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We Wanted to Believe

We Wanted to Believe

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

If you wanted to believe, 2017 was the year to do it. Thanks to an explosion of new discoveries of potentially habitable planets outside our solar system, a better understanding of how life might evolve on other worlds, and not inconsequentially a shift in the culture, aliens are no longer regarded as just another realm of paranormal craziness. We now have a modern-day NASA that is explicitly directed to look for life, billionaires pouring money into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and a Department of Defense that admits it was studying UFO sightings for some time.

Sandwiched between the 10th and 11th seasons of The X-Files, 2017 felt like the year aliens finally, actually, for real this time went mainstream. Nearly 61 percent of the world’s population believes alien life exists somewhere in the universe. That’s little surprise when you think about how much happened this year.

For starters, NASA scientists began the year with the announced discovery of seven potentially habitable exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system, 40 light-years away. It’s going to take more some powerful instruments to really determine whether any of those planets possess the essentials for life (liquid water, an atmosphere that keeps things warm and fuzzy, a star that isn’t spewing out violent radiation in every direction), and the system is way too far for anyone to even dream about sending a spacecraft there before we’re all dead and gone. But the system’s discovery is a critical sign that potentially habitable worlds are probably much more common—and closer—than we had ever imagined.

Let’s not forget some of the other exoplanets that stoked our hopes of finding extraterrestrial neighbors. Ross 128 b, 11 light-years away, is probably our best chance at finding living aliens thanks to its quiet host star (the detection of strange radio signals fed hopes that an alien civilization was living nearby). GJ 237 b, a little over 12 light-years away, is a “super-Earth” that could support life as well (SETI scientists actually beamed a musical message over to the system to make contact with any intelligent lifeforms in the neighborhood). And 39 light-years away, astronomers found evidence that an Earth-sized bugger called GJ 1132 b had an atmosphere to potentially allow life on the surface to thrive.

Within our own solar system, NASA found new hopes that aliens might actually just be a quick hop away, living on worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. These rocks possess underground liquid oceans that could be the perfect mixing pots for the evolution of extraterrestrial life. The knowledge that even Earthbound life can withstand extreme environments is spurring the potential greenlight for missions to Saturn’s moon Titan or to a nearby comet to look for life or the ingredients for life—part of what looks like the agency’s new emphasis of astrobiology missions.

Could we one day find lifeforms that are as smart or smarter than our own species? There’s no shortage of sharp minds pondering the question. New theories are being pitched that maybe the aliens aren’t actually all dead—they’re just in a deep sleep. Maybe it’s actually better off this way? Movies like Alien: Covenant and Life were good reminders that not all lifeforms are peaceful. Maybe we should just count our blessings and stay quiet until we figure out how we might be able to defend ourselves from a hostile alien invasion.

There’s little chance of that actually happening. A strange interstellar asteroid decided to stop by the solar system for a visit, and one of the first things scientists decided to do was see whether it was actually an alien ship. It wasn’t, of course, but it just goes to show you that even the most implausible explanation wouldn’t go uninvestigated in 2017. In the future, however, we’ll probably just let the intelligent machines handle the hard work.

But all of these developments were at least grounded in the processes and logic that define scientific research. There was another facet to this year’s obsession with aliens that hewed closer to what most of us have heard before: UFOs and government involvement. Hacking collective Anonymous got things heated in the middle of the summer when it claimed NASA was about to reveal the existence of aliens. That didn’t happen—perhaps because the agency decided it to hold off on such a bombshell announcement, or almost definitely because it has never found evidence of aliens.

OK, so a bunch of hackers turned out to be wrong about aliens. That’s nothing special. What is special, however, is the New York Times publishing a piece detailing the government’s five-year, $22 million program to investigate UFOs. It’s been a few weeks, and the media is still trying to make sense of it all. Only in 2017 could the craziest news of the year not be that the Pentagon actually admitted that such a program once existed.

(Also, I still can’t believe Tom DeLonge was onto something real.)

And less than a week after the New York Times piece was published, SpaceX’s final launch of the year turned Southern California’s skies into an eerie scene out of an alien-invasion movie. It wasn’t a UFO, of course, but the timing couldn’t have been better.

If 2017 was a banner year for talking about aliens and UFOs with earnestness and enthusiasm, 2018 seems poised to take all of those conversations to new heights. The rapid advancement of new technology and the circulation of new data—combined with increasingly favorable odds that something is out there—means that as time passes, our search for cosmic companionship will only get more intense.

The New Documentary Heal Makes Important Points About Staying Positive

The New Documentary Heal Makes Important Points About Staying Positive

by Marc Siegel @ Slate Articles

Several years ago, I had a patient named Howard. Howard had a muscle-wasting disease that confined him to a wheelchair, a wife who was severely ill, and a growing anger and outrage that he wasn’t able to pay for comfort care for either of them. The sicker Howard and his wife became, the angrier he was, until one day he expressed homicidal rage toward a lawyer he used to work for who owed him money. I called in two different psychiatrists to assess Howard—both dismissed the homicidal plan as pure fantasy, since it involved rising out of the wheelchair.

Less than a month later, Howard asked a friend to drive him to the lawyer’s office in Brooklyn. When he reached the office, he rose out of the wheelchair and shot him with a gun he had brought. Luckily, he only had the strength to lift his arm high enough to shoot the lawyer in the leg, and he survived. I wrote a letter to the court that Howard wasn’t fit to serve a prison sentence, and he received a compassionate release.

I told this story in my book The Inner Pulse, Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health. As I was writing the chapter about Howard’s mind-over-matter moment, I discovered a physical explanation that I hadn’t previously considered. In late 2007, a tiger jumped 12 feet to escape its pit in the San Francisco Zoo. In searching for an explanation for this unprecedented event, I discovered that the thigh muscles are the most powerful muscles in the body but are under the most inhibitory control by the brain. A sudden strong emotion, such as fear or rage, can be enough to overcome this inhibition causing a sudden muscular release and may explain the striking exertion both Howard and the tiger were able to achieve. This doesn’t take away from how powerful and unusual both events were, but it does help to explain them.

The human body has both spiritual and physical components—when processing health and disease, there is rarely one without the other. A new spiritual documentary by Kelly Noonan Gores, Heal, attempts to dissect the ways in which spiritual healing matters to physical healing, and it does a good job detailing alternative approaches to healing. As a physician, I understand the nocebo notion that stress and negative emotions may lead to disease, or affect disease outcomes in a negative way. It is also true, as the film suggests, that too often Western medicine practitioners treat the body as a machine and throw pills at a problem without fully considering how these pills impact body chemistry or cause effects that may be worse than the original problem. (I recall a patient for whom I once prescribed an antidepressant, who told me he was more depressed by the constipation the medicine caused than by his original problem.)

The problem, though, is that Heal spends hardly any time exploring the scientific underpinnings of the miraculous cures it highlights, or why they frequently fail for others. As the movie progresses, a more overriding theme takes over: It isn’t just relieving stress that’s at stake here, it’s the power of divine intervention. The film presents both a self-appointed “divine conduit,” as well as the healing power of different kinds of meditation. Deepak Chopra himself discusses the broad applications of meditation in the movie (he was also present at the screening in New York that I attended).

This is where Heal really goes too far. One of the film’s patients is told he will never walk again without major back surgery and metal rods but manages to overcome his spine fractures through visualizing the problem combined with exercises. Another patient shrinks her lymphoma by envisioning the war in her bloodstream and the cancer losing the battle with her chemical treatment. When her lymphoma disappears, the implication is that her mind power is even more responsible than her chemotherapy. These stories are presented as mainstream when they are in fact rare outliers.

To be fair, Heal does not suggest that overcoming fear or “changing emotional state to a state of gratitude” should take the place of standard treatments like chemotherapy or the personalized immunotherapies of the near future, but rather that replacing toxic thoughts and stress hormones with so-called tonic neurochemicals including oxytocin and serotonin can only help your chances and bolster your immune system.

I spoke to the thoughtful filmmaker, Kelly Noonan Gores, right before the screening, and she said that if someone buys into a negative program or limited expectation “they are more likely to meet that fate.” I studied the long-term impact of fear on health in my book False Alarm, the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear. I do agree with Noonan Gores that the “chemistry of fear” can hasten disease—there is evidence to back that up. Heal is also profoundly right when it suggests that too often illness leads to a state of powerlessness, a desire to not be a burden, as well as a sense of guilt.

In many ways, the film’s points are valid. But what about those who try to overcome cancer or disabilities by the power of concentration or herbal treatments or positive spiritual thinking—and fail? Isn’t it cruel to give people false hope? And what, exactly, does it mean to take control of your illness? Surely it means more than trying to will your cancer away or channel your inner rage. Avoiding negative emotions is one thing, but the problem with false promises is that they can cause harm, too. If you believe too much in the power of positivity, you may find yourself woefully disappointed by life, which can make no such promises.

Patagonia Won't Be Quiet

Patagonia Won't Be Quiet

by Christina Bonnington @ Slate Articles

Since President Trump announced plans Monday to slash the size of two Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, outdoor apparel company Patagonia hasn’t been quiet about its feelings.

Under the President’s decision, in 60 days, more than two million acres of previously protected land will be open to mining and other operations. While a number of outdoor retailers expressed disappointment at the president’s order, Patagonia turned things up to 11. The company made its website and social media channels black, emblazoned with the brief, powerful headline: “The President Stole Your Land.” And on Wednesday, the company joined a number of lawsuits to fight Trump’s order.

This isn’t the first time the ethically-minded company has butted heads with government officials. Earlier this year, Patagonia, along with other outdoor brands Arc’teryx, Polartec, REI, and the North Face, banded together against Utah’s Republican governor Gary Herbert. Herbert and the state’s congressional leaders already had made it a priority to roll back the national monument protections President Obama had allotted to Bears Ears. Galvanized by Patagonia’s 78-year old founder Yvon Chou­i­nard, the retailers pulled their participation from the traditionally Utah-based Outdoor Retailer show, an event that garners $45 million in revenue for the state annually. Starting next month, the trade show will be held in Boulder, Colorado, instead. Patagonia spokeswoman Corley Kenna said that the company has been “fighting for these lands for decades, so that hunters, fishers, hikers and everyone else can use them and help us protect them.”

And the California-based retailer has been clear about its reasoning for why it thinks Trump’s move is illegal: It both oversteps the president’s level of authority and removes important protections from lands local Native Americans tribes consider sacred. “Protecting public lands is a core tenet of our mission and vitally important to our industry, and we feel we need to do everything in our power to protect this special place,” Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario wrote in an explanation in Time.

A large number of social media followers applauded Patagonia’s stand against Trump.

Patagonia is doing what many Americans have been doing all year and wish the Democratic party had the guts to do: Fight back against the Trump administration. U.S. citizens have been calling, writing, and emailing to their representatives in Washington to share their opposition to a variety of issues, including plans to replace the Affordable Care Act and eliminate Net Neutrality. And they’ve had varying degrees of success. Patagonia, unlike those constantly contacting our representatives, might have a voice that our government will listen to: a voice with corporate money behind it.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke dismissed Patagonia’s behavior as just a marketing ploy. “Not one square inch was stolen. The federal estate remains intact,” Zinke said in a call with reporters when questioned about Patagonia’s accusation. “I think it’s shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to gain money in their coffers.”

If it is a marketing ploy, it’s a good one. Patagonia’s Dec. 4 tweet announcing its intentions has more than 62,000 retweets and 82,000 likes, including numerous people pronouncing their loyalty to the brand. But the company is getting its fair share of criticism as well. Some voice that there’s already too much federal control in the state. “The federal government owns nearly 65 percent of Utah,” one Instagram commenter in support of Trump’s move writes, “when is enough, enough?” Others complain that the retailer should just stay out of politics.

Patagonia has a vested interest in keeping public lands like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante public: It’s some of the outdoor playgrounds where many of its customers like to play. With fewer places to hike, camp, or fish, there could be less need for clothing that addresses those activities. Patagonia’s CEO is open about what the company stands to gain from its intervention with these monuments. But the bottom line is that these lands don’t have a voice, and the people who want to see these beautiful landscapes preserved for future generations don’t have one either. Patagonia does. While its legal efforts in protecting these monuments will take years to unfold—and may not end in the company’s favor—it’s the only option there is. Patagonia is one of the few entities with the pocketbook to see this thing through.

It’s Not Just Opioids

It’s Not Just Opioids

by Daniel F. Kripke @ Slate Articles

Deaths from drug overdoses have recently multiplied in the U.S., to the point that overdoses are reducing average life span for several demographic slices of the adult population. Opioid abuse is being blamed as the main killer. Doctors’ narcotic prescriptions led to a glut of prescription pain pills in people’s cabinets, which often lead to abuse, and then use of less expensive street opioids that are even more dangerous than prescription drugs.

Efforts of law enforcement and treatment programs have focused on opioids and opioid-manufacturers. But this ignores a critical component of this toxic equation: Opioids are not the only substance to blame. Sleeping pills and alcohol often join to make the combined gang a killer. A whiskey bottle does have a government warning that alcohol “impairs your ability to drive” and “may cause health problems,” but it fails to warn that mixing alcohol with narcotics and sleeping pills or tranquilizers can make a lethal combination (also, alcohol overdose by itself can kill). Like opioids, sleeping pills come from manufacturers who have not warned doctors and patients of the great risks. Many sleeping pills are acquired illegally. And prescription sleeping pills, as well as alcohol abuse, have all increased in the past 10–15 years, just as opioids have. (By “sleeping pills,” I refer mainly to the benzodiazepine-agonist hypnotics, most popularly zolpidem, eszopiclone, and temazepam in the U.S.)

A Food and Drug Administration–supported study estimated that in 2011, 31 percent of opioid overdose deaths also involved a benzodiazepine (either a sleeping pill or a tranquilizer). Other estimates of the percentage of opiate overdose deaths associated with benzodiazepines were higher. The 31 percent likely underestimated multiple drug participation because about 25 percent of overdose death certificates did not list all of the drugs involved. Likewise, that 31 percent did not include the most popular sleeping pill, zolpidem, which acts like a benzodiazepine although its chemical structure has a different name.

Zolpidem has frequently been reported in overdose deaths and increasingly causes emergency room visits. When mixed together, zolpidem, similar sleeping pills, and tranquilizers as well as alcohol increase the lethality of opioid overdoses. These drugs gang up to stop breathing. More than 20 percent of the emergencies involving a benzodiazepine also involved alcohol. Many overdose deaths involving sleeping pills and alcohol did not even include an opioid.

Declaring an opioid emergency overlooks a large part of the problem. State governments have passed over the other substances while they sue opioid manufacturers and regulate opioid prescriptions. States do tax and restrict alcohol sales, recognizing that alcohol causes deaths and much damage beyond overdoses. But even though states often even pay for sleeping pills (through Medicaid), they have taken no actions to reduce their overuse. Sleeping pills cause much death and damage besides overdoses—they have been associated with falls and accidents, and cause infections and depression. The public receives almost no warning of the most serious risks.

A much greater effort is needed to protect the public from the risks of combining opiates, sleeping pills, and alcohol. Government publicity, teaching materials, courses, and treatment programs for doctors, patients, and the public should all emphasize the risks of the drug combinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and FDA drug labeling warn about combining opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, but have failed to warn about the risks of combining opiates with zolpidem or eszopiclone, which constitute about 75 percent of the sleeping pill market.

Regulators have a role here too—they should give the same attention to sleeping pills that they give to the opioid and alcohol killers. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the FDA, state authorities, and police should all realize that the overdose epidemic is not isolated—it often results from multiple drugs being allowed to work together. If we are working to stop one, we should work to stop all three.

Why Do People Applaud When Planes Land?

Why Do People Applaud When Planes Land?

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

A few years back, the comedian Chelsea Handler used to tell this joke on stage: “There are two types of people I don’t trust,” she’d say. “People who don’t drink while on medication and people who clap when the plane lands.”

It’s funny because it’s true: Why should pilots be congratulated for managing to do their jobs without killing hundreds of people? (As Handler once pointed out on Twitter, #thatswhattheyresupposedtofuckingdo.) It’s not just a comedian’s pet peeve; frustration with the idiotic cabin clap appears to be widespread. “Please Don’t Clap When the Plane Lands,” wrote the staff of Condé Nast Traveler in a signed editorial last year. “If the pilot navigates a bumpy landing with skill and style, I’ll clap,” one editor declared. “But I don’t give participation trophies.” Even cockpit personnel seem to find the practice irksome: “Applauding implies that a smooth landing is an exceptional accomplishment, rather than the routine work of a qualified pilot,” one explained on Yahoo Answers in 2011, in response to the post, “Clapping on airplane when landing?” This person continued: “I personally consider applause to be an insult, since it implies that I can’t land smoothly unless I get lucky.”

So who are these airborne clappers, and what makes them clap like airborne seals? When did the practice start, what’s it for, and will it ever go away? I spent some time cruising online forums in search of answers to these questions.

But the more I learned about the history of airplane applause and the history of sneering at the same, the more I came to doubt the premise of my hunt. The phenomenon itself may be exaggerated in the minds of those who mock it. Indeed, I now suspect there are very few cabin clappers in the wild and that a pilot’s unearned bravos and bravas are not so much a scourge that ought to be curtailed as a curmudgeon’s fantasy of something that would in fact be quite annoying if it really happened on the regular. I mean to say that my pet peeve, and Handler’s, is more or less ginned up.

It’s not that no one ever celebrates the final moment of flight. (You can find plenty of examples of the cabin clap on YouTube.) But these are freak events. An airplane’s landing cheer exists, but it rarely gets deployed. When it does it’s often for a special reason—a touchdown in a heavy storm, perhaps, or under some other form of flight duress. This is not the cabin clap we mean when we call the clapper silly or suspicious, though. No, we’re referring to a different, maybe apocryphal variety: the applause that has no rationale—a knee-jerk cheer for a plane’s routine arrival.

This latter version of the landing clap, dopey and unearned, has long been made the object of ridicule, if not nativist derision. Indeed, an early piece about the practice by a travel writer, published by the New York Times in 1997, claims we caught the clap from foreigners: Cheering for a touchdown is a “common yet enigmatic phenomenon of modern air travel,” the author writes, though one that’s seldom heard on domestic routes. Clappers aren’t from America, he says; they’re passengers from overseas, “returning to their native soil,” and the loudest perpetrators are those who happen to possess a high degree of “cultural passion.” The Spaniards, for example, are vibrant landing-clappers; so are the Brazilians and airplane passengers from Italy. Then again, the piece also adds that “even the famously unemotional Japanese engage in the Landing Clap;” along with all the patriotic Russians and Germans who have journeyed back to their motherlands.

This ethno-national finger-pointing forms a common thread through discussions of the landing clap. Spend enough time in these debates, and you’ll be informed (once again) that clapping is a German thing, or a pastime of the Russians; or else that it’s particular to Greece or Italy; ubiquitous on Asian flights; or particular to Israeli passengers; or Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos or Canadians. You’ll learn that people used to clap a lot on domestic flights in Czechoslovakia. You’ll read, from time to time, that landing cheers are “mostly a U.S. thing.”

These stereotypes can’t all be true, of course. The round-robin claims should make us more suspicious: If Germans really clap for landing, and so do Russians, Asians, Israelis, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Filipinos, Canadians, and Americans, well then applause would be more or less ubiquitous on commercial flights, which it’s clearly not. Yet everyone who believes in landing claps—and finds them quaint, silly, or suspicious—seems inclined to pin the custom on the passengers of another, less sophisticated culture. We don’t cheer at airplane landings. They do.

In a slight variation on this theme, some will claim that landing-clappers aren’t from another country; they’re from another time. We used to cheer on landing, this theory goes, back when people weren’t quite so used to flying, and when flying wasn’t quite so safe. Now, in recent years, this custom has subsided. We’ve gotten savvier and less easily impressed. “In my experience, clapping on landing was way more common a few years ago,” wrote one user in a long debate on “In the past 25 years, I find that it happens less and less,” another said.

I’m dubious of this idea, that people used to clap and now they’ve stopped. I mean, no one even cheered the dawn of human flight. When Wilbur and Orville Wright gave their first public demonstrations at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the assembled reporters were impassive, according to David McCullough’s biography of the brothers. “This spectacle was so startling, so bewildering to the senses in that year 1908, that we all stood like so many marble men,” one observer wrote. “Here on this lonely beach was being performed the greatest act of the ages,” another said, “but there were no spectators and no applause save the booming of the surf and the startled cries of the sea birds.”

Certainly in the age of modern aviation, those accounts of landing cheers that do exist tend to link them to some specific cause or calamity. In 1991, for example, an Alaska Airlines passenger demanded to be let off the plane before it took off because he’d learned a woman would be at the flight’s controls. Newspapers made a point of saying the remaining passengers applauded for the pilot when she later landed smoothly in Seattle. Landing claps were also noted in January of 2000, on flights that landed safely in the wee hours of New Year’s Day: Passengers were glad for having survived the Y2K computer bug. The following autumn, for a brief spell in the aftermath of 9/11, news reports observed that passengers were cheering “boring flights” with safe arrivals.

Among the other, reported blips of cabin clapping are claims, made every now and then, that certain airlines have been making use of “clap tracks.” The editorial in Condé Nast Traveler asserts that Ryanair, the low-cost Irish carrier, pipes smatterings of fake applause over the PA so as to goose an ersatz cabin cheer. The airline has been singled out for this chicanery by others, too, though its head of communications denies the charges, telling me there is frequent clapping aboard Ryanair, but that it’s both natural and heartfelt. (The airline’s pre-recorded victory trumpet may do some work to spur applause.)

The most common form of landing cheer has always been the one that celebrates avoidance of catastrophe. It’s for captains who have earned their plaudits facing up, Sully-esque, to some dire airplane hazard. Consider Southwest Airlines Flight 812, in April 2011: A hole tore though the cabin roof, flight attendants passed out from lack of oxygen, and the cockpit crew lost access to its main controls. People clapped when that plane touched down and then began to hug one another. “It was unreal,” one told the Associated Press. “Everybody was [acting] like they were high school chums.” Or what about the American Airlines flight from 2009 that touched down one Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a very heavy fog, before veering off the runway and scraping a wing against the ground. Miraculously, no passengers were injured. When the tumult stopped, people cheered in gratitude and relief.

These are standard cabin claps, to the extent that clapping is a standard practice at all. (Even in these situations, the pilots may not hear the sound above the cockpit noise.)

But they themselves bring to mind another question. Unless you’ve flown a plane yourself, and understand the tribulations of a tricky landing, then how are you supposed to know when a bumpy touchdown means your pilot has excelled, or when it means the opposite? Who are you to judge her skill, let alone applaud it?

Take that Charlotte flight, for example. A subsequent investigation found the cockpit crew had known the plane was off its course yet refused to take a second pass. According to the Wall Street Journal, the pilots chose instead—mistakenly—to take their autopilot offline. “Crew fatigue might have been an issue,” the paper noted. If that’s the case, the passengers may have clapped in celebration of their crew’s incompetence.

Similarly, during a summer thunderstorm in Toronto in 2005, an Air France flight with several hundred passengers tried to land amid the rain and lightning. “Just before touching ground, it was all black in the plane, there was no more light, nothing,” one passenger later told a reporter. A second later, the airplane landed with a bump, and the frightened cabin erupted in applause at what appeared to be an expert landing. “But after that,” the same man continued, “we [felt] bump, bump, bump, bump, bump.”

It did not take long for the passengers to realize that their clap was premature. The plane came down too fast, barreled off the runway and rolled into a ravine, where it burst into flames. It looked like the left engine had exploded. Smoke filled the cabin. “The light became very, very yellow by the fire’s flame,” the passenger continued, “and we said that were all going to die at that moment, and the airplane continued to roll.” No one died, but some among the passengers who had moments earlier been clapping for the pilot came away with serious injuries. A few years later a class-action suit against the airline would be settled for $10 million, after investigators found that the pilots had missed important signals and failed to “make the standard callouts” for the situation.

Maybe that’s the hidden problem with the landing clap: Even when we think applause is well-deserved, we may be off the mark.

One Hasty Study Doesn’t Mean That “Man Flu” Is Real

One Hasty Study Doesn’t Mean That “Man Flu” Is Real

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

The notion of a “man flu” has long circulated on the internet, a silly concept with some serious staying power. While it’s been entered into more reputable lexical receptacles since, Urban Dictionary defined it first and best: “The condition shared by all males wherein a common illness (usually a mild cold) is presented by the patient as life-threatening. This is also known as ‘Fishing for Sympathy’ or ‘Chronic Exaggeration’. When the patient is your boyfriend, he will exhibit the standard symptoms (such as an overwhelming desire for compassion) while simultaneously rejecting any and all efforts you make to placate him.”

Part joke, part lived experience, the man flu has now reportedly been validated by science, sort of. On Monday, the British Medical Journal published its special Christmas edition. An annual installment of slightly-more-fun-than-usual scientific research, 2017’s issue included a literature review arguing for the empirical validity of the concept of man flu. Written by Canadian researcher and family medicine doctor Kyle Sue, the tongue-in-cheek journal article “explores whether men are wimps or just immunologically inferior.” According to Sue, who writes that the article came about because he was “tired of being accused of over-reacting,” mocking man flu isn’t just mean, but “potentially unjust”:

Men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women. [...] Lying on the couch, not getting out of bed, or receiving assistance with activities of daily living could also be evolutionarily behaviours that protect against predators.

In his article, Sue looks at a handful of previous studies to support his man flu thesis. He notes that men appear, at least according to some research, to be less responsive to the flu vaccine, which could increase the chance they get the flu in the first place. Later, he documents how males are more likely to experience complications or even die from acute respiratory problems such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

While the studies Sue cites are certainly reputable, that doesn’t actually mean the man flu as it’s commonly understood is real. And it’s certainly not a validation to men who misbehave when they’re ill. Sabra Klein of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and several other experts have criticized the conclusions of Sue’s research. Klein told CNN that there could be a “man flu,” but only if you look at certain subpopulations: Before puberty and in old age (65 years and over), it really does seem more likely that men get hospitalized for the flu. But in middle age, there’s a slight uptick in the number of women—in particular, pregnant women in the midst of a nine-month immunosuppression stint—that go to the emergency room for influenza side effects. In other words, there may be some semblance of boy flu and an old man flu, but all things being equal, influenza isn’t a particularly sexist infection.

The evidence Sue gathered seems to substantiate the idea that men are biologically weaker in several key (and potentially fatal) ways. This is something experts have long understood to be true, as men the world over are more likely to die than women at every point along the lifespan, from the womb to old age. But it’s a reality that’s remained difficult to explain scientifically. For many years, scientists have been exploring whether sex hormones are to blame. In an article for Slate about the prevalence of women with autoimmune disorders (a sign of an overactive immune system) Jeremy Singer-Vine wrote that, “Testosterone tends to suppress the body's response to infection, while estrogens typically boost it. Since women have a more vigorous response, goes the argument, their immune systems might be more likely to become hyperactive.”* According to that line of thinking, men would then have a lethargic immune system that would keep them from developing autoimmune diseases en masse, but also from fighting off infection. But, Singer-Vine continues, “Data to support these claims, however, have been inconclusive.”

Another theory for the sex disparity, Singer-Vine writes, is that women’s double X chromosome give them a genetic boost, while men’s already miniature Y chromosome is literally shrinking even further. It’s also possible that the sex disparity in people’s influenza response is partially a social phenomenon. It’s been widely documented that men are less likely to see a doctor than women, which might mean they’re less likely to get the flu vaccine in the first place, or to go to the doctor on the rare chance their flu symptoms escalate. While there are numerous factors that influence a visit to the doctor’s office (insurance, income, and access being chief are among them), there’s reason to believe masculinity could be partially to blame. Research indicates that men routinely cite embarrassment, a desire to maintain their privacy, anxiety, and flawed communication as reasons for not seeing a doctor. Unlike the physical theories, this social hypothesis could support Sue’s claims—but not in the way he’d probably hope.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Sue cites a finding that women were more likely to take time off when they experienced just one flu symptom. “This contradicts the common myth that men cut down activities more than women by exaggerating the severity of symptoms,” he writes. What Sue fails to note is that taking time off when the first symptoms of a cold strike—and not working through until you’re so physically exhausted you’re forced into the fetal position and need others to do your bidding—is clearly the healthier choice.

*Correction, Dec. 12, 2017: This article originally misidentified the author of an article about autoimmune disorders. It was Jeremy Singer-Vine, not Jeremy Samuel Faust. (Return.)

In 1770, the Sky Over East Asia Turned Crimson Red for Nine Days

In 1770, the Sky Over East Asia Turned Crimson Red for Nine Days

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

For multiple days in 1770, a swath of sky over Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and the eastern coast of China looked as if it had been set ablaze, illuminated in a scorching red light. No one knew what caused it, and we only knew it happened thanks to a few scant recordings that survived the intervening centuries. It wasn’t until modern astronomy gave us a better understanding of aurora events centuries later that we learned what prompted it: A magnetic storm caused by solar activity likely struck Earth’s atmosphere, creating a crimson spectacle few people have seen since.

Now, new documents reveal that there is a lot more to the story than just a red hue to the sky. A team of Japanese researchers unearthed a trove of 111 historical documents in East Asia that show that the red auroral display actually lasted not two days as we thought, but nine, from Sept, 10–19, 1770. The storm may have been the longest geomagnetic storm on human record, and the region of sky it covered was twice as large as historians initially thought.

Aurora are caused by charged particles hitting the planet’s upper atmosphere. When the sun spews out a flare or has a violent belch of some sort, it shoots off charged particles like electrons toward the rest of space. When these particles hit the oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere, they charge up the gases themselves. As those excited gases return to their normal states, they emit that excess energy in the form of gorgeous celestial lights. One of the most famous and regular instances of aurora is, of course, aurora borealis—the northern lights—which captivates the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Aurora can come in different colors and shapes. Scientists are still fuzzy on what creates any specific shapes and sizes for the lights, but it’s thought that they move in harmony with Earth’s magnetic field. The color generated depends on which gases were initially hit—oxygen emits a red light (as well as greenish-yellow), so it would seem oxygen was behind the 1770 storm. That also means it was powerful enough to pierce into some lower portions of the atmosphere where oxygen is more abundant, which explains how it was able to give the sky such an apocalyptic makeover.

The documents discovered were all written in September and October of 1770. They include government records and personal diary entries, which in sum suggest that the fiery aurora ranged from Japan to the Chinese mainland.

The team also compared sunspot drawings made by astronomers at the time with drawings recorded during the solar storm of 1859. That storm, which lasted two nights, was caused by the Carrington flare and is something of a standard by which astronomers assess other solar events. Up until now, it’s been considered the most extreme solar storm on the record. But the sunspots drawn during the 1770 event were twice as big as those recorded during the Carrington event.

While the study is a fun glimpse into an end-of-the-world spectacle that never was, the conditions that caused the 1770 storm could strike again. If it does, it might actually feel like the end of the world this time around—these days, solar storms and space weather events are big threats to the world’s electrical grids, communications systems, and GPS instruments orbiting the planet. A single bad storm like the 1859 Carrington flare, or something much worse, could have devastating consequences for our connectivity, causing up to $2 trillion in global costs and devastating countless lives. NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently launched and turned the Deep Space Climate Observatory to study such events and investigate signs that could let us know when a particularly nasty storm might strike. Even so, the world is still underprepared for any devastating storm.

“Modern civilization heavily relies on satellites and large-scale power grids,” the researchers write. “If such events were to strike the Earth now, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

In other words, we’ll have much more to fear than just a red sky this time around.

Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland

Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland

by Kurt Andersen @ Slate Articles

Adapted from Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History copyright © 2017 by Kurt Andersen. With permission from the publisher, Random House. All rights reserved.

Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.

Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.

Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”

Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey.

As I say, she is an ecumenical promoter of fantasies. Remember the satanic panic, the mass hysteria during the 1980s and early ’90s about satanists abusing and murdering children that resulted in the wrongful convictions of dozens of people who collectively spent hundreds of years incarcerated? Multiple Oprah episodes featured the celebrity “victims” who got that fantasy going. When a Christian questioner in her audience once described her as New Age, Winfrey was pissed. “I am not ‘New Age’ anything,” she said, “and I resent being called that. I don’t see spirits in the trees, and I don’t sit in the room with crystals.” Maybe not those two things specifically; she’s the respectable promoter of New Age belief and practice and nostrums, a member of the elite and friend to presidents, five of whom have appeared on her shows. New Age, Oprah-style, shares with American Christianities their special mixtures of superstition, selfishness, and a refusal to believe in the random. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she has said. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck.”

Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey. Her man Eckhart Tolle, for instance, whose books The Power of Now and A New Earth sold millions of copies apiece, is a successful crusader against reason itself. “Thinking has become a disease,” he writes, to be supplanted by feeling “the inner energy field of your body.” The two of them conducted a series of web-based video seminars in 2008.

New Age, because it’s so American, so utterly democratic and decentralized, has multiple sacred texts. One of the most widely read and influential is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, emphatically placed in the canon by Winfrey as soon as it was published a decade ago. “I’ve been talking about this for years on my show,” Winfrey said during one of the author’s multiple appearances on Oprah. “I just never called it The Secret.”

The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most of the pious packaging—God, Jesus, virtue, hard work rewarded, perfect bliss only in the afterlife. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was No. 1 on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold about 20 million copies.

“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” the book promises. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Because it’s a scientific fact.

The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law of gravity. Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. … In the moment you ask, and believe, and know you already have it in the unseen, the entire universe shifts to bring it into the scene. You must act, speak, and think, as though you are receiving it now. Why? The universe is a mirror, and the law of attraction is mirroring back to your dominant thoughts. … It takes no time for the universe to manifest what you want. Any time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the place of believing.

To be clear, Byrne’s talking mainly not about spiritual contentment but things, objects, lovers, cash. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. … It is not your job to work out ‘how’ the money will come to you. It is your job to ask. … Leave the details to the Universe on how it will bring it about.” She warns that rationalism can neutralize the magic—in fact, awareness of the real world beyond one’s individual orbit can be problematic. “When I discovered The Secret, I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good.”

Right around the time The Secret came out, habitués of its general vicinity started buzzing about the year 2012. Ancient Mesoamericans, people were saying, had predicted that in 2012—specifically, Dec. 21—humankind’s present existence would … transition, when the current 5,125-year-long period ends. New Age religion-makers, like American Protestants, now had their own ancient prophecy for their own dreams of something like a near-future Armageddon and supernaturally wonderful aftermath.

Winfrey ended the daily Oprah broadcasts in 2011, and a month before the final episode, she interviewed Shirley MacLaine for the millionth time and asked about 2012: “What’s gonna happen to us as a species?”

“We’re coming into an alignment,” MacLaine explained. “It is the first time in 26,000 years—36,000 years—26,000 years, I’m sorry, that this has occurred. … You have an alignment where this solar system is on direct alignment with the center of the galaxy. That carries with it a very profound electromagnetic frequency—”

“Vibration,” Winfrey interjected.

“… vibration,” MacLaine agreed, “and gravitational pull. Hence the weather. What does that do to consciousness? What does that do to our sense of reality?” It’s why people feel rushed and stressed, she said.

Winfrey asked her audience for an amen: “Are you all feeling that?” They were.

“So my stuff isn’t really that far out. But what’s actually happening, Oprah,” MacLaine continued, explaining how the relevant astrology proved the supernatural inflection point was exactly 620 days away. “It’s the end of that 26,000-year procession of the equinox” and “the threshold of a new beginning. And I think what this pressure, this kind of psychic, spiritual pressure we’re all feeling is about, is that your internal soul is telling you ‘Get your act together.’”

* * *

It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.

And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.

