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Why breast implants don't work

Cosmetic surgery is nothing more than an industrial-scale scientific experiment, carried out on vuln

We are asking the wrong question about the Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) breast implants. Yes, they rupture, releasing industrial-grade silicone mattress-filler into women's bodies. But we don't need new research to know what the medical outcomes will be. The effects of putting silicone into the body have been charted since the 1950s, when the first augmentations started going wrong. The right question to ask is this: why has it been allowed to continue for half a century?

Cosmetic surgery is nothing more than an industrial-scale scientific experiment. The augmentation of women's breasts began as an application of chemical wizardry, ushered in on the gleaming wings of postwar science. The surgeon's hypothesis has been that a problem of self-esteem can be fixed using polymers and medical technology. This didn't always go well - in the 1950s and 1960s, women were given augmentations that sometimes went so wrong that they needed mastectomies. Now, though, the results are in.

Next month, for example, the journal Psychological Medicine will publish a study of almost 1,600 Norwegian adolescent girls who were monitored over a 13-year period. They were asked about their satisfaction with their personal appearance, sexual behaviour, drug use, behavioural issues and attitudes towards cosmetic surgery. The finding is that women who use cosmetic surgery do not have lower opinions of their general attractiveness than women who do not opt for surgery. However, they display more symptoms of depression and anxiety, use more illicit drugs and have stronger histories of self-harm and suicide attempts. And the surgery is likely to make things worse.

Post-surgery, these women became more depressed and anxious, with greater alcohol consumption and more problems with eating disorders. As the researchers conclude: "A series of mental health symptoms predict cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery does not in turn seem to alleviate such mental health problems."

This is not the first such report. In 2009, a five-year study showed that, although augmentation patients are happier with their body shape, their self-esteem does not increase by anywhere near the same amount.

Perhaps the most startling observation is the heightened suicide rate among women who have undergone surgery for breast implantation. The researchers who uncovered it almost a decade ago were looking for evidence that implants could be linked to cancers and autoimmune diseases. They found nothing conclusive on that score, but the data did show that women who had received breast implants were three times more likely to kill themselves. As yet, no one understands why.

Breaking the code

Viewing cosmetic surgery as an experiment means we should also submit it to ethical consideration. The Nuremberg Code governing experimentation on human subjects states that the individual "should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved"; that the experiment "should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods"; and: "Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death." The great breast augmentation experiment does not meet these standards.

Cosmetic breast implantation is a flawed and ethically corrupt psychological experiment, carried out for commercial profit on vulnerable women. And it should now be halted.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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Humans of New York isn’t journalism, but it helps us get beyond the headlines

The creator fo the street photography project has turned his attention to the human stories behind the migrant crisis. 

More than 59 million people around the world are currently displaced as a result of conflict and crisis. More than 500,000 of these refugees – the majority of them escaping the deadly civil war in Syria – have fled to Europe over the past several months. These are staggering numbers, and as with any large-scale human crisis, one key challenge is to comprehend the human suffering behind them.

Over the past two weeks, New York photographer Brandon Stanton – best known for his project Humans of New York (HONY) – has documented the human stories behind the migrant crisis, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Through HONY, Stanton has catalogued the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, using photographs and short interviews with his subjects. The project is hugely popular across social media, including Facebook (15.5m likes), Instagram (3.9m followers) and Twitter (356,000 followers), and his book documenting the project became a New York Times bestseller. On September 29, he announced that he would be sharing stories from refugees who are making their way across Europe. He said:

These migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis’, there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.

Since then, the site has shared the stories of government clerks from Baghdad, Nepalese engineers, Afghani interpreters and Syrian waiters who left everything behind and embarked on treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys to reach safety. But the question remains: how much can readers learn about a complex, global, political issue like mass migration from a handful of stories about individual people?

Pulling on the heartstrings

The project quite deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of its audiences in its attempt to generate empathy for the refugees. One typical post, featuring a photograph of a crying woman, tells the story of how she lost her husband at sea after their boat capsized: “The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me.”

Another post, featuring a photograph of a father and his daughter, is particularly touching:

Because of its distinctive style and approach, the site has not been immune to ridicule and criticism. Countless parody accounts have sprung up. These include Millennials of New York, which attempts to offer stories that are “a little less inspirational”; Felines of New York, Lizard People of New York, Pigeons of Boston and Goats of Bangladesh – to mention just a few.

But HONY also has more serious critics to reckon with. Some suggest that Stanton's stories are mere caricatures, which oversimplify and sentimentalise what are often very complex stories, and seek to emotionally manipulate audiences through clickbaiting. Debates rage over whether it can be seen as a form of journalism and, if not, how we should understand the project.

Critics may be right that Humans of New York is not journalism as we know it. After all, it shies away from claims to objectivity and is explicit about its moral aim to humanise the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathise with the suffering of distant others. The project takes place in partnership with the UN, and therefore more appropriately belongs safely in the category of humanitarian advocacy through storytelling.

Time-honoured traditions

Yet HONY borrows from long-standing journalistic and documentary practices. For example, the British social documentary movement, which started in the 1930s, was premised on the importance of telling the stories of “ordinary” people to counter the dominance of elite and upper-class in the media.

My own research on the role of emotion in journalistic story-telling demonstrates that the most highly regarded journalism – Pulitzer Prize winning reports – draw extensively on emotive and personal story-telling as a means of illustrating what are often very complex and abstract issues, ranging from the fate of the New Jersey fishing industry to breakthroughs in the use of DNA technology for medical treatments.

This is precisely because it is only through such personal stories that we can step into the shoes of others – whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Humans of New York may be sentimental, simplistic and saccharine to some, but it also represents a major achievement. Using time-honoured journalistic techniques, it has shown its audience that the personal and private stories of refugees represent a shared political reality, which we ignore at our peril.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor; Director of Research Development and Environment, School of Journalism, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation