Quick hits (part II)

1) Adam Serwer on the Supreme Court’s vaccination decision:

If you read the legal language in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which authorizes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to act in an emergency capacity when workers face “grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards,” and when “such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger,” you might think that the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate stood a good chance of surviving the Supreme Court’s review.

But if you watched Fox News at all over the past year, you would have guessed that it was doomed.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s mandate, which compelled companies with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested regularly. (The Court narrowly allowed a similar requirement for health-care workers to remain in place.) The majority’s reasoning is that because the hazard of COVID-19 is present outside the workplace, OSHA exceeded the authority it has to regulate workplace safety.

“COVID-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather,” the unsigned opinion reads. “That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.”

This is laughable logic. OSHA regulates many, many hazards that are also present outside the workplace. The fact that you can die in a fire in your apartment is not an argument against regulating fire hazards in factories or offices. The mandate applied to firms whose employees have to work indoors, because that’s how the virus spreads. Moreover, unlike attending a sporting event as a spectator, people have to go to work, unless they’re lucky enough to be, say, a Supreme Court justice, in which case you can work remotely.

The majority’s answer to this obvious rebuttal, which gets closer to the motivation behind the decision, is that a vaccine “cannot be undone at the end of the workday.” Similarly, a concurring opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch portrays vaccination as “a medical procedure that affects [people’s] lives outside the workplace.” In their dissent from the decision upholding the mandate for health-care workers, Justices Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, and Samuel Alito insisted that “these cases are not about the efficacy or importance of COVID-19 vaccines,” while describing the vaccine-or-test requirement as forcing health-care workers to “undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo”—as though having to get a shot is a greater imposition on people who have chosen to work in health care than the imposition of not getting a shot would be on the patients who would be exposed to a potentially fatal infection they do not want and cannot undo. (Never mind that the OSHA rule allowed for those who didn’t want to get vaccinated to simply get tested regularly.)…

It is to be expected that a conservative-dominated Court would be hostile to federal regulation of business. And it makes sense that the justices would also express their opposition in federalist terms, arguing that the states can do what the federal government can’t. But the decision in the employer-mandate case, and the dissent from the four conservative justices in the health-care case, hinges on a new and alarming embrace of the right-wing culture war against vaccination, a deeply regrettable cost of conservative political strategy and political-identity formation…

The political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels write in Democracy for Realists that when voters with strong political identities “consider new issues or circumstances, they often do so not in order to challenge and revise their fundamental commitments, but in order to bolster those commitments by constructing preferences or beliefs consistent with them. They sound like they are thinking, and they feel like they are thinking. We all do.”

Surely the sophisticated legal minds who make up the Supreme Court are resistant to this sort of crude rationalization. The truth is the reverse. As Achen and Bartels write, “political rationalization is often most powerful among people who are well-informed and politically engaged, since their fundamental political commitments tend to be most consistent and strongly held.” (In fairness, this is probably as true of opinion journalists as it is of Supreme Court justices.)

2) And good stuff from Leonhardt on the Court.  Liberals are not entirely innocent of what Serwer describes:

When the Supreme Court justices emerged from the red drapes at the front of the courtroom last Friday and took their seats — to hear arguments about President Biden’s vaccine mandate — all but one of the justices there were wearing masks. The exception was Neil Gorsuch.

That Gorsuch would resist mask wearing is no surprise. He is a conservative judge with a libertarian streak who has spent his life around Republican politics. In conservative circles, masks have become a symbol of big-government subjugation.

But his decision not to wear one — while the other Republican appointees on the court all were — still felt surprising. The justices usually make an effort to treat one another respectfully. They disagree on the law, sometimes harshly, while maintaining productive and even warm relationships, like the famous friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“When you’re charged with working together for most of the remainder of your life, you have to create a relationship,” Sonia Sotomayor said a few years ago, describing her welcoming of Brett Kavanaugh. “This is our work family.”

Gorsuch had to know that his masklessness could make other justices uncomfortable, including the 83-year-old Stephen Breyer and the 67-year-old Sotomayor, who has diabetes, a Covid risk factor. Sotomayor sits next to Gorsuch on the bench and, notably, chose not to attend Friday’s argument in person. She participated remotely, from her chambers…

During the first hour of last Friday’s two-hour argument, Sotomayor listed the evidence of Covid’s continuing threat, to illustrate the benefits of a vaccine mandate. (Yesterday, the court ruled in the case, blocking Biden’s vaccine mandate for large employers, while allowing a narrower one for health care providers. Gorsuch opposed both mandates, while Sotomayor favored both.)

In making the case for mandates last week, Sotomayor first noted that Covid cases were surging and hospitals were near capacity. She then turned her attention to children: “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.”

That last sentence is simply untrue.

PolitiFact called it “way off.” Khaya Himmelman of The Dispatch described it as false and misleading. Daniel Dale of CNN wrote that Sotomayor had made “a significant false claim.” Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s fact checker, called it “wildly incorrect.”

Fewer than 5,000 U.S. children were in the hospital with Covid last week, and many fewer were in “serious condition” or on ventilators. Some of the hospitalized children probably had incidental cases of the virus, meaning they had been hospitalized for other reasons and tested positive while there.

Covid, as regular Morning readers have heard before, is overwhelmingly mild in children, even those who are unvaccinated. The risks are not zero, and they have risen during the current wave of infections, especially for children with major underlying health problems. But the risks remain extremely low.

Consider these numbers: Over the past week, about 870 children were admitted to hospitals with Covid, according to the C.D.C. By comparison, more than 5,000 children visit emergency rooms each week for sports injuries. More than 1,000 are hospitalized for bronchiolitis during a typical January week.

Similarly, the risk of Covid hospitalization for children — even in recent weeks — has been much lower than the risk from the respiratory virus known as R.S.V., as the epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina has shown.

Or consider this: Vaccinated elderly people are at much more risk of severe Covid illness than unvaccinated children.

Sotomayor’s statement may not have been central to the case. But it was not a random error, either. Many other Americans on the left half of the political spectrum have also been exaggerating Covid’s risks to children. As the authors of a Gallup poll last year wrote, “Republicans consistently underestimate risks, while Democrats consistently overestimate them.”

I understand that these exaggerations often stem from an admirable desire to protect children from harm. But the result has been the opposite: The pandemic’s disruptions have led to lost learning, social isolation and widespread mental-health problems for children. Many American children are in crisis — as a result of pandemic restrictions rather than the virus itself.

Last week’s Supreme Court session was striking because it highlighted both halves of the country’s partisan-based self-deceptions.

3) Interesting new research on the potential impact of a virus almost all of us get at some point:

For decades, researchers have suspected that people infected with an exceedingly common virus, Epstein-Barr, might be more likely to develop multiple sclerosis, a neurological illness that affects a million people in the United States. Now, a team of researchers reports what some say is the most compelling evidence yet of a strong link between the two diseases.

The virus infects nearly everyone in their teen or young adult years, and very few go on to develop multiple sclerosis. The researchers also note that it is not the only known risk factor for people who develop the illness. But they say their data points to it being the clearest of them all. While it remains to be seen whether the finding will result in treatments or cures for multiple sclerosis, the study may further motivate research into therapies and vaccines for the condition.

In their study, published Thursday in Science, the group examined data from 10 million people on active duty in the United States Armed Forces over two decades. The strength of their study, said its principal investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is that they were able to follow people for years and ask whether infections with Epstein-Barr preceded multiple sclerosis.

Among the service members in the study, 801 developed multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the fatty insulation that protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Most who develop the disease are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. The disease is rare, though — an individual’s chance of getting multiple sclerosis is half of one percent…

To ask how much the virus increases risk, the investigators studied the small proportion of people who were not infected with the virus early in their service careers but subsequently became infected. They detected infections by the presence of antibodies to the virus.

Among the multiple sclerosis patients, 32 out of 33 got infected with Epstein-Barr before they developed M.S.

As a control group for their study, the scientists tracked 90 individuals who were not initially infected with Epstein-Barr and who also did not get multiple sclerosis. Of them, just 51 subsequently became infected with Epstein-Barr.

 

4) NYT, “Democrats Face a Dilemma on Voting: Compromise or Keep Pressing?”  Seriously, how is this a dilemma?!  Keep banging your head against the wall or try and find another way around the wall?

5) I have no idea why I never thought to read one of 2014’s most acclaimed novelsAll the Light we Cannot See till 2022.  But I’m damn glad I finally did.  So good.  

6) Interesting take shared by Alex Tarbarrok:

nice, well-reasoned piece from Harold Lee pushing back on the idea that we should buy experiences not goods:

While I appreciate the Stoic-style appraisal of what really brings happiness, economically, this analysis seems precisely backward. It amounts to saying that in an age of industrialization and globalism, when material goods are cheaper than ever, we should avoid partaking of this abundance. Instead, we should consume services afflicted by Baumol’s cost disease, taking long vacations and getting expensive haircuts which are just as hard to produce as ever.

Put that way, the focus on minimalism sounds like a new form of conspicuous consumption. Now that even the poor can afford material goods, let’s denigrate goods while highlighting the remaining luxuries that only the affluent can enjoy and show off to their friends.

[The distinction is too tightly drawn]…tools and possessions enable new experiences. A well-appointed kitchen allows you to cook healthy meals for yourself rather than ordering delivery night after night. A toolbox lets you fix things around the house and in the process learn to appreciate how our modern world was made. A spacious living room makes it easy for your friends to come over and catch up on one another’s lives. A hunting rifle can produce not only meat, but also camaraderie and a sense of connection with the natural world of our forefathers. In truth, there is no real boundary between things and experiences. There are experience-like things; like a basement carpentry workshop or a fine collection of loose-leaf tea. And there are thing-like experiences, like an Instagrammable vacation that collects a bunch of likes but soon fades from memory.

Indeed, much of what is wrong with our modern lifestyles is, in a sense, a matter of overconsuming experiences. The sectors of the economy that are becoming more expensive every year – which are preventing people from building durable wealth – include real estate and education, both items that are sold by the promise of irreplaceable “experiences.” Healthcare, too, is a modern experience that is best avoided. As a percent of GDP, these are the growing expenditures that are eating up people’s wallets, not durable goods. If we really want to live a minimalist life, then forget about throwing away boxes of stuff, and focus on downsizing education, real estate, and healthcare.

Also, buy things that you give you new/better experiences!!  I swear, 5 1/2 years later I’m still happy almost every day that I finally replaced my 1998 Corolla with a 2016 Jetta.  My experience of driving is so much more enjoyable because I purchased this particular good.

7) Good stuff from Yglesias on centrism.  A free post, so you should read it. 

So the bad news for people who want a centrist coalition to run the country is that American institutional design makes that impossible.

The good news for people who want a centrist coalition to run the country is that centrist legislators run the show anyway.

Our institutions are just worse. In Germany, the leaders of the three parties had weeks of meetings in order to hammer out a coalition agreement before the new government could be inaugurated. In America, we instead have this endless procession of drama in which the Biden-Manchin relationship is constantly renegotiated on the fly and neither party really knows what the other’s bottom line is. This makes American politics a lot more entertaining as a sport. But in terms of people’s psychological well-being, it just leads to everyone being mad all the time.

When America defeats a foreign country in a war and creates a new government, we normally set them up with a parliamentary system and proportional elections, as in Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan, and Iraq.2

Unfortunately, we’re not going to suddenly scrap 200+ years of our own Madisonian government just because all the comparative government scholars think it’s bad.

What we — the take-slingers of American — can do, though, is play national therapist to an extent and try to help everyone be less angry and depressed. If, as a progressive, you think of Joe Manchin as “negotiating the terms of a centrist coalition government” rather than “blocking the Biden agenda” and as “junior partner in the coalition” rather than “the real president,” you’ll be a lot less mad. And if, as a moderate, you think of the country as being governed by a centrist coalition government thanks to the pivotal role of Joe Manchin (and Kyrsten Sinema, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, etc.), you’ll also be a lot less mad.

8) I love reading to kids and have read a ton (and still read) to my kids.  But little kids should be getting Boynton and Dr Seuss, not “The Anti-Racist Baby.”  Jay Caspian Kang:

Like most parents, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the books my daughter, who just turned 5, will encounter and how they may shape the way she thinks about the world, particularly when it comes to race and inequality. I want her to be an enlightened citizen, and given that we are minorities, I want her to have a healthier understanding of self and culture than I had at her age. And although I, like most parents, want her to read the books I loved as a child, I am also happy that the books she likes to read are far more diverse and honest about race than they were back in my day.

The past decade has brought a suite of children’s books that deliver overt progressive messaging on this front, including Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby”; “A Is for Activist,” by Innosanto Nagara; and “A Kids Book About …,” a series by various authors with titles including “A Kids Book About Racism,” “A Kids Book About Systemic Racism” and “A Kids Book About Anti-Asian Hate.” At the same time, several school districts across the country have begun removing hundreds of children’s books from school libraries. These de facto book bans, many of which have arisen from the anti-Critical Race Theory movement, often target Black authors who have written books that deal with race and racism. They should be called out for what they are: censorious and bigoted attempts to cancel an entire people out of the education process.

I oppose these bans, but I admit I find myself a bit repelled by some of the more inelegantly antiracist books, which, at least in coastal cities, have become a main draw in the children’s sections of bookstores. What does it mean, really, to have an antiracist baby? Are these books actually written for kids, who, as far as I can tell, mostly like stories about dinosaurs and cats? Or are they a commodity for white parents who want to prove their progressive bona fides? Or should I embrace the very real possibility that I, at the age of 42, am acting like a cranky old man who just wants his kid to read what I read as a child?

9) Julia Galef’s twitter feed brought my attention to this horrible measure of being a climate change denier in a widely-cited publication.  According this, I’m a climate change denier:

10) Speaking of Galef, deBoer reviewed The Scout Mindset  this week.  What I liked about the review is that even though he didn’t like the book all that much, he was straightforward about how much this is about his own stylistic preferences, rather than any genuine flaws in the book.  I loved it, of course.  

11) Good stuff on the ethical issues of a pig to human heart transplant:

This dramatic bid to save Bennett’s life came after he had been in the hospital for more than a month, being kept alive by an artificial breathing machine, and his medical care team determined that he was too sick to be a candidate for either a human heart or an artificial ventricular assist device. Without either, he wouldn’t live long. “This was the only option available for an existing inpatient, already within UMMC hospital, who was facing near certain death from heart failure,” Griffith told STAT.

In December, Griffith contacted the FDA to obtain an emergency authorization through the agency’s expanded access, or compassionate use, pathway to use Revivicor’s pig heart. On New Year’s Eve, the FDA said yes. It also OK’d the use of an experimental anti-rejection drug manufactured by Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals, and the perfusion device.

The medical team then notified the hospital’s institutional review board, which must sign off on all experimental treatments, which it did in this case. An informed consent was obtained from the patient after a thorough ethics review and psychiatric evaluation, Griffith said in written answers to STAT’s questions.

Caplan said that those would be the minimum conditions under which it might be ethically permissible to try something as new as putting an unapproved genetically engineered animal organ into a patient. But there are other things to consider. For example, what will the hospital team do if the patient’s immune system rejects the heart in the coming days and weeks? “You need to think hard about what you’re going to do if the patient is not succeeding and lay those options out during the consent process,” Caplan said…

Caplan has argued that before clinical trials of engineered animal parts can proceed, researchers need more information. At his home institution, New York University, which is also in the race to xenotransplant, he proposed testing these types of organs first in newly deceased humans — to gain preliminary insights about how to safely proceed. Beginning late last year, NYU Langone has done two experiments testing genetically modified pig kidneys in the donated bodies of people who had recently died and were being maintained on a ventilator. That research showed that organ rejection of a xenotransplant can be prevented during the first few days.

Griffith said that work gave his team more confidence in proceeding. But he acknowledged that the longer-term outcomes are unknown. “Rejection of the organ can occur any time after transplant,” he wrote. The surgeon added that while organ rejection, which can be life-threatening, is the greatest risk Bennett faces, there are also risks from the drugs used to suppress the immune system to prevent rejection. “The intensity of immune system suppression required is higher with a xenotransplant than with a traditional transplant from a human donor,” he said.

It’s still unclear when a formal test of engineered pig organs might move forward. When asked about the company’s plans to test its pigs organs in a clinical trial, Dewey Steadman, a Revivicor spokesperson, declined to share any details. “We are continuing to work with the FDA on a clinical and regulatory path forward,” he said via email.

12) Later this week, it came out that the transplant recipient nearly stabbed somebody to death decades ago, which raises a different set of provocative ethical questions.  On the bright side, I now know about “milkshake duck.” 

13) Great Planet Money feature (largely reported from Raleigh!) on what happens to all those internet returns. 

14) This is handy, “A Layman’s Guide to Separating Causation from Correlation … and Noticing When Claims of Causality are Invalid”

15) I feel like this should become a cool new trend in middle school, “How European Royals Once Shared Their Most Important Secrets: Recent research highlights the use of letterlocking techniques by Queen Elizabeth, Catherine de’ Medici and Mary Queen of Scots.”

To safeguard the most important royal correspondence against snoops and spies in the 16th century, writers employed a complicated means of security. They’d fold the letter, then cut a dangling strip, using that as an improvised thread to sew stitches that locked the letter and turned the flat writing paper into its own envelope. To get inside, a spy would have to snip the lock open, an act impossible to go undetected.

Catherine de’ Medici used the method in 1570 — a time she governed France while her ill son, King Charles IX, sat on its throne. Queen Elizabeth did so in 1573 as the sovereign ruler of England and Ireland. And Mary Queen of Scots used it in 1587 just hours before her long effort to unite Britain ended in her beheading.

“These people knew more than one way to send a letter and they chose this one,” said Jana Dambrogio, lead author of a study that details Renaissance-era politicians’ use of the technique, and a conservator at the M.I.T. Libraries. “You had to be highly confident to make a spiral lock. If you made a mistake, you’d have to start all over, which could take hours of rewriting and restitching. It’s fascinating. They took great pains to build up their security.”

Disclosure of the method’s wide use among European royalty is the latest venture of a group of scholars, centered at M.I.T., into a vanished art they call letterlocking — an early form of communications security that they’re busy resurrecting. Early last year, they reported their development of a virtual-reality technique that let them peer into locked letters without tearing them apart and damaging the historical record.

16) Love Katelyn Jetelina with numerator versus denominator thinking on Covid:

This is a deep dive into the epidemiology of COVID19 indicators among kids in the wake of Omicron.

In this post, I frame the data a little differently to address “numerator thinking” vs. “denominator thinking.” Dr. Lindsey Leininger (a Dartmouth-based policy expert and co-founder of Dear Pandemic) recently introduced this perspective to me, and it was incredibly eye-opening. In fact, I think explains why there is substantial disagreement throughout the pandemic on almost everything. This is particularly the case in regards to the perception of the threat SARS-CoV-2 has on children. Numerator people don’t agree with denominator people and vice versa. Here is the difference between the two:

  • Numerator thinking: A heavier lens on the absolute numbers—How many children are hospitalized? Is this number increasing? How many children have died?

  • Denominator thinking: A heavier lens on the population in which the numerator arises—How many children have died compared to adults? How many myocarditis cases per 1,000,000 doses?

One puts weight on each differently based on history, background, culture, employment, and context. For example, clinicians care for these patients every day, and the numerator is top of mind. As a parent, having my kid in the numerator is not comforting even if the probability of that happening was small. Policymakers, on the other hand, need a more denominator-oriented perspective. But, everyone needs to consider both elements. 

17) Relatedly, Jessica Grose, “I See Signs of Despair From Parents of Kids Under 5”

I’ve been talking to parents about pandemic stress for nearly two years, and I haven’t heard the level of despair that I’ve heard over the past week since the spring of 2020. Some of the words parents used to describe their January 2022: “devastating,” “disgusting” and “at a breaking point.” The difference with the Omicron surge is that the upset is more concentrated among parents of children under the age of 5.

Most American children 5 and older are going to class in person, and Covid vaccines are available to them. The vaccines remain unavailable to kids under 5, and it’s still unclear when vaccines will be approved for them. To perhaps point out the obvious, if they’re quarantining, many children under 5 can’t just hang out independently or remain quietly occupied for any useful length of time by TV or sustained silent reading. Which means remote learning for preschoolers winds up either as sort of a joke or requires intense parental involvement.

At the same time, more workplaces are open now than in earlier Covid waves. Most Americans aren’t working remotely, and even for the parents who are, being at home all day, trying to keep a toddler alive, fed and entertained makes it just about impossible to get anything else done. I spoke to a dozen parents across the country last week (and heard from dozens more in my DMs), and here are the themes I saw emerging from these conversations.

“This is the scariest time of the pandemic for sending my kids to day care,” said Margot Zarin-Pass, a pediatrician and internist in Minneapolis. Her two children are 3½ years old and 10 months old. She’s seen the rise in pediatric hospitalizations during the Omicron wave. Because she lives in freezing-cold Minnesota, spending a ton of time outside right now isn’t really feasible; she also doesn’t feel that it’s safe to bring her kids to libraries or children’s museums because of how easily Omicron spreads, so they’re frequently stuck inside for days at a time. “It feels like we’re more alone and abandoned than we previously have been, because our kids haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated,” she said, even though a lot of the rest of society seems to be trying to move on from Covid to live more normal lives.

I really feel for these parents.  But too many of them are using only numerator thinking.

18) I loved learning about “spotters” in NFL broadcasting booths. 

19) Planet Money newsletter on creating a market for carbon removal.  All the more reason we should aim for a renewable and nuclear-based energy-abundant future:

In order to jolt innovation and encourage progress in developing carbon removal technologies, this team of economists argues we should create such a market. It may sound like another far-fetched pipedream in an area of perpetual political inaction, but leaders have created artificial markets that have changed the world before.

Creating A Market Where There Is None

In building their case for an artificial market for carbon removal, Athey, Glennerster, Ransohoff, and Snyder point to the recent success in building a market for pneumococcal vaccines in low-income countries. In the early 2000s, pneumococcal disease — which causes illnesses like pneumonia and meningitis — killed around 1.1 million people every year, most of them kids under age five.


While pharmaceutical companies possessed the know-how to develop a vaccine to save these lives, they were reluctant to sink millions of dollars into R&D for it because the financial rewards were too small and uncertain. As it is now with carbon removal, there was basically no market for a pneumococcal vaccine in the developing world.

In 2007,  five countries — Canada, Italy, Norway, Russia, and the United Kingdom — and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to try and change this. They donated $1.5 billion to create an “Advance Market Commitment,” which pledged to buy vaccines from pharmaceutical companies at a set price. In doing so, they created a market where there wasn’t one.

It worked. Not only did the Advance Market Commitment convince one pharmaceutical company to create such a vaccine; it convinced three of them to do it (GSK, Pfizer, and the Serum Institute of India). In the years since, more than 150 million kids have been immunized against pneumococcal disease, saving an estimated 700,000 lives

Athey, Glennerster, Ransohoff, and Snyder now want governments and NGOs to create an Advance Market Commitment for carbon removal. “If you look at the numbers, you’ll realize we’ve got to figure this out,” says Athey, a technology-focused economist at Stanford University. “We’ve just got to do it. Most models show that just reducing emissions won’t work.” 

In the sort of dream version of this plan, Athey envisions a world where — in addition to drastically cutting emissions and funding basic climate R&D through traditional government grants — governments or NGOs set a price on carbon removal. They commit billions of dollars to the cause, specifying how much they are willing to pay to private companies for a given amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere. 

Athey says she imagines funders setting different prices for carbon removal. At first, the price could be set high, since many startups are still at the expensive prototyping stage and need all the help they can get. Funders, she says, could also commit to buying greater amounts of carbon removal at lower prices. In this way, innovators can get some guarantees that once they get costs down and are able to scale up, there will be buyers eagerly waiting. Such a system would create a viable business model for entrepreneurs experimenting with embryonic carbon-removal technologies. 

“Our planet depends on solving this problem,” Athey says. “But, currently, if you’re an entrepreneur with an idea that could be extremely important if it succeeds — but has a low probability of success — you can’t go to the bank and get a loan to fund it.”

Unlike a prize, Athey says, an Advance Market Commitment creates a real market, with all of the benefits that come with it. “Winning a prize is not a business model,” she says. Not only would an Advance Market Commitment create economic incentives for carbon removal, it could allow companies to get private financing from banks and investors, allowing them to fund teams of engineers and new machines. These companies would then compete and the best technologies and methods would rise to prominence.

20) Somehow, I never knew about Elmo’s rants against a pet rock.  This was a fun rabbit hole to go down.

21) Uganda just now re-opening schools.  Wow.

22) Meanwhile, in America, this is definitely an interesting and not unreasonable take: “Why I Soured on the Democrats: COVID school policies set me adrift from my tribe.”

Until recently, I was a loyal, left-leaning Democrat, and I had been my entire adult life. I was the kind of partisan who registered voters before midterm elections and went to protests. I hated Donald Trump so much that I struggled to be civil to relatives on the other side of the aisle. But because of what my family has gone through during the pandemic, I can’t muster the same enthusiasm. I feel adrift from my tribe and, to a certain degree, disgusted with both parties.

I can’t imagine that I would have arrived here—not a Republican, but questioning my place in the Democratic Party—had my son not been enrolled in public kindergarten in 2020.

Late that summer, the Cleveland school system announced that it would not open for in-person learning the first 9 weeks of the semester. I was distraught. My family relies on my income, and I knew that I would not be able to work full-time with my then-5-year-old son and then-3-year-old daughter at home.

Still, I was accepting of short-term school closures. My faith in the system deteriorated only as the weeks and months of remote-learning dragged on long past the initial timeline, and my son began refusing to log on for lessons. I couldn’t blame him. Despite his wonderful teacher’s best efforts, online kindergarten is about as ridiculous as it sounds, in my experience. I remember logging on to a “gym” class where my son was the only student present. The teacher, I could tell, felt embarrassed. We both knew how absurd the situation was.

Children who had been present every day the year before in preschool, whose parents I had seen drop them off every morning, just vanished. The daily gantlet of passwords and programs was a challenge for even me and my husband, both professionals who work on computers all day. About 30 percent of Cleveland families didn’t even have internet in their home prior to the pandemic.