In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.

Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”

After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.

Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”

If Ronald Reagan became the first king of his magical-thinking realm in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey became the first queen of hers in the following decade. Like Reagan, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of a dream world.

Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.

“Who would be, and could there be,” I asked Harris, “a Trump of the left that people on the left would, against their better judgment say ‘She’s a kook, and she’s terrible in this way, but she believes in socialized medicine, and this, and that—I’m going with her.’ To what degree and under what circumstances could that happen? It’s hard to imagine the equivalent, but I’m willing to accept that we might have to make those choices eventually.”

Such as who, Harris asked. Well, I replied, “people talk very seriously about Oprah Winfrey being a potential Democratic nominee for president. Is that my Trump moment, [like] what honest Republicans had to do with Donald Trump, and decide ‘No, I can’t abide this’ and became Never Trumpers? Would I be a Never Oprah person? That will be a test for me.”

I’ve been encouraged these past three days by the “whoa, Oprah” reactions among some liberals—as I was by the Republican resistance to Trump during the first six or nine months of his candidacy. When she starts polling ahead of all the mere politicians seeking the Democratic nomination, let alone winning primaries, we’ll see how stalwart the reality-based, anti-celebrity, naysaying faction remains.

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting How Much Snow We’ll Get?

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting How Much Snow We’ll Get?

by Geoff Fox @ Slate Articles

How much is it going to snow Thursday? As a meteorologist, the bane of my existence is predicting snow. It is the most difficult forecast I make with dozens of different ways it can go wrong. More troubling, it’s probably the forecast most scrutinized before and after the fact.

But why? What is it about snow that makes it so tough to pin down?

Though temperatures at ground level are important, the critical numbers for assessing snowfall are much higher up in the atmosphere. We’re looking for ice crystal growth, which happens when the air is wet enough and cold enough—sometimes down to -20° Fahrenheit, though the biggest snow growth happens at somewhat warmer temperatures.

The ice crystals start small, but as they collide, they grow, until finally they’re large enough and heavy enough to fall to Earth. Snow is water plus air—air being very important. It’s the fluff factor, the reason an inch of water can be 5 inches of snow or 30 inches or something in between. The snow liquid ratio, or SLR, is different for every storm (high SLRs are good for skiing, bad for snowballs). And that’s what we’re trying to predict—how much liquid is going to produce how much snow.

Most snowstorms are driven by low pressure systems hundreds of miles across. Around the low, warm air rises and cools. That causes water vapor in the air to condense and form clouds. Liquid droplets come next until gravity and temperature begin to dominate. For those who live in snow belts there’s a second method to produce snow, the lake effect. Assessing these two methods of snow production should allow you to get a good idea of how much snow to expect, but often your final estimate is really the combination of two estimates.

The process is very exacting, intricate even. When temperatures are cold enough and the wind properly aligned through the atmosphere, lake effect snow produces narrow bands of intense snow that are extremely hard to predict. For example, I drove from Buffalo, New York, to Erie, Pennsylvania, one winter’s day. Downtown Buffalo had flurries, but as I headed into the “Southtowns,” conditions became dicey. The snow rate was a few inches an hour. And then, a few miles later along Lake Erie’s shore, the snow stopped, clouds parted, and the sun came out. My trip back saw the exact same conditions in the exact same places. Nothing had moved.

Marquette, Michigan, is a good example of how this makes forecasting more difficult. Not only does Marquette get your run-of-the-mill winter storms, it also gets lake effect snow. Lake effect there has an SLR in the 30 to 40:1 range, meaning that one inch of liquid equals 30–40 inches of snow. The larger storms that pass through are 10 to 15:1. Figuring out how this hybrid storm is going to combine includes a lot of room for error. Luckily, Marquette averages around 17 feet of snow per year—lots of time to practice.

So we forecast the amount of water, then how that water will act as it drops. Most of the time the atmosphere warms as the flakes fall … but not always. What starts in the clouds as snow can fall as sleet, rain, freezing rain, or even graupel (snowflakes pocked with rime ice). The form it falls in obviously changes how much snow ends up on the ground.

When and how you measure snow affects the final total, too. Officially it’s measured off the ground on a “snow board,” usually a large piece of plywood. Snowflakes fill gaps in the snow pile as they fall. Measuring every hour, without giving the snow time to settle will give a higher amount than measuring every six.

Over the years forecasts have improved. There are fewer busts. One reason we’ve gotten better is through improved computer modeling: We can now look at the atmosphere a little more finely. The grid points and time steps are closer together. The mathematical integration of physics is better honed.

Your mileage may vary, but accumulation amounts now have real-world usefulness. I couldn’t always say that. I still hate forecasting it, though.

Ending the “War on Coal” Could Cause a Public Health Crisis

Ending the “War on Coal” Could Cause a Public Health Crisis

by Emily Atkin @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by New Republic and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

Of all the scenes of devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria, one video has stood out. Shot from a balcony or rooftop, it depicts six seconds of horror: the city of Guayama, on the island’s southern coast, engulfed by a violent river. Deep, fast-moving water rushes through the streets, slipping over cars and picking up debris. The images would be jarring in any city, but they are particularly terrifying in this one. Guayama is home not just to 42,000 people, who are now struggling to survive, but also to a five-story-tall pile of toxic coal ash—another environmental catastrophe in the making.

Weeks after Hurricane Maria’s landfall, the status of Guayama’s coal-ash pile remains unclear. How much of this waste—the leftovers from burning coal—got into the floodwater or into the air? The company that owns the pile, AES Puerto Rico, did not respond to requests for comment. But scientific researchers have long raised concerns that the coal ash, which contains high levels of arsenic, mercury, and chromium, represents a massive health hazard—one that Maria has now likely exacerbated.

This is hardly an isolated issue. There are more than 1,000 coal-ash storage sites across the United States, from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Denver. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the coal industry generates 130 million tons of ash each year, making it one of the largest sources of industrial waste in the country. According to the Sierra Club, this waste has contaminated more than 23,000 miles of waterways—including nearly 400 bodies of water used for human consumption. Duke University scientists have found that coal-ash storage ponds consistently contaminate nearby water sources, threatening both wildlife and people.

The consequences for human health can be serious. Families living near a coal-ash pond in Belmont, North Carolina, for example, have reported abnormally high rates of cancer, and in 2015, the state advised residents not to drink tap water or cook with it. The coal industry hotly disputes the idea that coal-ash ponds are responsible, but environmentalists argue that the link appears clear. “We’ve had really high spikes in arsenic in our main drinking water source in the region, and it’s because for years we didn’t have enough regulation,” says Sam Perkins, the program director at the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The last thing we need to be doing is adding any more coal ash to these sites.”

But in the name of ending the so-called war on coal, the Trump administration has been loosening environmental regulations designed to keep coal ash in check. The EPA has repealed restrictions on toxic waste from mountaintop-removal mining, which sends dangerous heavy metals tumbling into streams and rivers. And it has put on hold a regulation that restricted the levels of mercury, arsenic, and other pollutants coal plants can produce and that prohibited certain types of chemical-laden waste from being discharged into bodies of water. The EPA estimated that the policy would have decreased coal waste by 1.4 billion pounds each year—a huge benefit to public health. But the rule would also have cost the coal industry $480 million annually, due to the new treatment systems and other equipment coal plants would need to install.

In fact, one of the administration’s most recent decisions came via a request by AES Puerto Rico. Earlier this year, the company asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to pause a regulation regarding the monitoring and storage of coal ash. And in September—before Hurricane Maria hit—AES got what it wanted: Pruitt announced he would reconsider the Obama-era rule, which would have required coal companies to make sure their waste pits are not leaking or otherwise threatening human health. The regulation would have meant an existential threat for the industry. Forcing companies to monitor the pollution from their coal waste would have revealed just how great a health hazard coal ash truly represents—potentially exposing coal companies to costly class-action lawsuits that could result in payouts in the millions.

Environmentalists have consoled themselves with the knowledge that Trump can’t actually prevent coal’s downfall. Most analysts agree that coal can’t compete with alternative energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar, which are easier and cheaper to produce. “The long-term prognosis for the coal industry in every region from now through 2050 is poor,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has concluded. Even Robert Murray, the founder and chief executive of America’s biggest coal firm, Murray Energy, has said that Trump should “temper his expectations” when it comes to resuscitating the coal industry. “He can’t bring them back,” Murray has said of mining jobs.

But as the crisis in Puerto Rico suggests, even a short-term surge in coal production may have lasting repercussions. By dismantling regulations that limit the amount of waste these companies produce and that enable the government to hold them accountable for polluting, Trump is compounding a public health disaster that every powerful storm surge will compound further—and that will continue long after the last coal-fired power plant shuts down.

Hurricane Maria’s Actual Death Toll May Be 17 Times Higher Than the Current Official Count

Hurricane Maria’s Actual Death Toll May Be 17 Times Higher Than the Current Official Count

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September, you could calculate the devastation in many ways. The financial ruin, initial estimates said, was at minimum $30 billion. The time it would take to restore energy to the island was estimated to be between four to six months. But the number of people who died in the storm was comparatively low—just 62, according to government statistics. New data suggests that last number is likely wrong. While Puerto Rico’s official numbers place the death toll at under 100, data published by the New York Times on Friday projects that the dead might number as high as 1,052. That’s almost 17 times higher than the official count.

The number of people who died as a direct result of the storm’s waves and winds is probably similar to the government count. But as the Times reports, the storm’s effects reverberated long after the eye passed over the island. For example, on Sept. 25 of this year, five days after the storm, 135 people died on the island—up from 75 on the same day in 2016. “It was over 90 degrees, and power was out on most of the island, even in most hospitals,” the Times writes of that day. “Bedridden people were having trouble getting medical treatment, and dialysis clinics were operating with generators and limiting treatment hours. People on respirators lacked electricity to power the machines.” A similar disaster had just played out to the north. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida less than two weeks before, some 160 nursing homes lacked electricity: At one home, eight elderly patients died, and several more died after an emergency evacuation.

Heat wasn’t the only problem, of course. Sepsis exploded as a cause of death in the aftermath of Maria, with 92 people dying of the disease in September 2017 compared to 61 the previous year—a 47 percent increase. Sepsis is caused when harmful bacteria overpowers the body, shutting down organs. The bacteria commonly enters a person’s body through open wounds. Hurricanes are known to cause infection in their aftermath, especially when septic tanks and other waste spill into floodwaters, which people are then forced to wade through as they seek shelter. As the Times notes, in the aftermath of Maria, rates of death associated with pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, also spiked.

Sept. 25 was the deadliest day analyzed in the Times report, a full five days after Maria made landfall. It’s hard to definitively assert that these deaths were the direct result of the hurricane, rather than a natural fluctuation; it’s a small sample size, and lines of causation are hard to draw. Indeed, that may be why the official counts have left it at 62—officials have insisted that additional deaths were the result of natural causes, not the storm itself. But for those following the aftermath of Maria, some kind of recalibration has been expected. On Oct. 11, Vox published one of the first pieces challenging official data. Its piece, titled “Everything that's been reported about deaths in Puerto Rico is at odds with the official count,” argued at least 450 were dead, maybe more. On Thursday, the Center for Investigative Reporting first reported the results of a study that counted at least 1,065 Maria-related deaths.

It’s not just the lines of causation that are hard to track. In the wake of the storm, record keeping was extremely complicated: The disruption to electricity meant death counts had to be tallied without reliable internet or cellphone service. And because the bodies piled up so fast, they were harder to track. So it’s possible that even the records the Times is using in its corrections still underestimate the uptick—and it’s possible that not every additional death should be attributed to the storm. Either way, there’s still a lot of gruesome math to be done before we truly understand one of the most important statistics from this disaster.

Lifting the Ban on Elephant Trophies Will Probably Help Save Elephants

Lifting the Ban on Elephant Trophies Will Probably Help Save Elephants

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it’s reversing a ban against importing remains of elephants hunted legally in Zimbabwe and Zambia, which means that starting Friday, these “trophies” can be brought back into the U.S. as long as hunters apply for and receive the correct permits.

The FWS argues that the reversal of the ban, first imposed by the Obama administration in 2014, will help create a revenue stream for pouring money back into conservation efforts to help elephants and other African animals, particularly those whose population statuses are currently threatened.

“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” an FWS spokesperson told Slate. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”

Hunting is often a part of managed conservation efforts, and it often stirs a specific type of controversy. Unsurprisingly, many decried the new move as callous, and feared the move would facilitate a sharp increase in elephant hunting—legal and illegal alike. Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society, wrote a blog post asking what kind of message it sends that “poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?”

But perhaps the main reason this decision rubbed people the wrong way is because Donald Trump’s sons are notorious for their elephant hunting.

It’s understandable to find the practice of hunting elephants for sport repulsive. It's also understandable to be suspicious of this change given everything happening in politics right now. But these loud missives don’t do justice to the nuanced factors that go into developing and implementing conservation efforts. When you considered the facts on the ground, lifting restrictions on elephant trophy bans isn’t necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could be a good idea.

It’s true that the opening of trophy imports will probably encourage more legal hunting. That’s actually the point. Hunting is not an inherently bad thing for animal conservation. When hunting is legal and well-regulated, it can actually help keep animal populations in check and prevent them from overwhelming an ecosystem. That’s precisely why hunting white-tailed deer is encouraged during hunting season in much of the U.S.

Now, African elephant populations don’t resemble white-tailed deer in North America. Deer are much more populous, and faster to reproduce. But it’s important to note that elephant populations are not in the dire straits they once were. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the African elephant species as “vulnerable,” not endangered, meaning population numbers or habitat range are less than satisfactory but can improve if measures are taken. One of those measures could be controlled hunting that shaves off individual numbers in the short term to create a bigger population growth in the long term.

Moreover, those populations experience different versions of stability depending on the country, and that “vulnerable” status doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere. According to the Great Elephant Census, the African savanna’s elephant population across 18 countries went down 30 percent from 2007 to 2014. But that’s only part of the picture. In 2014, Zimbabwe’s elephant populations tallied up to more than 82,000—an incredibly far cry from the 4,000 individuals counted up around 1900. The GEC numbers suggest the elephant population numbers for both Zimbabwe and Zambia are fairly stable.

And stability is key for the FWS. Historically speaking, the U.S. Department of the Interior has always paid more attention to local population stability than absolute numbers across the globe. In making this move for two countries, the FWS seems to be reinforcing an approach that’s tailored to regions rather than an entire continent.

The FWS’s official reasons for lifting the ban in Zimbabwe stem in part from what it says is an availability of new information that demonstrates a clearer understanding of African elephant populations in the country. The decision was also based on assessments of how revenue can be generated out of trophy imports and licenses, a new species management plan adopted by the government that will establish and enforce firm hunting quotas, and new regulatory mechanisms that should make it easier to track revenue generated from trophy imports (and limit corruption) while turning that money back over into conservation efforts. In sum, these changes have the potential to secure current elephant populations and help grow them in places where numbers are declining. (The same information on why the ban was lifted is not available with regard to Zambia.)

The FWS’s reasons are part of a larger argument that when a proper regulatory framework is implemented, conservation efforts actually thrive. A 2001 paper published in Science points to how legalizing trophy hunting in Zimbabwe has “doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” since the program at the time included private lands. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” And considering how an elephant trophy fee could be anywhere from $4,000 to $18,500, the potential for revenue generated by trophy import permits could be a massive boon to both conservation projects and local communities alike

The problem, of course, is making sure those bureaucratic bodies actually work as they are meant to. There’s a totally fair case to make that corruption can detrimentally subvert whatever gains can be made off of trophy imports. And given the fact that there’s a military coup underway in Zimbabwe right now, it’s not clear how much confidence one should have in the government’s ability to enforce hunting laws. But in the broadest sense, this decision seems to reflect a reasonable reaction to the facts on the ground.

Why the Raw Water Movement Is So Obnoxious

Why the Raw Water Movement Is So Obnoxious

by Christine Manganaro @ Slate Articles

The belief that “natural” is better has animated many food and health trends in recent memory, with natural as a shorthand denoting purity, a lack of processing, or rejection of modern medicine: raw foodism, enthusiasm for raw dairy, the paleo diet, and organic evangelism. Next up: “raw water.”

The raw water trend takes naturalness to its extreme: Proponents boast that it comes from “off the grid,” celebrating its freedom from government taint. Cody Friesen, CEO of Zero Mass Water, which is marketed not as raw water but as “pure water,” disparages municipal water. His $4,500 Source system draws water from the air we all breathe. (Raw water comes from pristine springs.)* As reported to the New York Times, “The goal, Mr. Friesen said, is to make water ‘that’s ultra high quality and secure, totally disconnected from all infrastructure.’ ”

There are so many things that are obnoxious about the raw water trend that it seems entirely possible that it is in fact the most obnoxious Silicon Valley disruption project yet. It’s instructive to go beyond the gut-level reaction against raw water to consider exactly why it’s so frustrating.

There’s the greed. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have found a way to market drinking water up to $36.99 for a 2½-gallon bottle and refills for $14.99—that’s about 30 times the cost of regular bottled water, which itself costs between 300 and 2,000 times the cost of municipal drinking water. Essentially, they’ve turned one of the requirements for sustaining life into a lucrative commodity and luxury good. Live Water founder Mukhande Singh (né Christopher Sanborn) sells his product through delivery service and in natural food stores like the Rainbow co-op in San Francisco, where Live Water is frequently sold out.* Other vendors, like Liquid Eden in San Diego, capitalize on the “water consciousness movement” to the tune of 900 gallons a day in sales.

Then there’s the stupidity. Raw water enthusiasts trespass on private land, at night, to harvest from secret springs. These people are not only risking legal consequences, they’re risking contracting a bacterial infection or parasite, as physicians and public health experts have warned. This water fetching trades on fantasies about an environment that doesn’t exist and nostalgia for water purity that never existed. Spring water is not necessarily free of elements that harm health. All water sources are part of the environment and are not isolated from “industrial age contamination,” as described by the Live Water guys. The idea that Americans drank abundant pristine water before the industrial age, in the first half of the 19th century and earlier, is not supported by the historical record. There is a reason that everyone including children drank so much hard cider and beer during the 1700s and 1800s: because waterborne illness was prevalent, and alcoholic beverages were safer than many sources of “raw water.” This was especially true in proximity to towns whose water sources and sewage systems were not well differentiated.

And then there’s the bad science. Like erroneous claims that drinking fresh juice cleanses the body of toxins, claims about the healthfulness of untreated water are based on belief rather than evidence. Raw water purveyors either lack the scientific literacy to interpret the available research or intentionally misrepresent science to support health claims about their product. The Live Water website cites an inconclusive study to support its claim that “raw spring water has vast healing abilities.” The linked journal article claims that there is a correlation (which is not causation, as the saying goes) between the skin-regenerating effects of topical application of water from Italy’s Comano spring and the presence of nonpathogenic bacteria in the water. No untreated water was consumed by anyone in the course of this study.

But what’s most obnoxious about this phenomenon is its misanthropy. Most infuriating of all is perhaps how the raw water movement underscores the increasing realization that tech-bro Silicon Valley fetishists have abandoned the rest of society.

It is not hard to see how twisted it is for a group of privileged people with access to safe municipal drinking water to spurn it in favor of something more dangerous when people in largely black and poor Flint, Michigan, are being poisoned with lead and people in largely black rural Alabama are contracting hookworm from untreated water. By claiming that tap water is “toilet water with birth control drugs,” that fluoride is a “mind control drug,” and that treated water lacks probiotics supposedly present in untreated water, purveyors of “raw water” incite mistrust in municipal water safety—in places where the water has been proven safe to drink, no less—and perpetuate cynicism about regulations that protect public health. (Conversely, when people making fun of raw water frame all untreated water as giardia juice, they betray their ignorance about the number of Americans living in rural areas who get their water from perfectly adequate wells.)

The raw water trend is consistent with other asocial behaviors by venture capitalists using their wealth to eschew civic responsibility and insulate themselves from social problems. If raw water evangelists actually think treated water is poisoned by fluoride and prescription drugs, that water safety is threatened by industrial pollution, and that a lack of good bacteria found in our water is really a significant cause of malnourishment, then they ought to be moved to activism on what should be understood as a matter of civil and human rights. Instead, they’ve created expensive untreated bottled water, a market solution and form of conspicuous consumption. The raw water movement doesn’t only reveal how gullible and unscientific this community is—it also secures its place as our modern-day moneyed overlords who care little about the serfs down below.

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2018: This story originally misstated that Doug Evans is the CEO of Live Water. He is just a customer. (Return.)

*Update, Jan. 8, 2018: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that Zero Mass Water, which collects its water from water vapor using a $4,500 system, does not consider itself part of the raw water movement. (Return.)

Hunting Coyotes in Cities Only Makes Coyote Populations Grow

Hunting Coyotes in Cities Only Makes Coyote Populations Grow

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

Cities have a coyote problem. As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, hunters are increasingly trying to manage the urban coyote populations that have merged with human communities as the latter has spread throughout the continent.

There are plenty of concerns about how wise it is to carry hunting rifles into densely populated cities to shoot canines. But beyond the risks to innocent bystanders and the debate over whether growing urban coyote populations even pose a serious threat to humans, there’s one critical fact that we must keep in mind when deciding if we should hunt urban coyotes: Doing so will likely just make the problem worse.

According to the Times:

Some carnivore ecologists argue, though, that moving the hunt into cities will be self-defeating. They say it replicates the very tactics that have allowed coyotes to prosper despite a concerted onslaught against them. In an adaptation that biologists call fission-fusion, when coyotes come under pressure from hunters, their packs split up into lone animals and pairs, they start producing much larger litters, and they migrate into new areas.

Coyotes are notorious for rapidly adapting to changing circumstances. Rather than retreating into natural environments as cities and suburbs grew, many coyote populations have simply adapted to city life, establishing populations in Tucson or San Francisco or New York City or Washington. As nocturnal animals, they’ve learned to hunt for rats, mice, squirrels, and other urban prey at night. They generally avoid contact with humans.

This adaptability is why ecologists doubt that hunting these creatures will make much of a difference to their urban presence. As the theory of fission-fusion suggests, coyotes have no problem abandoning their normal packs to split up into smaller groups or start hunting as individuals. And when populations are pressured, litter sizes double or triple from the norm of about five or six pups. Families use their nighttime howling and yips to basically take a census of the regional population. When howls go unanswered, the biological response in these animals is to generate a litter that could be as large as 16 pups. Trying to hunt down a family of coyotes might reduce numbers for a season, but it essentially creates a scattering effect that yields more families in more places, with higher brood numbers the following year.

We can see the results of this adaptation in real time. Eradication efforts currently kill up to half a million coyotes a year, but coyote populations have continued to rise to all-time highs. The animals continue to be the biggest killer of livestock in western North America. Plus, urban coyotes seem to be experiencing higher life expectancies than their rural counterparts.

Coyotes are far from endangered. They don’t need our protection, so hunting them is arguably an ethical choice. But given what we know about fission-fusion, hunters who claim they are doing a community service by hunting urban coyotes are fooling themselves and the cities they claim to help. Even if coyotes pose an aggressive danger to people (a debatable premise), hunting them will simply exacerbate the problem. This time around, hunters can’t use conservation management as a legitimate reason for their sport. Perhaps we should try to learn to live with them instead.

A British Grocer Is Selling an Avocado Without a Pit

A British Grocer Is Selling an Avocado Without a Pit

by Aaron Mak @ Slate Articles

The seemingly docile avocado is, as it turns out, responsible for a growing number of mangled hands and emergency room visits. The variety of textures—sturdy and slippery skin, soft flesh, solid pit—can make cutting the buttery fruit a perilous endeavor.

Luckily for chefs who are squeamish about bloodying their hands, the British supermarket chain Marks and Spencer has begun selling a safety-conscious “cocktail avocado,” which has softer skin and no pit. At the moment, the avocado alternative is only available for sale to consumers in the UK.

The Guardian interviewed a food specialist at Marks and Spencer on the matter, who said, “We’ve had the mini, the giant, ready sliced and we’re now launching the holy grail of avocados—stoneless.”

In May, the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons issued a warning for “avocado hands,” which is the result of amateur cooks stabbing and slashing their hands when attempting to slice an avocado. The St. Thomas Hospital in the U.K. even claims they experience a “post-brunch surge” of such cases on Saturdays. The injury can require complex and expensive surgery in order to properly mend as tendon and nerve damage are not uncommon; the wife of a New York Times staffer reportedly racked up a $20,000 hospital bill after an avocado-related mishap. Simon Eccles, the secretary for the surgeons’ association, further suggested that the fruit come with warning labels.

The cocktail avocado, which is the fruit of an un-pollinated avocado blossom that develops without a seed, is slightly smaller (two to three inches in length) and easier to eat. Only available in December, the cocktail avocados grow in Spain and are usually reserved for the chefs of high-end restaurants in Paris.

Those who wish to partake can either eat it whole—the skin is edible—or peel it by removing one end and then squeezing the contents out. Safety comes at a price, however: one cocktail avocado costs around $2.70.

But for millennials who apparently spend exorbitant amounts on avocado toast, cocktail avocados might seem like a steal.

How to Watch the Only Supermoon of 2017

How to Watch the Only Supermoon of 2017

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

A full moon might come around once every 30 days, but a supermoon—when the full moon appears bigger and brighter than ever before—is a much rarer celestial spectacle. Like Thanksgiving dinner or resolutions to give up social media, supermoons only happen once, maybe twice a year. This year will see just one supermoon, and you’ll need to play your cards right this weekend for a chance to see it.

A supermoon is essentially a collision of two astronomic phenomena: the perigee and the syzygy. The moon’s distance from the Earth naturally fluctuates as it orbits. When it gets to its shortest distance, that’s called the perigee—it’s about 225,000 thousand miles away and 16,500 miles closer than usual. As the moon orbits around the sun and Earth orbits the sun, phases of the moon are intermittently created. The alignment between Earth, moon, and sun that creates full moons (or new moons) is called syzygy.

When the perigee occurs at the same time as a full moon, we get a “perigee syzygy”—colloquially known as a supermoon. When this happens, the moon appears up to 15 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than it usually does.

The last supermooon to hit the night skies was over a year ago, and it was closer to Earth than it’s been since 1948. It won’t be that close until 2034—this year’s supermoon, occurring on Dec. 3, which is Sunday night, will be a bit more muted: only about 7 percent bigger and 16 percent brighter. Depending on how much of an aficionado you are of lunar events, you might not really be that interested. Truth be told, many people can’t normally differentiate a supermoon from a run-of-the-mill full moon. If you want to really soak in the supermoon this year, you’re going to have to watch it the right way: like a space nerd.

First thing’s first: Look for the moon on the horizon right after moonrise (you can find local moonrise times here). It will appear bigger and brighter thanks to the “moon illusion” effect that makes the moon larger by the horizon than it does higher in the sky. Exactly why this happens is still unclear among scientists, but for the purposes of the supermoon, just go with it.

Next: Bring a pair of binoculars, or even a small telescope, for some extra magnification. You’ll want to soak in as much of the supermoon as possible, and you’ll do yourself a favor by using this opportunity to gaze at incredibly fine details on the lunar surface.

If you miss the moonrise, you should still take an opportunity to look at the moon sometime in the night. You’ll also have an encore chance at a peak viewing moment at 3:45 a.m. ET on Dec. 4, according to NPR.

Yes, we’re trudging headfirst into the winter season, which means it’ll be cold out. If you’re a giant baby and don’t want to go outside, you can pull up a livestream of the Virtual Telescope as it watches the moon rise over Rome.

Normally this is the part where I might tell you how to find the moon using a night sky smartphone app, but if you already have problems spotting the moon, you might just want to stay inside and forget about the supermoon entirely.

For the rest of you, happy viewing!

Actually, Snow in Florida Is Probably Caused by Climate Change

Actually, Snow in Florida Is Probably Caused by Climate Change

by Nathalie Baptiste @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

The eastern United States is starting out 2018 the same way it ended 2017: bone-chillingly cold. Many New Year’s Eve revelers endured record-breaking low temperatures, and it’s only going to get colder. Thanks to a weather system known as a bomb cyclone, the entire East Coast is or will soon be subject to subzero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice—including Florida, the Sunshine State.

Snow and ice in Florida is pretty rare. Its capital, Tallahassee, hasn’t seen measurable snow in 28 years.

But despite how strange it is to spot snow on palm trees, the sight doesn’t disprove global warming.

Just like every other time it gets cold enough to require a winter coat, climate change deniers have seized on the chilly weather outside to argue that global warming can’t be happening. They’re wrong—the frigid temperatures might actually be happening because of global warming.

In 2016, Mother Jones reported on Rutgers researcher Jennifer Francis and other scientists who believe that global warming is playing a role in extreme cold snaps:

To understand how it works, it first helps to think of the jet stream as a river of air that flows from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing with it much of our weather. Its motion—sometimes in a relatively straight path, sometimes in a more loopy one—is driven by a difference in temperatures between the equator and the North Pole. Southern temperatures are of course warmer, and because warm air takes up more space than cold air, this leads to taller columns of air in the atmosphere. “If you were sitting on top of a layer of atmosphere and you were in DC, looking northward, it would be like looking down a hill, because it’s warmer where you are,” explains Francis. The jet stream then flows “downhill,” so to speak, in a northward direction. But it’s also bent by the rotation of the Earth, leading to its continual wavy, eastward motion. As the Arctic rapidly heats up, however, there’s less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles, and the downhill slope in the atmosphere is accordingly less steep.
That shrinking temperature difference is what wreaks havoc on the jet stream. “When the jet stream gets weaker, it meanders more,” explained Francis in an interview this week. “It wanders north and south and when it gets into one of these wandering and wavy patterns, that’s when we see these pools of cold air pulled southward.”

It’s also important to remember that weather and climate are two different things. As the National Weather Service puts it, “Weather is what you get; climate is what you expect.” The daily temperature is weather, but the averages of those temperatures over long periods of time is climate. So even though much of the country finished out 2017 with record-breaking temperatures, it was still the second-hottest year on record. The clear, long-term trends are far more important than the snow Tallahassee residents are seeing outside today.

What to Do if You Have the Flu

What to Do if You Have the Flu

by Dara Kass @ Slate Articles

Flu season is upon us, which means emergency departments all over the globe are dealing with an overwhelming number of patients with flu and flulike symptoms. In a bilateral attempt at self-interest and social good, we, your friendly emergency department doctors, would like to give you some advice on how to manage this time of year.

First up, and most important: It’s not too late to get the flu shot. Flu season lasts through April. Of the four strains in the flu shot, one of them is only 10 percent effective; the other three are more than 70 percent effective. That’s normal, and the shot is definitely worth getting. If you end up getting the flu anyway, the flu shot alters the course of the disease (in most cases) and makes it less nasty.

Another reason to get the flu shot is that lots of people (like cancer patients and transplant recipients) are at high risk during flu season. You don’t know who they are, but you could protect them by getting the shot. And if you do get sick, act like everyone is at risk. Stay home. Stay hydrated. Stay in bed. Use hand sanitizer. Sneeze into your elbow. You may save someone’s life.

What if you get really sick? We are always willing and able to see patients in the emergency department. That is our job. But you will likely have to wait. Some departments are seeing a two-hour wait for triage, then a wait for the doctor, a wait for the diagnosis, and a final wait to be discharged.

You’re going to be really annoyed, if after spending 12 hours waiting in the ER, we just say “you have the flu, go home.” But that’s all we’ll be able to say to you. Because we cannot cure the flu. It is a virus. We can try to make you feel better. But lots of the things we do for the flu, you can do at home. Flu care mostly consists of supportive measures like fluids and rest and over-the-counter medications.

Ibuprofen (like Motrin) usually makes people feel better than Tylenol. “Prescription strength" ibuprofen is 800 mg (four over-the-counter 200 mg tablets) taken every eight hours, and that’s the best thing to take, unless you have an ulcer. Take with food or milk or an antacid.

If you cannot hold anything down, we can give you IV fluids and anti-nausea medicine.

You may have heard of Tamiflu, the flu medicine. Tamiflu reduces symptoms by an average of one to one and a half days and can have side effects. It is also ineffective after 24 to 48 hours of symptom onset. We will give it to you if we think you really need it, but if we don’t give it, trust us that it’s because it’s not going to help you.

Do not request a Z-Pack. Antibiotics do not help a virus and risk giving you antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and you don’t want that.

You may have heard of other people receiving more interventions for the flu. It’s definitely possible. If you are younger than 3 months or older than 75, or immunocompromised in some way (cancer, autoimmune disease, advanced HIV/AIDS), you might get an X-ray, since you’re susceptible to complications. We promise you will get an X-ray if we think you need it.

If you have underlying lung disease, such as COPD or emphysema, you may get an X-ray and an antibiotic, because you’re at higher risk of getting bacterial pneumonia. Again, trust us, we’re doctors.

There are other ways to get help beyond an unsatisfying trip to the emergency department. Here are our best suggestions:

  1. Call your primary care doctor. Often your primary care doctor can offer advice over the phone or get you in her office. Give your doctor a chance to take care of you!
  2. Urgent care centers: Wait times are considerably less at urgent care centers than emergency departments, and they're usually able to estimate times over the phone. Many can administer all the treatments described above, even the IV fluids and X-rays.
  3. Telemedicine: Consider finding out if your insurance pays for telemedicine services. This is a perfect use of telemedicine, and you won’t be exposing anyone else to the flu.

To everyone reading this: Pay it forward. Instead of getting stuck with a bill for an emergency department visit you likely do not need, donate what would have been your co-pay to your favorite charity. We promise it will make you feel better than anything we can do for you in the ED.

What Is the Point of a Solar Road?

What Is the Point of a Solar Road?

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

China has the strange distinction of being both the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter and the premiere solar energy producer (Trump being in office has really given them an opportunity to firmly solidify that second crown). On Thursday, the country took its latest solar energy leap by opening a new, kilometer-long solar highway in the northeastern Shangdon province. Despite some previous attempts by other countries, it’s being hailed as the “world’s first solar-powered highway.”

The roadway, made of a transparent concrete on top, solar panels underneath, and an insulation material as the base, covers about 5,875 square feet of total space. The engineers of the project claim it’s enough to generate about 1 gigawatt of energy over a year to be used to keep street lights running and a snow-melting system for the road charged up, with plans to power future charging stations for electric cars. There are two lanes plus an emergency lane for traffic to move through, and the pavement can purportedly handle 10 times more pressure than standard asphalt.

Cool, right? Well, kind of. Solar roads might seem like a novel idea—turning every road into a solar energy–generating platform seems downright utopic. But there are pitfalls inherent to the concept. If the goal behind such a scheme is to create energy infrastructure that’s sustainable, affordable, and safe, then the Shangdon project is a pretty robust piece of evidence for why solar roads miss the mark on all fronts.

Let’s start with cost. The road costs about $458 per square meter—far pricier than the $5 per square meter it costs to create an asphalt road. That creates a price tag of nearly $2.7 million for the Shangdon project—all to generate enough electricity to power roughly 93 American homes annually. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of electricity for a single American home is a little over $1,350—or $125,000 for 93 homes. So, no, it’s not a cost-effective project. Of course, it’s a pilot project, so maybe this is OK—particularly if it paves the way (pardon the pun) for more solar roads in the future.

Except solar roads aren’t particularly efficient. Ever wonder why so many solar panels are installed at an angle? The orientation helps optimize how much sunlight hits the panels. Solar road panels, of course, need to be laid flat. Light can’t pierce through shade created by nearby trees, or buildings, or dirt that covers up the pavement. The cars themselves are a major obstacle to the light anyway, especially during a traffic jam or rush hour. And lastly, solar panels need ventilation to keep cool and perform optimally. If they get too hot, they won’t generate as much electricity.

