Porphyria Awareness Week

Friday, 25 April 2014

V is for Virginity Confirmation

In a world filled with gendered double standards, one that is represented across many cultures is a fixation on female virginity. Fiction certainly showcases a wide variety of tropes on the subject, one in particular causes real-life problems for women worldwide. Namely, the assumption that virginity is synonymous with an intact hymen, and that a true virgin will always bleed the first time she has (heterosexual) intercourse.

[Note: Mildly NSFW due to reproductive biology and sex discussion. Click through for full post]

Thursday, 24 April 2014

U is for Universal Scientists

Back when I was applying to my postgrad, my biggest academic anxiety was my lackluster grades in intermediate chemistry and physics. When I voiced my concerns to my prospective postgrad advisor, he was entirely unconcerned.
'Don't worry,' he said. 'It's not like you're going to need it again.'
Even as someone doing an interdisciplinary thesis, it turned out, I had already specialised my way out of any number of fields.

You wouldn't guess that, though, by looking at fictional scientists. Anyone behind a fictional lab coat can suture an artery, whip up a vaccine, split an atom, identify a rare species of rainforest bat, build a battery, calculate a Bayesian probability model to predict the age of the villain, and then take said villain down with a contraption made of rubber bands, frozen fish, and an antique lightbulb.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was much more feasible for a single person to know all there was to know about 'natural philosophy', since the sum total of human scientific knowledge was pretty limited. Once the rate of scientific discoveries really began to pick up, however, there was simply too much knowledge for one human to know it all. Now, when the rate of new discoveries in some fields-- particularly genetics and cellular biology-- necessitates new textbooks being printed annually, it's hard enough to keep up with the cutting edge of one field, let alone many. So while your fictional modern scientist may have a solid comprehension of fields outside their specialty, they will have tip-top skills only in their area of expertise.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

T is for Televisually Transmitted Disease

Foreman: First year of medical school - if you hear hoofbeats you think horses, not zebras.
House: Are you in first year of medical school? No. First of all, there's nothing on the CAT scan. Second of all, if this is a horse then the kindly family doctor in Trenton makes the obvious diagnosis and it never gets near this office. 

PSA: Since we're talking about rare diseases today, it's worth pointing out that it's Porphyria Awareness Week!
If a story is set in a hospital, a good portion of the drama comes from the patients. And the audience can bet that this won't be a parade of flu and broken bones and heart disease. In fact, the rarer a malady, the more it seem to make appearances in fictional doctors' offices. Popular choices are Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (incidence 1 in 25,000 people), various types of porphyria (incidence 1 in 40,000 people), conjoined twins (about 1 out of 100,000 live births), and intersex patients (1 in 50,000 people).

In spite of complaints that portraying rare ailments in the media prompts perfectly healthy people to panic-search symptoms on WebMD, I'd argue that showing rare diseases in the media is a positive thing. Because of the rarity of many of the conditions that get play on medical shows, patients with these diseases are often misdiagnosed or ignored unless the patient or doctor happens to recognize the symptoms for what they are. And yes, there is at least one documented case of someone seeing their symptoms on TV and rushing to the doctor just in time. If the rare illnesses are portrayed in realistic detail, these fictional presentations have the potential to raise awareness and potentially guide people to the specialist medical care they need.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

S is for Soft Landings

Fictionland has some weird physics. Most notably, glass and water in Fictionland behave nothing like these substances do in the real world.

Fictional water has an amazing ability to break falls. Characters plunging headlong off bridges or being pushed out of helicopters are regularly saved by splashing into water and emerging sodden, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Similarly, fictional glass windows and sliding doors shatter on impact, allowing characters to burst through with only a couple of scratches at most.

Water is actually quite dense, and as anyone who's bellyflopped off a diving board can tell you, slamming into water at speed hurts. Multiply that by the height of the villain's airplane, and you've got a recipe for broken bones and ruptured organs. That said, trained divers and stuntpeople can move their bodies in order to enter the water in a way which minimises impact, and make spectacular leaps into water from a great height.

Window glass is similarly hardy. Movie glass is actually made of sugar so that actors can crash through large sheets of it with ease. It is not recommended to try jumping through glass to make a dramatic exit or escape. And for the sake of realism, maybe keep your characters from doing it as well.

Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Reefer Madness

If you believe the news, the general teenage population seems to have a death wish. Every few months, the youths discover some dangerous new hobby and it takes off like wildfire, placing the future of society in jeopardy.

Obviously, society has yet to implode, even though there are. It helps that a lot of the trends-- and a lot of the danger-- are at least partly fictional. Ironically, though, the Everyone Panic Now scare tactics often have a quantifiable effect on the real world, and it's exactly the opposite of the one they intended. 

The best-known example is the anti-drug scare campaign D.A.R.E., which has been found in several large studies to be either utterly ineffective at preventing drug use, or worse, actually increase the probability that someone will do drugs. But there are dozens of other instances of moral panics throughout human history, covering everything from worries over excessive tea consumption to Satanism.

While some of these panics have roots in real dangers, a great many of them are the stuff of pure fiction. Unfortunately, the consequences can run twofold. First, panic over the exaggerated or fictitious threat leads to bad policy decisions. One notable case is the many people falsely accused-- and sometimes imprisoned for--Satanic child abuse. Second, the imagined threat can actually make the jump from speculation to reality, as people rush to try the dangerous, thrilling thing that everyone else is allegedly doing.

We are emotional creatures, but we also need to remember that fiction and news media deliberately play on those emotions.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Happy Easter

Wishing a blessed Easter to all of you who celebrate it! To everyone else, enjoy the springtime!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Q is for Quicksand Traps

In Fictionland, it's highly advisable to watch your step on any surface that looks remotely sandy. About 3% of all films made during the 1960s-- the peak of the trope-- show someone sinking in quicksand. The trope has lost its popularity somewhat, but still appears regularly in adventure films and TV series, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Depending on where you live, quicksand is a rare but real danger. Furthermore, depictions of desert quicksand far from an obvious water source are not entirely implausible:  moving, aerated sand can have similar properties to liquid quicksand, as can large volumes of pouring grain. However, there are some key bits of misinformation that crop up in fiction which will do you no favours if you fall in. Here are the facts:
Now you can consider yourself one step closer to B-movie survival preparedness.