Tag Archives: health

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

hens

For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

smiling-pig

Behind the Wheel in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

When I imagined moving to a small European city, with my romantic notions and my best green intentions, I imagined riding a bike to get where I needed to go.  With a basket and a bell and a cute helmet.  I looked forward to biking to the local coffeehouse for a pleasant day of responding to discussion board posts and grading papers, and biking home with a load of fresh baguettes (or more likely in Norway, whole fish) sticking out of the basket.

Something like this.

The dream: Something like this.

Those dreams evaporated when I actually arrived here and realized I would be living outside the city, with an enormous mountain standing between our neighborhood and downtown Bergen.  And then there would be the route to the new construction where my daughters would go to preschool every day–up and over a steep and winding road much too far for us to walk and too difficult to bike.  It was clear: I was going to have to drive in Norway.

The reality: Something more like this.

The reality: Something more like this.

I am generally not a timid driver.  I’ve driven many times in cities up and down the East Coast without any problem, but driving in Norway is rather a different animal.

The first major difference to adjust to: the speed limits.  30 km/hour on our street.  That’s 18 miles per hour.  On the highways you might get to crank it up to 80 km/hour, but honey, you’re still only going 50 miles per hour.  My father-in-law told me that when they built the new highway to Voss years ago, it was very popular for families to go out for a Sunday drive, just for the liberating and novel experience of using fifth gear.

But on the city streets, there’s good reason to slow down, as Norway has some different traffic laws that require your constant attention.  The state invests very little in stop signs and traffic lights.  Though you will find traffic lights downtown and anywhere the light rail train intersects car traffic, traffic outside the city center is guided by roundabouts (rotaries) and through a crazy law whereby, on all but the largest thoroughfares, one always yields to traffic coming in from the right.

An in-town street in Norway.

An in-town street in Norway.

So as you’re driving, you have to slow down as you approach every intersection and right-hand side street to make sure there isn’t a car approaching that you must yield to.  This process is, of course, facilitated nicely by the fact that Norwegian roads are incredibly narrow and congested, and invariably lined with tall, visibility-cutting hedges and rock walls.

And even when you theoretically have the right of way (if traffic on your left is supposed to be yielding to you because you are entering on their right), it’s still wise to slow down at every intersection because Norwegians actually remember to observe this law only about 50% of the time.

Why, yes, it is as fun as it sounds!

Ideally, one would just go with the flow and hope for the best, but unfortunately, there’s this matter of having to pass a practical driving test to get a Norwegian license.  A few years ago, Americans could just make an even swap, but now getting a Norwegian license is a rather stressful and pricy endeavor.

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

Because of the different driving laws here, no foreigner in his right mind would take the test without first taking a few lessons with a driving school, at a rate of $100 for each 45 minute lesson.  Then the test itself costs $200.  But this is chump change compared to what it will cost you to try again, should you fail the one shot you have at the practical test: 30,000 Norwegian kroner, or $5,000 USD.

No pressure.

If you fail your test, you have to take a comprehensive set of classes (night driving, ice driving, city driving, country driving…) to be allowed to try again.  Norwegians say, “In America, you save up to send your kids to college.  In Norway, we save for our kids’ drivers license exam.”

Norwegian driver's license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

Norwegian driver’s license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

So my test is Tuesday.  Say a prayer.  Among the things you can fail for: shifting too quickly, shifting too slowly, entering a roundabout too quickly, entering a roundabout too slowly, passing by a right-hand side street too quickly, and yes, passing by a right-hand side street too slowly.  It’s basically a game of chance.  A $5,000 game of chance.

But if I fail, I’m thinking I might just put the money toward a Vespa.  I will rebound with style, with a helmet, a horn and, maybe, a basket of fish.

Something like this.

Something like this.

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

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Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

Spiders and Toads

By Marc Williams

Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
~Richard III (Act 1, scene 1).

King Richard III is among Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Based on the real-life Richard of Glouster, Shakespeare’s title character murders his way to the throne, bragging about his deeds and ambitions to the audience in some of Shakespeare’s most delightful soliloquies. Shakespeare’s Richard is famously depicted as a hunchback, and uses his physical deformity as justification for his evil ambitions:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

For stage actors, Richard III is a tremendously challenging role. On one hand, he is pure evil—but he must also be charming and likeable. If you aren’t familiar with the play, its second scene features Richard successfully wooing Lady Anne as she grieves over her husband’s corpse! And Richard is her husband’s killer! Shakespeare’s Richard is both evil and smooth.