But even all this is moot compared to the single biggest issue that most people will raise if solar roads ever go vogue: safety. Solar roads mean driving on transparent surfaces. This could mean smooth glass, or something that mixes rock and glassy materials. The transparency required for light reduces the amount of gravel and rock that could give the road enough friction to help with smooth driving. The more glassy materials you add to the road, the more you risk cars losing traction on the surface, especially in rain or snow.

So then what’s the point of a solar road? It’s not totally clear. These initial testbeds, in China and elsewhere like France, might be key to making solar roads cheaper and efficient, and verifying the safety of these stretches. Solar power is clearly the future of renewable energy for the world, and China’s advances in the realm are laudable. And who knows, maybe a solar road will eventually lead to a discovery that pays off.

But I can’t help but feel that a solar road reeks of too much hype and spectacle, and not enough practicality. Lining up the sides of highways with solar arrays might seem quaint and boring, but there’s no question it’s a much more effective way to augment solar energy production.

Why Isn’t the Bond Market More Worried About Climate Change?

Why Isn’t the Bond Market More Worried About Climate Change?

by Henry Grabar @ Slate Articles

Early this month, when the annual king tide swept ocean water into the streets of Miami, the city’s Republican mayor, Tomás Regalado, used the occasion to stump for a vote. He’d like Miami residents to pass the “Miami Forever” bond issue, a $400-million property tax increase to fund seawalls and drainage pumps (they’ll vote on it on Election Day). “We cannot control nature,” Regalado says in a recent television ad, “but we can prepare the city.”

Miami is considered among the most exposed big cities in the U.S. to climate change. One study predicts the region could lose 2.5 million residents to climate migration by the end of the century. As on much of the Eastern Seaboard, the flooding is no longer hypothetical. Low-lying properties already get submerged during the year’s highest tides. So-called “nuisance flooding" has surged 400 percent since 2006.

Business leaders are excited about the timing of the vote in part because Miami currently has its best credit ratings in 30 years, meaning that the city can borrow money at low rates.* Amid the dire predictions and the full moon floods, that rating is a bulwark. It signifies that the financial industry doesn’t think sea level rise and storm risk will prevent Miami from paying off its debts. In December, a report issued by President Obama’s budget office outlined a potential virtuous cycle: Borrow money to build seawalls and the like while your credit is good, and your credit will still be good when you need to borrow in the future.

The alternative: Flood-prone jurisdictions go into the financial tailspin we recognize from cities like Detroit, unable to borrow enough to protect the assets whose declining value makes it harder to borrow.

The long ribbon of vulnerable coastal homes from Brownsville to Acadia has managed to stave off that cycle in part thanks to a familiar, federally backed consensus between homebuyers and politicians. Homebuyers continue to place high values on homes, even when they’ve suffered repeated flood damage. That’s because the federal government is generous with disaster aid and its subsidy of the National Flood Insurance Program, which helps coastal homeowners buy new washing machines when theirs get wrecked. Banks require coastal homeowners with FHA-backed mortgages to purchase flood insurance, and in turn, coastal homes are rebuilt again and again and again—even when it might no longer be prudent.

But there’s another element that helps cement the bargain: investors’ confidence that coastal towns will pay back the money they borrow. Homebuyers are irrational. Politicians are self-interested. But lenders—and the ratings agencies that help direct their investments—ought to have a more clinical view. Evaluating long-term risk is exactly their business model. If they thought environmental conditions threatened investments, they would sound the alarm—or just vote with their wallets. They’ve done it before—cities like New Orleans, Galveston, Texas, and Seaside Heights, New Jersey were all downgraded by rating agencies after damage from Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Sandy. But all have since rebounded. There does not appear to be a single jurisdiction in the United States that has suffered a credit downgrade related to sea level rise or storm risk. Yet.

* * *

To understand why, it helps to look at communities like Seaside Heights, the boardwalk enclave along the Jersey Shore whose marooned roller coaster provided the definitive image of the 2012 storm.

Seaside Heights was given an A3 rating from Moody's in 2013, meaning “low credit risk.”* Ocean County, New Jersey—the county in which Seaside Heights sits—has a AAA rating. In the summer of 2016, before Ocean County sold $31 million in 20-year bonds, neither Moody’s Investor Services nor S&P Global Ratings asked about how climate change might affect its finances, the county’s negotiator told Bloomberg this summer. “It didn’t come up, which says to me they’re not concerned about it.”

The credit rating agencies would deny that characterization—to a point. They do know about sea level rise. They just don’t think it matters yet. In 2015, analysts from Fitch concluded, “sea level rise has not played a material role” in assessing creditworthiness, despite “real threats.” Hurricane Sandy had no discernible effect on the median home prices in Monmouth, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties, which make up New Jersey’s Atlantic Coast. The effect on tourism spending was also negligible.

"We take a lot from history, and historically what’s happened is that these places are desirable to be in,” explains Amy Laskey, a managing director at Fitch Ratings. “People continue to want to be there and will rebuild properties, usually with significant help from federal and state governments, so we haven’t felt it affects the credit of the places we rate.”

There are three reasons for that. The first is that disasters tend to be good for credit, thanks to cash infusions from FEMA’s generous Disaster Relief Fund. “The tax base of New Orleans now is about twice what it was prior to Katrina,” Laskey says, despite a population that remains 60,000 persons shy of its 2005 peak. “Longer term what tends to happen is there’s rebuilding, a tremendous influx of funds from the federal and state governments and private insurers.” Local Home Depots are busy. Rental apartments fill up with construction workers. Contractors have to schedule work months in advance. Look at Homestead, Florida, Laskey advised, a sprawling city south of Miami that was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. Today it is bigger than ever. “If there was going to be a place that wasn’t going to come back, that would have been it.”

What emerges from the destruction, for the most part, are communities full of properties that are more valuable than they were before, because they’re both newer and better prepared for the next storm. Or as a Moody’s report on environmental risk puts it, “generally disasters have been positive for state finances.” But this is entirely dependent on federal largesse: After Massachusetts brutal winter of 2015, FEMA granted only a quarter of the state’s request for aid. Moody’s determined that could negatively impact the credit ratings of local governments that had to shoulder the cost of snow and ice removal.

Second is that people still want to live on the shore. “The amenity value of the beach is something you can enjoy every day of the summer,” says Robert Muir-Wood, the chief research officer at Risk Management Solutions. “People may say, ‘The benefits of living on the beach to my health and wellbeing outweigh the impact of the flood.’” That calculus is strongly influenced by affordable flood insurance policies, but it has not changed. In a way, despite the risks, the sea is a more dependable economic engine for a community than, say, a factory that could shut its doors and move away any minute.

Most bonds get paid off from property taxes. If property values remain high, bondholders have little to worry about. If, on the other hand, property values fall, tax rates must rise. If buildings go into foreclosure, or neighborhoods undergo “buy-outs” to restore wetlands or dunes, more of the burden to pay off that new seawall falls on everyone else.

Third: Most jurisdictions are large. New Jersey’s coastal counties also contain thousands of inland homes whose risk exposure is much, much lower. Adam Stern, a co-head of research at Boston’s Breckinridge Capital Advisors, argues that the first credit problems will come for small communities devastated by major storms.

Still, Stern said, his firm looks at these issues. “One of the things we try to get at when we look at an issuer of bonds that’s on the coast: Do you take climate change seriously? Are you planning for that?” Still, he said, bond buyers—like everyone else—discount the value of future money, and hence future risk. When could the breaking point for the muni market come? Stern predicts that will happen when property values start to discernibly change in reaction to climate risk. It’s a game of chicken between infrastructure investors and homeowners.

“I think we’re in territory that’s changing right now,” says John Miller, an engineer studying climate change and credit risks at Wharton’s Risk Center. He pointed to Sea Bright, a barrier-island borough of New Jersey just south of New York Harbor. A municipal analysis concluded that by 2050, one in five of the borough’s parcels will be underwater—amounting to 17 percent of the total value of all Sea Bright real estate. Under 2050 SLR predictions, a 100-year flood would put 99 percent of parcels underwater. That year, 2050, is just beyond the 30-year frame used to sell both homes and bonds.

Generally, though, if you are looking for financial markets to start enforcing the risks of climate change, don’t look at towns on the rebound. Those places—whether they’re building seawalls or simply enforcing building codes on reconstructed properties—are better prepared. “The places you’re going to see the biggest disasters,” Muir-Wood predicts, “are the ones that haven’t been hit.”

*Correction, Oct. 31, 2017: This piece originally misstated that Miami has a double-A bond rating. The city’s credit rating varies between agencies and types of debt: Moody’s rating for the city of Miami, for example, is A1 for tax-backed debt and A2 for revenue-backed debt. (Return.) The piece also misstated the firm’s rating of Seaside Heights, which was A3, not AAA—“low credit risk” rather than “minimal credit risk.” (Return.)

Los Angeles Often Burns in the Movies. Now It’s Burning in Real Life.

Los Angeles Often Burns in the Movies. Now It’s Burning in Real Life.

by Laura Bliss @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by CityLab and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

You’ve seen Los Angeles burning in the movies. But a video shot from a car on the Interstate 405 early Wednesday morning was as apocalyptic a view of my city as in any disaster film.

Along the dry edge of the Sepulveda Pass, where the country’s busiest freeway bridges the Santa Monica Mountains, a brush fire is roiling acres of houses, museums, and religious centers. Thousands have evacuated; many structures are already in flames. A few miles downhill, in the San Fernando Valley, soot is dusting my childhood home.

Dubbed the Skirball Fire, this is the fourth major blaze in the greater L.A. area this week; it arrives two months after fires in Northern California wine country claimed 44 lives and $3 billion in property damage. Now, ferocious flames in Southern California’s Santa Clarita, Sylmar, and Ventura areas are destroying homes and driving out thousands of residents; they will rage for days to come. Drought and record-breaking heat, driven by a changing climate, are making both ends of the state more fire-prone. It’s been months since L.A.’s hills have had a good soak.

But the main culprit of these fires is the Santa Ana winds—powerful, withering gusts of air that lash down from the high desert to the coast nearly every autumn. They turn embers into high-intensity blazes notoriously difficult to battle. This year, surface temperature changes in the Pacific have created a pressure gradient especially conducive to the winds. Southern California experienced twice as many Santa Ana days as usual in October; December typically brings 10 such days, and by the end of this week, the region will have already had six.

For all the praise of its “perfect weather,” L.A. is often seen as a city created in defiance of the laws of nature. Before flooded Houston acquired a similar reputation, critics argued that parched, hilly, quake-prone Los Angeles should never have been built where it is: The land is too dry, the earth too unstable. In pop culture, the hubris of its existence brings spectacular punishment—witness L.A. split open by earthquakes, destroyed in alien attacks, consumed by fire. Dubbed the “Devil Winds” in legend and literature, the Santa Ana is an old fixture of this trope, mythicized as a force of insanity, murder, and suicide. “The violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability,” Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Some viewers will find it hard to separate the freeway footage of the Skirball Fire, and the multimillion dollar homes it is burning to the ground (including, yes, Rupert Murdoch’s), from these strong cinematic associations. For those in East Coast cities in particular, perhaps, it will stir up a certain moralism about where cities should and should not be—reminiscent, perhaps, of how hurricane damage was often characterized as karma for overdevelopment in Florida and Texas. Why were people living there to begin with?

Undoubtedly, California’s fires have lessons for urban planners: Some of the foothill communities burning this week have recently developed further into the wild-land interface, inserting homes into fire-prone areas. Zoning and other land-use policies may need to be re-examined, among other ways leaders must prepare for and mitigate the effects of an always-burning future, as the warming atmosphere fans Santa Ana flames.

But today, as the world watches Los Angeles burn, the view is not only familiar from the movies. Every city is now examining itself in the face of climate change and its companion threats of sea-level rise, devastating storms, and extreme heat. Where should we be building and rebuilding? Who gets to live here, and how should we live? These are no longer questions that haunt only residents of L.A., where a rapprochement with catastrophe has long been part of the civic contract. New York, Boston, D.C., and the rest are looking at themselves in the mirror, too; in a sense, all cities are defying nature now.

Once despised by so many urbanists for its “uncultured,” car-centric sprawl, L.A. has become an unlikely leader in this dialogue, with ambitious plans to transform its transportation networks, densify the city, and reduce climate impacts. Los Angeles is burning, but now there is a Devil Wind blowing around the world. The hubris, and the responsibility to act, is everyone’s to share.

An Allegation, Then a Prestigious Professorship

An Allegation, Then a Prestigious Professorship

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

On Monday, I reported that Todd Heatherton, an expert on the psychology of self-control and one of three Dartmouth neuroscientists now under criminal investigation for sexual misconduct, allegedly groped a 21-year-old graduate student at an academic conference in February 2002. On Wednesday, a former colleague of Heatherton’s—Jennifer Groh, now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University—posted details of a separate alleged groping incident from the same winter. Groh says she reported that incident to Dartmouth’s associate dean of social sciences a few days after it happened. A few months later, the school provided Heatherton with a prestigious named professorship.

Groh summarized this episode in an Oct. 14 email to Dartmouth’s dean of faculty and the school’s vice president for institutional diversity and equity. She sent that email after learning that Heatherton—along with colleagues Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen—had come under scrutiny this year for what the school has variously described in statements as “sexual misconduct” and “serious misconduct.” Groh says that after sending that email, she subsequently shared her story with both Dartmouth’s investigator and representatives of local law enforcement. On Wednesday, she posted a copy of her email to a private Facebook page. The Valley News of West Lebanon, New Hampshire, first reported on this posting Wednesday evening.

The alleged incident that Groh described happened during a graduate recruiting event for the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences in 2002. Multiple former students and faculty members who spent time at PBS have told me these events were occasions for excessive drinking. One professor remembers bottles of whiskey being passed around, and his colleagues doing shots with grad school applicants. A former student in the department recalls a recruit getting “blasted out of his mind” and vomiting. “They were applauding it,” this student said. “They were like, ‘This guy’s definitely coming.’ ”

Groh was not present at the recruiting event in 2002; she says she first heard stories about the incident from other members of the faculty. The alleged victim met with her in private a few days later, Groh says, for a “very solemn” conversation. According to Groh, this graduate student told her that Heatherton had placed his hands on both her breasts at the event, while at the same time criticizing her performance in the lab. “ ‘You’re really not doing very well,’ ” Groh remembers the student saying, quoting the words Heatherton had allegedly said to her.

A few days after speaking with the graduate student, Groh says, she described the alleged incident to the associate dean for social sciences, Richard Wright. She doesn’t remember the details of their conversation but says she got the sense that she “was not the first person to tell him about it,” and that “he felt the behavior was inappropriate.” She did not hear anything further on the matter, and she was not aware of any formal response from the administration. (Wright declined to comment.)

Another former member of the faculty in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences says he was aware in 2002 of the allegation that Heatherton had groped a graduate student, and that he was also aware that Groh had reported it. “I knew that story, and was familiar with that story, before [Groh] posted it [on Wednesday],” he told me. “Her story is consistent with my recollection.”

On Wednesday, Dartblog published a statement from one of Heatherton’s attorneys. It read, in full:

Dartmouth was aware of this incident 15 years ago, investigated it, and determined it was accidental and totally unintentional—not a sexual touching at all. Therefore, the College determined that there was no need for any disciplinary action.
There is absolutely nothing in Todd’s personnel file about this.

Heatherton’s attorneys provided Slate with the same statement, adding that “neither [Heatherton] nor his attorneys are going to answer other questions.”

Groh’s response to the statement: “The student conveyed to me that she was touched on both breasts with both hands. She conveyed that she perceived it as inappropriate.”

Within a few months of the alleged incident, Heatherton received the school’s Champion International Professorship—an honor that is “intended to recognize and reward members of the Dartmouth faculty whose teaching is true to the highest standards of Dartmouth’s educational mission and whose scholarship has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in their chosen fields.” The title comes with a “modest research stipend,” a Dartmouth representative said on Thursday.

Groh was upset to learn of this appointment. “I was immensely frustrated and disappointed,” she told me.

The alleged incident between Heatherton and the graduate student would come up again in 2005, when Groh was up for tenure. Heatherton had taken over as chairman of the department, and Groh—who asserts that she’d been very successful at securing grant funding—felt her promotion was being unfairly delayed. In the meantime, Bill Kelley, who had arrived at Dartmouth three years after she did, was given tenure. “I felt that was fishy,” she says. It occurred to her that her reporting of the alleged incident from 2002 might have been one of several factors in her tenure being delayed. She filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, and, according to Groh, a formal investigation was launched. Groh doesn’t remember if she brought up the 2002 report specifically in her complaint. The woman who Groh says led this investigation, Michelle Meyers, has since died. The director of Dartmouth’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity at the time of this complaint did not respond to an interview request. A Dartmouth representative said the school “cannot comment on the details of a personnel matter” and that the tenure process is confidential.

Groh says her tenure case went very smoothly after she filed that complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. Heatherton stepped down from his role as department chairman in October 2005, after just one-and-a-half years in the position. Associate Dean for Social Sciences Michael Mastanduno announced that move in an email to PBS faculty. (Groh provided me with this email.) Mastanduno’s message did not mention the complaint against Heatherton. In light of “an extraordinarily complex set of opportunities” for the department, the email said, Heatherton agreed that “it is best that he step down as Chair prior to the end of his expected term so that he can focus on [a multi-laboratory neuroscience grant], his own research, and the social brain sciences initiative.” Mastanduno also asked the faculty “to join [him] in thanking Todd [Heatherton] for his outstanding efforts on behalf of the department.” Heatherton remained the school’s Champion International professor until 2010, at which point he was named the Lincoln Filene professor of human relations, a title he holds today.

Groh left Dartmouth in 2006. “It wasn’t a good fit for me professionally, and it wasn’t a culture that I wanted to be a part of,” she told me.

Update, Nov. 18, 6:55 p.m.: Todd Heatherton’s name has been removed from web pages relating to the two psychology textbooks he co-authored for W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Psychological Science, written with Michael Gazzaniga and Diane Halpern, first came out in 2003, with a sixth edition due out next year. Psychology in Your Life, written with Gazzaniga and Sarah Grison, was first published in 2015 and is now in its second edition. Heatherton is no longer listed among the authors of these books at,, or, though his name appears on the covers of those books, and can be found on cached versions of some bookseller web pages. Meanwhile, Heatherton’s author page on the W. W. Norton website now lists only the defunct Canadian edition of Psychological Science. A cached version of that page from earlier this month includes the American editions of both books. Neither W. W. Norton nor Heatherton has responded to a request for comment.

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Here’s What the Sun Will Look Like When It Consumes the Earth in 5 Billion Years

Here’s What the Sun Will Look Like When It Consumes the Earth in 5 Billion Years

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

The end is coming, and we even know when: In 5 billion years, the sun, our wholesome yellow harbinger of energy, is going to swell into a red giant and consume most of the inner planets of the solar system. It will also wreak gravitational and radioactive havoc on the outer planets and moons sitting in the farther reaches of the neighborhood.

We’ll all be long dead before then, of course. But we also just got a good preview of what it might look like: a new set of telescopic images recently captured another red star that once possessed the same starting mass as the sun but has now ballooned in its old age. This star’s radius is now twice the length of the current distance between the Earth and the sun. And that staggering notion is also what we can expect from our own sun in the very distant future.

The red giant, known as W Hydrae, is 320 light-years away, located in the constellation of Hydra (the ferocious water snake in Greek mythology). The new observations, reported in Nature and taken by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, are some of the sharpest images yet of a sun-like star. These types of stars expand in old age, shed off mass through stellar winds, and cool off by almost 50 percent. That means if a planet in the sun’s orbit isn’t already swallowed up, it will become an extremely cold and irradiated wasteland anyway.

None of that is good news for the stability of star system, especially if we’re hoping to find worlds which could be home to life. But on the plus side, red giant stars release a ton of elements into space which are then cobbled together by other aggregations of gas and energy to create new stars. They also dispel materials which could be vital to the potential habitability of other planets and moons. So besides learning more about the impending annihilation of Earth at the hands of a reddening sun, scientists want to study red giants to see what type of role they play in star formation and planetary system development.

Of course, there are plenty of other things that might destroy Earth way before the 5-billion-year timer hits zero. All things considered, death by red giant would actually be a win.

Wild Animals Do Not Need to Be Saved From Fires

Wild Animals Do Not Need to Be Saved From Fires

by Torie Bosch @ Slate Articles

Have you seen the viral video of the man who reportedly pulled onto the side of Highway 1, near La Conchita, California, to save a rabbit from the devastating Thomas fire?

The hero in a hoodie put his own life at risk to save a widdle wabbit from the big fire. The common response to this has been that his actions should renew our faith in humanity. “Emotional Man Becomes Viral Hero When He Rescues Rabbit From California Wildfires,” crows a People headline.

In these dark times, I understand the tendency to turn to cute animals and stories of acts of kindness for pick-me-ups. But trying to save wild animals from a fire is a stupid thing to do. We should not reward this behavior, and we should not encourage others to do the same.

La Conchita is, according to the Los Angeles Times, a “small seaside town” that is home to “a few hundred people.” An evacuation order was already in place when the fire reached it. As the Times said Thursday morning:

Shortly before 2 a.m., flames rolled down the hillside just off the 101 Freeway, near Faria Beach Park, before jumping northbound lanes and igniting weeds in the center divider. Drivers swerved to avoid the flickering flames, with smoke making it hard to see farther than a few feet at times.
Visibility problems triggered a full shutdown of the freeway, according to the California Highway Patrol’s online incident log.
Authorities said they’d been to the neighborhood—where there’s only one way in and one way out—twice ordering people to leave, telling them it was too dangerous to stay.

According to KABC, the video was captured by a news photographer Wednesday night. “The man, who did not want to be interviewed, pulled over and was panicking as the rabbit he chased hopped right near large flames,” KABC reported. We see him jumping around in the clip, wearing a hoodie and shorts, as cars drive by. He gets closer to the rabbit, backs away from the flames, and then finally scoops it up and pulls it into his chest. “He’s saving an animal,” someone says off-screen, awestruck.

We don’t know what happened to this man before or after his rabbit rescue. He may have been in shock, or he may have been traumatized. I certainly have no idea how I would react if I were within spitting distance of a wildfire and spotted a cute animal. (OK, I have a small idea: I probably would not have tried to save it, because I harbor an intense fear that I will forget to stop, drop, and roll if the need ever actually arises.) Either way, I don’t blame the man in the video.

But it is irresponsible to spread this video widely and cast him as a hero. If he had caught fire, wouldn’t the bystanders or people in cars passing by have had to help him? Doing so would have put them at risk, too. Several people could have ended up injured or worse because he tried to save a (wild!) rabbit. Or what if no one felt safe enough to help, and he was severely burned or died as a result? The people who were nearby would have likely felt tremendous guilt, possibly for the rest of their lives. Either way, it could have required response from emergency services that are already stretched thin.

I tend to prefer animals to humans. (To be clear, that’s a flaw of mine, not a dig at my fellow humans.) But the fact is that human lives need to take precedence over animal lives—particularly wild animals’ lives. And what happens to the rabbit now anyway? Keeping it in a cage forever wouldn’t be fair. Does it get let go somewhere in Southern California so it can end up in another wildfire? It’s hard enough for people to know what to do with their pets when they are forced to evacuate a natural disaster. (Update, Dec. 7, 5:30 p.m. EST: In a piece published Thursday afternoon, LiveScience points out that “an animal flitting around at the edge of a fire might not need saving at all. In fact, it might have a very good reason for being there.”)

The biggest problem with this video is not the story of this individual man and this individual rabbit, though. It’s that our bizarre fetishizing of animals on the internet could prompt others to attempt the same—to stop in the middle of an evacuation to save an animal. That puts not only the would-be rescuers at risk, but also firefighters—who have more important things to do—and other evacuees. That prospect should make us all hopping mad.

Is there anything you can do to help animals fleeing wildfires? A widely circulated meme says that people on the fringes of fire should leave water outside (and bring pets indoors) in case animals need to stop to quench their thirst. But even that might be ill-advised: In October, California Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira told SFGate not to bother.

“If you encounter a wild animal in our neighborhood, leave it alone,” says Tira. “Fire or no fire, just let the animals be.”
Tira says wild animals, like deer, foxes, coyotes and other creatures likely affected by the Wine Country fires, have the ability to adapt and survive, and leaving buckets of water out for them is not only unnecessary, but unadvisable.
“Fire is something animals have to deal with constantly,” said Tira.

And increasingly, so do humans. So let the animals take care of themselves. Even in the video, that’s what the rabbit is trying to do: run out from the flames.

Instead of Fighting Sea Level Rise, This Town Is Embracing It

Instead of Fighting Sea Level Rise, This Town Is Embracing It

by Ashley Dejean @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

Superstorm Sandy hit the quiet beach community of Tottenville on Staten Island hard. Two of the more than 14,000 people who lived there were killed when the storm surge sent waves up to 16 feet high destroying homes. Five years later, many haven’t been rebuilt.

Disasters often spark efforts to prevent similar problems in the future. When it comes to the flooding of coastal communities during hurricanes, the approach typically has been to keep water out by either erecting sea walls or encouraging residents to move inland. In contrast, planners preparing for the next big storm in Tottenville are creating a project that, instead of keeping water out, “embraces” it. The project is called Living Breakwaters, and it’s designed to substantially reduce the size of massive and destructive waves during major storms by creating a barrier that protrudes out of the water. That barrier contains an oyster reef that will, in turn, establish an ecosystem further protecting the coastline and diminishing the power of the waves.

Sandy hit in October 2012, causing more than $70 billion worth of damage. At least 117 people died from the storm, and 650,000 homes in New York and New Jersey were damaged or destroyed. Government officials scrambled to respond to the devastation and prevent such destruction in the future. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administered checks for emergency repairs and brought food, fuel, and water into hard-hit areas. The Environmental Protection Agency helped fix damaged sewage treatment plants and assessed the condition of drinking water. Even the Army Corps of Engineers and Homeland Security were involved in the recovery effort.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development was responsible for giving localities money to work on longer-term recovery efforts through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program. In the past, most of that effort focused on rebuilding damaged areas, but after Hurricane Sandy, HUD also prepared for the future. The agency invested nearly $1 billion in a competition aimed at finding creative ways to do just that.

The Rebuild by Design competition was launched by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, headed by former Obama HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. Ten teams designed innovative resiliency plans for specific communities with financial support from private sources such as New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, which supports research into areas of public concern, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2014, HUD awarded six projects a total of $920 million through the community block grant disaster recovery program. The competition led to the creation of a private organization called Rebuild by Design, which now works with communities around the world to develop projects focused on resilience.

The project, which received $60 million from HUD, was designed by Kate Orff, the first landscape architect to be awarded the MacArthur fellowship. Sandy damaged not just homes and businesses, but also Staten Island’s entire southern shoreline, which had already been receding. She explains that her firm, Scape, wants “to literally make this a living piece of infrastructure.” Oysters would not only have a habitat but “could help the breakwater become more of an artificial reef that can grow and expand with climate change.” The breakwaters will attract sea life and seawater will be further purified by the presence of the oysters—creating a healthier ecosystem. She describes this approach as “the value of nature-based infrastructure.” Over an extended period of time, she explains, offshore ecosystems have the potential to “help to reduce wave action and erosion.”

The Tottenville community has generally been positive about this project, says Jim Pistilli, who heads the Tottenville Civic Association. But some neighbors worry it will bring in too many visitors, and others doubt whether a novel, untested approach will even work. But Pistilli says the more traditional approach of building a sea wall wouldn’t make sense. “We don’t want something out in the ocean that’s jetting up, obstructing the view,” he says. “In Tottenville we look very favorably toward the breakwaters—doing the job but at the same time being aesthetically and ecologically very pleasing.”

The project was approved in 2014, and the past three years have been spent in an intensive permitting and environmental review process, which Dan Greene, a lawyer in the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery in New York state, describes as one of the most rigorous he has ever seen.

“Innovative projects are looked at with a high degree of scrutiny by regulatory agencies,” he says, “because they have responsibility for permitting these permanent structures in our waterways and nobody wants to get it wrong.”

For Greene, the breakwaters illustrate an important shift in infrastructure planning. Instead of having an unattractive and potentially ineffective gray barrier protecting Tottenville, the breakwaters will potentially be an aesthetically pleasing project that revitalizes an ecosystem in the water, restores the shoreline, and helps connect the community with the water. “These are intended to be model projects that can be replicated elsewhere,” he says. The construction process is slated to begin in 2019 and finish sometime in 2021.

Pippa Brashear, director of planning and resilience at Scape, tells Mother Jones that breakwaters aren’t supposed to work alone in reducing risk along the shoreline. “The breakwaters provide a first layer of defense upon which other elements can be layered,” she explains. HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program is also funding another resiliency effort to build dunes, which Brashear describes as “a second line of defense,” near the shoreline.

Living Breakwaters also invoke the past to reconnect residents with the water. In the 19th century, Tottenville was known as “the town the oyster built” because its economy and culture developed from oyster fishing. Pistilli can imagine the future, with a shoreline that will have not only “enriched … the people on the beach, but will have provided an enriched sea line for the entire community to enjoy.”

The Largest Known Prime Number

The Largest Known Prime Number

by Evelyn Lamb @ Slate Articles

Update, Jan. 4, 2018: On Wednesday, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search announced that a computer owned by Jonathan Pace in Germantown, Tennessee, discovered a new prime number. At 23,249,425 digits, the number, known as M77232917, is now the largest known prime.

In 2016, I wrote the following article about the previous largest known prime, which is now the second largest known prime. Its name is M74207281, and it’s about a million digits shorter than the shiny new prime. But other than a few details about whose computer found it and exactly how long it is, I could have written this article today about the new prime. So we’re sharing it with you again.

It’s exciting to find a new largest known prime number, but this is another verse of the same song. Both numbers, like nine of the 10 largest known prime numbers, have a special form and are called Mersenne primes. We find them because that’s where we keep looking. The light is better there. Between these two largest known primes lie an unfathomable number of monstrously large primes; we may never find even one.

Original, Jan. 22, 2016: Earlier this week, BBC News reported an important mathematical finding, sharing the news under the headline “Largest Known Prime Number Discovered in Missouri.” That phrasing makes it sound a bit like this new prime number—it’s 274,207,281-1, by the way—was found in the middle of some road, underneath a street lamp. That’s actually not a bad way to think about it.

We know about this enormous prime number thanks to the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. The Mersenne hunt, known as GIMPS, is a large distributed computing project in which volunteers run software to search for prime numbers. Perhaps the best-known analogue is SETI@home, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life. GIMPS has had a bit more tangible success than SETI, with 15 primes discovered so far. The shiny new prime, charmingly nicknamed M74207281, is the fourth found by University of Central Missouri mathematician Curtis Cooper using GIMPS software. This one is 22,338,618 digits long.

A prime number is a whole number whose only factors are 1 and itself. The numbers 2, 3, 5, and 7 are prime, but 4 is not because it can be factored as 2 x 2. (For reasons of convenience, we don’t consider 1 to be a prime.) The M in GIMPS and in M74207281 stands for Marin Mersenne, a 17th-century French friar who studied the numbers that bear his name. Mersenne numbers are 1 less than a power of 2. Mersenne primes, logically enough, are Mersenne numbers that are also prime. The number 3 is a Mersenne prime because it’s one less than 22, which is 4. The next few Mersenne primes are 7, 31, and 127.

M74207281 is the 49th known Mersenne prime. The next largest known prime, 257,885,161-1, is also a Mersenne prime. So is the one after that. And the next one. And the next one. All in all, the 11 largest known primes are Mersenne.

Why do we know about so many large Mersenne primes and so few large non-Mersenne ones? It’s not because large Mersenne primes are particularly common, and it’s not a spectacular coincidence. That brings us back to the road and the street lamp. There are several different versions of the story. A man, perhaps he’s drunk, is on his hands and knees underneath a streetlight. A kind passerby, perhaps a police officer, stops to ask what he’s doing. “I’m looking for my keys,” the man replies. “Did you lose them over here?” the officer asks. “No, I lost them down the street,” the man says, “but the light is better here.”

We keep finding large Mersenne primes because the light is better there.

First, we know that only a few Mersenne numbers are even candidates for being Mersenne primes. The exponent n in 2n-1 needs to be prime, so we don’t need to bother to check 26-1, for example.* There are a few other technical conditions that make certain prime exponents more enticing to try. Finally, there’s a particular test of primeness—the Lucas–Lehmer test—that can only be used on Mersenne numbers.

To understand why the test even exists, let’s take a detour to explore why we bother finding primes in the first place. There are infinitely many of them, so it’s not like we’re going to eventually find the biggest one. But aside from being interesting in a “math for math’s sake” kind of way, finding primes is good business. RSA encryption, one of the standard ways to scramble data online, requires the user (perhaps your bank or Amazon) to come up with two big primes and multiply them together. Assuming the encryption is implemented correctly, the difficulty of factoring the resulting product is the only thing between hackers and your credit card number.

This new Mersenne prime is not going to be used for encryption any time soon. Currently we only need primes that are a few hundred digits long to keep our secrets safe, so the millions of digits in M74207281 are overkill, for now.

You can’t just look up a 300-digit prime in a table. (There are about 10297 of them. Even if we wanted to, we physically could not write them all down.) To find large primes to use in RSA encryption, we need to test randomly generated numbers for primality. One way to do this is trial division: Divide the number by smaller numbers and see if you ever get a whole number back. For large primes, this takes way too long. Hence there are primality tests that can determine whether a number is prime without actually factoring it. The Lucas-Lehmer test is one of the best.

The heat death of the universe would occur before we could get even a fraction of the way through trial division of a number with 22 million digits. It only took a month, however, for a computer to use the Lucas-Lehmer test to determine that M74207281 is prime. There are no other primality tests that run nearly as quickly for arbitrary 22 million–digit numbers.

How many primes have we missed by looking for them mostly under the Lucas-Lehmer street lamp? We don’t know the exact answer, but the prime number theorem gets us close enough. It makes sense that primes get less common as we stroll out on the number line. Fully 40 percent of one-digit numbers are prime, 22 percent of two-digit numbers are prime, and only 16 percent of three-digit numbers are. The prime number theorem, first proved in the late 1800s, quantifies that decline. It says that in general, the number of primes less than n tends to n/ln(n) as n increases. (Here ln is the natural logarithm.)

We can use the prime number theorem to estimate how many missing primes there are between M74207281 and the next smallest prime. We just plug 274,207,281-1 into n/ln(n) and get, well, a really big number. We can write it most compactly by stacking exponents: 10107.349. This number has about 22,338,610 digits, give or take a couple, so we can also write it as 1022,338,610.

Another visit to the prime number theorem shows there are approximately 1017,425,163 primes less than the next-largest known prime. That sounds impressive until you realize 1017,425,163 is less than 0.000000000001 percent of 1022,338,610.

Stop and think about that for a moment. There are about 1022,338,610 primes less than M74207281, and approximately all of them are between it and the next-largest known prime. If you want to be charitable, you could say we have some gaps in our knowledge of prime numbers. But really, it makes more sense to say we have gaps in our lack of knowledge. The millions upon millions of prime numbers we’ve already found make up approximately 0 percent of the primes that are less than M74207281. Each one is a little grain of sand, a speck that does little to cover up our overwhelming ignorance of exactly where the prime numbers live.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2016: This story originally referred to a possible prime number as 2n-1. That number should have been rendered as 2n-1. (Return.)

Where Are the Opioid Recovery Activists?

