Earlier this month, I wrote a FiveThirtyEight story about aviation’s climate problem, Every Time You Fly, You Trash The Planet — And There’s No Easy Fix. (A companion story, Some Airlines Pollute Much More Than Others, examined a new study that measured the relative efficiencies of U.S. carriers.)
In November, I joined Nate Silver’s data journalism site, FiveThirtyEight, as the lead writer for science. My first feature for FiveThirtyEight was on a familiar topic, cancer screening. Specifically, I made the case against early detection of cancer. I realize it might seem crazy, but once you take a close look at the data, it doesn’t seem so irrational.
In a similar vein, this week, in JAMA Internal Medicine, I explain why I’ve opted out of mammography. The JAMA piece is a more detailed version of a story I first told in a Washington Post column. Click here to read the full text version and get through the paywall.
Christie Aschwanden is the lead writer for science at FiveThirtyEight and a health columnist for The Washington Post. She’s also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, a contributing editor for Runner’s World and a contributing writer for Bicycling. Her work appears in dozens of publications, including Discover, Slate, Proto, Consumer Reports, New Scientist, More, Men’s Journal, NPR.org, Smithsonian and O, the Oprah Magazine. She’s the recipient of a 2014/2015 Santa Fe Institute Journalism Fellowship In Complexity Science and was a 2013/2014 Carter Center Fellow. She blogs about science at Last Word On Nothing and she’s the former managing editor of The Open Notebook. Her Last Word On Nothing post about science denialism at Susan G. Komen for the Cure won the National Association of Science Writers’ 2013 Science in Society Award for Commentary/Opinion, and she was a National Magazine Award finalist in 2011. Find her on Twitter @CragCrest.
Heart-warming broadcast homecomings have become the public face of post-deployment family reunions, but the intense happiness of these moments can mask the challenges that lie ahead as military families navigate life after their loved ones return from war. “We call it reunion porn,” says Amy Bushatz, managing editor of Military.com’s SpouseBuzz blog and the wife of an infantry soldier. “The feeling among the people I work with and my readers is that it’s not a fair representation.” The happy welcomes tell only the “mushy reunion half of the story,” she says. “What happens when he gets home? Not just that night, but three weeks from then?”
In June, I helped organize Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing, a conference on harassment and gender bias held at MIT. Afterwards, one of my editors at The New York Times invited me to write an essay about these issues. My piece discusses our conference, the survey that we did beforehand, a similar survey that several prominent scientists conducted before ours and my personal experience with these issues. Real solutions, I conclude, will require a culture change.
“Whether harassment or discrimination takes place at a field site in Costa Rica or in a conference room, the problem will not be solved with new rules archived on unread websites. The responsibility for pushing back should not rest solely with the victims. Solutions require a change of culture that can happen only from within.”
Read the essay here, and find a link to the Science Times weekly podcast, where I discuss the essay with my editor, David Corcoran.
I recently wrote a Washington Post column about platelet-rich plasma, a treatment highly touted for sports injuries but without much clear evidence. As I later wrote at Last Word On Nothing, PRP provides a case study in why it’s so important to track outcomes in medicine. If you don’t measure your outcomes, you have no way to really know how you’re doing. Humans are notoriously bad at self-evaluating. A 2006 study published in JAMA found that, “physicians have a limited ability to accurately self-assess,” and a 2012 study found that doctors overestimate the value of the care they provide. And if you have an incentive (money?) to keep doing something, results be damned, then if you’re not careful, an ineffective practice can become fixed as the standard of care. Once that happens, it’s very, very difficult to walk it back.
While researching military suicides, I came across a new movement to give a voice to suicide attempt survivors. I was shocked to learn the extent to which they’d been isolated and shut out of the conversation about suicide prevention. I wrote two stories, for NPR and Dame Magazine about the remarkable people who are standing up to give suicide attempt survivors a voice and the rights they deserve.
Read the stories here:
Since the 1980s, “Early detection is your best protection” has been a mantra of the cancer-awareness community, spurring an insistence on frequent screenings to catch ever-smaller abnormalities. But this approach to cancer screening loses sight of the real goal — saving lives. And it turns out that finding more and more smaller and smaller abnormalities churns out more cancer patients, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into lives saved.
Read the rest of my opinion piece at Popular Science.
