Last night we watched an extraordinary story on 60 Minutes called “Sex Matters: Drugs Can Affect Sexes Differently” by Lesley Stahl. If you didn’t see it, you need to follow the link at the end of this post to watch it. Everyone who has gone through 7th grade biology in America needs to be aware of the implications of this story.
In a nutshell, it turns out that men and women metabolize drugs differently. Stahl’s story focuses on Ambien the sleep medication. In the past few years researchers have learned that women only need a dose half as strong as men to achieve the same sleep effect. In essence, women have been prescribed overdose quantities of Ambien since it hit the market … because scientists didn’t know any better.
The story also touches on the fact that men and women have different heart disease issues and that a dose of aspirin for men is indeed helpful as a prophylactic, but for women not so much.
What’s important here is that it points to a huge set of research assumptions that have been institutionalized in the study of human beings. These assumption have masked significant differences between the way male and female bodies work. This is not a sexist issue so much as a weird case of oversimplification. Stahl says that scientists used to assume that outside of some basic reproductive issues, male and female bodies functioned similarly. Hearts are hearts. Guts are guts. Livers are livers. Etc.
Not so, apparently.
On top of this over-simplification, we find out that in lab studies with rats most of the research is only done with male rats. Why? Because female rats have hormones that mess up findings. If you assume that male and female organs are the same, what’s the big deal? Apparently quite a lot.
I’m not able to do Stahl’s piece justice here. But the implications are immense. Just look at intoxication laws. We don’t know the answer here, but I’m going to guess one of the sexes is much drunker on a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 (the standard for DUI). The same may be true of nutritional requirements and environmental toxins. The list of issues is endless.
More than anything, this story points to something I’ve spent my life studying and being amazed by — so much of what we take for Truth or believe is common sense and obvious, ends up actually being wrong. We think of modern global society as this incredibly amazing, progressive, sophisticated world full of buttons and levers and ideas that make everything hum and zip and swoosh. But the truth is that culture often gets as much wrong as it gets right. What seems logical and sensible is often a function of historical institutional knowledge that is fundamentally conservative and/or lazy.
If there is one lesson to take away from this 60 Minutes piece it is the need to question every assumption you make constantly, especially in your life as a professional. More importantly, you need to look at how you think, and understand that many assumptions you make actually go unnoticed. But part of the reason you got an education is to understand the danger of assumptions and to have the courage and tenacity to find the ones that are wrong. Right?
When I was a consultant looking to help corporations and governments solve energy and environmental problems, I waited for people to say things to me like “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” and “Why would we want to over-complicate things?” Sometimes you don’t find problems in those realms, but they’re always good places to start.
Make sure to check out my latest column at Talking Writing magazine. This winter’s piece is called “Quality, Schmality – Indie Lit Rocks!” It’s actually on target with this post here.
This is the direct link to Stahl’s piece: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/sex-matters-drugs-can-affect-sexes-differently/