Where Are the Opioid Recovery Activists?

by Zachary Siegel @ Slate Articles

Twenty-one months ago, presidential hopefuls from both parties descended on New Hampshire ahead of its primary, hearing in town halls and debates the same thing again and again: Save us. These voters cared little about plans for tax reform or the threat of ISIS. Instead, they asked potential candidates how they plan to tackle the opioid epidemic devastating their communities. There was no time to waste.

Thursday, nearly a year after his election as president, Donald Trump announced that the worsening opioid epidemic is a public health emergency—a far cry from declaring a national emergency, as he promised he would do at the recommendation of the advisory commission he created. What his lesser announcement means is that for the next 90 days, federal agencies can more freely use existing money to mitigate a crisis that currently kills seven Americans an hour. It does not include any additional funds. (Recall that the Zika virus was contained thanks to Congress’ approving an additional $1.1 billion in emergency funds—a fraction of what the opioid crisis needs.) The announcement has been celebrated by some as an important step toward raising awareness, but its ability to make a tangible impact is extremely limited.

If you can say anything about the opioid crisis, it’s that we’re aware of it. September was National Recovery Month, and with it came numerous projects by news outlets dedicated to showing us a worsening overdose crisis whose images we have by now become intimate with. Glamour’s 11-chapter “Women and Opioids” opened with a reconstructed scene of a young woman shooting up in her bathroom, only to immediately realize she was overdosing. The Cincinnati Enquirer delivered a deeply reported tick-tock, “Seven Days of Heroin,” which deployed some 60 reporters, photographers, and videographers around the Ohio city and its surrounding communities to show readers “what an epidemic looks like.” The New Yorker this month ran a photo essay about overdoses in an Ohio county, describing the deaths as having “become impossible to ignore.”

These projects are increasingly hard to stomach. Writer William S. Burroughs brutally portrayed the sicker side of heroin in his 1953 novel Junky, back when writing about drugs was literarily transgressive. By this point in the crisis, these scenes can feel sensationalized—doing more to stoke an emotional response than a spur to action. What does documenting “seven days of heroin” do, if it doesn’t also engage with how we could mitigate the death toll? How many times should we explain how we got here, without looking toward how we should get out?

I kicked heroin five years ago as a lanky, depressed 22-year-old. Since then, I’ve turned to research and journalism, obsessively trying to figure out why opioids kill more Americans year after year despite us being constantly told that all hands are on deck, from local activists to epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, annual heroin deaths have more than tripled since I kicked it in 2012. Heroin use increased the most—by more than 100 percent—among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2011 to 2013. I can pull out lots of numbers like this, but I doubt any of them will surprise you—after years of increasing pressure, we are finally, mind-numbingly, aware of the problem. The question, though, of how to solve it remains. We have good ideas, most of which are thoroughly outlined in the 2016 surgeon general’s report on addiction, which was mostly echoed by Trump’s recent opioid commission. Trump’s team is set to issue more formal recommendations next week, but given Thursday’s disappointing announcement, there is little sign this is a federal government moved to make the changes we need, whatever plan the commission announces on Wednesday. So the question becomes—the question that keeps me up at night—is: Can we force it to?

* * *

The opioid epidemic mirrors the AIDS epidemic in the scope of its tragedy. Both are stigmatized conditions, thought to only infect other people. Tens of thousands died before then–President Ronald Reagan made a peep about the virus—it was activists from ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, who forced his hand on the issue. Every day that his administration ignored its cries, ACT UP vowed to make a stink. And it did.

ACT UP got what it wanted. It fought for legislation and medical research to develop treatments, and now people with AIDS live long, healthy lives.

Both medicine and legislation are required to mitigate the deaths and harms of the overdose crisis. Both could be the focus of political activism. But there are a few major roadblocks to any kind of activist movement arising among the recovery community today. Our treatment is so bad, for one, it leaves an incredible number of people unequipped and disempowered from making their voices heard. And those who don’t end up needing clinical treatment have less motivation to speak up.

An ugly secret about the way America treats addiction is finally unraveling: It’s laughably unscientific, bordering on cruel. For one, there’s the cost of health care. The only reason I’m alive to write this is because my family provided me with what’s called “recovery capital.” My parents paid, out of pocket, tens of thousands of dollars to get me help. And even with their help, I was still treated at one of the most reputable facilities with outdated, confrontational therapies that tried to shame and embarrass the addiction out of me. In a two-year span across several states, I went to detox, outpatient, sober living, back to outpatient, then detoxed in a residential facility where I lived for 90 days before moving to a halfway house and finally back to sober living. Round and round. I learned more about how to kick in rehab by borrowing my friend’s copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger than I ever did from reading Alcoholics Anonymous–approved literature.

It’s a Kafkaesque ritual that has gone mostly unchanged since the 1950s, when the abstinence-based model of AA was first designed to treat cases of severe alcoholism. Today, a growing number of addiction specialists are rightfully critical of applying the abstinence model to people with an opioid use disorder. Mark Willenbring, former director of treatment research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, thinks it’s downright dangerous. “What do people do when they leave these places? They overdose and die,” he told me. Last year, I wrote in Slate how the majority of treatment centers withhold lifesaving medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, the only known treatments that have evidence backing their potential to cut mortality rates in half.

While the industry is finally being called out as a charlatan-filled racket, where hucksters committing insurance fraud abound, the whole residential model is flawed. “You don’t treat a chronic illness with 30 days of intensive rehab—that’s absurd,” said Willenbring, who after leaving the NIAAA started his own outpatient clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota. “These rehabs have ignored decades of taxpayer-funded research,” he told me. Research points in Willenbring’s favor. Studies repeatedly show residential rehab has no clinical benefit over less expensive outpatient settings that treat patients in their own communities. A widespread misconception among Narcotics Anonymous, the de facto support group for people with heroin addiction, is that being on methadone or buprenorphine means you’re not in “real recovery,” a nebulous distinction that sounds a lot like a Calvinist quest for purity and abstinence.

Maia Szalavitz, journalist and author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, has written about addiction and recovery for decades. She told me that like most movements, a lot of time in recovery advocacy is spent, unproductively, fighting one another. For example, the recovery community was against syringe-exchange programs during the AIDS epidemic, which Szalavitz says speaks to a long-standing rift between the 12-step, abstinence-based community and harm-reduction groups.

People who have co-occurring mental health disorders, especially ones that require medication, or who use treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine for opiate use disorder don’t always feel welcome in the recovery community. “I go to AA, but I was not allowed to share at meetings when I was on medication-assisted treatment,” said 47-year-old Francesca Kennedy, who has been going to meetings for more than 20 years in New York.

That the recovery process itself is so difficult means that even people who go through the process and succeed may not find clear communities on the other side—many people, rather than seeing the process as a badge of honor, instead remember it simply as something they endured. But according to oft-cited reports, there are about 23 million Americans “living in recovery.” It’s a huge number of people, most of whom should share common goals. So why aren’t we hearing from them?

One unique aspect of the opioid epidemic is that nothing united this group of people to begin with. Addiction affects all kinds of people, from all social classes, education levels, races, etc. Little is known about the political leanings of “people in recovery.” It’s likely they fall all over the map. While much attention has focused on the overdoses that cluster in rural areas affected by automation and deindustrialization, regions that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, overdoses appear to be happening everywhere.

Of course, that 23 million number includes all drug and alcohol use. There are obvious similarities between these experiences. Often, people with different kinds of addiction run into one another in rehabs and support groups. Someone who was addicted to stimulants can recover right next to someone who was addicted to heroin. It’s tempting to think that whether alcohol or heroin brought someone down, there is a shared experience over which people in recovery bond. But the extent to which this group can be unified at all has been a question among recovery advocates for decades—the most revered of whom is recovery historian William White, who has written more than 300 articles and 17 books on addiction, treatment, and recovery since 1969.

White has studied the identities of people diagnosed with substance use disorder and found three big, though not mutually exclusive, identity styles. According to White’s research, there is the loud-and-proud crowd for whom addiction “has become an important part of their personal identity.” Opposite this group is those who have internalized stigma: “Those whose addiction/recovery status is self-acknowledged but not shared with others due to a sense of personal shame derived from this status.” Between the two poles is a group who holds “recovery-neutral identities,” those who do not self-identify as alcoholics,” “addicts” or “persons in recovery.” (Depending on the situation, I probably straddle the neutral and proud groups.)

Forthcoming research led by John Kelly from Harvard’s Recovery Research Institute (which White collaborated on) adds concrete numbers to these three identities. The articles are still under peer review, but Kelly, the university’s first endowed professor in addiction medicine, told me they found 22.35 million Americans have resolved their drug or alcohol problems—close to the previously reported number. “Roughly half of those (46 percent) adopted a recovery identity,” Kelly said. This could be the loud-and-proud group, who may have had more severe addictions. “The other 54 percent did not adopt a recovery identity,” which could comprise a mix of the neutral or internalized-stigma group.

What are the implications of these findings? Kelly explained that those who’ve adopted the strong pro-recovery identity tend to be the ones who’ve had more severe addictions that required treatment. Kelly described this identity as self-preservative: “You have to remember you have a problem to stay in recovery from; otherwise you’ll be in trouble. There’s a lot more at stake with the severely addicted.” This is the group we think of when we imagine people struggling with addiction—but they aren’t always the loudest voices. For them, simply being in recovery is work enough, or even disabling. If you ask someone who’s been through an addiction that awful, he or she will tell you feeding it had become all-consuming.

But the most interesting finding of Kelly’s is that more than half of the 22 million people who resolved their addictions did so without utilizing any formal treatment or medications—not even self-help by way of AA. (This could explain why so many people don’t adopt recovery identities.) Previous epidemiological surveys have found similarly high rates of what’s called natural remission, or ending addiction with little to no help. We typically don’t hear stories from this group, which explains a stubborn misperception that if you had an addiction, it must have caused significant life problems and that treatment was necessary to beat it. That’s simply not the case for a majority of us.

White told me that any organizing movement “would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of a broader variety of [recovery] approaches, which is slowly happening.” Slow, indeed. Stigma likely plays a role in keeping even the neutrally identifying group from being vocal. But it’s also that these people don’t share their stories because they stopped using before their lives imploded. I know a dozen or so people with this kind of anti-climactic story, some I did heroin with or others whom I watched walk around dazed and forgetful from too many benzodiazepines. They recovered naturally and mostly unscathed. And they don’t talk about it today because, frankly, they don’t have much to say. This is the real, albeit less juicy, story shared by many of us who move through addiction. It’s hard, at this point, to imagine them marching in a rally.

* * *

If there are going to be activists, we may soon start to learn their names. One of the first “stars” might be Ryan Hampton, who directs social media for the addiction advocacy group Facing Addiction. I first heard of Hampton in January, when he mobilized a digital army against Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend. In a Facebook post, Townsend had blamed a spate of celebrity deaths—George Michael, Prince, Carrie Fisher—on their “druggie” lifestyles. Hampton screen-grabbed Townsend’s post before she deleted it and posted the insensitive status alongside Townsend’s name, work phone number, and congressional email address. Hampton then asked some 90,000 people who liked his page “to stop what you’re doing and call Arizona Rep. Kelly Townsend.” Within hours, after a barrage of calls and emails, Townsend clumsily walked back her comment blaming a chronic medical condition on the poor lifestyle choices of celebrity “tweakers.”

Hampton, a former heroin user who identifies as being in “long-term recovery,” is good at this kind of thing. In White’s rubric, he fits neatly into the loud-and-proud category. Hampton described his own rehab experience to me as a horror show: He wound up on never-ending waitlists and was rapidly detoxed off methadone, a dangerous move that goes against evidence. When I asked his mother to describe that time to me, she said, “I’m a teacher, a single parent. My resources are limited. … I helped him as much as I could squeeze an onion.” She searched until eventually finding a rehab center in Pasadena, California, that would take Hampton on a sliding scale.

Facing Addiction sees itself as providing a voice for the community, and that often means amplifying their voices on social media (they also have a blog for people to share their stories). In January, Jim Hood, who co-founded Facing Addiction in 2012 after his 20-year-old son died from an accidental overdose inside his dorm, posted a scathing indictment of Sephora for carrying a line of eyeshadow called “druggie.” Hood implored the company to “meet with leaders of the recovery movement and join us in facing addiction.” A social media pack led by Hampton digitally stormed the cosmetic brand, and Sephora apologized to Facing Addiction via tweet and stopped carrying the product.

But social media campaigns, while self-expressive and cathartic, are one thing. Having a group as diffuse as “people in recovery” fight for specific policies that meet their needs is something else entirely. Facing Addiction has become increasingly successful in its effort to build bridges in a fragmented field. It’s uniting the treatment community, for instance, over holding facilities accountable to track outcomes, which few currently do (Facing Addiction also partners with dozens of rehabs). Hampton and his work partner, Garrett Hade, met in rehab, and they’re now traveling around the country broadcasting local efforts to address addiction—everywhere from inside jails and prisons to suffering communities in Ohio. Instead of working in church basements, the organization takes the opposite approach, being intentionally loud and visible in its attempt at reducing the human cost sapped by a stigmatized illness, one that people still think of as a sin or crime.

Hampton’s own rise to prominence—his personal social media accounts now reach some 4 million people every month—is hardly apolitical. He began in earnest when he was elected as one of 551 delegates that California would send to the Democratic National Convention in 2016. To secure his spot, he herded some 70 people in his Pasadena recovery network—mostly twentysomethings fresh out of rehab—to the delegates breakfast, a political event open to all voters to select the state’s delegates. Few from Hampton’s crew had ever voted before; some hadn’t been registered until Hampton nudged them along. To get enough votes, the group fanned out among the liberal California crowd and shared how they were trying to beat addiction, or at the very least their attempts to beat addiction, and that Hampton’s goal was to make recovery part of the political dialogue during the election. He won by a landslide.

This should serve as ample evidence there is hunger for the recovery community to build, well, a community, and to raise their voices together. But the question remains: How should it be done? Though a Democrat, Hampton is nothing if not willing to play nice with others. He says he gets beat up on his social media all the time for criticizing Trump (he will message those people back and try to explain that his attacks aren’t personal). “No doubt the Democratic Party platform has been very strong for us, but we live in the age of Trump. We live in the age of a Republican Congress. We need Republican support,” he told me. In early August, he teamed up with none other than Jeb Bush and Dr. Oz to co-author an op-ed in HuffPost imploring the president to declare the epidemic a national emergency. Despite this week’s slow steps to start to take action, it feels worrisomely possible that, along with the dearth of other policy accomplishments of the Trump administration, the overdose crisis will simply continue to get the short end of the stick.

That is, unless, the people and the loved ones of those people, who the crisis hits the hardest, start to make some noise. Despite the heterogeneity of the millions in recovery, Harvard’s John Kelly is optimistic about Facing Addiction’s political organizing. “Even if you took 1 percent of that 11 million who identify as being in recovery, who are real go-getters, hardcore activists, you still have around 10,000 or 11,000 people,” he said. Referring to Hampton, he said, “Imagine if you have 11,000 folks like him, duplicates of him out there—that could instigate a lot of change.”

* * *

But the problem that faced HIV/AIDS activists is a similar one now facing the larger recovery community: For everyone who joins it, there are others who don’t survive to be their own advocates. In August, Hampton texted me that a friend of his, whose recovery efforts he was sponsoring, had died of an overdose in a Pasadena sober house. Naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, wasn’t available in the house. Not having naloxone available in a sober house is like running a hospital without a defibrillator. Worse still, some facilities choose not to keep naloxone around because they incorrectly think it “enables” or “encourages” using.

Hampton’s sadness boiled into anger. “His death was 100 percent preventable,” he said over the phone. “It costs $1,500 a month to live there. The owner and operators should have naloxone on hand and know how to use it.” (His response as an organizer was to invite Missouri harm reductionist Chad Sabora to California to distribute naloxone and train sober houses and treatment centers on how to use it.)

Overdoses leave loved ones behind—loved ones who are part of the group of people whose lives are intimately connected to the recovery movement and who may be persuaded to vote for political candidates who make real solutions a priority. Parents of overdose victims have started grief groups, such as Broken No More, and in the process have become powerful voices in addiction advocacy. The GOP’s thwarted attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act this year, if they had passed, would have likely stunted efforts to curb overdoses. “It could’ve rolled back years, if not decades, of progress on this issue,” Hampton said.

Given this, Hampton still believes Republicans can help solve the crisis: “Yes. Clearly, they’re in power,” he said. “The president campaigned on it. They have the capacity to do this.” But, he adds, “Whether or not they will actually take advantage and do the right thing is yet to be known.”

In the press, the overdose crisis is constantly referred to as one of the only issues left that has bipartisan support. But what if one party is actively working against evidence-based solutions? Take, for instance, Indiana social conservatives who recently shut down a syringe exchange program. What if activism actually needs to be partisan? Other countries have been where we are with rising overdoses; by using a combination of harm reduction tools, criminal justice reform, and modern medicine, they were able to solve their own drug crises. That progress is detailed in a recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy called “The Opioid Crisis in North America.”

But much stands in the way or even threatens similar progress from happening in America. Our obsession with incarceration is one: The Massachusetts Department of Public Health found the overdose death rate is 120 times higher for people released from prisons and jails in its state. A whopping 46 percent of federal prisoners, disproportionately nonwhite, are in on drug offenses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated he favors policies that would renew the failed “war on drugs.”

We need mental health care and better rehab, but we also need more education and understanding. Columbia University’s Carl Hart, who teaches a course on drugs and behavior at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, refutes politicians’ convenient calls for more “beds.” Hart points out that most of the people dying are combining opiates with other sedatives, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines. “They are dying from ignorance, not the drugs,” Hart said. Another factor causing a spike in overdoses is überpotent, illicit fentanyl, which can be deadly even for more experienced users who have an opioid tolerance. Dan Ciccarone, the lead investigator of a study called Heroin in Transition that tracks America’s heroin supply, told me we’re no longer in an opioid crisis—he calls it a poisoning crisis.

But all these solutions as outlined—criminal justice reform, affordable health care, changing the way substance use is stigmatized in society—are not being pursued equally by the two major political parties. And the party endorsing them as solutions is not the party in charge. It may seem uncouth to take a movement that is gutting the entire country and acknowledge that only the Democrats have a platform set up to combat the crisis in a way we know will help. But perhaps giving up the myth of a bipartisan crisis is a lesson we can take from recovery itself: The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one.

There’s little reason to have faith that the current government in power will implement policies that will keep people alive. And there’s even less reason to wait. As unimaginable as it seems, the overdose crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. I can only hope that those who feel powerless over their addictions may realize that by working together, we have more power than we know.

Can You Use This Data Set to Find Serial Killers?

Can You Use This Data Set to Find Serial Killers?

by Andrew Gelman @ Slate Articles

We statisticians and social scientists are always trying to ensure that the data we collect or use are accurate, complete, and clean. We use data to estimate the effects of policies, and answering those questions requires data strong enough and clean enough to survive scrutiny. But data can also be used to ask questions, to look for interesting patterns, and one interesting thing about this type of endeavor is that it may not require the data to be quite as pristine.

This may explain part of why we were captivated by Alec Wilkinson’s recent New Yorker story on Thomas Hargrove, a retired reporter and current “homicide archivist” who “has the largest catalogue of killings in the country” that he analyses using an algorithm, “which he sometimes calls a serial-killer detector.” In his piece, Wilkinson recounts a story from 2010, when Hargrove uncovered a pattern of murders in Indiana that led to the discovery of a serial killer. Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project is a fascinating example of citizen science that can help to motivate police departments to improve their work, and we applaud Hargrove’s efforts.

The story also inspired us to check out his data. Hargrove collected as much homicide data as was available online by downloading the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report data from 1976–2015. He then went the extra mile to obtain additional and (until then) generally unavailable data from Alabama, Florida, Illinois, and D.C. He used unknown offender sex as a proxy for unsolved case and grouped these cases by geographic area (county or metro area), weapon, and sex. Such cases are unfortunately not uncommon, especially if the victims are women. (There are also cases of multiple homicides of young men and unknown offenders, but data suggests that women are more likely to be targeted by serial killers.) Studying these individual groups, he found that he was able to find cases of suspected serial homicides, with young women as victims and unknown offenders, and this is what led to the discovery of the serial killer.

MAP makes its data and some computer code available to others who might be interested in examining it in their own communities. After checking it out, we have a few words of caution for those who might want to examine the data and use it themselves.

One problem is that the data MAP uses isn’t as clean as it could be. Their analysis implicitly assumes that if the SHR has no information on the offender’s sex, the offender is unknown. But this is incorrect: If a homicide is cleared after the SHR is filed, there is no way of updating that record, and it remains in the SHR file as uncleared. Moreover, some agencies do not provide information about offenders as a matter of policy; they may have been burned by defense attorneys who noted that their original description of the offender (including but not limited to offender sex) was incorrect. These and other problems with this data set are described in a report, “Bridging Gaps in Police Crime Data,” which one of us (Maltz) prepared for the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999.

Other anomalies became apparent in our first examinations of the MAP data. When looking at data, it helps to start with the area you’re most familiar with, so for us that meant examining the homicide data from Manhattan. In looking at this, we noticed that the New York Police Department does not separate out the crime data among the five counties that comprise New York City—all murders, regardless of where they happened, were logged in Manhattan. That’s certainly a problem if you’re trying to track murders by location.

But also, we noticed some other problems with their data. Here’s a figure that we obtained from the MAP website.

But here’s a figure that you get for New York County using SHR data (note: The SHR began in 1976, so it doesn’t go back as far as the earlier graph, which used UCR data):

The gray bars on the charts represent cases cleared—a crime is considered cleared if an arrest results or if the homicide is assumed successfully dealt with for other reasons. On the MAP version, from 2003–2012, it appears that there were zero homicide clearances in Manhattan. This seems unrealistic, and indeed, the second chart shows that this was not the case. What appears to have happened is that the NYPD simply did not report its clearance data to the FBI’s UCR program (but did to its SHR program) for that 10-year period; this is just one of the many reasons that clearance data can be unreliable.

So when the MAP website makes judgments about which states and regions are better or worse in clearing homicides, those judgments are based on similar possibly unreliable data.

This is not to detract from the accomplishments of the Murder Accountability Project. They were able to find a nugget when sifting through a stream of messy data, which we, who deal professionally with such data on a daily basis, applaud. But if you’re automatically sifting through data, you have to be concerned with data quality, with the relation between the numbers in your computer and the underlying reality they are supposed to represent. In this case, we’re concerned, given that we did not trawl through the visualizations looking for mistakes; rather, we found a problem in the very first place we looked.

Not all cases of incomplete reporting of clearances are going to be as easily discoverable as the one we found in New York City. If you’re planning to use this data set, be on the lookout for anomalies in reporting.

Report: Keystone Pipeline Has Leaked Much More Than Expected

Report: Keystone Pipeline Has Leaked Much More Than Expected

by Molly Olmstead @ Slate Articles

The Keystone Pipeline has leaked far more and far more often than had been initially expected, according to a report from Reuters.

The pipeline, which runs more than 2,000 miles from Canada to the coast of Texas, has had three major oil leaks since 2010 when it began operating: one in North Dakota in 2011 and two more recently in South Dakota.

According to the documents Reuters reviewed, the chance of a large leak “of more than 50 barrels” was expected to be about once every seven to 11 years, and in South Dakota, where two of the major spills occurred, the documents expected no more than a spill “once every 41 years.”

The pipeline’s company, TransCanada Corp., had provided the documents—risk assessments done by a risk management company—to regulators before the pipeline began operating.

The latest incident, a more than 210,000-gallon spill in South Dakota, occurred less than a week before a Nebraska commission cleared a final remaining hurdle for the $8 billion Keystone XL expansion. TransCanada has estimated the Keystone XL will experience 2.2 leaks per decade, and that more than half of those would be very small, according to Reuters.

According to Reuters, members of South Dakota’s public utilities commission have said they could revoke the pipeline’s permit if an investigation into the oil spill from Nov. 16 showed TransCanada Corp. violated its terms. Those terms would include environmental safeguards such as regular inspections and construction standards.

Stock Photos Are Terrible at Depicting Illness, Mental or Physical

Stock Photos Are Terrible at Depicting Illness, Mental or Physical

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

Stock photos are ubiquitous—and infamous. The concepts are often laugh-out-loud absurd. The models are disproportionately white, not to mention atypically young, beautiful, and able-bodied. Outdated gender norms seem to be readily reinforced. Article after article has shown that stock photographs generally suck. But the place where the limitations of stock photography are most obvious—and deserve special scrutiny—is in depicting mental and physical illness.

The area of most egregious offense is mental health (no surprise there). In stock imagery, almost everyone with a mental health issue can be reduced to a person, on the floor, with their head in hands. “Headclutcher” images are often “tagged” as representing multiple mental health issues, from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but there are some subtle subcategories, too. When I looked at these images on iStock and Shutterstock, two of the most popular stock photography sites on the web, I was struck by the difference between “head in hands with face obscured,” which seemed to indicate shame, and “head in hands with face visible,” which seemed to indicate some kind of internal struggle. Mental illness and depression featured a mix of both subcategories of the trope, but “head in hands” tagged as “addiction” really laid the idea of shame on thick.

Even if you don’t think it’s offensive (“Oh, it’s just a photo!”), many people do, especially those who are actually living with mental illness. The “headclutcher” theme and emphasis on psychic pain has been derided as a hackneyed approach to depicting the true diversity of mental illness. Get the Picture is one of several campaigns that aim to improve mental illness–related stock photos by providing better alternatives for free. It began in part as a reaction to the head-in-hands image trope, according to Rehaan Ansari, a medical student and model for the campaign:

The “headclutcher” is an unfair and inaccurate representation of what life is like with a mental health condition, but it’s often the image most commonly associated with people who experience them. It’s definitely time to change the backward attitude that mental health conditions are something to be ashamed of.

Physical illnesses and medical procedures are also dominated by a few visual themes. Search results for “cancer” on Shutterstock are dominated by women in groups wearing pink and grinning while “cancer” on iStock turns up images of women with their heads wrapped being comforted by loved ones. Photographers have similarly agreed on grabbing your lower back as the universal sign for kidney disease and grabbing your chest as the international image of a heart attack.

Surgery, meanwhile, is divided into a few camps: well-lit Grey’s Anatomy–style operating rooms; plastic surgery patients with Sharpie-lined skin; and a few close-ups of real surgeries—and the requisite blood and guts. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, have criticized the use of stock photography that emphasize large needles or feature crying children. While it might not look like much to you, experts worry it may dissuade people from getting vaccinated or reinforce the anti-vaccine attitudes people already harbor.

Still, the strangest results are definitely back in the mental health realm—for OCD. This query turned up an unusual number of images of people staring at their hands and chewing on their nails. While there are probably multiple factors at play, the reliance on this trope seems pretty simple: Nail biting is the most photogenic manifestation of OCD, so it’s popular with photographers.

Rich Legg, a stock photographer and stock image moderator, says the need for simplicity and some semblance of universality is precisely what makes stock photography so challenging. The whole goal of the industry is to create functional stereotypes. But stereotypes aren’t cool anymore, which has left stock photographers scrambling to create representative images that are infinitely applicable, but not so reductive they become offensive.

When it comes to OCD, that problem becomes quickly apparent. Nail biting is much easier to imagine than abstract issues like “compulsive thoughts.” So even though compulsive thoughts are much more central to an OCD diagnosis, nail biting quickly dominated our visual language for the disorder. (Maybe that’s for the best, given one top search result is a “comedic” take on OCD: A man cutting his lawn with kid-size scissors, ostensibly to make every single blade of grass the same height.)

We seem to increasingly agree that many stock photographs are silly at best and harmful at worst. But what do we do about it? While Legg says change won’t be easy, it’s already underway. In recent years, he and others have shifted their focus away from simple, pretty photos and instead prioritize photos that look realistic. A few years ago, Legg says he would call up the local modeling agency to get glammed-up 19-year-olds to play scientists in a rented lab space. But now he’s more deliberate about finding age-appropriate actors and doing additional research before potentially sensitive shoots. These days, he tries to take it one step further, using real people in some of his photoshoots instead of actors. A few years ago he was careful to ask a friend in nursing to advise on a photoshoot featuring an able-bodied girl in a wheelchair, but on a more recent shoot, he just asked someone who uses a wheelchair in real life to serve as his model.

Whether these more conscientiousness images are purchased and used at the same rates as their more stereotypical (but still commercially successful) counterparts remains to be seen. Because that’s the thing about stock photography: It’s not enough for photographers to simply change what they photograph, though that’s important. The real change has to come from the consumers, the people for whom these images are made. To ensure respectful and diverse photos, photographers will have to continue the self-reflection and experimentation—and we’ll all have to work a little harder to deconstruct the stereotypes we have in our heads.

Why Is Slate Questioning Gardasil?

Why Is Slate Questioning Gardasil?

by Susan Matthews @ Slate Articles

Read Slate’s investigative piece on Gardasil.

I was vaccinated with Gardasil in 2007, right after the vaccine was first approved. If I were faced with the choice today, I would still choose to get vaccinated with Gardasil—even after editing Fred Joelving’s piece detailing the problems with the clinical trial tasked with ensuring the vaccine’s efficacy and safety prior to approval. That’s because the decision around vaccination is a decision that involves weighing the evidence on potential benefits versus potential harms, and to my eye, the potential benefits greatly outweigh the potential harms. Gardasil has been shown to effectively prevent HPV, which is very likely to reduce your chance of cervical cancer. Gardasil has not been proven to have any significant side effects.

What Joelving’s story does suggest, thanks to its remarkable and thorough reporting, is that the clinical trials in which Gardasil was tested may have been inadequately designed, and that this failure in design likely rendered the trial incapable of accurately assessing whether the vaccine causes autoimmune disorders in a very small number of genetically predisposed young women who receive it. This flaw doesn’t really change the calculation on whether or not people should receive Gardasil, in my opinion—even if the vaccine does cause autoimmune disorders in a very small number of genetically predisposed women, and that’s a huge if, the benefits of the vaccine are still likely to outweigh the potential harms.

So why run this story? From my perspective, this story has important ramifications for public health. Because even if it turns out that Gardasil does not cause autoimmune disorders in anyone (which is possible), the fact remains that these trials were designed in a way that meant they would probably be unable to reliably assess this potential relationship. And to me, that’s worrying because clinical trials, particularly those used to assess medicine that will be used on large numbers of people prophylactically, ought to be able to make such assessments. And if we’ve been failing on this front, we should know that, so we can correct for it. This is how science is supposed to work.

If this story were about almost anything besides a vaccine, I doubt I would be writing this. The value of understanding potential side effects and ensuring that our clinical trials are robust enough to do so would be apparent, I suspect. But because it is about a vaccine, this is much more complicated, because there’s a (legitimate) fear that this story could be used to bolster a case that vaccines are bad and untrustworthy. And bolstering that case could have real and serious ramifications for public health if it leads to more people not getting vaccinated.

That’s possible. It’s also, in my opinion, a terrible reason to not run an excellent and nuanced piece of journalism about something that is true and, indeed, something that is in the public’s interest to know. I would even go as far as to say that refusing to cover a possible problem with a vaccine because it might cause people who are already distrustful of vaccines to be more distrustful is itself a counterproductive action: It further entrenches us on opposite sides that become driven more by ideology than by truth. And the truth is that science can be imperfect, and evidence can be incomplete. When that is the case, we should be upfront and transparent about it—in fact, I believe that doing so serves to bolster our credibility rather than diminish it.

Sometimes reassessments of science happen in the lab. Sometimes reassessments of science happen on the pages of a newsmagazine. When the latter happens, it is also the media’s responsibility to be clear about how the individuals reading the story ought to interpret it. One of the best and worst things about health journalism is how closely it intersects with its readers—everyone has a body, and so everyone has increased incentive to parse this information, and to assess if it should influence their own choices about how to care for themselves. The stakes are high and ever-complicated by how difficult it is to properly convey the distinction between public health and personal health.

This story has important implications for public health, much more so than for personal health. It is also a story that shows how investigating questions of public health can intersect with personal health—as Kesia Lyng’s story demonstrates, we rely on individuals to help us assess those bigger questions. But when it comes to the personal health of its readers, this story does not offer much advice, and that’s on purpose. The takeaway is not that you should not get vaccinated—as noted above, I still would. The takeaway is that science is an iterative process, and the more upfront we are about that, the better.

Could Pharmacists Help Fix Health Care?

Could Pharmacists Help Fix Health Care?

by Vishal Khetpal @ Slate Articles

Over the weekend, CVS Health and Aetna formally announced their long-rumored plans to merge. Many have already tried to divine what the merger’s legacy might be, as it’s certainly poised to shake up America’s economy and health care system. Some have fixated on the new company’s presumed antagonist, Amazon, and how the merger might force a rewrite of the retail giant’s play for the pharmaceutical market. Others suggest that the merger may be a big win for consumers, and could lower drug prices in the short term. Meanwhile, the local media in Rhode Island—the state where I’m currently writing this essay—have focused on how the merger would make the Ocean State home to America’s third-biggest company.

The CVS-Aetna merger’s most sweeping implication, however, may have more to do with the company’s past, rather than its future. After its most recent series of evolutions—rebranding as a health-focused company, buying Caremark, and now merging with Aetna—it’s easy to forget that CVS once started as a drugstore. But to me, this past raises the question: How will the merger affect the pharmacists who work within them and who still remain at the center of the company’s growing push to influence every interaction of the American consumer’s health care experience? And how will this shape a profession that a pharmacy school dean once called “the most overeducated and underutilized health care professionals in America”?

It’s difficult today to believe that pharmacists and doctors in America share similar occupational origins. According to William Kelly, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy, both trace their roots back to the apothecary shops lining cobblestone streets in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York in the 1700s—owned by proto-physicians who treated the sick, sold goods from a general store, and concocted their own drugs from Old World patent medicines and New World herbs. But as our gargantuan health care system emerged, both professions have been siloed into different roles. Over time, it could be argued that doctors staked their claim to treating our patients while pharmacists took stewardship over drugs we prescribe to them.

Today, the work and training of pharmacists can be taken for granted. Medical education to become a physician still generally involves a longer overall timeline, but pharmacists do attend school for six to eight years, taking courses in topics like law and economics while also taking science classes and gaining clinical experience. They can complete residencies and fellowships, and have to take board examinations—including one in jurisprudence, which doctors don’t take—to earn their state licenses.

Yet the legal landscape is unforgiving for pharmacists across the country. What pharmacists can and can’t do on their own varies greatly from state to state. As Rep. Buddy Carter—a Georgia Republican and pharmacist—wrote in an op-ed for the Hill last year, Medicare Part B doesn’t even recognize pharmacists as reimbursable health care professionals. Many of the Affordable Care Act’s Accountable Care Organizations have also left pharmacists out of their networks. And public perceptions of what pharmacists do, despite their insight, often don’t match up to their training and expertise.

But as costs continue to grow for health care systems here and around the world, pharmacists have become increasingly utilized as direct patient care providers, rather than just as overqualified dispensaries. Provinces across Canada have been using pharmacists for issues like emergency contraception counseling, colon cancer screening, and even treating minor ailments like acne and oral thrush. Here in the United States, Medicaid programs have deployed pharmacists as smoking-cessation counselors, patient educators, and diabetes case managers. Veterans Affairs uses clinical pharmacists to decrease waiting times for patients seeking care for chronic conditions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Research suggests that pharmacists have increased flu vaccination rates, in states where they can give them. And in Medicare Part D (as well as in other programs), pharmacists frequently provide medication-therapy management, where they work with patients to simplify drug regimens, check for any possible drug-to-drug interactions, modify dosing, and encourage the use of generic drugs when appropriate.