Back in early 2013, an email discussion among friends turned into a realization. We were having the same tired discussions about gender bias, over and over. The details might vary slightly, but it was the same story, again and again, and nothing was changing. It was time to go public and start looking for solutions.
That conversation conversation led to a panel at Science Writers 2013 meeting, which in turn led to a work summit to come up with solutions. The first Women in Science Writing: Solutions Summit took place at MIT on June 13-15. Read my full report of the summit, including data and survey results, over at Last Word On Nothing.
A new Canadian study adds to the amassing research suggesting that most of what mammography has done is turn healthy people into sick, but grateful cancer survivors. It’s time to change our goals. We should be aiming to save lives, not create as many cancer patients as we possibly can.
The latest issue of Sunset Magazine arrived in my mail last week, and the cover story immediately caught my eye — “24 Best Places to Live and Work 2014.”“Looking for the perfect place to launch a career? Start a family? Just relax? We’ve found the ideal city, town, or neighborhood for you.”
For instance, if you’re “ready to put down roots,” the story’s handy flowchart offers you two choices — Issaquah, Washington (if “the burbs are calling”) or Sugar House, Salt Lake City, Utah, if they’re not.
Now Sunset is a fine magazine and they’re hardly alone in propagating these“best places” inventories.I understand the impulse to quantify a place’s attributes and size them up against other localities. But I worry that the proliferation of these lists have transformed place into a commodity rather than a commitment.
What I’ve learned from living in three countries and more than 20 locations is that there is no perfect place. Believing otherwise prevents the letting go of elsewhere necessary to create a home place where you are— a journey that takes effort and devotion.
Turning place into a consumer item diminishes its essential dimensions. As poet Gary Snyder once wrote, the demands of a life committed to a place, “Are so physically and intellectually intense, that it is a moral and spiritual choice as well.”
Communities are most alive when people are engaged and fully present — rather than merely coming home to sleep between commutes to elsewhere. Mine is the kind of place that people dream of escaping to when they’re stuck in rush hour traffic; yet too many of those who come here keep one foot planted somewhere else. Community is what happens when people have a stake in their place and an investment in its future.
Finish reading this post, 24 Reasons to Ignore Best Places Lists, at Last Word On Nothing.
Washington Post, December 13, 2013
Early dementia is difficult to distinguish from mild cognitive impairment, those minor memory blips that sneak up as we age. About one in five people older than 75 have such blips, and most cases never progress to dementia or Alzheimer’s, Spence says. Some memory lapses that may seem like dementia are actually something else. In a study published last year, Danish researchers revisited the records of nearly 900 patients thought to have dementia and discovered that 41 percent of them had received faulty diagnoses.
Read the rest at The Washington Post: Why you may want to avoid a dementia test
I interviewed more than a dozen experts for this Consumer Reports investigation into the safety of chicken sold in grocery stores. Consumer Reports scientists tested more than 300 samples from chickens purchased in 26 states. The results showed that 97% of the breasts we tested harbored bacteria that could make you sick.
Our Pleasure in Others’ Misfortune: ‘The Joy of Pain,’ and What We Get Out of It
Review of The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature
By Richard H. Smith
New York Times, December 23, 2013
Schadenfreude provides a glimpse into what the psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushmanhave called “the most basic conflict in the human psyche” — the friction between our selfish impulses and self-control. “We are all savages inside,” the author Cheryl Strayed wrote in her Dear Sugar column at the website The Rumpus. “We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed.”
But life doesn’t always turn out that way, and when we encounter someone who is more chosen, beloved or esteemed than we are, our natural instinct is to tear them down to our level. If this illicit desire is fulfilled by happenstance, schadenfreude ensues. Clive James captured the feeling in a poem that takes its title from its first line: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased.”
Read the rest at the New York Times: Our Pleasure in Others’ Misfortune: ‘The Joy of Pain,’ and What We Get Out of It
Run Yourself Smarter: How exercise boosts your brain
New Scientist, November 15, 2013
pdf here: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
The latest science on exercise and the brain suggests that exercise isn’t an enhancer of normal cognition, it’s a necessary condition. Physical activity has been show to improve brain health across every stage of life.
