On good writing, parenthood, and velociraptors

I’ve been hearing from my daughter’s teachers the past couple of years what a good writer she is.  But, she’ll never share her writing with me, no matter how much I beg.  But now, I finally get to see.  Inspired by 1) her brother’s extensive lego collection, and 2) the boredom arising from her two neighbor friends heading off to Morocco for the whole summer, she decided to make a “Velociraptor Sightings” Instagram account (You should check out all the posts and start at the beginning).  At the risk of being a totally biased dad, I’ve got to say, I think it’s hilarious and pretty brilliant.  

What so amazes and impresses me is the style/tone of her writing.  As a college professor, I think a lot about good writing.  And one thins that’s really clear is that a lot of the best writers simply read a lot and naturally assimilate the tone and conventions of the style of writing they are trying to do themselves.  Others can learn this, but, often, it’s an effortful slog.  What I love here is that Sarah has so wonderfully reproduced a tone you would find in a social media account for some kind of wildlife center or in a short, fun, nature video.  Obviously, I take no credit for this and as much as appreciate the teachers at Kingswood Elementary, she did not learn this there.  In short, as a parent, its delightful to see what a naturally gifted writer my daughter is.  [I think I will take a bit of credit for the humor, as that is something we all enjoy together and that is definitely encouraged in the Greene household]

Anyway, so far most of this talent is wasted on just her family, so, if you are on Instagram, please consider giving her a follow.


Relitigating the 2020 NC Senate Race

So, there’s an interesting new behind the scenes about what went down with the sex scandal in Cal Cunningham’s campaign.  I learned about it from a tweet, which led me to follow-up with the following:

And, hey, a mini twitter spat.

Anyway, an animal lover followed up with a link to this great Miles Coleman analysis from April that I had somehow missed.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the sexual controversy might have cost Cunningham the election, but I also think a fair reading of the evidence very much suggests otherwise.  I certainly have this table (from Coleman) in mind when thinking about the election:

Table 1: 2020 federal and Council of State races in North Carolina

In 2020, no sitting statewide Republicans were defeated. Along those lines, every statewide Democrat who won was an incumbent seeking reelection — and their incumbency wasn’t really enough to guarantee robust margins.

In the case of Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC), his final 4.5% margin was considerably smaller than what polling suggested. Voters reelected Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to a seventh term, but her 2.3% margin was the closest of her career. Attorney General Josh Stein, a likely contender for governor himself in 2024, had razor-close races in both 2016 and 2020. Finally, though Republicans didn’t seriously challenge state Auditor Beth Wood, she still came within two points of losing to a candidate who faced criminal charges.

So a Cunningham win would have really stood out as a pro-Democratic outlier compared to the other statewide results, given that Trump carried the state, no Republican incumbent statewide officeholders lost, and some Democratic statewide incumbents had very close calls without the kinds of problems that Cunningham had.

There’s also a variety of additional analyses that also point to this same conclusion.  Coleman’s conclusion:

As much as we’d like to treat elections like a science experiment — something that can be replicated but tweaked with different variables — they don’t actually work that way. So it’s hard to know with certainty what might have happened had Cunningham’s affair not become public. There is also some indication that it may have hurt Cunningham on the margins, at least in military-heavy areas and quite possibly elsewhere.

That said, we think there are some good reasons to think Cunningham would have lost anyway. Using Occam’s Razor, his biggest problem was that Biden simply didn’t carry the state. Tillis also did better than Trump in the suburbs, something we saw from several other Senate and House Republican candidates across the country in 2020. And Cunningham doing a little bit better than Biden in the Election Day vote — these are the voters who would’ve had the most time to digest the scandal — also suggests that the scandal may not have been decisive.

As someone who does know a lot about biases of human information processing and biases of media coverage, I think there’s every reason to think that takes that essentially say “sex controversy cost Cunningham the Senate seat” play into both of these.  Again, not that we can say definitively that’s not so, but, not only does the balance of the evidence suggests otherwise, the evidence suggests we’re going to be primed to want to believe the sexier takes despite the evidence.  

The Delta problem

What I’ve been thinking for a while is that Delta, by virtue of being substantially more transmissible than Alpha, just may well fall in a nasty sweet spot where what was good enough to stop Alpha is not good enough to stop Delta.  Therefore we may well have a false sense of security of “we’re beating this/ what we’re doing is working” (even with our sad vaccination rates in much of the country) when that attitude is true for Alpha but not for Delta.  I fear we are setting ourselves up for a rude awakening.  As of now, Delta is about 20% of cases and doubling as a proportion of cases about every two weeks.  That means we’re potentially just four weeks away from 80%.  That’s… not good. 

Of course, a huge part of this is that all these damn Republican areas are so lagging in vaccines.  Great Leonhardt newsletter on this today (and, honestly, if you are not subscribed to the Leonhardt newsletter, I question your judgement):

Consider this chart, which looks at the number of new cases in counties across the U.S., grouping counties by the share of residents who have been fully vaccinated:

Credit…By The New York Times | Sources: State, county and regional health departments

A month ago, a chart like this would have looked almost random, with little relationship between caseloads and vaccination rates. Now, there is a clear relationship. (A recent Washington Post analysis came to the same conclusion.)

One likely explanation is that vaccination rates have risen high enough in some communities to crush the spread of Covid. In the spring, these places were still coping with significant outbreaks, but they aren’t anymore.

In Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, for instance, more than 90 percent of people aged 12 and above have received at least one shot. As a result, Marin has virtually extinguished the virus, with only three new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks.

A second explanation for the new divergence between more and less vaccinated places is the Delta variant. It appears to be making vaccination even more valuable. The vaccines are effective against Delta, sharply reducing the chances of infection and nearly eliminating any chance of serious illness. For unvaccinated people, however, Delta is significantly more contagious than earlier variants. [emphases mine]

There is a political angle to these trends, of course. The places with the lowest vaccination rates tend to be heavily Republican. In an average U.S. county that voted for Donald Trump, only 34 percent of people are fully vaccinated, according to New York Times data. In an average county that voted for Joe Biden, the share is 45 percent (and the share that has received at least one shot is higher).

Credit…By The New York Times | Sources: State, county and regional health departments; National Election Pool/Edison Research

No wonder, then, that the number of new cases keeps falling in Biden counties, while it has begun to rise in Trump counties.

(If you are the twitter thread type, you can check out the highlights here).

This is also a really nice thread on Delta from Megan Ranney (and, exciting for me, she re-tweeted my one sentence summary.

All that said, as frustrating as our overall vaccination rates are in much of America, the good news is that older Americans, most at risk, really have gotten the message.  Here’s a nice chart from the Post:

And, since older people really are most at risk, even with rising case numbers in many places, we’re in much better shape.  Nice piece in the Hill:

As we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic, the risk of hospitalization with COVID-19 is not equal. Hospitalization risk clusters strongly with advanced age, which also carries a higher prevalence of other conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease. We prioritized vaccine rollout to nursing home residents and those of advanced age living in the community to deny the virus the ability to harm these individuals who were extremely likely to require hospital-level care. 

Now that over 87 percent of this portion of the population has at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccination (and over 77 percent fully vaccinated) there has been a decoupling of cases from hospitalizations and deaths in this country. This, to me, marks the end of the acute phase of the public health emergency in this country.  

Looking at vaccination rates one may be struck by the fact that a proportion of Americans are not vaccinated. However, I would argue that is not the best metric to gauge where we are in the pandemic. Not only does that number omit significant natural immunity from prior infection, but it also undersells the initial goal of the vaccination campaign. Over three-quarters of those above the age of 65 — the high-risk hospitalization group — are fully vaccinated (and some proportion of the unvaccinated likely have natural immunity). Even in areas with low overall vaccination rates, a substantial proportion of those in the high-risk group are fully vaccinated. Such a situation has allowed the virus to be defanged and tamed to the point where it has lost the ability to ever threaten hospital capacity, in the manner it could just six months ago.

It is important to push vaccine rates as high as possible to increasingly make COVID-19, and its variants, unable to disrupt lives and cause illness, but this Fourth of July we should celebrate that the vaccines have dealt a devastating blow to this virus in the United States.

It’s frustrating as hell that so many middle-aged and younger adults still have not vaccinated and are thereby allowing this virus to keep spreading when we really could just shut it down if people took advantage of the available vaccines.  And, with Delta, the number of vaccinated clearly needs to be higher.  But, it is some useful perspective that the days of overwhelmed hospitals really do seem to be over.  Now, if only everybody would just get vaccinated.

Bio-tech optimism– nano-proteins edition

This Scientific American article on advances in the biotechnology of nano-proteins, protein folding, etc., was kind of mind-blowing.  This is not like the “we’ll have usable nuclear fusion in 5-10 years” which is always 5-10 years away.  The progress we keep seeing– and have clearly seen with Covid-19– of biotechnology really is pretty stunning.  What they are doing with vaccines and the potential here really is a very possible game-changer:

Like other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 resembles a ball covered in protein “spikes.” Each spike ends in a cluster of amino acids—a section of the protein known as the receptor-binding domain, or RBD—whose alignment and atomic charges pair perfectly with a protein on the surface of human cells. The viral protein docks at the receptor like a spacecraft, and the virus uses this connection to slip inside the cell and replicate.

Because of its dangerous role, the RBD is the primary target of the immune system’s antibodies. They, too, are proteins, created by the body to bind to the RBD and take it out of commission. But it takes a while for specialized cells to manufacture enough effective antibodies, and by that time the virus has often done considerable damage.