Reporting since the merger also has highlighted the possible future role of CVS’s Minute Clinics, which work with physician groups and are staffed by nurse practitioners. These retail clinics operate within in the crucial gap between a primary care provider’s office and an urgent care facility. But CVS’s pharmacy-staffed locations outnumber their Minute Clinics by 9 to 1, and are far more likely to be found in rural communities.

Within this context, the CVS-Aetna merger could instead transfer more practices empowering pharmacists into the private sector—as Aetna effectively gains access to an army of its own pharmacists scattered across the country, both willing and able to perform many of the necessary functions of primary care. Building upon CVS’s decision to quit selling tobacco products in 2014, the new company could encourage insurance policyholders to seek smoking cessation by pharmacists, rather than in the doctor’s office. CVS-Aetna could route routine immunizations to its brick-and-mortar locations and use pharmacists, seeing their patients frequently, to promote public health messages on issues like breastfeeding and exercise. It may even expand the Pharmacy Advisor program currently operated by CVS—which bears similarities to medication-therapy management—to all Aetna users too, in states where this may be legal.

Adding to the responsibilities of pharmacists, as these trends continue, won’t come without its complications, nor does it guarantee benefits. Pharmacy schools today have had trouble keeping up with the growing influx of students seeking to attend them. MCPHS University in Boston, for example, recently went under probation for high student-to-professor ratios and overcrowded buildings on its campus. Policies around liability and malpractice insurance may have to change. And although medical therapy management makes lots of clinical sense in theory, practical data is inconclusive on how much it actually saves in cost to payers.

Nevertheless, the possible rise of pharmacists in American health care, resulting from the CVS-Aetna merger, could ultimately help alleviate primary care shortages across much of our country and continue to move us toward a system that prioritizes team-based maintenance over individual heroics. At a recent inter-professional workshop my medical school hosted with local pharmacist, nursing, and social work programs, I was able to appreciate the strengths different health professionals can bring to the table in a medical team. The nursing students could take blood pressure far better than I could (as well as many of my peers, according to a recent study); the social work students held a more nuanced grasp of community resources available to our patients to quit smoking and lose weight.

Pharmacists, many of whom could soon work for a merged CVS and Aetna, ought to be better integrated into this new delivery model for health care. Even today, they have an especially important role to address perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by our health care system, which is medication adherence. Up to half of medications I will prescribe to my patients, if nothing changes, will not end up taken as I might imagine in the exam room. It’s a sobering reminder that teams, rather than individuals, will be managing the diseases faced by many of our patients in the coming years.

What Actually Is “Clean” or “Renewable” Energy?

What Actually Is “Clean” or “Renewable” Energy?

by Meg Charlton @ Slate Articles

In his ongoing quest to dismantle his predecessor’s signature achievements, President Trump is threatening to repeal the Clean Power Plan. On its face, the news is discouraging: The law’s state-by-state carbon emissions guidelines and strict regulations on coal-fired power plants were on track to have a huge impact. By 2030, the bill’s guidelines would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the utility sector to below 2005 levels, which would have enabled America to meet its commitments to lowering carbon dioxide emissions made in the Paris climate accord. Losing it would seem to be an enormous blow.

But the panic seems to be premature. Many states, including California, home to nearly 40 million power-consuming people, are on track to exceed their emissions goals with or without the bill’s help. The bill would have hastened changes in states that are more reluctant, but the U.S. is, according to the most recent numbers, still on track to meet the emissions goals the bill set forth. That’s because cities and states have a large amount of autonomy to fight climate change on their own. In the wake of Trump’s election, many local and state governments have taken the power (excuse the pun) into their own hands. There has been a burst of mass movements—from the coalition of states pledging that they’re “still in” the Paris Agreement to the cities resolving to run on 100 percent renewable energy—to make sure they’re providing clean energy to their residents.

Unfortunately, this patchwork of pledges and coalitions highlights one of the most basic issues with the pursuit of “clean power” as a policy goal—we have no real, common definition of what “clean” actually means in this context. Calling a power source “clean” is kind of like calling a food “all natural.” As a consumer who both regularly buys “all natural” food and has supported “clean energy” projects, I will tell you that branding works, at least on me. It sounds so wholesome, so virtuous—but it also tells me very little about the product itself.

Even the term renewable doesn’t have a strict definition. Everyone can agree that wind and solar are renewable, but beyond that, things can get contentious. Is a brand-new large-scale hydroelectric dam “renewable”? (According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, no.) What about wood pellets? (According to the EU, yes.) Municipal waste? (Depends whom you ask.) Each rule defines the terms afresh and allows for different fuel sources to be anointed accordingly. And the documents that make these distinctions are, of course, political, subject to the same last-minute maneuvering and local interests as any other industry.

Take Burlington, Vermont, the archetype of lefty governance. In 2015, it became the first city in America to run entirely on renewable energy—fossil fuel free, residents said—and the city was widely celebrated for the accomplishment. But some environmental advocates quickly pushed back, pointing out that the fuel source that put it over the edge was biomass, or really, just lumber. While much of one plant’s wood was coming from wood waste, some advocates pointed out that there were trees specifically logged for the purpose of being burned at the power plant. The pushback was sharp enough that it led to an editor’s note being added to an otherwise glowing PBS report on the city’s transition. And just over the border in Massachusetts, mere miles away, biomass is far more heavily restricted and regulated. (Another crucial part of Burlington’s energy portfolio was large-scale hydroelectric, the future development of which would be verboten under the aforementioned U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution.)

Even wind and solar aren’t necessarily as “clean” as you might expect. Germany’s Energiewende strategy was launched in 2010 with the express goals of lowering its carbon output well below its 1990 levels and shifting its electric grid toward wind and solar. By 2016, the country had seemingly achieved its goal; for a brief and shining moment that year, Germans were getting a staggering 90 percent of their power from renewables. But during this same heady period, their carbon emissions actually rose and have proved stubbornly high in the year since.

The reasons for Germany’s rising emissions are multifold—it has shifted away from nuclear and also just started consuming more energy in general. But at least one is related to the mechanics of power grids: Wind and solar (at least for now) still need backup power sources that can run when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Power grids are designed to have a constant perfect match of supply and demand and—because we don’t yet have the battery technology available at an industrial scale for storage of wind and solar energy—we are reliant on backup power systems to keep the system running consistently. Germany’s backup power is, overwhelmingly, coal. And although coal’s share of the German power grid is declining, the country is still, in essence, doubling up, with an older, more polluting system running by necessity alongside a newer, less polluting one.

These are just two examples of our understanding of “renewable” or “clean” going awry. I’m not suggesting the places that tried to enact them were purposefully misleading their public, nor even that their policies were misguided. I am just saying that when it comes to assessing carbon life cycles, things get complicated quickly.

So what do we do about it? We could certainly try to create better definitions or standards for each, but it seems almost inevitable that we will never have a perfect definition of what constitutes “clean” or “renewable.” Technologies will continue to improve, emerge, and evolve. And, just as today’s do, those changing technologies will have their own trade-offs. Instead, we as power consumers and citizens must be proactive and look behind those virtue-signaling labels to have the complicated conversations about emissions. After all, our federal government has ensured that this critical work is not its problem—now it’s up to all of us.

With Syria Signing the Paris Agreement, U.S. Will Be Only Nation Opposed to Climate Action

With Syria Signing the Paris Agreement, U.S. Will Be Only Nation Opposed to Climate Action

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

On Tuesday, representatives of the Syrian government announced the country’s intention to sign the Paris Climate Accord, the international pact attempting to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Syria’s announcement brings the total count of committed countries to 197 and leaves the United States alone in its intention to withdraw from the agreement, a decision President Donald Trump announced in early June. (Due to the logistics of the agreement, the earliest date Trump can officially take this action is Nov. 4, 2020—the day after the next presidential election.)

When Trump announced his intentions, only two other countries had not committed to the agreement: Syria and Nicaragua, for very different reasons. Nicaragua, which sits between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, said the stipulations of the climate treaty actually weren’t severe enough. Syria, meanwhile, was in the middle of a civil war as the accords were being drawn up and debated. But in October, Nicaragua finally signed on to the treaty, with vice president and first lady Rosario Murillo calling it “the only instrument we have” to combat climate change. And Syria’s commitment, which was announced during the United Nations’ 2017 climate change conference currently underway in Germany, means the United States is now the only nation unwilling to join. (Trump is not in Germany; he is currently on a diplomatic trip through Asia.)

A White House spokesperson referred reporters to the statement it released after Nicaragua signed, which repeated Trump’s June line that the administration was pulling out because it was a bad deal for the U.S. “[T]he United States is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable for our country,” the official statement read.

The United States is currently second only to China when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Paris Agreement, participants were essentially allowed to set their own targets for emissions reductions, creating a collaborative process that many thought was our best hope for action. It’s also worth noting that most of the nations that signed on and are actively working to meet the Paris goals still aren’t actually succeeding: As the New York Times demonstrates, the European Union, Canada, China, and of course, the United States are all falling short of their goals.

This isn’t great news, of course, but the 197 signatories still haven’t given up. The whole reason Syrian delegates were in Germany today was for a United Nations conference aimed at closing these gaps between promises and reality. It’s also possible that the United States’ withdrawal has renewed a sense of commitment from other countries—and from states and cities within our own country. As Syria begins to lay out its path to climate action, many American cities and states are still working on limiting their own carbon emissions, sort of like unofficial mini-signatories to the climate accords. California and New York are creating policies that support renewable energy and a shift to electric vehicles. Given how motivating the backlash to the election of Donald Trump was to climate activists the world over, his decision to pull out of a widely-supported international program is another drop of fuel in an already raging fire, and could, in a way, actually serve as a strong motivation to complete this daunting task.

Within the U.S., it also illustrates the divide between Republican leadership and the American people when it comes to climate action. The majority of Americans—7 out of 10—supported the Paris Agreement. And they support other climate strategies, too: One poll suggests 69 percent want to restrict carbon emissions from coal plants. But the White House and Republican-led Congress are dead-set on doing the opposite.

So what happens next? Even if the United States had stayed in the agreement, it’s clear it would have been hard to meet our goals. But by prematurely skipping out, the federal government is now free to ignore the commitments it had made. Hopefully, Americans will pick up the mantle on climate action even without federal support. That way, we wouldn’t have to isolate our entire country, just our president.

Did Ryan Zinke Give Florida an Offshore Drilling Exemption Because of Mar-a-Lago?

Did Ryan Zinke Give Florida an Offshore Drilling Exemption Because of Mar-a-Lago?

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

The Trump administration announced plans last week to lift Obama-era prohibitions on offshore drilling, potentially opening up thousands of miles of coastline to companies interested in extracting oil and natural gas from the ocean floor. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whose department oversees and regulates coastline leasing, called the five-year plan “a new path for energy dominance in America,” which is a strange way to refer to an investment in nonrenewable resources with a finite future.

Environmental groups, Democrats, and even some Republicans swiftly decried the move for its potential to devastate marine ecosystems and the health and safety of coastal communities. Governors from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, and Washington all oppose offshore drilling, and all requested exclusion from the plan last year.

Interestingly, Zinke decided to remove one state from the new standard—one that didn’t even originally ask for an exemption. But after the announcement, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, an ally of the Trump administration’s, released a statement saying, “I have asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration. My top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.”

On Tuesday, Zinke granted him his wish, exempting Florida’s coastlines from offshore drilling. Zinke released a statement that called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted,” and declared support for “the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”

The problem with this explanation, though, is that everything he says to justify Florida’s exemption applies to every other coastal state. Florida is certainly special in uniquely Floridian ways, but warm beaches that attract tourists and generate in-state revenue are everywhere. There’s the Jersey Shore; Rehoboth Beach in Delaware; Charleston, South Carolina; the Outer Banks in North Carolina; Virginia Beach; Los Angeles and San Diego, and on and on and on.

Now, state leaders are forcing Zinke into a corner with his own words.

Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Trump ally, made it clear he wanted an exemption for his state as well.

What could be going on here? Perhaps this is a case of not-in-my-backyard exceptionalism. After all, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where he’s absconded to 10 times since inauguration, sits on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida. Would he want to deal with an unsightly view and accompanying cacophony of an offshore drill platform? Probably not! Not to mention the fact that offshore drilling produces a pretty disgusting slew of pollutants, including muds, brine wastes, and runoff water that threaten to decimate the pristine beauty you’d expect at a beachside home.

If Zinke can’t find a real reason Florida should be exempt and other states should not, the entire plan might be dead in the water anyway. Good riddance.

Trump Blames Shooting on “Mental Health,” a Policy Area He Is Also Actively Undermining

Trump Blames Shooting on “Mental Health,” a Policy Area He Is Also Actively Undermining

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

On Sunday morning, a man opened fire on a congregation at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. According to the most recent count, the gunman killed at least 26 people. The attack, which is the 378th mass shooting in 2017, was met online with a mixture of sadness and cynicism. Many felt deflated by the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, Congress and the White House remain unwilling to consider gun control.

President Trump, who is currently traveling in Asia, explained why he thinks gun control is definitely not the problem when he answered questions about the shooting on Monday morning:

Mental health is your problem here. This was a very—based on preliminary reports—a very deranged individual. A lot of problems over a long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. ... But this is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event. It’s—these are great people, and a very, very sad event. But that’s the way I view it.

There’s a lot about the president’s statement—and others like it—that just doesn’t add up. For one, it plays into the trope that the main thing we should blame for gun violence is not guns but mental illness, even though the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent (though they do have higher rates of self-harm and suicide). This tendency likely stems from the desire to name our demons, but if you’re looking for a better way to categorize perpetrators of gun violence, your best bet would be to label them “toxically angry.” Many of them seem to suffer from an inability to regulate their emotions, not exactly a mental illness in the traditional sense. It also increasingly seems that many share a history of domestic abuse, using their partners or family members as an outlet for all that aggression long before they grab a gun and head to a church or a school or a movie theater.

In a way, Trump’s decision to evoke mental illness makes some sort of sense: Given what we know about anger, it seems possible that providing people struggling with anger issues the right mental health care could help (though given the ban on studying gun violence, we don’t really know that much for certain). But just like with gun control, it’s not like Trump is actually working to improve America’s policies around his new scapegoat of choice.

In February, Trump signed into a law a bill repealing an Obama-era policy designed to limit access to guns among people with certain mental illnesses. The law, which received its fair share of criticism, would have required the Social Security Administration to flag some people receiving disability benefits for background checks should they try to buy a gun. Trump made this choice because it “could endanger the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens,” according to a statement from the White House at the time.

The plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which the president promises will continue in the new year, jeopardizes mental health care access for those who need it most. In the past few months, the Republicans in Congress have tried to cut away at certain health care coverage requirements they don’t like, including the mandate to provide maternity care and, yes, basic mental health services. Right-wing leaders have also worked to roll back the Obama-era Medicaid expansion, which is the largest source of mental health and substance abuse treatment in the country. The program, which currently provides more than 1 million struggling Americans with care, is one of the only sources of federal support for Americans caught up in the opioid crisis. Trump’s plan to combat that crisis, released late last month, did not meaningfully expand access to mental health care or treatment programs, either—instead he’s peddling the same “just say no“ rhetoric that failed the Reagan administration.

The shooting at the First Baptist Church, like so many other mass shootings in the United States, is not an inevitable result of someone having a “mental health issue.” It’s a gun issue, an anger issue, a social issue—all problems that could have policy-based solutions. Unfortunately, Trump has no plan to stem this tide regardless of what he thinks is to blame.

This Space for Rent

This Space for Rent

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

People don’t live on the moon yet, but humanity is already making strides to plaster it with advertisements. The space travel startup Ispace Inc. just wrapped up a new round of funding that nets the Japan-based company more than $90 million, to be used in the development of a lunar lander and two uncrewed missions to the moon by 2020. According to Bloomberg:

Ispace says the initial business opportunity is mostly in marketing, including slapping corporate logos on its spacecrafts and rovers, and delivering images to be used in advertising. A successful landing will also let the company offer what it calls a "projection mapping service" -- a small billboard on the moon’s surface. The startup says there will be demand from corporations looking to show off their logos with Earth in the background.

A billboard on the moon! Well, something like that—a company spokesman told me that what Bloomberg is calling a billboard will technically be a projection of an advertisement onto a lunar lander, rover, or other vehicle, not a physical board. But it will serve the same purpose as a traditional billboard, which should make future colonists feel right at home.

Is it legal to advertise on the moon? The short answer is yeah. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which Japan has signed, declares space is free for all nations to explore; no celestial body can be claimed by any sovereign entity; no weapons of mass destruction are allowed in space; and individual nations (plus any businesses or citizens under their authority) must refrain from causing damage or contamination as a result of their space activities, or at the very least they have to clean up after themselves. It’s hard to imagine a projected billboard would violate any of these terms. (Though if some nations or groups thought it was creating harmful interference of some sort—maybe light pollution or disruption for instruments being used by other parties—then Ispace could be in violation of international law, and Japan would be responsible for taking the company to task and making sure the problem was rectified.)

Ispace is not the first company to try to bring ads to space. In 1990, a Japanese television network bought a seat on a Russian flight into space for one of its reporters and got to feature its logo on the side of the Soyuz launch vehicle. Russia has allowed advertisements on many of its rockets and astronaut suits used in missions for years. But Ispace is the first to attempt to advertise on the actual moon, and there does not appear to be a Japanese law to stop it.

So what if an American company tried something like this? The most relevant attempt occurred in 1993, when an American company called Space Marketing Inc. proposed launching a 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer illuminated billboard into low Earth orbit. At that size and with the brightness the company planned, the billboard would be comparable to the size and brightness of the moon at night. That proposal ultimately went nowhere, in part because it turns out that if you build something that’s a square kilometer and put it into orbit, it’s going to get pummeled to bits by orbital debris.

The hoopla around that proposal, though, prompted then–Rep. Ed Markey (now the junior senator from Massachusetts) to introduce a bill into Congress banning all U.S. space advertisements, which was quickly amended to just ban “obtrusive advertising” (so sponsors could still stick their logos on the sides of rockets, spacecraft, or astronaut clothing). The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for enforcing this law, and any party issued a license to launch into space must abide by it.

According to Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, professor emerita in space law at the University of Mississippi and  editor in chief emerita for the Journal of Space Law, the logic behind the bill was that large ads, like the Space Marketing billboard, could increase light pollution and create a brighter night sky, which would impede astronomical observations of space, interfere with navigation satellites that use star trackers and sun sensors to calibrate their measurements, and just generally be an annoying eyesore to the public. According to the FAA, “obtrusive” means anything “capable of being recognized by a human being on the surface of the Earth without the aid of a telescope or other technological device.”

For an advertisement on the moon to be visible from Earth using a telescope, it would have to be gigantic and brighter than virtually any other object in the night sky. That’s not, however, what Ispace is seeking—its ads would basically be photo-ops for companies that want the lunar landscape to be a backdrop for their logos and couldn’t be seen from Earth without ultrapowerful instruments. (And Ispace, of course, doesn’t need to abide by U.S. laws, unless it’s collaborating with an American company.)

The truth is that this is all pretty unprecedented. It’s debatable what qualifies as “harmful interference,” and it’s unclear exactly how the international community or select nations might work to enforce relevant laws and regulations. But with how fast the private space industry is growing these days, questions over space advertisements are likely to pop up again and again, perhaps sooner rather than later. (“Human beings aren’t heading to the stars to become poor,” the CEO of Ispace said at a press event last week.)

After talking to me about space law, Gabrynowicz expressed her own misgivings.  “Earth-based billboard-studded country roads provide a cautionary statement about advertising in space,” says Gabrynowicz. “The sky—if you can see it from where you are—is beautiful. Be careful with it.”

Life Expectancy Is Down, Again, Thanks to Opioids

Life Expectancy Is Down, Again, Thanks to Opioids

by Zachary Siegel @ Slate Articles

America is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, and for the second year in a row, our life expectancy has dropped. The drop was small—just 1.2 months, the same as last year’s—and in the context of the past several decades, appears as more of a stall on an otherwise steadily growing trend line. What’s the cause? A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics pins the blame on the unrelenting rise in opioid overdoses.

Fatal drug overdoses spiked to more than 63,000 in 2016, up from 52,400 in 2015. The vast majority of overdoses—42,200 of them, or 120 a day—are opioid-related. The most alarming jump, and nearly all of the increase, came from a doubling in the category of synthetic opioids, largely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl, said to be 50 times more potent than heroin. If you’re east of the Mississippi, it’s increasingly hard to find heroin that isn’t contaminated with fentanyl.

One bit of good news is that deaths from prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone appear to be plateauing, after rising at a pace of 13 percent annually from 1999 to 2009 (this year it increased by just 3 percent). This decline is perhaps attributable to the fact that faced with a ballooning problem, public health officials have deliberately cut back on opioid prescriptions. Most addictions linked to these pills are likely due to easy access rather than the prescription recipients becoming addicted, but it’s promising to see the trend start to slow down. (It’s also worth acknowledging that the crackdown has had unintended side effects for chronic pain patients.)

Overall though, we’re not doing nearly enough to combat the opioid crisis. The president, for example, would like to solve it by simply getting more people to say no to drugs. In reality, it requires much more robust and complex solutions. On the harm-reduction side, America still has zero operational safe consumption sites, which provide a sterile and medically supervised space for drug users to inject their drugs. (No one has ever died inside one of these spaces, which do exist outside of the U.S.) Naloxone, the only antidote that reverses opioid overdoses, is priced out of reach for many communities to widely distribute it. Local communities are fighting tooth-and-nail to distribute sterile syringes, a public health intervention proven to reduce the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases.

We’re also failing to provide better treatment for people struggling with addiction. When Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, he freed up a measly $57,000 in funds—less than $1 per fatal overdose victim. Medication treatments like buprenorphine and methadone—the only FDA-approved drugs proven to cut the risk of fatal overdoses by more than half—remain unused by the majority of addiction treatment providers. Meanwhile, Republicans are doing their utmost to roll back health care and undermine access to mental health care treatment, an important piece of the puzzle for opioid users.

The decrease in lifespan may be the result of one specific, vulnerable slice of the population dying far too young. But it is all of our concern, and right now we are falling down on the job.

Three Dartmouth Psychology Professors Are Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct”

Three Dartmouth Psychology Professors Are Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct”

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

Three tenured professors from the psychological and brain sciences department at Dartmouth College—Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen—are targets of a criminal investigation, according to official statements from Dartmouth’s president and the New Hampshire attorney general on Oct. 31. The school, which has variously described the allegations as referring to “serious misconduct” and “sexual misconduct,” had already launched its own internal investigation of the three men. Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen are all on paid leave with restricted campus access, according to the statement from Dartmouth’s president. Heatherton also lost his affiliation at New York University, where he had been a visiting scholar since July.

Attorneys for Heatherton responded that their client “has engaged in no sexual relations with any student” and that he “is confident that he has not violated any written policy of Dartmouth, including policies relating to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.” They also claim that the investigations into Heatherton are limited to an unspecified “out-of-state matter” and unrelated to the conduct of the other two professors. Kelley and Whalen have not issued any statements and did not respond to interview requests for this story.

A public accounting of the allegations has yet to emerge. (On Friday, Dartmouth’s president refuted the idea that they involved the unethical treatment of research subjects.) But Simine Vazire, a tenured professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis (and one-time Slate contributor), says that several weeks before news of the criminal investigation broke, she learned from a colleague that Dartmouth was seeking information about potential sexual misconduct by its faculty. She reached out to the chair of the psychological and brain sciences department and was connected with an external investigator. On Oct. 17, she told that investigator about an episode from early 2002, in which she alleges Heatherton groped her at an academic conference.

That incident occurred at a waterfront hotel in Savannah, Georgia, she says, where more than 1,300 people had gathered for the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Vazire, who was then a 21-year-old graduate student, was attending one of her first major conferences. Standing in a circle of students and faculty members outside a banquet hall, she found herself beside Heatherton, then in his early 40s and a full professor at Dartmouth. The two had not been introduced. Without saying a word, Vazire says, Heatherton reached his hand behind her, out of view of the others, and squeezed her butt. Erik Noftle, a psychology professor who dated Vazire in the early 2000s, confirms that she described the incident to him a year after it allegedly occurred, in 2003.

Vazire says she wasn’t that upset by the encounter. “This one ass-grabbing, it was just kind of a blip on the radar,” she told me. In sharing her experience, Vazire wanted to make it very clear that she didn’t consider her story of being groped at an academic conference on par with more grievous forms of sexual harassment, nor did she want it to overshadow the pending results of the investigations by Dartmouth and the New Hampshire attorney general. Still, she says the memory has stuck with her, as a first experience of the rampant, casual harassment that pervades the field of psychology and academic science as a whole.

“I do not remember touching her in any way at a conference 15 years ago,” Heatherton said via email. “I have just recently heard of this for the first time, but, if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”

Heatherton added that he first remembers meeting Vazire in 2011 and that they have had “a collegial, but distant relationship.” He noted that Vazire emailed him in 2011 to recommend one of her female honors students “who is going to be applying to graduate school with you.” This student confirmed to me that Vazire wrote the email on her behalf but says Vazire also informed her about what had allegedly occurred between her and Heatherton in 2002. The student did not end up attending Dartmouth.

A 2010 survey of female earth scientists found that more than half had experienced sexual harassment in the course of their careers. According to a 2014 study, more than one-quarter of female archaeologists said they’d experienced unwanted physical contact while conducting field research. And a much older study, published in 1986, noted that 31 percent of female graduate trainees in clinical psychology reported receiving sexual advances from at least one male teacher or supervisor; among those women, 71 percent viewed the advances as “coercive.” Several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by prominent academic scientists have also come to light in recent years. At the University of California–Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned last year after the school found that he had violated sexual harassment policies repeatedly between 2001 and 2010. (Marcy apologized on his website.) In August, the University of Washington fired microbiologist Michael Katze after an investigator found that he had, among other things, created a quid pro quo sexual relationship with one employee and asked another to email escorts on his behalf. This fall, eight people filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the University of Rochester for failing to act appropriately against computational linguist T. Florian Jaeger and alleging that Jaeger engaged in a “long pattern of predatory sexual behavior.” Jaeger, who is on administrative leave pending the results of a new investigation, has noted that the fact that he’s been placed on leave does not constitute an admission of guilt.

Even as a first-year grad student in 2002, Vazire knew Heatherton was an academic star with considerable prestige and power. “I was still young enough to have very idealistic images of famous people in the field,” she says. By that time, Heatherton had published almost 60 peer-reviewed papers, and as the chairman of SPSP Convention Committee, he’d helped establish the group’s annual conference. After the 2001 SPSP meeting, Heatherton crowed to colleagues about its lively and stimulating atmosphere and the ample sales recorded at the cash bar.

Heatherton made his name by studying feelings of guilt and self-control and by helping to devise a model of willpower as a muscle that can be exercised until exhaustion. In particular, he has studied how people restrain themselves from engaging in undesirable behavior. “Is self-regulation failure a matter of lazy self-indulgence … or is it a matter of being overcome by powerful, unstoppable forces?” he asked in a 1996 review of this research. He and his co-author ended that paper with a gloomy observation: “The norms and forces that currently dominate modern Western culture seem generally conducive to weakening self-control,” they wrote. “As long as this is the case, it seems likely that our society will continue to suffer from widespread and even epidemic problems that have self-regulatory failure as a common core.”

Not long before his run-in with Vazire, Heatherton had co-written a book chapter with his graduate student Jennifer Tickle and colleague Mikki Hebl on the psychology of awkward moments. “Awkward moments have far-reaching consequences in the lives of both stigmatized and nonstigmatized individuals,” they wrote.

Starting in the early 2000s, Heatherton ventured into a booming subfield in his discipline, based around the use of magnetic-resonance imaging to capture changing blood flow in the brain. At Dartmouth, he became a leading member of a research group that applied this technique, fMRI, to the study of social psychology. In theory, he could now identify portions of the brain that would “activate” in response to temptation, guilt, awkwardness, or whatever else one might choose to study. On the basis of this research, the exercise of self-control would be construed, in his later work, as a struggle between rival brain areas.

Dartmouth made a huge investment in fMRI technology in September 1999, opening a four-story, $27 million building devoted to the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, or PBS. Dartmouth was the first liberal arts school in the country to have its own scanner dedicated to experimental brain research. A few years later, PBS helped bring in the largest peer-reviewed grant in the history of the institution: $21.8 million to establish a Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience.

PBS was a major power center on campus. By 2002, its most famous member—Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience—was serving as the dean of faculty at Dartmouth, having replaced another neuroscientist, Jamshed Bharucha, in that position.* Heatherton served as chair of the department in 2004 and 2005, and he worked closely with Gazzaniga, co-authoring a leading academic textbook, Psychological Science, in 2003. Kelley was recruited to the department in 2000; he and Heatherton became friends and regular scientific collaborators. Whalen arrived at PBS in 2005.

As the department’s influence grew, tensions developed at the college. A report from the Student Assembly, based on input from 800 students and 30 faculty members and titled “The Soul of Dartmouth,” decried the school’s excessive focus on research, singling out PBS for special blame.

The department also had a reputation for rambunctiousness. Over the last week, I’ve reached out to dozens of current and former faculty members, postdocs, graduate students, research technicians, and lab fellows who spent time at PBS during this period or passed through for talks or summer sessions. Many ignored my requests or declined to be interviewed. Most of those who agreed to share their experiences would only do so on condition that their names would not be mentioned in connection with this story. But their stories generally converged on several major points. The culture at PBS was characterized by heavy drinking, multiple sources said, as well as an unusual degree of socializing between faculty and students. Several described a “good old boys” vibe that could be inhospitable to women. An undergraduate who worked in a PBS lab from 2002 to 2004 said “the culture of the department was always very masculine and competitive.”

Elise Temple, who was an assistant professor of education at Dartmouth from 2007 to 2010, with a joint appointment in the PBS department, said that Whalen and Kelley were very popular with graduate students and often partied with them. They would stay out late, Temple said, and encourage everyone to drink. “There was this juvenile attitude that was clearly just not professional,” explained Temple, who now directs the Consumer Neuroscience Group at the company Nielsen. “I remember, [the atmosphere] was like, ‘No, have another drink! Oh, come on, have another drink!’ Like a frat guy kind of thing.”

Temple acknowledged that it’s common for graduate students and faculty to have drinks together from time to time. But she said there was more of this behavior—drinking and socializing among mentors and trainees—at PBS than she’d seen at other institutions.

One member of the faculty from the early 2000s did tell me there wasn’t an unusual degree of partying, and a graduate student who arrived a few years later said the culture was “positive and professional.” Most accounts I heard, though, were more or less consistent with Temple’s. One former student called the level of alcohol use “pretty shocking” and described it as being “like night and day” compared with other psychology departments. People went out drinking after work as a matter of routine, this student claimed, and stayed out very late. A former graduate student at PBS said “partying” might be too strong a word but that there was “a lot of drinking with the professors.” Students made frequent trips to a local restaurant called India Queen after work, the graduate student said, and Kelley would be there “more often than not.”

Multiple sources said Heatherton was less involved in the program’s drinking culture than Kelley and Whalen. Via email, Heatherton said he didn’t think it was accurate to say the PBS department was characterized by heavy drinking or frequent socializing between graduate students and faculty. “I do my best not to socialize with graduate students outside of the work setting, as the mentoring relationship should remain professional,” he wrote, noting that his “main social contact” with graduate students occurs on the annual “Apple Pie Day” he hosts with his wife. He added: “Self-reflection has caused me to recognize that, on occasion, at conferences with other academicians I have consumed too much alcohol. On this I was not alone, but that is no excuse, and I have apologized for my behavior.”

In the mid-2000s, three of the department’s most promising young female professors—Abigail Baird, Jennifer Groh, and Jennifer Richeson—departed for other schools. Richeson would earn a MacArthur “genius” grant the year after leaving; Baird was named a “Rising Star in Psychological Science” in 2008; and Groh received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. They now direct labs at Yale, Vassar, and Duke, respectively. Another more senior woman at Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto, also left during this period. (None of these professors agreed to comment for this story.) By January 2007, the PBS website included just three women on its list of 16 faculty members. (The PBS website now lists eight women out of 28 faculty members.)

Heatherton notes that it’s not unusual for professors to switch institutions, adding that five male professors also left the department around the same time. One of those was Gazzaniga, who resigned his position as dean after a vote of no confidence from the Dartmouth faculty and then left for the University of California–Santa Barbara. Scott Grafton followed him to Santa Barbara shortly thereafter. A third departing scholar, Kevin Dunbar, was the partner of one of the women who left Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto.

Since then, both Kelley and Whalen have been awarded tenure. Heatherton served as president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011. Under his direction, the society created a “Responsible Research Task Force” to “discuss the promotion of responsible conduct in social and personality psychology.” In 2016, Dartblog called Heatherton “one of the most respected researchers at the college.”

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: This piece originally misidentified Jamshed Bharucha as a former provost of Dartmouth. He served as deputy provost and as dean of faculty. (Return.)

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Kellyanne Conway Is a Partisan Show Horse

Kellyanne Conway Is a Partisan Show Horse

by Harold Pollack @ Slate Articles

Current news reports suggest that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, has been assigned the task of “opioid czar,” coordinating a response to America’s most serious public health challenge in decades. It’s not clear exactly what’s going on, whether Conway has any new powers, what she plans to do that CMS administrator Seema Verma, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, or others aren’t already doing.

But this matters more than the usual White House organizational musical chairs, because the opioid epidemic may be the one national challenge that has not been disfigured by the deepening polarization of American public life, at least yet. Bipartisan progress is still genuinely possible. Donald Trump spoke humanely about the epidemic’s lacerating effects in Appalachia and the Rust Belt while on the campaign trail. By some reckonings, this helped him politically.

Republican governors such as Charlie Baker, Chris Christie, and John Kasich have been working hard on the problem, often using tools provided by Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion to expand and improve addiction treatment. We had a major surgeon general’s report in the closing days of the Obama administration. We had the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act. We’ve had a highly touted presidential task force promising to declare a public health state of emergency.

Yet as far as I can tell, the Trump administration has done little on the ground to address this epidemic. It fired Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who had made addiction a major focus. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is basically dormant, particularly after Tom Marino, President Trump’s nominee to head that office, was forced to withdraw. To my knowledge, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are doing little to deploy interventions that could help with prevention.

Candidate Trump also promised not to cut Medicare and Medicaid, the two largest payers for addiction treatment. Then, of course, the Trump administration tried to overturn the ACA, threatening Medicare and Medicaid. Across the country, Republican proposals to block-grant and cut the ACA created huge policy uncertainties that slowed state and local responses to the opioid epidemic. State legislators didn’t know whether to reauthorize their Medicaid expansions. Treatment providers remained uncertain whether to make key investments predicated on their patients’ continued insurance coverage. Insurers didn’t know the fate of mental health and addiction parity requirements extended with bipartisan support within the Senate Finance Committee in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The administration has done nothing to expand insurance access in southeastern states, where hundreds of thousands of Americans with addiction disorders lack Medicaid coverage. Prominent “just say no” bromides offered by President Trump and his key advisers were also unimpressive, particularly when unaccompanied by more substantial steps.

And yet, Trump and his colleagues know they are accountable to do better. Many Republican or Democratic public managers and addiction experts could certainly help in that, coordinating efforts across government agencies, reaching across the partisan aisle, working with state governments. His own FDA commissioner and his new surgeon general are two obvious candidates. There are many others, including widely respected officials from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

But instead, the president’s apparent selection of Kellyanne Conway suggests that he’s going another way. Conway is a political figure with no specific addiction expertise. That fact in itself is not particularly disqualifying—the Obama administration appointed Ronald Klain to lead our government’s ultimately-successful Ebola response (Klain was not an Ebola expert).

