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Don’t defend science by making people defend their religion or politics

In my latest Pacific Standard  column, I write about how to go about standing up for science in our highly polarized society. Two points are important:

First, the public, across the political spectrum has a remarkable amount of trust in scientists. (See my column for a link to the data.) This is amazing, because as a group, American scientists’ political affiliations match their demographic: city-dwelling people with post-college education are overwhelmingly liberal, including scientists. (And, full disclosure, including me.) And yet the majority of the public, including conservatives, see scientists as non-partisan. So let’s not squander that trust!

Second, science issues that we might think are highly polarized are either only polarized in America (e.g., conservatives in other countries accept climate change, most religions are fine with evolution), or not as polarized as you might think (e.g., opinions on GMOs and vaccines are not heavily split along political lines).

So as we go about trying to defend science in the Trump era, where highly ideological people like Scott Pruitt might be put in charge of important science agencies, let’s engage the public in a way that doesn’t force them to defend their political loyalties, as best we can. The worst thing that can happen to science (not to mention the planet) is for conservatives to believe climate change science is only a liberal thing, or for the far left to believe that support for vaccines is a conservative thing.

This doesn’t mean scientists should disengage from politics – just the opposite. We should take on politicians and actors in bad faith who undermine good science. But when we do so, we should make it clear that it’s about science, not partisanship.

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Immigrants are Critical for American Science

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My great-grandfather, a political refugee from Latvia, was a bacteriologist for Merck.

The Trump administration’s ill-conceived and implemented executive order harms all sorts of people, like Iraqis who risked their lives to help the US military, and US citizens whose spouses, parents, and children are not citizens. The policy is inhumane and will likely damage our national security.

It also harms science, as many are pointing out. (See Ed Yong in the Atlantic for stories of scientists who are directly affected.) Immigrants play an enormous role making American science great. I made the case for this in a Pacific Standard piece two years ago – and it’s a good day to reup the argument:

Science has always been most successful when countries exchange ideas, talent, and resources, which is why one of the National Research Council’s “ten breakthrough actions” recommended to Congress is to “ensure that the United States will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.” Our scientific preeminence relies heavily on migrant scientists, and that’s a good thing.

The FDA Should Only Approve Drugs Backed By Science

Here’s some Inauguration Day reading for you:

For half a century, the FDA has regulated drugs on the premise that science should show that they’re safe and effective before drug companies get to sell them. Before modern drug laws, companies filled the market with ineffective products, backed by no evidence that they worked.

As I write this week in Pacific Standard, a couple of candidates for Trump’s FDA seem to think that we should go back to that era before modern drug laws. Jim O’Neill, a venture capitalist who invests in biotech argues that as long as companies can show a drug is safe, the FDA should let patients take it “at their own risk,” regardless of whether that drug is useless.

And biomedical engineer/biotech executive Balaji Srinivasan thinks that, rather than testing drugs with clinical trials, people should just rate them the way they rate their Uber drivers. Given that people believe all sorts of insane things about what makes them healthier, this is not likely to be a way to rigorously learn whether a drug actually does something for the patients who buy – and whether its not just the drug company ripping people off.

In my piece, I explain exactly why these ideas would be bad for you. But the overarching theme is this: the problem with the two candidates, and their associate Peter Thiel (who is advising Trump on the FDA) is that they see drugs and biotech from the view of investors and startup executives. These are people who hear promising, brilliant medical ideas all the time from scientists and entrepreneurs, people who want to take fledgling ideas and turn them into therapies. That’s great, but in the end, most of these promising, brilliant ideas will in fact be wrong – and that’s why we need the FDA to protect us by weeding out the failures.

We Sell Our Attention Too Cheaply

The message of Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is that we should more carefully consider what we get in return when we let companies sell our eyeballs to advertisers. In fact most we don’t consider it at all. If I’ve failed to turn off Twitter or my mail app while working, inevitably, barely thinking about it, I click away from the task at hand to quickly check my inbox or Twitter feed. I’m lured away from productive work by something that is literally optimized to capture my attention.