I kept hoping that someone in our all-Democratic political leadership would take a stand on behalf of Cleveland’s 37,000 public-school children or seem to care about what was happening. Weren’t Democrats supposed to stick up for low-income kids? Instead, our veteran Democratic mayor avoided remarking on the crisis facing the city’s public-school families. Our all-Democratic city council was similarly disengaged. The same thing was happening in other blue cities and blue states across the country, as the needs of children were simply swept aside. Cleveland went so far as to close playgrounds for an entire year. That felt almost mean-spirited, given the research suggesting the negligible risk of outdoor transmission—an additional slap in the face…

By the spring semester, the data showed quite clearly that schools were not big coronavirus spreaders and that, conversely, the costs of closures to children, both academically and emotionally, were very high. The American Academy of Pediatrics first urged a return to school in June 2020. In February 2021, when The New York Times surveyed 175 pediatric-disease experts, 86 percent recommended in-person school even if no one had been vaccinated.

But when the Cleveland schools finally reopened, in March 2021—under pressure from Republican Governor Mike DeWine—they chose a hybrid model that meant my son could enter the building only two days a week.

My husband and I had had enough: With about two months left in the academic year, we found a charter school that was open for full-time in-person instruction. It was difficult to give up on our public school. We were invested. But our trust was broken.

Compounding my fury was a complete lack of sympathy or outright hostility from my own “team.” Throughout the pandemic, Democrats have been eager to style themselves as the ones that “take the virus seriously,” which is shorthand, at least in the bluest states and cities, for endorsing the most extreme interventions. By questioning the wisdom of school closures—and taking our child out of public school—I found myself going against the party line. And when I tried to speak out on social media, I was shouted down and abused, accused of being a Trumper who didn’t care if teachers died. On Twitter, mothers who had been enlisted as unpaid essential workers were mocked, often in highly misogynistic terms. I saw multiple versions of “they’re just mad they’re missing yoga and brunch.”

23) For my fellow political scientist readers, this is something I will definitely think about in designing my own surveys, “Online Respondents Struggle with Longer Pages. Pollsters Should Take Note.”

In sum, respondent perceptions about length appear to pose problems. If respondents believe that a question or page will take longer because of the presence of a correlate with time — grids, for example — then they are more likely to respond illogically due to satisficing. Pollsters should take note. Complex or compound questions raise concerns because of fears respondents will get confused or lost in the question. But for online surveys, regardless of complexity, the number of questions on a single page might pose their own problems. 

I’m famous– research on feminism edition

You know I love Thomas Edsall columns for the way that compellingly and succinctly summarize a ton of valuable social science on a theme of (usually) American politics.  I’ve surely linked to him dozens of times here and I regularly assign them to my students.

Thus, what a wonderful surprise to wake up to an email from a co-author today and discover that my very own research had made an Edsall (free NYT links for this, of course) column! Political Scientist achievement unlocked.  And the details in, “The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places”

In “Feminist and Anti-Feminist Identification in the 21st Century United States,” Laurel ElderSteven Greene and Mary-Kate Lizotte, political scientists at Hartwick College, North Carolina State University and Augusta University, analyzed the responses of those who identified themselves as feminists or anti-feminists in 1992 and 2016.

Based on surveys conducted by American National Election Studies, Elder, Greene and Lizotte found that the total number of voters saying that they were feminists grew from 28 percent to 34 percent over that period. The growth was larger among women, 29 percent to 50 percent, than among men, 18 percent to 25 percent.

Some of the biggest gains were among the young, 18-to-24-year-olds, doubling from 21 percent to 42 percent. Most striking is the data revealing the antithetical trends between women with college degrees, whose self-identification as feminist rose from 34 percent to 61 percent, in contrast to men with college degrees, whose self-identification as feminist fell from 37 percent to 35 percent.

Anti-feminist identity, the authors found,

is not just a mirror image of feminist identity but its own distinctive social identity. A striking difference between feminist and anti-feminist identification is that while gender is a huge driver in feminist identification in 2016, there is essentially no gender gap among anti-feminists. Indeed, bivariate analysis shows that 16 percent of women and 17 percent of men identify as anti-feminists.

In addition, Elder, Greene and Lizotte wrote, “while young people were more likely to identify as feminists than older generations in 2016, young people, particularly young women, also have a higher level of anti-feminist identification compared to older groups.”

The other patterns of anti-feminist identification, according to the authors, are “more the mirror image of feminist identification” with “Republicans being more likely to identify as anti-feminists compared to Democrats, and stay-at-home parents/homemakers, those who identify as born again, and those who attend church frequently being more anti-feminist.”

Here’s the abstract from the paper:

Feminism and anti-feminism featured prominently in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton was the first female major party presidential candidate and self-identified as a feminist speaking openly about the challenges facing women. Clinton faced off against Donald Trump, who was on record making sexist statements and arguing that Clinton’s success was from playing the “woman card”. We ask several questions: who identifies as a feminist today and how is this different from who identified as a feminist in the previous generation? Who identifies as “anti-feminist”? Are anti-feminists simply a mirror reflection of feminists or is it a distinctive social identity? Finally, the study explores the meaning of these labels by looking at what feminists and anti-feminists believe in terms of public policy and attitudes about gender equality. Thus, this study provides insights into the state of modern feminism and antifeminism in contemporary American politics.

And, I can’t seem to find a nice pdf of the final journal version, but here’s a final draft if you’re really curious.

(New year’s day) Quick hits (part I)

0) A little late, but on the right day.  Happy New Year!

1) Eric Topol really unhappy with new CDC 5-day quarantine guidelines:

Yesterday, the CDC issued a shortened isolation period guideline of 5 days instead of 10 days for people with Covid infections. That came less than a week after they issued the guideline of 7 days for health care workers.

There were serious problems about the new 5-day isolation period. First, there are no data or evidence to back it up. Yes, we’re facing an Omicron onslaught of cases and it would be useful to come up with a strategy to avoid a mass loss of functionality among our workforce and the on-the-go public, no less in the midst of the holiday season. But that doesn’t justify issuing a vacuous guideline. Second, there was no mention of using a test, to confirm that the isolated individual is now OK to circulate, that there is no indication of infectiousness. That could be done via a rapid antigen test, which denotes infectiousness, carries some reduced sensitivity with Omicron, or via a PCR. The cycle threshold value of a PCR test is also indicative of infectiousness; the lower it is, the more likely potential for spread. Either of these tests would be far better than no test to justify a reduced isolation time in any individual.

Third, there are no data for Omicron’s clearance time. We know the characteristics of shedding and average time it takes for clearance of the virus for Delta and preceding variants, but to date we have not seen any such data for Omicron kinetics. With the Hong Kong report of 70-fold copies of the virus in the upper airway for Omicron versus Delta and prior variants, there is no certainty yet that Omicron’s clearance is fast.

Fourth, the guidance did not mention a word about vaccinated or unvaccinated status of people. We know from past studies there is a more rapid clearance among vaccinees than people who were not vaccinated, but the recommendation does not take this knowledge into account. Fifth, it assumes that all people handle the virus similarly when, it fact, there is considerable variability. Look at the data last week published at NEJM

2) Aaron Carroll more circumspect and a take which I personally prefer, “The C.D.C. Has New Covid Guidelines. This Is What It Got Wrong.”

It seems that even at this late date, the C.D.C. is trying to appease everyone and therefore is pleasing no one.

What would be better is a more evidence-driven approach. Antigen testing provides us a means to see whether people remain infected, and perhaps infectious, over time…

The C.D.C. should develop further guidelines, right now, that allow for those who are vaccinated and boostered to leave isolation as soon as possible after they have gotten negative results repeatedly with antigen tests. The government should do everything possible to make such antigen tests freely and easily available. The Biden administration’s efforts are necessary but not sufficient. They need to go much further and much faster.

Such guidelines would provide another incentive for people to be fully vaccinated. They also might get more people who are avoiding testing because they fear a mandatory lockdown to test, because the implications of a positive test aren’t as severe.

They would also provide us a means to transition to a way of thinking that recognizes that Covid is here to stay and that we need to find a way to live with it. Our previous plans were based on an illness that could be controlled by testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation, along with vaccination.

Omicron may not be so controlled; it appears to be very, very possible to prevent serious illness and death with vaccination, but it may not be possible to prevent transient infections, even with masking. If that’s the case, we need to redouble our focus on the former and accept the latter. Infectious people need to isolate as long as they are infectious, no longer and no less, and we need more accurate means to make those judgments.

Covid is changing right before our eyes. We need to adapt along with it.

3) Of course, what we really need (and I’m optimistic about– of course, I’m always optimistic about biotechnology) is the pan-corona virus vaccine.  Katelyn Jetelina (with an assist from Topol):

An ideal solution is a universal coronavirus vaccine that would not only protect against SARS-CoV-2 but also against other coronaviruses that might cause future animal outbreaks and pandemics. Scientists have been advocating for this type of coronavirus vaccine since as early as May 2020 and as recently as the beginning of this month

We’ve been working for years on a pan-vaccine for other viruses, like HIV-1, influenza, malaria, Epstein-Barr (NCT03186781NCT03814720NCT04579250NCT04645147NCT04296279), but no vaccine has successfully made it through clinical trials thus far. The difference for SARS-CoV-2 is that it mutates far less than HIV or influenza, making it more ideally suited for such an approach. If any universal vaccine makes it through the rigorous clinical trial process, it will be a big leap in medicine and science. 

How does the “super” vaccine work?

The main approach taken by research labs is to find people called “elite neutralizers” who have had COVID19 or been vaccinated (or both) but have an incredibly rare and unique response. These are people who can make very potent antibodies (called broad neutralizing antibodies; bnAbs) that bind to parts of the virus well beyond the spike protein—parts of the virus that are present in all of the coronavirus family, remain unchanged despite mutations, and are hidden (“cryptic” epitope sites). These elite neutralizer people are rare, but there’s basically a treasure chest of protection lying within them.

More than 10 scientific groups have found such potent bnAbs. For example, scientists at Duke compared antibodies among a SARS patient and compared it to antibodies among a COVID19 patient. They looked at 1,700 different antibodies in total and found 50 antibodies that were able to bind to many different coronaviruses. The Duke researchers then worked with the UNC-Chapel Hill to test whether these antibodies effectively blocked infections in mice. This science was published in early November and found that these antibodies were very effective. But finding these “elite neutralizers” is half the battle. Then a reverse engineering approach is required to make vaccines that produce the bnAb. After that, the vaccine goes into pre-clinical and clinical trial testing.

4) Huge, huge fan of E.O. Wilson.  What a brilliant man and tremendous science communicator (I think his books were some of the first I read written by an actual scientist).  I still remember learning in my undergraduate classes just how controversial he was in the 1970’s and thinking how ridiculous this was.  Drum summarizes that controversy:

E.O. Wilson died yesterday. He was a expert on ants, beloved by . . .

Yeah, yeah. It so happens that Wilson was an expert on ants, but his real fame comes from the final chapter of his 1975 book, Sociobiology, titled “Man.” The book is generally about the way evolution and natural selection affect the genetic underpinnings of animal behavior, and for 26 chapters everything was fine. Vertebrates? Sure. Birds? No problem. Carnivores? Such big teeth. Nonhuman primates? They’re so fascinating. Man?

Hold on there. Roughly speaking, everyone agreed at the time that genes affect physical development in all living creatures. And everyone agreed that genes affect behavior in all living creatures—except. h. sapiens. Here’s what this looks like:

Wilson filled in that top left square with a big Yes—i.e., genes do affect human behavior and human cognitive traits—and liberals went ballistic. Why? Because this was only a few years after Arthur Jensen had published his (in)famous article suggesting that the measured IQ difference between Black and white people was due mostly to genetic factors. This, needless to say, set the liberal community on fire and made it hypersensitive toward any research that might be construed as aiding and abetting racists. Sociobiology fit squarely in that category.

So in the same way that Darwin’s opponents in the 19th century insisted for religious reasons that mankind couldn’t be a product of evolution, liberals in the 20th century insisted for idealistic reasons that the behavior of mankind couldn’t be a product of evolution. This was not liberalism’s finest moment, and it’s Exhibit 1 for anyone who wants to demonstrate that liberals don’t always follow the science when it’s inconvenient for them…

In the end, of course, Wilson was vindicated. Natural selection affects the evolution of the human body. The brain is part of the human body. And the brain is the source of behavioral and cognitive behavior. Therefore, natural selection affects cognitive behavior in humans. Even Darwin knew this—though it took another century before we understood the genetic mechanism underlying it all.

This is just the simplified version, but don’t worry. The more complicated version vindicates Wilson too. [emphasis mine] Nobody today seriously denies that both genes and environment affect both human behavior and human cognitive traits. It’s only a matter of how much each matters.

Yep, it’s really not that complicated.  

5) And yet, here we are in 2021 in Scientific American: “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson: We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future”

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public.

This is insane!  Of course, Wilson and all others would put an emphatic “in part” between “explained” and “by.”  Literally nobody would suggest that society, social interactions, etc., don’t explain all this.  And, yet, this absurd critique of Wilson as a “racist” implicitly argues that there’s an “only” here and again, that’s nuts and nobody remotely believes that.  Thanks Scientific American!

6) And just cause, this above essay links to the following article which is practically a self-parody of academia, “Making Black Women Scientists under White Empiricism: The Racialization of Epistemology in Physics.” Apparently our understanding of physical properties of the universe is, well… racist. 

7) Now, for actual racism, we can look to lots of Ron Paul supporters (and many current Trumpists).  Noah Smith recently re-shared this great blog post from originally back in 2011:

I have often remarked in the past how libertarianism – at least, its modern American manifestation – is not really about increasing liberty or freedom as an average person would define those terms. An ideal libertarian society would leave the vast majority of people feeling profoundly constrained in many ways. This is because the freedom of the individual can be curtailed not only by the government, but by a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions. In a society such as ours, where the government maintains a nominal monopoly on the use of physical violence, there is plenty of room for people to be oppressed by such intermediate powers, whom I call “local bullies.”

The modern American libertarian ideology does not deal with the issue of local bullies. In the world envisioned by Nozick, Hayek, Rand, and other foundational thinkers of the movement, there are only two levels to society – the government (the “big bully”) and the individual. If your freedom is not being taken away by the biggest bully that exists, your freedom is not being taken away at all.

In a perfect libertarian world, it is therefore possible for rich people to buy all the beaches and charge admission fees to whomever they want (or simply ban anyone they choose). In a libertarian world, a self-organized cartel of white people can, under certain conditions, get together and effectively prohibit black people from being able to go out to dinner in their own city. In a libertarian world, a corporate boss can use the threat of unemployment to force you into accepting unsafe working conditions. In other words, the local bullies are free to revoke the freedoms of individuals, using methods more subtle than overt violent coercion.

Such a world wouldn’t feel incredibly free to the people in it. Sure, you could get together with friends and pool your money to buy a little patch of beach. Sure, you could move to a less racist city. Sure, you could quit and find another job. But doing any of these things requires paying large transaction costs. As a result you would feel much less free.

Now, the founders of libertarianism – Nozick et. al. – obviously understood the principle that freedoms are often mutually exclusive – that my freedom to punch you in the face curtails quite a number of your freedoms. For this reason, they endorsed “minarchy,” or a government whose only role is to protect people from violence and protect property rights. But they didn’t extend the principle to covertly violent, semi-violent, or nonviolent forms of coercion.

Not surprisingly, this gigantic loophole has made modern American libertarianism the favorite philosophy of a vast array of local bullies, who want to keep the big bully (government) off their backs so they can bully to their hearts’ content. The curtailment of government legitimacy, in the name of “liberty,” allows abusive bosses to abuse workers, racists to curtail opportunities for minorities, polluters to pollute without cost, religious groups to make religious minorities feel excluded, etc. In theory, libertarianism is about the freedom of the individual, but in practice it is often about the freedom of local bullies to bully. It’s a “don’t tattle to the teacher” ideology.

Therefore I see no real conflict between Ron Paul’s libertarianism and his support for the agenda of racists. It’s just part and parcel of the whole movement. Not necessarily the movement as it was conceived, but the movement as it in fact exists.

8) How did I just this week learn about the “Phantom of Heilbronn”?  And, then hear about it a second time two days later?  

The murderer dubbed the Phantom of Heilbronn had been baffling German investigators for two years. The criminal was a rarity, a female serial killer, and a very busy one: police had linked DNA evidence from 40 crimes — including the infamous homicide of a policewoman in the southern German town of Heilbronn — to the same woman.

Police had found her DNA on items ranging from a cookie to a heroin syringe to a stolen car. They had put a $400,000 reward on her head. Profilers from around Europe were called in to help hunt her down. The police even consulted diviners and fortune-tellers in hopes of discovering her identity. The papers declared the case “the most mysterious serial crime of the past century.” (See pictures of fighting crime.)

The police thought they’d been looking everywhere. But it turns out they should have been looking down — at the cotton swabs they were using to collect DNA samples. On March 26, German police revealed that the cotton swabs they use may have all been contaminated by the same worker at a factory in Austria — and that the Phantom of Heilbronn never existed.

For the second time in a week, DNA evidence has led German police down a dead end. “Are the heads of our police stuffed with cotton wool?” asked a headline in this week’s Bild newspaper. The Phantom is now considered the most embarrassing lapse in German DNA analysis yet.

The Phantom became a national celebrity in 2007, after the murder of 22-year-old policewoman Michele Kiesewetter. All of Germany watched the case unfold, and Heilbronn police alone racked up 16,000 hours of overtime pursuing the culprit. Police announced they’d found DNA traces matching that of the Phantom on several cold cases, including a murder dating back to 1993. (See pictures of cults that went wacko.)…

This raised suspicions that the DNA found at all the Phantom’s crime scenes might be traced to a single innocent factory worker, probably employed to package the swabs. Cotton swabs are sterilized before being used to collect DNA samples, but while sterilizing removes bacteria, viruses and fungi, it does not destroy DNA. 

9) Loved this first-person essay on marriage:

After 15 years of marriage, you start to see your mate clearly, free of your own projections and misperceptions. This is not necessarily a good thing.

When encountering my husband, Bill, in our shared habitat, I sometimes experience him as a tangled hill of dirty laundry. “Who left this here?” I ask myself, and then the laundry gets up to fetch itself a cup of coffee.

This is not an illusion; it’s clarity. Until Bill has enough coffee, he lies in a jumble on the couch, listening to the coffee maker, waiting for it to usher him from the land of the undead. He is exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite.

Other times I experience Bill as a very handsome professor, a leader among men, a visionary who has big ideas about the future of science education in America. This is clarity.

And then our dashing hero begins to hold forth on “the learning sciences” — how I hate that term! — and he quickly wilts before my eyes into a cursed academic, a cross between a lonely nerd speaking some archaic language only five other people on earth understand and a haunted ice cream man, circling his truck through the neighborhood in the dead of winter, searching for children. I see Bill with a scorching clarity that pains me.

This is why surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying. You must do this not only so you don’t overdose on the same stultifying words and phrases within the first year, but also so your spouse’s various grunts and sneezes and snorts and throat clearings don’t serve as a magic flute that causes you to wander out the front door and into the wilderness, never to return.

10) Which also leads to a really good Jill Filipovic essay on marriage:

The thing with marital malaise is that in the United States, women’s lives have changed tremendously, and men’s lives haven’t changed nearly as much, and we still have an ideal in which all of us pair off together in happy twosomes. I’m not convinced that women were happier in the old days when women’s roles within the family were clear but constrained, but I am convinced that married women now have both the opportunity for happier marriages and a much higher chance of profound marital dissonance. Many women believed they were signing up for an equal partnership, only to find themselves doing ever more for everyone else and precious little for themselves. Jones talks about spending “so many years as a wife” writing nothing at all, exhausted and overwhelmed by the work of keeping a house and birthing, breastfeeding, and raising three children. Havrilesky writes about her husband as essentially a large third child, somehow louder, more obnoxious, and less emotionally regulated than her two actual children. These snapshots look like so many marriages, and sound like so many of the cultural tropes and the “jokes” that women and men alike make about their partners: the hapless husband and the harried wife; the dolt and the nag.

11) Interesting take on Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, and Covid:

Polis’s pragmatic positioning on COVID, at a time when most Democratic governors and mayors have tried to outcompete each other on issuing the most onerous regulations and mandates, should be a lesson to the Biden administration about where the political sweet spot is on the pandemic. As the more-transmissible but less-severe omicron variant begins to spread in Colorado, Polis is again urging a get-vaccinated, get-back-to-normal approach that contrasts significantly from most of his Democratic gubernatorial colleagues.

“Initially this was a biological struggle with the virus, but now it’s more of a psychological struggle, given the endurance of this thing. It’s about how people can continue to live their lives in a fulfilling way and keep themselves reasonably safe,” Polis said. “People need to get on with their lives. This has been two years of it. People are only on this planet for 70 to 80 years. This is a significant part of their lives. Kids missed out on social activities in school, seniors in senior centers missed going out to movies.”

Polis went on to lament the mental health consequences that indefinite COVID disruptions cause: “People always say, ‘oh the economy’ but it’s also about if you’re young and single, you want to date, you want to go out, right? If you live in a senior center and only have a few years left, you want to have poker night with your friends, you know? It’s not just about economics, it’s about people’s lives,” he said. “If you’ve had three doses of the vaccine, you shouldn’t live your life in fear of it. You may well get it at some point but it probably won’t knock you out more than a couple of days, like the seasonal flu.”

12) I loved this Kevin Drum post on not drinking alcohol, because it’s so annoying how other people feel about me not drinking.  As if me preferring a Diet Dr Pepper is some implicit indictment of their beer or wine?

In the Washington Post, Rachel Rueckert complains that it’s a pain in the butt being a teetotaler. I concur! Even though about a quarter of American adults are nondrinkers, people still look at you a little funny if you don’t drink. And this causes problems:

Standing in a dim bar for the annual work party or a festive meet-and-greet with my graduate school classmates, I order a Shirley Temple, just to have something fizzy and reddish to hold….I’m relaxed, having a good time — enjoying the radio soundtrack and the casual conversation — until a well-meaning person asks me what I’m drinking. Then comes the shock, followed by a response tinged with pity or slight offense (as if my choice reflects judgment about theirs). “Why don’t you drink?”

….I’ve tried for most of my adult life to satisfy these curious inquiries with a revolving set of answers. The first: I grew up in a devout Mormon home in suburban Utah….The second: I have boring preferences….Another response: It’s too pricey….Another: Bad memories….Another: I’m the designated driver….Another: Addiction runs in my family.

Here’s a better excuse: I hate the taste of alcohol. In my case this is true, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit of a white lie. I’ve never come across anybody who keeps digging much after I say this.

And, yeah, I pretty much hate the taste of alcohol and get much less benefit from inebriation than others because of my natural neuro-chemistry.  

13) I felt like Michael Gerson was trying a too hard here, “Most evangelical objections to vaccines have nothing to do with Christianity.”  It’s really simple… as very well established, they are Conservative Republicans first, Christians second.

The main resistance of evangelicals to public health measures does not concern abortion. Having embraced religious liberty as a defining cause, they are now deploying the language of that cause in opposition to jab and mask mandates. Arguments crafted to defend institutional religious liberty have been adapted to oppose public coercion on covid. But they do not fit.

More than that, the sanctification of anti-government populism is displacing or dethroning one of the most basic Christian distinctions. Most evangelical posturing on covid mandates is really syncretism, a merging of unrelated beliefs — in this case, the substitution of libertarianism for Christian ethics. In this distorted form of faith, evangelical Christians are generally known as people who loudly defend their own rights. They show not radical generosity but discreditable selfishness. There is no version of the Golden Rule that would recommend Christian resistance to basic public health measures during a pandemic. This is heresy compounded by lunacy…

And when Christians are asserting a right to resist basic public health measures, what is the actual content of their religious-liberty claim? The right to risk the lives of their neighbors in order to assert their autonomy? The right to endanger the community in the performative demonstration of their personal rights?

This is a vivid display of the cultural and ideological trends of a warped and wasted year. It just has nothing to do with real Christianity.

14) I’m somewhat skeptical of programs designed to have Democrats and Republicans get along, but, I definitely share the skepticism of a lot of approaches in that they really come from a liberal viewpoint:

It’s trickier than it seems. A variety of organizations have sprung up in more recent years to forge a kind of depolarization field, most of them sincere and well intentioned. But there is a bias in the soil: a Blue bias. (Blue = leans liberal; Red = leans conservative.) The vast majority of leaders, funders, and participants in the bridging field are Blue, and this imbalance dictates the approach taken to depolarization.

People interested in bridging often believe that the primary aim of bridging work is to get people on both sides to see each other’s humanity. Blues usually approach this through exercises designed to build the empathy of one group for the lived experiences and emotions of the other. For example, one group of people will be asked, “What life experiences led you to this view?” Or “What does it feel like to live as a [insert category] person in America?”

The goal is for people to listen to others’ experiences and feelings and to walk out saying, “That person isn’t so different from me,” or, “If I’d gone through that experience, I might feel exactly the same way.” If a substantive conflict arises, the facilitator is likely to redirect the group back to sharing.

This sounds right and good, doesn’t it? It focuses on personal experience, presumes identity categories. Most importantly (and actually rare), it’s an approach rooted in asking questions. The virtue of Blues is that they are very open (at least at the beginning), and they’re always the first to reach out a hand and say they want to learn about the other side. The vice, however, hidden to themselves most of all, is in the fact that many Blues assume that if Reds could just be taught what is true, they would be enlightened into Blueness.

Reds, understandably, smell this train and dislike the tracks. To be fair, Reds have their own version of arrogance, which I can best describe with an example: If I hear one more Red say “Well, but he’s not a real . . .” (fill in what you like—American, Christian, soldier, leader), I might actually say something I shouldn’t. The virtue dancing with this vice is that Reds tend to be stubbornly caught up in grace: they are extremely loyal, and, interestingly, very forgiving. The religiously based belief that we’re all sinners but we’re also all children of God leaves room for a lot of human complexity.

The Blue-inflected traditional empathy-building forms of bridge-building have a great deal to recommend them. But there is a flaw: the implicit belief underlying this style of bridging is that we can learn to love each other by seeing that we are all deeply the same. While true in some senses, this misses a fundamental insight about relationship that most of us know from experience: We have the capacity to build relationship through conflict

If you are a Blue, you may be thinking, “but wait—we want to celebrate differences! We love diversity, that’s what we’re all about.” And I commend your intention. But what I’ve found, over and over again, is that Blue organizations say they love diversity, but not when it comes to viewpoint diversity. Oh sure, they can handle your standard libertarian who works in IT, but when it comes to real difference—like being a Trump supporter because you genuinely love Trump and think he’s one of the great Americans of our generation—somehow the celebratory fanfare dims.

