but it is easily put down after a section is completed.

From the back cover: “Two veterans of decades of adventuring in Grand Canyon chronicle the first complete and comprehensive history of Grand Canyon misadventures. These episodes span the entire era of visitation from the time of the first river exploration by John Wesley Powell and his crew of 1869 to that of tourists falling off its rims today. These accounts of the nearly 600 people who have met untimely deaths in the Canyon set a new high water mark for offering the most astounding array of adventures, misadventures, and lifesaving lessons published between two covers. Over the Edge promises to be the most intense yet informative book on Grand Canyon ever written.”

The major and minor sections represent the categories of accidents: falls from the rims, falls within the canyon, heat illness (and dehydration), flash floods, river accidents (including crossings and drownings), air accidents, rockfall, envenomations, freak accidents, suicide, and murders.

The book is replete with lessons learned and safety advice – all of it useful for educators, adventurers, explorers, search and rescue personnel, and casual visitors. The book truly serves a purpose, which is to articulate history in such a way that the reader can learn from it, and hopefully, avoid the catastrophes that befell the unfortunate victims portrayed in these tales. Other interesting books co-authored by Dr. Myers are Fateful Journey – Injury and Death on Colorado River Trips in Grand Canyon and Grand Obsession – Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon.

This post, Book Review – Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, was originally published on Healthine.com by Paul Auerbach, M.D..

Francis Collins: Is He Fit To Lead The NIH?

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Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins was rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH (and he was nominated for the position yesterday, but must be confirmed), and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who embrace evolution, accept and promote scientific thinking, and understand the Bible to be a blend of poetry, allegory, and historical literature. While they see the Genesis account of creation as poetic, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are considered to be more literal.

Collins’ views are very representative of the scientific end of the Christian spectrum. In fact, he spends several chapters attempting to help creationists embrace evolution. He takes great pains to explain how irrational it is to deny the evidence we have (both from a genetic, and an archeological/basic science perspective) for evolution. He argues that evolution is not an enemy of faith, but rather an enlightening look at how God’s creative process works.

Collins also takes on “Intelligent Design (ID),” exposing it as a PR play, not a true scientific theory. He suggests that ID is an “argument from personal incredulity” expressed in the language of mathematics, biochemistry, and genetics. Furthermore, Collins explains that ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable – there is no current “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. We don’t need a “God of the gaps” to explain what we’ve yet to learn.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is Dr. Collins’ mathematical review of the incredibly low odds of the right blend of atoms/elements and the correct rate of expansion of the universe to occur by chance. He argues that certain atomic particles needed to be present in unequal and varying amounts at the earliest moment of the Big Bang to produce – eventually – the right conditions for life as we know it. He uses this analogy: it’s possible that a poker player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands. However, a more plausible explanation is that he’s cheating. In the same way, the universe could have come into being by coincidence, but it’s more likely that it was a coordinated event.

Collins’ argument for the existence of God is compelling to me. His explanation of why he chose to become a Christian is a little less so. Collins often resorts to lengthy quotes of C.S. Lewis in lieu of his own theological rationale – but I suppose we can forgive him for this. He is first and foremost a scientist, not a theologian, and his book simply reflects that fact. [Those interested in a more compelling theological rationale for Christianity might try Timothy Keller’s, The Reason For God: Belief In An Age Of Skepticism.]

In summary, Collins claims to believe in “theistic evolution.” He says that few people have heard of it because it harmonizes science and religion – and “harmony is boring” and doesn’t have a PR agenda. Nonetheless, he finds it internally consistent and intellectually satisfying. The material world is best understood through scientific inquiry, the spiritual world cannot be tested or understood by science. Matters of conscience, morality, and a yearning for answers to questions that may not be resolved empirically (What happens to us after death? What existed before the Big Bang? Is there a soul?) are matters best left for religion.

After reading The Language Of God, I feel confident that Collins is a reasonable person. He embraces science more successfully than many people of faith, and I didn’t notice anything about his beliefs that would make me question his ability to lead the NIH in true, scientific inquiry. In fact, The Language Of God may embolden other Christians to join the Science-Based Medicine movement by offering them a rational way to allow faith and science to co-exist. I hope that  scientists who hold atheist or agnostic religious views will embrace this small group of evolutionary theists as religious moderates who fully support scientific orthodoxy.

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