Simon Russell Beale as Richard III.

Actors must also deal with the issue of Richard’s physical disability. For instance, Richard is described as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad,” an image that inspired Simon Russell Beale’s 1992 performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while Antony Sher’s iconic 1984 interpretation was inspired by the phrase “bottled spider,” an insult hurled at Richard in Act I.

Anthony Sher’s “bottled spider” interpretation of  Richard III.

While much of the historical record disputes Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a maniacal mass-murderer, relatively little is known about Richard’s disability. According to the play, Richard is a hunchback with a shriveled arm. However, there is little evidence to support these claims.

This uncertainty may soon change. Archaeologists in Leicester, England have uncovered the remnants of a chapel that was demolished in the 16th century. That chapel, according to historic accounts of Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, was Richard’s burial site. Not only have researchers found the church, but they have also located the choir area, where Richard’s body was allegedly interred. And indeed, last week, the archaeologists uncovered bones in the choir area:

If the archeologists have indeed found the remains of Richard III, the famous king was definitely not a hunchback. It appears he suffered from scoliosis—a lateral curve or twist of the spine—but not from kyphosis, which is a different kind of spinal curvature that leads to a pronounced forward-leaning posture. As Dr. Richard Taylor explains in the video, the excavated remains suggest this person would have appeared to have one shoulder slightly higher than the other as a result of scoliosis.

Interestingly, Ian McKellen’s performance as Richard III, captured in Richard Loncraine’s 1996 film, seems to capture the kind of physical condition described by Dr. Taylor, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. At the 6:45 mark in this video, one can see how McKellen dealt with Richard’s condition.

So it appears Shakespeare not only distorted historical details in Richard III, he also apparently distorted the title character’s shape. Of Shakespeare’s Richard, McKellen wrote:

Shakespeare’s stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity. Canny Shakespeare may well have conformed to the propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather having slain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Shakespeare was not writing nor rewriting history. He was building on his success as thee young playwright of the Henry VI trilogy, some of whose monstrously self-willed men and women recur in Richard III.

It seems likely that Shakespeare wanted Richard to seem as evil as possible in order to flatter Queen Elizabeth I, depicting her grandfather as England’s conquering hero. But why distort Richard’s physical disability as well?

In describing Richard’s body shape, it is difficult to ascertain what Shakespeare’s motives might have been and perhaps even more difficult to assess his attitudes toward physical difference in general. For example, in my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class in the BLS program, we discuss the issue of race in Othello, even though we don’t know much about what Shakespeare thought about race. Many scholars have investigated the subject of physical difference in Shakespeare, of course: there are papers on Richard’s spine, naturally, but also Othello’s seizures, Lavinia’s marginalization in Titus Andronicus after her hands and feet are severed, the depiction of blindness in King Lear, and even Hermia’s height in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And just as one must ask, “is Othello about race,” we might also ask, “is Richard III about shape?” I doubt many would argue that physical difference is the primary focus of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but it will be interesting to observe how the apparent discovery of Richard’s body will affect future performances of the play. Will actors continue to twist their bodies into “bottled spiders,” or will they focus on the historical Richard’s scoliosis—and perhaps ask why such vicious language is used to describe such a minor difference?

A Moment to Stretch

By Marc Williams

One of our most popular blog entries to date is “Dim Light and Other Hazards,” a discussion of some of the effects of sitting in front of a computer all day.  At the beginning of the semester, before there is a lot of grading to do and emails to answer, it is really quite easy to remember to step away from the computer for a moment to stretch and rest my eyes.  Now that the first BLS session is in its second half and assignments are in need of grading, it is more difficult for me to remain disciplined when it comes to taking breaks.  I’m guessing that others are finding themselves glued to their computer monitors just like me.

Here’s a quick guide from Health.com about back, shoulder, and core health.  While its focus is on “great posture as you age,” I think the tips are applicable to anyone who works in front of a computer all day.  This is important for many of our BLS students who work in front of a computer all day, only to come home at night and work on a computer to complete course assignments.

Is it time for you to stretch?

