English: American television news program 60 M...

Reporter Lesley Stahl (Wikipedia)

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/

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  • Mary wulff Posted February 10, 2014 9:32 pm

    The story just blew my head off. Yes, the implications are enormous and so much change is needed. I have actually wondered about this often before. My experience with any meds is I need about half as much as my husband for almost every med I take. Have tried to explain this to our Dr. And he says the lowest dose will b fine for me. In fact the side effects of the lowest recommended doses are way too much. Women are forced to tinker with prescriptions with little or no advice from professionals. I took ambian years ago for about a month and could not wake up if I was sleg hammered in the head, could not even hear the phone or alarm right next to me. Scary and dangerous. Hope everyone reads or watches this story. This is going to shake some big trees in the medical and pharmaceutical world!
    Agree with you that really little today can be taken at face value and there are always questions to ask and new truths to be discovered, without holding on to die hard long held beliefs and assumptions, the possibility for positive change in any area grows daily. Preaching my poorly studied or understood sermon today!
    The 60 min’s story followed by 3 hours of Beatles was a great night !

  • davidbiddle Posted February 10, 2014 10:44 pm

    We did the same last night though with a little one hour interlude to watch True Detectives (which was the darkest and hairiest episode of anything I’ve ever seen on TV). Thank God the Beatles were on for that last half hour. “Hey Jude don’t be afraid.”

    • Mary Wulff Posted February 11, 2014 11:11 pm

      We are also hooked on True Detective. HBO is putting out the best television out there in TV Land!

  • David Biddle Posted February 11, 2014 11:30 pm

    We are Showtime fiends as well. The boys and I love Californication. And the whole family gathers every Sunday night for new episodes of Homeland. But you’re right about HBO. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that TV can no longer be called the Idiot Box…at least cable.

    Even more important, the amazing shows on all over the place are making novel reading even less of a vital thing these days, especially for young people.

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