The first-generation COVID vaccines, including the mRNA vaccines that have been such lifesavers, work by introducing the virus’s spike into the body, without a functional coronavirus attached, so the immune system can learn to recognize the RBD and rally its troops. But the RBD is periodically hidden by other parts of the spike protein, shielding the domain from antibodies looking to bind to it. This blunts the immune response. In addition, a free-floating spike protein does not resemble a natural virus and does not always trigger a strong reaction unless a large dose of vaccine is used. That big dose increases costs and can trigger strong side effects.

As successful as the COVID vaccines have been, many experts see inoculations based on natural proteins as an interim technology. “It’s becoming clear that just delivering natural or stabilized proteins is not sufficient,” says Rino Rappuoli, chief scientist and head of vaccine development at U.K.-based pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Most current vaccines, from childhood inoculations to adult flu shots, involve such natural proteins, which vaccinologists call immunogens; GSK makes a lot of them. “We need to design immunogens that are better than natural molecules,” Rappuoli says…

Walls and Veesler had an idea. What if, instead of a whole spike, the immune system were presented with just the RBD tip, which would not have any shield to hide behind? “We wanted to put the key component on display,” Walls says, “to say, ‘Hey, immune system, this is where you want to react!’…

In 2019 a group in the IPD led by biochemist Neil King had designed two tiny proteins with complementary interfaces that, when mixed together in solution, would snap together and self-assemble into nanoparticles. These balls were about the size of a virus and were completely customizable through a simple change to their genetic code. When the scientists festooned the particles with 20 protein spikes from the respiratory syncytial virus, the second-leading cause of infant mortality worldwide, they triggered an impressive immune response in early tests.

Why not try a similar nanoparticle core for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Walls and Veesler thought, using just the RBD instead of an entire spike? As a bonus, the protein-based nanoparticle would be cheap and fast to produce compared with vaccines that use killed or weakened virus. It would also be stable at room temperature and easy to deliver to people, unlike fragile mRNA vaccines that must be kept in a deep freeze.

Walls reached out to the IPD and collaborated with nanoparticle specialist Brooke Fiala, who worked with King, on a prototype—a nanoparticle sphere displaying 60 copies of the RBD. The scientists also tried something radical: Instead of fusing the RBDs directly to the surface of the nanoparticle, they tethered them with short strings of amino acids, like kites. Giving the RBDs a little bit of play could allow the immune system to get a better look at every angle and produce antibodies that would attack many different spots.

But nobody knew whether that would really happen. So on that April Friday last year, as Walls waited for results, she had her fingers crossed. Three weeks earlier she and her colleagues had injected some mice with the nanoparticle vaccine. Other mice got the plain spike that other vaccines were using. Now the researchers had drawn blood from the mice and mixed it with a SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus, an artificial, nonreplicating version of the virus that is safer to use in labs. The idea was to see whether any vaccinated mice had developed antibodies that would home in on and neutralize the pseudovirus…

Some mice had been given a low dose of the plain spike, and that was a total failure: zero effect on the pseudoviruses. Mice given a high dose of the spike showed antibodies with a moderate neutralizing effect, similar to what some other vaccines had produced. But in mice that got the nanoparticle vaccine, the pseudovirus was completely outmatched. Antibodies smothered it and had 10 times the neutralizing effect of the large-dose spike preparation. That magnitude held even when only a minuscule dose was used. Walls was looking at something that could be a low-cost, shelf-stable, ultrapotent vaccine.

Lots of really cool stuff going on non-vaccine-wise, too.  Like this:

But most important proteins in living things are much bigger than these examples and contain thousands of amino acids, each of which interacts with up to a dozen neighbors, some forming bonds as strong as those in a diamond, some pushing others away. All those relationships morph depending on proximity. So the possibilities quickly become astronomical, and the formulas for figuring out the final structures have long eluded our best minds and supercomputers…

Then came CASP13 in 2018. The best teams, led by Baker’s institute, improved again, averaging nearly 50, but they were bested by a surprise entrant: Google’s DeepMind, whose artificial-intelligence system had trounced the world’s best Go player in 2017. The AI averaged a score of about 57 per protein.

That result rocked the world’s protein-engineering labs, but it turned out to be just a dress rehearsal for 2020. In that year DeepMind’s predictions were spot-on. “I thought, ‘This can’t be right. Let’s wait for the next one,’” Moult says. “And they just kept coming.”

DeepMind averaged a 92 for all proteins. On the easier ones, it had virtually every atom in the right place. But its most impressive results were on some exceedingly difficult proteins that completely stymied most teams. On one molecule, no group scored higher than the 20s—DeepMind scored in the high 80s.

Moult was stunned by the results. “I spent a lot of my career on this,” he says. “I never thought we’d get this level of atomic accuracy.” Most impressive, he says, is the indication that DeepMind has picked up on previously unknown fundamentals. “It’s not just pattern recognition. In some alien way, the machine ‘understands’ the physics and can calculate how the atoms in a unique arrangement of amino acids are going to arrange themselves.”

“It was shocking,” agrees structural biologist and CASP competitor Mohammed AlQuraishi of Columbia University. “Never in my life had I expected to see a scientific advance so rapid.” AlQuraishi expects the breakthrough to transform the biological sciences.

Or this:

Amazing as they are, antibodies are not perfect. The body cannot custom-design an antibody in advance for a pathogen it has never seen, so it makes a lot of different versions. When a new invader shows up, immune system cells make many copies of whatever antibody binds best, but the fit is not always tight enough to stop the pathogen. Natural antibodies are also relatively big proteins that are not always able to get their business end snug against a virus’s RBD.

Enter the “mini binders,” as Baker calls them. These are small synthetic proteins that can be designed amino acid by amino acid to fit precisely against a virus’s RBD. With no extraneous bits, they bind more tightly. And they are small and lightweight enough to be administered through a spritz up the nose rather than an injection into the arm. No needles!

Baker’s dream was to create a medication rather than a vaccine: a nasal spray that could be used at the first sign of infection—or beforehand as daily prevention—to flood the nose with a mist of mini binders that would coat the RBDs of virus particles before they could attach to anything. It would have the long shelf life of a bag of dried lentils, and it could be quickly reformulated for any new pathogen and rushed into the hands of health-care workers, teachers and anyone else on the front lines—a kind of designer-driven immune system for civilization.

This is still science fiction… for now.  But I think a fair reading of the evidence suggests it’s quite reasonable to think we’re going to see some truly amazing and world-changing technological developments in our ongoing fight against communicable diseases.  Yeah, science! 

Parenting meets inequality meets culture

Truly fascinating Edsall column last week on research on how parenting style interacts with education and a country’s political culture to impact children’s social mobility.  

Education lifts all boats, but not by equal amounts.

David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., together with the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, tackled this issue in a paper last year, “Extending the Race Between Education and Technology,” asking: “How much of the overall rise in wage inequality since 1980 can be attributed to the large increase in educational wage differentials?”

Their answer:

Returns to a year of K-12 schooling show little change since 1980. But returns to a year of college rose by 6.5 log points, from 0.076 in 1980 to 0.126 in 2000 to 0.141 in 2017. The returns to a year of post-college (graduate and professional) rose by a whopping 10.9 log points, from 0.067 in 1980 to 0.131 in 2000 and to 0.176 in 2017.

I asked Autor to translate that data into language understandable to the layperson, and he wrote back:

There has been almost no increase in the increment to individual earnings for each year of schooling between K and 12 since 1980. It was roughly 6 percentage points per year in 1980, and it still is. The earnings increment for a B.A. has risen from 30.4 percent in 1980 to 50.4 percent in 2000 to 56.4 percent in 2017. The gain to a four-year graduate degree (a Ph.D., for example, but an M.D., J.D., or perhaps even an M.B.A.) relative to high school was approximately 57 percent in 1980, rising to 127 percent in 2017.

These differences result in large part because ever greater levels of skill — critical thinking, problem-solving, originality, strategizing​ — are needed in a knowledge-based society.

“The idea of a race between education and technology goes back to the Nobel Laureate Jan Tinbergen, who posited that technological change is continually raising skill requirements while education’s job is to supply those rising skill levels,” Autor wrote in explaining the gains for those with higher levels of income. “If technology ‘gets ahead’ of education, the skill premium will tend to rise.”

But something more homely may also be relevant. Several researchers argue that parenting style contributes to where a child ends up in life. [emphases mine]

As the skill premium and the economic cost of failing to ascend the education ladder rise in tandem, scholars find that adults are adopting differing parental styles — a crucial form of investment in the human capital of their children — and these differing styles appear to be further entrenching inequality.

Such key factors as the level of inequality, the degree to which higher education is rewarded and the strength of the welfare state are shaping parental strategies in raising children.

In their paper “The Economics of Parenting,” three economists, Matthias Doepke at Northwestern, Giuseppe Sorrenti at University of Zurich and Fabrizio Zilibotti at Yale, describe three basic forms of child rearing:

The permissive parenting style is the scenario where the parent lets the child have her way and refrains from interfering in the choices. The authoritarian style is one where the parent imposes her will through coercion. In the model above, coercion is captured through the notion of restricting the choice set. An authoritarian parent chooses a small set that leaves little or no leeway to the child. The third parenting style, authoritative parenting, is also one where the parent aims to affect the child’s choice. However, rather than using coercion, an authoritative parent uses persuasion: she shapes the child’s preferences through investments in the first period of life. For example, such a parent may preach the virtues of patience or the dangers of risk during when the child is little, so that the child ends up with more adultlike preferences when the child’s own decisions matter during adolescence.

There is an “interaction between economic conditions and parenting styles,” Doepke and his colleagues write, resulting in the following patterns:

Consider, first, a low inequality society, where the gap between the top and the bottom is small. In such a society, there is limited incentive for children to put effort into education. Parents are also less concerned about children’s effort, and thus there is little scope for disagreement between parents and children. Therefore, most parents adopt a permissive parenting style, namely, they keep young children happy and foster their sense of independence so that they can discover what they are good at in their adult life.