The reasoning Blues will offer is typically that they want to celebrate difference as long as everyone is tolerant. The problem is that many powerful forms of religious, political, and philosophical belief make claims that are in direct conflict with the idea that all ways of being are equally valid. Blue insistence on “tolerance” functions as a fence to keep those beliefs and their adherents out. In simpler terms, when Blues say they want to “celebrate difference,” Reds often hear the caveat: that some are “approved differences” and others, like their political persuasion, are not.

I admire the intent here, but it doesn’t truly address the depth of our differences. To my mind, this is one of the most profound causes of our present polarization: the ethic of tolerance, which goes in the guise of a neutral standard, denudes public argument of its profound spiritual dimensions and thereby guts the richness of pluralism. The result is a vacuum, and sure enough, new pseudo-religious orthodoxies have reared their heads to fill it. Our differences are our glory, and we need to examine what it would look like to really celebrate them—to face them boldly, and respond with the trusting inquiry that leads to love.

15) Really good stuff from Katherine Wu on what we might expect with the future of Covid vaccines:

At this point in the pandemic, though, there’s no consensus on the number of shots we’ll need in the long term; plenty of the world’s leading COVID-vaccine experts have shifted their stance in just the past few weeks. Back in the summer, Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, thought, “There is no way we will need annual vaccinations,” he told me. “I am [at] 50 percent now.”

A future of annual vaccinations would almost be a relief. In the past year, the U.S. government has recommended that almost everyone eligible be COVID-vaccinated three times over, and the possibility of an Omicron-focused shot now looms. But the sweet spot for boosting frequency isn’t all that easy to find—both undervaccinating and overvaccinating have downsides—and the narrative is definitely not as simple as more is more. Maybe we’ll luck out, and finagle some truly durable protection out of our current shots. Or perhaps we’re just at the start of what could be the world’s most intense and widespread repeat-vaccination campaign to date.

There are two main reasons to vaccinate the already vaccinated: a substantial drop in our body’s defenses or a huge hike in the virus’s offenses.

 

We’re still, for instance, working to understand how well our immune systems cling to the intel offered by our shots. For months, scientists have been monitoring the lift and drop in protection from asymptomatic infection and milder forms of COVID-19, dynamics that seem tightly tethered to antibodies, the molecules that can waylay viruses outside of cells. Antibodies always declinein the months after infection or vaccination, for any pathogen, Rafi Ahmed, an immunologist at Emory University, told me. But boosters can lift their levels back up, sometimes to new heights; the triply dosed are better at fending off the virus, even dueling new variants that they’ve never encountered before. (Protection against severe disease and death is less capricious, thanks to defenders such as B and T cells, which stick around long-term.)

After people’s first two mRNA shots, levels of neutralizing antibodies ticked down about five- to tenfold from their peak in about six months. Now immunologists are monitoring what happens after the third dose—where antibody levels will stabilize, and how long reaching that plateau will take. The lower it is, or the steeper the downslope, the sooner we might be asked to vaccinate again. In a nonideal scenario, we’d see something of an up-and-down “sawtooth” trend, John Moore, a vaccine expert at Cornell University, told me, with a similarly steep decay after every dose. (Some researchers are starting to wonder whether we’re seeing the beginnings of this now—and durability may differ by vaccine brand.)

Then again, maybe the drop will be ​less pronounced, or at least more gradual, after the third shot. There’s reason to hope that might be the case. Post-boost, we pump out more antibodies than we did after the first shots; they’ll naturally take longer to dip below a protective threshold. Repeat exposures to a vaccine can also up the quality of antibodies, which get iteratively better at sniping SARS-CoV-2 down. “That means it takes way fewer of them to protect you,” Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, told me. If that process keeps chugging along after the third shot, or perhaps the fourth, we might be able to get away with vaccinating much less often than we are now. The final pace of vaccination will also depend on what we want our shots to achieve. Blocking severe disease requires fewer shots; trying to suppress most infections and transmission means more. And we’ll need to set our expectations reasonably. Indefinitely preventing infections “is a bar that vaccinology, historically, has not been able to really meet,” Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist and COVID-vaccine developer at Harvard, told me recently.

All this gets more complicated, though, if the coronavirus itself keeps metamorphosing. Solid protection against one variant might not be enough to thwart another. Already, Omicron is so heavily mutated that many of our vaccine-trained antibodies don’t recognize it very well. That puts people who are far out from their first doses in a more vulnerable spot: Their defensive walls are low, and the variant’s genetically primed to jump extra high. Our current boosters still help in this scenario—the original virus and Omicron are similar enough that, given a glut of antibodies, some will still meet their mark. But even weirder versions of the virus are almost certainly on their way. Viral switcheroos are a huge part of why we offer annual flu vaccines. Coronaviruses don’t shape-shift as swiftly, but experts such as David Martinez, a vaccinologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, think “our policy to boost is going to be driven by how much the virus is changing.” The more variants we’re troubled by, and the more often we collide with them, the more doses we’ll need.

16) Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about refugees.  But I believe in author’s and Omar El Akkad’s American War was one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years so I decided I’d read his What Strange Paradise.  Very glad I did.  Very entertaining and thought-provoking and really stuck with me.  Nice interview with El Akkad here. 

What are your “anchor beliefs”?

Really enjoyed this recent post at Clearer Thinking on “anchor beliefs”

There’s an important type of belief most of us have, which we call “Anchor Beliefs.” These beliefs are, by definition, those beliefs we hold that are almost impossible to change. To the believer, an Anchor Belief doesn’t feel like a mere belief – it feels like an undeniable truth. These beliefs are often too deeply rooted to change, and the cost of giving them up may be extremely high (e.g., questioning the belief might cause you to lose your family, friends, livelihood, or your understanding of what reality looks like).

Understanding the role that Anchor Beliefs play in human psychology – and identifying your own personal Anchor Beliefs – can help you make better sense of the world around you. Additionally, such an understanding can help you search for false Anchor Beliefs, those apparently unquestionable truths that make up the foundations of some people’s worldviews, despite being wrong! Challenging your own false anchors is very difficult, but the consequences may be life-changing…

Anchor Beliefs almost never change, yet we still have to make sense of new information that we come across (some of which may strongly contradict our Anchor Beliefs). Our solution is to warp the evidence that we receive such that we can fit it into our worldview AND keep our Anchor Belief intact at the same time. This is how Anchor Beliefs get their name: they are like huge, steel anchors securing boats to the ocean floor – only an enormously powerful current will be able to make them budge; any lesser current will simply swirl around the anchor. In this way, only incredibly powerful evidence can pose a threat to our Anchor Beliefs. And even then, our brains are highly adept at interpreting evidence so that our original Anchor Belief remains steadfast…

Here are some common categories of Anchor Beliefs that could be false:

 
  • Things that almost everyone you know is taught

  • Certain religious beliefs learned in childhood

  • Perceptions of ourselves (e.g., as good/bad)

  • Views about one’s community

  • Views about “enemy” groups

  • Inferences from viscerally shocking first-hand experiences (e.g., “the world’s unsafe”)

  • Beliefs your social group REQUIRES

  • Claims that the reputation of your most trusted authority figures are staked on

  • Beliefs that, if you stopped believing them, would leave you very confused about what to believe or what to do

The idea of an Anchor Belief is connected to (though not the same as) a number of other ideas, including:

Finding your Anchor Beliefs

 

It may be valuable to ask yourself: “What are my own Tin Anchors?” If you want to consider what Tin Anchor Beliefs you may have, here are some questions that it might be helpful to ask yourself:

  • “What beliefs did I pick up from those around me that I can’t imagine not believing (yet many people in other social groups somehow manage not to believe)?”

  • “What viscerally shocking experience might I have overgeneralized from that explains my worldview now?”

  • “What might other people from another community claim my Anchor Beliefs are?”

These are pretty safe queries, as you’re very unlikely to stop believing your Tin Anchor Beliefs. And identifying one of your beliefs as a Tin Anchor doesn’t make it change, though it might be useful to know where your Anchors lie. Of course, it might be valuable (though costly) to change an Anchor Belief that you hold, if you want to. This might be something worth considering.

So, how do you challenge your Anchor Beliefs?

Suppose you think that you’ve found one of your own Tin Anchors that you think has important implications for your life and you actually want to examine whether it’s true. One strategy that may help is to try and clearly imagine the world where this Tin Anchor Belief turns out to be false. What is that world like? Can you deal with and accept that world? How would believing that you live in that world change your behavior and relationships? Can you accept those changes? If you DO live in that world (where your Anchor Belief is false), would you want to believe you live in it, or would you rather pretend that your Anchor Belief isn’t false? If the answer is truly “yes” – you really would want to know if the belief is false, and you’re prepared to face the ramifications and consequences of losing that belief – then now you can truly start to put the belief to the test.

So what are my anchor beliefs?  Without putting too much thought into it, probably something like this…

1) The scientific method is absolutely, positively the best way to know things.  When there is near-scientific consensus on a belief, it may not necessarily be true, but the burden of proof should be very high to believe otherwise.

2) Same goes for beliefs about the world based on social science.

3) Strongly related to the above… expertise is a thing and it really matters.  When the experts are in (near) consensus, that does not mean they are right with certainty, but there should be a very high evidentiary bar for believing otherwise.

4) The mainstream media is not lying to me.  They get a lot wrong, but there actual motives are to disseminate true information while making a profit they just don’t always do it very well.  Fox News, in contrast, has a primary motive to disseminate information which helps the Republican Party while making a profit.

5) I believe I am actually open to changing my beliefs through sufficient evidence.  I hope I’m right (the fact that I can point to many examples based on points 1-4 tells me I probably am).  

I could probably come up with more, especially relating to how society and government should operate, but for now, that seems like a good start

Quick hits (part I)

1) Terrific interview with John McWhorter, “John McWhorter on Why Woke Ideas Harm Minority Communities”

Mounk: How is it that black people are being hurt by this?

McWhorter: A quick example is what anti-racism means in education, where the idea is that school boards and teachers propose that to be anti-racist, you can’t submit black people to real challenges, because the sorts of things that involve real challenges are white things such as precision, punctuality and having to raise your hand; that those are wrong, that you need to turn your whole field upside down in order to adjust to the presence of people of color, such that, for example, a classics department makes Latin and Greek optional.

That’s all harmful to black people, because it’s treating black Americans as if they aren’t as bright. In arguing that it’s racist to submit black people to standardized tests because black kids often aren’t as good at them, you’re effectively saying black kids shouldn’t be subjected to a test of abstract cognitive skill. I can imagine Strom Thurmond saying that, and yet we’re not supposed to discuss it. This is doubletalk. Or assuming that if a disproportionate number of black boys are suspended from schools for violence, it must be because of bias. What happens in schools where people take that anti-racist counsel into account is that more black kids, not to mention teachers, get beat up. I consider that to be an unintentionally racist act itself. This isn’t the way social history is supposed to work. This stuff hurts black people.

The unspoken notion is that the most interesting thing about being black is thinking about how white people see us, or don’t, or whether they see us fully. I have to stand athwart this and ask, “How much does it matter?” What you’re telling me is, “This white person doesn’t see me in my full essence the way my black friends do, and therefore that affects my success.” Does it really? Somebody who interviews you might not see you quite fully, but these days, they’re often operating under DEI imperatives, and even if they’re not, how does it affect your success in life? Among human beings, there are going to be some racist biases. Civil rights leaders two generations ago had no idea that we were waiting for white people to be psychologically pristine.

Mounk: Why is it that people say, “If a standardized test shows differential performance, it can’t be picking up the actual structural racism in our society”? Rather, it must somehow be mismeasuring what’s going on. And how should we deal with the fact that, unfortunately, the performance gap still persists? 

McWhorter: The proper answer, if you ask me, is to ask, “How can we make kids better at the test?” There seems to be a proposition that to even ask that is utterly beyond the pale. And that’s partly because of a tacit sense that whiteness is to be decentered and resisted, and that having to get a precise answer is too uptight. I literally think that’s what some people are thinking. That’s an interesting proposition—that there is a kind of intelligence other than the ones that include, say, getting the right answer—but nobody is putting forth much of an argument as to how that really works. What’s really going on is a kind of reflexive anti-whiteness…

Mounk: If you believe that the ideas you describe often harm the poorest African Americans, do you have some suggestions for how better to improve their condition?

McWhorter: I get impatient with a lot of the way we talk about these things today because I think that we could do an awful lot of good and relatively quickly with certain proactive, pragmatic, political strokes that are quite separate from people having kumbaya circles.

Ending the war on drugs would do more for black America than any amount of white people understanding their privilege. It would get rid of a market that understandably tempts poor black men to not seek legal work when they go to lousy schools and live under straitened circumstances. Those men would go into legal work, and society should receive them with open arms by offering serious, easy to access, and usually free vocational training.

The idea is not to just leave people with nothing, but to train these men in good, solid, working class jobs where they would have perfectly solid existences. And I know that would work because that was the way poor black communities worked until about 50 years ago—not paradise at all. But it would be better now because the world is better. 

School is a problem for a lot of black kids, a lot of poor kids, because reading is taught badly. If you don’t read well by a certain age, you’re probably never going to like school, and that tells on you for the rest of your life. I think that poor black kids should be taught to read the way reading scientists since 1965 have found actually works. I have a big issue about phonics, and specifically how phonics—as in sounding out the letters—should be taught.

Those three things alone would make black people much less likely to encounter the cops. We can work on the cops, but with 18,000 precincts I’m worried that that is an ambitious thing to wish to change. I’m as disgusted with the cops as anybody else, but my goal is to get people away from them. Without any war on drugs, the number of interactions that black people have with the cops would be much, much less. Part of the reason cops wind up in black communities getting into people’s business: a lot of it is connected, sometimes flowchart style, to the war on drugs. 

To me, this is anti-racism, because it would improve black lives. I’m afraid that the discussion we’re having now is needlessly abstract and more about virtue-signaling than changing actual lives. And it worries me because it’s imposed mostly by fiat, because social media allows that if somebody disagrees with you, they can call you a really dirty name in the public square. This isn’t constructive and in some ways, it isn’t a genuinely compassionate situation. It took such an uptick two summers ago that I really began to worry for the state of this country and for the state of black people. 

2) Zeynep:

3) Bernstein:

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank set off a bit of a kerfuffle with a column claiming that media coverage of President Joe Biden has been disproportionately negative lately, and in some respects more negative than coverage of his predecessor. Such analysis is notoriously difficult; after all, it requires not only assessing how positive or negative reporting has been, but answering the far more subjective question of how positive or negative it should be. So I was going to pass on the whole topic.

Until I saw a defense of this coverage from Politico’s Rachael Bade, who argued: “Gee, maybe this has to do with democratic infighting dominating the headlines in November — and the fact that voters sent a clear (and negative) message to the Biden Admin and the Democratic Party in the November elections …” I suspect that this isn’t an unusual sentiment.

I’ll start with the second point, because it’s important. Voters don’t send clear messages. They vote for candidates, and then political actors — media included — read “clear messages” into those votes. To be sure: Voters in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere shifted toward the Republican Party in the off-term elections last month, and that was partly a consequence of Biden’s low approval ratings. But voters regularly shift against the in-party in midterms even when the president is fairly popular. And at any rate, the best the voters collectively can do is to reflect a president’s overall unpopularity. They don’t say why the president is unpopular, or which actions or policy positions they oppose. Any “clarity” is a construction by observers. 

But the reason this post annoyed me is the first part of her claim — that Democratic infighting dominated the headlines. That’s a bit circular, given that Milbank’s original point was that media coverage was strongly negative. The question is whether it was appropriate for Democratic infighting to be the big story last month, and it’s clear that in fact the party was unusually united and productive in November. After all, the big news last month on Capitol Hill wasn’t Democrats in disarray. It was that different groups of House Democrats came together to pass the infrastructure bill and advance their version of the “Build Back Better” plan. The movement on both bills strengthens the case that what we had seen in the summer and fall was productive negotiations among party groups who had some real differences but were basically on the same page, not some sort of party-wide dysfunction. In other words, not only is understanding November as a month dominated by Democratic infighting getting the story wrong, but it suggests that some have been getting the story wrong all along.

That said, this mostly reflects normal media bias. When the president is unpopular, everything is interpreted with that in mind, so Biden’s lower approval ratings are causing bad media coverage rather than the other way around. If he becomes more popular, his media coverage will improve — just as happened to Ronald Reagan in 1983 or Bill Clinton in 1995. And note that the miserable coverage those presidents received when they were down didn’t prevent them from rallying anyway.

4) This is really good on the 1619 Project:

The historical debates that followed are familiar by now. Four months after the special issue was released, the Times Magazine published a letter, jointly signed by five historians, taking issue with certain “errors and distortions” in the Project. The authors objected, especially, to a line in the introductory essay by Hannah-Jones stating that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Several months later, Politico published a piece by Leslie M. Harris, a historian and professor at Northwestern who’d been asked to help fact-check the 1619 Project. She’d “vigorously disputed” the same line, to no avail. “I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking,” she wrote. “So far, that’s exactly what has happened.”

The pushback from scholars was not just a matter of factuality. History is, in some senses, no less provisional than journalism. Its facts are subject to interpretation and disagreement—and also to change. But one detected in the historians’ complaints a discomfort with the 1619 Project’s fourth-estate bravado, its temperamental challenge to the slow and heavily qualified work of scholarly revelation. This concern was arguably borne out further in the Times’ corrections process. Hannah-Jones amended the line in question; in both the magazine and the book, it now states that “some of the colonists” were motivated by Britain’s growing abolitionist sentiment, a phrasing that neither retreats from the original claim nor shores it up convincingly. In the book, Hannah-Jones also clarifies another passage that had been under dispute, which had claimed that “for the most part” Black Americans fought for freedom “alone.” The original wording remains, but a qualifying clause has been added: “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone, never getting a majority of white Americans to join and support their freedom struggles.” As Carlos Lozada pointed out in the Washington Post, the addition seems to redefine the meaning of the word “alone” rather than revise or replace it. In my view, the original wording was acceptable as a rhetorical flourish, whereas the amended version sounds fuzzy.

In the book’s preface, Hannah-Jones doesn’t dwell, as she well could have, on the truly deranged ire the Project has triggered on the right over the past few years. (Donald Trump’s ignorant bluster is mercifully confined to a single paragraph.) But neither is she entirely honest about the scope of fair criticism that the work has received. She files both academic disagreement (from “a few scholars”) and fury from the likes of Tom Cotton under the convenient label “backlash,” and suggests that any readers with qualms resent the Project for focussing “too much on the brutality of slavery and our nation’s legacy of anti-Blackness.” (Meanwhile, even the five historians behind the letter wrote that they “applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.”) [emphasis mine] The editors of the book, who include Hannah-Jones and the Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, want to “address the criticisms historians offered in good faith”; accordingly, they’ve updated other passages, including ones on Lincoln and on constitutional property rights. But even the use of the term “good faith” suggests a hawkish mentality regarding the revisions process: you’re either against the Project or you’re with it, all in. There is little room in a venue as public as the 1619 Project’s for the learning opportunities that arise when research sets its ego aside and evolves in plain sight.

As Hannah-Jones notes, the disagreements needn’t undermine the 1619 Project as a whole. (After all, one of the letter’s signatories, James M. McPherson, an emeritus professor at Princeton, admitted in an interview that he’d “skimmed” most of the essays.) But the high-profile disputes over Hannah-Jones’s claims have eclipsed some of the quieter scrutiny that the Project has received, and which in the book goes unmentioned. In an essay published in the peer-reviewed journal American Literary History last winter, Michelle M. Wright, a scholar of Black diaspora at Emory, enumerated other objections, including the series’ near-erasure of Indigenous peoples. Wright sees the 1619 Project as replacing one insufficient creation story with another. “Be wary of asserting origins: they tend to shift as new archival evidence turns up,” she wrote.

I find NHJ so frustrating because she makes a provocative and much-needed case, even if one does not agree with it.  But, damn, she really does undermine her endeavor by refusing to be intellectually honest.  

5) Great stuff from Elizabeth Bruenig, “What a Gun Is For: Lauren Boebert is using her family Christmas portrait to provoke liberal hysteria. But the photo reveals something much more significant about how America has changed.”

As families around the country prepare to send out Christmas cards with letters and photos commemorating the year gone by, many elected officials do the same. Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky tweeted one such family picture on Saturday, featuring himself and his clan armed to the teeth on a leather love seat, a merry tree glittering in the backdrop. Massie’s photo drew some ire. Not to be outdone, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, dropped her own Christmas-themed gun portrait today. “The Boeberts have your six, @RepThomasMassie!” Boebert tweeted. “No spare ammo for you, though.”

Mowing down your enemies with extreme prejudice probably doesn’t feel like a fair approximation of the Christmas spirit, but neither are these photos much related to the season. They are what they are, and they’ve done what they were meant to do: bother liberals. I don’t take Massie or Boebert to be anything other than a troll—at this point, I take very little political rhetoric to be much other than trolling—but their trolling is poignant, not as an intended provocation, but as a marker of the passage of time.

Boebert’s and Massie’s photos suggest that we have moved past the point of a kind of firearm respectability politics. Here, the very meaning of guns is to make liberals hysterical; liberal hysteria is no longer an obstacle to good policy making or even an irritating by-product of the democratic process, but rather the desired outcome of almost all right-wing political rhetoric. It doesn’t matter if the guns make sense for sport shooting, collecting, hunting, or any other plausible pastime beyond killing people or putting pictures on the internet. Their owners don’t intend any confusion on that point. Being photographed for the internet is their raison d’être. If they were just typical-looking guns with potentially reasonable uses kept in a safe, how would they make liberals cry? …

Dad told us the only reason to hold a gun was to use it, and the only reason to point it at someone was to kill them. He told us that you only thought you knew whether it was loaded; he told us stories of people who were sure their guns were unloaded—and then. He told us that rifles were for hunting (in our own Texas domicile, he shot a mating pair of raccoons that had moved into the attic, a handful of opossums, and even, preposterously, a rat) and that handguns and assault weapons were for killing people. I knew that he kept the shotgun around for home defense as well as vermin, but there was never a need for it. And I don’t think that disappointed him.

These people never took photos with their guns. They came from an older world, before guns became props in a culture war with real casualties, when they were still needful tools in a wild country. I remember the way they treated their guns, and their universe seems so distant from the one we live in now. My dad used to say: “This isn’t for play; this isn’t a toy.” But what else do you call something that you put into the hands of a little child at Christmas?

5) Sarah Zhang on Covid, “We’re Not at Endemicity Yet: Too many people still have no protection against the coronavirus.”

No one knows exactly what endemic COVID will look like, but whatever it looks like, this—gestures at the current situation—ain’t it. COVID is not yet endemic. There is little doubt that the coronavirus will get there eventually, when almost everyone has been vaccinated or infected or both, but right now we are still living through a messy and potentially volatile transition period. Cases are ticking up again. A new variant is afoot. The challenge ahead is figuring out how to manage the transition to endemicity, however long it takes.

COVID is not yet endemic because too many people still lack any immunity from either vaccination or infection, here in the United States and globally. Europe is a cautionary tale in this regard: Countries such as Germany and Austria that have slightly better vaccination coverage than the U.S.—68 percent and 66 percent, respectively, compared with 60 percent here—are nevertheless seeing their cases and hospitalizations soar in yet another wave. Even with most people vaccinated, there isn’t enough immunity to blunt big and fast surges of Delta. Just 15 percent of the population without immunity is still a huge absolute number in a country with millions of people, says Lloyd Chapman, an infectious-disease modeler at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Chapman and his colleagues have estimated the number of unvaccinated and unexposed people who could still be hospitalized for COVID in Europe based on each country’s age structure. (He is planning to do a similar analysis for the U.S.) “The main headline point would be that,” he says, “there’s still a long way to go.” And that was before Omicron. The new variant could be even better at evading previous immunity than Delta, and its spread might push endemicity further off into the future.

Endemic is now often used to describe the point where the virus’s danger fades to the levels of the flu or, better yet, the common cold. In its technical definition, though, endemic describes an equilibrium, a point where the immunity gained in a population is balanced by the immunity lost. Immunity can be gained through vaccination or infection, and it can be lost through waning immune response, new variants, or population turnover as susceptible babies are born. A pathogen’s impact becomes a lot more predictable and stable when it’s endemic. During their long coexistence with us, the viruses that cause the common cold and flu have all found this equilibrium with some seasonal fluctuation; we are first infected or vaccinated as young children and then frequently reinfected as immunity fades and viruses evolve. The coronavirus that causes COVID is new, though; it is still trying to infect large swaths of adults for the very first time.

So we might approximate the start of endemic COVID as the point where nearly everyone has been vaccinated or infected. Reinfections or breakthroughs will happen, but we hope they will be milder, which seems to be true so far. This blanket of immunity might be enough to head off big surges that overwhelm hospitals. But whether the endemic COVID actually becomes as benign as the common cold, or as bad as the flu, or worse, depends on both our changing immunity and the virus’s continued evolution. “We just don’t know,” says Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University. And we don’t know how long it will take to reach endemicity.

6) The fact that we still don’t quite understand the seasonality of flu is fascinating to me.  Scott Alexander with a deep dive (does he do any other kind?) on the seasonality of disease:

The part I find interesting here is that flu spikes are more fundamental than flu seasonality. Deprived of seasons, a place doesn’t just have a slow burn of flu cases all year. It has a big epidemic, then dies down for a while, then has another big epidemic. In retrospect, this is an obvious consequence of how diseases work (eg the SIR model of transmission). Some people get the disease, it spreads exponentially until lots of people are immune, and then it stops until something changes.

And it happens once or twice a year. Why? Maybe a new variety comes out of China every year, but that doesn’t explain the occasional twice-yearly spikes in tropical Australia. The article I find most enlightening here is this New York Times piece from summer 2021: Why Everyone Has The Worst Summer Cold Ever. It says that lots of people got bad colds (particularly colds spread by a pathogen called Respiratory Syncitial Virus) in summer 2021, after coronavirus restrictions were loosened. RSV is usually very seasonal and very winter, so presumably there was “built-up” RSV vulnerability that got a chance to break out once COVID restrictions were loosened. The article even says:

Although your immune system is likely as strong as it always was, if it hasn’t been alerted to a microbial intruder in a while, it may take a bit longer to get revved up when challenged by a pathogen again, experts say. And while some viral exposures in our past have conferred lasting immunity, other illnesses may have given us only transient immunity that waned as we were isolating at home.

