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The mismeasurement of humans: classification as “othering”

I was part of a short, but interesting discussion last night regarding this very good article on the political implications of data analysis. The argument made (assuming I understood it correctly) was simply that statistical measures are inherently ideological since they impose a particular view of the world from one social group (us, the elite) on another (the non-elite). She takes this further, stating that though the voice of the elite can be heard through anecdotes (and opinionated blog posts), the experience of the non-elite relies on statistics and numbers. Statistics, then, is the language of power.

The conversation went further to discuss the implications of statistical methods themselves, particularly the measures of central tendency: the mean, median and mode. With perfectly symmetrical data, these measures are all the same, but, of course, no set of data is perfectly symmetrical, so that the application of each will produce different results. Though any responsible statistician would make statements of assumptions, limitations and appropriateness, with politics, these statements are overlooked and the method chosen is often that which best supports one’s political position, asking for trouble.

Moreover, the measure of central tendency itself in inherently flawed since it concentrates on the center and silences the extremes, supporting the status quo, or so it was argued. The choice of measure, I would argue, depends on the goals of the particular study. For example, a study which sought to determine if average graduation rates lower for blacks than whites would necessarily use a measure of central tendency, while a study on which students in a particular school are the least likely to graduate might look at outliers and extremes.

Either way, I agreed with the writer that, no matter what, we are influenced by our ideology. However, there is a difference between performing a study which seeks to maintain impartiality for the greater good and one which seeks to deceive in order to merely win a political battle, particularly among those who benefit from marginalizing, for example, the poor and disenfranchised.

However, I found this passage quite interesting and it can be applied to a post on this blog regarding what we do and don’t know about the poor:

Perhaps statistics should be considered a technology of mistrust—statistics are used when personal experience is in doubt because the analyst has no intimate knowledge of it. Statistics are consistently used as a technology of the educated elite to discuss the lower classes and subaltern populations, those individuals that are considered unknowable and untrustworthy of delivering their own accounts of their daily life. A demand for statistical proof is blatant distrust of someone’s lived experience. The very demand for statistical proof is otherizing because it defines the subject as an outsider, not worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

Part of my academic work focuses on the refinement of measurements of poverty. I am keenly aware of the “othering” of this process and how these measurements use a language of the educated elite (me) to speak for the daily experiences of people not like me.

This “othering” is not limited to statistics at all. Even merely referring to “the poor” is a condescending labeling of a group of people who are mostly powerless to speak for themselves within global power structures. Moreover, “the poor” ignores the diverse and varied experiences of most of humanity.

When I first entered the School of Public Health at UM, I was extremely uncomfortable with the language used in studies of ethnicity and public health in the United States. Studies would simply throw people into simplistic categories of black, white, hispanic, asian and “other” (whatever that is), ignoring the great diversity of people within, for example, urban slums. The method of categorization seemed to be a horrible anachronism and bought back awful memories of Mississippi. Simply putting people into neat categories risked continuing an already divisive view of the world.

However, the more I thought about it, the method is justified since we are looking at the effects of a racist view of the world on the very people who are the most burdened by it. Certainly, there are better ways of viewing the world, but when criticizing social power structures, it can be advantageous to speak its language. I still don’t like it, but I’m at least more understanding of it.

It’s a fine thread to walk. On the one hand, as advocates for “the poor,” we have to work within the very structures which oppress, exploit and ignore them. To succeed, however uncomfortable it may be, we may be required to adopt the language of those structures. On the other, we must remain aware of the potentially dire implications of the ways in which we describe those we advocate for and how they can be misused.

Does the environment cause poverty?

SESKwaleAfrican countries are blessed with ample cropland and resources, but suffer from crippling and unforgivable levels of poverty, have some of the shortest lifespans on the planet and the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Singapore are wholly the opposite, yet mostly lacking in everything that Africa has. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely having access to a natural resources.

However, within countries, the picture might be different. African countries are complex and diverse places. Poverty is often confined to the most unproductive regions, areas with poor soils, poor rainfalls or dangerous terrains.

I was just working with some socio-economic data from one of our field sites, and noticed some interesting patterns (note the map up top). In Kwale, a small area along the Coast, socio-economic levels vary widely, but neighbors tend to be like neighbors and patterns of socio-economic clustering emerge.

Note that the poorest of the poor are concentrated to an area in the middle, which I know to be extremely dry, difficult to get to, difficult to farm and generally tough to live in.