The authors cite the Scandinavian countries as key examples of this approach.

Authoritarian parenting, in turn, is most common in less-developed, traditional societies where there is little social mobility and children have the same jobs as their parents:

Parents have little incentive to be permissive in order to let children discover what they are good at. Nor do they need to spend effort in socializing children into adultlike values (i.e., to be authoritative) since they can achieve the same result by simply monitoring them.

Finally, they continue, consider “a high-inequality society”:

There, the disagreement between parents and children is more salient, because parents would like to see their children work hard in school and choose professions with a high return to human capital. In this society, a larger share of parents will be authoritative, and fewer will be permissive.

This model, the authors write, fits the United States and China.

Lots more really interesting stuff in there.  For now, I’ll just continue along with my authoritative (not authoritarian, mind you!) parenting style.

Quick hits (part II)

1) When I finish Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset, I’l write a whole post (TL;DR– I love it), but she just introduced me to this 2009 post from Paul Graham.  Basically, the way to avoid identity-protective cognition is to not make everything your identity!

Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What’s different about religion is that people don’t feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone’s an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan…

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

2) I also read in the book, yesterday, that a European version of the 2009 swine flu vaccine caused narcolepsy in some children.  Damn.  Also, some interesting ideas about narcolepsy in here (hope you are reading, Nicole). 

3) Derek Lowe on why it was such a bad idea to approve the latest Alzheimer’s drug:

It should be obvious, given previous posts here, that I think that the FDA approval of Biogen’s aducanumab for Alzheimer’s was a mistake. It is a mistake for a whole list of reasons, and we’re about to see another one of those in action.

Eli Lilly has been attacking Alzheimer’s for decades now, in what can be seen simultaneously as admirable persistence and as a very expensive exercise in futility. Several years ago, the company spent a great deal of time and money trying to prove efficacy with an anti-amyloid antibody, solanezumab, and eventually got nowhere. But that was in the distant, far-off days of 2016. Things are different now: Biogen’s anti-amyloid antibody doesn’t really seem to work, either (which is why they stopped the Phase III for futility), but the FDA approved it anyway, because it lowers amyloid, even though no amyloid-lowering therapy has ever shown efficacy.

Lilly, experienced brick-wall-impacters that they are, has been working on yet another anti-amyloid antibody (donanemab). Phase II results came out on this one in March, and it was really more of the same. There was a new rating scale endpoint, the iARDS, in which the therapy did show a statistically significant improvement at the 76-week mark. But a whole list of other endpoints whiffed, coming out no different than placebo. It was hard to generate much enthusiasm – you’d think that any Alzheimer’s therapy that actually worked, that actually had a chance of making a difference out in the real world, would be able to show more than that.

You see where we’re going here. Back in the solanezumab days (which I never thought I’d end up nostalgic for) the company would be trying to come up with another trial to show efficacy. But the heck with that. They’ve instead asked the FDA for “breakthrough” designation to try to speed regulatory approval, and the agency has granted it. After the aducanumab approval, what choice did they really have? For that matter, Biogen and Eisai applied for breakthrough status for their follow-up antibody, lecanemab, and the agency granted that yesterday. Why not? …

So if you look at the disease landscape not knowing the back story, things look great: the FDA just approved a new Alzheimer’s drug and now there are two more Breakthroughs right behind it! But if you do know what’s going on, it’s downright depressing: the agency approved a drug that shows no solid evidence of helping anyone (and more believable evidence of its ability to cause harm), and this mistake is allowing everyone else to jump on the same damn bandwagon with data that are no better. Put out more flags.

4) The heat-wave coming to the Pacific Northwest is just mind-blowing.  Cities where less than half the dwellings have AC (because they rarely need it) facing a solid week of triple-digit temperatures and temps of 110!!  This is like Arizona weather in Seattle.  I also can’t help but think if this weather was hitting the Northeast it would have roughly 10x the media coverage.  

5) I watched a little Euro action yesterday and hit some 2nd-tier minor league (USL League One) soccer action in Cary.  The ref seemed… not great.  I know at top professional levels there is huge effort in evaluating referees to ensure good officiating.  But, it occurred to me how accurate are we at assessing officials anyway and how accurate can we be at something like minor-league soccer officials?  I find this about how MLS takes it pretty seriously.  But you know there’s not the resources like this for USL–so how do they even figure out who gets to be in the MLS games and how accurate is it?  And I found this cool analysis of amateur referees.

Analysis of part I concluded that call accuracy varies nonlinearly with both fitness and game flow understanding. Part II concluded that the Fitness Test (0.749) had the highest utility followed by Combined Evaluation (0.742), Game Flow Evaluation (0.727), and No Assessment (0.721). Based on a cost benefit analysis, it was determined that the benefit of implementing any program to assess the fitness and/or game flow understanding of junior referees is outweighed by cost. Therefore, it is recommended that No Assessments be conducted for fitness and/or game flow understanding on junior referees within MDCVSRP.

All the sports analytics stuff I’ve read, and pretty much nothing on officiating.  This would seem like an area ripe for serious exploration.

6) Zeynep with the most thorough (honestly, a little too thorough at times for my tastes) and thoughtful take I’ve seen on the origins of Covid-19.  A couple things I’m pretty confident of… there’s a very substantial chance this really did come from a lab; both scientists and journalists made a huge mistake on this because it was also a theory being pushed by science-denying racists; sometimes horrible people are actually onto something (maybe even accidentally, broken clock…) and we need to consider ideas independent of just who is pushing them in a political realm.

7) Lenore Skenazy on how childhood has changed in the dozen years she’s been advocating for “free range” kids.  

8) As you well know, I’ve never been one for all that much reading about international affairs, etc.  But something about the way Noah Smith thinks and approaches problems really grabs me.  I really enjoyed his take on why Pakistan has been dramatically superseded in economic growth by India and Bangladesh.  

In nominal terms — which are a better reflection of international purchasing power — Pakistan fell behind Bangladesh in 2018:

We could talk about why this is happening, and I will talk a bit about it. But the fact is, countries are poor until they get rich. India and Bangladesh have been doing things that have made them grow steadily richer; Pakistan, in general, has not.

I could write a post giving policy suggestions for Pakistan to get richer — perhaps some mix of industrial policy, trade and tax reforms, infrastructure and education, and so on. At this point I probably don’t know enough to make highly detailed policy recommendations; my ideas would be things like trade openness with export disciplineland reform, investment in education, building infrastructure, improving rule of law, streamlining regulation, and so on. Fairly boilerplate stuff.

But I think a more fundamental question — or at least, a preliminary one — is why Pakistan’s leaders would do any of this stuff. If you don’t actually do the stuff, policy recommendations are useless.

To some, the answer might seem obvious: Growth makes your people materially better off. It gives them food to fill their bellies, a roof over their heads, convenient transportation, sanitation and health care, leisure and entertainment, and so on. Surely Pakistan’s leaders care at least somewhat about the welfare of their people, no?

Well, they probably do. But so far they’ve been able to satisfy Pakistanis’ basic consumption needs through means other than economic development. The average Pakistani household consumes as much as the average Indian household, and more than the average Bangladeshi household.

But this comes at a cost; compared to India and Bangladesh, Pakistan invests far less of its GDP in building capital in order to grow its economy.

In other words, Pakistan is eating its proverbial seed corn instead of planting it in the ground. Bangladesh and India, in contrast, are planting their seed corn — foregoing current consumption in order to build productive capital and be richer tomorrow…

OK, but there’s one more reason to pursue economic growth: National power. Pakistan is right next to a neighbor with whom it has fought four wars (and arguably lost all four), and with whom it has an ongoing territorial dispute. India is more than 6 times as big as Pakistan, so only through greater per capita GDP could Pakistan seek to hold its own in a conflict. For many nations throughout history, this has provided a reason to seek rapid economic growth.

But unlike most of those nations, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And that means that it doesn’t really have to get rich in order to guard against India; nukes guarantee its ultimate security. It might not be able to wrest Kashmir away from its neighbor, but it isn’t at risk of having further territory seized, or its capital occupied, etc.

This is interesting, because it suggests one way that nuclear armament might be detrimental to growth. Push-button superweapons greatly reduce the need for a state to be rich and effective — or even particularly stable — in order to maintain security from external threats. Perhaps we can see this with North Korea as well, or possibly even Russia.

In any case, my tentative, provisional answer to the question of “Why hasn’t Pakistan grown?” is that the right political incentives for growth-oriented policy are not in place yet. Perhaps a long period of stable civilian rule, or nationalistic envy of Bangladesh’s success, can change the calculus.

9) So many pointless meetings that could’ve been an email.  Based on my experience of 20+ years of academic meetings it’s pretty straightforward– if there’s the potential for genuine advantage/potential progress through collaboration and discussion, than have a meeting.  Otherwise, don’t.  For example, I cannot imagine discussing a tenure case or a faculty hire without an actual meeting. But most of the meetings I’ve been to probably didn’t need to happen.  

10) This is what monitor lizard nests look like in Australia and people had no idea.  They are also a rare case of reptiles as ecosystem engineers.

A goanna burrow

11) Carl Zimmer on the new “Dragon Man” discovery.  Interesting case where morphological study seems to point one way and DNA another.  Personally, I’m putting my money on the Denisovan hypothesis.

12) I so love that Lee Ross’ death also occasioned Robert Wright to write an appreciation for attribution theory.  