“Frequent exposure to various pathogens primes or jazzes up the immune system to be ready to respond to that pathogen,” said Dr. Paul Skolnik, an immunovirologist and chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “If you’ve not had those exposures, your immune system may be a little slower to respond or doesn’t respond as fully, leading to greater susceptibility to some respiratory infections and sometimes longer or more protracted symptoms.”

[…]

“I haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years of working as a virologist,” said Dr. Huang. “There’s usually a degree of pre-existing immunity due to the previous winter. When you don’t have that kind of protection, it’s a bit like a wildfire. The fire can just continue, and the chain of transmission keeps going.”

I think maybe they’re saying something like that getting a virus like this usually gives you about a year’s worth of immunity before your immune system “forgets” it. I guess this makes sense in the context of eg needing COVID “booster shots” after a few months.

So one possible model is something like: once you get a disease, you’re protected for a while. There’s no particular length of time, it’s a spectrum, absent any external rhythm-setter you would end up like the tropics, where people have epidemics at random times, once a year, twice a year, whatever.

But the seasonal cycle “entrains” this rhythm (cf. the idea of a zeitgeber). It offers a good way for everyone’s inconsistently-and-gradually-declining immunity to get below the threshold where an epidemic can start at the same time.

So in the tropics, Florida, and Alaska, epidemics “want” to follow a cycle of coming approximately once a year. In the tropics, nothing is giving them that cycle, so they come at a random time once a year, or twice a year, or whatever. In Florida, UV light, temperature, etc provide that cycle, and they come once a year. In Alaska, UV light, temperature, etc also provide that cycle, and they come once a year independent of what’s going on in Florida. It’s like the saying about how you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other hikers. July in Alaska doesn’t have to outrun January in Florida, it just has to outrun January in Alaska, for the dubious honor of when Alaska’s destined-to-be-once-a-year flu season is going to be.

7) This was way back this summer and it’s just been sitting in a tab waiting for me to say something more, but, just going to put it in quick hits, “Scientists Correct Study That Limited Some Female Runners :The researchers no longer claim a causal relationship between high testosterone levels and improved performance by female athletes. The correction comes too late for Caster Semenya of South Africa.”

Controversial rules regarding intersex athletes, which kept Caster Semenya of South Africa from defending her title in the 800-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics, have come under renewed scrutiny as scientists have issued a correction to a study that indicated a causal connection between high testosterone levels and enhanced athletic performance among elite female athletes.

The study, published in 2017, has been among the evidence used to restrict athletes with a rare genetic condition that results in elevated testosterone levels from entering certain women’s events.

Semenya’s attorneys and a prominent American critic of the restrictions on Wednesday called for the regulations to be suspended, following a correction printed by the British Journal of Sports Medicine of the 2017 article, which was written by two scientists affiliated with track and field’s world governing body.

The scientists acknowledged that their study indicating a pivotal relationship between high testosterone levels and enhanced athletic performance among top female athletes was “exploratory” and “could have been misleading by implying a causal inference.”

What?!  Hello?!  I guess if testosterone doesn’t affect athletic performance we should just start allowing steroids in all athletic competitions– right? Isn’t it possible to have some compassion for naturally intersexed athletes (like Semenya) without pretending we don’t know what we absolutely know about hormones?

8) Another old tab to clear out.  Edsall, “Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals. Discuss.”

Do liberals or conservatives experience higher levels of satisfaction, happiness or meaning in life? Is the left or the right more inclined to intolerance, bigotry or conspiratorial thinking? Are Democrats or Republicans more loyal to family and friends?

A wide range of scholars in a variety of disciplines are asking these questions and taking them seriously. Ultimately, though, this line of inquiry raises an even broader question: whether liberals and conservatives function on fundamentally different moral planes.

Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject. “Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?” by Jaime Napier of N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi and John Jost of N.Y.U., and “Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, but Why?” by Barry R. Schlenker and John Chambers, both of the University of Florida, and Bonnie Le of the University of Rochester.

Using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine other countries, Napier and Jost note that they

consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.

Napier and Jost contend that their determinations are “consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function.” 

One of Napier and Jost’s studies “suggests that conservatism provides an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic impact of inequality in society.”

In addition, they argue that rising levels of inequality have “exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer.”

A very different view of conservatives and the political right emerges in Schlenker, Chambers and Le’s paper:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.

In contrast to Napier and Jost’s “view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality,” Schlenker, Chambers and Le argue:

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.

Liberals, Schlenker and his co-authors agree,

have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).

They go on:

Conservatives generally score higher on internal control as well as the Protestant Work Ethic, which emphasizes the inherent meaningfulness and value of work and the strong linkage between one’s efforts and outcomes, and is positively associated with achievement. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to see outcomes as due to factors beyond one’s personal control, including luck and properties of the social system.

These differences have consequences:

Perceptions of internal control, self-efficacy, and the engagement in meaningful work are strongly related to life satisfaction. These differences in personal agency could, in and of themselves, explain much of the happiness gap.

Fascinating stuff! Personally, I will say, I really do think there’s a lot to be said for a sense of agency as a major determinant of happiness. And what could show more agency than sharing my favorite articles of the week in my blog?!

9) Aaron Carroll, “We Opened the Schools and … It Was Fine” Many parents feared the worst, but so far, no widespread COVID crisis has come to America’s classrooms.”

By the start of the next school year, vaccines were widely available for anyone age 12 or older. And many schools that reopened were able to implement measures that other institutions struggled with. Even so, people continued to worry about the danger that schools posed to society.

Then classes began, and … widespread doom never really came—or, if it did, it didn’t come from schools.

The Delta surge began long before classes resumed, and looking at the state-by-state data, you’d be hard-pressed to find bumps that can be pinned on the beginning of the semester. Last year, no surge happened in September either. Most states didn’t see any significant rise in COVID cases last fall until well into October.

Schools aren’t the problem. They never have been.

One of the frustrating things about the pandemic has been our inability, even at this late date, to understand why surges occur. They hit communities with mask mandates, and communities without. Last year, we believed that the surge from October through February was caused by seasonal changes. The cold drove everyone indoors, where COVID was much more likely to spread, and therefore cases developed more quickly. This year, though, the surge began long before the weather turned cold. Vaccines are certainly protective and likely mitigate the severity of surges locally. Even so, things may worsen again—the data right now aren’t looking good for much of the country, and many people fear more hardship to come from the emergent Omicron variant—but no predictable pattern has emerged to explain what sets off periods of dramatic increases…

What is pretty certain, however, is that schools are not to blame. They didn’t cause the surges. They didn’t cause the massive numbers of hospitalizations and deaths that Florida experienced this summer and that Michigan appears to be experiencing now. They haven’t done nearly as much damage as bars, restaurants, and indoor events (including kids’ birthday parties), which never seem to receive the same amount of attention.

This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t getting COVID, of course. It doesn’t mean that kids aren’t in danger, haven’t gotten sick, haven’t been hospitalized by the thousands, and even died. Kids catch COVID, and transmission does occur in schools, but it is rare when precautions are taken. Because of this, the level of school transmission is sometimes lower than that of the surrounding community. Most schools are on guard, at least. Many require masks. More are being thoughtful about close contacts and group dynamics, and they enforce isolation and quarantine as much as they can. That may be inconvenient, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t made a difference.

10) This is good, “Behind Low Vaccination Rates Lurks a More Profound Social Weakness”

About 70 percent of American adults are now fully immunized, but in pockets around the country — from the rural South to predominately Black and brown neighborhoods in large cities — vaccine hesitancy remains a stubborn obstacle to defeating the pandemic. And it’s not just in the United States: In 2019, the World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy one of the 10 threats to global health. With persistent vaccine avoidance and unequal access to vaccines, unvaccinated pockets could act as reservoirs for the virus, allowing for the spread of new variants like Omicron.

The world needs to address the root causes of vaccine hesitancy. We can’t go on believing that the issue can be solved simply by flooding skeptical communities with public service announcements or hectoring people to “believe in science.”…

Amanda Santiago, a St. Mary’s Park tenant, told us, “I’m not necessarily anti-vaccine.” But she decided against the shot, she explained, as “a personal choice.” A growing body of research suggests that Ms. Santiago’s views reflect a broader shift in America, across class and race. Without an idea of the common good, health is often discussed using the language of “choice.” At a recent anti-vaccine-mandate demonstration in Brooklyn, some protesters wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and chanted, “My body, my choice!” When the Brooklyn Nets banned their star guard Kyrie Irving for refusing the vaccine, the Nets’ general manager, Sean Marks, acknowledged, “Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose.”

Of course, there’s a lot of good that comes from viewing health care decisions as personal choices: No one wants to be subjected to procedures against their wishes. But there are problems with reducing public health to a matter of choice. It gives the impression that individuals are wholly responsible for their own health. This is despite growing evidence that health is deeply influenced by factors outside our control; public health experts now talk about the “social determinants of health,” the idea that personal health is never simply just a reflection of individual lifestyle choices, but also the class people are born into, the neighborhood they grew up in and the race they belong to…

Another problem with reducing well-being to personal choice is that this treats health as a commodity. This isn’t surprising, since we shop for doctors and insurance plans the way we do all other goods and services.

Recent research has shed light on this problem. Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, has spent years studying families who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles. She found that mothers devoted many hours to “researching” vaccines, soaking up parental advice books and quizzing doctors. In other words, they act like savvy consumers. The mothers in Reich’s study maintain that each child is unique, and that they know their child’s needs better than anyone. As a result, they insist that they alone have the expertise to decide what medicines to give their children. When thinking as a consumer, people tend to downplay social obligations in favor of a narrow pursuit of self-interest. As one parent told Reich, “I’m not going to put my child at risk to save another child.”

Such risk-benefit assessments for vaccines are an essential part of parents’ consumer research. For illnesses like measles, outbreaks — until recently — have been so rare that it’s not hard to be convinced that the harm of vaccines outweighs that of the disease. However, we’ve found in our research that for Covid-19, this risk analysis can get turned on its head: Vaccine uptake is so high among wealthy people because Covid is one of the gravest threats they face. In some wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods, for example, vaccination rates run north of 90 percent.

11) Former district judge and renowned law professor, “The Supreme Court isn’t well. The only hope for a cure is more justices.”

We now believe that Congress must expand the size of the Supreme Court and do so as soon as possible. We did not come to this conclusion lightly.

One of us is a constitutional law scholar and frequent advocate before the Supreme Court, the other a federal judge for 17 years. After serving on the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court over eight months, hearing multiple witnesses, reading draft upon draft of the final report issued this week, our views have evolved. We started out leaning toward term limits for Supreme Court justices but against court expansion and ended up doubtful about term limits but in favor of expanding the size of the court.

We listened carefully to the views of commissioners who disagreed. Indeed, the process was a model for how people with deeply diverging perspectives can listen to one another respectfully and revise their views through genuine dialogue. We voted to submit the final report to President Biden not because we agreed with all of it — we did not — but because it accurately reflects the complexity of the issue and that diversity of views. There has never been so comprehensive and careful a study of ways to reform the Supreme Court, the history and legality of various potential reforms, and the pluses and minuses of each. This report will be of value well beyond today’s debates.

But make no mistake: In voting to submit the report to the president neither of us cast a vote of confidence in the Supreme Court itself. Sadly, we no longer have that confidence, given three things: first, the dubious legitimacy of the way some justices were appointed; second, what Justice Sonia Sotomayor rightly called the “stench” of politics hovering over this court’s deliberations about the most contentious issues; and third, the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian direction of this court’s decisions about matters such as voting rights, gerrymandering and the corrupting effects of dark money.

Those judicial decisions haven’t been just wrong; they put the court — and, more important, our entire system of government — on a one-way trip from a defective but still hopeful democracy toward a system in which the few corruptly govern the many, something between autocracy and oligarchy. Instead of serving as a guardrail against going over that cliff, our Supreme Court has become an all-too-willing accomplice in that disaster.

Worse, measures the court has enabled will fundamentally change the court and the law for decades. They operate to entrench the power of one political party: constricting the vote, denying fair access to the ballot to people of color and other minorities, and allowing legislative district lines to be drawn that exacerbate demographic differences. As a result, the usual ebb and flow that once tended to occur with succeeding elections is stalling. A Supreme Court that has been effectively packed by one party will remain packed into the indefinite future, with serious consequences to our democracy. This is a uniquely perilous moment that demands a unique response.

None of the reforms that have been proposed precisely fit the problem that needs remedying. Term limits cannot be implemented in time to change the court’s self-reinforcing trajectory. And while much can be said in favor of the narrower repairs the commission addressed — such as increasing the transparency of the court’s proceedings, reducing its discretion over its docket or imposing constraints on its use of emergency procedures (“the shadow docket”) — none is adequate.

Offsetting the way the court has been “packed” in an antidemocratic direction with added appointments leaning the other way is the most significant clearly constitutional step that could be taken quickly.

12) Long story, but worth it, I read the whole thing, “4 Dead Infants, a Convicted Mother, and a Genetic Mystery: Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of killing her babies. One scientist suspected the real culprit was mutant DNA—and went on a tireless quest to prove it.”

13) As a bird lover and bird feeder lover, I really enjoyed this, “Which birds are the biggest jerks at the feeder? A massive data analysis reveals the answer.”

The interactions between birds in the park or at your backyard feeder may look like chaos, but they’re actually following the subtle rules of a hidden avian social order.

Armed with a database of almost 100,000 bird interactions, experts known as ornithologists have decoded that secret pecking order and created a continentwide power ranking of almost 200 species — from the formidable wild turkey at the top to the tiny, retiring brown creeper at the bottom.

 

Their work illuminates an elaborate hidden hierarchy: Northern mockingbirds and red-bellied woodpeckers are pugnacious for their size, but both would give way if a truly dominant bird like an American crow descended upon the feeder. Tiny hummingbirds can’t afford to lose precious seconds of feeding time and thus punch way above their weight, while the pileated woodpecker, whose fearsome bill and impressive build gives it the aspect of a holdover pterodactyl, actually proves docile for its size.

14) I did enjoy this from earlier this year, “The Worst Lyrics Of All Time.” 

15) Somewhat relatedly, “The unrepentant joy and popularity of R.E.M.’s polarizing “Shiny Happy People.”  And, honestly, there’s actually a song with a great pop-hook that’s pretty much ruined by the most inane lyrics ever and, honestly, just a cringe-inducing musical bridge.

16) That said, damn did REM nail it on all cylinders with this album, “”Lyric writing is not easy”: Michael Stipe looks back on creating REM’s “New Adventures of Hi-Fi”” 

17) Hmmm.  Given that it’s not uncommon for me to be in the low 120‘s, I didn’t love this, “Think You Have ‘Normal’ Blood Pressure? Think Again”

So you think your blood pressure is normal? Think again.

The latest iteration of an “ideal” blood pressure — a level of 120 millimeters of mercury for systolic pressure, the top number — that Americans are urged to achieve and maintain has been called into question by a long-term multiethnic study of otherwise healthy adults.

The study, published in June in JAMA Cardiology, found that as systolic blood pressure rose above 90 mm, the risk of damage to coronary arteries rose along with it. Systolic blood pressure represents the pressure within arteries when the heart pumps (as opposed to diastolic blood pressure, the lower smaller number, when the heart rests).

The new findings suggest a need to look more carefully at why, despite considerable overall improvements in risk factors for heart disease in recent decades, it remains the nation’s leading killer.

18) Thanks to BB for pointing out this article from 2018, “Spiders Can Fly Hundreds of Miles Using Electricity.” Nature!!

On October 31, 1832, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin walked onto the deck of the HMS Beagle and realized that the ship had been boarded by thousands of intruders. Tiny red spiders, each a millimeter wide, were everywhere. The ship was 60 miles offshore, so the creatures must have floated over from the Argentinian mainland. “All the ropes were coated and fringed with gossamer web,” Darwin wrote.

Spiders have no wings, but they can take to the air nonetheless. They’ll climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This behavior is called ballooning. It might carry spiders away from predators and competitors, or toward new lands with abundant resources. But whatever the reason for it, it’s clearly an effective means of travel. Spiders have been found two and a half miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea.

It is commonly believed that ballooning works because the silk catches on the wind, dragging the spider with it. But that doesn’t entirely make sense, especially because spiders balloon only during light winds. Spiders don’t shoot silk from their abdomens, and it seems unlikely that such gentle breezes could be strong enough to yank the threads out—let alone to carry the largest species aloft, or to generate the high accelerations of arachnid takeoff. Darwin himself found the rapidity of the spiders’ flight to be “quite unaccountable” and its cause to be “inexplicable.”

But Erica Morley and Daniel Robert have an explanation. The duo, who work at the University of Bristol, has shown that spiders can sense Earth’s electric field, and use it to launch themselves into the air.

Every day, around 40,000 thunderstorms crackle around the world, collectively turning Earth’s atmosphere into a giant electrical circuit. The upper reaches of the atmosphere have a positive charge, and the planet’s surface has a negative one. Even on sunny days with cloudless skies, the air carries a voltage of around 100 volts for every meter above the ground. In foggy or stormy conditions, that gradient might increase to tens of thousands of volts per meter.

Ballooning spiders operate within this planetary electric field. When their silk leaves their bodies, it typically picks up a negative charge. This repels the similar negative charges on the surfaces on which the spiders sit, creating enough force to lift them into the air. And spiders can increase those forces by climbing onto twigs, leaves, or blades of grass. Plants, being earthed, have the same negative charge as the ground that they grow upon, but they protrude into the positively charged air. This creates substantial electric fields between the air around them and the tips of their leaves and branches—and the spiders ballooning from those tips.

19) And to Mika for sharing more good stuff on the brain, “To Be Energy-Efficient, Brains Predict Their Perceptions”

What occurred to Kietzmann and van Gerven was that neural communication is energetically costly (the brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the body). A need to conserve energy might therefore constrain the behavior of any evolving neural network in organisms.

The researchers decided to see whether any of the computational mechanisms for predictive coding might emerge in RNNs that had to accomplish their tasks using as little energy as possible. They figured that the strengths of the connections, also known as weights, between the artificial neurons in their networks could serve as a proxy for synaptic transmission, which is what accounts for much of the energy usage in biological neurons. “If you reduce weights between artificial units, that means that you communicate with less energy,” said Kietzmann. “We take this as minimizing synaptic transmission.”

Series of images showing sequence of video frames at top and the corresponding images predicted by the PredNet neural network.

When PredNet, a neural network with a predictive-coding architecture, was presented with frames in a video sequence (top), it learned to predict them (bottom).

Quanta Magazine; source: Lotter et al., Nature Machine Intelligence 2020

The team then trained an RNN on numerous sequences of consecutive digits in ascending, wraparound order: 1234567890, 3456789012, 6789012345 and so on. Each digit was shown to the network in the form of a 28-by-28-pixel image. The RNN learned an internal model that could predict what the next digit would be, starting from any random place in the sequence. But the network was forced to do this with the smallest possible weights between units, analogous to low levels of neural activity in a biological nervous system.

Under these conditions, the RNN learned to predict the next number in the sequence. Some of its artificial neurons acted as “prediction units” representing a model of the expected inputs. Other neurons acted as “error units” that were most active when the prediction units hadn’t yet learned to correctly anticipate the next number. These error units became subdued when the prediction units started getting it right. Crucially, the network arrived at this architecture because it was compelled to minimize energy usage. “It just learns to do the sort of inhibition that people have typically been building into the system explicitly,” said Kietzmann. “Our system does it out of the box, as an emergent thing to do, to be energy-efficient.”

The takeaway is that a neural network that minimizes energy usage will end up implementing some sort of predictive processing — making a case that biological brains are probably doing the same.

20) I really empathize with people who have Irritable Bowell Syndrome.  It’s gotta suck.  Interesting piece in NYT, “Are My Stomach Problems Really All in My Head?”

I.B.S. is a diagnosis of exclusion, a so-called functional disorder scribbled in your chart only after every test and examination has come back normal. Simply put, there’s nothing wrong with my stomach that our current medical tools can detect. Some physicians and researchers have described this condition in terms of a mind-gut connection.

“Everybody has contractions in their gut,” said Dr. Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices and Our Overall Health.”

The same contractions that go unnoticed by most people cause pain in I.B.S. patients, who have become hypersensitive to sensations in their gut, he said. Calm the mind, the thinking goes, and the gut may follow…

Then, this August on that same trip with Eli, I readabout a new theory for I.B.S. A paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine theorized that an abdominal infection can temporarily disturb the cell barrier that lines the colon. With the barrier disturbed, allergy-inducing proteins can get absorbed by the colon, triggering localized allergic reactions to certain inflammatory foods like gluten and leading to reverberations up and down the digestive tract.

I’d been telling people for years that I didn’t have allergies to certain foods, even though my body’s response to them felt automatic. Now this research seemed to indicate what I was feeling could be an allergic reaction — one no amount of hypnotherapy or journaling was going to make disappear.

When I read this, scrolling through my phone at a motel in Illinois, I thought: I knew it. The stabbing stomach pains that woke me at 3 a.m. after eating garlic or black beans weren’t caused by my subconscious; it was my damaged gut.

Later, I called Dr. Marc E. Rothenberg, one of the paper’s authors and the director of the division of allergy and immunology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, to get more clarity.

“Stress modifies, and can exacerbate, the underlying disease physiology,” Dr. Rothenberg said. “But stress is not the cause of I.B.S.”

My guess it that, to some degree, it is a malfunction of the immune system.  Because damn is the immune system complicated and damn is it important in your digestive tract when you consider that it is one of our key interfaces with the outside world.

21) A fun and positive read to end things, if you are so inclined.  Noah Smith, “Techno-optimism for 2022”

The specificity of expertise

The fact that I know that viruses mutate for contagiousness and not for more/less virulence does not make me an expert on viruses, but it does mean that in this fairly specific domain, I clearly have more “expertise” than many public health professionals and MD’s who have frequently claimed that viruses typically mutate to become less contagious.  Dylan Morris‘ guest post in Zeynep’s substack back in May was great on the nature of viral evolution.  So, by reading that and figuring out the smartest people to follow on twitter on viral evolution were Zeynep (who’s no viral expert, but an expert in figuring out what “experts” to listen to), Morris, Michael Mina, and Carl Bergstrom and reading what they had to say made me more of an “expert” than those “viruses evolve to become less deadly” people who literally have degrees in medicine.

But, you know what, it’s really not that hard.  What we fail to appreciate, I think, is just how amazingly narrow expertise is.  I am a professor of Political Science, but if you read a couple good pieces in the Monkey Cage and Vox about some theories that explain an international conflict, you will assuredly be more of an “expert” in the matter than me.  Or, honestly, I literally teach about Congress in American government, but, again, read a few good articles that summarize social science on how Congressional committees work and you will know more than me.  I teach a class on Political Parties, but, again, spend not-all-that-long reading some good summaries of academic research on the role of amateur party activists and you will know more than me.  Now, if its a matter of partisanship or attitude measurement, don’t try me, but the reality is that expertise is really narrow and that most subjects are not so hard that an intelligent layperson can’t make sense of them when reading what good-communicating experts have to say.

As it happens, immunology is a ridiculously complex subject.  I’m reading a great book on it (Immune by Philip Detmer– also, you should totally familiarize yourself with Kurtzgesagt).  And to really understand the whole discipline it would surely take me years.  But that said, even then, there’s all sorts of bite-sized chunks that I can get my head around pretty well.  And if there’s somebody who’s a literal epidemiologist, they definitely might not be up on the latest research on something with Helper T Cells and Covid (or viral evolution!) just like I may not be up on the latest on party activists or Congressional committees.

So, we really need to be more humble about the limits of expertise and the very specific nature of expertise.  And, honestly, take lessons from Zeynep on how to think about issues you come to without built-in expertise.

Just how expensive is gas anyway?

One of my frustrations when people freak out about gas prices is that historical comparisons almost always seem to be in nominal dollars.  But in inflation-adjusted dollars, gas is cheap!  I was complaining about this to an Economist friend, who sent me this great post.  Not only does it place gas prices in real dollars, there’s lots of other interesting ways to think about gas prices that show just how affordable it is.  Honestly, too affordable– unpriced externalities, baby!  Anyway, here’s gas in real dollars:

But, also, some other cool ways to think about gas prices:

Anyway, my economist friend and I were discussing the political impact of gas prices and he hypothesized that the negative effects are likely more from rapid increase in nominal price, more than the actual price.  Interesting idea that I suspect is substantially true.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) Some impressive science and some real hope for those with Type I diabetes, “A Cure for Type 1 Diabetes? For One Man, It Seems to Have Worked. A new treatment using stem cells that produce insulin has surprised experts and given them hope for the 1.5 million Americans living with the disease.”

Mr. Shelton, now 64, may be the first person cured of the disease with a new treatment that has experts daring to hope that help may be coming for many of the 1.5 million Americans suffering from Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s a whole new life,” Mr. Shelton said. “It’s like a miracle.”

Diabetes experts were astonished but urged caution. The study is continuing and will take five years, involving 17 people with severe cases of Type 1 diabetes. It is not intended as a treatment for the more common Type 2 diabetes.

“We’ve been looking for something like this to happen literally for decades,” said Dr. Irl Hirsch, a diabetes expert at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research. He wants to see the result, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, replicated in many more people. He also wants to know if there will be unanticipated adverse effects and if the cells will last for a lifetime or if the treatment would have to be repeated.

But, he said, “bottom line, it is an amazing result.”

Dr. Peter Butler, a diabetes expert at U.C.L.A. who also was not involved with the research, agreed while offering the same caveats.

“It is a remarkable result,” Dr. Butler said. “To be able to reverse diabetes by giving them back the cells they are missing is comparable to the miracle when insulin was first available 100 years ago.”

2) Interesting story on how a single NC Republican legislator, Danny Britt, has been instrumental in bringing needed criminal justice reform to NC’s laws.  It’s also more than a little sad to realize that there’s no way Republicans would have agreed to these changes if not for the efforts of Britt (a prosecutor turned defense attorney). Better CJ policy for the state should not have to depend on the arbitrariness of one good man being a Republican legislator.  

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that while activists, advocates and some lawmakers have worked for years to reform the state’s criminal justice system, some bills Britt has sponsored would not have passed under the Republican-controlled legislature without him.