What my doctor neglected to tell me is that a mammogram was, in my case, more likely to hurt than help me. Few doctors take the time to mention the risks of mammography — especially, the danger of overdiagnosis —that a mammogram might lead a patient to get needled, sliced, zapped with radiation and possibly treated with tamoxifen, a drug that increases risk of uterine cancer, for a breast lesion that wasn’t life-threatening in the first place.
Most people believe that breast cancer is inevitably a progressive disease that will kill you if you don’t remove it in time. According to this idea, which I call the relentless progression model, every big cancer is harmful, every small one is less so and every cancer is curable if only you catch it in time. It’s an appealing, intuitive idea — except that a growing body of research suggests that it’s wrong.
Read the rest at The Washington Post: I’m just saying no to mammography: Why the numbers are in my favor
The Molester and Me
My high school coach was like a dad to me, until he abused my teammate and violated us all.
Slate, June 7, 2013
For a moment, I felt paralyzed. This can’t be true, my body said, even as my mind could not deny that it was. My initial grief gave way to rage. I’d trusted Coach, and he’d betrayed me, betrayed all of us. He didn’t care about me at all.
Read the rest at Slate: The Molester and Me
Athletes, Stop Taking Supplements
They’re expensive, they don’t improve performance, and they might make you test positive for dope.
Slate, July 26, 2012
Hardy is among a growing number of athletes who have traced a positive doping test back to a tainted supplement. Swimmer Kicker Vencill and cyclists Flavia Oliveira andScott Moninger (an acquaintance of mine), also tested positive after taking supplements, and 400-meter gold medalist LaShawn Merritt linked his positive dope test to a product called Extenz that he picked up at 7-Eleven. The problem is so prevalent that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has developed an educational campaign for athletes, called Supplements 411.
Supplements are risky thanks in part to a piece of legislation passed in 1994 called the Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act. The DSHEA essentially deregulated dietary supplements, including vitamins, herbs, protein shake mixes, nutritional supplements, and other powders and pills that millions of people of all levels of athletic ability might take to improve their health. Most people assume that if a product is available on store shelves, it must be OK. But supplements are not required to be evaluated or proven safe or effective before they’re sold. New rules finalized in 2007 gave the FDA power to regulate the manufacturing and packaging of supplements, but the agency’s ability to police supplement companies remains limited by DSHEA. Its chief author and most powerful advocate is Sen. Orrin Hatch, whose home state of Utah is home to much of the U.S. supplement industry. Hatch, who attributes his good health to the supplements he takes each day, fought a recent amendment to increase the FDA’s ability to regulate the industry.
Read the rest at Slate: Athletes, Stop Taking Supplements
Could You Find Contentment in Your Own Backyard?
Christie Aschwanden spent her youth traipsing around the globe—until she discovered what it meant to find contentment in her own home.
O, the Oprah Magazine; May, 2012
The walk is not negotiable. No matter how full the day’s agenda, we go—my husband, my cow dog, and I, down our rural western Colorado road, past the neighbor’s property to the dead end, up the old dirt track grown over with sagebrush and piñon saplings, to the top of the hill where the path ends under a red sandstone cliff. I’ve watched sunset after sunset from this private perch, and each is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
I have never wanted for spectacular sunsets. As an air force brat, a competitive ski racer, and then a journalist, I’ve watched the sun go down on five continents. I’ve lived in three countries and more than a dozen cities; trekked up and down the Alps, through Central American rainforests, and along Mediterranean coasts, seeking novelty and adventure. But a kind of loneliness lurked in my perpetual motion. I could fit in anywhere, yet I belonged nowhere.
Read the rest here: Could You Find Contentment in Your Own Backyard?
I recently wrote a story for FiveThirtyEight about why people leave comments on the Internet. I surveyed a bunch of commenters (as well as some people who don’t comment) and the results yielded some interesting insights, which I discussed in the story. (You can hear a dramatic reading of some of the comments left on my FiveThirtyEight stories here.) I also wrote about how journalists think about comments at my blog, Last Word On Nothing, and the post includes data about how journalists think of and respond to comments. For these stories, I spoke with a few of our most prolific commenters at FiveThirtyEight.
