Tag Archives: science

An Inflection Point

I just watched one of those “viral” videos of people protesting–almost rioting–against a mandate that they wear a mask. If I were being kind, I would say that their complaints were uninformed. More accurately, their commentaries ranged from stupid to selfish to deranged. 

If protesting the wearing of masks to prevent transmission of a virus was the only symptom of American irrational behavior these days, that would be concerning enough, but these people are also, clearly, Trump voters. And for the past four years, I have struggled to understand the psychology of people who can look at this aggressively ignorant President with his pathetic make-up, listen to his inarticulate word-salads, read his childish and ungrammatical tweets, and think “Yes! That’s someone who should represent my country abroad, and control the nuclear codes.”

The United States is at an inflection point. Where we go from here will depend upon how we respond to the pandemic, to climate change, and to unacceptable levels of economic inequality, among other challenges–and whether those responses improve our society or further debase it will depend upon whether we decisively eject Trump, his appalling administration and his GOP enablers. 

That, in turn, will depend upon the number of voters who think wearing a mask deprives them of “freedom” and believe the ludicrous buffoon in the White House is doing a great job.

Political science research has convincingly tied Trump support to racism, and that relationship has become quite clear–but when you think about it, the persistence of so much virulent racism despite some 50 years in which society has (slowly) changed, and during which Black and White Americans have increasingly come to know each other as individuals is a puzzle of its own.

Why are these people so angry and hateful? Why does the loss of unearned social dominance enrage them? What do they fear?

It’s true that bigotry increases in tough economic times, but many of these people are financially comfortable. It’s also true that these attitudes are more prevalent among the  uneducated, but I know a lot of people who never went to college who are “salt of the earth” and I have also encountered plenty of racists with advanced degrees. 

One of Paul Krugman’s email letters (I don’t have a link) suggested to me that the answer may lie in an inability to live with ambiguity. Krugman was discussing Trump’s dismissal of science in general and climate change in particular, and noted that epidemiology, climatology and  economics all require the modeling of complex systems in which no prediction ends up being exactly right. Certainty eludes us.

Science and technology have created a world of constant change and multiple shades of gray.

The scientific method rests on consistent efforts to falsify prior results. Political ideologies and economic theories inform legislation that in practice often generates unintended consequences and sends us back to the drawing board. Religious diversity challenges fundamentalism. Technology continually upends everything from transportation to communication. All of these influences combine to open new intellectual vistas and cast doubt on the old– and that process inevitably changes the culture.

As I tell my students, the two phrases I hope they use more often after leaving my class are “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

A significant percentage of humans evidently cannot deal with an environment characterized by ambiguity and change, with a lack of “bright lines” and universally-accepted certainties–and as a result, they reject the possibility that people who look, love or worship differently from themselves have as much claim to humanity and respect as they do. 

In November, I guess we’ll find out how numerous they are.

 

 

 

Herd Immunity

As we get  closer to November 3d, Trump and his sycophants are becoming more agitated about polls that show His Orangeness losing.  Those negative polling results rest in significant part on the widespread ( entirely accurate) perception that Trump has failed spectacularly when it comes to protecting the public against the Coronavirus.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are now hearing about a vaccine that might be ready on November 1st (that date is just a coincidence, of course), or that we are seeing the White House ramp up efforts  to distract from the sort of  sound, science-based advice being offered by actual experts like Dr. Fauci. One of  the more misleading  messages  emanating from the administration involves promises  about achieving “herd  immunity,” so  today I  thought I’d turn the  bulk of  the  blog over  to my cousin the cardiologist, whom I  often quote on these  matters. (You can read his blog, aimed at debunking “Snake Oil” remedies, here.)

This time, he  addresses the  question: What Is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a high percentage of a given population is immune to a disease, either from having recovered from an infection, or having received a prior vaccination. The end result is the prevention of subsequent outbreaks, or epidemics, of the disease within that population. The exact threshold for herd immunity depends on the specific disease, especially on how easily the disease is spread. Measles, which is highly infectious, requires over 90 percent of the population to produce herd immunity. Meanwhile, influenza can be controlled with a 60 percent level of herd immunity. COVID-19 might be somewhere in the middle: Most experts expect that coronavirus would require 70 to 80 percent protection to achieve this level of immunity.

Herd immunity is typically achieved through a vaccine, such as that for polio, a disease which, just a few decades ago brought justifiable fear to parents that their children would be paralyzed for life. And although isolated cases still occur in many places, a high enough proportion of people are immune through vaccination that epidemics no longer occur. Similar success was obtained with measles, until a misguided anti-vaccination movement has partially upended the desired herd immunity levels.