I hope you’re starting to see why I think attribution error is really important—why I think that, if we could dispel its more destructive influences, the world would be a much better place. But to see why I think attribution error is really, really important—why it may have more salvific potential than any other idea in psychology—you need to understand what I consider the most potent tool in the human toolkit for ending or avoiding conflict and nurturing constructive collaboration.

Regular readers of this newsletter can probably guess what I’m referring to: cognitive empathy. And regular readers know that by “cognitive empathy” I don’t mean “feeling their pain.” That’s emotional empathy. I just mean seeing how things look from another person’s point of view: perspective taking.

I believe that one of the most common reasons people and groups of people fail to solve non-zero-sum problems—fail to reach an arrangement that’s good for both parties, and instead get stuck in a lose-lose situation—is that they don’t see how things look from the other side. I also believe that the world is in deep trouble if nations don’t solve the more consequential of the non-zero-sum problems they face, ranging from environmental challenges to arms control challenges to disease control challenges to whole new kinds of technological challenges.

It follows that—as I see the world, at least—big impediments to cognitive empathy are a grave threat to the planet. And attribution error may be the biggest impediment there is. Obviously, if you’re blind to the way circumstance shapes someone’s behavior, it’s going to be hard to really appreciate how the world looks to them.

Could more awareness of attribution error actually make people better at cognitive empathy? Not in an easy, automatic way. Attribution error is a “cognitive bias,” and there’s good reason to think it was engineered by natural selection for that purpose: to bias our view of the world, to distort our perception. And a well-engineered bias can be pretty stubborn in its tendency to fool people into thinking they’re seeing things clearly when they’re not. 

Still, I do think that cognitive empathy can be cultivated. And I do think awareness of attribution error, of our tendency in most situations to downplay the role of circumstance, can help us cultivate it.

In fact, Ross’s own life offers anecdotal evidence to this effect. The Times obit reports that Nisbett considered Ross not just a collaborator but “my therapist and my guru.” Nisbett once asked Ross why he was so good at giving advice, and he replied, “Here’s why, Dick: I don’t take your point of view when you tell me what the problem is. I try to figure out how the other person or persons are viewing it.”

You might ask: If awareness of attribution error helps you exercise cognitive empathy, then why hadn’t Nisbett, who was himself quite aware of attribution error, exercised it in the first place? The answer, I’d guess, is that the people whose perspective Ross was taking were people Nisbett was in some sense at odds with—that’s why there was a problem to solve. And, of course, the problematic behavior of people we’re at odds with is behavior we’re especially likely to attribute to disposition. Since Ross wasn’t at odds with these people, he was less susceptible to that bias and so better able to see their point of view.

This is what I mean when I say that a well-engineered bias can be hard to neutralize. Nisbett’s mere awareness of attribution error doesn’t seem to have done the trick. At the same time, his experience suggests a workaround: When you’re having trouble with someone you dislike, or at least someone you find highly annoying, and you’re dying to tell someone about the problem, don’t tell someone who shares your attitude toward them, even though that’s the most tempting thing to do.

So that’s today’s self-help tip. As for planetary help—solving momentous non-zero-sum problems, and subduing the international and intranational antagonisms that keep us from even trying to solve them—well, that’s kind of a big subject. (That’s why it takes a whole Apocalypse Aversion Project to address it!)

To take just one chunk of the subject: Every day lots of important players—politicians, social media potentates, think tank experts, journalists—reinforce and even intensify attribution error. They describe various groups and people crudely, in ways that make it especially hard to really understand why they do what they do, hard to exercise cognitive empathy.

I’m not saying these politicians, potentates, experts, and journalists are bad people. As Ross would have been the first to point out, they’re just responding to circumstance as humans naturally do. They’re saying things that will get them elected or increase their Twitter follower count or get them on MSNBC or get them clicks, or whatever.

Besides, if we think of them as bad people—as the enemy—that may just cloud our view of their motivation at a time when understanding it is important. So, though I’d like to say something inspirational at this point, I won’t get Churchillian (“We must fight them on the beaches” and so on). I’d rather just quote William James and say that what’s needed here is careful comprehension accompanied by “the moral equivalent of war.” 

13) Also reminded me of this terrific Hidden Brain episode in which attribution theory plays a major role and which I know assign to all my classes.  

14) David Brooks with a damn good point here, “Why Is It OK to Be Mean to the Ugly?”

A manager sits behind a table and decides he’s going to fire a woman because he doesn’t like her skin. If he fires her because her skin is brown, we call that racism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is female, we call that sexism and there is legal recourse. If he fires her because her skin is pockmarked and he finds her unattractive, well, we don’t talk about that much and, in most places in America, there is no legal recourse.

This is puzzling. We live in a society that abhors discrimination on the basis of many traits. And yet one of the major forms of discrimination is lookism, prejudice against the unattractive. And this gets almost no attention and sparks little outrage. Why?

Lookism starts, like every form of bigotry, with prejudice and stereotypes.

Studies show that most people consider an “attractive” face to have clean, symmetrical features. We find it easier to recognize and categorize these prototypical faces than we do irregular and “unattractive” ones. So we find it easier — from a brain processing perspective — to look at attractive people.

Attractive people thus start off with a slight physical advantage. But then people project all sorts of widely unrelated stereotypes onto them. In survey after survey, beautiful people are described as trustworthy, competent, friendly, likable and intelligent, while ugly people get the opposite labels. This is a version of the halo effect.

Not all the time, but often, the attractive get the first-class treatment. Research suggests they are more likely to be offered job interviews, more likely to be hired when interviewed and more likely to be promoted than less attractive individuals. They are more likely to receive loans and more likely to receive lower interest rates on those loans.

The discriminatory effects of lookism are pervasive. Attractive economists are more likely to study at high-ranked graduate programs and their papers are cited more often than papers from their less attractive peers. One study found that when unattractive criminals committed a moderate misdemeanor, their fines were about four times as large as those of attractive criminals.

Daniel Hamermesh, a leading scholar in this field, observed that an American worker who is among the bottom one-seventh in looks earns about 10 to 15 percent less a year than one in the top third. An unattractive person misses out on nearly a quarter-million dollars in earnings over a lifetime.

The overall effect of these biases is vast. One 2004 study found that more people report being discriminated against because of their looks than because of their ethnicity.

15) Devastating photo essay.  Who knew what Strep could do when untreated. “Where a Sore Throat Becomes a Death Sentence: Once a year, doctors travel to Rwanda to perform lifesaving surgery on people with damaged heart valves — a disease caused by untreated strep throat.”

mRNA vaccines are amazing. That doesn’t mean they are better

I’ve  been seeing stuff like this from the vaccine people I follow on twitter for a while, so really appreciated this Atlantic piece from Hilda Bastian (you know, it was probably her tweets, now that I think about it) laying it all out.  Yes, the mRNA vaccines really are amazing, but there was a substantial element of luck and good timing in their success.  Anyway…

At the end of January, reports that yet another COVID-19 vaccine had succeeded in its clinical trials—this one offering about 70 percent protection—were front-page news in the United States, and occasioned push alerts on millions of phones. But when the Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax announced its latest stunning trial results last week, and an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent even against coronavirus variants, the response from the same media outlets was muted in comparison. The difference, of course, was the timing: With three vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the nation is “awash in other shots” already, as the The New York Times put it.

Practically speaking, this is true. If the FDA sees no urgency, the Novavax vaccine might not be available in the U.S. for months, and in the meantime the national supply of other doses exceeds demand. But the asymmetry in coverage also hints at how the hype around the early-bird vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna has distorted perception. Their rapid arrival has been described in this magazine as “the triumph of mRNA”—a brand-new vaccine technology whose “potential stretches far beyond this pandemic.” Other outlets gushed about “a turning point in the long history of vaccines,” one that “changed biotech forever.” It was easy to assume, based on all this reporting, that mRNA vaccines had already proved to be the most effective ones you could get—that they were better, sleeker, even cooler than any other vaccines could ever be.

But the fascination with the newest, shiniest options obscured some basic facts. These two particular mRNA vaccines may have been the first to get results from Phase 3 clinical trials, but that’s because of superior trial management, not secret vaccine sauce. For now, they are harder and more expensive to manufacture and distribute than traditional types of vaccines, and their side effects are more common and more severe. The latest Novavax data confirm that it’s possible to achieve the same efficacy against COVID-19 with a more familiar technology that more people may be inclined to trust. [emphases mine] (The mRNA vaccines delivered efficacy rates of 95 and 94 percent against the original coronavirus strain in Phase 3 trials, as compared with 96 percent for Novavax in its first trial, and now 90 percent against a mixture of variants…

In the meantime, the early success of two mRNA vaccines pulled attention away from the slower progress of other candidates based on the same technology. Just two days after last week’s Novavax announcement came the news that an mRNA vaccine developed by the German company CureVac had delivered a weak early efficacy rate in a Phase 3 trial, landing below even the 50 percent minimum level set by the World Health Organization and the FDA. “The results caught scientists by surprise,” The New York Times reported. CureVac is the company that President Donald Trump reportedly tried to lure to the U.S. early in the pandemic, and the one that Elon Musk said he would supply with automated “RNA microfactories” for vaccine production. In the end, none of this mattered. CureVac’s mRNA vaccine just doesn’t seem to be good enough…

Now we’ve seen what happened to CureVac, and that some mRNA formulations clearly work much better than others…

In this context, the success of the Novavax vaccine should be A1 news. The recent results confirm that it has roughly the same efficacy as the two authorized mRNA vaccines, with the added benefit of being based on an older, more familiar science. The protein-subunit approach used by Novavax was first implemented for the hepatitis B vaccine, which has been used in the U.S. since 1986. The pertussis vaccine, which is required for almost all children in U.S. public schools, is also made this way. Some of those people who have been wary of getting the mRNA vaccines may find Novavax more appealing.