Enough people asked about the list of top commenters (my story only listed the top ten) that I thought I’d go ahead an share the top 100 list, which is actually a top 103 list, since there were some ties. The list, created by my colleague Dhrumil Mehta, is based on comments made on FiveThirtyEight articles between March 10, 2014, and Nov. 17, 2016.
|RANK||NAME||Number of comments|
|11||Janet Stockey Swanborn||198|
|17||James C. Higgs||163|
|19||Samuel Xavier McPherson||161|
|24||Morgan Alexander Mikhail||152|
|35||LuÃs Henrique Donadio||131|
|37||Rutger Colin Kips||128|
|46||Daniel Warren Curtis||107|
|62||Martin D. Kilgore||92|
|81||Mark Charles Salomon||78|
Maybe it’s their famously protruding brow ridge or perhaps it’s the now-discredited notion that they were primitive scavengers too dumb to use language or symbolism, but somehow Neanderthals picked up a reputation as brutish, dim and mannerless cretins.
Yet the latest research on the history and habits of Neanderthals suggests that such portrayals of them are entirely undeserved. It turns out that Neanderthals were capable hunters who used tools and probably had some semblance of culture, and the DNA record shows that if you trace your ancestry to Europe or Asia, chances are very good that you have some Neanderthal DNA in your own genome.
The CDC is telling doctors to prescribe more antiviral flu medications, because, “If you get them early, they could keep you out of the hospital and might even save your life.” But the FDA explicitly prohibits the drugs’ makers from making claims that these drugs can reduce hospitalizations or deaths, and scientists who’ve reviewed the evidence on these flu drugs say they’ve only been shown to reduce the duration of symptoms. Who’s right? Read more in my latest FiveThirtyEight story here, then listen to an audio discussion about the story.
A few years ago, I decided to take up hunting. This was kind of a big deal, because I’d spent the first decade-plus of my adult life as vegetarian. I became a big game hunter for the same reason I raise chickens — to know where my food comes from and ensure that it’s raised and harvested humanely. I figure if I’m not willing to kill it myself, I have no business eating it.
In my latest Washington Post AnyBody column, I write about how I expected to love my treadmill desk like my writing buddy Paolo Bacigalupi and fellow blogger Craig Childs love theirs. But I just don’t. In my Post column, I explain my suspicion that treadmill desks are the wrong solution to an important problem, and at Last Word On Nothing, I devise some theories about why I don’t like the treadmill and recount how James Levine (father of the treadmill desk) gave me permission to give mine a new home.
Yesterday, I was a guest on Ohio Public Radio’s All Side with Ann Fisher, talking about CrossFit and my New York Times review of J.C. Herz’s new book about CrossFit, Learning to Breathe Fire. The 20 minute interview begins 15 minutes into the show. View the archive or listen here: http://streaming.osu.edu/wosu/allsides/090314b.mp3
Today in the New York Times, I review J.C. Herz’s new book, Learning to Breathe Fire, a celebration of a controversial workout called CrossFit. As I write in the review, “What makes CrossFit appealing to members and confusing to outsiders is that it’s more than a workout — it’s a cultural identity.” Herz’s book makes it clear that the push until it hurts culture that critics consider dangerous is exactly what makes this workout so appealing to its adherents. Read the review here.
In my latest Washington Post column, I answer questions about how to find help for mental health problems such as: Where can you find a mental health professional? What’s the difference between a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a social worker? The piece also explains what to look for in a provider and outlines the factors that best predict successful treatment. Read it here.
Is journalism a dying profession? Can hard-hitting journalism survive the “gig economy?” Who moved our cheese? I discuss these questions and more with National Geographic editor Dan Vergano and some of my colleagues at Last Word On Nothing. Read it here, at LWON.
Expensive sports camps and intensive practices and team competitions for young kids are becoming more and more common. Efforts to corral children into highly focused sports programs often arise from good intentions, yet research suggests that kids who specialize in a single sport when they’re young risk injury and burnout but don’t improve their odds of attaining an elite sports career. In most cases, giving kids more time for unstructured play and a chance to sample a wide array of athletic pursuits provides a better recipe for success.
Read more of my latest Washington Post, column: Too much practice and specialization can hurt instead of help child athletes.
This column has a sidebar: Is 10,000 hours magic or not?
It seems as though nearly everyone who has heard of CrossFit has an opinion about it — even people who have never tried it. Aficionados claim that this brand of high-intensity workouts is a fast and fun way to get fit. Critics say that it’s a fast track to injury.