But there is a key difference. Although Klain was no household name, he had deep experience organizing government agencies at the highest levels. He had been chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, and to Attorney General Janet Reno. He helped to oversee the Obama administration’s admirably efficient implementation of the $787 billion stimulus package. He’s the epitome of the solid, behind-the-scenes figure most presidents turn to when they need to get something difficult done.

I can’t peer into Conway’s mind or heart. She may be deeply committed to helping resolve this public health crisis. Whatever her motivation or dedication, she brings none of Klain’s policy or management prowess. I fear that the president chose her because of the skills she definitely has: that of the partisan show horse. She is the sort of flashy insubstantial figure this president turns to when he needs someone to argue on cable TV that he’s doing something—when in reality he is doing very little.

With this appointment, President Trump expresses his disdain of the craft of governance. That’s no way to address the most brutal epidemic America has faced since the emergence of HIV and AIDS.

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Yovation® - Probiotic Frozen Yogurt That’s Better for You - Pierre's Ice Cream

Pierre's Ice Cream

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Probiotics ward off C. difficile, Hamilton study shows

Probiotics ward off C. difficile, Hamilton study shows

CBC News

They're live microorganisms commonly found in yogurt, and they may just be the key to warding off C. difficile.

We’re Letting Meals on Wheels, One of Our Best Senior Programs, Slowly Wither and Die

We’re Letting Meals on Wheels, One of Our Best Senior Programs, Slowly Wither and Die

by Nathan Kohrman @ Slate Articles

Five times a week for nearly 20 years, Meals on Wheels program coordinator Leisa Cotten would bring warm meals to the immobile and elderly of Cochise County, in the rural southeast corner of Arizona. But for the past decade, she’s had to switch it up. Now she delivers frozen meals, five at a time, once a week. “I haven’t seen you in a while” says Mark, one of Cotten’s clients (and whose name we have changed here), as she walks into his trailer. “Cutbacks,” Cotten replies, rearranging his freezer to fit the five white microwavable trays into the top row. “You coming back next week?” he asks. “I should be,” Cotten says.

In 2011, the first cohort of the 75 million baby boomers turned 65. Over the next 18 years, they will continue to age, and the country’s population pyramid will grow increasingly vase-shaped. Caring for the tens of millions of boomers is a demographic challenge without precedent in the United States. Meals on Wheels, among the most iconic and popular social programs in America, should be gearing up to deal with the impending increase in demand. But instead, the program faces funding shortfalls and service cutbacks. This year, its programs served 23 million fewer meals than in 2005. One estimate shows that less than a fifth of eligible seniors can actually avail themselves of home-delivered meals because of limited resources. Today, Cotten has a single assistant to help her serve a county larger than Connecticut. In 1987, she oversaw a staff of 36 that served thousands of meals a year. And her program isn’t the only one—today, Meals on Wheels programs around the country are withering just as Americans need them more and more.

Few anti-poverty programs have the virtuous sheen and cultural cache of Meals on Wheels. The home-delivered meal service, which in various iterations has fed millions of frail seniors over seven decades, enjoys a singular spot in the imagination of would-be American altruists, a hybrid of soup-kitchen ladling and escorting veterans across streets. Public figures (and Fight Club anti-heroines) avail themselves of the glow. Politicians constantly include Meals on Wheels in press flyers, and in March, Colin Kaepernick donated $50,000 to Meals on Wheels America—a charitable rebuke to those critical of his civil rights activism.

MOWA is the umbrella organization that oversees and advocates for the thousands of individual Meals on Wheels chapters, which are run by local service organizations, like Catholic Community Services, in Cotten’s case. In aggregate, chapters receive a third of their funding from a provision of the Older Americans Act signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, and the rest comes from state and local governments, corporate donations, and individual donations. MOWA prides itself on facilitating a “successful public-private partnership.” (Some programs, like Cotten’s, do not officially affiliate with MOWA but still benefit from their advocacy and receive federal funding.)

Advocates claim that the services Meals on Wheels chapters provide are multipotent: Home visitors bring not just food to frail seniors but also offer companionship and referrals to social services. The deliveries also encourage clients to perform “activities of daily living” like housework and dressing themselves as they prepare for guests. “We’re required to observe everything: their verbal and visual ability, emotional health, their skin color,” Cotten said. “If we notice anything—if they’re unstable walking—we call a case manager. If it’s critical, we call 911.” Ninety percent of seniors on the program say that Meals on Wheels “makes them feel more safe and secure.

But virtue and a sense of safety aren’t enough to pay for lunch. Broadly speaking, we underfund social programs for the elderly. Less than 2 percent of corporate, community, and foundation donations go to programs related to aging, which has been a problem for Meals on Wheels programs. “There’s more and more competition for a smaller share of donations,” said Ellie Hollander, CEO of MOWA. For more than a decade—in which both political parties have had their shots at controlling Congress and the White House—federal funding for the OAA has been flat while the cost of food and inflation have both increased and tens of millions of baby boomers retire.

To Democrats, the OAA is important but low on their list of priorities. After gaining control of Congress and the White House in 2008, they spent their political capital on a stimulus bill, financial reform, health care reform, and cap and trade. All of these policies are orders of magnitude more expansive than the OAA, and some, like health care reform, overlap with the services that the OAA provides. Admittedly, the OAA got a 22 percent funding boost in 2009 as part of the stimulus and a comparable bump in 2010 for a senior jobs program. But in 2011, after Democrats lost control of the House, the OAA funding returned to its baseline of about $1.9 billion, where it’s stayed since. In March of 2016, 30 Democratic Senators signed a letter circulated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders calling for a “minimum 12 percent increase”—a sincere gesture without any chance of passing. After 2011 budget negotiations, caps were placed on nonmandatory spending, which includes Meals on Wheels. The program may carry political currency, referenced in wish lists and attack ads, but it rarely ends up in congressional debate.

Republican reservations are varied. On one side of the spectrum is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who expressed skepticism about the efficacy of the entire OAA during a 2011 hearing on senior hunger. Other Republicans equivocate. In September, Rep. Martha McSally, who represents Leisa Cotten in Cochise County, pushed for a $14.2 million increase for senior services under the OAA. A press release touted her support for Meals on Wheels, even though her amendment technically funded different programs. This month, McSally voted for several versions of a GOP tax bill, which, among many cuts, removed $1.7 billion in funding from Meals on Wheels and other social programs. That’s like giving clients a packet of crackers and then taking away their steak.

What’s more, advocates for older Americans are wary of using the modest political power they have. AARP, though formidable, is notoriously reluctant to throw its weight behind all but what it deems the most important fights, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Its membership also skews more affluent than those who receive Meals on Wheels. MOWA doesn’t have the money or activated constituency to command much clout on its own. “Many people who in fact most use and need social benefits are simply not voting at all,” observed Alec MacGillis, writing in 2015 about the decline of the safety net. MOWA officials are more likely to get a meeting with a first-year legislative aide instead of a senator. Plus, the organization is determined to maintain its nonpartisan appeal, making it less inclined to weaponize its reputation against the politicians who pay only lip service. (MOWA also has an interest in not alienating its clients or the volunteers on whom it relies.)

Compounding the problem, the data on Meals on Wheels haven’t been robust until recently. A literature review in 2015 found that most studies related to home-delivered meal programs were small, unrigorously designed, and measured “self-reported dietary intake,” an unreliable metric. (Try measuring what you eat for a week.) Though senior nutrition advocates swore by the program, the lack of data made it harder to argue for more funding and may be the reason the OAA’s nutrition program has floundered. For many poverty programs, robust data are necessary for survival but not sufficient. Meals on Wheels programs are stuck in an appropriations purgatory where many don’t receive enough money to stay at capacity, much less expand, but they’re too adored to be cut much without political reprisal.

Better data has emerged in the past five years—and its delivered a compelling case for the programs. In 2013, Kali Thomas, a public health researcher at Brown University, published a paper that found “if all states had increased by 1 percent the number of adults age 65 or older who received home-delivered meals in 209 under title III of the OAA, total annual savings to states’ Medicaid programs could have exceeded $109 million.” Most of the savings would come from keeping seniors in their homes and out of nursing homes, which are more expensive. Ninety-two percent of Meals on Wheels recipients say the service lets them live at home. The Medicaid savings were uneven—some states saved millions while other lost out—but Meals on Wheels likely saves billions in Medicare spending too. In 2016, Thomas found that receiving home-delivered meals was correlated with a 30 percent decrease in falls for seniors who’ve fallen before. Falls—in which seniors can break a hip, or worse—cost Medicare $31 billion in 2015 alone. What’s more, collaboration between MOWA and Brown University found that rates of hospitalization and emergency-room use decreased for patients getting Meals on Wheels compared to those who weren’t. For context, one night in the emergency room costs the same as a year of home-delivered meals. This evidence is in line with macroscopic public health findings that countries that spend more on social services than health services tend to have longer life expectancies and decreased rates of premature mortality.

Meals on Wheels could help address the greatest health care and demographic challenge Americans face this century—that is, if it were treated as more than a pet program or hollow political prop. Until then, millions of seniors will starve in the richest country in history.

As we left Mark’s trailer, I asked Cotten what happens when Meals on Wheels can’t afford to bring a client food anymore. “We do everything we can to avoid that,” she said. “We don’t want to play God.” Many branches have stopped adding to their waitlists—some hundreds long—because they don’t want to offer false hope. Today, Meals on Wheels has become something all too familiar to the program—a 70-year-old everyone claims to love but few actually care for.

Astrophysical Delight

Astrophysical Delight

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

2017 may have been an insane, demoralizing year, but at least we still had the marvels above us. Throughout the year, the wonders—and wanderers—of space continued to offer excitement that nearly everyone could rally behind. Even if your interest in the night sky was only cursory, there was no denying how fun it was to watch SpaceX land a rocket on a drone ship in the middle of the ocean, to learn from NASA what planets it had discovered, and to join with millions to take in the eclipse.

And beyond the news, space looked like it always does: amazing. This year, we had some of our most jaw-dropping opportunities ever to take it in. Here are some of the biggest space sights and stories of 2017, as seen through the images that captured them.

Boeing and SpaceX Reveal Their Spiffy New Spacesuits

Aerospace companies don’t normally get to flex their sartorial muscles, so Boeing took full advantage of the new year in January by debuting its new spacesuit. SpaceX followed suit in September with its own spacesuit design. NASA astronauts will actually wear these into space when the two companies begin formal launches of their crewed space vehicles to take Americans to the International Space Station and back.

Scientists Discover a New Star System of Seven Potentially Habitable Planets

Finding even one new world humans may be able to travel to and colonize is a thrilling discovery. Back in February, NASA scientists announced they had found a star system of seven potentially habitable worlds, orbiting a dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1, sitting 40 light-years away. No, it’s almost certainly not home to aliens—and if it is, we won’t know for a while. But it’s going to be an important focus for astronomers for a very long time.

Maybe We Could Live on This Super-Earth One Day?

Ideally, we’ll want to live on planets where we won’t feel like our legs and arms are taped to anvils, but interstellar beggars looking for a new home can’t be choosy. In April, scientists announced the discovery of LHS 1140 b, a potentially habitable “super-Earth” exoplanet that is somewhere between 4.8 and 8.5 times the Earth’s mass, about 41 light-years away. It’s doubtful most people will be able to tolerate the gravitational effects of such a world, but hey, livable is livable, right?

Jupiter’s Red Spot Gets an Up-Close and Personal Shot

Since the summer of 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has orbited Jupiter and collected a trove of incredible images that make the gas giant look like a finely woven tapestry of astrophysical delight. This year saw an even better collection of images, including unprecedented close-ups of the Giant Red Spot.

The Total Solar Eclipse

Unless you were living in a cave this year (reasonable choice!), you remember this well. On Aug. 21, the moon made the sun disappear and then made it reappear a few minutes later. Consolation for the unlucky: The U.S. will experience another one like it in 2024, so if you didn’t get enough eclipse this year, you only have to wait six years.

Peggy Whitson Breaks an Astronaut Record and Returns Home

This year, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson officially broke the record for total days spent in space. After accruing 665 days in space, including 289 days on her latest mission to the International Space Station, Whitson finally returned home on Sept. 3.

Cassini’s Last Hurrah

On Sept. 15, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft finally closed its 20-year mission to study Saturn and its system when it trudged headfirst into the planet’s atmosphere and was destroyed. It was the end of an era that produced some of the most stunning pictures of Saturn the world has ever seen.

Greetings to the First Interstellar Visitor to the Solar System

In October, astronomers stumbled on a strange, never-before-seen cigar-shaped rock. Turns out it was an asteroid that had sauntered into our solar system from elsewhere. ‘Oumuamua, the first-known interstellar visitor to the solar system, is already on its way out, but not before scientists got a chance to see whether it was actually the handiwork of intelligent aliens trying to tell us something (spoiler alert: it’s not aliens).

Scientists Observe Gravitational Waves From a Collision of Neutron Stars

Just when you thought gravitational waves were passé, here comes a new reason to get hyped up once again. On Oct. 16, American and European physicists announced they had once again detected gravitational waves from an astrophysical event—this time not from two black holes merging into one but from two neutron stars colliding with one another, shining new light on these mysteriously small, ultra-dense balls of light and energy.

And 11 Light-Years Away Is an Earth-Size Exoplanet That’s Our Best Chance at Finding Aliens

What makes the newly discovered Ross 128 b such a promising hope for finding extraterrestrial life? The star it’s orbiting is an inactive red dwarf. Quiet stars don’t fling toxic bouts of radiation every which way, which means the chances of Ross 128 b being a more temperate world amenable to life are much higher. And in 79,000 years, future generations might have a chance to visit it themselves when the planet makes its way toward our neck of the woods!

SpaceX Ends the Year With Its Weirdest Launch Yet

SpaceX had a perfect launch record this year. The company pulled off a whopping 18 of them and ended the year with one that managed to freak out all of Southern California. The evening mission occurred during twilight. The sun was still shining off a condensing cloud, creating a glowing effect in the night sky. Many mistook the scene for a UFO. Thanks, Elon!

What the Gardasil Testing May Have Missed

What the Gardasil Testing May Have Missed

by Frederik Joelving @ Slate Articles

Read a companion piece from Slate’s science editor on this investigation.

On a sunny autumn day three years ago, when Kesia Lyng was 30, she had a visit from her youngest sister, Eva. The two were close, and as they sat at the kitchen table in Lyng’s apartment, Eva confronted her chronically ill sibling with a painful fact: “You almost can’t take care of your own kids,” she told her. “You can’t keep pushing yourself so hard.”

Lyng, who was living with her husband and their two children in a lusterless part of Copenhagen, Denmark, had been struggling for years with inexplicable health problems: joint and muscle pains that came and left, powerful headaches, and a crushing exhaustion that even copious amounts of sleep could not cure. She was working part-time in the kitchen of her daughter’s kindergarten, the latest in a string of odd jobs. But her sick days had begun to multiply again. Often she would call her husband at work, sobbing from weariness, and ask to be picked up. At home, she was drained, with no energy to clean or cook or tuck the kids in bed. In her medical records, which she shared with me, her doctor noted that she was “having a very difficult time” and that she worried about losing her job if she asked for a sick leave.

On bad days, Lyng’s symptoms were incapacitating. “Your body is so tired you almost can’t move. Everything hurts. It hurts just to stretch, it hurts to get up. Your feet feel like big blocks. There’s this burning sensation in your body and the feeling that your muscles are about to cramp. Even small things, like having to go and buy milk, can be completely overwhelming,” she told me recently. “I’ve been incredibly frustrated at my body, because it’s so limiting.”

The trouble began in late 2002, just before Lyng turned 19. At first it felt like the flu, but there was no improvement. In the mornings, her body was stiff and achy and she found it increasingly hard to rise. When she was able to get up and go to school, she often fell asleep during class. If she ventured more than a few minutes away from home, she would nap on park benches or in cafes to summon the energy to get back. Eventually, she dropped out of school.

The abrupt transformation baffled people around the teenager. They saw a gregarious tomboy turn into someone who kept breaking dates, spent much of her time in bed, and used painkillers nonstop. “We thought it was a depression,” her friend Nanna Voltolina recalled. “She couldn’t do the same things as the rest of us. It was difficult for me to understand.”

Just before Lyng got sick, she had signed up to participate in a clinical trial of a then-experimental vaccine: Merck’s Gardasil was supposed to prevent infection from human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. The virus causes no harm in the vast majority of people. But some HPV types can lead to genital warts, and others have been found to play a role in nearly all cases of cervical cancer, a malignancy that will affect 6 in 1,000 U.S. women at some point during their life. Lyng’s grandmother had died of cervical cancer the year before, so when a letter arrived offering her $500 to take part in a crucial international test of Gardasil, the decision was easy. She got her first shot of the vaccine at Hvidovre Hospital in Copenhagen on Sept. 19, 2002.

The symptoms snuck up on her shortly after her second shot on Nov. 14. They never abated. It wasn’t until 2016 that she received her diagnosis—chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The little-understood condition was once dismissed by many as a psychological problem, but is now recognized as a serious long-term illness that may have its roots in abnormal immune responses. There is no established treatment.

In recent years, Lyng has become suspicious that there is a connection between her disease and her Gardasil immunization. Her ailments evoke descriptions found in hundreds of news stories from women who also received the vaccine, as well as several medical case reports from around the world. As these stories began to make headlines, HPV-vaccination rates in Denmark and elsewhere have tumbled and controversy has erupted. Many pointed out, rightly, that the accounts amounted to no more than anecdotal evidence, and that none of them cited data proving that the vaccine had actually caused any harm. The women might have gotten sick anyway, as Lyng might have; indeed, one recent epidemiological study found no increased risk of CFS in Norwegian girls following Gardasil vaccination.

It’s also true that more than 80 million girls and women have been vaccinated against HPV, and the vast majority have suffered no more than temporary discomfort at the injection site. In an emailed statement, Merck said it was “confident” in Gardasil’s safety profile, which “was established in clinical trials involving more than 25,000 females and males” and examined further in several surveillance studies. It also pointed out that regulators had found no scientific support for some of the most heavily publicized concerns, which focused on a couple of serious neurological disorders seen in vaccinated girls. Twice, the firm emphasized to me that according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the benefits of HPV vaccines “continue to outweigh their risks.” Health authorities across the globe share this view. Repeatedly, they have issued reassurances about the thorough randomized trials the vaccines were subjected to before approval. Such studies have long been researchers’ best yardstick to judge if something is a real risk or just a fluke. As the NIH’s National Cancer Institute notes on its website, all three HPV vaccines on the market today “have been tested in tens of thousands of people in the United States and many other countries. Thus far, no serious side effects have been shown to be caused by the vaccines.”

An eight-month investigation by Slate found the major Gardasil trials were flawed from the outset, however, and that regulators allowed unreliable methods to be used to test the vaccine’s safety. While these flaws do not mean Gardasil caused the rare crippling illnesses reported by the media, they are troubling. Public health officials use trials like these both to determine safety and, as evidenced by Merck’s statement above, to reassure the public when concerns like the ones about Gardasil arise. A flawed study design can complicate both tasks.

What is special about Lyng’s case is that she got sick during a clinical test—indeed, the largest-ever randomized placebo-controlled trial of Gardasil—years before the vaccine was approved (which it was, in 2006, in both Europe and the U.S.). Drug regulators tend to look much more seriously at potential side effects that surface during a pre-licensure study, which is what Lyng participated in, rather than after a product has already been found to be safe and been put on the market. But regulators never learned of Lyng’s plight. In fact, her repeated complaints of debilitating symptoms were not even registered in the study as potential side effects (“adverse events,” in medical parlance).

Lyng’s experience was not unique. Interviews with five study participants and more than 2,300 pages of documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests from hospitals and health authorities suggest inadequacies built into Merck’s major clinical tests of Gardasil. To track the safety of its product, the drugmaker used a convoluted method that made objective evaluation and reporting of potential side effects impossible during all but a few weeks of its yearslong trials. At all other times, individual trial investigators used their personal judgment to decide whether or not to report any medical problem as an adverse event—essentially, as a potential side effect worth evaluating further. Other health issues went on a worksheet for “new medical history,” reserved for conditions that bore no relation to the vaccine. This study design put the cart before the horse, asking investigators to decide which symptoms might be side effects, rather than tracking everything in the same way. While the company now says otherwise, there is no indication in the confidential study protocol that it submitted to regulators for approval that it would use new medical history as a safety metric. And it hardly would have qualified as such: The worksheet allotted just one line per entry, with no measurement of symptom severity, duration, outcome, or overall seriousness. Even if the company then used the data in subsequent safety assessments, the lack of detail would have hampered meaningful analysis.

European health regulators worried about Merck’s methods during a review of the company’s marketing application for Gardasil 9, the latest version of the vaccine, but have not made their concerns public. In an internal 2014 EMA report about Gardasil 9 obtained through a freedom-of-information request, senior experts called the company’s approach “unconventional and suboptimal” and said it left some “uncertainty” about the safety results. EMA trial inspectors made similar observations in another report, noting that Merck’s procedure was “not an optimal method of collecting safety data, especially not systemic side effects that could appear long after the vaccinations were given.”

“If I were a research subject, I would feel betrayed,” Trudo Lemmens, a bioethicist and professor of health law and policy at the University of Toronto, told me. “If the purpose of a clinical trial is to establish the safety and efficacy of a new product, whether it’s a vaccine or something else, I would expect that they gathered all relevant data, including whether it had side effects or not.”

Merck, which is known as Merck Sharp & Dohme outside the U.S. and Canada, did not address the EMA’s safety concerns. But it said its clinical trials follow “laws, regulations and guidelines” wherever they take place, and proceed only after approval by regulators and ethics committees. The company also stressed that “collection of New Medical History occurred at each study visit and was mandatory for all study subjects. New Medical History includes the collection of non-serious adverse events.”

When I asked the EMA to expand on its confidential observations, I was told by email that the concerned inspectors had, after all, considered the trial data to be usable. The company had successfully mollified the agency during preapproval discussions. “The clarification from the applicant that collection of new medical history data was mandatory for all subjects, and did not appear to be passively collected, but for at each study visit [sic], was found to be reassuring,” the EMA informed me. “Therefore, it appeared that the safety surveillance in the studies captured all medically relevant events.” The agency did not comment on the limitations of relying on “new medical history” instead of straightforward reporting of adverse events.

Underreporting of adverse events, to the extent that it occurred here, is nothing new to medicine. Trial investigators often miss participants’ symptoms, researchers say, and the data they do collect may not always see the light of day. A review out in 2016 found “strong evidence that much of the information on adverse events remains unpublished and that the number and range of adverse events is higher in unpublished than in published versions of the same study.” In 2009, Dr. John Ioannidis of Stanford University put the problem succinctly in an Archives of Internal Medicine editorial titled “Adverse Events in Randomized Trials: Neglected, Restricted, Distorted, and Silenced.”

Much less clear is how adverse events are handled during the actual conduct of clinical trials, and what the impact is. Are symptoms recorded as separate entities when they are really part of a larger constellation of health problems? Do they appear as innocuous one-time occurrences when in fact they are, or may become, chronic? And how many safety problems are simply missed because of short follow-up?

* * *

Lyng’s was no isolated case: At least five other Danish women say they developed chronic health problems during the trial. Future 2, as it is known, enrolled more than 12,000 young women from 13 countries, including the U.S. It was the larger of the two major randomized, placebo-controlled Gardasil trials—technically known as pivotal trials—that Merck conducted to support its marketing application for the vaccine. (The other study, less than half the size, was called Future 1.) Together, the two trials account for a large portion of the data that drug regulators in both the U.S. and Europe used to judge Gardasil’s safety before it was approved.

At Aalborg University Hospital, one of the Future 2 trial sites in Denmark, Miam Donslund began to experience persistent flu-like symptoms as well as two infections, one of which required hospitalization, shortly after immunization. These incidents were recorded, but again only as new medical history, meaning they were not processed as adverse events.

Donslund, now 38, told me she became so tired during the trial that at one point she was accused of being a drug addict. The year after she was vaccinated, she developed severe pains that forced her to use a wheelchair for a while; today she regularly uses crutches. Doctors have told her she might have psoriatic arthritis, but she never received a definite diagnosis. More than a dozen years later, “I work two days a week and the rest of the time I’m at home in bed and I can’t do the most basic things,” she said.

Stine Sørensen, 34, got her first shot of Gardasil a few months after Lyng, also at Hvidovre Hospital. Around this time, she began to experience general discomfort, headaches, and a profound fatigue that often made her miss school. “My mom and dad asked me, ‘Stine, are you on drugs?’ And I clearly remember that I got so angry,” she told me. Sørensen, who is currently employed under a special agreement for people with chronic illness, says she told study personnel about her problems during the trial; her records mention none of them. (All three women received the vaccine in the trial.)

The trial investigator who dealt with both Lyng and Sørensen, Dr. Anette Kjærbye-Thygesen, an OB-GYN at Hvidovre, declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, a hospital press officer told me, “Regarding registration of various symptoms and health data, the doctor states that she has followed the trial protocol.” The hospital also declined to address my questions.

Imagining a link between HPV vaccination and CFS is not all that far-fetched, according to Dr. Jose Montoya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a CFS expert. The condition usually starts with an insult to the immune system—a severe infection, a car crash, a pregnancy. The first symptoms are flu-like, but months go by and the patient realizes she isn’t getting better. In a few genetically predisposed individuals, Montoya told me, it is “biologically plausible” that the vaccine, which mimics a natural infection, could also trigger an immune response powerful enough to lead to CFS. To find out if that is the case, trial investigators would need to carefully track participants’ symptoms “for at least one year,” he said.

Montoya was also quick to tell me that he is “pro-vaccine,” and he doesn’t think people should stop getting them. His eagerness to make that point underscores a larger issue with unpacking the shortcomings of Merck’s research: Acknowledging any uncertainty around the safety of vaccination can be a difficult exercise for health authorities, not least because of the debunked autism scare that continues to stoke anti-vax sentiments among parents. In today’s polarized conversation, either you believe vaccines are categorically safe, or you think they are so dangerous that you avoid them at significant personal risk.

But this is a false dichotomy that belies the complexity of medicine. Safety is not an absolute. Like drugs, vaccines are a varied lot, each with its own set of risks and benefits that relate to its particular use in particular individuals. And unfortunately, our knowledge about side effects is often woefully incomplete. To Lemmens, the University of Toronto bioethicist, the reluctance to have a frank discussion about the safety of Gardasil is counterproductive. “We do a disservice to science, and we play into the hand of the anti-vaxxers, if we’re not publicly discussing potential problems,” he told me.

* * *

Before I sent them to her, Lyng had never seen her trial records, which are owned by Merck. As we looked through them together, on a balmy day in August, she grew visibly upset. “What’s the use of testing a vaccine if you don’t register everything properly?” said Lyng, a pale and reedy woman with light-blue eyes. “It had enormous consequences for my life.”

We were sitting outside the house that she and her husband had recently bought on the outskirts of a small town near Copenhagen. There are fields at the end of their street, and a school just opposite their house that the children now attend. Lyng had been fired from her job as a kitchen helper in late 2014, but her sickness benefits and her husband’s salary kept the family afloat. The extra time to herself and her CFS diagnosis also gave her some peace of mind. Over the years, she had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, depression, even “soft” bipolar.
None of these diagnoses fully explained her problems, she felt. Why would she get sudden fevers and rashes that would disappear again just as suddenly? Why would her body hurt on some days and not others? Why would she need to rest for two weeks if she had volunteered to plan the menu for her church’s New Year’s Eve party? The diagnosis gave her at least one answer.

In Lyng’s records from Future 2, we discovered, there was no mention of fatigue, one of her most debilitating symptoms. Meanwhile, her family doctor began documenting the problem on March 20, 2003, nine days after she got her third and final shot of Gardasil. In 2004, after several lab tests and specialist consultations had come up empty, he noted that Lyng continued to have “periods of headache, fatigue, pain in large and small joints, poor concentration and sleep problems. Her mood is fluctuating. There has been no suspicion of depression.”

Lyng told me she brought up her symptoms with study personnel at every visit during the four-year trial. (Trial subjects met with investigators regularly over four years, but the later visits were meant to monitor the vaccine’s efficacy—in this case, whether it prevented HPV-linked cell changes.) She even told them her illness had forced her to quit school. But no one seemed to take her seriously: “They keep saying, ‘This is not the kind of side effects we see with this vaccine.’ ”

Kjærbye-Thygesen, the trial investigator who saw Lyng, and a staffer with the initials “BW,” presumably a nurse, did report the headache and the joint pain, and also gastroenteritis and influenza, but not as adverse events. Instead, they used the worksheet for medical history, which directed investigators to list “Any new background or concomitant conditions, drug allergies and surgeries/procedures.” A note in the records, initialed by Kjærbye-Thygesen, said the vaccine was “hardly” to blame for Lyng’s joint pains, offering no further explanation.

Despite the oxymoronic instruction to list new conditions as history, this was no mistake. Merck’s study protocol shows that for participants outside the U.S. and the U.K., who made up the majority of the trial, only adverse events that investigators considered serious were to be reported. Other health complaints would be registered in much less detail as new medical history. (In the U.S. and the U.K., both serious and nonserious events were reportable.)

In all the trial locations, Merck also chose to restrict the reporting of adverse events—what the study protocol calls the “clinical follow-up for safety”—to just 14 days following each of the three Gardasil injections in the trial. Illness occurring outside these narrow time slots again was relegated to a single line on the medical-history worksheet, whereas for each adverse event, several assessments would need to be carried out and reported. There was an exception: Deaths or serious adverse events brought to the investigator’s attention and felt to be related to the vaccine or a study procedure were to be reported at any time. This design put individual investigators in charge of deciding, for most of the trial’s duration, what would be assessed and reported as a potential side effect.

(Future 1 did report nonserious adverse events for all, but it relied on the same short follow-up as Future 2 and also labeled many adverse events as new medical history.)

Experts I talked to were baffled by the way Merck handled safety data in its trials. According to Dr. Yoon Loke, a professor at the University of East Anglia who studies side effects, letting investigators judge whether adverse events should be reported is “not a very safe method of doing things, because it allows bias to creep in.” In essence, this feature meant that if you started out thinking the vaccine was safe, you would be less likely to find potential side effects. Of the short follow-up, Loke told me, “It’s not going to pick up serious long-term issues, which is a pity. Presumably, the regulators believe that the vaccine is so safe that they don’t need to worry beyond 14 days.”

A drug-safety adviser at a multinational pharmaceutical company told me, “Everything from the first injection to the last plus a follow-up period is what we call treatment-emergent adverse events.” She puzzled over the brief, interrupted follow-up periods in the Gardasil trials, as well as Merck’s choice not to report nonserious adverse events for all participants and its dismissal of many events as medical history. “This is completely bonkers,” she said, requesting not to be named for fear of compromising her position in the industry. “They’ve set up a protocol that seems very poorly thought through from a medical and safety perspective.”

According to the EMA’s emailed statement, “The scope of adverse experience collection in the clinical program for Gardasil reflected the standard across vaccine programs of this company.” It added, “The standard follow-up for a non-replicating vaccine [such as Gardasil] has been 14 days (Days 1 to 15) following each vaccination.”

There are no rules dictating the exact duration of adverse-event reporting in vaccine trials. For some studies, it can be measured in days; for others, it runs from start to finish, with all events recorded the same way regardless of their possible link to the vaccine. Indeed, reviews from 2005 and 2013 found striking variation in how vaccine researchers collected, analyzed, and presented safety data. The field has since seen efforts toward standardization, and health authorities are increasingly recognizing that some side effects may occur late. In guidelines published this year, the World Health Organization noted that while most vaccine side effects occur within two weeks, there may be “reasons to suspect that illnesses with onset many months after the last dose could be related to prior vaccination.”

Lyng and I also read the definition of “serious adverse experience” on the worksheets that investigators had to fill out at each visit following a vaccination. It included events resulting in “persistent or significant disability/incapacity,” meaning a “substantial disruption of a person’s ability to conduct normal life functions.” On all the forms, the only checked box was the one that said “None.” Was this an error? Arguably not, because Lyng’s symptoms, as recorded by the study personnel, began three to four weeks after her second shot—outside the protocol’s mandatory follow-up for safety.

A press officer from the Danish Medicines Agency, which approved Future 2 in 2002, pointed out that Merck’s study protocol contained no mention of “new medical history” or “new medical conditions.” In an email, she wrote, “We are also not aware of whether this category has been used in other clinical trials with drugs, as these are not terms that are used according to guidelines.”

She added that there had been no concerns at her agency over the safety testing in Future 2. “The safety measurements complied with applicable guidelines for vaccines,” she told me, adding that the 14-day follow-up “is in accordance with EMA’s scientific guidelines for vaccines.”

* * *

It was a description of a 15-year-old Colombian girl with neurological problems that first caught the attention of Dr. Rebecca Chandler, an American expat working at Läkemedelsverket, the Swedish Medical Products Agency.

Sweden is an EMA rapporteur for Gardasil and Gardasil 9, meaning that it was tasked with evaluating the marketing applications for the two vaccines on behalf of the European Union. As a clinical safety assessor at Läkemedelsverket, Chandler had been looking into post-marketing reports from Denmark and Japan about two serious, little-known neurological disorders in girls and young women vaccinated with Gardasil. In both countries, these cases had ignited vitriolic national debates that sent vaccination rates plummeting. When the application for Gardasil 9 arrived, Chandler decided to scrutinize the trial data to see if she found any references to the two conditions, known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). The syndromes overlap to some extent, and also share a number of features with CFS.

At first, she found nothing—no instance of either disease was listed in the company’s application. But the Colombian teenager’s symptoms, as described in the clinical trial data, made her suspect POTS, and she asked the drugmaker to comb through its database for similar cases. Three girls vaccinated with Gardasil 9 had been diagnosed with POTS, it turned out, and one with CRPS. There were also several cases of neurological disorders “of interest,” Chandler wrote in her 2014 assessment. But none of them had been reported by the company as adverse events; rather, they were all labeled as new medical history in accordance with Merck’s study protocols.

Chandler, who now works at the Uppsala Monitoring Centre, a leading drug-safety research institution in Sweden, told me she “argued quite much” about her findings at the agency, “because I was very concerned that the study design was not appropriate to pick up these things.” Her regulatory colleagues apparently shared her apprehension, laying out their misgivings in a series of confidential EMA reports leading up to the approval of Gardasil 9. (I obtained these reports from Läkemedelsverket through several freedom-of-information requests.) One confidential EMA report from 2014 called Merck’s approach to safety “an unconventional and suboptimal study procedure”; another observed that the design “brings some degree of uncertainty into the overall safety assessment.”

Chandler found Merck’s data bolstered concerns about an association between the vaccine and POTS, but she was overridden by her agency colleagues. Later, a contested EMA review from 2015 and a U.S. study based on post-marketing data also found no support for a link.

Officials inspecting a Gardasil 9 trial for the EMA also felt compelled to spotlight how Merck dealt with safety, despite considering it “a systemic issue related to study design and as such not an inspection finding.” The unorthodox design “complicated” the reporting of adverse events, the inspectors wrote, in part because the information on “new medical events” was “limited, as only symptoms were collected and no further medical assessments were made and no outcome was recorded.”

In their final report recommending conditional approval of Gardasil 9, the EMA rapporteurs asked the drugmaker to “discuss the impact of [its] unconventional and potentially suboptimal method of reporting adverse events and provide reassurance on the overall completeness and accuracy of safety data provided in the application.” Läkemedelsverket refused to share the company’s response. In the EMA’s public assessment of Gardasil 9, all mention of the safety concerns has been scrubbed.

