Thursday, March 30, 2006

that new pill

Super pill to cut cancer and end PMT

Wonder drug PMT cure

Wonder pill for women

It's called mifepristone, and this is what is looks like if anyone's interested:

It's a steroid, with the usual 4 fused rings you can see in the structure: 3 cyclohexanes (the six-sided ones) and a cyclopentane. All the steroids have these, as far as I know, and it's the other groups that distinguish one from another.

Natural hormones like progesterone are also steroids, and this is a competitive inhibitor of the natural hormone progesterone. Competitive inhibition is when the inhibitor has enough similarity to the original molecule that it can also 'fit' its receptor, so it competes with it for access to the receptor. In this case, mifepristone can bind temporarily to the progesterone receptors, competing for the binding site with actual progesterone molecules and hence reducing their rate of binding (unlike non-competitive inhibition, where the competitor permanently binds to the receptor)

Here's progesterone, to compare:

If mifepristone sounds familiar, that's because it isn't actually anything new, it's one of the drugs used in medical abortion. That means it's likely to be controversial, but this is an entirely different use and the contraceptive effect is caused by preventing ovulation.

A lot of the news articles seem to focus on the possible reduction in breast cancer. I'm not sure whether this just means it doesn't elevate the risk the way the 'traditional' pills do, or whether it actually has a protective effect. It's possible it does, since apparently mifepristone may also be useful against ovarian and endometrial cancer.

This paper was published in 2004: Low-Dose Mifepristone Inhibits Endometrial Proliferation and Up-Regulates Androgen Receptorand amazingly the full text is free online.
Also this from 2002: Daily Low-Dose Mifepristone Has Contraceptive Potential by Suppressing Ovulation and Menstruation

I can't actually find anything more recent, but I guess there must be something new behind the recent announcement. Maybe it isn't published yet?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Science education

The BBC says:
Science interests split the sexes

"The sexes are split on science interests, researchers say, leading to calls for gender-specific syllabuses."

I thought it would be a good idea to first have a look and find out what "researchers" actually did say. It mostly comes from The Relevance of Science Education, an international research project studying attitudes towards science and technology and mostly focusing on 15 year old school students. There were actually a lot of interesting results about the effects different factors might have on attitude towards science, including nationality, culture, social class, how rich or 'developed' a country is etc. It was not all about gender, though the BBC's article might lead you to believe that, but then it's always nicer to have your pre-existing prejudices confirmed than to have to bother to think about anything new.

The article was based on several studies, and the statement

"A survey of just over 1,200 pupils in England found the hot topic for boys was explosive chemicals while girls were more interested in the human body"

gets them mixed up, because the research that apparently showed that particular result was one involving 15 year old school students in Norway.

The English survey (results here) was actually about attitudes towards science in general, with questions about whether we should trust scientists, whether science and technology are important to society etc. Interesting, but a different thing.

The second source was actually a PhD thesis, that of Camilla Schreiner from the University of Oslo, and this is where the list of "top ten" interests for and girls came from. There are several problems with this top ten. Firstly, the items were picked from an ordered list of 30, and whoever compiled the top ten apparently picked the ones that appeared to best support stereotypes about the genders and put them in random order.

Interestingly the answers given by girls were divided so strongly into two clusters that the two different "types" of girl were treated as separate groups for much of the thesis, one group which is the stereotypical girl presented in the article, concerned with health and appearance and babies. The other is far more similar to the stereotypical boy. But she's as invisible in the article as she is in everyday life.
If we ignore her, maybe she'll go away? I hope not.

Towards the end, the author comes to the (obvious?) conclusion that

"In order to understand student's interest in science, we need to know more than their sex. We need to know what kinds of boys and girls they are"

however in the article, Professor Jenkins is quoted as saying

"We have had a generation or more now of promoting gender equality but the differences exist and I raise the question as to whether we should teach the two sexes separately for some of the time."

which seems to just ignore the earlier conclusion. Just because differences exist (for whatever reason) between the average boy and the average girl, doesn't mean dividing them into two groups without considering their individual preferences is a good idea. What about the individuals who don't fit the stereotypes? I wasn't even a feminist at 15, but I would have been furious at being put in a "science for girls" group.

Fortunately, so would my parents (and hopefully other girls' parents) and maybe enough of a fuss would have been made that it wouldn't have happened.