The Novavax vaccine also has a substantially lower rate of side effects than the authorized mRNA vaccines.

So, yeah, Novavax is pretty awesome and who knows when it will even be approved here (a good friend of mine is in the trial and unblinded to find out out that he got it).  

I also followed the link on the different approach to mRNA vaccines and found that really interesting:

All three mRNA vaccines encode a form of the coronavirus spike protein, which helps virus particles to penetrate human cells. But the Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech vaccines use modified RNA, incorporating an mRNA nucleotide called pseudouridine — which is similar to uridine but contains a natural modification — in place of uridine itself. This is thought to circumvent the body’s inflammatory reactions to foreign mRNA. CureVac’s vaccine uses normal uridine and relies on altering the sequence of RNA letters in a way that does not affect the protein it codes for, but helps the vaccine to evade immune detection.

Proponents of modified mRNA have long argued that the chemical adjustment is integral to the success of the vaccine technology. Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who co-discovered the importance of pseudouridine in this context in the mid-2000s4, describes it as the “best platform for antibody and neutralization levels”. In light of the new CureVac data, many scientists who spoke to Nature agree.

“Modified mRNA has won this game,” says Rein Verbeke, an mRNA-vaccine researcher at Ghent University in Belgium.

There are a few other possible explanations for CureVac’s tolerability problems. Structural differences in the non-coding regions of the CureVac sequence could play a part. Alternatively, the higher storage temperature of CureVac’s jab might have accelerated the breakdown of mRNA in the vial, yielding pieces of genetic code that would raise immune hackles. And if any impurities were introduced during the company’s manufacturing process, these would, in principle, have the same effect.

So for some scientists it remains too early to draw conclusions. “The jury is still out on which of these is a better technology,” says Jeffrey Ulmer, a former pharmaceutical executive who now consults on vaccine research issues. He predicts that both modified and unmodified mRNA will be useful in different contexts. “It could be that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to everything.”

Short version: mRNA vaccines are amazing and have tremendous potential.  But, more traditional vaccines are amazing, too, and have some real potential advantages.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Enjoyed Noah Smith‘s interview with Marc Andressen.  I don’t know if the advice is right, but it’s worth thinking about.

N.S.: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

M.A.: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all

2) National Geographic on Delta:

Why is the Delta variant so scary?

Freely circulating viruses, especially coronaviruses and influenza viruses, which encode their genetic instructions using the molecule RNA, mutate frequently and randomly due to copying errors introduced as they replicate in their human host cells. Some mutations enable the virus to evade antibodies; some enhance its ability to infect a cell; others go unnoticed since they yield no benefits or can even weaken it.

The key to Delta’s success is the collection of mutations the variant has accumulated in the spike protein, which covers SARS-CoV-2 and gives the virus its signature crown-like appearance. These mutations have changed the spike, and, as a result, some of the existing antibodies may not bind as tightly or as often, explains Markus Hoffmann, an infectious disease biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Germany. Hoffman and others have shown that Delta and its closely related Kappa variant evade antibodies that were generated through previous infection and vaccinationSome synthetically produced antibody therapies, like Bamlanivimab, were unable to neutralize the Delta variant; but others such as Etesivimab, Casirivimab, and Imdevimab were still effective.

The Delta variant has mutations on the spike protein that alter how it interacts with the ACE2 receptor protein, which is found on the surface of lung and other human cells and is the portal to invade the cell. The mutation at location 452 of the spike protein, which is also present in some of the California variants, appears to make the virus more transmissible and helps it spread through the population, explains Mehul Suthar, an immunologist at the Emory Vaccine Center.

If a mutation gives a virus a fitness or reproductive advantage, that mutation tends to evolve independently around the world. Delta, its closely related variants, and the highly contagious Alpha variant all carry a mutation at position 681 of the spike protein, which is thought to be an evolutionary game changer that also makes it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to invade the host cell and spread. This mutation is fast becoming common in COVID-19 viruses around the globe.

“When you have all of these mutations, then you start seeing a difference in infectivity (of the virus),” says Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, who has shown in an unpublished study how these variants can have a greater potential to cause disease.

3) I’m actually not at all sure it’s unreasonable to have slower mail service that’s more cost-effective for the USPS.  Pretty cool interactive feature to see how proposed changes will affect your Zip code.

4) Here’s some cool social science, “People tend to overestimate their romantic partner’s intelligence even more than their own”

People can estimate their own and their romantic partner’s intelligence (IQ) with some level of accuracy, which may facilitate the observation of assortative mating for IQ. However, the degree to which people may overestimate their own (IQ), as well as overestimate their romantic partner’s IQ, is less well established. In the current study, we investigated four outstanding issues in this area. First, in a sample of 218 couples, we examined the degree to which people overestimate their own and their partner’s IQ, on the basis of comparisons between self-estimated intelligence (SEI) and objectively measured IQ (Advanced Progressive Matrices). Secondly, we evaluated whether assortative mating for intelligence was driven principally by women (the males-compete/females choose model of sexual selection) or both women and men (the mutual mate model of sexual selection). Thirdly, we tested the hypothesis that assortative mating for intelligence may occur for both SEI and objective IQ. Finally, the possibility that degree of intellectual compatibility may relate positively to relationship satisfaction was examined. We found that people overestimated their own IQ (women and men ≈ 30 IQ points) and their partner’s IQ (women = 38 IQ points; men = 36 IQ points). Furthermore, both women and men predicted their partner’s IQ with some degree of accuracy (women: r = 0.30; men: r = 0.19). However, the numerical difference in the correlations was not found to be significant statistically. Finally, the degree of intellectual compatibility (objectively and subjectively assessed) failed to correlate significantly with relationship satisfaction for both sexes. It would appear that women and men participate in the process of mate selection, with respect to evaluating IQ, consistent with the mutual mate model of sexual selection. However, the personal benefits of intellectual compatibility seem less obvious.

How about that.  And here I’ve been thinking that one of the reasons my wife and I get along well is that she’s very smart.

5) I love Paul Campos on how slow the NBA has been to maximize the gains from the 3-point shot:

I was surprised that almost no one in that long thread noted that, while advanced analytics have hurt the aesthetics of baseball, they’ve been fantastic for the aesthetics of basketball, since it was analytics that finally convinced coaches that the three-point shot was being radically underemployed. These demonstrate that the expected point value of shots from three feet from the basket and 24 feet from the basket are pretty much the same).

Missed three-point attempts are also slightly more likely to produce offensive rebounds than missed two-pointers. All in all, the creation of the three-point shot should have immediately transformed the way the game was played. Again, this is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in which merit and success are defined and measured in the most straightforward way possible, unlike in most human endeavors.

So what happened? The answer is that for many years all the coaches in the most profitable and important basketball league in the world (basketball has become an extremely popular sport internationally over the past few decades) basically just ignored that the three-point shot even existed.

The statistics on this point are stunning: for most of the 1980s, NBA teams averaged two and three three-point shot attempts per game! What’s amazing about this is that, between long shots at the buzzer at the end of quarters and halves, and long jumpers beyond the arc forced by the expiration of the 24-second shot clock, I would have thought that teams would average more three-point attempts per game than that even if they literally never took a three-point shot as part of the normal flow of the offense.

What’s fair to say is that for the first decade of the three-point shot’s existence, the typical NBA team essentially never attempted any three-point shots as part of its standard offensive sets. This was just insane. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of players in the league at the time who were more than capable of nailing an open 23-foot jump shot — the names Larry Bird and Dell Curry leap immediately to mind. Furthermore, the introduction of the three-point shot should have immediately produced a huge shift in the talent distribution of the players in the league, since a massive premium should have been put on being able to hit a long jump shot. (Imagine if the NFL suddenly decided that any touchdown scored from more than 25 yards out was worth nine points instead of six. What sort of premium would/should that suddenly put on speed receivers, big-armed QBs, lockdown corners etc?)…

Average number of three-point shots attempted by team per game:

1980: 2.0

1985: 3.3

1990: 7.1 (Still an absurdly low number)

1995: 13.2

2000: 14.9

2005: 16.8

2010: 18.1

2015: 24.1

2020: 34.6

The only reason this took so long is because of the incredibly deep-seated nature of fundamentally reactionary thinking among the relevant decision-making authorities, even though, again, the most straightforward possible metrics should have made it clear to them decades earlier that not structuring their rosters and offenses to take advantage of the three-point shot meant foregoing what would have been a massive competitive advantage against their similarly clueless and reactionary opponents.

6) I don’t know a lot about PsyPost, but when I checked it out, it seemed legit, so I did an email interview on some research.  The end result is, I think, a surprisingly good summary, “Mothers are not more likely than other women to demand action on guns”

When it comes to support for gun control policies, mothers are not significantly different than women without children, according to new research published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties. The findings indicate that parenthood doesn’t have a substantial impact on gun control views in the United States.

“I’ve always been interested in topics around gender and parenthood in American politics where I think, maybe, how a group or political dynamic is portrayed in the media may not actually reflect the underlying dynamic that well,” said study author Steven Greene (@HankGreene), a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

“For example, 14 years ago, Laurel Elder and I co-wrote, ‘The Myth of “Security Moms” and “NASCAR Dads”: Parenthood, Political Stereotypes, and the 2004 Election.’ So much media and public attention around gun control has focused on moms (e.g., the Million Mom March) that we were anxious to explore this dynamic to see how much motherhood seemed to explain gun attitudes.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data collected by the Pew Research Center in March and April of 2017 as part of the organization’s nationally representative American Trends Panel.

