Tuesday, January 22, 2008

African American National Biography Project

I'm thrilled that the African American National Biography, a new 8-volume set, is now in libraries and bookstores.

I wrote a couple of biographical entries for the project, and I'm excited to check them out. The AANB presents history through a mosaic of the lives of thousands of individuals, illuminating the abiding influence of persons of African descent on the life of this nation from the arrival of Esteban in Spanish Florida in 1529 through to notable black citizens of the present day.

In addition to Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., the AANB includes a wide range of African Americans from all time periods and all walks of life, both famous and nearly-forgotten.

I'm a great admirer of the scholars who spearheaded the project, and the AANB is a remarkable, historic achievement.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Science of Morality

This weekend's NY Times Magazine has a fascinating article about the science of morality by Harvard psychology prof Steven Pinker. Some excerpts:

"The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels."

"Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Food Allergies in the Times

Yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about AllergiKids called "Food Allergies Stir a Mother to Action." It's been on the Times' most-emailed list for the past two days. An excerpt:

"Working largely from a laptop on her dining room table, [Robyn O'Brien] has looked deep into the perplexing world of childhood food allergies and seen a conspiracy that threatens the health of America’s children. And, she profoundly believes, it is up to her and parents everywhere to stop it."

Incidentally: the Leonard Lopate segment on food allergies has been among the top most-emailed stories for the past week, and has just been edged out by Michael Pollan's new interview about In Defense of Food. Which I am very excited to read. I'm in the middle of The Omnivore's Dilemma for the second time right now-- the reporting is just fantastic.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Even Bigger Food Allergy News

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a new set of recommendations on food allergies. The full report will be published in the January issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the AAP.

In short, pregnant women don't need to avoid peanuts. The report reads: "Although previous AAP publications have suggested that pregnant women avoid peanuts, a more recent study has reported that there is no association between the maternal consumption of peanuts during pregnancy and childhood peanut allergy."

The data on breastfeeding and food allergies is offically inconclusive. "Because the available published trials have had methodologic shortcomings, more data are necessary to conclude that the avoidance of antigens during lactation prevents atopic dermatitis in infants... Overall, firm conclusions about the role of breastfeeding in either preventing or delaying the onset of specific food allergies are not possible at this time," according to the report.

Finally, the recommendations on delaying allergenic foods have been revised: "In summary, the evidence from these conflicting studies, in balance, does not allow one to conclude that there is a strong relationship between the timing of the introduction of complementary foods and development of atopic disease. This raises serious questions about the benefit of delaying the introduction of solid foods that are thought to be highly allergic (cow milk, fish, eggs, and peanut-containing foods) beyond 4 to 6 months of age; additional studies are needed."

Nice work, AAP. Good job also on questioning the "no peanuts until 3 for any kids, even those without a family history of food allergies" recommendation. I look forward to the results of future studies.


Food Allergy News

I've gotten a lot of response from my recent piece about the exaggerated threat of food allergies.

The latest news: "Anne Muñoz-Furlong and Terry Furlong, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) co-founders, have announced their plan to retire in the second half of 2008."

Also, Dr. Hugh Sampson will be on the Leonard Lopate show talking about food allergies on 1/31.

My prediction: Dr. Sampson will talk about how the CDC's figures on the number of food allergy deaths (12) is misleading for a variety of reasons. That the estimate of 150-200 deaths is more accurate (even though it's an estimate) based on a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that finds 30 additional food-related deaths.

Fair enough. That study, however, is not a real epidemiological study-- it is a telephone survey of family members of dues-paying FAAN members.

Another prediction: the line "It's the best estimate we have" will surface at some point.