Teaching boys and girls separately (for some or all of their education) is a controversial idea, and there are probably good arguments on either side. But the arguments in favour tend to assume that the education will be "separate but equal" but unfortunately that is often not true. For example, in my further maths class there were two girls out of a class of over 20. If it had been a girls' school, would they have offered the subject at all? It's anecdotal evidence only, but in my experience many do not.

I'm not sure exactly what the statement above is trying to say. Maybe, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he wants separate classes so we can address the problem and give girls extra encouragement in physical sciences and boys more encouragement to learn about human biology etc. But it could be the opposite.

The bit about "a generation of promoting gender equality" makes me suspect that we are getting into biological determinism here and that he's saying that today boys and girls are treated exactly equally (does anyone actually believe this?), but differences still exist, therefore those differences must be entirely down to physical differences which we cannot change, and so we shouldn't try to do anything about them. He doesn't actually *say* that, but I suspect it. That would mean separate girl and boy classes where we don't even try to teach the girls any physics, because obviously their weak little brains couldn't cope with it, and they wouldn't like it anyway.

The other alternative is to allow the boys and girls who have atypical interests - and are brave enough to admit it and face the bullying (mostly for the boys) or social rejection (mostly for the girls)that might follow - to join the other group - but then what was the point of dividing them by gender at all?

Then of course is the question of whether it's a good idea to do this at all, and whether school should just be about studying the subjects you like and being allowed to drop the others. Especially if that means girls being allowed, and even encouraged, to drop the subjects that are most likely to lead to an interesting or highly-paid career in the future. How will this help close the gender pay gap?

Yes, the girls expressed an interest in health and medical issues - and medicine is definitely a career choice that could lead you to a fulfilling and well-paid job. But they won't ever get there if we encourage them to drop physical sciences in favour of learning about periods and babies. If you want to get into medical school, you don't need qualifications in human biology or psychology or whatever. You need an 'A' in chemistry, and maths and physics don't look bad either. The girl track is more likely to lead them into nursing, while the boys who got to learn about explosions and chemical weapons are the ones more likely to be qualified for a medical degree.

The problem isn't just with science teaching in schools, and by then it's really way too late to do anything about it. Sometimes I want to blame the girls themselves - I am angry with them for choosing "fluffy" subjects for themselves, for being afraid to try anything new, for having no confidence in their abilities at science/tech subjects even when the evidence suggests they're better than many of the boys, and most of all for policing each other and making it so difficult to be a different sort of girl. But I think the problem actually starts before that.

It starts way back when you get your first gendered toy from Argos, when your parents first dress you in a pretty princess dress or a blue sailor suit, when people start to behave differently towards the potential you before you've even been born. And I think that will be much more difficult to change.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

not again

Yet again, there's a 'new wave' of anti-abortion pro-lifers, the climate of opinion is changing, debate is being reopened etc etc. This time, though, it's different. It isn't a religious or moral thing:

"For the 45,000 British couples who seek fertility treatment annually, the 200,000 terminations that take place each year are a personal insult"

All 45000 of them are personally insulted? Did someone ask them all? This has to be the silliest prolife argument I've heard - to be against abortion because you consider it to be the same as killing a baby, at least that makes some sense. This is more like 'you have to eat up your vegetables because of the starving children in Africa', and preventing women with unwanted pregnancies from getting appropriate care does about as much to help infertile couples as eating your cabbage did to help those poor children.

There's also a big difference between being personally upset by the idea of abortion, and campaigning for it to be made illegal, which is what most prolife groups aim for. The two issues seem to be confused here, and I'm not sure which one she's talking about.

Also, people needing fertility treatment should be careful about supporting the prolife movement, which is generally strongly anti-IVF as well.

"Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald..."

which explains a lot.

I think this is too silly to spend much time on, but Holly at The F-word pulls it apart in much more detail if you want to read more.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Do you want to help the badgers? Of course you want to help the badgers. Consider writing to your MP or directly to the animal welfare Secretary (see link above for details) before 10th March.

If you're not convinced that badgers are worth saving, there's also the evidence strongly suggesting that badger culls are counter-productive and appear to have actually increased the incidence of tuberculosis infection in cattle herds over the last 20 years (article for Nature subscribers only, unfortunately), making this a crime against logic, if nothing else.