The survey asked respondents to indicate whether they believed gun laws should be more or less strict. It also asked several questions related to gun ownership, such as support for allowing concealed carry in more places, preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns, banning assault weapons, and requiring background checks on all private gun sales.

In addition, the survey included several questions on gun policy relating to children, such as whether school officials should carry guns and whether stricter gun laws would reduce mass shootings.


The researchers had hypothesized that fatherhood would push men towards more conservative attitudes on gun control policies, while motherhood would push women towards more liberal attitudes. But after controlling for sociodemographic variables, there was little evidence that parenthood had much impact.

Mothers held more liberal views on guns control compared to the general population. But this appeared to be unrelated to motherhood. Women were more liberal than men in general on questions related to gun laws and regulations. But there was no evidence that mothers’ opinions on guns were more liberal compared to women without children. In fact, mothers were slightly more likely to support less restrictive gun laws.

“The big take-away is that moms are not uniquely liberal on guns,” Greene told PsyPost. “As with most issues across the American political spectrum, women are more liberal than men on gun policies, but there is nothing unique to being a mom that adds to more liberal gun attitudes. A focus from both the media and gun reform advocacy groups (e.g., Moms Demand Action on Guns) has clearly determined that this is a useful political/rhetorical framing, but it does not appear to reflect an underlying reality on gun attitudes beyond that which can simply be explained by gender.”

7) Dhruv Khullar on Delta in the New Yorker:

Earlier this year, scientists estimated that lineage B.1.1.7—the Alpha variant, first isolated in England—could be some sixty per cent more transmissible than the original version of sars-CoV-2. Now experts believe that the Delta variant is sixty per cent more transmissible than Alpha—making it far more contagious than the virus that tore through the world in 2020. It hasn’t yet been conclusively shown that Delta is more lethal, but early evidence from the U.K. suggests that, compared to Alpha, it doubles the risk of a person’s being hospitalized. Even if the variant turns out to be no deadlier within any one person, its greater transmissibility means that it can inflict far more damage across a population, depending on how many people remain unvaccinated when it strikes.

In this regard, India’s apocalyptic surge is Exhibit A. In May, at the crest of the wave, the role of the Delta variant was still unclear. A number of factors—the return of large gatherings, a decline in mask-wearing, and a sluggish vaccination campaign—had made a disaster of some kind more or less unavoidable. But it now seems likely that the rise of Delta accelerated the crisis into a shockingly rapid and widespread viral catastrophe. In the course of weeks, millions of people were infected and tens of thousands died; the country’s medical system buckled under the weight of a mutated virus. One of the most disturbing aspects of India’s surge was that many children fell ill. And yet there is currently no data to suggest that Delta causes severe illness in a greater proportion of kids; instead, it seems likely that the sheer transmissibility of the variant simply resulted in a higher absolute number of infected children.

One vitally important finding to emerge from the U.K. and India is that the covid vaccines are still spectacularly effective against Delta. According to one study from the U.K., a full course of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is ninety-six per cent effective at preventing hospitalizations due to the Delta variant; AstraZeneca’s vaccine is in the same ballpark, reducing the chance of hospitalization by ninety-two per cent. But these findings come with caveats. The first is that, with Delta, partial immunization appears to be less effective at preventing disease: a different study found that, for people who have received only the first shot, the vaccines were just thirty-three per cent effective at preventing symptomatic illness. (A first dose still appears to offer strong protection against hospitalization or death.) The second is that even full courses of the vaccines appear somewhat less effective at preventing infection from Delta. This may be especially true of the non-mRNA vaccines. A team of scientists in Scotland has found that both doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine reduced the chance of infection with Delta by just sixty per cent—a respectable showing, but less impressive than what the same vaccine offers against other strains of the virus. (The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine demonstrated seventy-nine per cent efficacy against Delta infection—a significant, but smaller, decrease.)

Taken together, these findings have led some experts to propose adjustments in vaccination strategy. Muge Cevik, an infectious-diseases expert at St. Andrews University and an adviser to the British government, told me that, given the arrival of Delta, it was important to ask “what our main aim of vaccination is.” She went on, “If our primary objective is to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, a first dose still gives very good protection. If it’s to stamp out transmission, then the second dose becomes quite important. I think that, especially in hot spots, we need to expedite second shots.” Others have proposed the idea of mRNA-vaccine booster shots for Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which, like AstraZeneca’s, uses non-mRNA technology. The C.D.C.’s official guidelines tell Americans that “the best covid-19 vaccine is the first one that is available to you. Do not wait for a specific brand.” But that advice was minted when vaccine supply was constrained. The accumulated evidence has led many people to wonder whether the mRNA vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, are preferable to the one offered by Johnson & Johnson, and whether the Delta variant makes them even more so.

8) Quite liked this from Yasha Mounk, “The Perils of 180ism: Stop blindly opposing your adversaries. Stick to your values and think for yourself.”

180ism has three core components.

The first and most obvious is that the primary question most participants in public debate ask themselves is not “How do my values inform my views on this matter?” or “What is the evidence for what is being asserted?” Rather, it is “How do I demonstrate that I am a loyal member of my political tribe?” As it happens, the easiest way to do that is simple: Look for what the enemy says on any one issue and stake out the opposite position.

The second component is that public discourse becomes dangerously narrow when a lot of individuals with big platforms reflexively contradict whatever their adversaries say. Complex questions that should, in principle, allow for a large number of different answers are then flattened into a simple referendum between diametrically opposed sides. 

The third component is that the dynamics of 180ism exert enormous pressure on anybody who does not behave as expected. If, unwilling to let the discourse shoehorn you into one of two sanctioned positions, you insist on giving a third answer, you are denounced as an attention-seeking contrarian. And if, following your long-held values or principles, you come up with an answer that your political adversary happens to agree with, you are denounced as a traitor. In a discourse dominated by 180ism, occasionally disagreeing with your friends—a sign that you are willing to think for yourself—is widely interpreted as proof of bad faith.

In many of the examples I have given, it is the left that is guilty of 180ism. So let me be abundantly clear: I do not believe that the two sides in America’s great political fight are morally equivalent. That is why I publicly and persistently advocated for the election of Joe Biden. Nor do I think that conservatives are any less susceptible to the sins of 180ism than progressives; the aversion to supporting anything that a prominent adversary happens to agree with is, almost certainly, even more pronounced on the right.

But that is no reason to soft-pedal just how bad the state of the discourse has now become on my own side. In fact, it is precisely because I myself have long been part of the left-wing tribe that I feel especially compelled to speak out when my ostensible allies are willing to throw their principles out of the window.

Part of the reason is instrumental. To succumb to 180ism is to define yourself, not by your own principles, but rather against your opponents. In other words, it is to let your political adversaries choose your values for you. And if the right is even a little shrewd—choosing their own positions in ways that force those who are stuck in the logic of 180ism to defend highly unpopular ideas and organizations—this will inflict serious harm on liberal values. It could even increase the chances that Donald Trump or one of his allies will return to the White House in 2024.

But an even deeper reason is moral, intellectual or, if you will, aesthetic. I work in left-leaning institutions, write for left-leaning publications, and live in a left-leaning milieu. How the people around me talk about things is especially important to me because I care about thinking through the complex challenges that face all of us in an intellectually honest way—and the only way to do that is as part of a community that encourages people to think for themselves.

The deepest reason to resist 180ism is, simply, that succumbing to it is a terrible way to think and live.

9) Rick Hasen, interviewed by Isaac Chotiner, on protecting elections and Congressional legislation:

If you were designing a bill for Congress to prevent the subversion of a future election, what would that bill include? And how has your answer changed or not changed since the wave of state laws we’ve seen in the last several months?

I think the best place to start is to differentiate between election subversion and voter suppression. We’ve been hearing for many years about voter suppression: things that make it harder for people to register and to vote, like the provision of the Georgia law that says you can’t give water to people waiting on line to vote. That’s a different concern than this idea of election subversion, which is trying to manipulate the rules for who counts the votes in a way that could allow for a partisan official to declare the loser as the winner. This was, for example, a concern when President Trump called the secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, in the period after the election, to try to get him to “find” the 11,780 votes.

Much of what proposed federal legislation would do in both H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is aimed at stopping voter suppression. Stopping election subversion requires a different set of tools, and, ideally, you might want to have federal legislation that attacks both. But, if you’re focussing solely on election subversion, then I think there are a few important things to do. No. 1, require every state to hold elections using some form of a paper ballot. That provision is actually in H.R. 1—it’s a small part of a very large bill. But that standing alone is not only something that could get bipartisan support—it’s absolutely essential. Just imagine if in Georgia, in the period after the election, when Secretary of State Raffensperger ordered a hand recount of all the ballots, with the ability for the public to observe—if Georgia was using voting machines that didn’t use a piece of paper, then the conspiracy theories of the flipped votes would have had much more resonance.

No. 2, fixing the 1887 Electoral Count Act. That’s this arcane federal law that explains how Congress is supposed to count the Electoral College votes from each state. One of the provisions in there says you only need an objection from one senator and one representative in order to go into separate trial sessions to negotiate over whether or not Electoral College votes should be accepted or rejected. There should be a much higher threshold, and there should be a substantive standard for rejecting those votes, so we would not see something like a hundred and forty-seven members of Congress that voted to object to state Electoral College votes on January 6th. There are other things that could be done as well, such as requiring that there be some kind of court review or independent review of the standards that are used for declaring winners in elections, as well as various transparency requirements in dealing with election administration, so that people can go to court if there is a problem with the fairness of how the election is conducted…

In the raft of voting legislation that we’ve seen in the past few months, what has most concerned you in terms of voter suppression, and what has most concerned you in terms of subversion?


