Purposeful Summary

Purposeful Summary Lecture/Demo

When I ask you to make purposeful summaries of articles that just happen to have counterintuitive themes, I want you to be able to read some examples, and at the same time, gain a better understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive.

A “purposeful summary” doesn’t bother to recount the entire subject matter of an article. It may in fact share very little of the content of the original source. It does, however, remain true to the original, or to a credible version of the original. It is possible, for example, to produce a summary of an article that proves the opposite of what a misguided author intended. A propaganda film might glorify war, but your purposeful summary of the film might prove that war is in fact the ultimate inhuman act.

Illustrations are always superior to explanations.

1) Ethics of a Three-Parent Baby

It seems counterintuitive that human life, which everyone knows gets DNA from two parents when male sperm fertilizes a female egg, could ever require, or even make use of, the DNA of three parents. But that’s exactly what is happening.

The UK will soon allow in vitro fertilization of female eggs that include contributions from a second woman’s healthy egg to replace defective mitochondrial DNA in the first woman’s egg. While the amount of DNA is small, it nonetheless permanently alters the DNA of all female children born to the (well we can’t say couple any more!) three parents.

The contribution of healthy mitochondrial DNA to the fertilized egg will prevent birth defects that could result in seizures and decreased muscle formation in the absence of the healthy DNA. As usual, critics worry that this first tiny advance in promoting healthy babies will open the floodgates to every sort of god-playing, frankenstein-creating unscrupulous experimentation imaginable.

Others fret that only the rich will be able to afford healthy babies. In all likelihood, both these scenarios will play out just as they fear.

2) Africa Should Screen Americans for Measles

It seems counterintuitive but is possibly true that Africans have more to fear from American visitors than we have to fear from them. Nigerian writer and lawyer Elnathan John earned 35,000 retweets or favorites by tweeting that he was concerned for “measles-ravaged” America and hoped Africa was screening American visitors.

His comment was a sly rejoinder to the demand heard often in the media during the Ebola scare that all Africans should be screened for disease before visiting America. While Ebola is certainly scary, measles is nine times as contagious, and while it isn’t usually fatal, it killed 430 children a day in 2011 worldwide.

Also counterintuitive are the rules for immunizations in the United States. All US immigrants are required to prove they’ve received the full protocol of immunizations, including one for measles. But many American jurisdictions permit US citizens to opt out of vaccinations, including the measles vaccine, on religious or philosophical grounds.

When tens of thousands of Central American children crossed the US border from Mexico last year, they were all forcibly immunized against measles, even though their countries of origin have higher immunization rates than the US (El Salvador, 94 %; Guatemala, 93%; United States, 91%).

Nevertheless, we remain as a country more irrationally afraid of “disease-carrying” immigrants and visitors than we do of our own “anti-vaxxer” citizens who could be immunized if they chose to but choose not to.

[Bonus Source: Here’s how Slate.com reports on the recent US measles outbreak, as part of a series of posts in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.]

3) Is this Photo Ethical?

It seems counterintuitive that we send photographers into scenes of grave danger on the basis of our need to see, to fully understand, the catastrophes of natural phenomena or disastrous human choices, but then accuse them of sensationalizing their subjects when they deliver precisely what we have asked them to produce.

When the sudden earthquake of January, 2010, killed 230,000 Haitians, nature was not the only killer. Concrete structures built according to lax building codes (or built without oversight of any kind, or after bribing code officials) contributed thousands of deaths when they crashed down on their inhabitants. And when lawlessness and looting followed the quake, flawed humans killed one another; property owners, thieves, and police all clashed until even more blood was spilled over what few valuables remained.

Photographers rushed to Haiti in droves to record the chaos and devastation, perhaps to raise awareness, certainly to assist in the fundraising efforts for disaster relief, perhaps to win themselves some photography or journalism awards.

The images of 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma, shot by police while crossing a rooftop with an armload of stolen framed pictures, appear to have been taken by a lone photographer who happened on the scene and shot them with frank detachment. They are shocking but perhaps have value in engaging our passions and our compassion.

But the “other” photo, the side view that reveals seven photographers all crouching to capture virtually the same shot of the fallen Fabienne (one of which was named the best International News Image at the Swedish Picture of the Year Award) shocks everyone who sees it for an entirely different reason: it makes them look like vultures waiting to feed off her corpse.

Consider what we demand of the people we send to do this job. We insist they share us truthful images we can trust to tell the real story of human triumphs and tragedies. But we also want them to disappear, to not be part of the story, to keep their hands out of the situation so that we can believe it. And when they do what we ask, we condemn them for their inhumanity, for their very “professionalism” in the face of suffering.

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