Today in Things From Left Field: Health Outcomes of Austrian Vegetarians

This is out of my wheelhouse on the science end of things, but as I’ve been a strict vegetarian for 5 years and almost a vegetarian for at least 5 years before that, I want to weigh in on this study of some health impacts of a vegetarian diet in Austrian adults.

The punchline to the (open access) study is that:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

(Note that since they found relatively few vegetarians of any stripe to study, vegetarian here includes everything from a vegan to a pescetarian diet. [1])

This all sounds less than stellar for the vegetarians, and I’d wager there’s a number of smug omnivores who read this study and say “hah! See, you *do* need to eat meat, you hippies.” And that hints at what I think is missing from this study: the social context of vegetarianism.

Food is an extremely social thing: eating with people forges and maintains social bonds, and food is central to many traditions, social events, and social structure. What and how we eat is important to our social environment, and meat holds a special place amongst our foods. It’s not the yams, or the cranberry sauce that mentally makes a Christmas dinner a Christmas dinner — it’s the turkey. Meat is the centrepiece of food culture, and eschewing meat is often perceived as eschewing social tradition. I don’t think it’s an enormous leap to consider whether that subtle social distance that often goes along with vegetarianism, especially in a cultural environment that has little vegetarian tradition, influences who becomes a vegetarian or impacts their mental or physical health.


Last year, I went to Vienna to go the EGU meeting, and while the city was lovely, the only place I’ve gotten more strange looks when asking about vegetarian food was France. [2] What vegetarian food I could find was generally side salads or accidentally vegetarian food, and what meagre vegetarian sections on menus I could find had mostly fish and shrimp dishes. There was a farmer’s market not far from my hotel, and the vegetarian falafel stand I found in the middle of it was like a bright beacon of chickpeas after a week of kasespaetzle. While I ate my falafel on the stool beside the stand, no less than three people walked up to the window and asked, large clear sign reading “NEIN FLEISCH” notwithstanding, if they sold meat. They each left (falafel-less) in various levels of confusion or disappointment. Vegetarianism, it seems, is far from a normalized thing in Vienna (and, extrapolating, Austria).

Which leads me to ask, who are these vegetarians surveyed? Are they immigrants from regions with stronger traditions of vegetarianism, and if so, does their being immigrants impact their health? Are they more likely to be people who are drawn to (or were raised with) alternative medicine (which may explain the lower vaccination rate)? Are they people who became vegetarians after they fell ill in an attempt to eat a healthier diet? Do they feel culturally ostracized when the dominant food culture is centred squarely on animal protein? How difficult do they find it to eat a healthy vegetarian diet when so little vegetarian food is available in restaurants and cafes?

I’m also curious what how the participants were asked to quantify their health in social relationships. Is this a question of “how much a part of the broader community do you feel?” sort of question, or is it a “how strong a specific social network do you have?” sort of a question? I can see how being a vegetarian in a primarily non-vegetarian environment could lead to feeling isolated — it’s difficult to feel connected socially if there’s something that obviously sets you apart from the rest of the community, especially if you’re reminded of that every time you try to buy lunch. But presumably not all omnivorous Austrians are actively hostile to vegetarians, so if the question was attempting to answer the second interpretation, then maybe there’s something else going on.

I’d love to see this study repeated in other locations, and among more specific populations, to see how common these results are. I’m not saying it’s a poorly done study — I just have a lot of questions that it wasn’t designed to answer, and I think the wide range of observed negative health impacts among vegetarians leads to a lot of interesting follow-up research, especially with regards to the social and community context in which vegetarians (Austrian or otherwise) live. This study contradicts a lot of other research (some of which is referenced in the paper) that shows that a vegetarian diet is correlated to generally better health, and I hope that that discrepancy, if nothing else, spurs the researchers to keep looking at this.