I tried to see if socio-economic status (as measured through a composite material wealth index a la Filmer and Pritchett but using multiple correspondence analysis rather than PCA) was related to any environmental variables that I might have data for.

I fit a generalized additive model using the continuous measure of of wealth from the MCA as an outcome. Knowing that very few things in nature or human societies are linear, I also applied smoothing to the predictors to relax these assumptions. The results can be seen in the plot at the bottom.

A few interesting things came out. While it is hard to tell much about the poorest of the poor, we can tell something about the most wealthy. The richest in this poor area, tend to live in areas with the richest vegetation (possibly representing water), a high altitude (low temperature), high relief (no standing water) and in locations distant from a wildlife reserve (far from annoying and dangerous wildlife).

I’m not sure the wildlife reserve is meaningful (unless the reserve was an area undesirable for human habitation to begin with), but the others might be and represent a trend seen in other Sub-Saharan contexts. Areas without malarious swamps and ample farm land tend to do the best. Central Province, one of the most developed areas of Kenya, would be an example.

But the question has to be, does a harsh environment doom people to poverty, or do people self shuffle into and compete for access to more favorable areas? Is environmentally determined poverty (or wealth) an accident of birth, or the result of competitive selection?

Alright, back to work. Oh wait, this is my work. Well….

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

New Publication (from me): “Insecticide-treated net use before and after mass distribution in a fishing community along Lake Victoria, Kenya: successes and unavoidable pitfalls”

mjThis was was years in the making but it is finally out in Malaria Journal and ready for the world’s perusal. Done.

Insecticide-treated net use before and after mass distribution in a fishing community along Lake Victoria, Kenya: successes and unavoidable pitfalls
Peter S Larson, Noboru Minakawa, Gabriel O Dida, Sammy M Njenga, Edward L Ionides and Mark L Wilson

Background
Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) have proven instrumental in the successful reduction of malaria incidence in holoendemic regions during the past decade. As distribution of ITNs throughout sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is being scaled up, maintaining maximal levels of coverage will be necessary to sustain current gains. The effectiveness of mass distribution of ITNs, requires careful analysis of successes and failures if impacts are to be sustained over the long term.

Methods
Mass distribution of ITNs to a rural Kenyan community along Lake Victoria was performed in early 2011. Surveyors collected data on ITN use both before and one year following this distribution. At both times, household representatives were asked to provide a complete accounting of ITNs within the dwelling, the location of each net, and the ages and genders of each person who slept under that net the previous night. Other data on household material possessions, education levels and occupations were recorded. Information on malaria preventative factors such as ceiling nets and indoor residual spraying was noted. Basic information on malaria knowledge and health-seeking behaviours was also collected. Patterns of ITN use before and one year following net distribution were compared using spatial and multi-variable statistical methods. Associations of ITN use with various individual, household, demographic and malaria related factors were tested using logistic regression.

Results
After infancy (<1 year), ITN use sharply declined until the late teenage years then began to rise again, plateauing at 30 years of age. Males were less likely to use ITNs than females. Prior to distribution, socio-economic factors such as parental education and occupation were associated with ITN use. Following distribution, ITN use was similar across social groups. Household factors such as availability of nets and sleeping arrangements still reduced consistent net use, however.

Conclusions
Comprehensive, direct-to-household, mass distribution of ITNs was effective in rapidly scaling up coverage, with use being maintained at a high level at least one year following the intervention. Free distribution of ITNs through direct-to-household distribution method can eliminate important constraints in determining consistent ITN use, thus enhancing the sustainability of effective intervention campaigns.

Links I liked: November 26, 2014

Can African Countries Learn from North Korea’s Handling of the International Media? – An interesting perspective. He argues that African leaderships, rather than seizing crises as opportunities to draw attention and approval for their countries from Western donors, might actually benefit from clamping down on international media coverage, which often exploits and distorts the story. I’m thinking that the Ebola panic might have been averted if the media hadn’t picked up on the most freakish elements of the story, and focused rather on the mundane issues of poor public health care delivery.

Colonialism and development in Africa – “Most of Africa spent two generations under colonial rule. This column argues that, contrary to some recent commentaries highlighting the benefits of colonialism, it is this intense experience that has significantly retarded economic development across the continent. Relative to any plausible counterfactual, Africa is poorer today than it would have been had colonialism not occurred.” The authors, however, note the different contexts of colonialization and remark that results are mixed, but in general, the countries that have done the best (i.e. those which didn’t experience slavery) would be doing significantly better.