3) Focus group report on Virginia elections that may or may not be worth your time.  I found it interesting.

4) Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana is just a complete fraud.  What’s so sad about his completely affected, cornpone style (the man is Vanderbilt, UVA, and Oxford educated) is that this is what works for the Republican base.

The 70-year-old Kennedy is so committed to this persona that a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune challenged readers in 2019 to guess the author of a series of eccentric statements: Foghorn Leghorn or Kennedy? It was a difficult quiz.

Whenever Kennedy appears on Fox News or launches an attention-getting stunt, those of us in Louisiana who know him well roll our eyes and reflect on the Kennedy we knew before his Senate election.
 
We recall the brainy graduate of Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia Law School and Oxford University’s Magdalen College; the relatively progressive Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004; the man who, despite his 2007 party switch, served capably as state treasurer from 2000 to 2017; the official who, although in the same Republican Party as then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, was a fierce critic of Jindal’s reckless fiscal policies…
 
But what stood out in that 2004 interview was the absence of the homey sayings, abusive zingers and character assassinations that have become Kennedy trademarks. He was nothing like the man you see these days insulting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — “It must suck to be that dumb” — or vilifying then-Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland as “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.”…
 
What troubles me about Kennedy’s latest stunt is not just what it revealed about a politician doing what some unprincipled, opportunistic politicians have always done. What bothers me more is what it says about Louisiana politics, and today’s Republican Party, that Kennedy could expose himself as a xenophobic demagogue and pay no price for it.

5) This NYT “where should you live” quiz is really fun.  Looks like Irvine, California is the place for me (I like a nice climate and political and racial diversity).

6) From Stat, “Covid antivirals could be pandemic game-changers. But Americans might struggle to access them”

Antiviral drugs for treating Covid-19 have been hailed as a pandemic “game-changer” — a tool that could, perhaps, finally help life return to normal. But basic gaps in the U.S. health system could mean that two new treatments from Pfizer and Merck won’t make much of a difference after all.

The companies’ treatments, which haven’t yet received emergency authorization, could make a Covid diagnosis dramatically less threatening. But in practice, before receiving the pills, patients may need to jump through a series of hoops that often prevent Americans from accessing care: Recognizing their symptoms, taking a test, getting a prescription from a clinician, and filling the prescription at a pharmacy.

“Our routine medical systems are not really set up for this,” said Céline Gounder, a physician and NYU professor who served on President Biden’s Covid advisory board in the months before his inauguration. “These are medications that need to be started within three days of developing symptoms. It can take you longer than three days to get an appointment.”…

But it might be difficult to get the drugs outside a clinical trial setting. Depending on the particular patient, it could involve four individual steps: recognizing symptoms, receiving a positive Covid-19 test result, being prescribed an antiviral by a doctor, and picking up the pills at a nearby pharmacy.

Each step could prove difficult, Gaffney said, beginning with the challenge of recognizing symptoms during winter, when early signs of Covid-19 might be easily written off as a cold, flu, or allergies. Even if patients do quickly suspect they have Covid, diagnostic tests are still sometimes hard to come by. Many of the patients who test positive won’t have primary care physicians. And perhaps worst: The antivirals are ideally taken just three days after symptom onset, meaning the four-step process can’t face any setbacks.

7) “Are scientists less prone to motivated reasoning?” Yes.

A new study lays out a bit of a conundrum in its opening paragraphs. It notes that scientific progress depends on the ability to update what ideas are considered acceptable in light of new evidence. But science itself has produced no shortage of evidence that people are terrible at updating their beliefs and suffer from issues like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Since scientists are, in fact, people, the problems with updating beliefs should severely limit science’s ability to progress.

And there’s some indication that it does. Max Planck, for example, wrote that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up.”

But a new study suggests it may not be much of a problem after all. Taking advantage of a planned replication study, some scientists polled their peers before and after the results of the replication study came out. And most scientists seemed to update their beliefs without much trouble.

8) More roundabouts, please! And good for the climate, too.

But there’s also a climate benefit.

Because modern roundabouts don’t have red lights where cars sit and idle, they don’t burn as much gasoline. While there are few studies, the former city engineer for Carmel, Mike McBride, estimates that each roundabout saves about 20,000 gallons of fuel annually, which means the cars of Carmel emit many fewer tons of planet-heating carbon emissions each year. And U.S. highway officials broadly agree that roundabouts reduce tailpipe emissions.

They also don’t need electricity, and, unlike stoplights, keep functioning after bad storms — a bonus in these meteorologically turbulent times.

“Modern roundabouts are the most sustainable and resilient intersections around,” said Ken Sides, chairman of the roundabout committee at the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

9) If Omicron is bad as some of the worst fears, we’ll really need the new antivirals ASAP.  FDA-skeptic Scott Alexander writing before the Omicron news, “When Will The FDA Approve Paxlovid?”

For context: a recent study by Pfizer, the pharma company backing the drug, found Paxlovid decreased hospitalizations and deaths from COVID by a factor of ten, with no detectable side effects. It was so good that Pfizer, “in consultation with” the FDA, stopped the trial early because it would be unethical to continue denying Paxlovid to the control group. And on November 16, Pfizer officially submitted an approval request to the FDA, which the FDA is still considering.

As many people including ZviAlex, and Kelsey have noted, it’s pretty weird that the FDA agrees Paxlovid is so great that it’s unethical to study it further because it would be unconscionable to design a study with a no-Paxlovid control group – but also, the FDA has not approved Paxlovid, it remains illegal, and nobody is allowed to use it.

One would hope this is because the FDA plans to approve Paxlovid immediately. But the prediction market expects it to take six weeks – during which time we expect about 50,000 more Americans to die of COVID.

Perhaps there’s not enough evidence for the FDA to be sure Paxlovid works yet? But then why did they agree to stop the trial that was gathering the evidence? Or perhaps there’s enough evidence, but it takes a long time to process it? But then how come the prediction markets are already 90% sure what decision they’ll make?

Perhaps that 10% chance of it not getting approved is very important, because that’s a world in which it’s discovered to have terrible side effects? But discovered how? There was one trial, it found no side effects at all, and Pfizer stopped it early. And it’s hard to imagine what rare side effect could turn up in poring over the trial data again and again that’s serious enough to mean we should reject a drug with a 90% COVID cure rate.

Perhaps it doesn’t have any sufficiently serious side effects, but that 10% chance is important because it might not work? Come on, just legalize the drug! If it doesn’t work, then you can report that it didn’t work in January or March or whenever you figure it out, and un-approve it. Nobody will have been hurt except your pride, and in the 90% of cases where it does work, you’d be saving thousands of lives.

Let’s give the FDA its due: this time they’re probably only going to wait a few weeks or months. Much better than their usual MO, when they can delay drugs for months arguing about the wording of the warning label. I honestly believe they’re operating on Fast Mode, well aware that the entire country is watching them and yelling at them to move faster.

Still, move faster.

10) This is so important and under-appreciated, “Most state lawmakers earn low salaries. It impacts who can afford to be one.”

A report released Monday by New American Leaders on low salaries in statehouses highlights the financial realities for policymakers such as Joiner, and the ways that pay impacts who is able to run and stay in office. But the political backlash in raising salaries for lawmakers also carries pitfalls.

The report analyzed salaries in several legislatures around the country and concluded that most lawmakers are paid wages that do not allow them to focus solely on the job of legislating. Many work in legislatures that are considered hybrid or part-time. They meet for shorter periods of time, often at the beginning of the year and into the spring. But it’s a role that has morphed in recent years into one with increasing year-round demands and expectations from constituents, many of whom may not realize their lawmakers are being paid little to no money to be that accessible…

The low pay effectively creates barriers to more diverse representation and trickles down to what kind of policy is created, said Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders, which recruits and trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for office. It estimates that just 3.5 percent of America’s 7,383 state legislative seats are held by new Americans. Women make up just 31 percent of statehouse seats, and 26.6 percent of that figure are women of color.

“State legislators have this enormous power to decide the future of immigrants, BIPOC communities and just constituents at large,” said Dagher. “But due to low legislative salaries, many people who are most impacted by the policies that legislators make are shut out of positions of power.”

In Georgia, where lawmakers this year debated restrictive voting bills, lawmakers are paid a little over $17,000 a year plus a per diem. Republicans in control of the legislature led an effort last year to cut that pay due to a reduced budget tied to the pandemic, arguing that the public had also faced hardship

Dagher said the potential political blowback to increasing pay does not offset the reality, which is that as long as statehouses are financially out of reach as jobs for everyday people, they will not reflect the needs of a demographically diverse population.

“Any time there is discussion of tax dollars and people’s dollars being used toward a salary, there is some frustration,” Dagher said. “But the reality is, this is a full-time job. Community and constituent needs are year-round, they’re not part-time. So our legislatures should be set up at a full-time basis to really serve the needs of their communities.”

The New American Leaders’ report has several recommendations, including that lawmakers switch their statehouses to full time. While several have fixed end dates during session, lawmakers sometimes go weeks or months over those allotted times. Some rely on special sessions to meet later into the year. The report highlights research that shows statehouses that meet longer and pay higher salaries pass more bills, including per legislative day.

11) Yascha Mounk interviews Michael Powell on free speech:

Yascha Mounk: Every time we get a story about an attack on liberalism, in part from the right but also from the left, it is dismissed by partisans as just some crazy story, an extreme example — “this really isn’t a broad phenomenon going on in the country”, etc. Do you think all of the stories that you’ve been writing about add up to a bigger picture?

Michael Powell: I think the answer is almost certainly yes. About seven months ago, I did a story on a particular racial incident at Smith College, an elite liberal arts school in Massachusetts. I spoke to at least 15 faculty members, all of them tenured. As I recall, three of them went on the record. With perhaps one exception, none disputed that there was an illiberal stream running through liberal higher education these days, and specifically at their school. Almost all had particular tales to tell—not all hair-curling. But it was quite striking that I’m talking to—in almost all cases—senior tenured faculty, and none were willing to go on the record. Untenured people, I very much understood. I thought to myself, “This is a fine liberal institution, an elite liberal institution, and this isn’t good.” After the piece appeared, the president, as I expected might happen, denounced the piece, denounced me, and went to the faculty meeting. One of the faculty members called me a few hours afterwards, and she was chuckling. She named a number of people who stood up and denounced the piece and several of those were people who had given me chapter and verse on the problems that the university was running into on these very issues. I took that as a bad sign on the state of many of these institutions.

Mounk: Being back in Europe for a few months, I haven’t had anybody say to me, “But of course, I would never say this publicly.” And I suddenly realized that this is a phrase that I would hear more or less every day in the United States, often from people who are very much on the left, who are very progressive, who supported Bernie Sanders, who are deeply engaged in the fight against discrimination and so on. Their position is perfectly reasonable, but they would be afraid to speak publicly. When did you first sense that cultural transition?

Powell: I’ve only really started writing on this in the last year and a half. I was writing a sports column, actually, for about four or five years before this. I bounced all over the place. The Times being the Times, it’s sports column in which you can write about all sorts of social issues as well. And I started to come across this when I was looking at Title IX abuses which were, frankly, in some cases quite problematic from a civil liberties point of view. And doing that reporting—this is casting back four or five years—I was running into the same problem: that lawyers handling the cases were perfectly willing to talk to me, but when I would try to talk with professors and others on college campuses, people were wary of it. Feminists were leery of it—with, I should say, some spectacular exceptions. There are people who’ve been very forthright on this question from the liberal feminist community. But it just feels to me this is a stream that runs quite strong through our culture right now. And not simply universities and colleges.

12) A year old, but… interesting! “Serial killings are waning, leading to speculation about the cause”

The number of serial killings surged in the 1980s and has been dropping ever since.

In 1987, there were 198 separate serial killers active in the United States, compared to only 43 in 2015 and two in 2019, according to a database run by the Radford University and the Florida Gulf Coast University. The database defines a serial killing as the “unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”

When a serial killing is defined as the killing of three or more victims, the number drops to 138 serial killers operating in 1987 and 26 in 2015. The number remains at two for 2019.

Discover magazine noted the downward trend and talked to experts about reasons for the possible decline.

The uptick can partly be explained by improved police work and data collection that made it possible to link murders more effectively, leading to an increased count. But other factors are also likely at play, experts told Discover.

One factor: DNA evidence is making it possible to track and find the offenders.

“Serial murder has become a more dangerous pursuit,” said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, in an interview with Discover.

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at the Northeastern University, pointed to another factor: People are less vulnerable than in the past.

“People don’t hitchhike anymore,” he told Discover. “They have means of reaching out in an emergency situation using cellphones. There are cameras everywhere.”

13) This is a good story.  Racial desegregation in schools is… complicated.  “In Minneapolis Schools, White Families Are Asked to Help Do the Integrating
In a citywide overhaul, a beloved Black high school was rezoned to include white students from a richer neighborhood. It has been hard for everyone.”

14) So, this kind of annoyed me, “Hanukkah isn’t ‘Jewish Christmas.’ Stop treating it that way” because, Christmas (the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus) is not Christmas (the completely secular holiday of gift-giving demarcated by elves, Santa, reindeer, etc.).  

15) That famous study you’ve probably heard about where hungry judges hand out harsher sentences is based on unrealistically large effect sizes that this post (from 4 years ago, but, new to me) nicely contextualizes.  

16) One thing I really like about Scott Alexander is that after writing a post on the need to more rapidly approve Covid antivirals, he publishes another post with the strongest pushback against his case.

17) Criminal Justice is tough.  Yes, we incarcerate too many people for too long.  And give too many people too high bail.  But the maniac who ran over a bunch of innocent people in a Wisconsin parade should never have been on the streets, 

18) I love that Drum refuses to just accept the consensus, digs into data, and pushes back.  Plus, I can worry less about my daughter using Instagram.

A while ago I asked if there were any academic types who had written a good summary of all the research about the impact of social media on teenage users. At least, I think I did. Maybe I only thought about doing it, because I can’t find it now. [Ah, here it is.]

In any case, it turns out that Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have been compiling a list of research papers on this subject for the past couple of years. This prompted Haidt to write a piece for the Atlantic titled “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls.” This article is very specifically about Instagram, not social media in general, and his argument goes approximately like this:

  1. Gen Z teen girls have been reporting increasingly high rates of anxiety and depression.
  2. This started happening between 2010-14, exactly the time that Instagram use became nearly universal among teens.
  3. In a 2017 survey by British researchers, teens rated Instagram as the most harmful of all social media platforms on measures of anxiety, loneliness, body image, and sleep.
  4. No other explanation for the rise in teen mental health problems makes sense.

By itself, this is not the most persuasive argument I’ve ever read. However, we can learn more by looking at the Haidt/Twenge list of research papers.

First off, they found 29 studies that showed an association between social media use and teen mental problems. They also found 11 studies showing no association.

This is moderately persuasive, though a 72% hit rate isn’t conclusive. A bigger problem is that the studies almost all found that effects kicked in only among teens who used social media a lot (4-5 hours per day or more). This immediately raises the question of whether (a) social media causes mental health problems or (b) teens with mental health problems seek out social media more obsessively.

This is an obvious question, and in a separate section Haidt and Twenge highlight studies designed to test causality. Most of them are experiments where teens are asked to eliminate (or cut back) social media use for a few weeks. At the end of the experiment their mood was compared with that of a control group that made no changes. Of the 13 “true experiments” they found, eight showed a causal effect and five showed no causal effect. This is suggestive, but even less conclusive than the association studies.

Overall, I’d call this moderately weak evidence…

My other problem was Haidt’s reference to the recently leaked Facebook documents as support for his thesis. But as I’ve pointed out before, there’s no there there:

Among teen girls, Instagram has a net negative effect on one thing (body image) and a net positive effect on everything else. This simply doesn’t support the argument that Instagram is an overall problem for teen girls.

All this said, there’s enough evidence here that it certainly suggests some caution is probably in order. And as it turns out, Haidt makes three proposals that are suitably cautious in turn. First, he wants social media companies to allow academic researchers access to their data. Second, he wants the age of “internet adulthood” to be raised from 13 to 16. Finally, he wants to encourage a norm among parents and schools of delaying use of social media until high school. None of these strike me as objectionable given the suggestive evidence we have.

Obviously research on social media and mental health is difficult to do well. Nevertheless, if we’re going to act responsibly instead of moving straight to our usual panic phase, we need something better than what we have now. In particular, we need a more thorough explanation of what happened in the 24 months between 2011 and 2013. Beyond that, we need higher quality studies of how social media affects teens, ideally using something better than self-reported hours of internet use (which is highly unreliable) and self-reported survey questions of mental health (also not terribly reliable). Let’s get cracking, researchers!

19) A nice take on Rittenhouse and guns from Michael Cohen:

In short, the usual political lines have been drawn. However, what’s missing from the post-trial coverage is what is seemingly always missing from the debates about gun violence in America — the gun…

Chekhov’s Gun

The weapon pictured above is a Smith & Wesson M&P 15. It’s the gun that Rittenhouse strapped on his body and displayed in public as he sought to “protect” local Kenosha businesses from demonstrators. It’s the sole reason why what happened that August night turned deadly.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse likely never travels to Wisconsin.

Without a gun, he doesn’t shoot his first victim, Joseph Rosenbaum.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse might have fled the scene once Rosenbaum, a man with a history of mental illness just released from the hospital following a suicide attempt, threatened his life.

Without a gun, he wouldn’t have needed to escape the scene and then been attacked by Joseph Huber, who hit him with a skateboard before Rittenhouse killed him.

Without a gun, Rittenhouse doesn’t shoot Gaige Grosskreutz, permanently maiming him.

Without a gun in his hand, Gaige Grosskreutz likely doesn’t get shot at all.

Without the proverbial Chekhov’s gun, would Rittenhouse — at the age of 17 — have been emboldened to walk the streets of Kenosha at night amidst a violent and tense situation?

If Rittenhouse hadn’t been carrying a semi-automatic rifle that night, there would be no murder, trial, and national debate. The presence of a gun — introduced, if you will, in the first act — is what led to tragedy.

Even if Rittenhouse still traveled to Kenosha, even if he still participated in the demonstrations that night, and even if Joseph Rosenbaum still threatened him, no one would have been shot — if not for the presence of a gun.

Rittenhouse would still have had the right to defend himself. But when individuals are permitted to carry guns and protect themselves with deadly force, people will die needlessly. And that’s precisely what happened in Kenosha. Even if one believes that the actions of Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz were dangerous and provocative, none of them deserved to die.

Every act of gun violence; every mass shooting; every accidental discharge of a weapon; every suicide attempt that is a cry for help but turns deadly; every racially-tinged murder has its roots in the fact that we, as a society, have made the choice that ordinary Americans should be allowed near-unfettered access to guns.

Even police shootings, like the one of Jacob Blake, which sparked the demonstrations in Kenosha, have their roots in American gun laws. Why do American police officers kill so many Americans? They are trained to believe that every interaction with the public could become deadly, and for good reason: America is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. Do police need better training and less permissive rules of engagement? Absolutely. But as long as guns are ubiquitous in our society, police will continue to kill innocent civilians they believe might have a gun. [emphasis mine]

20) Just discovered the new Showtime series “Yellowjackets” and really liked the first two episodes.

Does having kids make you happy?

Good stuff from Paul Bloom on parenthood and happiness in The Atlantic. I’m pretty damn sure parent Steve is much happier than the alternate universe non-parent Steve because parenthood– frustrating as it can be– makes me so damn happy.  But, social science does suggest that, on average, maybe not so much.

The early research is decisive: Having kids is bad for quality of life. In one study, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked about 900 employed women to report, at the end of each day, every one of their activities and how happy they were when they did them. They recalled being with their children as less enjoyable than many other activities, such as watching TV, shopping, or preparing food. Other studies find that when a child is born, parents experience a decrease in happiness that doesn’t go away for a long time, in addition to a drop in marital satisfaction that doesn’t usually recover until the children leave the house. As the Harvard professor Dan Gilbert puts it, “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome is nonstop smiling.”

After all, having children, particularly when they are young, involves financial struggle, sleep deprivation, and stress. For mothers, there is also in many cases the physical strain of pregnancy and breastfeeding. And children can turn a cheerful and loving romantic partnership into a zero-sum battle over who gets to sleep and work and who doesn’t. As the Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior notes in her book, All Joy and No Fun, children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments—“more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Someone who doesn’t understand this is welcome to spend a full day with an angry 2-year-old (or a sullen 15-year-old); they’ll find out what she means soon enough.

But, as often happens in psychology, although some research provided simple findings—in this case, “having children makes you unhappy”—other efforts arrived at more complicated conclusions. For one, the happiness hit is worse for some people than for others. One study finds that fathers ages 26 to 62 actually get a happiness boost, while young or single parents suffer the greatest loss. And crucially, there are geographic differences. A 2016 paper looking at the happiness levels of people with and without children in 22 countries found that the extent to which children make you happy is influenced by whether your country has child-care policies such as paid parental leave. Parents from Norway and Hungary, for instance, are happier than childless couples in those countries—but parents from Australia and Great Britain are less happy than their childless peers. The country with the greatest happiness drop after you have children? The United States…

But a deep puzzle remains: Many people would have had happier lives and marriages had they chosen not to have kids—yet they still describe parenthood as the “best thing they’ve ever done.” Why don’t we regret having children more?

One possibility is a phenomenon called memory distortion. When we think about our past experiences, we tend to remember the peaks and forget the mundane awfulness in between. Senior frames it like this: “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes—or napping, or shopping, or answering emails—to spending time with our kids … But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one—and nothing—provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.”

I’m particularly drawn to this explanation as, personally, I think one of the reasons I am a positive/happy person is that I selectively remember the positive stuff so much more than the negative.  And I can imagine that there’s a particular bias for this in parenting.

This relates to a second point, which is that there’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. It’s not just me. When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents. A study by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was—even though they reported that their life was no happier…

Raising children, then, has an uncertain connection to pleasure but may connect to other aspects of a life well lived, satisfying our hunger for attachment, and for meaning and purpose. 

It certainly seems that if you are parenting in difficult relationship or financial circumstances, the demands of parenthood can can lead to a real hit in happiness.  But, if you are fortunate enough to be sharing parenthood in a stable relationship in stable circumstances, parenthood is the bomb.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Starting it off social-science-y today.  A new working paper on how people over-estimate presidential power from Brendan Nyhan and others:

Democratic accountability requires citizens to accurately attribute credit and blame to leaders and institutions. However, citizens tend to simplify politics by personifying the state as its leader and directing credit and blame accordingly. Using an expert survey and a five-wave public panel survey spanning two administrations, we conduct the first comprehensive study of perceptions about presidential power. We demonstrate that the public exaggerates the president’s powers relative to scholarly experts and that those who exaggerate presidential powers most are more likely to attribute blame to the president. However, a change in partisan control of the presidency shifts perceptions of power among partisans. Finally, we find suggestive evidence of similar shifts in belief after salient policy failures. These results provide the most direct evidence to date that citizens generally exaggerate the president’s influence and control but that these beliefs change over time in response to events.

2) Really good from Jonathan Rauch, “The Reality Ally: How one Republican county recorder took on MAGA conspiracies of a stolen election.”

You might not think, when first meeting Stephen Richer, that he’s the kind of person the survival of our democracy depends on. He’s slender, a touch over six foot when he stands up straight (which, he acknowledges, is never), has thinning orange hair and a ready smile. He doesn’t dominate a room or radiate charisma, and though he holds two advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, he can approach anyone and be friends in minutes.

But Donald Trump’s authoritarian MAGA movement realizes that Richer stands in its way, which is why it has targeted him and other Republicans like him—of whom there are disappointingly few—for extinction. Fortunately, Richer is not going quietly. They’ve picked on the wrong guy…

In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.

“I remember a moment well,” he told me, “when someone said, ‘You’re telling me these voting machines weren’t connected to the internet?’ I looked out at the crowd and just knew the true answer was going to be wildly unpopular with at least 48 of the 50 people who were there.” (MAGA has peddled a discredited theory that the machines were secretly connected to the web, compromising their security.) “I thought, ‘I gotta say it’—that the machines weren’t connected to the internet. That got people screaming at me.”

“If I can be proud of myself for any of this, it would be that in moments like that I didn’t take the easy road,” he said. But now he was MAGA’s enemy. He was targeted with hate and threats. People banged on his car at stoplights. At times, he needed police protection. “A lot of my friendships did end,” he says. “I knew I was jeopardizing my political future.”

Soon after, the Republican-controlled state Senate initiated a partisan, and highly irregular, vote audit. An unknown, underqualified, and blatantly biased outfit called (you can’t make this up) Cyber Ninjas was the Republicans’ choice for the job. Almost immediately, the audit’s Twitter account blasted out a “breaking update”: “Maricopa County deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle days before the election equipment was delivered to the audit. This is spoliation of evidence!” Trump promptly amplified the slur, charging that “The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!”

Richer and his staff were now being accused of criminal misconduct. He felt he had no choice but to fire back publicly. “This is unhinged,” he tweeted. “I’m literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now. We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country.”

The insanity was only beginning.

The Republican Party is soooo broken.  And the mainstream media needs to stop pretending as if it’s not.

3) German Lopez with a pretty thorough look at some of the big picture issues around boosters (though, he needs to make it more clear just how much benefit there is for practically everybody in getting boosted). 

4) Thomas Mills on Madison Cawthorn and the contemporary GOP:

Congressman Madison Cawthorn announced he’s switching district to run in the newly drawn 13th district that was assumed to have been drawn for House Speaker Tim Moore. Cleveland County, Moore’s home, is in the middle of the district that stretches from Charlotte to Polk County. Moore, however, announced he’s not running for Congress. 

It sure looks like Cawthorn nudged him out, betting that his authoritarianism and ignorance is more popular among GOP base voters than Moore’s establishment grifting credentials. In a statement, he says he is concerned that the new district, which includes part of his current one, could be won by a “go along, get along” Republican. Cawthorn’s celebrity apparently gives him an edge in the primary. That said, I would much rather have Moore than Cawthorn. He might see public office as an opportunity to make money, but he’s not an idiot, which Cawthorn most definitely is.

Really, though, it doesn’t matter which district Cawthorn chooses. He’s not representing people in a district. He’s using his Congressional office as a platform to build a national following of grievance voters. The people he’s supposed to represent will need to get used to cable news hits instead of Congressional service…

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the GOP establishment rolled over for the Trumpists. I understand that their base, particularly in rural areas, has become a group of populist culture warriors, but you would think that the old-line conservatives would at least fight for their place in the party. 