  1. Call me a stickler, but “vegetarian” means “doesn’t eat animals,” and last I checked, fish are not plants. Pescetarians are not vegetarians in my books, though I’m well aware (not least by the frequency with which fish and seafood dishes are listed as “vegetarian” on menus) that plenty of people think otherwise.
  2. Note than I am not by any stretch of the imagination a renowned world traveller.

Reports of this blog’s death have been greatly exaggerated

Lack of posting here nothwithstanding, I’ve been writing over at Science Borealis. This week I wrote about three of Canada’s major collaborative physics facilities (TRIUMF, SNOLAB, and the Canadian Light Source), and back in December (eek) I wrote about the Dunlap Observatory. I’m hoping to get back to blogging at least semi regularly here within the foreseeaable future — got some interesting things to write about!

Science Borealis Launches Today!

For the past year or so, a team of Canadian scientists and science publishers (including yours truly) have been putting together Science Borealis, a home-grown Canadian science blogging initiative. Science Borealis is a aggregator for Canadian [1] science blogs: we syndicate RSS feeds for our members’ blogs, collating them in a single place to foster new connections and community. There are plenty of excellent Canadian science blogs out there, but to the best of our knowledge, there wasn’t any umbrella site listing or syndicating them, or trying to identify a broad community. So, we built one! Now there’s a central place to start looking for people of all stripes writing about Canadian science. We’re hoping to build some community ties between bloggers, and help foster and encourage new bloggers and writers to join the community. While the science communication community is rapidly expanding (especially in the US and the UK), the Canadian perspective can get lost in the shuffle, and we’re hoping to change that.

On a side note, in light of the spate of recent growing pains with regards to women’s representation/place/treatment in science and science communication, about two thirds of both the founders and the editors we’ve since added to the team are women. This is, of course, no panacea for ever making ill-thought comments or decisions, but we’re attuned to the discussions going on the community, and are committed to making our corner of the science communication world open, welcoming, and diverse. Starting off with a large number of women on the editorial team is, I think, a step in a positive direction.

So, please join us at Science Borealis! If you have a science blog, please syndicate it with us! If you’re interested in contributing or volunteering beyond syndicating your blog, or have any feedback for us, please let us know. We’re still looking for editors for both Math and Stats editor and General Science, so if you’re interested in joining the editorial team, please let us know.

  1. To clarify: Canadian includes both people who live in Canada and Canadians living outside of Canada.

iPolitics Article Arguing for Scientists in Cabinet

I’ve got an article up today on iPolitics about why I think we need cabinet members with scientific backgrounds in the science-based portfolios. To be crystal clear, I don’t think that cabinet members in science-based portfolios who don’t have science backgrounds are automatically ineffective or ill-informed — there have been lots of effective ministers and critics without science backgrounds. However, I think having scientific expertise in Cabinet brings an important and often underrepresented perspective to the table, and given how climate change is affecting many aspects of Canadians’ lives, evidence-based science policy is becoming imperative.

Lowlights from The Throne Speech

Here, (not-so-)briefly, are some bits of yesterday’s Throne Speech. The full speech can be found here. Sarcasm abounds — I am, predictably, not overly thrilled with this speech.

  • Whole lot of contemplation of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, which is in another four years, ie, after another election. Why on earth is that the framing focus of this whole thing? There’ll be at least one new Parliament before then and probably a few more throne speeches — it makes no sense.
  • Our Government will enshrine in law its successful and prudent approach. Our Government will introduce balanced-budget legislation. It will require balanced budgets during normal economic times, and concrete timelines for returning to balance in the event of an economic crisis.

    Recipe for economic disaster when coupled with the insistence that tax increases are anathema. Need to have some flexibility in budgeting to deal with shifting economic situations.

  • It will reform disability and sick-day entitlements and work with employees to get them back to work as soon as possible.

    That doesn’t sound like it could backfire, no siree.

  • Our Government will take further steps to see that those traditionally under-represented in the workforce, including people with disabilities, youth, and Aboriginal Canadians, find the job-training they need.