There was, first of all, an expected tightening of the rules that allow people to easily cast a ballot, especially by mail. Requiring that Georgia voters provide certain identification information when they vote by mail is new. There was a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said over two hundred and seventy thousand voters would not be able to vote by mail with that requirement. In some instances, such as in Iowa, there’s been a criminalization of attempts by local election administrators to try to allow for the expansion of voting opportunities, such as in sending absentee-ballot applications to voters. That’s not something that should be criminalized. We’re seeing, in a number of bills, attempts to make the job of local election administrators even harder and dissuade people even more from becoming election administrators.

In terms of election subversion, the biggest concern I have right now is what happened in Georgia, where as punishment for Raffensperger standing up to Trump, the secretary of state has been taken out of any authority as to how the state election board does its job, to be replaced by someone handpicked by the Republican legislature. This board now has the power to do temporary takeovers of up to four counties. You could easily imagine the state boards taking over how the election is run in heavily Democratic Fulton County, and then imposing rules or messing with election counts in ways that could affect the outcome in the now very purple state of Georgia.

10) Drum on the increased murder rate:

Here is the fundamental mystery of crime in the US over the past year:

As you might guess, the murder rate and the overall violent crime rate usually rise and fall in tandem. But in 2020, they suddenly diverged by an enormous amount: Compared to 2019, violent crime rose 3.3% while the murder rate went up 25%.

If you’re interested in the murder rate beyond partisan talking points, this is what you need to explain. What could account for a huge increase in homicides but not in violent crime more generally? Police presence seems an unlikely explanation. Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of murder, which is usually committed against someone you know.

In any case, this is what needs explaining. But be careful. This is trickier than it looks.

11) It was actually kind of depressing to see this take from a scientist and a historian just completely riddled with logical fallacies.  Support trans people.  Respect them.  But don’t make really bad arguments in service of that, “Attacks on trans people are also attacks on science itself.”  I’ll just give one example; this is a complicated issue and this rhetorical sophistry in no way does it justice:

The false premise behind them is that if transgender girls are allowed to compete on girls’ sports teams, then cisgender girls (whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) won’t be able to win. Experience in California shows that this is not true. In 2013, the state passed a law that protects the rights of transgender students to participate in sports teams that match their gender identity. Los Angeles teacher and retired basketball coach Larry Strauss wrote that he has seen and heard of no problems with implementing the policy, and trans athletes are not dominating girls’ sports leagues. Similarly, when The Associated Press asked Republican legislators who introduced these bills to name a single transgender athlete in their state, most could not. This just doesn’t seem to be a real issue.

12) Okay, now this is nuts and definitely cancel-culture-adjacent, “‘I am appalled’: Billie Eilish apologises for mouthing apparent racist slur in resurfaced five-year-old clip: 
Singer says she was unaware of the meaning of the offensive word at the time, did not mean to cause offence, and the prospect of causing people hurt ‘absolutely breaks my heart’”  She was 14!!

13) Definitely a lot of truth to this, “The TV hit isn’t just dying — it may already be dead: Astute observers of television say the idea of a unifying show on even a modest scale is gone. In its wake are a hundred Twitter niches — and a dangerous lack of common culture.”  That said, although I may not be able to talk Mare of Easttown with my Food Lion cashier (hey, there’s always sports!), among the people I actually socialize with, there’s still substantial overlap in common viewing.

14) This is kind of wild, “Sharks Almost Went the Way of the Dinosaurs 19 Million Years Ago: Analysis of the fossil record shows a mysterious mass extinction that decimated the diversity of sharks in the world’s oceans, and they’ve never fully recovered.”

In 2015, Dr. Sibert received a box of mud spanning about 40 million years of history. The reddish clay, extracted from two sediment cores that had been drilled deep into the Pacific Ocean seafloor, contained fish teeth, shark denticles and other marine microfossils. Using a microscope and a very fine paintbrush, Dr. Sibert picked through the two sediments and counted the number of fossils in samples separated in time by several hundred thousand years.

About halfway through her data set, Dr. Sibert spotted an abrupt change in the fossil record. Nineteen million years ago, the ratio of shark denticles to fish teeth changed drastically: Samples older than that tended to contain roughly one denticle for every five fish teeth (a ratio of about 20 percent), but more recent samples had ratios closer to 1 percent. That meant that sharks suddenly became much less common, relative to fish, during an era known as the early Miocene, Dr. Sibert concluded.

Dr. Sibert and her collaborators, in an earlier study using the same data set, had also found that sharks declined in abundance by roughly 90 percent about 19 million years ago.

“We had a lot of them, and then we had almost none of them,” she said. “Basically the sharks almost completely disappear.”

15) This just seems so crazy to me, “Many People Have a Vivid ‘Mind’s Eye,’ While Others Have None at All: Scientists are finding new ways to probe two not-so-rare conditions to better understand the links between vision, perception and memory.”

Dr. Adam Zeman didn’t give much thought to the mind’s eye until he met someone who didn’t have one. In 2005, the British neurologist saw a patient who said that a minor surgical procedure had taken away his ability to conjure images.

Over the 16 years since that first patient, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues have heard from more than 12,000 people who say they don’t have any such mental camera. The scientists estimate that tens of millions of people share the condition, which they’ve named aphantasia, and millions more experience extraordinarily strong mental imagery, called hyperphantasia.

In their latest research, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues are gathering clues about how these two conditions arise through changes in the wiring of the brain that join the visual centers to other regions. And they’re beginning to explore how some of that circuitry may conjure other senses, such as sound, in the mind. Eventually, that research might even make it possible to strengthen the mind’s eye — or ear — with magnetic pulses.

“This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” said Dr. Zeman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Exeter in Britain. “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”

16) I love zoos and this is one of those things I really just want to argue against.  But it’s probably right.  “Modern Zoos Are Not Worth the Moral Cost”


Good stuff from top-notch political scientists Hans Noel and Dan Hopkins about what “conservativism” means in the era of Trump.  Sadly, increasingly it really means that you support Trump.  At 538:

If there’s any group of people who are likely to care about what terms like “conservative” and “liberal” mean, it’s political activists. These are the people who participate in politics beyond just voting: They volunteer for political campaigns, donate money, work for politicians, and in some cases, even run for office themselves. They also help define their parties in the eyes of voters and can be good barometers of shifting ideological winds, as they often influence and sometimes regulate politicians’ stances.

So to better understand how party activists think about conservatism and to measure Trump’s effect on how they think about it, we teamed up with HuffPost2 and YouGov to poll Republican and Democratic activists three times over the course of the 2016 campaign, and then once with YouGov in 2021 after Trump had left office, to ask them each time how conservative or liberal they thought a pair of prominent politicians was. For each pair, we simply asked, “Which of these two politicians is more liberal/conservative?”3 By random chance, some politicians are going to be paired against especially liberal or conservative counterparts, so simply counting up the number of times a politician was graded “more liberal” or “more conservative” won’t cut it. Instead, we adjusted for the politicians against whom a given politician was compared, which is akin to a “strength of schedule” adjustment in analyzing sports teams.4

A few key findings immediately stand out. First, in looking just at our 2021 survey data, a politician’s support for Trump has come to define who party activists think of as conservative. Romney, Toomey and Sasse were all rated as fairly liberal Republicans despite their conservative voting records in Congress, according to DW-Nominate, which quantifies the ideology of every member of Congress based on roll call votes cast in a legislative session. Staunchly pro-Trump politicians (or Trump-adjacent politicians), like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham, and Trump were all clustered together on the more conservative end of the spectrum, even though there is quite a bit of difference, ideologically speaking, between these men. Pence, for instance, stands out for having established a very conservative track record pre-Trump whereas Cotton, Graham, Hawley and DeSantis’s claims to being so conservative are more closely linked to their connection to Trump. What seems to matter more is not so much one’s voting record in the pre-Trump era as one’s relationship to Trump…

And despite his ideological heterodoxies, Trump was rated as more conservative than all but 10 of the 114 politicians we asked about. Ideology, in other words, isn’t just about policies.5

However, using our survey data from 2016,6 we can see that even before Trump became president, he was starting to redefine who party activists thought was conservative…

Political scientists like to point out that ideology and party are not the same thing. And yet, our measure of ideology among political activists suggests it’s even trickier than we think. We know that the Republican Party is changing. Longtime conservatives like Romney and Cheney say that the party has abandoned conservative principles and that they’re holding out hope the GOP will return to them. Our research suggests another possibility, though: Conservative principles themselves are changing. The civil warin the Republican Party, to the extent there is one, isn’t between conservatism and some new form of populism. Instead, it’s between the old view of conservatism and the new one. That suggests a very different future for the Republican Party — one in which reactions to Trump influence who is thought of as conservative more than views on taxes or spending.

And related enough to share a post, the excellent Voter Study Group is out with an excellent analysis for Republican of Trump’s fraudulent election fraud claims:

Key Findings

  • Republicans widely support Donald Trump and believe his claims about a stolen election. While Republicans support all elements of the ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative in high numbers, the overall electorate largely rejects these claims and propositions.
  • Among Republicans, 85 percent believe it was appropriate for Trump to file lawsuits challenging election results in several states, and the same proportion believe that vote-by-mail increases vote fraud; 46 percent of Republicans believe it was appropriate for legislators in states won by Joe Biden to try to assign their state’s electoral votes to Trump.
  • Republicans most committed to both Trump and the narrative of election fraud share a few other views in common: extreme antipathy toward Democrats and immigrants, belief that racism is not a problem, support for nationalism, belief in traditional family values and gender roles, and preference for a very limited role for government in the economy.
  • While a voter’s willingness to reject an election without evidence of fraud might suggest an embrace of authoritarianism, a key measure of authoritarian leanings — support for a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections” — is only weakly correlated to support for Trump and for the stolen election narrative.

