I have offbeat criteria for evaluating the science I read about these days. At age 31, I’ve entered my Marxist phase. I want positive social change, and I don’t understand why all discourse doesn’t bend in service to that change.
Consider Jonah Lehrer’s piece about stress in Wired, which I mentioned a few posts ago. Jonah describes something called the Whitehall study, which has tracked 28,000 British civil servants since 1967. Every subject is “a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy,” he writes.
They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.
The British civil service comes with one other feature that makes it ideal for studying the health effects of stress: It’s hierarchi-cal, with a precise classification scheme for ranking employees (in other words, it’s the human equivalent of a baboon troop).
Jonah tells us that “between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top” (his emphasis) and still had nearly double the mortality rate after controlling for smoking, drinking and other factors.
According to Jonah, the lead researcher attributes the effect to psychosocial stress, specifically to workers’ lack of control over the demands of the job. A radical might take this as a point in favor of an economic order that valued collective decision making by workers over management. But Jonah’s narrative never breaks out of the capitalist frame.
In setting up his bottom line for the Whitehall study, Jonah notes that “we’re so sensitive to the effects of status that getting promoted from the lowest level in the British civil service reduced the probability of heart disease by up to 13 percentage points.” Hence, “Climbing the social ladder makes us live longer.” Emphasis mine.
Try to feel me on this: Is it asking too much that “the social ladder” not be presented as a fact of life? Jonah is a legitimate wunderkind. Surely he could have dug up any number of studies bearing on the question of how alternative institutions might affect workers’ feelings of control over their jobs. I immediately thought of this study, about hotel workers who lost weight and lowered their blood pressure after they were told that their jobs cleaning rooms counted as exercise.
Anyway, back on board the USS Indignation, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jonah’s story goes on to describe his main scientist character’s desire to create a genetic “vaccine” that would counteract the damaging effects of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. If we’re looking at everything in terms of existing structures, then of course the answer to systemic injustice must lie in some speculative, far-off pharmaceutical intervention.
I mean, that’s what we look to science for, right? Nice ideas that will probably never fly?
Blerg. Back to my social theory tome.