Stop Making Intellectually Disingenuous Market Arguments – “Shall we blame Twitter, trolls or bloggers? I am unsure of the underlying reason. But as we have seen far too, financial discussions seem to entail people arguing at cross-purposes. Bull-bear debates devolve into winning the argument at any cost. Previously, we had a true competition of ideas in the marketplace. Now, we have discussions that range between disingenuous and useless. The hunt for the truth has been replaced by the search for bragging rights.” Well, Barry, I don’t think you should limit your observations to only those talking about markets. It’s endemic now.

An autopsy review of sudden unexpected natural deaths in a suburban Nigerian population - “Sudden unexpected natural deaths accounted for 13.4% of all medico-legal autopsies. The male to female ratio was 2.1:1, and the mean age was 43.1 years ± 19.5 SD. Cardiovascular (28.3%), respiratory (18.2%), and central nervous system (12.6%) disorders were the major groups of causes. About 64.4% of cardiovascular deaths were due to hypertensive heart disease. Bacterial pneumonia, intracerebral haemorrhage, and breast carcinoma accounted for 34.4%, 60.0%, and 52.6% of respiratory, central nervous system, and cancer-related deaths respectively. Only 16.9% of cases occurred while the patient was admitted to the hospital.” Twice as many men are dying as women, they are dying of heart disease and the average age of death is 43, give or take 20 years. Time to move our focus over to chronic outcomes in developing countries. They are staring into a tidal wave of disease that’s going to break their health systems.

Economics Is a Dismal Science for Women – Wow. Just wow.

New Publication: ITNs on Vanuatu

Today, in Malaria Journal, a new publication appeared with my name on it (though I am not the main author). This will be a record of one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

In 2012, my friend Akira and I went hiking in the mountains outside Osaka. It was a pretty easy hike, but on the way down Akira twisted his ankle and sort of lumbered down the rest of the trail. After a few days, the pain got worse and he had to cancel an upcoming research trip to Vanuatu. He asked me to go in his place and offered to pay my expenses. I was due to go on a couple of other research trips that summer so I couldn’t commit, but the only other gringo on the trip begged me and at the last minute I decided to go.

Long story short, it was a crazy set of interpersonal dynamics, we suffered bacterial infections, got stuck on an island for ten days because a plane needed to be repaired, one of us didn’t eat or drink water for ten days, much fish was eaten (but the people who ate), much kava was drank and stories were told. Our diet alternated between delicious seafood and fresh fruits to ramen noodles over rice.

It was a surreal experience. I lost ~16 pounds, down from 175 to 159, came back with numerous skin infections and was a general physical wreck for months, more so than usual. It was challenging, but an experience I am unlikely to forget. I hope to go back one day.

The paper can be found here.

Pictures from Vanuatu (back when I took pictures) are here.

“Background
Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) are an integral piece of any malaria elimination strategy, but compliance remains a challenge and determinants of use vary by location and context. The Health Belief Model (HBM) is a tool to explore perceptions and beliefs about malaria and ITN use. Insights from the model can be used to increase coverage to control malaria transmission in island contexts.

Methods
A mixed methods study consisting of a questionnaire and interviews was carried out in July 2012 on two islands of Vanuatu: Ambae Island where malaria transmission continues to occur at low levels, and Aneityum Island, where an elimination programme initiated in 1991 has halted transmission for several years.

Results
For most HBM constructs, no significant difference was found in the findings between the two islands: the fear of malaria (99%), severity of malaria (55%), malaria-prevention benefits of ITN use (79%) and willingness to use ITNs (93%). ITN use the previous night on Aneityum (73%) was higher than that on Ambae (68%) though not statistically significant. Results from interviews and group discussions showed that participants on Ambae tended to believe that risk was low due to the perceived absence of malaria, while participants on Aneityum believed that they were still at risk despite the long absence of malaria. On both islands, seasonal variation in perceived risk, thermal discomfort, costs of replacing nets, a lack of money, a lack of nets, nets in poor condition and the inconvenience of hanging had negative influences, while free mass distribution with awareness campaigns and the malaria-prevention benefits had positive influences on ITN use.