    There are plenty of people who fit one or more of these categories who’re trained to the teeth and still can’t find appropriate work. Training is not the end of the solution, and educational debt needs to be a major aspect of the discussion around this (and is not mentioned).

  • Our Government recognizes the tremendous potential of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations to strengthen the growing Canadian economy. It will continue working with First Nations to develop stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education systems.

    Because they’ve been doing a fantastic job of this so far. There’s no institutional underfunding, no obstructionist attitudes, nothing of the sort!

  • The Government will soon complete negotiations on a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union. This agreement has the potential to create 80,000 new Canadian jobs.


    The United States remains Canada’s biggest and best customer. Our Government will continue implementing the Beyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation Action Plans to speed the flow of people, goods and services between our two countries.


    And our Government will amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act to allow Canadians to take beer and spirits across provincial boundaries for their own use.

    Yep, that definitely needed to be in a Throne Speech grouped with those other two things.

  • Continue reading

The Personal and The Professional

I’m (as usual) very late to the party on the whole Scientific American masterclass on how not to deal with sexual harassment, but here’s the gist of the (first) situation:

  • Dr. Danielle Lee has been blogging at Scientific American for 2 years. Her research is in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she does a lot of excellent outreach work to the general public and especially underserved groups; she’s highly regarded for both of these.
  • She got an email last week asking if she would contribute to a site, she asked the terms of the request (including, among other things, if it was a paid gig), and then professionally declined. In response, the other person asked “are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the ground — it can take a minute to jiggle it back into the joint properly.
  • She turns around and publishes a post on her blog at SA that not only clearly lays out not only why this is totally unacceptable, unprofessional, and breathtakingly rude, but also talks about it in terms of “your work is valuable — don’t let someone else dictate the terms you work on.” Academia has a lot of endemic and unresolved labour and sexism issues, and even outside of the context of this one incident, that is an important point to make. She handled this very professionally, I thought, and in a way to underscored how while this is an isolated incident, it exists within a larger context.
  • SA then took her post down without contacting her, later citing in a very hand wavy way that SA publishes on science, not on personal matters. The later justification was that they were worried that the site that contacted Dr. Lee would lawyer up, and until they had proof that she wasn’t making it up, they wanted to cover their butts. Note that these are totally incongruent explanations, and the second implies that Dr. Lee would potentially fabricate sexual harassment. Faaaaaantastic.
  • After much of the community around the SA and other blogs raised a stink about this, Dr. Lee’s post was reinstated, and an “apology” was posted. I’m using scarequotes because at no time in the piece was Dr. Lee actually apologized to by SA, and there was nothing in their post covering this to the effect of “this person’s behaviour was completely inexcusable.” While it’d be nice to think that that goes without saying, I’ve been around the sun enough times to know that that’s not the case.

And then yesterday morning, it came to light that SA’s blog editor Bora Zivkovic has sexually harassed a woman named Monica Byrne (and, judging by the comments on that piece, some other women) at what she thought was business meeting where she was trying to pitch stories. Byrne who wrote that post a year ago without Zivkovic’s name on it, and actually named him elsewhere a few weeks ago, but in light of Dr. Lee’s harassment, she updated her own post and it’s gotten attention. He’s issued an apology — notably not on SA — and while it’s a clear enough apology, I’m not holding my breath that it means an awful lot. It’s straightforward to apologize after the fact, but shifting your attitudes and actions takes work.

The second incident underscores how asinine the initial SA response to Dr. Lee’s harassment was:

The environment we live in shapes how we do our work, what work we do, how we talk about our work, and who we are as scientists. The personal isn’t separate and distinct from the professional, and nor should it be: our personal experiences and perspectives are bringing a much needed diversity of viewpoints to academia and to science. The personal, for women, includes navigating a minefield of sexism and sexual harassment in the past, the present, and the future, and as these two incidents clearly show, the professional regularly requires the same. Scientific American still owes Dr. Lee a proper apology, and Dr. Zivkovic needs to demonstrate that he understands where he crossed boundaries and refrain from crossing more. Hopefully both of these will occur shortly, but unfortunately I don’t expect that this will be the last instance of harassment being poorly handled.