Originally the term “herd immunity” was employed by immunologists and epidemiologists to describe the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity through receipt of an effective vaccine in order to halt spread of infection. Used by Trump, however, herd immunity is interpreted as the percentage of the population that must acquire immunity by becoming infected to stop the infection from spreading further. This no vaccine approach requires a significant portion of the population to become gravely ill or die (as nearly 200,000 Americans already have) to achieve the same result.

Sadly, a New Coronavirus Adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, misinforms both the White House and general population with deceptive ideas. Dr. Atlas (a radiologist, not versed in epidemiology or infectious diseases) questions controls like masks. He has angered top health officials by pushing various other disputed policy prescriptions. He argued not only that the science of mask wearing is uncertain, but that children cannot pass on the coronavirus and that the role of the government is not to stamp out the virus but to protect its most vulnerable citizens as Covid-19 takes its course. Ideas like these, scientifically incorrect, have propelled Atlas into President Trump’s White House, where he is pushing to reshape the administration’s response to the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Trump has embraced Dr. Atlas’s cockamamie ideas, as has Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, even as he upsets the balance of power within the White House coronavirus task force with ideas that top government doctors and scientists like Anthony S. Fauci, Deborah L. Birx and Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, find at best misguided , and at worst, outright dangerous

“I think Trump clearly does not like the advice he was receiving from the people who are the experts — Fauci, Birx, etc. — so he has slowly shifted from their advice to somebody who tells him what he wants to hear,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University, who is close to Dr. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

“He (Atlas) has many great ideas,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House briefing last month with Dr. Atlas seated feet away. “And he thinks what we’ve done is really good, and now we’ll take it to a new level.”

Let’s all hope that we can prevent this “new level” from materializing until after November, 2020!!

Respect

Tom Friedman isn’t one of my favorite New York Times columnists; I usually find him either tendentious or self-congratulatory. But he’s growing on me.

I especially liked his column last Wednesday, in which he suggested a slogan/bumper sticker for the Biden campaign:“Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”

If only!!

As Friedman writes, not only are these values held by most Americans, they are in dramatic  contrast to Trump. (I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t have anything we would call “values”–and I have never seen him display anything remotely resembling respect for anyone or anything..Even self-respect would be an improvement.)

Disdain for science is seen in Trump’s antagonism to fact, evidence and reality. It’s bad enough when his contempt for facts involves lying about crowd sizes or windmills causing cancer, infuriating when it involves denial of climate change– but with the advent of Covid-19, it poses an even more immediate threat.

But his disdain for science has become fatal, as we’re seeing in this widening pandemic. Trump has gone from offering quack remedies, like disinfectant, ultraviolet light and hydroxychloroquine, to mocking people, including Biden, for adopting the easiest and most scientifically proven method for limiting the spread of the coronavirus: wearing a face mask.

Trump doesn’t simply reject science. He’s lost whatever grip  he ever had on elementary logic.  Friedman echoes the astonishment so many of us expressed when our Commander-in-Chief–the purported leader of the free world–opined that we have more cases of Coronavirus because we test for it.

Think about that: Stop testing. Then we’ll have no knowledge. Then we’ll have no numbers. Then we’ll have no virus. Why didn’t I think of that?

Stop testing people for drunken driving, and then we’ll have no more drunken drivers. Stop arresting people for shootings, and then the crime rate will go down.

And if we didn’t have pregnancy tests, voila! Population control…

Then there’s the little matter of respecting Mother Nature.

Trump’s lack of respect for nature may be a political asset for him with his base, but it’s been a disaster for the country. …

Respect for nature also means understanding that we live on a hard rock called planet Earth with a thin cover of oceans and topsoil, enveloped by a thin layer of atmosphere. Abuse that soil, junk up those oceans with plastics, distort that atmospheric blanket and we will likely (further) destroy the perfect Garden of Eden that has been the basis of all human civilization.

According to National Geographic, the Russian Arctic has been having an extended heat wave that drove temperatures north of the Arctic Circle to 100.4 degrees F on June 20–the official first day of summer. (I can’t imagine what that will do to all the structures that have been built on the Arctic’s permafrost…)

The Trump administration has rolled back close to 100 environmental regulations–and has failed or refused to enforce a number of others. The administration reserves its “respect” for the bottom lines of fossil fuel and chemical companies that are operating with impunity as the planet heats and widely-used chemicals are found to be lethal.

Respect for other people? Can we even remember the civility, decorum and good manners of the Obama-Biden administration?

Respect each other? That’s not so easy in the midst of our other pandemic — a pandemic of incivility. You cannot exaggerate the impact on the whole civic culture of having a president who has elevated name-calling, denigration and lying to a central feature of his presidency, amplified by the White House.

Friedman acknowledges that there are multiple sources of disrespectful behavior–especially the algorithms of social media platforms–but he notes that restoring interpersonal respect will require  two things: a president who every day models respect rather than denigration, and citizens who actually listen to each other. Right now, we have neither.