5) This article in Stat, “What would the public health experts do? STAT asked 28 about their holiday plans amid Covid-19” nicely makes the point that when it comes to how to behave in the current environment there’s simply no “just follow the science.”  Pretty diverse opinions from a variety of esteemed public health experts. Here’s a nice chart of it:

Chart showing expert responses to questions from STAT

6) Kelsey Piper is right that it’s nuts that we haven’t updated treatment guidelines to make fluvoxamine a regular thing now.  And it would be nice to see a greater sense of urgency on the antivirals that look so effective.  Those can really get us out of this mess. 

7) A pretty harrowing account of one man’s ICU experience with Covid.  Yikes.

8) I finally got around to reading this and it’s really good, “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory”

9) Nice interview with Jon Haidt, “How to Overcome Tribalism, the Shouty Minority and Facebook Toxicity”

Also on social media there is a lot we could do. What I would like most is add two dials. I would like Facebook and Twitter to give me two dials. One allows me to set a filter — a minimum bar for integrated complexity or nuance. So I can filter out people who never show integrated complexity or nuance. They disappear from my social world and I disappear from theirs. They cannot see me, I cannot see them. With the other dial I want to be able to set a maximum level of aggression. I could very easily code people. The point is that content moderation is hopeless. It can never work well. User ratings on the other hand would have a gigantic impact and is easy to do. So if we simply had those two dials on social media it would greatly dampen the power of the extremes. Since people would know that the consequences would be negative, personally, if out of line. Right now people are instead trained or reinforced to say outrageous, angry and disruptive things. The platforms really do reinforce such behavior. If we change the reinforcement pattern  so that the more disruptive you are the fewer people you reach — then Twitter will change in a month. So we have to look institution by institution, company by company, platform by platform  and distinguish between what is empowering the extremes and what is giving voice to the majority in the middle.

Unsurprisingly, you know I love the idea of a “nuance” filter. When it comes to twitter, I feel like I’ve pretty effectively made my own pretty well in recognizing who to follow and who to not.

10) Loved this Sean Illing interview with Sebastian Junger on the nature of freedom.  Really, really entertaining and thought-provoking. 

Because I feel like there’s a strange idea in American society right now, and I think it’s because we’re not under any direct threat, and because we’re not under a direct outside threat, it’s possible to imagine our own government as a threat.

There’s this idea that’s sort of arisen, that you can live your life without ever being told in any way what you can and can’t do. It’s complete nonsense. Humans have never lived like that. Even people that think that, they, like good little doobies, drive on the right-hand side of the road, and they know they can’t drive on the left-hand side of the road. At a red light, they stop, because they know if they don’t, they might kill somebody. If they don’t care about that, they might kill themselves. If they don’t do that, they might get a ticket. Everyone is very carefully obeying all these rules, but some people think that the government actually doesn’t have a right to regulate and to enforce and to create strategies that benefit the greater good.

The great thing about a democracy is if you think that the government is overreaching — and the government’s great at overreaching … I mean, it’s not like it doesn’t do that. I get it. — But if you think that that’s the case, you have recourse. You can go to the courts or you can vote the bastards out. You can go to the polling booth.

But the one thing you can’t do in a democracy is use violence to change an outcome. As soon as you use violence to change that outcome, you’re actually creating the opposite of a democracy. You are on the road to fascism.

11) A good free Yglesias post worth your time, “Progressives’ mobilization delusion”

One of the biggest problems with mobilization theory is that in politics (and also other spheres of life), there are a lot of opportunists. And by moving from a straightforward question like “is this popular?” to something harder to measure like “does this mobilize voters?” a lot of people who have specific agendas can make up hazy reasons why you need to prioritize their issues.

Take climate change, an issue with some odd dynamics.

It is a very important issue, but most people don’t think it’s a very important issue. A lot of issues have that same structure (global public health, lead contamination, pandemic prevention, asteroid detection, animal welfare), but unlike the typical important neglected issue, climate has a ton of money behind it.

The actual state of opinion on climate is hard to characterize, but I think it’s summed up pretty well by these two facts:

  • 69% of Americans say the United States should take “aggressive” action to fight climate change.

  • 34% of Americans say they would be willing to pay $100 more in taxes per year to curb emissions.

In other words — people kind of care about this, but they sort of don’t really.

So climate groups invested a ton of money over the years in creating a kind of Potemkin mass movement around climate change and have gotten lots of journalists to write articles about how climate is a key voter mobilization tool.

There’s no evidence this is true. Where they test ads and decide what to put on TV in the inner sanctums of Democratic Party strategy, they know it isn’t true, and so they don’t highlight climate in their paid media. But that fact is not communicated forcefully out to wider circles of the progressive movement, which are convinced not only that it’s good to act on climate change but that really portraying yourselves as the gung-ho climate people is a great mobilization strategy.

You saw a similar dynamic on immigration. Hispanic voters don’t like it when politicians run around the country saying racist stuff about immigrants from Latin America because it’s offensive. Trump did way better with Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016 in part, I think, because he toned that stuff way down. What he didn’t do was embrace comprehensive immigration reform. But is securing a path to citizenship for undocumented residents a top priority of Hispanic voters, people who are by definition U.S. citizens? As it turns out, no! But immigration advocates started developing esoteric theories whereby immigration activists’ work was the key to mobilizing Hispanic voters, so taking left-wing stances on immigration was a Hispanic mobilization tactic, even though Latino people don’t rank it especially highly as a priority…

On the right, there are obviously a lot of people who believe that redistribution is immoral and that the old Bush/Ryan agenda of privatizing Social Security and Medicare is correct. What those people have concluded is that they have a losing argument politically, and what they need to do for the short-term is help Republicans win elections and stop Democrats from expanding the welfare state. Right now, Democrats are trying to expand Medicare benefits. Republicans are trying to stop them. Conservative movement leaders are not tweeting “the very existence of Medicare is the compromise position.” That would be toxic and play into Democrats’ hands.

So what about welfare state rollback? Well, who knows. Those folks are still out there, and if given the chance, they’ll try again. But for now, they’re laying low. I think that must be very frustrating. But it’s life.

The point is just that it’s actually very normal for there to not be some obviously viable path to victory on Issue X. If the majority of the people aren’t with you (and they often aren’t), then you either need to pursue an inside game or you need to do persuasion work in the broader culture or you need to do both. This happens all the time, and it’s not equivalent to “giving up.”

But there’s no secret mobilization sauce whereby you can replace the actual electorate (old, white, non-college, change-averse) with some different one that’s more to your liking.

12) Who knew that all that time I was wearing my kids when they were babies (I still have such fond memories of the Ergo Baby!) I was engaging in cultural appropriation.  I have to say, more often than not, the use of that phrase is just toxic.

13) Some nice post-election analysis of Virginia from 538:

In short, we identified three main throughlines that we think are useful at this stage when discussing Youngkin’s upset: 

  • First and foremost, this is a story about suburban voters, who, on average, moved to the right. That is, as we suggested, a departure from what we observed nationally in the 2020 presidential election.
  • Education issues that dominated much of the lead-up to Tuesday’s race were significant for understanding how voters felt about the candidates, but it’s actually really hard to isolate the role education played in the race.
  • Rather, disappointment in — or opposition to — Biden’s presidency may have been the main driver of this outcome, as is often the case in off-year Virginia elections…

In unpacking why Youngkin made inroads in the suburbs, though, things get more challenging. From the beginning, Youngkin straddled being pro-Trump but not so Trumpy that he repelled suburban voters and white women (groups Trump famously struggled with). And because much of the previous suburban shift toward Democrats appears to have been driven by disdain for Trump, it’s now unclear that these gains will hold when Trump is off the ballot. It didn’t hurt that Youngkin, clad in a fleece vest most of the campaign, was able to posit himself as the spitting image of a genial suburban dad.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t look like white college-educated voters, often disproportionately associated with the suburbs, necessarily drove Youngkin’s victory. The polarization of white voters by educational attainment has been a developing trend in recent years, and the Virginia result shows an even more substantial split, thanks mainly to Youngkin gaining among white voters without a college degree. Remember, plenty of white voters without a four-year degree live in suburban places, too.

14) For a day there, it was the liberal thing on twitter to just dunk on the “University of Austin.  I appreciated Dan Drezner’s more fair-minded take:

On Weiss’s Substack, Pano Kanelos writes that he left his position as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis to helm the start-up institution of higher learning called the University of Austin, or UATX for short. (UTAX would have been super-awkward.) He has done so for very clear reasons: “Can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue? Do we honestly believe that the crucial means to that end—freedom of inquiry and civil discourse—prevail when illiberalism has become a pervasive feature of campus life?”…

The Wrap’s story about it makes comparisons to Trump University, which is both unkind and untrue. Beyond Weiss, the board of advisers has a healthy dollop of current and former university presidents, including Harvard’s Larry Summers, the University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer, and West Virginia University’s E. Gordon Gee, among other folks.

In a statement to the WVU community, Gee made it clear that he does not necessarily agree with Kanelos — or anyone else on the advisory board for that matter: “Serving in an advisory capacity does not mean I believe or agree with everything that other advisers may share. I do not agree other universities are no longer seeking the truth nor do I feel that higher education is irreparably broken.”

Gee’s clarification hints at the first problem the University of Austin might face in trying to function as a real university. If its faculty even remotely resembles the board of advisers, the school would be assembling the most cantankerous, egotistical assortment of individuals since the Trump White House. Faculty governance is difficult in the best of times, and trying to herd that crew toward collective decision-making might require the very kind of illiberalism that they accuse other universities of embracing.

Another reason for the online scorn is that the university’s nascent website contains the kind of trolling that Weiss disdained three years ago. In its Frequently Asked Questions page, the first answer for why it is locating in Austin is, “If it’s good enough for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, it’s good enough for us.” Ha ha, get it? Let’s just say this troll does not pass the test that the website assures us is its guiding rule: “Are we serving the pursuit of knowledge?”

At this point, UATX is more notional than real. Its grandiosity does invite a few questions, however. Why will the first program be a graduate degree in “entrepreneurship and leadership”? Are business degrees really the area where the forces of illiberalism within the ivory tower are at their strongest? Also, the FAQ page states that UATX has “secured the seed money necessary to launch the university.” Recently, funders are known to try to exercise influence over their university donations. Are there any strings attached to that funding? Was the Elon Musk joke a subtweet to get him to kick in some funds, too? Finally, how will you avoid the pitfalls that have befallen other universities founded on ideological grounds?

I wish UATX good luck — I like a world with more universities than fewer ones. I remain somewhat uncertain, however, whether this fledgling project will come anywhere close to its stated purpose.

15) Loved this from Freddie deBoer on Rittenhouse and Kenosha, “When You Condone Chaos, You Condone the Consequences of Chaos”

Setting aside the fact that this logic is actually very close to that used to strengthen the hand of the government forces that Lennard says can’t stop fascism (the law hasn’t stopped right-wing violence, so… we’re gonna more-fund the Capitol police!) there’s the typical glaring unconfronted question here: what is the “robust anti-fascist action” that would actually lead to meaningful material change for the communities that rioters were ostensibly working for? You can punch a Nazi, if you can actually find one in the wild, but you can’t punch white supremacy, the gender wage gap, or the police state. You can burn down a Starbucks but not the Pentagon. Nor is it remotely clear that the army of graduate students and Instagrammers who make up today’s antifa are likely to win many fights.

Those institutions that actually hurt the oppressed you can only oppose with the slow, unsexy, decidedly uncool work of mundane political organizing, knocking on doors and putting up flyers and patiently speaking to people whose minds might be changed. The threat of investment banks is vastly larger to the average poor person of color than the threat of Boogaloo Boys, but antifa have no tools for confronting the former. There are no doubt some antifa types who do the boring activist work we need, but there are also armies of them who only turn up when it’s time to burn shit down. Does that sound like the type of people most poor communities would like to invite to their streets?

The criminal legal system cannot be trusted as a bulwark against fascism. In the courts, anti-fascists must use the tools available to fight the far right. We must, in a manner of speaking, take the law into our own hands.

… what is the relationship between these three sentences? The courts don’t work, but we must do antifascism in the courts? Is there a missing “but” somewhere? Most importantly, take the law into your own hands how? With what tactics? Waged by whom? For what purpose? So much attitude, so little sense…

Well, yes – sites of lawlessness and violence are good places to break the law and commit acts of violence. Perhaps the thing for thinking people to do, then, is not to pretend that such scenes are good for getting justice or anything else. Perhaps we should not give violent right-wing actors the cover of lawlessness and the excuse of mass violence, which they will inevitably use for their own ends. And people who never experience more disorder than they find in line at Whole Foods should probably stop romanticizing that which is inflicted on the poor neighborhoods they ostensibly have such humanitarian concern for.

You endorsed chaotic violence. In that state, someone you don’t like engaged chaotically and violently. You said “riots are good.” But people get killed in riots! Now two people are dead, another is maimed, and the guy responsible may very well walk, as his actions took place against a backdrop of lawlessness and gunfire that gave him the legal arguments he needs to be acquitted. What else did you expect to happen, in that scenario? How did you think this would all go, this peacocking endorsement of violence for its own sake? Reap what you sow. Reap what you sow.

16) Good stuff from Hakeem Jefferson and Michael Tesler, “Why White Voters With Racist Views Often Still Support Black Republicans”

To make sense of why racially prejudiced white Americans are willing to support some Black candidates, it is worth considering why they so strongly oppose Black Democrats in the first place. Given the racialized nature of the two-party system in the United States, most Black political candidates are Democrats who embrace liberal positions on issues of race and justice. When asked whether they would support such a candidate, research shows that racially prejudiced white voters worry that these candidates will represent the interests of Black Americans, both because of a shared African American identity  and because Democrats are perceived as the party more supportive of Black interests. So, it makes sense that racially resentful white Americans oppose candidates like Obama, as his racial identity and partisanship signaled to voters that he was more supportive of Black interests than prior presidents. 

Put another way: Racially prejudiced white voters are not opposed to Black candidates simply because they are Black, but because they believe that most Black candidates will fight for “those people” and not “people like us.”

Black Republicans, on the other hand, are perceived differently by racially prejudiced white Americans. Their embrace of the Republican Party and its conservative ideology help assure racially prejudiced whites that, unlike Black Democrats, they are not in the business of carrying water for their own racial group. Instead, they are viewed as distinct from other Black elites. If Blackness is viewed as intertwined with a kind of racial liberalism that is antagonistic to the interests of white Americans, Black Republicans’ partisan and ideological commitments allay concerns that they are for “them,” not “us.”…

Finally, voting for Black Republicans may also be especially appealing to racially prejudiced whites because it assuages concerns of being seen as racist by enabling them to say, in essence, “I can’t be racist! I voted for a Black candidate!” Psychologists call this “moral credentialing,” and there’s even some evidence that voters who expressed support for Obama shortly after the 2008 election felt more justified in favoring white Americans over Black Americans. Electing a Black Republican like Sears, who railed against critical race theory during the run-up to the election and supports voting restrictions that adversely affect racial minorities, is similarly used as a symbolic shield by the entire party from inevitable charges of championing racist policies. As we mentioned earlier, conservative media outlets and politicians are already weaponizing her victory against anyone who would dare suggest so.    

17) Edsall on ideology and happiness:

Do liberals or conservatives experience higher levels of satisfaction, happiness or meaning in life? Is the left or the right more inclined to intolerance, bigotry or conspiratorial thinking? Are Democrats or Republicans more loyal to family and friends?

A wide range of scholars in a variety of disciplines are asking these questions and taking them seriously. Ultimately, though, this line of inquiry raises an even broader question: whether liberals and conservatives function on fundamentally different moral planes.

Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject. “Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?” by Jaime Napier of N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi and John Jost of N.Y.U., and “Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, but Why?” by Barry R. Schlenker and John Chambers, both of the University of Florida, and Bonnie Le of the University of Rochester.

Using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine other countries, Napier and Jost note that they

consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.

Napier and Jost contend that their determinations are “consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function.”

One of Napier and Jost’s studies “suggests that conservatism provides an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic impact of inequality in society.”

In addition, they argue that rising levels of inequality have “exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer.”

A very different view of conservatives and the political right emerges in Schlenker, Chambers and Le’s paper:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.

In contrast to Napier and Jost’s “view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality,” Schlenker, Chambers and Le argue:

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity…

In “A Neurology of the Conservative-Liberal Dimension of Political Ideology,” Dr. Mario F. Mendez, a professor of neurology at U.C.L.A., argues:

High political conservatism is associated with preferences for stability, conformity, tradition, and order and structure. High political liberalism, in contrast, is associated with preferences for creativity, curiosity, novelty-seeking, and new experiences. Highly politically conservative people eschew ambiguity and disorganization and prefer closure and limited shades of gray (“hard categorizers”). Highly politically liberal people tolerate ambiguity and disorganization and favor flexibility and taking on cognitive conflicts.

When comparing conservatives with liberals, Mendez continues, “investigators report greater disgust sensitivity, especially for contamination disgust and violations of the sense of purity.”

“Inducing disgust,” Mendez adds, “can heighten the sense of moral violations and shift moral judgments to the conservative side.”

Political conservatism, he writes, is

specifically correlated with negativity bias in remembering more negative than positive information or scenes. In addition to negativity bias, high conservatism is associated with a sense of threat or a perception of danger. Those with politically conservative versus politically liberal views perceive ambiguous faces as more threatening, respond to threatening stimuli with more aggression, and have greater blink startle responses and skin conduction responses to unexpected or potentially threatening images.

The debate over happiness touches on a host of subjects relevant to politics, including the almost universal goal of finding meaning in life…

In terms of subjective feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment, conservatism has some built-in advantages over liberalism, Steger argued:

The higher level of meaning we see among conservatives is tied to ideas around certainty and consistency. This shows up somewhat convincingly in religious commitment, which is higher among conservatives and is related to more meaning in life.

In terms of the search for meaning, Steger wrote,

consistency is good. It helps us feel that we have made sense of our experience, which is a critical dimension of meaning in life. Having a worldview that works and never needs to change would be beneficial from the perspective of meaning in life.

Conversely, for liberals, more open-mindedness and less certainty are

more of a challenge because all the new information one encounters, and all the unanswerable questions one asks, must be integrated into our mental map. Liberals appear to place higher value on being open-minded and questioning, as well as on being future-oriented. This can leave them vulnerable to uncertainty and to having less solidity at the core of their worldviews.

Steger said that he has studied those engaged “in the search for meaning” as opposed to those who already have a strong sense of meaning. Generally, he writes,

in the United States, searching for meaning is associated with more distress. Never truly knowing if you have the right answer to lives’ grandest questions. Conservatives, especially religiously committed people, score very low on “search for meaning,” implying that they have their meaning and do not need to look any further…

18) I love this from Arthur Brooks.  One of the great realizations of wisdom that comes with maturity is understanding that other people care way less about you, what you look like and what you are doing than you are inclined to believe. “No One Cares! Our fears about what other people think of us are overblown and rarely worth fretting over.”

Paying attention to the opinions of others is understandable and, to a certain extent, rational. As the philosopher Richard Foley argues in his book Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others, you trust your own opinions; your opinions are saturated with and shaped by those of others who are similar to you; therefore, you trust their opinions as well, whether you want to or not. Thus, if one of your co-workers says, “Squid Game is really great,” your opinion of the show will probably rise, at least a little bit.

Other people’s influence on your opinions about the world pales in comparison to their influence on your opinion of yourself. Evolution neatly explains why: For virtually all of human history, humans’ survival depended on membership in close-knit clans and tribes. Before the modern structures of civilization, such as police and supermarkets, being cast out from your group meant certain death from cold, starvation, or predators. This can easily explain why our sense of well-being includes others’ approbation, as well as why the human brain has evolved to activate the same neural substrates when we experience physical pain and when we face social rejection…

Just because our overconcern for other people’s opinions of us is natural doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. The right goal for flourishing is not a complete disregard for the opinions of others. That would be abnormal and dangerous; this tendency could lead to “hubris syndrome” or even be evidence of antisocial personality disorder. But many of us could become better off if we learned to care a good deal less than we do. I recommend taking three steps.

1. Remind yourself that no one cares.

The ironic thing about feeling bad about ourselves because of what people might think of us is that others actually have much fewer opinions about us—positive or negative—than we imagine. Studies show that we consistently overestimate how much people think about us and our failings, leading us to undue inhibition and worse quality of life. Perhaps your followers or neighbors would have a lower opinion of you if they were thinking about you—but they probably aren’t. Next time you feel self-conscious, notice that you are thinking about yourself. You can safely assume that everyone around you is doing more or less the same.

19) And we’ll end on a disconcerting note, “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream: Threats of violence have become commonplace among a significant part of the party, as historians and those who study democracy warn of a dark shift in American politics.”

Quick hits (part II)

Definitely a science-heavy edition.  Enjoy.

1) Damn do I wish we could just stay on Daylight Savings all year (especially because I’m not a morning person). Spencer Bokat-Lindell, “It’s Time to Change the Clocks Again. Why Do We Do This to Ourselves?”

Most Americans don’t like this confusing and disruptive ritual of changing our clocks twice a year. But they’re split about which side of the system they prefer. In March, a bipartisan group of senators reintroduced a bill to get rid of Standard Time and make Daylight Time permanent, following the lead of 19 states that have passed similar legislation. But others — scientists who study sleep and biological rhythms, especially — argue that it’s Daylight Time that should be scrapped. Here’s a look at the debate…

If Americans already spend most of the year on Daylight Time, should we just get rid of Standard Time altogether, as so many legislators have proposed?

Steve Calandrillo, a law professor at the University of Washington who has conducted economic research on the topic, thinks it’s the right move. One reason is that darkness in the evening is associated with both larger numbers of fatal car accidents and higher levels of crime than darkness in the morning.

“D.S.T. brings an extra hour of sunlight into the evening to mitigate those risks,” he writes. “Standard Time has precisely the opposite impact, by moving sunlight into the morning.” …

Proponents of Daylight Time also argue that having more daylight in the evenings is simply more useful — and less depressing. According to a 2017 study, the transition from Daylight Time to Standard Time is associated with an 11 percent increase in depressive episodes, an effect that takes 10 weeks to dissipate. The spring switch, by contrast, was found to have no similar effect.

Getting rid of Standard Time “would mean you would sometimes wake up with it slightly darker outside, but you’d get so much more sunlight and ‘daytime’ after 5 p.m.,” Ben Yakas wrote for Gothamist in 2019. “Ask yourself if you are more likely to be outside in the world at 7:30 a.m. or at 5:30 p.m., and then you’ll know where you really fall on this issue.”

2a) Great Pro Publica feature on how we just keep failing to keep our food safe. Largely because powerful industry always has too much power in America.

In May 2018, a rare and virulent strain of salmonella caught the attention of America’s top disease detectives. In less than two months, the bacteria had sickened more than a dozen people, nearly all of them on the East Coast. Many said they’d eaten chicken, and federal food safety inspectors found the strain in chicken breasts, sausages and wings during routine sampling at poultry plants.

But what seemed like a straightforward outbreak soon took a mystifying turn. Cases surfaced as far away as Texas and Missouri. A 1-year-old boy from Illinois and a 105-year-old woman from West Virginia fell ill. There was a teenager who’d just returned from a service trip in the Dominican Republic and a woman who’d traveled to Nicaragua. But there were also people who hadn’t traveled at all.

Even more alarming was that this strain of salmonella, known as multidrug-resistant infantis, was invincible against nearly all the drugs that doctors routinely use to fight severe food poisoning.

With a public health threat unfolding across the country, you might have expected federal regulators to act swiftly and decisively to warn the public, recall the contaminated poultry and compel changes at chicken plants. Or that federal investigators would pursue the root cause of the outbreak wherever the evidence led.

None of that happened.

Instead, the team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed the outbreak investigation nine months later even though people were continuing to get sick. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry, was not only powerless to act but said nothing to consumers about the growing threat. So supermarkets and restaurants continued selling chicken tainted with drug-resistant infantis.

And they continue to do so today.

An eight-month ProPublica investigation into this once rare, but now pervasive form of salmonella found that its unchecked spread through the U.S. food supply was all but inevitable, the byproduct of a baffling and largely toothless food safety system that is ill-equipped to protect consumers or rebuff industry influence.

Several European countries have dramatically reduced salmonella in poultry by combating it on the farms where chickens are raised. But over the past 25 years, the U.S. has failed to bring down the incidence of salmonella food poisoning — even as the rates for E. coli and other bacteria have fallen dramatically.

Consumers may get the impression that the meat and poultry they find at supermarkets is safe because it bears the USDA seal of approval. But the agency doesn’t prohibit companies from selling chicken contaminated with dangerous salmonella like infantis. And even when people get sick, it has no power to order recalls.

Instead, the agency relies on standards it can’t enforce and that don’t target the types of salmonella most likely to make people sick. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, unlike its counterparts in some countries, has no authority to control salmonella on farms, where the bacteria often spreads. And even when there’s persistent evidence of contamination in a plant’s products, the USDA can’t use those findings to suspend operations. All the agency can do is conduct a general review of the plant, and that rarely leads to a shutdown.

2b) And a nice twitter thread summarizing more key points.

3) This is wild, “After 30 Years of Breeding Condors, a Secret Comes Out: ‘Virgin birth’ might be more common in animals than we thought.”

When you get to be as endangered as the California condor, your sex life becomes a highly public affair. Since 1983, when the number of California condors in existence was a mere 22, biologists have been carefully breeding the birds in captivity. They kept track of who mated with whom, how many offspring they had, and when those offspring were released into the wild. All of this is logged in the official California-condor “studbook.”

So it was quite a shock when, a few years ago, scientists conducting DNA tests as part of routine research found two condors with unexpected paternity. These two birds—known by their studbook numbers as SB260 and SB517—were not related to the fathers recorded in the studbook. Actually, they had no fathers at all. A full 100 percent of their DNA had come from their respective mothers. “We were confronted with this inexplicable data set,” says Oliver Ryder, a conservation geneticist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

The only possible explanation was a strange one: The eggs that produced these two condors must have essentially fertilized themselves without any sperm. The phenomenon is known as parthenogenesis or, colloquially, “virgin birth.” (The two mothers in this case weren’t technically virgins; they had previously produced normal chicks with the male they were housed with. As I said, not much sexual privacy when you’re a California condor.) Parthenogenesis has been studied in other birds, like turkeys and chickens. It’s also been documented in snakes, lizards, sharks, rays, and bony fish—both in captivity and more recently in the wild. Many of these discoveries were accidental, and all of these accidents have scientists wondering if parthenogenesis is not as rare as once thought.