Quite a lot of people have already written thoughtful reactions to these two incidents, so I’m just going to direct you to some of them (below this paragraph). Additionally, LadyBits has posted a call for submissions on sexual harassment for a collection on Medium.

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: More people have come forward about their harassment, notably Hannah Waters. I’ve added another few things to read at the end of the list.

Other things to read:

Scientist or ‘Whore’? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science
What @sciam’s actions tell me as a female scientist of colour
Derailing Techniques and My Final Thoughts on Scientific American’s Public Statement
Why Be So Militant About a Woman’s Right to Name Her Harasser
Another Sexual Harassment Case in Science: The Deafening Silence That Surrounds It Condones It
This is Not a Post I Want to Write
Silence and Friendship
Let Me Fix That For You
The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment
Mixed Up
Science, Blogging, Sexual Harassment, and the Power of Speaking Out
Science Online Board Statement 10/16/2013

Pacific Rim: Not Entirely What It Looks Like On The Metaphorical Box

I know everyone and their sisters have already written about Pacific Rim (alternate title: Impossibly Scaled And Impressively Choreographed Fisticuffs: Robot And Alien Edition), but there’s a few aspects of it that haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been exhaustively hashed out. So this is part movie review, part meditation on questionable physics in movies, part grousing about archetypes of scientists, and part contemplation on the portrayal of technological culture in Pacific Rim. Spoilers abound, so if you’ve yet to see the movie I’d suggest you come back to this once you’ve seen it; it’ll probably make much more sense if you’ve already seen it.

clunk clunk kssshthunk RAAAWR

Robot hands are surprisingly difficult to draw.

Continue reading

Initial Thoughts on Yesterday’s Cabinet Shuffle

We here in Canada had quite a major cabinet shuffle yesterday, precipitated in part due to the departure of a few major cabinet ministers. So, the five positions with the most sciency-ness are now held by:

  • Minister of State for Science and Technology: Greg Rickford (Kenora) replaces Gary Goodyear (Cambridge)
  • Minister of the Environment: Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut) replaces Peter Kent (Thornhill)
  • Minister of Fisheries and Oceans: Gail Shea (Egmont) replaces Keith Ashfield (Fredericton)
  • Minister of Natural Resources: Joe Oliver (Eglington-Lawrence) remains in the position
  • Minister of Health: Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove) replaces Leona Aglukkaq (Nunavut)

Let’s go one by one. I’m pleased that Goodyear is gone, because having a science minister who dances around the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is frankly embarrassing. Rickford has worked previously as a nurse (though his law degrees are more emphasized in the bios I’ve seen), which is a step in the right direction. But he’s the MP for Kenora, the riding of the Experimental Lakes Area, and he was previously a vocal proponent for closing the site. So, we’re not exactly off to a flying start.

Based on her previous role as Minister of Health, I’m not convinced that Leona Aglukkaq has the chutzpah necessary for her new portfolio. Environment is a portfolio that can easily be trampled over by many other portfolios (industry, natural resources, finance, etc) in the name of economic progress, perhaps moreso than other portfolios, and to my mind, the mark of a strong environment minister is someone who’ll go to bat for their portfolio (and, by extension, the environment). Peter Kent was spectacularly bad at this, not just passively letting other interests take precedent, but actively hindering efforts at making Canada a more sustainable, environmentally sound nation. I’m not saying that all ministers must be world experts at all aspects of their portfolio, but I think it does behoove them to get at least a working knowledge of the major aspects of their portfolio. It’s easy to snipe at Kent about not knowing what ozone is, but it belies a lack of knowledge about one of the major components of the environment, and the ozone question/lack of answer came up almost a year after he’d been appointed Minister of the Environment. It’s not like he’d just gotten the portfolio and hadn’t had time to get up to speed on it. So given all that, I’m guessing Aglukkaq will be a step up — but I’m worried that the department will continue to be chipped away and slowly dismantled, as she won’t effectively stick up for it when budget time comes around.