Read more of my latest Washington Post column here.
As I’ve followed the NCAA basketball tournament (join me and some folks from Radiolab tonight, as we live tweet the final game), I’ve been thinking about the value of collegiate sports. My first experience with sports in college came as an NCAA division I cross-country runner. I lettered in cross-country at the University of Colorado my freshman year, but a freak knee injury cut short my collegiate running career. Though I had no experience in the sport, I started training with my school’s Nordic ski team, and I also bought a bike and joined the cycling team.
Cross-country and skiing were both division I, NCAA sports, but cycling was governed by its own body, outside of the NCAA system, and was overseen by club sports, rather than CU’s varsity athletic program. The difference was immediately noticeable. As a varsity NCAA athlete, I received special treatment — advance, preferential registration for classes, private tutoring if I needed it, and excused time from class to attend practice and meets, not to mention free tickets to all sporting events. This special treatment fostered a sense of privilege. We were part of the student body, but we were treated as if we were somehow above it.
My teammates and I were good students, and we were there to get a degree, we didn’t expect to make a profession out of sport. Nevertheless, as varsity athletes, we understood that performance was expected of us. Our sport was no hobby — we were there to win.
Things were different on the cycling team. My teammates and I were no less devoted to our sport, and our coaches were every bit as enthusiastic as those in the division I sports. But we didn’t have the same sense of entitlement or expectation. We were pursuing the thing we loved and didn’t assume that our classmates would share our reverence for our sport. The school wasn’t pressuring us for results; it was us who created the expectations.
We were national champions my senior year, and we didn’t need the school’s adoration to enjoy the thrill of victory. We were pursuing the sport for its own sake and had won because we’d worked hard and our luck had aligned, as it must to win a championship. Our victory wasn’t the result of financial incentives that allowed us to recruit a winning team from afar. Instead, we’d pulled together a championship team through happenstance and training. Sure, we had plenty of talent (one of my teammates would go on to become a Tour de France stage winner and infamous doper), but the riders on our team had come to CU for school, not to prep for pro sports. The opportunity to race bikes in Boulder was an attractive reason to attend this particular school, not the sole reason for being there.
Read the rest at Last Word On Nothing.
A few weekends ago, I hiked a deep canyon with a couple of friends. As has become my habit, I toted my smart phone along. I set it to mute so that I’d remain undisturbed by pings and rings, and I pulled it out of my pack only to take a few photos.
After the hike, my friend drove us back to our carpool spot, and after changing out of my hiking shoes, I reached for my phone to call my husband. Except it wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the front pocket of my pack, or anywhere else I looked.
Panic. Was it in my friend’s car? Or had I dropped it somewhere in the canyon? I reached to call the friend, who was now five minutes down the road in the other direction, but — oh right. I’d have to call her when I got home. Wait, did I know her number? No, I did not. It’s programmed into my phone. I probably added it to my contacts via email, never once dialing it.
A sense of doom set in, as I thought about all the other information I’d offloaded from my brain to that shiny glass rectangle. But the despair was quickly followed by a sense of release. I was suddenly free from obligation. I couldn’t check messages. No one could reach me. I was untethered.
It was Saturday afternoon, and I decided not to think about the phone for the next 24 hours. It sounds simple, but I kept reaching for the phone out of instinct. Standing in line at the grocery store on my way home, I was shocked to realize how long it had been since I’d waited somewhere without occupying myself with messages and other reading material on my phone.
Read the rest at Last Word On Nothing.
Washington Post, April 7, 2014
Spring, with its longer days, blooming flowers and rising temperatures might seem like a time of peak happiness, but some studies indicate that suicides are more common in the spring and summer months than in December. Researchers don’t know why they’re higher in these seasons, but they say that friends and loved ones should not be lulled into thinking a brighter season necessarily means a brighter mood for someone who is struggling with mental health issues. Intervention is important no matter the month.
Read the rest at The Washington Post: Understanding suicide, which is surprisingly common in spring.
“We need to stop thinking about our breasts as hidden time bombs that are going to do us in at any moment,” says Dr. Susan Love.
My latest AnyBody column: Making sense of new studies questioning mammograms: Is the test worth having?
Washington Post, March 18, 2014