4) Freddie deBoer, “CRT Could Use a Little Cost/Benefit Analysis: opposition to it is mostly racist bullshit but this fight just doesn’t seem worth it” (This post is really worth reading in full)

The trouble is that CRT is a remarkably fluid target and it’s never clear from one analysis to the next which “level” of CRT we’re talking about. The initial line was always that CRT is a complex legal theory that’s only found in academic journals and that no one was teaching it in schools, that it would be impossible to do so. But many activists, officials, individual teachers and curricular documents have indicated that they were intending to spread CRT education into K-12, and the Republican freakout about it seems to have pushed people to defend teaching CRT in public schools even as they still deny that it’s happening.

Unfortunately, many of them are saying flatly unhelpful things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen liberals saying online that CRT just means, for example, that slavery was bad, or that racism still exists, etc. But that’s just… not true. They taught that stuff to me in public school in the 1980s. I assure you that the antiracism activists pushing CRT go much further than that. Those people claiming it’s just saying the Confederacy was bad etc. look like liars, meanwhile, when parents look at the substance of curriculum changes in their communities and see lots of abstract indictments of whiteness. Here’s an Ohio school board member complaining that Republicans make CRT mean whatever they want it to. Which is fair. But CRT defenders seem just to have just as hazy a sense of what it “really” is. Fairly or unfairly – mostly unfairly, I think, but it’s politics – CRT advocates are left in a position of defending a loose and shaggy category that their opponents can take advantage of, and have not promoted a simple and easily-defended definition of CRT in response…

I think two things at once, if that’s still legal. It’s fair to say that I don’t think much of what I have seen in CRT, as philosophy or politics. I also think the anti-CRT hysteria is absurd and, yes, largely a matter of white backlash against increasing awareness of racism and racial inequality, though there are exceptions.

Substantively, I continue to believe in the very unfashionable idea of racial reconciliation, the idea that we are working to end racial inequality with a goal not only of eliminate discrimination but to create harmony and mutual good will between all races. The essentialism that’s common to CRT, its assumption of inherent racial identities that provoke cross-racial conflict, cuts against that. In a way completely removed from culture war, I simply don’t understand this complex ontology of whiteness or what its utility is. The absolute obsession with naming and analyzing some thing called “whiteness,” as if it has a corporeal existence independent of the human social category of race – what’s the value? If you want to indict the crimes white people have committed against other races, just… indict the crimes white people have committed against other races. Acts, laws, governments, structures? I see no analytical or political value in fixating on a racial identity category that you’ve shorn from its lived expression in human behavior…

If there was more of an active fight for reparations, I would know exactly what we would be fighting for – Black people getting out of debt, Black parents getting access to childcare, hungry Black children getting fed. Those are very real and tangible benefits, worth fighting for. And my continuing question with CRT is, what are we getting in exchange for all of this heat? Say the pro-CRT faction won in a blowout – CRT becomes a mandatory part of K-12 curricula across the country. What’s the benefit? Yes, some students would likely absorb it, be influenced by it, and change their racial attitudes accordingly. But you’d have innumerable legal challenges to it, an issue that conservatives could hammer at relentlessly, a lot of teachers and administrators who would resist sincerely implementing it for political reasons, you’d have some others who wouldn’t care to actively resist it but would just do a shitty job of it, you’d have parents pulling their kids out of public schools to avoid it, you’d have students resisting it politically, and you’d have many many students who would just be apathetic and bored about it they way most kids are about everything they learn in school. (I’m sorry to upset anyone’s romantic notions about schooling.) It just seems like any positive social effects are way, way downstream and uncertain. Is it worth the fight? I understand that anti-CRT Republicans are convinced that CRT will lead to profound social change, but… they’re deranged idiots.

What bothers me is the obvious contrast: Biden’s child tax credit is in effect a very pro-Black program that has profound and immediate material impact. (And it doesn’t lead to a lot of people living off the dole, right-wing fantasies to the contrary.) It’s vastly more defensible in elementary political terms than complicated academic talk about how, like, the law of gravity is white ideology or whatever. But it seems very unlikely to be made permanent and Democrats appear bizarrely resistant to talking about it. Giving parents money is good politics and good policy! The cynic in me says that it’s not been a focus of national focus precisely because it doesn’t inflame culture war, and that’s the only thing anybody cares about anymore.

5) Science never ceases to amaze, “Early humans domesticated themselves, new genetic evidence suggests: Selection against bullies may have caused significant changes in the way our species looks”

When humans started to tame dogs, cats, sheep, and cattle, they may have continued a tradition that started with a completely different animal: us. A new study—citing genetic evidence from a disorder that in some ways mirrors elements of domestication—suggests modern humans domesticated themselves after they split from their extinct relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans, approximately 600,000 years ago.

“The study is incredibly impressive,” says Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the new work. It’s “a really beautiful test,” he adds, of the long-standing idea that humans look so different from our primate ancestors precisely because we have become domesticated.

Domestication encompasses a whole suite of genetic changes that arise as a species is bred to be friendlier and less aggressive. In dogs and domesticated foxes, for example, many changes are physical: smaller teeth and skulls, floppy ears, and shorter, curlier tails. Those physical changes have all been linked to the fact that domesticated animals have fewer of a certain type of stem cell, called neural crest stem cells.

Modern humans are also less aggressive and more cooperative than many of our ancestors. And we, too, exhibit a significant physical change: Though our brains are big, our skulls are smaller, and our brow ridges are less pronounced. So, did we domesticate ourselves? …

William Tecumseh Fitch III, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, says he is skeptical of “precise parallels” between human self-domestication and animal domestication. “These are processes with both similarities and differences,” he says. “I also don’t think mutations in one or a few genes will ever make a good model for the many, many genes involved in domestication.”

As for why humans might have become domesticated in the first place, hypotheses abound. Wrangham favors the idea that as early people formed cooperative societies, evolutionary pressures favored mates whose features were less “alpha,” or aggressive. “There was active selection, for the very first time, against the bullies and the genes that favored their aggression,” he adds. But so far, “Humans are the only species that have managed this.”

6) More great science reading– the huge impact of whaling on ocean ecosystems and hope for a better future:

In the 20th century, the largest animals that have ever existed almost stopped existing. Baleen whales—the group that includes blue, fin, and humpback whales—had long been hunted, but as whaling went industrial, hunts became massacres. With explosive-tipped harpoons that were fired from cannons and factory ships that could process carcasses at sea, whalers slaughtered the giants for their oil, which was used to light lamps, lubricate cars, and make margarine. In just six decades, roughly the life span of a blue whale, humans took the blue-whale population down from 360,000 to just 1,000. In one century, whalers killed at least 2 million baleen whales, which together weighed twice as much as all the wild mammals on Earth today.

All those missing whales left behind an enormous amount of uneaten food. In a new study, the Stanford ecologist Matthew Savoca and his colleagues have, for the first time, accurately estimated just how much. They calculated that before industrial whaling, these creatures would have consumed about 430 million metric tons of krill—small, shrimplike animals—every year. That’s twice as much as all the krill that now exist, and twice as much by weight as all the fish that today’s fisheries catch annually. But whales, despite their astronomical appetite, didn’t deplete the oceans in the way that humans now do. Their iron-rich poop acted like manure, fertilizing otherwise impoverished waters and seeding the base of the rich food webs that they then gorged upon. When the whales were killed, those food webs collapsed, turning seas that were once rain forest–like in their richness into marine deserts.

But this tragic tale doesn’t have to be “another depressing retrospective,” Savoca told me. Those pre-whaling ecosystems are “still there—degraded, but still there.” And his team’s study points to a possible way of restoring them—by repurposing a controversial plan to reverse climate change…

Using these devices, he and his colleagues calculated that baleen whales eat three times more than researchers had previously thought. They fast for two-thirds of the year, subsisting on their huge stores of blubber. But on the 100 or so days when they do eat, they are incredibly efficient about it. Every feeding day, these animals can snarf down 5 to 30 percent of their already titanic body weight. A blue whale might gulp down 16 metric tons of krill.

Surely, then, the mass slaughter of whales must have created a paradise for their prey? After industrial-era whalers killed off these giants, about 380 million metric tons of krill would have gone uneaten every year. In the 1970s, many scientists assumed that the former whaling grounds would become a krilltopia, but instead, later studies showed that krill numbers had plummeted by more than 80 percent.

The explanation for this paradox involves iron, a mineral that all living things need in small amounts. The north Atlantic Ocean gets iron from dust that blows over from the Sahara. But in the Southern Ocean, where ice cloaks the land, iron is scarcer. Much of it is locked inside the bodies of krill and other animals. Whales unlock that iron when they eat, and release it when they poop. The defecated iron then stimulates the growth of tiny phytoplankton, which in turn feed the krill, which in turn feed the whales, and so on.

Just as many large mammals are known to do on land, the whales engineer the same ecosystems upon which they depend. They don’t just eat krill; they also create the conditions that allow krill to thrive. They do this so well that even in the pre-whaling era their huge appetites barely dented the lush wonderlands that they seeded. Back then, krill used to swarm so densely that they reddened the surface of the Southern Ocean. Whales feasted so intensely that sailors would spot their water spouts punching upward in every direction, as far as the eye could see. With the advent of industrial whaling, those ecosystems imploded. Savoca’s team estimates that the deaths of a few million whales deprived the oceans of hundreds of millions of metric tons of poop, about 12,000 metric tons of iron, and a lot of plankton, krill, and fish.

7) John McWhorter (and Condeleeza Rice) on white guilt.  

Condoleezza Rice, the first Black female secretary of state, who now heads Stanford University’s Hoover Institution — and who, by her account, attended segregated schools in the Deep South — was a guest last week on “The View.” When asked about the critical race theory debate, she said, “One of the worries that I have about the way that we’re talking about race” sometimes these days is that “somehow white people now have to feel guilty for everything that happened in the past.” She added, “I don’t think that’s very productive.” Of course, as she and we know, there’s more to the critical race theory debate than that. But about the strain of educational philosophy that looks to raise students’ awareness of racial injustice, she said that for Black kids to be empowered, “I don’t have to make white kids feel bad for being white.”

Writing for The Grio, the longtime cultural critic Touré offered a piercing reply, calling Rice a “soldier for white supremacy” and saying that white people today, including children, “should cringe at what their ancestors did.” If school curriculums include the harshest aspects of America’s history, he argued, “I really don’t care if learning this makes white kids feel bad — and if it doesn’t, then they are too heartless.”

I can see how someone arrives at that perspective, because white guilt can seem so central to what Black progress needs to be about — emphasis on “seem.” We’re increasingly encouraged to dwell on “white privilege” and “systemic racism” as key impediments, if not the key impediments, to Black progress. But we must ask just what purpose fostering white guilt serves.

Of course, there is a visceral sense of power in fostering white guilt: One has made people realize something and made them see you as deserving of recompense, as harmed and therefore owed. There can be a sense of accomplishment in just demanding that white Americans sit with past wrongs.

But presumably, the goal is to make America “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution has it. And if that’s the goal, our collective efforts to reach it presumably would be about addressing societal conditions rather than these more soul-focused endeavors. One might argue that a realer, not to mention healthier, manifestation of Black affirmation would come from more concrete markers of progress than the dutiful hand-wringing of well-meaning white people about their forebears’ sins.

A compelling reason for fostering white guilt would be that if doing so led white Americans to go out and foster change in society. And sometimes it can — but is white guilt necessary to or the best way to effect societal change? …

We seek for enlightened white people to acknowledge that they are complicit — to use a term especially popular in recent years — in a system constructed for the benefit of whites. Note that even that word is a strategy to shake white people by the color, in that telling them they are complicit is a fresher way of saying that they should be guilty. Because many white Americans have a way of resisting feeling guilty about things racial that they know are bad but that they themselves didn’t do, using a euphemism such as “complicit” is a way of trying to make the case without eliciting those typical objections: “I’ve never discriminated against anyone”; “I didn’t own slaves.”

But even phrased as complicity, the charge requires not just the occasional acolyte but the white populace as a whole to feel guilty about things people did not individually do, that were often done in the deep past rather than by their parents and that were done within a vast societal system, the operations of which even experts disagree on. That’s a lot. Recall also that most human beings are not, and will never be, dedicatedly history-minded — we live in the present.

What’s more, I don’t completely trust white guilt. It lends itself too easily to virtue signaling, which overlaps only partially, and sometimes not at all, with helping people. I recall a brilliant, accomplished, kind white academic of a certain age who genially told me — after I published my first book on race, “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” two decades ago — “John, I get what you mean, but I reserve my right to be guilty.” I got what he meant, too, and did not take it ill. But still, note that word “right.” Feeling guilty lent him something personally fulfilling and signaled that he was one of the good guys without obligating him further. The problem is that one can harbor that feeling while not actually doing anything to bring about change on the ground.

So, I’m with Secretary Rice. Especially because people can actively foster change without harboring (or performing?) a sense of personal guilt for America’s history. Black America likely will not overcome without some white assistance. But I’m not convinced that the way this happens is with white people’s cheeks burning in shame over their complicity. Maybe they can just help.

 

8) The vaccines are great.  Especially when boosted.  But, the vaccines plus the new anti-virals (Pfizer just had results so damn good they stopped the trial early) are really going to get us out of this.  

9) Thomas Edsall, with his typical social science deep dive, on what we can learn about the state of men in contemporary American society. 

Is there a whole class of men who no longer fit into the social order?

A decade ago, Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan, economists at the University of Chicago and the National University of Singapore, concluded in their paper “The Trouble With Boys: Social Influences and the Gender Gap in Disruptive Behavior”:

Family structure is an important correlate of boys’ behavioral deficit. Boys that are raised outside of a traditional family (with two biological parents present) fare especially poorly. For example, the gender gap in externalizing problems when the children are in fifth grade is nearly twice as large for children raised by single mothers compared to children raised in traditional families. By eighth grade, the gender gap in school suspension is close to 25 percentage points among children raised by single mothers, while only 10 percentage points among children in intact families. Boys raised by teenage mothers also appear to be much more likely to act out…

There are a number of research projects that illuminate the ongoing controversy on the subject of men and their role in contemporary America…

The bigger question is how the country should deal with the legions of left-behind men, often angry at the cataclysmic social changes, including family breakdown, that have obliterated much that was familiar. In 2020, white men voted for Donald Trump 61 percent to 38 percent. Many of these men have now become the frontline troops in a reactionary political movement that has launched an assault on democracy. What’s next? 

10) Are wolves the best way to cut down on car-deer collisions?  Maybe.  And it was save us a ton of money (and lives):

The thousand or so wolves that live in Wisconsin may inadvertently be doing a service to humanity, saving the lives of dozens of people. On average, 19,757 Wisconsinites collide with deer every year, leading to about 477 injuries and eight deaths. But according to Jennifer Raynor, a natural-resource economist at Wesleyan University, more would do so if wolves weren’t around. “Some lives are saved, some injuries are prevented, and a huge amount of damage and time are saved by having wolves present,” she told me.

These predators tend to prowl along human-made corridors such as trails and roads. By killing deer near these areas, or simply intimidating them into staying away, wolves could keep the animals far from cars. By analyzing 22 years of data, Raynor and her colleagues found that Wisconsin’s wolves have reduced the frequency of deer-vehicle collisions by a quarter. They save the state $10.9 million in losses every year—a figure 63 times greater than the total compensation paid for the loss of livestock or pets. “The icing on the cake is that wolves do this work all year long at their own expense,” says Liana Zanette, an ecologist at Western University, in Canada, who was not involved in the study. “It all seems like a win-win for those wolf counties.”…

Skeptics could argue that there must surely be easier ways to stop cars from hitting deer than, oh, introducing wolves. There are, Raynor says, but they all have problems. Cheap measures such as standard warning signs for drivers don’t actually work. Effective measures such as overpasses for deer are so expensive that “they can really only be implemented at really severe deer-vehicle-collision hot spots,” Raynor said. “What do you do everywhere else? Wolves are cost-effective compared to multimillion-dollar investments that affect one intersection.” (Notably, cars rarely hit wolves; just 21 such collisions were recorded from April 2019 to April 2020, in contrast to an annual average of 20,000 deer-vehicle collisions.) It sounds almost ludicrous to say, but deer-vehicle collisions are a civil-engineering problem that might best be solved by adding wolves.

To make that claim, Raynor and her co-authors, Corbett Grainger and Dominic Parker, gathered several lines of evidence. They showed that since the 1990s, when Wisconsin’s wolf populations started taking off, deer numbers plateaued in 29 counties where wolves are present, but rose in the 34 wolf-less counties. Whenever wolves first entered a county, the proportion of road accidents involving deer tended to fall. And although deer-vehicle collisions are specifically rarer in wolf-colonized counties, other types of collisions are not. These trends suggest that wolves really have made Wisconsin’s roads a little safer, irrespective of other factors. “It’s beyond the scope of the study to really nail causation, but the evidence is extremely compelling in favor of wolves being an underlying cause,” Zanette told me.

11) Today’s Freddie deBoer. Relatedy, I find it fascinating and noteworthy that my favorite thinkers and critics of the Woke Left are an avowed Marxist (deBoer) and avowed Socialist (Shor).  More than anything they want to materially improve people’s lives and wokeness is not getting us there.  

Of all of the concepts that underlie left discourse, moral universalismmay be the most central and essential, though it is little discussed. Moral universalism is the simple belief that all human beings are equal in value and dignity, and deserve political, legal, and moral equality. (It does not mean, and has never meant, that all people are equal in abilities, nor is it an argument for equality of outcomes.) This might seem like a pretty banal assumption, but remember that recognizably left-wing or socialist principles were first developed during a time when literal dynastic aristocracies were assumed to be of inherently higher value than the common person, to say nothing of various bigotries tied to race, ethnicity, and gender. Moral universalism was a powerful and radical idea relative to that backdrop. It was moral universalism that demanded an end to slavery, to sexism, to caste systems, to socioeconomic inequality: Black people deserve freedom because they are people, women deserve equal rights because they are people, the poor deserve material security and comfort because they are people. This is not merely an elegant philosophical position but the basis of left political strategy; stressing common humanity, rather than fixating on demographic differences, means we can have the biggest tent imaginable. All it requires is believing that we must leave no one behind, as a movement and society.

In contrast, today’s left-of-center is rabidly attached to moral particularism, though they mostly haven’t ever really thought this through. By moral particularism I mean the entrenched and widespread notion that certain classes of people are, by dint of their identity categories, more important than others, more deserving of political action, more noble and holy. People will deny that when asked directly, but all of their rhetoric and priorities demonstrate that tacit belief. In argument after argument, liberals today try to settle matters by insisting that a given group’s greater historical oppression means that they must be “centered,” put first, their interests elevated over those of others. A commitment to moral universalism of course demands that these historical oppressions be addressed, until these groups reach the position of equality, at which point their rights will simply be defended like everyone else’s. But today’s liberal practice, if not the explicit ideology, demands that we must relentlessly prioritize some groups over others, and that spending time or energy devoted to those outside of these groups is somehow to take the side of oppression. Debates within the coalition frequently amount to people trying to insist that they are speaking on behalf of the most oppressed, and that whichever position succeeds in that contest is necessarily the righteous cause. Moral particularism not only does not advance an ethic where everyone deserves equal consideration and equally fair treatment, it actively disdains that notion and calls it fascist.

If you don’t believe me, and your Twitter account occupies any kind of progressive space, go on there and tweet “I think Democrats and the left should work to improve conditions for poor white people as well. Their suffering matters.” The notion of the left working for poor people as poor people, rather than merely as an extension of some identity frame, would be totally uncontroversial among the vast majority of left-leaning people throughout the existence of the modern political spectrum. Today? Go ahead, tweet that out, if you have a lot of liberal and leftist followers. See how that works out for you.

I and others still cling to moral universalism, the idea that the vast inequalities between groups in our world are wrong not because the suffering groups are somehow more deserving but because all people are equally deserving and entrenched inequalities violate that ideal. Which means not that we respond to “Black lives matter” by saying “all lives matter,” but that we pursue a racial justice agenda and proudly say “Black lives matter; also, this impoverished white laid-off ironworker living off of disability payments in the Cincinnati suburbs, regardless of his political beliefs, requires our political support, as he is no less deserving of security and freedom than any other. And there’s not an ounce of contradiction between those two ideas.”

12) Sometimes I’m just blown away by the totally fascinating stuff Scott Alexander shares that I had no idea about.  Like this, “Non-Cognitive Skills For Educational Attainment Suggest Benefits Of Mental Illness Genes”

But the real fun is Figure 4:

EA FDR correction tries to impute the results from the main timeline, where Roosevelt was an effective altruist and diverted the resources of the Depression-era US into curing all diseases.

This is correlation between the genes for cognitive/non-cognitive skills related to educational attainment, and the genes for something else (eg household income). Note that these are genetic correlations, so they’re not looking at your actual household income, they’re looking at the genes that would cause you to have a high household income. This is probably better since it avoids lots of possible confounders.

Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills increase your income a lot, no surprise there. Both sets of skills improve your lifespan (probably more educated people are better at judging health advice – get your COVID vaccine!) and prevent you from making bad decisions like teenage pregnancy, smoking, or excessive drinking.

The Big 5 personality factors are yet more evidence for stereotype accuracy: the intelligent people are more introverted, more disagreeable, and less conscientious; the people who do well for reasons other than intelligence are more likely to be extraverted, agreeable, and diligent. Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are negatively correlated with neuroticism, which is not what I would have expected.

And then there’s mental illness.

have been saying for years that I think some of the genes for some mental illnesses must have compensatory benefits. Everyone else said that was dumb, they’re mostly selected against and decrease IQ. But here we get a pretty clear picture of where this is and isn’t true.

Depression is just bad. I strongly recommend not having it. Don’t even have any risk genes, if you can avoid it. All of you people trying to come up with clever evolutionary benefits for depression, I still think you’re wrong, and so does the genetic correlation with cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of educational attainment.

ADHD is also just bad here. This doesn’t entirely match my previous beliefs; I think it’s helpful with a certain kind of high-stress task switching. But we can’t blame this study for not picking that up; it’s just using the giant bucket “non-cognitive skills that affect your ability to stay in school”, of which ADHD is definitely one and definitely net bad. I suspect that there are different forms of the syndrome that are vs. aren’t associated with low intelligence (and maybe some associated with high intelligence), but this is total speculation and this study tells us nothing about this one way or the other, except that it’s correlated with lower intelligence on net.

But genes for some other conditions increase non-cognitive skills related to educational attainment. Bipolar disorder, fine, something something manic creativity hard work. OCD, fine, it’s probably on a spectrum with OCPD which is on a spectrum with regular perfectionism. Autism, fine, probably a lot of Math PhDs.

But the big shock here is schizophrenia. As of last time I checked, the leading hypothesis was that schizophrenia genes were just really bad, evolutionary detritus that we hadn’t quite managed to weed out. And although they definitely decrease IQ, they seem to be good in other ways. Not with certainty: the correction for false discovery rate kills a lot of the effect (though this is the question I would have been most interested in before reading these results, so maybe I can ignore that?). But there’s at least a faint signal here.

13) How have I never heard of screwworms?? (And how did I miss this from last year?)  [Also, seriously, just read the whole thing. So much good stuff in here!]

The Florida Keys are a place where deer stand next to children at school-bus stops. They lounge on lawns. They eat snacks right out of people’s hands. So when the deer began acting strangely in the summer of 2016, the people of the Keys noticed. Bucks started swinging their heads erratically, as if trying to shake something loose.

Then wounds opened on their heads—big, gaping wounds that exposed white slabs of bone. Something was eating the deer alive.

That something, lab tests would later confirm, was the New World screwworm, a parasite supposed to have been eradicated from the United States half a century ago. No one in the Keys had ever seen it. If you had asked an old-time Florida rancher though, he might have told you boyhood stories of similarly disfigured and dying cattle. In those days, screwworms found their way into cattle through any opening in the skin: the belly buttons of newborn calves, scratches from barbed wire, even a tick bite. Then they feasted.

Screwworms once killed millions of dollars’ worth of cattle a year in the southern U.S. Their range extended from Florida to California, and they infected any living, warm-blooded animal: not only cattle but deer, squirrels, pets, and even the occasional human. In fact, the screwworm’s scientific name is C. hominivorax or “man eater”—so named after a horrific outbreak among prisoners on Devil’s Island, an infamous 19th-century French penal colony in South America.

For untold millennia, screwworms were a grisly fact of life in the Americas. In the 1950s, however, U.S. ranchers began to envision a new status quo. They dared to dream of an entire country free of screwworms. At their urging, the United States Department of Agriculture undertook what would ultimately become an immense, multidecade effort to wipe out the screwworms, first in the U.S. and then in Mexico and Central America—all the way down to the narrow strip of land that is the Isthmus of Panama. The eradication was a resounding success. But the story does not end there. Containing a disease is one thing. Keeping it contained is another thing entirely, as the coronavirus pandemic is now so dramatically demonstrating…

To get the screwworms out, the USDA to this day maintains an international screwworm barrier along the Panama-Colombia border. The barrier is an invisible one, and it is kept in place by constant human effort. Every week, planes drop 14.7 million sterilized screwworms over the rainforest that divides the two countries. A screwworm-rearing plant operates 24/7 in Panama. Inspectors cover thousands of square miles by motorcycle, boat, and horseback, searching for stray screwworm infections north of the border. The slightest oversight could undo all the work that came before…

Adult screwworms are actually flies, with big red eyes and metallic blue-green bodies. After mating, the females lay their eggs in open wounds, and the resulting larvae eat through a ring of surrounding flesh. Once sufficiently engorged, the larvae drop off the wounds to pupate, emerging as a new generation of flies. As Knipling watched screwworms churn through their life cycle in his government laboratory, he made an observation whose importance he could intuit but not yet put to use: Female screwworms mate only once in their entire life. If a female screwworm mates with a sterile male, she will never have any offspring. So if the environment could somehow be saturated with sterile males, Knipling surmised, screwworms would very quickly mate themselves out of existence…

The wildlife were not as easy to spot from the plane, but their lives would also be altered by our flight. Welch had told me that howler monkeys in Panama sometimes fell from trees after screwworms ate out their eyes. That doesn’t happen anymore. Jaguars, sloths, tapirs, horses, coyotes, buffalo, rabbits, and squirrels up and down the North American continent are now spared from screwworms too. In the U.S., the main ecological consequence of eradication has been a dramatic increase in the wild-deer population, which once fluctuated with screwworm numbers. The parasite used to kill a large proportion of newborn fawns, whose unhealed belly buttons were open wounds. In the Keys, the recent screwworm outbreak became obvious during mating season, when males began fighting one another with their antlers. Their small, usually harmless nicks and cuts turned large and horrific once screwworms invaded them.

