Why does this blog exist? (in a shallow sense)

One of the main impetuses (aside: why can’t it be impeti?) for my efforts to set up this blog, was that when I googled “social epidemiology” or “social epidemiology blog“, I was severely underwhelmed by what I found. And don’t even get me started on the wikipedia page.  Even looking for “‘social determinants of health’ blog” brings up individual entries, not blogs devoted to the subject.

This was a shame, if not entirely a surprise.  A couple of years back, a group of students in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at HSPH thought it would be a great idea to set up a group blog (à la scatterplot, among others).  This effort – under the moniker societyandhealth – was sadly rather shortlived.  I think this was partly due to it being started shortly before summer break and partly due to each of us having a slightly different idea what the site might do.

In large part, I think that the lack of material or coherence on the web reflects the breadth of the field and perhaps uncertainty regarding its epistemology.  I have heard it argued that public health in general, and social epidemiology must be a normative science and an activist discipline: if we find things that are causing ill-health, a failure to act on these through communication and policy change is little short of criminal.  Such arguments resonate with the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg.

On the other hand, there is still only a limited amount of actual evidence for health being associated with social conditions – certainly compared to more traditional risk factors such as behaviours and environmental exposures.  Thus there is a more positive science angle that says we need to run more, and better, studies to figure out which exposures cause which outcomes and through which mediating pathways.

It is also notable that social epidemiology aims to shift the discussion regarding causation in public health by changing what is a valid cause of health. (On which topic, if you haven’t heard of this book, you should get thee to a bookshop asap).  It is therefore an aggressive force for epistemological change.  And this is something I love about the field.  It does, however, often make it hard to nail down what is covered within its remit, since that keeps changing too.

All of which makes for a very interesting field, but not an easy one to follow online. Which could probably also be said of this blog post.  My point, however, is that in the absence of a blog devoted to social epidemiology and the social determinants of health, I thought that I might as well cast off from the shore and see where the currents take me.  I think we’re still within sight of the point of embarkation, but hopefully soon there’ll be new lands to discover, and maybe even pirates to fight.   But enough with the extended meataphor.  For now.

P.S.  If I’ve abused the term epistemology, my apologies.  In philosophy as is so much else, a little vocabulary is a very dangerous thing.

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Interesting titles this week – an introduction

So, as you (the reader, singular), may have noticed there hasn’t exactly been a bunch of new material on this site recently.  You can blame quals (I know I do).  In order that I don’t completely let this blog lapse into the senility it most certainly deserves, I began to search around for material to post that wouldn’t require an hour or two of prep and any kind of serious mental effort.  This is the result.

I currently get three sets of emails a week that remind me of how damn productive my particuar niche(s) of the academosphere are.  One is from the amazing and prodigious Robert Malow.  The sheer quantity of material that this man works through is amazing, and then he formats it up nicely and emails it to very many people around the world.  The topic is HIV, but within that this biweekly publication covers everything from the molecule to society.  And it’s free.

The other two are non-curated emails, one from Google Scholar and the other from PubMed.  The former is entirely based on keyword searches, which makes narrow searches or multiple terms a necessity – especially since it often picks up grey literature.  The latter allows you to use fields to narrow searches down – if you are not already using these generally, and MeSH terms specifically, you are seriously underutilizing the strengths of PubMed.

These three updates provide high sensitivity, but pretty low specificity, and I then use a sophisticated algorithm (a.k.a. The Eyeball Test) to pick out potentially interesting things to read properly.  It is from this two-step procedure that I found all the articles I have blogged about so far, and probably those I will in the future.  But I will never get to blogging about half/98% of those I pick.

My plan, therefore, is to post every week a list of the things I have picked up, but not necessarily yet read.  Partly I hope that this will be of interest, if your interests are very closely aligned to mine (hence the singular reader concept), and partly I hope that this will push me to actually read them myself.  So a win for everyone, possibly.