Fisheries and Oceans is one of those departments that I wish got more coverage than it does. We’re surrounded by three oceans, have an *enormous* ocean coastline, and yet don’t seem to give much of a hoot about marine science. The fisheries end gets more press than the ocean end, since that’s got a more obvious economic impact, but I feel I have a spectacular lack of data to form any reasonable opinion on the Gail Shea of Keith Ashford. Maybe it’s an issue on the deparmtent’s end, maybe it’s an issue on the press’s end, and most likely there’s a combination of factors that leads to DFO rarely making the news. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try and keep a better on eye out for press on Fisheries and Oceans.

Natural resources (which has a predominantly economic mandate rather than a scientific or conservationist one) is currently steam rollering all over the Ministry of the Environment, and since Joe Oliver is staying on, I suspect that’ll continue unabated.

And lastly, Rona Ambrose takes over Health. Whoever is here will likely helm the negotiations for the federal-provincial health accord next year, which sets the funding structure for provincial health care programs for the next (I believe) ten years. Health Council Canada is an independent committee that has overseen the implementation of these accords in the past; its funding was eliminated earlier this year, and it will close likely just before the new health accord is negotiated. (Convenient timing!) I’m decidedly not thrilled about her appointment, considering her voting record while she was Minister responsible for Status of Women. She seems to actually espouse a lot of the farther right policy measures put forward by the government (rather than just toeing the party line), and while I admit that that’s gut feeling and speculation, I’m not happy about the idea of her helming negotiations to fund socialized health care.

A sort of secondary (or at least a more chronic issue than a Thing That Needs Attending To Immediately) is the continual lack of MPs with strong science backgrounds. Laywers and bankers and business folk of all stripes are a dime a dozen in Parliament, but doctors are rare, and scientists and engineers are even rarer. This isn’t to say that a laywer cannot be an excellent Minister of State for Science and Technology, but an MP with a more direct background in science — whether that’s industrial science, academic science, theoretical or applied science — will bring a more relevant perspective to the portfolio. Having worked as a scientist will likely give a Minister of Science a more tangible view of how policy set forth by their portfolio affects Canadian science, scientists, and citizens than a working as an attorney would, and I think that perspective is important.

So, in short (ha!), things’ve shuffled around a bit on the science end of cabinet, but there’s not to really cheer for. On the other hand, I spent my bus ride home trying to think who among the current slate of Conservative MPs I would actually want in any of those five positions, and…… I drew a huge blank. There’s no-one that I’d pick out and say “aha! You would make an excellent Minister of the Environment!” on the CPC caucus. There may well be people who’d do an excellent job in some of the roles (or would were they not severely hampered by their own party’s machinations), but none come to mind. I’m curious — who would you want to see in these positions? Who’m I forgetting or overlooking?

Hello Again, Internet!

In light of my continued and increasingly public involvement with Science Borealis (a Canadian science blogging network that a group of us are putting together), I think the time has come to put my actual name on this blog, rather than awkwardly skirting around the pseudonym issue. I was hoping to have a rebuilt site ready to go by now, but science has had other ideas and kept me busy lately. So, without further ado…..

Hi! I’m Stephanne Taylor — like Stephanie, but spelt just strangely enough to cause confusion — and I’m a PhD student at McGill University in Montreal. I’m currently studying physical oceanography, but I have done research in gravitational physics and also a bit of applied physics. I’ll have a full research write-up and bio when I finish the new site, hopefully within a few weeks.

In the mean time, I’m handling the Twitter account for Science Borealis for July, where we’re trying to build a robust network of Canadian scientists, science communicators of all stripes, and science enthusiasts in advance of our full site launch. Please join us there!

The NRC’s Restructuring is Another Data Point in Canada’s Scientific Regression

Last week, Minister of Science Gary Goodyear unveiled the new and restructured National Research Council. Rather than working on both basic and industrial science, the NRC is now focusing solely on the industrial side of science. While some parties have welcomed the restucturing, the usual chorus of critics (including yours truly) has piped up in protest.

The move isn’t seismic — the NRC has traditionally been a supporter of industrial and applied science, though it was not its entire mandate. Along with industrial science, the NRC (in addition to running the time signal which has beeped across Canadian radios since 1939) has supported basic and regulatory science, which is a niche that is now unfilled. The NRC was unique in that it spans all sciences, and many of the specialized agencies were formed from departments in the NRC. It is an important umbrella group that fosters cross-discipline innovation, and yes, helped build ties to industry. Industrial science is important, and little of the criticism I’ve heard claims it isn’t. But without basic science exploring new and uncharted realms of science, industrial science doesn’t have ground to work from. Basic science maps the terrain, and then industrial science takes that knowledge and makes concrete goods and economically viable products with it. Both components are important, and having both aspects of research operate in the same agency increases the efficiency and cross-pollination between researchers. Cutting out basic science form the agency threatens to drastically reduce the effectiveness of the very programs this restructuring puts front and centre.

It’s unclear what precise policies the NRC will now follow, but this bit from a piece by Annie Bergeron-Oliver leaves me with a lot of questions:

In essence, the NRC will act along the lines of a contract-based agency; businesses will be encouraged to pitch research ideas to local NRC offices, or even by email. The idea is that the new process will streamline research, leaving hypothesis testing to academics, and providing NRC scientists with predetermined research plans, added McDougall.

Egads. Contract-based agency sounds like industry is driving the mandate of the NRC, rather than the NRC having a mandate and working with industrial partners. It also sounds like the NRC is going to end up focusing on short term, disjointed work rather than long term, progressive projects. Long term work is often more fruitful and more insightful than a hodgepodge of short term projects. The NRC has a history of long term, large scale projects, including developing canola, radar, the pacemaker, and building the reactors at Chalk River (an internationally renowned source of medical isotopes). None of these are short-term projects, but all have been economically lucrative and had a significant impact on society.

I’d maybe be a bit less worried about this refocus if a) it weren’t the latest data point in a string of cuts and restructurings that’ve threatened basic science and independent research and b) Gary Goodyear didn’t go around saying things like

“It will be hopefully a one-stop, 1-800, ‘I have a solution for your business problem'”

as quoted in a CBC piece in March when this restructuring was initially proposed. (The quote in the CBC piece is oddly chopped and doesn’t form a complete sentence, so I’m quoting all I can.) But the NRC should not be primarily about business: it is (was) an organization focussed on both basic and applied science, much of which has industrial applications, and is done in concert with industrial partners. But the science came first, and industrial partners were partners, not contractors. It is (was) certainly not “a solution for your business problem,” which sounds like a tagline to a management consultancy firm rather than a description of a federal agency. It’s ridiculous and worrisome, to say the least.

I’m beginning to think that I should maintain a page here on ECS with a list of all the cuts, restructurings, and silencing of Canadian science and scientists by the Harper government that’ve come to light in the press. It’d be illustrative to have everything ennumerated in one place, and maybe help draw a more complete picture of how Canadian science is tangibly under siege. Would this be useful or interesting? Let me know what you think in comments or on Twitter.

Addendum, May 14th: From a piece on published today:

Appointed NRC president three years ago by Stephen Harper, John McDougall does not have a PhD, has never published a scientific paper, or received a research grant. His qualifications for the job are a civil engineering degree that he turned into a job with Esso as a petroleum engineer.

So the head of the National Research Council has absolutely no experience whatsoever in research. At this point, though, I think I’d be more surprised if they *did* have research experience. The whole Rabble piece is well worth a read, and this is about the most succinct summary of Harper’s attitudes towards science I’ve read in a while:

The Harper government punishes its winners because it claims Canada performs poorly when it comes to registering scientific patents. The so-called solution is to wind down basic science, and hand over scientific resources to companies.