Respect for science. Respect for nature. Respect for each other.

I like that.

 

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

Sorry about that bad pun, but these day, even pathetic humor is a respite from the daily news…                                                                          
                                                                    
And speaking of the daily news–according to one recent report on the pandemic, new cases have increased by 84% in states that don’t require the wearing of masks, and fallen by 25% in states that do.
 
You might consider that a clue-just a small hint that we should trust science.

After all, those numbers would seem to confirm what all those doctors and epidemiologists have been saying: mask-wearing protects us (or more accurately, protects other people from being infected by those of us who are asymptomatic). Evidently, however, America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed sanity.
 
The polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans strongly favor measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers are broken down, however, Republican voters disagree—prioritizing the economy.
 
Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.
 
The polling reminds me of a survey I saw a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of that child marrying someone of the opposite political party.
 
Talk about “identity politics”!
 
In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
 
The fact of extreme partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe the science that tells us Covid-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing (!), or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different theory, arguing that the G.O.P.’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects. Krugman argued that Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.
 
“It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.”
 
As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation, Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes, and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts.

In all fairness, this phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.
 
In his book, The Truth About Denial, Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias (what we used to call “cherry picking”), accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.
 
Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you. Or grandma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How a cognitive failing explains why so many people reject the facts about the pandemic

The Triumph Of Quackery

We are seeing what happens when the “fringe” goes mainstream. (Well, perhaps not mainstream as in “mainstream American society” but mainstream as in “takes over a President and his political party.” Mainstream Republican, in other words.)

When belief in science threatens the bottom line, when those pesky things called “facts” are politically inconvenient, when the complexity of modern life requires an acknowledgement of uncertainty–people who are profoundly uncomfortable with those realities retreat to the conspiracy theories and bright lines that have long characterized beliefs of people we might refer to as “untethered to reality.”

As Richard Wolffe recently asked about one such “untethered” person in the Guardian, “What kind of buffoon brags about taking a drug that could kill him?”

Wolffe acknowledges that–among the many ailments Donald Trump has inflicted on his own country – there is one worse than hydroxycholoroquine, unsafe and ineffective as the FDA says it is for this use.

But it’s even worse that he is a one-man delivery vehicle for a dunce cult that denies science.He represents the nadir of a long tradition of conspiracy-loving wingnuts who used to populate the fringes of the American conservative movement. Over the last half-century they have moved steadily into the mainstream of the Republican party, where their fact-free fairytales about the evil establishment have found a natural home in the cranium of the 45th president.

In this age of hyper-connected ignorance, there are no independent experts and there are no true facts. Your scientific theories are equal to my Twitter theories, just as your FBI investigation into Russia is equal to Rudy’s supposed investigation into Ukraine. All opinions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

As Wolffe notes, slap a respectable-sounding name on groups espousing bizarre theories, and watch the desperate-to-be-believers lap it up: the staid-sounding Association of American Physicians & Surgeons, for example, has denied that HIV causes Aids (citing “official reports and the peer-reviewed literature”) and revealed that Barack Obama was using “mass hypnosis to bamboozle voters with his fancy speeches,” among other “scientific” discoveries.

According to recent surveys, most Republicans want scientists out of the policy process. Before the pandemic, just 43% of Republicans thought scientists should play an active role in policy debates, compared with 73% of Democrats. This at a time when so many policy issues–from auto emission standards to public health standards–require an understanding of what credible science tells us.

Even fewer Republicans – 34% – think scientists are any better at making decisions about science policy than you or me.

These opinions did not crawl out of the primordial soup on their own. They have evolved over time in a warm bath of fringe conspiracy groups that have spent decades fighting against the teaching of evolution, among other social evils. One of those groups was Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which worked to push evolution out of the classroom, almost as doggedly as Mrs America fought against women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

So it’s no surprise to find her son Andrew named as general counsel to the AAPS. Among other projects, Andrew Schlafly founded a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, to correct its “liberal bias” on things like evolution.

Fringe beliefs aren’t new. Stupidity isn’t new (although I doubt we’ve ever had a President as monumentally stupid as Trump, who recently responded to a question about per capita comparisons with Germany and Japan by saying “You know, when you say ‘per capita’ there’s many per capitas. It’s, like, per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per-capita basis too.”)

What is new is the Internet and especially social media. What is new is the chutzpah of a President complaining that fact-checking his obvious lie on Twitter somehow deprives him of “free speech.” What is new is our ability to occupy information bubbles of our own choosing–bubbles that reinforce our bigotries and reassure us that Q is real and the pointy-headed intellectuals who trust science are part of the “deep state.”

What is new–and most definitely not improved– is the devolution of an entire political party into an adolescent, anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-fact cult of quackery.