Conclusions
The results on Ambae highlight the challenges of motivating communities to engage in elimination efforts when transmission continues to occur, while the results from Aneityum suggest the possibility of continued compliance to malaria elimination efforts given the threat of resurgence. Where a high degree of community engagement is possible, malaria elimination programmes may prove successful.”

Links I liked, November 18, 2014

I liked so many things I read today that, rather than clutter social media, I’ll make note of them right here:

“Falling” by William McPherson – By far, the most depressing thing I have read in a while. McPherson is a Pulitzer winning writer and former editor at the Washington Post who chose a life of curiosity and is now paying the ultimate price. It’s awful that the brightest people have to be punished for thoroughly embracing life. So many people I know are going to go this way, it is possible that I might, too.

In India, Growth Breeds Waste NYT – Documenting India’s mounting problem of what to do with its waste. Europe went through their urbanization pains centuries ago. Unfortunately, developing countries are rising to the challenge fast enough. The problem, of course, is that elites are sheltered from the problems of waste and weak and corrupt government structures disallow people from demanding that their countries clean up. International environmentalists need to focus less on screaming about corporate polluting (though it is important) and need to start making demands for more boring things, like managing waste on a local level.

Stop calling me ‘the Ebola nurse’ – Kaci Hickox – This lady was a hero. She never had ebola, but was still illegally interned for having it because a few Americans don’t understand science. Anybody who supported her detainment should just stop speaking to me now. It was shocking how readily Americans were willing to lock people up simply because they were scared and even more shocking where the calls for her “arrest” came from. I give up. People like Hickox put their money where their mouths are. She did what most humans wouldn’t do and she was vilified for it. Unforgivable.

Ten Things that Anthropologists Can Do to Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic I think it should be required that every field research project include an anthropologist.

Q Fever Is Underestimated in the United States: A Comparison of Fatal Q Fever Cases from Two National Reporting Systems People are dying of Q, but much of it isn’t recorded.

Today is Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday

100 years ago today, Jonas Salk was born. As the creator of the inactivated polio vaccine, he not only changed the course of human history, he also ushered changed the field of public health forever. We can count the polio vaccines and the elimination of smallpox as probably the two great success of public health.

In its mildest form, polio causes a mild bout of diarrhea. In its worst form, the virus migrates to the spine, impedes development and causes debilitating long term paralysis. My grandfather was struck with the disease and had one of his legs stunted and weakened (though he managed to serve in WWII anyway as a Marine). A carpenter who worked for me a while back died due to long term respiratory complications from a childhood polio infection.

Polio is mostly foreign to anyone born in my generation. We were nearly all vaccinated, and the high levels of vaccination have destroyed opportunities for the virus to persist in the environment, protecting everyone, even those who don’t get the vaccine.

Unfortunately, though Salk’s achievements were great, medical care and attention to polio was hardly equitable and tainted by the racism of the time.

During the 1930s the systematic neglect of Black polio victims had become publicly visible and politically embarrassing. Most conspicuously, the polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Ga, which Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, had founded, accepted only White patients. This policy, reflecting the ubiquitous norm of race-segregated health facilities, was sustained by a persuasive scientific argument about polio itself. Blacks, medical experts insisted, were not susceptible to this disease, and therefore research and treatment efforts that focused on Black patients were neither medically necessary nor fiscally justified.[1]

It is likely true that African Americans experienced a lower burden of disease than white children. We now know that polio’s worst effect arise from the lack of acquired immunity to the disease. Repeated infections from infancy, most importantly during the first six months, when babies still have maternal antibodies to fight for them. Improvements to sanitation delayed exposure to the virus, so that children were not immune and thus more susceptible to the disease’s worst effects.

In short, polio is a disease of development, not underdevelopment. The horrible racism of the pre-civil rights medical system can’t be denied, but the observed disparities in disease incidence might have not been imagined given the disparities in sanitation and access to clean water.

Presently, we are fighting a battle to insure that all kids in Sub-Saharan Africa are vaccinated. However, there still exist pockets where the medical system so dysfunctional and the politics so chaotic, that vaccination rates are low and disease continues to flourish. In places like Afghanistan and Northern Nigeria, the hope of polio elimination is almost non-existent

 

1.    Rogers N: Race and the Politics of Polio: Warm Springs, Tuskegee, and the March of Dimes. American Journal of Public Health 2007, 97(5):784.

 

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