And a couple of the key charts via Lee Drutman’s twitter thread:

A two-party democracy where one of the parties has a tenuous connection to A) reality, and B) Democratic principles is a democracy in serious trouble.  This is not good.


One bias to rule them all

Of all the concepts I learned about as an undergraduate, surely one that has made the biggest impact on how I see the world and live my life is Attribution Theory.  How eye-opening it was to realize that we are constantly attributing other persons (and our own!) actions to both internal and external factors in systematically biased ways.  The ultimate, of course, being the fundamental attribution error:

The fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.

In other words, people have a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person.

And, of course, for someone who studies politics for a living, safe to say this is kind of a big deal.  I bring this up because groundbreaking Social Psychologist, Lee Ross, who brought us the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error, died last week.  I’ve actually been a big fan of Ross since learning more about his work in graduate school (don’t forget, my training was very much Political Psychology), but I really did not fully appreciate the impact and breadth of his work.  I dis nor, for example, recall that he was also responsible for the false consensus effect (thinking that everybody is more like you than they actually are– Trump, of course, embodies this to the nth degree, “who knew…”).  It was also interesting to learn what an influence he was on Malcolm Gladwell.  That and plenty more good stuff in this NYT obituary:

No writer has done more to popularize Professor Ross’s ideas than Malcolm Gladwell. “Almost all of my books are about the fundamental attribution error,” Mr. Gladwell said in a phone interview. “It’s an idea I have never been able to shake.”

Professor Ross expanded his views into a grand theory of psychology in “The Person and the Situation” (1991), which he wrote with his longtime collaborator Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. Mr. Gladwell said he devoured the book in a single day at New York University’s Bobst Library.

“The point of that book,” Mr. Gladwell said, “was simply that if we want to understand ourselves and each other, we need to pay a lot more attention to the situations we’re in and the environment, and stop dwelling so much on an imaginary notion of the intrinsic self.”

In “The Tipping Point” (2000), Mr. Gladwell’s best-selling first book, he used that line of thinking as a theoretical underpinning to his argument about the success of the “broken windows” theory of policing. That theory holds that serious crimes may be deterred by making relatively minor changes to the surrounding environment, like cracking down on graffiti.

“Somebody once said that they thought ‘The Tipping Point’ created a genre of science writing,” Mr. Gladwell said. “I feel very strongly that it did not, that it is simply a journalist version of the kind of writing I encountered in ‘The Person and the Situation.’”

So, next time you catch yourself and recognize, “hey, maybe the situation/context has an important role in explaining this, not just the person involved” thank Lee Ross.

The “For the People Act” was never going to save democracy

With this legislation killed by filibuster yesterday, Nate Cohn, with a really nice post-mortem (Nate Cohn– not just for polling analysis anymore!)

The demise of the For the People Act — the far-reaching voting rights bill that Republicans blocked in the Senate on Tuesday — will come as a crushing blow to progressives and reformers, who have portrayed the law as an essential tool for saving democracy.

But it was a flawed bill that had little chance of testing the limits of what if anything is still possible in Washington. Voting rights activists and Democratic lawmakers may even find that the collapse of this law opens up more plausible, if still highly unlikely, paths to reform.

The law, known as H.R. 1 or S. 1, was full of hot-button measures — from public financing of elections to national mail voting — that were only tangentially related to safeguarding democracy, and all but ensured its failure in the Senate. Its supporters insisted the law should set the floor for voting rights; in truth, it set the floor at the ceiling, by guaranteeing a level of voting access that would be difficult to surpass.

At the same time, reformers did not add provisions to tackle the most insidious and serious threat to democracy: election subversion, where partisan election officials might use their powers to overturn electoral outcomes. [emphases mine]

I hope this is not a “crushing blow” to progressives and reformers because I’d hate to think they are actually that profoundly non-pragmatic and divorced from the reality of what represents the current greatest threats to electoral democracy.  Sure, this was a nice liberal wish list, but far from what is most urgently needed to protect democracy from the threats Republicans have been brewing up.  And, yes, now that it’s out of the way, Congress can focus on something that, just maybe, 50 Democrats will all really want to see enacted (i.e., enough for Manchin and Sinema, and maybe 1 or 2 more quiet other Senators) such that they won’t insist on the 60 vote margin allowing Republicans to veto it.  Whatever legislation it is that Manchin and Sinema would be willing to do that for would be far from a liberal wish list, but, as I said, if you can get half a loaf…

Vaccines and the immunocomprimised

I’ve got some people who are near and dear to me who 1) have immunocompromising diseases; and 2) are immunosuppressed due to organ transplants.  So, I’m really interested to know just how well the vaccines work in these cases.  For now, we just really don’t know.  There’s some concerning evidence based on antibodies, but our immune systems are way more than antibodies (from what I’ve learned they are far and away the easiest thing to measure– and there’s always a bias towards judging by what’s easy to measure).  

Wired had a good article on this last week:

COVID VACCINATION IN the US has been framed as a binary: People either seek out the inoculation, or they distrust the formula—or the politics that produced it—and reject the shot. People who accept the vaccine get to return to normal life. For the people who don’t, “Your health is in your hands,” as Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted in May.

But that binary never accounted for the many people who wanted the shot but couldn’t obtain it: because vaccine campaigns didn’t come to their neighborhoods, or lack of sick leave wouldn’t let them risk side effects, or they didn’t meet eligibility criteria in the early days when supply was limited. Now it’s becoming clear that this binary also excludes another enormous group: People who received the shot but were not protected by it, because their immune systems didn’t manufacture an adequate defense.

Millions of Americans are immunosuppressed or immune-compromised. That is, they take drugs to make sure that a transplanted organ is not rejected or to tamp down the overactive immunity that produces rheumatoid arthritis and lupus; or, alternatively, they have illnesses that undermine their ability to defend against pathogens. A handful of research papers published over the past few months all find the same result: When these patients receive Covid vaccines, their bodies don’t create as many defensive antibodies as those of healthy people. Some have contracted the disease despite being fully vaccinated—meaning that, to protect themselves, they must continue to behave as though their vaccinations never occurred.

As a result, some are seeking extra vaccinations, arranging for third doses that they hope will act like booster shots. A study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine by a team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine documents the experience of 30 people living with organ transplants who sought out a third shot in hopes of boosting their immune responses. After their second shots, none of the 30 had high antibody levels; in fact, only six showed any antibody response at all. After the third shot, 14 out of 30 saw some improvement, and 12 of 30 had antibody levels that the researchers considered protective.

This is an important finding—even though it was made in a small group of self-selected volunteers, something that’s typically thought of as a weak study design—because it might point the way to letting still-vulnerable people rejoin a post-Covid society. It might also help explain some of the rare and not-well-explained “breakthrough” infections that occur in a small fraction of fully vaccinated people. (There was a high-profile cluster of breakthrough infections last month among people who work for the New York Yankees baseball team. No underlying conditions have been linked to them.)

That is, researchers know what protective antibody counts look like in healthy patients; but how far below that range an immune-compromised person can drop and still be protected isn’t yet known.

Plus, antibodies are not the only defense the body deploys to create immunity: We also make T cells, memory B cells, and others. The vaccine clinical trials didn’t attempt to measure the cell counts required to create an effective defense against the virus. They reported only clinical endpoints, such as whether someone became seriously ill or died from the disease. So focusing on antibodies alone may miss important parts of the immune response.

National Geographic also had a really good piece on this topic. I especially liked the thoroughness on immunity beyond the antibodies:

More than just antibodies

These studies also focus only on antibody response, which is just one component of the immune response.

“We think antibody levels may correlate to clinical protection to a degree,” Richterman says. But even in healthy people, he says, we don’t know the minimum antibody levels necessary to assure protection. Since the significance of antibody levels is ambiguous, the FDA and CDC recommend against antibody testing because it is unclear how to interpret the findings.

“Immunologic responses and effectiveness of a vaccine are two different things,” says Emily Blumberg, director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. “We think vaccinating [transplant] patients may have a benefit above and beyond what you can measure with antibodies.”

That’s partly because vaccines induce immunity in multiple ways. One way is stimulating B cells to make antibodies, which explains why medications that reduce B cells—such as rituximab, methotrexate, mycophenolate, and steroids—result in such poor responses. But vaccines can also stimulate killer T cells, which attack infected cells, and helper T cells, which aid B cells and killer T cells.

“Our understanding of what’s happening on the T cell side is pretty close to zero,” Segev says. Studying T cell responses is difficult and costly, he adds, though his group and others are working on it.

Vaccines can also trigger the production of memory B cells, which remember how to make antibodies. “If you get the virus and the memory cells are there, then you can have a better and faster antibody response the next time around,” explains Ignacio Sanz, chief of rheumatology at Emory University School of Medicine. He believes that presence of memory B cells might partly explain why a third vaccine dose led to antibody production in transplant recipients without previous responses.

The only way to find out how effective the vaccines actually are in immune-compromised people is to wait fordata comparing infections between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in different immune-compromised groups, and that takes time.

From what I’ve read, there’s clearly enough evidence that the cost/benefit/– risk/reward ratio of a third dose for people in these conditions is clearly in favor of a third shot.  And based on other reading, I’d say also pretty good evidence for mixing up vaccines heterologous prime (not to be confused with Optimus Prime) style.  Yes, of course we need more evidence.  But for now, there’s potentially a pretty significant upside in substantially better protection for vulnerable populations and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest a third shot creates any serious risks.  I get why public health is so inherently so conservative, but there’s costs to that conservativism and sometimes those costs seem much greater than the benefits.  

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