In the case of Twitter, as all of us these days are aware, the salable product isn’t the app, it’s your attention. Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Instagram, are nominally free because these companies are  what Tim Wu calls attention merchants, capturing your mental space and selling it to advertisers. In exchange, we get pretty good free email, a way to stay in touch with old high school friends, and a chance to argue politics with idiotic strangers who we’ll never meet in real life.

The attention merchant model isn’t new – Wu traces it back to the first tabloids in New York, which sold their papers below cost, hoping to make money through advertisers. To make this business model work, tabloids like the New York Sun were the Buzzfeeds of their day, trafficking in the 19th century equivalent of clickbait.

In the case of Gmail or Facebook, yeah, we know they’re selling our data, but we think the trade is worth it. The same is true with broadcast TV: the Superbowl is free to watch, and in exchange, we sit through some high-budget, clever ads. What’s not to like about this deal?

Wu argues however that we’re selling ourselves too cheaply. Without blinking an eye, we let advertisers vie for our attention in our most personal and protected spaces: our homes, our bedrooms, our schools. At one time, as Wu documents, the idea that one would let a stranger pitch a sale to the family sitting around the dinner table was outrageous. No longer, as we eat in front of our TV’s and phones.

Not only have the attention merchants completely invaded every last corner of our personal space, but their business imperatives have also distorted the content we get. We think we get a great app or great TV shows in exchange for looking at a few ads. Wu shows however, we put up with content that is not driven by the creative talents of directors, screenwriters, performers, journalists, or editors, but rather by the talents of those whose business is to commoditize human attention – and the content sucks as a result. As examples, Wu cites the rigged quiz show craze of the late 1950’s, or the crappy reality TV of the aughts. (Interestingly, Wu argues that we’re getting great television now, thanks to companies like Netflix that, rather than selling attention, sell subscriptions.) One could also cite the deluge of completely fabricated news stories during this past election.

One question that Wu didn’t seem to me to have a good answer to is, what’s the alternative? Take journalism for example, perhaps the most important locus of tension between the attention merchant business model and the critical societal need for content that does not actively mislead or exploit readers or viewers. Few newspapers these days can survive on subscriptions – so how do they stay afloat without selling out their readers? Cable news has clearly gone all-in on the attention merchant model, pursuing sensational but trivial stories to keep viewers glued to the screen.

I got bogged down in a few places in this book – Wu’s critiques of specific social media apps is very detailed – but, overall, Wu gives the reader a deeply engaging history of attention merchants and advertising. He ties together the first tabloids, the original snake oil salesman, and the tortured history of AOL.

I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as he is, but we absolutely should take seriously his call for a “human reclamation project”, creating protected zones in our lives “for our own consciousness and mental space.” While we unquestionably benefit from many of the “free” things we get from attention merchants, we’ve failed to adequately reckon with the consequences to human civilization of the commodification of our mental space. “What are the costs to a society of an entire popluation conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?” Wu asks.

Seeing how we’ve just come through an election dominated to an unprecedented degree by fake news, propaganda, and other ridiculous distractions from the very high stakes that were on the ballot, we’re about to learn the answer.

You can hear Tim Wu talk about this and more on the Ezra Klein show, where I first heard about this book. And yes there are ads on this blog, but I guarantee you they’re well worth the content you get here.

My year in writing (but not on this blog.)

I did a lot of writing in 2016… just not on this blog, in spite of my good intentions. Aside from a personal record in grant proposals and our latest paper, I continued to write over at Pacific Standard. In case you missed them, here are four favorite picks from the year:

Scientists Can Now Genetically Modify Organisms in the Wild (Feb 17)

Compared to the controversies over GMO foods, gene drives have flown under the radar, but not for long.

Why the National Institutes of Health Should Replace Peer Review With a Lottery (April 8)

There are limits to the fine-scale resolution of peer review; a lottery  to fund grants would openly acknowledge that.

How Slavery Changed the DNA of African Americans (July 19)

Genetic history is about sex and migration, and both were dramatically affected by the slave trade and its racist aftermath.

How Our Environment Affects Our Genes (Nov 15)

We tend to think genetics is destiny, but the real story is gene by environment interactions.