In response to my questions, the EMA pointed out that its experts, in a public assessment of the original Gardasil vaccine from 2006, found Merck’s way of evaluating safety “established and appropriate.” But the agency failed to explain how that opinion squares with its unpublicized reservations about the Gardasil 9 research, which handled safety essentially the same way.

Dr. Susanne Krüger Kjær, a professor of gynecological cancer epidemiology at the University of Copenhagen who oversaw the Danish part of Future 2, declined to address the safety concerns. “I can’t answer any of those questions because I didn’t design the trial,” she told me. She is one of the authors on the main scientific publication from the trial, which appeared in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine and contains no mention of new medical history.

In its statement, Merck said that using the “new medical history” category “allowed broad collection of potential safety events including new conditions, symptoms, and laboratory or imaging tests thereby allowing comprehensive safety assessment.” It cited a study from 2010 that analyzed new medical history and found “comparable” rates in trial participants given vaccine and placebo, respectively.

* * *

On a rainy day in September, I flew with Lyng to Berlin to visit Gerd Wallukat, a scientist at the biotech startup Berlin Cures. Wallukat, a heavyset man in his mid-70s, has pioneered research into a special class of autoantibodies—proteins made by the immune system that attack the body’s own cells instead of foreign invaders like viruses or bacteria. Researchers have been finding these “agonistic autoantibodies” in people with different diseases, including CFS, POTS, and CRPS, but their role is not fully understood. Berlin Cures is in the middle of early-stage trials to see if neutralizing them could have a therapeutic effect.

One of Lyng’s doctors in Denmark had been working with Wallukat to look for autoantibodies in girls and women who fell ill following Gardasil vaccination. Their preliminary, unpublished findings suggested that nearly all of these women harbor one or more agonistic autoantibodies, and Wallukat had offered to test Lyng, too. On the plane, she was nervous and chatty. She didn’t want to be sick, she explained, but it was taxing having to convince people around her—her caseworker, her family, even her husband—that she was physically sick while one test after another came up empty. She dreaded the thought of receiving yet another negative result.

She didn’t. “You have beta-2, nociceptin, muscarinic,” Wallukat told her, referring to three types of autoantibodies, “the classical pattern I’ve seen in patients after vaccination.” From a coffee shop, Lyng called her husband. “I’m completely overwhelmed. It’s the first time I’ve had a positive result,” she told him. “This means it’s not just in my head—all those doctors who’ve asked if it could be psychological.”

But Lyng’s positive test triggers more questions than it answers: What induced those autoantibodies, and how? Did they cause her symptoms, as her doctor speculated? And would neutralizing them bring about improvement, as Berlin Cures wagered? The test brought another piece to the puzzle that is Lyng’s case; but as so often happens in science, it did not bring certainty, and it proved nothing in the way of causality. Should it turn out that Gardasil does have serious side effects, it’s apparent that they must be rare. What’s more, the vaccine might still be worth that hypothetical risk—cervical cancer, though uncommon, is a terrible disease.

If there’s one clear lesson from Lyng’s experience, it’s that science is a work in progress. To borrow the words of the American psychologist Brian Nosek, “Science isn’t about truth and falsity, it’s about reducing uncertainty.” Not owning up to that uncertainty, when it is legitimate, likely will only slow scientific progress. In the controversial realm of vaccines, it will also create fodder for conspiracy theorists spreading overblown or unfounded fears among an already distrustful public.

One way to respond to public concerns is to acknowledge the limits of our current body of research and to welcome discussion about what we know and don’t know, according to Lemmens, the bioethicist.
“Transparency and open debate around side effects are essential to safeguard trust in the provision of medication and public-health planning,” he told me. Instead, as confidence in Gardasil nosedived in Denmark, regulators doubled down on the simplistic message that the vaccine has been thoroughly tested and is unquestionably safe.

At a press conference in May, Dr. Søren Brostrøm, the director general of the Danish Health Authority and an OB-GYN, told journalists that “for us, as authorities, there is no doubt about this vaccine’s efficacy and safety.” This seems to contradict the EMA’s own deliberations about the way Merck reported safety data in its trials. As Dr. Christian Gluud, who heads the Copenhagen Trial Unit, a research center at Copenhagen University Hospital, told me recently, “If we had tested our vaccines properly, we wouldn’t be having the discussion we’re having now.”

We Just Discovered Another New Planet That Could Host Life

We Just Discovered Another New Planet That Could Host Life

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

On Wednesday, a team of European scientists announced the discovery of an Earth-size exoplanet orbiting a star just 11 light-years away. In reporting their findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the scientists added yet another option to the blossoming list of “planets outside the solar system that could be potentially habitable to life,” with this latest world being touted as one of the best chances—possibly the best chance—for finding extraterrestrial life yet.

Why is it so promising? In part because the new planet, called Ross 128 b, orbits what seems to be an inactive red dwarf star. These specific circumstances give it better odds for sustaining a more stable environment amenable to life.

The hype surrounding Ross 128 b may also be due to its similarity to another exoplanet, Proxima b, which orbits red dwarf Proxima Centauri a mere 4 light-years away. Proxima b’s discovery made an incredibly loud splash in the world of astronomy and astrobiology. Not only was it the closest exoplanet ever found, but it was sitting in the habitable zone of its host star—the region around a star where scientists believe the conditions are opportune for a rocky planet to sustain liquid water on its surface. And of course, where there’s water, there’s the potential for life.

The problem, unfortunately, was that the relationship between Proxima Centauri and Proxima b wasn’t the most serene. As astronomers paid more attention, they began realizing that Proxima Centauri, like many red dwarfs, was probably incredibly active in its youth, spewing intense amounts of stellar radiation that would have almost certainly bludgeoned the small planet. Proxima b hugs its star tightly, and that close orbit means that radiation might have been enough to strip it of any atmosphere it may have developed. That’s obviously bad news for the survivability of life.

Meanwhile, Ross 128, the host star of Ross 128 b, is an exceptionally quiet star. Even though the planet is 20 times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun (the orbit is just 9.9 days), chances are much better Ross 128 b is temperate, particularly when compared with Proxima b. The research team estimates that Ross 128 b receives just 38 percent more radiation than Earth does and should have equilibrium temperatures between minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit and 69 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a big range, sure, but on either extreme it’s still within the realm in which life can exist.

Moreover, although the star system is 11 light-years away right now, it’s actually moving toward our solar system. In just 79,000 years, Ross 128 b will be closer to us than Proxima b. (We’ll all obviously personally be dead by then, but maybe life will still exist on Earth?)

Still, while Ross 128 b is a fascinating discovery, it’s way too early to say anything definitive about its potential. The new findings have plenty of shortcomings of their own. For one, the European Southern Observatory team has no idea yet whether the new exoplanet sits in Ross 128’s habitable zone. As with every other exoplanet we like to call “potentially habitable,” there’s no indication whether the planet has water on its surface. There isn’t even any sign as to whether the planet possesses other elements essential to life as we know it, like atmospheric oxygen. So unfortunately, it would be a stretch to label Ross 128 b as “potentially habitable.”

Also, the discovery was made using the ESO’s planet-hunting High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher instrument in Chile, but it hasn’t been observed with any other instrument yet. No observation in science is worth taking seriously if it can’t be verified or replicated.

Some of these questions could be resolved relatively soon. The ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope could find out whether Ross 128 b possesses oxygen or other chemical markers that could be signs of habitability or extant life. But others, such as the presence of water, are going to require more advanced instruments that we have yet to develop. Maybe we’ll have them by the time the planet gets closer.

A Begrudging Defense of Dog Clothes

A Begrudging Defense of Dog Clothes

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

Walking through New York City in December is an unparalleled sensory experience—holiday lights, patches of yellow snow, pop-up Christmas tree stands. This week, walking uptown, I eyed a broad-chested pit bull; he was wearing a scarf. Muscles rippling, he confidently navigated the patches of ice before him, evidently unaware of the ridiculous fringed, gray garment his owner had wrapped around his neck. On that same block, I’ve seen dogs decked out in glossy down jackets, yellow fisherman’s rain jackets with matching booties, and even cowl-neck cardigans.

Clearly, these particular choices were influenced by aesthetics and made possible by disposable income, but many dog owners argue that these clothing items aren’t just fun—they’re paramount to their pets’ health. This is strange to consider, given we’re talking about an animal. Unless they spontaneously grew thumbs, dogs could never make clothing on their own, so how could it be essential? It’s even weirder when you remember dogs are descended from the mighty wolf, which can withstand an enormous range in temperature, thriving in arctic conditions as low as -70 degrees and in the desert, enduring weather as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s hard to imagine, say, the direwolves in Game of Thrones ever trouncing around in medically necessary suits.

Hard to imagine, sure. But to scientifically investigate the answer to this question, let’s remember that somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, humans domesticated the wild wolf, probably by paying them for their loyalty with scraps of food. Over time, wolves became softer creatures—and eventually man’s best friend. But it came at an enormous cost: Those strong, resilient proto-pups evolved, by the power of human selection, into the cute, cuddly, and relatively wimpy things they are today. After millennia of manipulation, that one wolf has been transformed into more than 300 distinct dog breeds. Some, like the dignified Siberian husky or the lovable Samoyed still thrive in cold environments, thanks to their thick, plentiful fur. But others, like Chinese cresteds, are basically naked, having likely been bred from the African hairless dog into the even more fragile and strangely coiffed creatures we know today. Even those dogs that sit (good boy!) in the middle struggle to endue extremes; their short- or medium-length coats are perfectly suited for the more middling climates their owners put them in.

Though dogs are widely varied in their appearance, their body temperature is strikingly similar: The American Kennel Club says dogs range from 101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, keeping a Siberian husky and a Chinese crested in that small sweet spot just of slightly more than 100 degrees is hard. Unless you still live in the Arctic Circle, huskies need little things like extra water and bigger things like air conditioning to get them through the summer. Conversely, Chinese cresteds likely wouldn’t survive a winter in the wild. Most dogs should be safe in temperatures above freezing, at least for the duration of a short walk. But, in temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, things get a little riskier. Huskies may still feel fine, but a small or thinly coated dog could potentially get hypothermia or frostbite, especially if they get wet or spend hours out in the cold. While most dogs are probably OK for a short wintertime walk, the situation is serious enough that experts really do recommend bundling up certain pups before taking them out in that winter wonderland.

Certain breeds clearly could benefit from a well-wrapped scarf or, if you must, a merino wool doggy cardigan. And even though watching the descendant of a woodland wolf walk around with a plastic barrier between his paws and the sidewalk is painful, doggie boots have a purpose too. In cities that salt their roads and sidewalks in the winter, it’s actually important: Road melt chemicals in industrial salts can be toxic to dogs and can also dry out or burn their paws. If you live in a city that uses this kind of salt, it’s possible that your dog will go home to groom, only to ingest the potentially dangerous salts stuck to their body as they clean. It doesn’t guarantee illness, but it’s a risk many dog owners don’t want to take.

I’m still skeptical of many dogs’ fancy cold weather wear, but I have to admit that the evidence supports cautious dog owners in their decision to shield man’s more delicate sidekicks from the ravages of winter. Still, looking at the dogs of New York City, I can’t help but consider what we’ve done to these creatures. Before humans bred them into strange shapes and sizes and stuffed them in tiny outfits, dogs were independent, self-sufficient, and even fearsome creatures. Now, they’re just fashionable furballs.

LOL Something Matters

LOL Something Matters

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles


Ten years ago last fall, Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam published an alarming scoop: The truth was useless.

His story started with a flyer issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to counter lies about the flu vaccine. The flyer listed half a dozen statements labeled either “true” or “false”—“Not everyone can take flu vaccine,” for example, or “The side effects are worse than the flu” —along with a paragraph of facts corresponding to each one. Vedantam warned the flyer’s message might be working in reverse. When social psychologists had asked people to read it in a lab, they found the statements bled together in their minds. Yes, the side effects are worse than the flu, they told the scientists half an hour later. That one was true—I saw it on the flyer.

This wasn’t just a problem with vaccines. According to Vedantam, a bunch of peer-reviewed experiments had revealed a somber truth about the human mind: Our brains are biased to believe in faulty information, and corrections only make that bias worse.

This supposed scientific fact jibed with an idea then in circulation. In those days of phantom Iraqi nukes, anti-vaxxer propaganda, and climate change denialism, reality itself appeared to be in danger. Stephen Colbert’s neologism, truthiness—voted word of the year in 2006—had summed up the growing sense of epistemic crisis. “Truth comes from the gut,” Colbert boasted to his audience. “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

Back then it seemed as though America had slipped the moorings of her reason and was swiftly drifting toward a “post-fact age.” Scholar Cass Sunstein blamed the internet for this disaster: Online communities, he argued, could serve as “echo chambers” for those with shared beliefs. Then came Vedantam’s piece, with real-life data to support the sense that we all were flailing in a quicksand of deception and that the more we struggled to escape it, the deeper we would sink into the muck.

Writing in Slate last year, former professional fact-checker Jess Zimmerman remembered Vedantam’s article as “my first ‘lol nothing matters’ moment,” when she realized her efforts to correct the record might only make things worse. Another nothing-matters moment followed one week later, when Vedantam told WNYC about a different study. A pair of political scientists had given 130 students a mocked-up news report on a speech about the invasion of Iraq that described the country as “a place where terrorists might get weapons of mass destruction.” Half the subjects then read a correction to that news report, noting that the CIA had found no evidence of such weapons in Iraq. For students who were politically conservative, the correction didn’t work the way it should have; instead of making them more suspicious of the idea that Saddam Hussein had been hiding WMDs, it doubled their belief in it.

News about this research made its way to Slate, the Wall Street Journal, This American Life, la Repubblica in Rome, and several hundred other media outlets around the world. Sunstein cited the result—an “especially disturbing finding,” he declared—in his next book on the nature of extremism.

The study of corrected news reports, like the work on vaccine myths, helped provide a scientific framework for our growing panic over facts. Now we had a set of interlocking theories and experiments on which to hang the claim that truth was being vanquished from democracy—that the internet divides us, that facts will make us dumber, and that debunking doesn’t work. These ideas, and the buzzwords that came with them—filter bubbles, selective exposure, and the backfire effect—would be cited, again and again, as seismic forces pushing us to rival islands of belief.

Ten years on, the same scientific notions have now been used to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The coronation of the man who lied a thousand times, a champion of “alternative facts,” had brought us from the age of truthiness to the era of post-truth—2016’s word of the year. In a span of several weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Slate announced that “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts,” Rolling Stone declared “The End of Facts,” the New Yorker told us “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” and the Atlantic ran through “the facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs.” These lamentations continued unabated throughout 2017. Just two weeks ago, Facebook said it would no longer flag phony links with red-box warnings, since pointing to a lie only makes it stronger. The truth, this move implied, does more harm than good.

But there’s a problem with these stories about the end of facts. In the past few years, social scientists armed with better research methods have been revisiting some classic work on the science of post-truth. Based on their results, the most surprising and important revelations from this research—the real lol-nothing-matters stuff—now seem overstated. It may be that the internet does not divide us, that facts don’t make us dumber than we were before, and that debunking doesn’t really lead to further bunk.

In fact, it may be time that we gave up on the truth-y notion that we’re living in a post-truth age. In fact, it may be time that we debunked the whole idea.


We didn’t need some lab experiment to tell us that the truth is often unpersuasive and that it’s hard to change a person’s mind. But that’s not what the end-of-facts researchers were saying. Their work got at something far more worrisome: a fear that facts could blow up in all our faces and that even valid points might reinforce a false belief.

This is not a small distinction. If the truth were merely ineffective, then all our efforts to disperse it—through educational websites, debunking flyers, and back-and-forths on Facebook—would be at worst a waste of time. But what if the truth had a tendency to flip itself around? In that case, those same efforts might be tugging people in the wrong direction, pulling them apart. Even if the tugs were very slight, the effect could multiply in terrifying ways—a million tiny forces from a million tiny arguments that added up to a tidal wave of disagreement.

In 2007, an example of this boomerang phenomenon seemed to be unfolding in real time. Polls showed Americans were more likely to describe then–presidential candidate Barack Obama as a Muslim than a member of any other faith. A related set of smears had oozed across the country via Fwd: Fwd: emails, asserting that Obama joined a Christian church to hide his madrassa past, that he wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, and that he’d been sworn into the Senate on a copy of the Quran.

In the face of all this faulty information, journalists tried redoubling their focus on the facts. Two weeks before Vedantam wrote his Washington Post piece on the dangers of debunking, the Tampa Bay Times’ Bill Adair launched PolitiFact. Two weeks after, the Post’s Glenn Kessler started his weekly “Fact Checker” column, with its Pinocchio rating scheme. Yet the checkers sensed that certain lies about Obama were resistant to their efforts or were maybe even fueled by them. “The number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim has gone up,” a nonplussed Adair told NPR in March 2008. “It was 8 percent back in November. The latest poll, it’s up to 13 percent.”

How could this be happening? Norbert Schwarz, the psychologist whose work on dispelling myths about the flu vaccine had been described in Vedantam’s piece, thought he had the answer. Based on the data he’d collected with his postdoc Ian Skurnik, it seemed to him Obama’s denial of a Muslim past would only make the rumors worse.

Schwarz helped draft a memo to the Obama campaign, sharing this advice. By that point he’d joined a secret panel of advisers to the candidate, a group that included Sunstein as well as several winners of the Nobel Prize. This group—which would later be dubbed an “academic dream team”—had been formed to supply Democratic candidates with cutting-edge research on the psychology of messaging. “In no case should you say that Obama is not a Muslim, since repeating it will only cause a backlash,” Schwarz says he advised the campaign. Instead, Obama should emphasize the fact that he is a Christian and that he brings his family to church.

The dream team never got explicit feedback on this memo, but it did seem to Schwarz that the campaign was heeding his advice. In early 2008, Obama began to focus on pronouncements of his Christian faith and his devoted membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. This would backfire in spectacular fashion: In mid-March, a controversy erupted over unpatriotic sermons from that church’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Schwarz recounts this wistfully, as “an interesting illustration of what can happen when you make the correct recommendation in a world that you have no control over.” In any case, after the election, the boomerang theory of debunking was established as a rule of thumb. In November 2011, a pair of cognitive psychologists in Australia, Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, published an eight-page pamphlet they called “The Debunking Handbook,” on the “difficult and complex challenge” of correcting misinformation. They cited work from Schwarz and Skurnik, among others, in describing several ways in which debunkings can boomerang or backfire. Arriving when it did, in the middle of the post-fact panic, their handbook satisfied a pressing need. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, called it “a treasure trove for defenders of reason.” The liberal website Daily Kos said it was a “must read and a must keep reference.” Its text would be translated into 11 languages, including Indonesian and Icelandic.

“The existence of backfire effects” have “emerged more and more over time,” Lewandowksy told Vox in 2014. “If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. That finding seems to be pretty strong.”


If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. This improbable idea had been bouncing around the academic literature for decades before Schwarz and others started touting it. The first hints of a boomerang effect for truth emerged in the early 1940s, as the nation grappled with a rash of seditious, wartime rumors. Newspaper fact-check columns, known as “rumor clinics,” sprang up in response to the “fake news” of the time—the claim, say, that a female munitions worker’s head exploded when she went to a beauty parlor for a perm. The rumor clinics spelled out these circulating falsehoods, then explained at length why they were “phony,” “sucker bait,” or “food for propageese.” But experts soon determined that these refutations might be dangerous.

By January 1943, mavens at America’s “rumor-scotching bureau,” the Office of War Information, told the New York Times that debunkers could “make a rumor worse by printing it and denying it in the wrong manner.” Shortly thereafter, an Austrian émigré and sociologist named Paul Lazarsfeld published the results from his seminal study of Ohio voters. Lazarsfeld, who was based at Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research, found these voters had been awash in a “flood of propaganda and counterpropaganda” about the candidates running for president in 1940—but that they’d mostly filtered out the facts they didn’t care for. Like-minded voters tended to communicate only among themselves, he said, which in turn produced “a mutual strengthening of common attitudes,” to the point that even rival facts might only “boomerang” and reinforce their original views.

More examples of the boomerang effect would be presented in the years that followed. In 1973, for example, psychologists presented evidence that the social message of the TV sitcom All in the Family had backfired. The show’s creators aimed to skewer and rebut the attitudes of its central character, the bigot Archie Bunker. But when scientists surveyed high school students in a Midwest town, they found that the most prejudiced teenagers in the group were the ones most likely to be watching Archie every week. “The program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism than combating it,” the researchers concluded.

Another famous study, published in 1979, found a boomerang for environmental messages. Researchers in Arizona passed out flyers at a public swimming pool that featured one of three messages: “Don’t Litter,” “Help Keep Your Pool Clean,” or “Obey Pool Safety Rules.” The “Don’t Litter” message seemed to backfire and make the garbage problem worse: Half the people who received that flyer tossed it on the ground, as compared with just one-quarter of the people who’d received the other messages.

In a classic paper, also out in 1979, Stanford psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper got at the related concept of motivated reasoning. For that study, which has since been cited thousands of times, they presented undergraduates with conflicting data on the efficacy of the death penalty. They found that the exact same information would be interpreted in different ways, depending on how the subjects felt before the research started. The net effect of their experiment was to make the students more convinced of their original positions—to polarize their thinking.

Thirty years later, as a fresh array of boomerang or backfire effects made its way to print, psychologists Sahara Byrne and Philip Solomon Hart reviewed the science in the field. Their paper cites more than 100 studies of situations where “a strategic message generates the opposite attitude or behavior than was originally intended.” The evidence they cite looks overwhelming, but as I sorted through the underlying literature, I began to wonder if some of these supposed boomerang effects might be weaker than they seemed.

Take the Archie Bunker paper. When the same psychologists ran their survey on a second group of people up in Canada, they did not find the same result. And going by subsequent research on the TV show, published in the 1970s, it seemed that Archie’s antics on All in the Family may have helped diminish prejudice, not increase it.

The study of the poolside flyers, which Byrne and Hart called “one of the most famous research examples of the boomerang effect,” also seemed a little flimsy. The original paper goes through three versions of the same experiment; where the first one seems to show a real effect, the others look like replication failures, with no clear evidence for backfire.

As I poked around these and other studies, I began to feel a sort of boomerang effect vis-à-vis my thinking about boomerangs: Somehow the published evidence was making me less convinced of the soundness of the theory. What if this field of research, like so many others in the social sciences, had been tilted toward producing false positive results?

For decades now, it’s been commonplace for scientists to run studies with insufficient sample sizes or to dig around in datasets with lots of different tools, hoping they might turn up a finding of statistical significance. It’s clear that this approach can gin up phantom signals from a bunch of noise. But it’s worse than that: When researchers go out hunting subtle, true effects with imprecise experiments, their standard ways of testing for significance may exaggerate their findings, or even flip them in the wrong direction. Statistician (and Slate contributor) Andrew Gelman calls this latter research hazard a “type-S” error: one that leads a scientist to assert, with confidence, a relationship that is actually inverse to the truth. When a scientist makes a type-S error, she doesn’t end up with a false positive result so much as an “anti-positive” one; she’s turned the real effect upside down. If she were studying, say, the effect of passing out flyers at a public pool, she might end up thinking that telling people not to litter makes them litter more, instead of less.

It’s easy to imagine how these type-S errors might slither into textbooks. A scientist who found an upside-down result might go on to make a novel and surprising claim, such as: If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite; or facts can make us dumber; or debunking doesn’t work. Since editors at top-tier scientific journals are often drawn to unexpected data, this mistake might then be published as a major finding in the field, with all the press reports and academic accolades that follow. Gelman, for his part, thinks type-S errors might not be the problem here—that the real issue could be that different people might respond to something like a “don’t litter” flyer in different ways in different contexts, for reasons researchers don’t understand. But no matter the underlying reason, in an environment where surprising data thrive and boring studies wither in obscurity, a theory based on boomerangs will have a clear advantage over other, more mundane hypotheses.


The first study highlighted by the Post’s Vedantam—the piece of research that helped kick off the modern wave of post-fact panic—is a mess of contradictions.

In late 2004 or early 2005, Ian Skurnik showed a set of undergrads the CDC’s poster about flu vaccine “facts and myths.” According to a data table from a draft version of the study posted on the website of co-author Carolyn Yoon, Skurnik found the students’ memories were very good when they were tested right way: They labeled the flyer’s “myths” as being true in just 3 percent of their responses. Thirty minutes later, though, that figure jumped to 13 percent. By that point, they’d grown foggy on the details—and the flyer’s message backfired.

This made sense to Skurnik and his colleagues. He already knew from prior research that the more you hear a thing repeated, the more reliable it seems: Familiarity breeds truthiness. Now the study of the flyer suggested this effect would hold even when the thing you’ve heard before has been explicitly negated. Imagine a debunking like one shown on the CDC flyer: The flu shot doesn’t cause the flu. Over half an hour, Skurnik’s study argued, the word doesn’t fades away, while the rest of the message sounded ever more familiar—and thus more true.

His CDC flyer data suggested this all happens very quickly—that debunking can boomerang in minutes.

But that notion didn’t fit with data from another study from the same researchers. For that earlier experiment, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2005, Skurnik, Yoon, and Norbert Schwarz looked at how college students and senior citizens remembered health claims that were labeled either “true” or “false.” The team found no sign of backfire among the college students after 30 minutes or even after three days. (They did find a boomerang effect for older subjects.)

Meanwhile, the study of the CDC flyer never made its way into a peer-reviewed academic journal. (The research would be summarized in an academic book chapter from 2007.) Vedantam’s write-up for the Post, which claims the study had just been published in a journal, seems to have conflated it with the paper published two years earlier, saying the CDC flyer had been presented both to younger and older subjects and at both a 30-minute and three-day delay.

I asked Skurnik, who’s now an associate professor of marketing at the University of Utah, why his famous flyer study never ended up in print. He said that he and Schwarz had submitted it to Science, but the influential journal decided to reject it because the work had already been described by the New York Times. (I could find no such story in the Times.)

As Skurnik moved along in his career, he says, he allowed “that line of research to get on the back burner.” When others tried to reproduce his research, though, they didn’t always get the same result. Kenzie Cameron, a public health researcher and communications scholar at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tried a somewhat similar experiment in 2009. She set up her study as a formal clinical trial; instead of testing college undergrads as Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz had done, she recruited a racially diverse group of patients over the age of 50, selecting only those who hadn’t gotten vaccinated in the prior year. She mailed each of her subjects a version of the CDC flyer a week before they were due to come in for a checkup. Some of these flyers listed facts and myths in simple statements, others listed only facts, and still others gave specific refutations of the false information.

Cameron had her subjects tested on their knowledge of the flu vaccine on two occasions, once before they’d seen the flyers and again when they came in to see their doctors. She found that every version of the flyer worked: Overall, the patients ended up more informed about the flu vaccine. In fact, the version of the CDC flyer that was closest to the one that Schwarz and Skurnik used ended up the most effective at debunking myths. “We found no evidence that presenting both facts and myths is counterproductive,” Cameron concluded in her paper, which got little notice when it was published in 2013.

There have been other failed attempts to reproduce the Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz finding. For a study that came out last June, Briony Swire, Ullrich Ecker, and “Debunking Handbook” co-author Stephan Lewandowsky showed college undergrads several dozen statements of ambiguous veracity (e.g. “Humans can regrow the tips of fingers and toes after they have been amputated”). The students rated their beliefs in each assertion on a scale from 0 to 10, then found out which were facts and which were myths. Finally, the students had to rate their beliefs again, either after waiting 30 minutes or one week. If Skurnik, Yoon, and Schwarz were right, then the debunkings would cause their answers to rebound in the wrong direction: If you tell people one thing, they’ll believe the opposite. But the new study found no sign of this effect. The students’ belief in false statements dropped from a baseline score of 6 down to less than 2 after 30 minutes. While their belief crept back up a bit as time went by, the subjects always remained more skeptical of falsehoods than they’d been at the start. The labels never backfired.

A second study from Ecker and Lewandowsky (along with Joshua Hogan), also out last June, found that corrections to news stories were most effective when they repeated the original misinformation in the context of refuting it. This runs counter to the older theory, that mere exposure to a lie—through a facts-and-myths debunking flyer, for example—makes it harder to unseat. The authors noted that the traditional logic of “effective myth debunking may thus need to be revised.”

In other words, at least one variation of the end-of-facts thesis—that debunking sometimes backfires—had lost its grounding in the data. “I’ve tried reasonably hard to find [this backfire effect] myself, and I haven’t been able to,” Ecker told me recently. Unless someone can provide some better evidence, it may be time to ask if this rule of thumb from social science could represent its own variety of rumor: a myth about how myths spread.


Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler described their study, called “When Corrections Fail,” as “the first to directly measure the effectiveness of corrections in a realistic context.” Its results were grim: When the researchers presented conservative-leaning subjects with evidence that cut against their prior points of view—that there were no stockpiled weapons in Iraq just before the U.S. invasion, for example—the information sometimes made them double-down on their pre-existing beliefs. It looked as though the human tendency to engage in motivated reasoning might be worse than anyone imagined. (Eventually this would form the basis for another section of “The Debunking Handbook.”)

With an election looming in the fall of 2008, Nyhan and Reifler’s work went viral in the media. (The final version of their paper would not be published in an academic journal until 2010.) Vedantam wrote up their findings for the Post, and the story spread from there. It soon became the go-to explanation for partisan recalcitrance. “Perception is reality.
Facts don’t matter
,” wrote Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, linking up the new research to presidential candidate John McCain’s “postmodern” disregard for truth. “If [Nyhan and Reifler’s] finding is broadly correct,” Chait wrote, “then the media’s new-found willingness to fact-check McCain will only succeed in rallying the GOP base to his side.”

Political scientists were just as taken by the Nyhan-Reifler findings. A pair of political science graduate students at the University of Chicago, Tom Wood and Ethan Porter, found the study dazzling. “It really stood out as being among the most provocative possible claims” about the science of public opinion, Wood told me in a recent interview. He and Porter had been reviewing old research on how we’re more responsive to the facts that support our pre-existing points of view. The new paper took this idea a full step further. “It said that your factual ignorance could actually be compounded by exposure to factual information,” Wood says. The implications for democracy were calamitous.

By the time he and Porter had funding for their own study of this phenomenon, in 2015, the idea had grown in scope. Aside from all the media coverage, papers had by then been published showing that the facts could boomerang when Republicans were told that Obamacare’s “death panels” didn’t exist or that climate change could lead to more disease. And the original Nyhan-Reifler paper had become a “citation monster,” Wood says. “It’s four times as cited as any comparably aged paper from the same journal.”

He and Porter decided to do a blow-out survey of the topic. Instead of limiting their analysis to just a handful of issues—like Iraqi WMDs, the safety of vaccines, or the science of global warming—they tried to find backfire effects across 52 contentious issues. Their study would provide corrections of false statements from Hillary Clinton on the effects of gun violence, for instance, and from Donald Trump on the rate of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. They also increased the sample size from the Nyhan-Reifler study more than thirtyfold, recruiting more than 10,000 subjects for their five experiments.

In spite of all this effort, and to the surprise of Wood and Porter, the massive replication effort came up with nothing. That’s not to say that Wood and Porter’s subjects were altogether free of motivated reasoning.
The people in the study did give a bit more credence to corrections that fit with their beliefs; in those situations, the new information led them to update their positions more emphatically. But they never showed the effect that made the Nyhan-Reifler paper famous: People’s views did not appear to boomerang against the facts. Among the topics tested in the new research—including whether Saddam had been hiding WMDs—not one produced a backfire. “We were mugged by the evidence,” says Wood.

Meanwhile, Columbia University graduate students Andy Guess and Alex Coppock were chewing over a similar idea: If you tell people one thing, will they end up believing the opposite? Guess and Coppock had come across the 1979 study by Lord, Ross, and Lepper, which showed that adding facts to a discussion of the death penalty only curdles students’ disagreements. But when the grad students looked more closely at that old paper, they were appalled. “We realized it was not a properly randomized experiment,” says Guess.

“We thought it was BS,” says Coppock.

In 2014, the two of them updated the classic study using what they thought was better methodology. Where Lord, Ross, and Lepper tested 48 undergrads on their views about capital punishment, Guess and Coppock assessed that question with the help of 683 subjects recruited via the internet. For follow-up experiments, they tested how different kinds of evidence affected the views of another 1,170 subjects on the minimum wage, and 2,122 more on gun control. In none of these conditions did they find evidence that people grew more stubborn in their views when presented with disconfirming information.

Instead, the studies showed what Coppock calls “gorgeous parallel updating,” by which he means that people on either side of any issue will adjust their beliefs to better fit the facts. If boomerangs occur, he says, they’re the exception, not the rule. The backfire effect “is a truth-y hypothesis,” he told me. “It feels right, that arguing with idiots just makes them stupider.”

Guess also began to wonder about a third axiom of truthiness: Is it really the case that the internet divides us?

For all the influence of the echo chamber theory, Guess found there was not a lot of real-world data to support it. In 2015, he gained access to a potent data set from an online polling firm, which included three weeks’ worth of website tracking for almost 1,400 individuals, tagged with their demographic info and political affiliations. That meant Guess could test the echo chamber theory in the wild—and he found it didn’t hold. Other recent studies—one by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro; another by Jacob L. Nelson and James G. Webster—have supported this result: News consumption on the internet does not appear to be as fractured as we thought.

It wasn’t that the standard work on “partisan exposure” had been wrong. Like-minded people do tend to congregate on social networks, said Guess, and they tend to gab about whatever suits their group. But this clumping up and screening out is not unique to online settings; it happens just as much when we get together in the offline world, watch TV, or scan headlines at the newsstand.

Nor are the basic facts about persuasion all that controversial. Yes, people do engage in motivated reasoning. Yes, it’s true that we prefer to cling to our beliefs. Yes, we do give extra credence to the facts we’ve heard repeated. But each of these ideas has also spawned a more extreme (and more disturbing) corollary—that facts can force the human mind to switch into reverse, that facts can drive us even further from the truth. It’s those latter theories, of boomerangs and backfires, that have grown in prominence in recent years, and it’s those latter theories that have lately had to be revised.


Even as new facts accumulate in the science of post-facts, the field will likely be slow to change its course. Norbert Schwarz, for one, has been a vocal critic of the replication movement in social psychology, comparing those who question old ideas to global warming denialists: “You can think of this as psychology’s version of the climate-change debate,” he told Nature in 2012, when doubts emerged about research into social priming. “The consensus of the vast majority of psychologists closely familiar with work in this area gets drowned out by claims of a few persistent priming skeptics.”

Skeptics of the boomerang effect have also run afoul of consensus thinking in their field. Guess and Coppock sent their study to the same journal that published the original Lord, Ross, and Lepper paper in 1979, and it was rejected. Then it was passed over four more times. “We’ve reframed it over and over,” Coppock says. “It’s never rejected on the evidence—they don’t dispute the data. It’s that they don’t believe the inference, that backlash doesn’t happen, is licensed from those data.” As a result, their work remains in purgatory, as a posted manuscript that hasn’t made its way to print. (Guess has only just submitted his paper re-examining the echo chamber theory; it’s now under review for the first time.)

Wood and Porter’s study also faced a wall of opposition during the peer review process; after two rejections, it was finally accepted by a journal just last week.

I asked Coppock: Might there be echo chambers in academia, where scholars keep themselves away from new ideas about the echo chamber? And what if presenting evidence against the backfire effect itself produced a sort of backfire? “I really do believe my finding,” Coppock said. “I think other people believe me, too.” But if his findings were correct, then wouldn’t all those peer reviewers have updated their beliefs in support of his conclusion? He paused for a moment. “In a way,” he said, “the best evidence against our paper is that it keeps getting rejected.”