14) You know that China and global diplomacy are far from my forte.  But, I just had a fascinating discussion with a colleague this week who actually knows what he’s talking about along these lines.  Thus, I found this particularly interesting, “What Will Drive China to War? A cold war is already under way. The question is whether Washington can deter Beijing from initiating a hot one.”

Quick hits (part I)

1) Very few animal species actually demonstrate rhythm and for the first time we’ve got evidence in a non-human primate:

“We can infer things about when, and how, we acquired certain key aspects of musicality, like our ability to move to a beat or coordinate our pitch with others’,” said Aniruddh Patel, who was not involved in the study but whose research at Tufts University focuses on music cognition in humans and other species, like Snowball the cockatoo. You may have seen Snowball bopping to the beat of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys in a late-2000s YouTube video.

Following Snowball, there were rhythm findings in other organisms — like parakeets and a California sea lion named Ronan. But the rhythmic capabilities of our closer relatives, especially as they related to singing, remained more mysterious.

Only a few primate species sing, so they are precious resources in our search for the evolutionary origins of human musicality,” Dr. Patel said…

Researchers from Madagascar and the University of Turin recorded songs from 20 indri groups (39 animals total) for over 12 years and searched those songs for rhythmic features found in human music. They discovered two examples of humanlike rhythm in the lemur songs: a 1:1 rhythm, in which intervals between two sounds have the same duration, and a 1:2 rhythm, in which the second interval is twice as long as the first one. They also noticed a gradual decrease in tempo, a common feature in human music called a “ritardando.”

This is the first time these categorical rhythms have been identified in a nonhuman mammal. The findings suggest that the lemurs have a sense of the beat, the repeating pulse that allows us — OK, some of us — to move in time with music.

“When you’re listening to a musical piece and dancing to it, you’re basically processing this very complex stream of sounds, extracting some regularities from it, and then predicting what’s coming next,” Dr. Ravignani said. “If an indri had some sort of metronome in its head going ‘tac, tac, tac,’ then they would likely produce what we see. It’s so close to human music — it’s quite astonishing.”

Whether this musical overlap between humans and indris is a case of common ancestry or convergent evolution — where our rhythmic abilities evolved independently — remains unclear. The researchers suspect it’s a combination of the two.

2) I’m sorry, but this is wokeness amok, “The Webb Telescope’s Latest Stumbling Block: Its Name: The long-awaited successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in December. But the NASA official for whom it is named has been accused of homophobia.”  Just so we’re clear, it’s basically an incredibly rare person who was alive in the 1950’s who was not guilty of gross homophobia by today’s standards.  Just stop it.  

3) Quantitative research methods are racist?  Who knew.  Well, Kamden Strunk:

Quantitative methods and the courses in which they are taught often present as if they are neutral, value-free and unbiased. However, the history of quantitative methods demonstrates an entanglement with eugenics, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and colonialism. Researchers have begun to grapple with those issues and propose ways forward in quantitative methods.

But what about the courses? How might quantitative methods courses and their instructors — possibly unintentionally — contribute to and reify oppressive ideologies? Too often, our taken-for-granted assumptions about the social world infiltrate the ways we teach quantitative methods. It is important for all of us who teach them to take seriously the idea of harm reduction in our teaching. We should do the work to understand how our classroom practices can reify and reinforce oppressive ideologies and narratives and look for opportunities to challenge and interrupt those ideologies and narratives. Continuing to use examples that perpetuate stereotypes about racial inferiority, that position women as subservient or objects of sexual desire, that treat trans and nonbinary individuals as disposable or imaginary, and that position ability differences as personal deficiencies inflicts ongoing harm on students, especially minoritized students.

For example, using gender as a pseudo-independent variable to illustrate methods of comparing two independent groups (like the independent samples t-test) can reinforce the false view that there are only two genders or that sex as assigned at birth and gender are interchangeable. There are also examples that compare outcomes like GRE scores by race, which can reinforce ideas of hierarchies of racial intelligence.

Hmmm.  I guess, among other things, the vast majority of my research publications are sexist because they use male/female as independent variables.  I’m also pretty curious about these research methods classes that are somehow teaching that whites are superior and that women should be objects of sexual desire.

4) Krugman is right about this:

Back in July, Kay Ivey, governor of Alabama, had some strong and sensible things to say about Covid-19 vaccines. “I want folks to get vaccinated,” she declared. “That’s the cure. That prevents everything.” She went on to say that the unvaccinated are “letting us down.”

Three months later Ivey directed state agencies not to cooperate with federal Covid-19 vaccination mandates.

Ivey’s swift journey from common sense and respect for science to destructive partisan nonsense — nonsense that is killing tens of thousands of Americans — wasn’t unique. On the contrary, it was a recapitulation of the journey the whole Republican Party has taken on issue after issue, from tax cuts to the Big Lie about the 2020 election.

When we talk about the G.O.P.’s moral descent, we tend to focus on the obvious extremists, like the conspiracy theorists who claim that climate change is a hoax and Jan. 6 was a false flag operation. But the crazies wouldn’t be driving the Republican agenda so completely if it weren’t for the cowards, Republicans who clearly know better but reliably swallow their misgivings and go along with the party line. And at this point crazies and cowards essentially make up the party’s entire elected wing.

5) Catherine Rampell, always good on taxes, “What cowards the Democrats have become on taxes”

Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have been blamed for killing some of the big-ticket revenue raisers. And they have opposed many of the hikes — often inconfusing and inconsistent ways. But they are hardly alone among Democratic politicians in their resistance to raising taxes, including taxes on the rich. Some of the examples cited above were actually jettisoned over the summer by House Democratic leadership.

Biden himself also foolishly constrained what kinds of measures could be used to raise revenue, because he promisedthat no one making under $400,000 (so, more than 95 percent of Americans) would pay a penny more.

That rules out, among other things, “good” taxes such as carbon taxes. Same with other potential broad-based sources of revenue, such as worker tax contributions to social insurance programs, which many developed countries rely on to help fund their paid-leave systems. Perhaps not coincidentally, paid leave got dropped from Democrats’ bill.

So why have Democrats gotten cold feet?

The problem is partly that the Democratic voter base has shiftedtoward the college-educated, professional class, therefore becominghigher-earning. It’s uncomfortable for Democrats to endorse taxes on their own constituents, particularly when those constituents don’t realize that they, too, are technically rich. (After all, those billionaires are just so much richer!)

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), she of the famous “tax the rich” ballgown, said that when she talked about the “rich,” she didn’t mean people like “doctors.” However deserving physicians may be of high compensation, it’s hard to argue that they are not, objectively, among the top earners in this country. (Doctors are more likely than any other occupation to be in the top 1 percent.)

The other problem is that, during the 2020 presidential primary, some Democratic contenders advertised a Scandinavian-style welfare state without endorsing a Scandinavian-style tax base — that is, a system where pretty much everyone pays higher taxes, including the middle class. In fact, Democratic politicians explicitly rejected this model. Their rhetoric suggested that a major expansion of the safety net could be financed almost exclusively by soaking Elon Musk types.

Is it any wonder, then, that the few tax increases Democrats will tolerate are the very narrow, Elon-Musk-soaking variety? The White House’s framework may not roll back the Trump income tax cuts that benefited 80 percent of households — but it does levy special income “surtaxes” on just the wealthiest 0.02 percent.

The United States has among the lowest tax burdens of rich countries, but for years the GOP has been convincing Americans that they are overtaxed (even as the GOP simultaneously increased spending). Now, Democrats have given into the same false narrative. Dems could make the case that raising taxes is a worthwhile investment, so that Americans can permanently have the safety-net programs other countries’ citizenries enjoy.

Instead, Democrats have decided they also want to be known as the high-spend, low-tax party.

6) Lee Drutman and Meredith Conroy, “Democrats Worry A Lot About Policies That Win Elections. That’s Short-Sighted.”

In political science, there’s a large body of research that examines how policy shapes politics. The broad takeaway is that policy matters — a lot — but not in the ways that political pundits often think it does. Rather than helping parties win the next election, research suggests that major policies remake the political landscape in ways that reverberate far into the future — including changing expectations of government and creating new voter constituencies. This, in turn, can shape future elections. 

Although controversial when they were first enacted, social programs like Social Security and Medicare are classic examples of this phenomenon; they’ve become so popular and entrenched in our politics that parties perpetually campaign to protect and strengthen them. These programs have also essentially created a new political coalition of retired beneficiaries that actively mobilizes against any threats to them. The survival of those programs is further aided by the fact that retired seniors are largely viewed as a group “deserving” of social welfare benefits…

On this, the Affordable Care Act is instructive. As the most consequential expansion of the social safety net in the 21st century (thus far), it did reshape our politics, but its complicated design and highly partisan implementation mostly just reinforced existing political divides, making it harder for new voter constituencies to emerge. Moreover, the government’s role in providing health care benefits was obscured through its patchwork of insurance exchanges. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler has documented in “The Submerged State,” this is a major design flaw of many government programs: Indirect benefits are very commonplace, which can make it hard for voters to understand the role government plays in the benefits they receive. Policies that feel invisible don’t transform politics…

Democrats’ ambitions for social spending — though scaled back over the last several weeks — are still far larger than they have been since the 1960s, largely because they are now liberated from trying to find Republican support. And what’s key here is that many of these programs could create constituencies with beneficiaries, who will become mobilized to sustain the program. 

For example, if implemented, government-funded child care is a benefit that many working parents will come to depend on. It is unlikely to break through in time for the 2022 midterm elections, but over time, it is a benefit that Democrats may be able to campaign on protecting. This would also have been true of free college tuition for community college, another program Democrats contemplated but did not include in the latest round of negotiations. Policies like these — if designed to be clear, easy to access and visibly associated with government — stand a real chance of assembling durable, supportive coalitions…

But even adopting such programs doesn’t mean Democrats will win the messaging wars of 2022 — or even 2024. Midterm elections generally go against the party in power. And arguably, for at least the next two election cycles, the basic rules of who can vote and how votes are counted will be far, far more consequential. Social spending policy, by contrast, is unlikely to have a huge effect on 2022 — even if Democrats do pass popular programs. 

Some backlash is inevitable; even policies that eventually poll well take time to become popular because voters must experience them and actually value them. Partisanship is also sticky and slow to change. Most voters evaluate policy and programs through partisan media and judge programs by whether the programs are Democratic programs or Republican programs. But on the margins — and especially over time — policies shape both identities and party coalitions. Citizens recognize the policies they support or oppose as part of who they are, and the policies and issues that different parties “own” in the present can shape the terrain of future elections. 

7) Chait, “Republican Leaders Could Still Stop Trump. They Just Don’t Want To. Trump wants to take over. Republicans just want party unity.”

And faced with a choice between advancing normal Republican politics and prying their party loose from Trump’s grip, they are picking door No. 1 en masse.

This is the basic choice the Republican Establishment has been making for more than half a dozen years now. The last time Republicans made it was during Trump’s second impeachment. At first the insurrection so revolted them they briefly set out to make a permanent break that would prevent Trump from running again. Then they lost their nerve but told themselves they would isolate him from the party and eliminate his power without holding an impeachment vote. Then they simply gave up on that plan altogether.

The Republican Party is roughly split between those who share Trump’s belief that Democratic election wins are inherently fraudulent and those who just want to move on. A fight between a faction that primarily wants to win and a faction that primarily wants the fight to end can only go one way.

Trump has a talent — it is one of his few positive attributes — for sniffing out human weakness. He grasped early on that while many Republicans objected to his behavior, few of them cared about it more than they cared about winning. And so he keeps giving them the choice of splitting with him and his base and risking political defeat, or sticking with him and having a chance to win. They consistently choose the latter…

The primary lesson of How Democracies Die, the study by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky of democratic systems that turn authoritarian, is that the key decisions are those made by allies of potential authoritarian leaders. Those allies can choose either to help the authoritarian, and thus gain entry into a governing coalition, or side with the opposing party in order to preserve the system.

If Trump or his successors ever bring down American democracy, history will record that Republicans decided to cast their lot with him. Indeed, all the evidence we have is that they never even considered the alternative.

8) This is from 2017, but so good, “When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes: Years after research contradicts common practices, patients continue to demand them and doctors continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatment.”

For all the truly wondrous developments of modern medicine — imaging technologies that enable precision surgery, routine organ transplants, care that transforms premature infants into perfectly healthy kids, and remarkable chemotherapy treatments, to name a few — it is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous. Sometimes doctors simply haven’t kept up with the science. Other times doctors know the state of play perfectly well but continue to deliver these treatments because it’s profitable — or even because they’re popular and patients demand them. Some procedures are implemented based on studies that did not prove whether they really worked in the first place. Others were initially supported by evidence but then were contradicted by better evidence, and yet these procedures have remained the standards of care for years, or decades.

Even if a drug you take was studied in thousands of people and shown truly to save lives, chances are it won’t do that for you. The good news is, it probably won’t harm you, either. Some of the most widely prescribed medications do little of anything meaningful, good or bad, for most people who take them.

In a 2013 study, a dozen doctors from around the country examined all 363 articles published in The New England Journal of Medicine over a decade — 2001 through 2010 — that tested a current clinical practice, from the use of antibiotics to treat people with persistent Lyme disease symptoms (didn’t help) to the use of specialized sponges for preventing infections in patients having colorectal surgery (caused more infections). Their results, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found 146 studies that proved or strongly suggested that a current standard practice either had no benefit at all or was inferior to the practice it replaced; 138 articles supported the efficacy of an existing practice, and the remaining 79 were deemed inconclusive. (There was, naturally, plenty of disagreement with the authors’ conclusions.) Some of the contradicted practices possibly affect millions of people daily: Intensive medication to keep blood pressure very low in diabetic patients caused more side effects and was no better at preventing heart attacks or death than more mild treatments that allowed for a somewhat higher blood pressure. Other practices challenged by the study are less common — like the use of a genetic test to determine if a popular blood thinner is right for a particular patient — but gaining in popularity despite mounting contrary evidence. Some examples defy intuition: CPR is no more effective with rescue breathing than if chest compressions are used alone; and breast-cancer survivors who are told not to lift weights with swollen limbs actually should lift weights, because it improves their symptoms.

9) From Zeynep a couple weeks ago and really good, “The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think”

There is a clear partisan divide over vaccination — Republicans are more likely to tell pollsters that they will not get vaccinated. Some Republican politicians and Fox News hosts have been pumping out anti-vaccine propaganda. The loud, ideological anti-vaxxers exist, and it’s not hard to understand the anger directed at them. All this may make it seem as if almost all the holdouts are conspiracy theorists and anti-science die-hards who think that Covid is a hoax, or that there is nothing we can do to reach more people.

Real-life evidence, what there is, demonstrates that there’s much more to it.

Almost 95 percent of those over 65 in the United States have received at least one dose. This is a remarkable number, given that polling has shown that this age group is prone to online misinformation, is heavily represented among Fox News viewers and is more likely to vote Republican. Clearly, misinformation is not destiny.

Second, reality has refuted dire predictions about how Americans would respond to vaccine mandates. In a poll in September, 72 percent of the unvaccinated said they would quit if forced to be vaccinated for work. There were news articles warning of mass resignations. When large employers, school districts, and hospital systems did finally mandate vaccines, people subject to mandates got vaccinated, overwhelmingly. After United Airlines mandated vaccines, there were only 232 holdouts among 67,000 employees. Among about 10,000 employees in state-operated health care facilities in North Carolina, only 16 were fired for noncompliance.

The remarkable success of vaccine mandates shows it is not firm ideological commitments that have kept everyone from getting vaccinated, and that the stubborn, unpersuadable holdouts may be much smaller than we imagine…

Some key research on the unvaccinated comes from the Covid States Project, an academic consortium that managed to scrape together resources for regular polling. It categorizes them as “vaccine-willing” and “vaccine-resistant,” and finds the groups almost equal in numbers among the remaining unvaccinated. (David Lazer, one of the principal investigators of the Covid States Project, told me that the research was done before the mandates, and that the consortium has limited funding, so they can poll only so often.)

Furthermore, its research finds that the unvaccinated, overall, don’t have much trust in institutions and authorities, and even those they trust, they trust less: 71 percent of the vaccinated trust hospitals and doctors “a lot,” for example, while only 39 percent of the unvaccinated do…

The Covid States team shared with me more than a thousand comments from unvaccinated people who were surveyed. Scrolling through them, I noticed a lot more fear than certainty. There was the very, very rare “it’s a hoax” and “it’s a gene therapy,” but most of it was a version of: I’m not sure it’s safe. Was it developed too fast? Do we know enough? There was also a lot of fear of side effects, worries about lack of Food and Drug Administration approval and about yet-undiscovered dangers.

Their surveys also show that only about 12 percent of the unvaccinated said they did not think they’d benefit from a vaccine: so, only about 4 percent of the national population.

10) This is really good on Ivermectin and what it shows us, “The Real Scandal About Ivermectin: Claims about the drug are based on shoddy science—but that science is entirely unremarkable in its shoddiness.”

So if you’re the sort of person who “follows the science,” it might seem perfectly rational to join the fervent supporters of ivermectin. It might even strike you as reasonable to suggest, as one physician and congressional witness did recently, that “people are dying because they don’t know about this medicine.”

The problem is, not all science is worth following.

I work on a small team of researchers who do what one might call “forensic peer review.” In the standard process for scientific publishing, peer reviewers take a manuscript mostly at face value: They ensure that the study makes sense as it’s described. We do something else: We check everything, and try to ferret out any potential biases in reported patterns of digits, statistical impossibilities, inconsistencies between what researchers said they’d do and what they actually did, and plagiarized sentences or paragraphs. And we often find fatal flaws hidden behind a veil of two-dollar words and statistical jargon.

The ivermectin literature has been no exception. Over the past six months, we’ve examined about 30 studies of the drug’s use for treating or preventing COVID-19, focusing on randomized studies, or nonrandomized ones that have been influential, with at least 100 participants. We’ve reached out directly to the authors of these studies to discuss our findings, sometimes engaging in lengthy back-and-forths; when appropriate, we’ve sent messages to the journals in which studies have been published. In our opinion, a bare minimum of five ivermectin papers are either misconceived, inaccurate, or otherwise based on studies that cannot exist as described. One study has already been withdrawn on the basis of our work; the other four very much should be…

Given all the care that goes into maintaining scientific literature, how did this house of cards acquire planning permission? The answer is that the pandemic has created a very difficult environment for scientific publishing. In early 2020, a hunger for high-quality information arose immediately. How scared of the coronavirus should we be, and how should we behave? How does the virus spread? How dangerous is it? What decisions should governments make? To answer those questions, scientific studies were produced at record pace, peer-reviewed almost immediately after they were submitted or else put into the public domain via preprint as soon as they had been completed. Publishing science is slow; highly contagious diseases are fast.

It’s not that, under such conditions, a few bad studies were bound to slip through the net. Rather, there is no net. Peer review, especially when conducted at pandemic speed, does not exert the rather boring scientific scrutiny needed to identify the problems described above. Forensic work like ours is not organized by scientific journals. We do not get paid. We are not employed by universities, hired by governments, or supported by private money to do this. We do it because we feel it should be done.

11) I love Dune and I love Denis Villeneuve so I was pretty sure I wanted to see it on the big screen, even thought it was just sitting there waiting for me on HBO Max.  I’m glad I did. I didn’t love the movie, but I really, really liked and am so glad I was able to see Villeneuve’s amazing vision for the film on the big screen.  

Size is everything to Denis Villeneuve, who’s spent the past decade making movies that seek to dwarf, devastate, and inspire awe. After breaking onto the international scene in 2010 with Incendies, the Canadian-born filmmaker has carved out a preeminent spot in Hollywood via genre efforts of oppressive menace, from the harrowing real-world thrillers PrisonersEnemy and Sicario, to the monumental science-fiction dramas Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Particularly in those last three efforts, Villeneuve has developed an aesthetic—marked by dark, imposing visual schemas and blaring audioscapes—that imparts a gnawing sense of existential dread and despair. Arguably the least humorous auteur in contemporary cinema, his work hits like a crushing nightmare of anxiety, regret and doom.

12) Succession is probably my favorite show that’s been made in the last 5 years.  My favorite part is that it is actually way funnier than most shows that are comedies.  And nothing is better on that front than Nicholas Braun as Cousin Greg.  Fun profile here.

13) I really think we have very legitimate concerns about the mental health of Gen Z and yes it’s how we’re raising our children.  Haidt and Lukianoff:

Gen Z’s Mental Health Decline

We showed in Chapter 7 that a sharp rise in teen anxiety and depression began around 2012. Unfortunately, the trends have continued unabated since 2018. Figure 14.1 is based on the same dataset as the book’s Figure 7.1 except that we have added in the three years of data that have since become available, shown to the right of the dotted line. Just in these three years of new data, the depression rate has risen by more than a third for boys (from 6.4% of all boys to 8.8%), and by nearly a fifth for girls (from 19.5% of all girls to 23%). We find similar trends in other datasets, including, tragically, data on self harm and suicide.[3]

Depression Rates, Ages 12 to 17Figure 141. Percent of U.S. adolescents ages 12-17 who had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2004-2019.

We have learned a lot more about why these trends are worsening. We were particularly enlightened by Kate Julian’s 2020 cover story in The Atlantic titled “What Happened to American Childhood?” Julian interviewed dozens of experts about the anxiety epidemic and found a surprising degree of agreement that much more therapy was needed. But it’s not just the kids who need therapy; many of the experts said it’s the parents who need to chill out. 

We devoted Chapter 8 to “paranoid parenting,” but Julian identifies a causal pathway that we had not considered: As childhood anxiety rates are rising, parents are increasingly “accommodating” their children’s anxiety, rather than helping them to overcome it. She cites the example of children who don’t like to be separated from their parents within their home. In one family, the parents call out to the child so that the child always knows where they are. These parents are catering to the children’s short term needs (to shut off the anxiety now), at the expense of their long term needs (to reduce the power of things to trigger irrational anxiety). That’s pretty much the definition of “coddling.” Just as we showed in our analysis of trigger warnings (Chapter 1), the way to overcome anxiety is through gradual exposure, not by removing “triggers” from the person’s life, which only increases the power of the trigger when it is eventually encountered. (Five new studies have confirmed our conclusion that trigger warnings don’t help and sometimes hurt. [4][5])

14) This is fascinating! And disturbing,  “Tuskless Elephants Escape Poachers, but May Evolve New Problems”

A deep enough wound will leave a scar, but a traumatic event in the history of an animal population may leave a mark on the genome itself. During the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, humans killed so many elephants for their lucrative ivory that the animals seem to have evolved in the space of a generation. The result was that a large number are now naturally tuskless.

paper published Thursday in Science has revealed the tooth-building genes that are likely involved, and that in elephants, the mutation is lethal to males.

Although evolving to be tuskless might spare some surviving elephants from poachers, there will likely be long-term consequences for the population.

Normally, both male and female African elephants have tusks, which are really a pair of massive teeth. But a few are born without them. Under heavy poaching, those few elephants without ivory are more likely to pass on their genes. Researchers have seen this phenomenon in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where tuskless elephants are now a common sight.

“We had an inkling,” said Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, that whatever genetic mutation took away these elephants’ tusks was also killing males.

To learn more, Dr. Campbell-Staton and his co-authors started with long-term data, including prewar video footage of Gorongosa’s elephants.

They calculated that even before the war, nearly one in five females were tuskless. This might reflect earlier conflict and poaching pressure, Dr. Campbell-Staton said. In well-protected elephant populations, tusklessness can be as low as 2 percent.

Today, half of Gorongosa’s females are tuskless. The females who survived the war are passing the trait to their daughters. Mathematical modeling showed this change was almost certainly because of natural selection, and not a random fluke. In the decades spanning the war, tuskless females had more than five times greater odds of survival.

And the pattern of tusklessness in families confirmed the scientists’ hunch: it seems to be a dominant trait, carried by females, that’s lethal to males. That means a female with one copy of the tuskless mutation has no tusks. Half of her daughters will have tusks, and half will be tuskless. Among her sons, though, half will have tusks and the other half will die, perhaps before birth.

15) Will Saletan is not wrong, “The Entire Republican Leadership Is Covering Up Trump’s Coup Attempt: Authoritarian corruption has permeated the GOP.”

On Jan. 6, two months after President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his supporters attempted a coup to keep him in power. The attack shook congressional Republicans, and many spoke out against it. That resistance has since collapsed. In the past month, statements by the party’s most powerful lawmakers—culminating in their attempt last week to eviscerate the House investigation of the Jan. 6 attack—show that the entire Republican leadership has decided to accept Trump’s lies about the election and to shield the coup plotters from accountability.

Trump remains a grave threat. In polls, he holds a prohibitive lead over his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and he’s running almost even with President Joe Biden in a hypothetical rematch. He continues to claim that the election was stolen and that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, but he has added a new twist. The “real insurrection,” says Trump, was the election itself—and therefore, the attempt to overturn it on Jan. 6 was righteous. Trump claims that the people arrested in the assault on the Capitol are political prisoners, and he rejects the House inquiry into the assault as an “illegitimate investigation.”

In their statements about Trump and Bannon, GOP leaders abandoned democratic norms and the rule of law. On Oct. 21, as Republicans worked to sabotage the resolution against Bannon, a reporter asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, “Are you OK with people defying congressional subpoenas?” In response, McCarthy dismissed the subpoena as “invalid,” arguing that among Republicans, the committee was “not viewed as a committee” but as a cabal of Trump haters. McCarthy didn’t like the committee’s composition, so he deemed it illegitimate.

16) This is an amusing diversion, “B.J. Novak’s Face Is on Products Worldwide. He’s Not Sure Why.
An image of the actor appears on an eclectic mix of products from China to Uruguay. “I am too amused to do anything about it,” he said on Instagram.”

 

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