Alarm Clocks Really Bite

By Marc Williams

I despise alarm clocks.

Dr. Rubin Naiman, a sleep and dream expert, suggests that an alarm clock is a distributor of self-inflicted agony, and I couldn’t agree more. He refers to our reliance on alarm clocks as “tail-biting,” a reference to Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book.

[Sleep Book is] a story about a character in a bedtime story. It’s about one of Dr. Seuss’s enigmatic little creatures, the Chippendale Mupp, who is featured in his classic “Sleep Book.” The Mupp is a sharp-toothed furry fellow with an impossibly long tail. As a part of his bedtime routine, this weird little beast bites down hard on the end of its own tail.

2011-08-11-Screenshot20110811at11.48.06AM.pngSeuss informs us that:

His tail is so long, he won’t feel any pain, ‘Til the nip makes the trip and gets up to his brain. In exactly eight hours, The Chippendale Mupp Will, at last, feel the bite and yell, “Ouch!” and wake up.What a revealing parable about the alarm clock as a self-inflicted pain in the rear!

Naiman suggests that sleep is undervalued. On one hand, many of us simply don’t get enough sleep. After all, the alarm clock is designed to interrupt our slumber–if our sleep patterns could end naturally we’d have no need for alarms. However, most of us either stay up too late, wake up too early, or both, so we punish ourselves every morning with an alarm. Naiman also points out that our lamps, phones, clocks, and other items we keep at our bedside “tether us to the waking world,” a phenomenon he calls “getting down on the wrong side of the bed.”

I imagine this is something that many teachers and students deal with, especially BLS students who are simultaneously juggling school, a career, and a family. For us zombies who keep very late hours, Naiman’s first recommendation is obvious: an earlier bedtime. However, simply getting an extra hour or two of sleep isn’t the only way to combat tail-biting:

[Practice] a mindful approach to sleep. When you slip into bed, focus on the treasure of tonight’s sleep, not tomorrow’s waking. Instead of thinking about what you will do in the morning, surrender to the mystery of the present night, enjoying your swim in the sea of sleep with its wondrous dream fish. Instead of awakening in the morning to an alarming “ouch!” — practice coming to gently and gradually, intentionally carrying the serenity of sleep and the enchantment of dreams with you into your new waking day.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

The Good, the Bad, and the Caffeinated

By Marc Williams

This morning, as I sat with my oversized mug, finishing off the last of what had been nearly a full pot of coffee, I came across yet another article on the effects of coffee on one’s health.  My coffee mug is an extension of my arm: when I’m emailing students, preparing a new lesson, or grading papers, my coffee is always within reach.  As a major coffee drinker (and serious snob) I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to discover if my daily dose of caffeine, size extra grande, was actually doing harm.

Happily, I’ve found much research that suggests my habit is quite healthful: coffee is linked to reduced risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, not to mention its ability to increase alertness.  However, sometimes my consumption borders on excess, and the ill effects of high coffee intake have been well-documented: increased risk of certain cancers and acid reflux, plus caffeine addiction can lead to chronic headaches, etc. etc. etc.

So is coffee good for me or bad for me?  I’m confused.

According to Christie Aschwanden of Slate.com, the confusion is widespread–and the uncertainty about coffee’s effect(s) on health is nothing new.  She mentions Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Changed the World.

According to Pendergrast’s book, coffee has stimulated intellectual and often irreverent pursuits among users throughout the ages, often sparking backlash. One governor of Mecca banned the drink after discovering satirical musings about him coming from local coffeehouses. In 1674, a group of London women grew angry with their husbands for spending so much time at coffeehouses (often in an attempt to sober up after the pub), and published a pamphlet warning that the beverage would make them impotent. The men fought back with a competing pamphlet claiming that coffee actually added a “spiritualescency to the Sperme.” In 1679, French doctors blasted coffee, because it “disaccustom[ed] people from the enjoyment of wine.”

While the debate’s historical component is fascinating, I want answers. According to Aschwanden’s article, University of Alabama physician Melissa Wellons  compiled the various medical studies and concluded that most of the physical effects of caffeinated beverages are “observational,” meaning that causality has not been adequately demonstrated.  In comparing these observational effects side-by-side, Aschwanden concludes that the positive effects outweigh the negative.

So it appears, at least for now, I can slurp away.