While some colleagues have been reluctant to believe that backfire effects might be rare or nonexistent, there are some notable exceptions. Nyhan and Reifler, in particular, were open to the news that their original work on the subject had failed to replicate. They ended up working with Wood and Porter on a collaborative research project, which came out last summer, and again found no sign of backfire from correcting misinformation. (Wood describes them as “the heroes of this story.”) Meanwhile, Nyhan and Reifler have found some better evidence of the effect, or something like it, in other settings. And another pair of scholars, Brian Schaffner and Cameron Roche, showed something that looks a bit like backfire in a recent, very large study of how Republicans and Democrats responded to a promising monthly jobs report in 2012. But when Nyhan looks at all the evidence together, he concedes that both the prevalence and magnitude of backfire effects could have been overstated and that it will take careful work to figure out exactly when and how they come in play.

Nyhan has been a champion of the replication movement and of using better research methods. He’s written up the newer data on debunking, and the evidence against the echo chamber theory, for the New York Times. And he’s the one who pointed me to the work from Guess and Coppock, calling it “impressive and important.” In terms of reckoning with recent data, says Nyhan, “it would be ironic if I dug in my heels.”

Yet even if boomerangs turn out to be unusual, he says, there’s little cause for optimism. Facts are, at best, “sometimes mildly effective” at displacing grabby lies, and corrections clearly aren’t working “if the standard is getting rid of misperceptions in the world.”

Ullrich Ecker, the debunking expert who failed to reproduce Schwarz and Skurnik’s finding on the boomerang effect for facts and myths, agrees with Nyhan. “If there’s a strong motivation to hold on to a misconception, then often the corrections are ineffective. Whether or not they backfire, that’s up for debate,” he says. “But look, if it’s ineffective, that’s pretty much the same story as if there’s a small backfire effect.”

There’s a vast difference, though, between these two scenarios. In a world where fact-checking doesn’t work, we may get caught in knots of disagreement. In a world where facts can boomerang, those knots may tighten even as we try to pull away. One is frustrating to imagine. The other is horrifying.

Why, then, has the end-of-facts idea gained so much purchase in both academia and the public mind? It could be an example of what the World War II–era misinformation experts referred to as a “bogie” rumor—a false belief that gives expression to our deepest fears and offers some catharsis. It’s the kind of story that we tell one another even as we hope it isn’t true. Back then, there were bogie rumors that the Japanese had sunk America’s entire fleet of ships or that thousands of our soldiers’ bodies had washed ashore in France. Now, perhaps, we blurt out the bogie rumor that a rumor can’t be scotched—that debunking only makes things worse.

Or it could be that our declarations of a post-truth age are more akin to another form of rumor catalogued during the 1940s: the “pipe dream” tale. These are the stories—the Japanese are out of oil; Adolf Hitler is about to be deposed—we tell to make ourselves feel better. Today’s proclamations about the end of facts could reflect some wishful thinking, too. They let us off the hook for failing to arrive at common ground and say it’s not our fault when people think there really is a war on Christmas or a plague of voter fraud. In this twisted pipe-dream vision of democracy, we needn’t bother with the hard and heavy work of changing people’s minds, since disagreement is a product of our very nature or an unpleasant but irresolvable feature of our age.

It’s time we came together to reject this bogus story and the ersatz science of post-truth. If we can agree on anything it should be this: The end of facts is not a fact.

Therapy Is Great, but I Still Need Medication

Therapy Is Great, but I Still Need Medication

by Hayden Shelby @ Slate Articles

A few weeks ago, I made an appointment with a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy—CBT as it’s known to professionals and those of us who have way too much contact with the mental health care system. After months of struggling to find the right doctor and to get on a medication regime that could tamp down the worst of the physical pain that accompanies my condition, I had finally found the right medical mix and was feeling stable. But I still had some lingering negative thought patterns I wanted to kick, precisely the kind of thing CBT is supposed to be good for, which is why I scheduled the appointment. I went in expecting some helpful worksheets and mental exercises.

What I got was a therapist who, after doing a cursory intake evaluation, declared, “If you really want to get better, you’re going to have to get off those medications and put in the work.”

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me. A couple of months prior, desperate and unable to eat or sleep, I had gone to a psychiatric hospital. I knew from experience that it was time to make a significant medication change, and I expressed this to the nurse practitioner handling my case. She came back with the recommendation of a three-week course of intensive outpatient CBT. I pleaded to talk to the attending psychiatrist, who thankfully agreed with my own assessment and got me on the track to recovery.

This whole course of events had been kicked off much earlier at an appointment with my then-psychiatrist—I had gone to him certain that the medicine I was on was “pooping out,” a well-documented but little understood phenomenon I typically experience every few years, in which a previously reliable medication just stops doing the trick. I’ve always solved this problem by rotating to another drug. But this time my doctor resisted. He had been reading up on CBT and was convinced that if I worked hard to change patterns in my thoughts, I could learn to control the problematic feedback loop between my brain and body. He insisted I try CBT before switching meds. I elected to find a new psychiatrist, a process that took weeks—long enough for me to spiral down into a hole I’m just now climbing out of.

As it happened, I had already done a variant of CBT a few years earlier, in the hopes of getting some tools to cope with the stresses of moving to a new city and starting grad school. I’d pursued this type of therapy instead of a medication adjustment because the anxiety I was feeling had a clear object (something CBT is designed to address), and the sensations attached to it were quite different from those I experience when my mental illness is taking hold. Years of dealing with this condition have made me able to discern the difference between normal and pathological psychic pain in the same way that, as an athlete, I’ve learned to differentiate between minor aches and pains and a serious injury. Both need to be tended to, as the former can make you more vulnerable to the latter, but the treatments are different. As it turned out, for me, CBT techniques proved to be lesser tools for managing stress than my tried-and-true regimen of dance classes and long runs.

I began to ponder my recent interactions with the mental health care system upon reading a recent New York Times Magazine story about severely anxious teens. The article contains most of the standard hand-wringing the Times has been putting out over how anxiety is America’s national mood and how we’ve become “the United States of Xanax.” But I was most struck by a subnarrative that speaks to my experiences with many care providers, as well as broader beliefs I fear are spreading as CBT is having its cultural moment.

The New York Times Magazine story highlights a young man, Jake, who suffers from paralyzing anxiety. When medication just “made a bad situation worse,” his parents sent him to an in-patient treatment center that practices CBT. There, he retrained his brain—“cognitive restructuring” in CBT lingo—and faced his fears through exposure therapy. The author and the clinicians he interviewed describe the therapy as “work” that is “uncomfortable.” At one point a woman in the piece describes an anxious teen doing an exposure exercise as “brave.” For Jake, in the end, this work pays off, and he goes off to college with a newfound control over his life and mind.

But Jake has a foil in this story. It’s a young woman, Jillian, who goes through the same treatment as Jake, but with different results. Her anxieties return, she leaves high school, battles with her mother, and falters in her use of the CBT tools she learned because “it’s exhausting.” When we last see Jillian, she is in her “messy” room, where she chats on her phone and ignores the schedule she is supposed to keep. Beside her sit the bottles of pills that she “believes” make her better than she would be otherwise. The subtle ways in which we are led to question Jillian, not CBT, struck me as unsettling.

In fact, highlighting one teen that benefits from CBT and one that doesn’t would be a fairly accurate representation of larger trends. According to a study cited in the story, CBT showed about the same rate of effectiveness in treating anxiety and depression as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting, or SSRI, medication—a little more than 50 percent—with better results when combined. In the thorny world of mental illnesses, these are good outcomes for both modes of treatment. The Times story isn’t celebrating the effectiveness of SSRIs, though. Why highlight CBT? Because unlike medication, it’s not just effective; it’s also virtuous.

You might say my story is the opposite of Jake’s. I’ve tried numerous forms of therapy, from traditional counseling to hypnosis, and yes, at this point, a couple attempts at CBT. I’ll probably keep trying new forms of therapy. But thus far, none have been able to replace—or, to be honest, even augment—medication. I’ve also always experienced an element of moralizing around therapy by health care professionals. As therapy has become more acceptable in the broader culture, it has also come to be expected of people who take medication to control disorders. As one general practitioner at my university chided while making me promise to see a counselor along with a psychiatrist, “you have to do your part.” But while a moralizing rhetoric runs through many types of therapy, CBT’s is a particularly virulent strain.

The first element of CBT’s moral claim lies in its identity as an evidence-based intervention, bolstered by the existence of a great deal of data to show its effectiveness. On its own, this is a positive development in psychotherapy. However, just because CBT might, on aggregate, be as effective as many drugs does not mean that it will be as effective as medication for any given individual. This subtle point is missed by some practitioners.

The main aspect of CBT’s moral superiority, however, lies in its purported strength: It places the patient in the driver’s seat of the therapeutic process; the therapist is conceived of as more of a coach. In fact, the latest movement in CBT even removes the therapist altogether. This “self-help” CBT assists patients through online guides and apps. And self-help accurately describes the way CBT is frequently packaged—with pure positivity and a can-do ethic. The “work” of getting better is up to the patient, who is responsible for her own success.

This characterization sets up a scary flip side. When medications don’t work, the fault is that of the pill. When traditional talk therapy doesn’t work, you can blame a “poor fit” or a lack of chemistry. But in CBT, failure redounds to the individual. The cumulative message I’ve gotten about CBT amounts to: It’s effective, so it should work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

But managing mental illness is always hard work, no matter how you do it. Navigating the health care system while in a state of distress is hard. Convincing providers to take seriously the urgency of a pain that has no observable physical manifestation is hard. And doing this while being told that you’re not putting in enough effort of your own is really hard. Like many people who take psychotropic drugs, I hate being on them. Relying on mind-altering substances to function produces no small amount of shame, not to mention existential anxiety. I’ve tried to go off them many times in the hopes that the “real me” will finally be able to stand on her own. Each time, I run into the heartbreaking reality that my unaltered self is too painful to bear.

The fact that CBT is helping people should be celebrated. But I need medication. And for me, the enthusiasm around CBT has prevented me from getting timely and appropriate treatment. It has also added a few bricks to the heavy burden I carry around about my inability to make myself better. That’s not fair to me, or to the other patients who are likely experiencing the same problems.

The core of CBT’s cognitive restructuring essentially amounts to rewriting the stories you tell yourself—if you can think about something differently, you can maybe shift the way it makes you feel. Perhaps it’s time to rewrite some of the stories we’re telling about CBT.

A Guide to Understanding a Million vs. a Billion vs. a Trillion

A Guide to Understanding a Million vs. a Billion vs. a Trillion

by Andrew D. Hwang @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published on the Conversation and was republished here with permission.

National discussions of crucial importance to ordinary citizens—such as funding for scientific and medical research, bailouts of financial institutions, and the current Republican tax proposals—inevitably involve dollar figures in the millions, billions, and trillions.

Unfortunately, math anxiety is widespread even among intelligent, highly educated people.

Complicating the issue further, citizens emotionally undeterred by billions and trillions are nonetheless likely to be ill-equipped for meaningful analysis because most people don’t correctly intuit large numbers.

Happily, anyone who can understand tens, hundreds, and thousands can develop habits and skills to accurately navigate millions, billions, and trillions. Stay with me, especially if you’re math-averse: I’ll show you how to use school arithmetic, common knowledge, and a little imagination to train your emotional sense for the large numbers shaping our daily lives.

Unlike Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, scientists and mathematicians are not exacting mental calculators but habitual estimators and analogy-makers. We use “back of the envelope” calculations to orient our intuition.

The bailout of AIG after the mortgage-backed securities crisis cost more than $125 billion. The Panama Papers document upward of $20 trillion hidden in a dark labyrinth of shell companies and other tax shelters over the past 40 years. (The recently published Paradise Papers paint an even more extensive picture.) On the bright side, we recovered $165 million in bonuses from AIG executives. That’s something, right?

Let’s find out: On a scale where a million dollars is one penny, the AIG bailout cost taxpayers $1,250. The Panama Papers document at least $200,000 missing from the world economy. On the bright side, we recovered $1.65 in executive bonuses.

In an innumerate world, this is what passes for fiscal justice.

Let’s run through that again: If one penny represents a million, then one thousand pennies, or $10, represents a billion. On the same scale, one million pennies, or $10,000, represents a trillion. When assessing a trillion-dollar expenditure, debating a billion dollars is quibbling over $10 on a $10,000 purchase.

Here, we’ve scaled monetary amounts so that “1,000,000” comprises one unit, then equated that unit to a familiar—and paltry—quantity, one penny. Scaling numbers to the realm of the familiar harnesses our intuition toward understanding relative sizes.

In a sound bite, a savings of $200 million might sound comparable to a $20 trillion cost. Scaling reveals the truth: One is a $2 (200 cent) beverage, the other the $200,000 price of an American home.

Suppose you landed a job paying $1 per second, or $3,600 per hour. (I assume your actual pay, like mine, is a tiny fraction of this. Indulge the fantasy!) For simplicity, assume you’re paid 24/7.

At this rate, it would take 1 million seconds to acquire $1 million. How long is that in familiar terms? In round numbers, 1 million seconds is 17,000 minutes. That’s 280 hours, or 11.6 days. At $1 per second, chances are you can retire comfortably at the end of a month or few.

At the same job, it takes 11,600 days, or about 31.7 years, to accumulate $1 billion: doable, but you’d better start young.

To acquire $1 trillion takes 31,700 years. This crummy job doesn’t pay enough!

This analogy gives a taste for the absolute size of a billion, and perhaps of a trillion. It also shows the utter impossibility of an ordinary worker earning $1 billion. No job pays a round-the-clock hourly wage of $3,600.

Let’s examine the wealth of actual multibillionaires. Our calculations prove that they acquired more than $1 per second over long intervals. How much more?

Testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 27, William Browder, an American-born businessman with extensive Russian dealings, estimated that Vladimir Putin controls assets of $200 billion. Let’s assume this figure is substantially correct and that Putin’s meteoric rise began 17 years ago, when he first became president of Russia. What is Putin’s average income?

Seventeen years is about 540 million seconds; $200 billion divided by this is … wow, $370 per second. That’s $1,340,000 per hour. Yet even at this colossal rate, acquiring $1 trillion takes 85 years.

The Panama Papers document some $20 trillion—the combined fortunes of 100 Vladimir Putins—sequestered in shell companies, untaxed and untraceable. Though the rate of leakage has surely increased over time, for simplicity let’s assume this wealth has bled steadily from the global economy, an annual loss of about $500 billion.

How much is this in familiar terms? To find out, divide $500 billion by 31.6 million seconds. Conservatively speaking, the Panama Papers document an ongoing loss averaging $16,000 per second, around the clock, for 40 years.

American cities are now vying for a $5 billion Amazon headquarters, a windfall to transform the local economy lucky enough to win the contract. At the same time, the world economy hemorrhages that amount into a fiscal black hole every few days. Merely stemming this Niagara (not recovering the money already lost) would amount to 100 new Amazon headquarters per year.

The root cause of our economic plight looms in plain sight when we know the proper scale on which to look. By overcoming math phobia, wielding simple arithmetic, refusing to be muddled by “gazillions,” we become better citizens, avoiding squabbling over pennies when tens of thousands of dollars are missing.

The Power of the Placebo

The Power of the Placebo

by Ethan Weiss @ Slate Articles

Every so often, a new study comes along that challenges conventional wisdom in medicine or science. When the conditions are right, these studies can generate a lot of attention in both the popular press and the medical community. In early November, one of these such studies, called the ORBITA study, was published in the Lancet by a group of cardiologists.

The authors had set out to ask and answer a simple question: Does placement of a small wire mesh (called a stent) inside the artery that feeds blood to the heart (the coronary artery) relieve chest pain? One might ask what was novel about this question. The truth is that there was and is nothing novel about the question. The novelty was in the methods the authors used to answer the question: They conducted a prospective randomized controlled clinical trial, or RCT, the gold standard of research. The best RCTs compare the effect of the active intervention to a placebo and the best of the best keep both the subjects and the investigators blind to the intervention. The authors managed to do this for stents and chest pain, something that had never been done before, and in doing so, they had the best chance of preventing the placebo effect from skewing the results.

To understand how stents work, it helps to understand what causes chest pain. Our hearts have a system to feed oxygen rich blood to the heart muscle, through a network of coronary arteries. Arteries can become clogged with a mix of inflammatory cells and fats called plaques that accumulate over a lifetime. When plaques are severe enough, they can cause a restriction of flow causing a mismatch in oxygen supply and demand, and this can lead to what we cardiologists call “chest pain,” or angina. The presentation of angina typically happens in someone who is exercising and is reduced when the person rests, but over time, things can progress to the point where symptoms can leave people unable to do even basic daily activities, or the symptoms of angina can even occur at rest. Sometimes, the plaques can burst like a pimple and that can set off a reaction resulting in the formation of a blood clot cutting off the blood flow completely—resulting in a heart attack if left untreated.

The role of ruptured plaques leading to heart attacks was defined in the early 1980s by pathologists who studied the arteries of patients who had recently died of heart attacks and by a group of cardiologists who fed contrast dye into the coronary arteries of patients who showed up in the emergency room with heart attacks. This was groundbreaking and transformational research demonstrating that heart attacks were caused by ruptured plaques with clots overlying.

In the 1980s a group of doctors developed a technique to compress the plaque by inflating a small balloon advanced over a wire and placed directly in the coronary artery. When inflated at high pressure, this balloon effectively opens the blockage, a technique called angioplasty. Stents were developed to act as a scaffold to keep the artery open. It makes sense to think they would work to relieve pain. They have become the standard of care. Stenting is now used extensively to treat patients with what we call chronic stable angina, or chest pain, and it’s also used to open a completely blocked artery during a heart attack. While the technique is the same, there is one important difference: Angioplasties during a heart attack have been proven to saves lives. Angioplasties to relieve chronic angina have never been proven to actually reduce chest pain.

In 2007, a study much like ORBITA called COURAGE asked whether people with stable chest pain (not heart attacks) did better when treated with optimized medicines alone or medicines plus a stent. The takeaway was that there was no difference—medicines appeared just as good as stents, which generated a ton of attention and controversy. The resulting interpretation seemed to be that medicines were as good as stents when it came to preventing bad things like heart attacks and dying, but that stents were still better at relieving chest pain.

This was always an assumption. There had never been a gold-standard placebo-controlled trial asking whether stents actually improved symptoms better than just medicines alone. The reasons are probably many, but the biggest is that doing a placebo-controlled trial for stents is harder—you can’t just use a sugar pill as the placebo, you actually have to do a fake operation to mimic stent implementation even though half of participants don’t get a stent at all.

ORBITA has several limitations. The study was small (200 patients) as cardiology trials go, and it was limited to people with blockages in just one artery (many patients have multiple blockages). The patients were not very symptomatic, so some argue that this made it hard to detect an improvement with stents, among other smaller complaints, but in my opinion, these criticisms do not take away from the core results (though they may change how we interpret and apply them in the real world of clinical medicine). Ultimately, what ORBITA found was that there was effectively no difference between the patients who got stents and those who got dummy stents. Importantly, there was no difference in the rates of chest pain. None.

The big question, of course, is for patients who have stents. What does this mean for them? Well for one, the study showed no real difference, not that people with stents did worse. They just did the same whether they got the stent or not. In fact, both groups improved. So for patients with stents, there is no reason to panic. There is nothing to do. Again, many patients get stents during a heart attack, and nobody, even the most ardent skeptics, argues with that. Others get stents for chest pain without a heart attack. Those patients can and should know that the stent might not have had a big impact on their chest pain, but if they are feeling better, there is nothing more to do.

The big question for us in cardiology is how we will approach treating patients with chest pain going forward. This is just one study, and though it will likely inform recommendations that make their way down to practicing physicians, I can’t predict how it will all end up. It is very possible that given the results of ORBITA, we will work harder to treat chest pain with medicines before trying stents. I also expect there will be other well-done placebo-controlled trials looking at the effect of stents and other devices.

What ORBITA suggests is that the placebo effect is real and in play in these cases. It suggests that knowing you are getting a procedure can make you feel better. This is very interesting and will hopefully be the basis of future research questions. It’s also a reminder that the researchers’ effort in figuring out how to do a placebo-controlled study for a device like a heart stent was well worth it, and should be used again, to continue to help us understand how much of medicine is what we do, and how much is what people think we are doing.

There Is Absolutely No Good Way to Explain How Trump Redrew Bears Ears’ Boundaries

There Is Absolutely No Good Way to Explain How Trump Redrew Bears Ears’ Boundaries

by Jonathan Thompson @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by High Country News and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

The first thing one notices when looking at the map showing President Donald Trump’s attempted new boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument is the vast amount of land taken out. The designation was reduced 1.15 million acres, leaving just more than 200,000 acres containing a monument, divided up into two big units and two tiny units. It’s shocking but not surprising.

Look closer, however, and you’ll see something else: The proposed new boundaries are a little strange. And I suspect that even the most virulent anti-monument Utahns, after sleeping off their monument-shrinking, Jell-O party hangovers, will find its portions somewhat peculiar as well.

Imagine that you’re the Interior lackey tasked with drawing the new boundaries. You’ll have to slash a bunch of acreage from the monument. You will want to make it appear, at least, as if the administration really cares about the “local control” that Trump spoke so glowingly of in his shrinkage proclamation in Salt Lake City on Monday. In San Juan County, Utah, that generally means opening public lands to unfettered access by motorized vehicles, livestock, and extractive industries. Meanwhile, you’ll be quite aware that before the ink is dry on that proclamation, it’s going to get pummeled by a barrage of lawsuits. So you’ll need to make it legally defensible.

Starting from scratch, this would be a difficult job. But when it comes to Bears Ears, most of the work was already done a few years ago. During the Public Lands Initiative process, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop attempted to reach a “grand bargain” to end Utah’s land wars. In meeting after meeting, San Juan County stakeholders came together and hashed out a proposal for the county’s public lands, finally submitting a map that included two National Conservation Areas, one covering all of Cedar Mesa and some surroundings and another in Indian Creek, which is a popular rock climbing area. From a conservationist’s point of view, the PLI proposal was sorely lacking, mostly because of the sensitive or valuable lands that were left unprotected. That was hardly surprising. After all, the process was headed by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, the same guy who was tossed in the clink for ushering Ryan Bundy and his gun-toting militia mob down Recapture Canyon among sensitive cultural resources on all-terrain vehicles.

If you’re a Trump administration official trying to meet the aforesaid objectives, however, the original local PLI maps provide a pretty good blueprint to follow. And yet, by the looks of things, those locally produced maps were largely ignored in the drawing of the new boundaries.

The locals had proposed blanketing with a conservation area all of Cedar Mesa, which is dense with archaeological sites and has always been the true “heart” of the effort to protect the cultural and natural landscapes of southeastern Utah. Virtually all of the mesa, however, was left out of the Trump boundaries. Much of the land here is already protected by wilderness study areas, making a monument somewhat redundant. That also makes it a no-brainer for inclusion in a Trump-altered monument, because access would not be lost, yet it still could count as monument-protected acreage, which could be useful in court. Instead, large swaths of land lying outside the WSAs or primitive areas—which contain archaeological sites and other valuable features—will again be open to oil and gas leasing and more vulnerable to motorized and other recreation if the monument shrinkage stands.

Meanwhile, areas that the local PLI process deliberately left unprotected, mostly because they are popular for motorized recreation, were included in the Trump boundaries. One such area is Arch Canyon, which begins up on Elk Ridge near Bears Ears and empties into Comb Wash. It retained protection because it contains a number of archaeological sites, including a Chacoan great house near its mouth and associated prehistoric road segments. Flannelmouth suckers, a threatened species, ply the water of the little stream here as well. In the past, Arch Canyon has been a flashpoint of the motorized access debate, with locals vehemently opposing any effort to shut out ATVs and the like. And Arch Canyon was pointedly left out of the PLI conservation areas for this reason. While monument status won’t automatically shut down the route to motorized vehicles, it certainly makes it more likely, so it’s surprising that local motorheads aren’t bristling at the prospect of it being “locked out” by monument officials.

It’s tempting to look for hidden motives in the shrunken boundaries’ peculiarities. Could Trump be setting the stage for Bishop to swoop back in with his PLI and save Cedar Mesa? Was the administration sloppy with its boundary drawing because it secretly hopes it loses this court battle, thus preserving Trump’s power to declare his own national monuments? Most likely, though, there’s no such strategy. Trump’s motive with this, as with so much of his policy, is to erase as much of former President Barack Obama’s legacy as he possibly can. In this case, he’s unlikely to succeed. And when it comes to legacies, someone might want to remind Trump that a president is remembered not for what he destroys but for what he creates.

There Is No Ban on Words at the CDC

There Is No Ban on Words at the CDC

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had banned  certain scientific words from use at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to an unnamed, outraged CDC source, higher-ups instructed staffers to avoid seven phrases in budget documents: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. In the days since, editorials have likened this to censorship in China, Cuba, and Belarus; to Polish laws prohibiting certain language to describe the Holocaust; and to the totalitarian regime described in 1984.* Follow-up reports said the “irrational and very dangerous” policy on budget language might put “millions of lives in danger” with its “an astonishing attack on reality-based medical treatment.”

But if reality is indeed in danger here, it’s not because of Donald Trump. The story of the language rules at CDC has quickly broken free of underlying facts. Despite what you may have heard, the alleged “ban” of seven words does not reveal a secret “War on Science” carried out by thought police in Washington; nor is it some evil plot to “enforce a political and ideological agenda,” as the Washington Post editorial board suggested. A more sober measure of this soggy crumb of news—one that’s, well, evidence-based rather than reflexive—suggests it should be understood as a byproduct of the Trump administration’s much-less-secret war on science funding. It appears that the ban is an attempt by bureaucrats to save their favorite projects from unforgiving budget cuts.

That explanation would be consistent with what’s been reported to this point. According to CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, “There are no banned, prohibited or forbidden words at the CDC—period.” Meanwhile, anonymous sources at the Department of Health and Human Services told the National Review’s Yuval Levin this week that any language changes did not originate with political appointees, but instead came from career CDC officials who were strategizing how best to frame their upcoming budget request to Congress. What we’re seeing, his interviews suggest, is not a top-down effort to stamp out certain public-health initiatives, like those that aim to help the LGTBQ community, but, in fact, the opposite: a bottom-up attempt by lifers in the agency to reframe (and thus preserve) the very work they suspect may be in the greatest danger.

Reports about the seven dirty words at CDC should be understood in light of that budgetary process. Right now, the Trump administration is in the middle of preparing its fiscal 2019 request, to be submitted to Congress this coming February. It’s likely that the staffers at each agency at HHS have already submitted their proposals for how much money they think they need, for which specific projects, along with “budget narratives” explaining why. These, in turn, have probably been passed up to the budget team for the whole department, aggregated and sent on to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. Now the OMB is trying to combine proposals from across the federal government into one colossal document to be reviewed by lawmakers.

There are internal negotiations at each step, says Stuart Shapiro, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and a former OMB employee. The OMB may demand steeper cuts from budget staffers at HHS, for example; HHS may send specific feedback down to CDC with suggestions for where and how to trim. This scrutiny is likely to be extra intense this year, given the Trump administration’s extraordinary steps to reduce government spending. In its first budget request delivered last May, the White House called for cuts of $1.2 billion from the CDC, $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health, and $2.5 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency. (For comparison, the last Republican president, George W. Bush, proposed increasing NIH funding by $2.8 billion in his first budget request and cutting funds for the EPA by $500 million.)

HHS staffers have been telling those at CDC and other agencies that it would be better to avoid any phrases that might attract extra notice from the budget-slashers higher up the chain. This is tactical advice: They want to bolster the CDC’s position during these negotiations. Levin suggests that words like vulnerable, entitlement, or diversity might annoy Republicans in Congress and make them less inclined to grant requested funds. But it seems more likely that the same advice is meant to ward off cuts from OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and his team of budget hawks; after all, they’ve been more tight-fisted than even congressional Republicans. (The latter rejected the Trump administration’s most dramatic cuts to science spending earlier this year.)

While back-and-forth discussions about budget documents may be normal, Shapiro says current staffers’ wariness of potential trigger words such as entitlement seems like something new. It’s also indicative of where we are today: Given this administration’s zeal for shrinking government and the radical polarization of political debate, it makes sense that bureaucrats would be doing whatever they can think of to protect their work from scrutiny. That is to say, their censorship is both strategic and self-imposed.

That may help explain why the list of forbidden phrases is so peculiar. Its haphazard composition hints at something other than a secretive attempt to stifle free expression in the government; to me, it reads more like some left-leaning functionary’s best guess about the words that might be banned by the White House, if the White House were to bother banning words. A few entries on the list make sense: It’s easy to imagine the Trump administration pushing back on uses of transgender, for example. But what about a word like fetus? That would seem to be a pretty useful term to have at your disposal, whatever your position on the ethics of abortion. And what of science-based and evidence-based? Those phrases don’t support any one political agenda; if anything, they’re maddeningly generic and easily abused by either side. (According to the Post, one senior CDC official told the staff that science-based and evidence-based should be abandoned because they’ve been overused.)

Some will argue that censorship can still be dangerous, even when it’s not imposed. That’s clearly not the case in this scenario. What we’re seeing from the CDC is not an effort to suppress unwelcome research, but rather an effort to conceal it under euphemism. If there is a secret plot at work in any of these lexical decisions, it’s aimed at simple-minded White House hacks and ideologues in Congress. Staffers have been advised to swap out the phrase science-based, for instance, for a more elaborate and confusing sentence: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” Similarly, we’ve learned in recent months that staffers at the EPA have been rebranding satellites that help keep track of climate change as those that study “weather,” and that they’ve elected to replace the phrase “climate change” with “climate resiliency” in documents. We’ve heard that a director at the Department of Agriculture advised her team that carbon-sequestration and greenhouse-gas reduction should instead be described as “building soil organic matter” and “increasing nutrient use efficiency.” “We won’t change the modeling,” the director told them, “just how we talk about it.”

It matters that this bullshit has been bubbling up from within the rank-and-file instead of raining down upon them. That is to say, it’s the scientists who have been using doublespeak to manipulate their bosses, not vice-versa.

Yet journalists have reported on these middle-management directives as if they were new and shocking evidence of the Trump administration’s sneaky plan to interfere with scientific research. In a follow-up story published Thursday, the Post puts the ban on words at CDC in the context of “a linguistic battle [waged] across official Washington, seeking to shift public perception of key policies by changing the way the federal government talks about climate change, scientific evidence and disadvantaged communities.”

The invocation of a secret war on science, or “1984-ish thought control,” doesn’t fit the fact that many of the language changes are coming from the lifelong bureaucrats and not their political overlords. Even when these changes are delivered from on high, it’s not clear how far the practice strays from that of prior administrations. Thursday’s story in the Post points out that directed euphemisms are the norm in Washington: Barack Obama’s budget team, for example, swapped out the “global war on terror” for what it called “overseas contingency operations.” It may be that the Trump team’s efforts in this area have been more aggressive (or cartoonish) than those that came before—but they’re all related.

In any case, it’s not like no one knows what our current president has been up to in the broader sense. You don’t have to search for secret anti-science signals in agency proceedings when he’s putting climate-change skeptics in control at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, and leaving one-third of the most important science posts vacant. And there’s not much point to parsing adjectives in budgetary language when the most recent budget calls for cuts to science by the billions.

For all the blatancy of this administration, we’re still obsessing over red-alarm reports about its use of scientific language—which words are in and which are out. In October, for example, the Nation reported on the DOI’s new strategic plan. Surely it would have been jarring simply to describe that plan’s instrumental view of nature, with its firm avowal of “American energy dominance” and suggestion that millions of acres of public lands and waters may soon be auctioned off for oil and gas development. Yet in keeping with the trend for extraneous lexicographical analysis, the Nation story notes right up near the top that the new document makes no mention whatsoever of climate change, while the phrase turned up 46 times in a version put out under Obama; and also that it mentions conservation 25 times, compared to 74 in the Obama plan.

I agree it’s telling, in some way, that the department tasked with protecting America’s natural resources won’t even mention global warming once in its strategic plan, but does this information really add anything to what we knew already? Same goes for all that  news—so much news—about the Trump administration’s efforts to excise every use of “climate change” or “global warming” from its official websites. We’ve heard these words have been “purged” from; that they’ve been “deleted” from; that they’ve been “scrubbed” from If we claim those purges and deletions are informative, then what should we make of the fact that one can still find those phrases, climate change and global warming, on several of the sites from which they’ve supposedly been erased? Would we then conclude that the Trump administration is not perhaps as hostile toward the science of the climate as we’d thought?

Rather than endlessly track these proxy measures of corruption, we’d be better off closely watching things that happen in plain sight: the drastic paring back of environmental regulations; major cuts to public-health and science funding; rampant conflicts of interest in science leadership; and a blatant disregard for scientific expertise. These actions should freak you far more than any list of seven words self-censored by the CDC.

Correction, Dec. 22, 2017: This story originally stated that Polish laws that enforce Holocaust denial. The laws dictate that specific language be avoided in discussing the Holocaust. (Return.)

Humans Run Experiments, a Robot Writes the Paper

Humans Run Experiments, a Robot Writes the Paper

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

In 2014, a researcher in France revealed a disturbing fact about the published scientific literature: At least 120 computer-generated manuscripts had made their way into academic conference proceedings, according to his analysis. Those robot-written papers, containing little more than strung-together buzzwords, had been created with a piece of software known as SCIgen, originally written on a lark by a trio of MIT graduate students in 2005. But in the years since, it seemed scientists had repurposed SCIgen to puff up their resumes and boost their professional status. This was understood to be a major scandal.

For Klemen Zupancic, though, the scandal was a source of inspiration. “It got us thinking,” the 32-year-old molecular biologist and tech entrepreneur told me this week from his office in Slovenia. Zupancic is head of sciNote, a tech startup that builds tools for helping scientists to switch from using pen-and-paper laboratory notebooks to more efficient online apps. (The company claims to have about 20,000 users, of which almost half are in the U.S.) When he read about the infiltration of academic journals by robo-generated text, he realized that the same approach might be used for honest ends. If software can publish scientific gobbledygook, then maybe it can write a valid scientific paper, too. So his company set out to create a program that would do just that.

The result of this effort, called Manuscript Writer, came out in early November. It works by searching through a sciNote user’s references, data, and protocols, and then stringing bits and pieces end-to-end in a rough draft of a formal academic paper. I mean a very rough draft: The software doesn’t even try to write a discussion section or interpret an experiment’s results; and based on what I’ve seen, the rest isn’t that much better than what you’d get from using SCIgen. Manuscript Writer constructs an introduction, for example, by pulling sentences and sentence fragments from a set of open-access references and laying them out in what appears to be no particular order.

The sciNote system is likely to improve, though. In theory, its A.I. will learn from its mistakes by comparing users’ finished papers to the software’s first attempts. Given what we’ve already seen in automated journalism, it’s not so crazy to predict that the quality of science paper robo-prose will soon become much better than it is today. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where it’s about as good (or about as bad) as the work of average human scientists.

Indeed, we should all be looking forward to that day. Humans may be essential when it comes to formulating theories to explain results, but the rest of scientific writing—from a paper’s introduction through its description of experiments, methods, and results—would likely benefit from automation.

It’s not as though the quality of academic prose could end up that much worse than it is today. In fact, leading scientists have long bemoaned the lousy writing of their peers: In 1908, for example, Francis Galton presented his “Suggestions for Improving the Literary Style of Scientific Memoirs” to the Royal Society of Literature. “I have had occasion to read many memoirs in manuscript, on subjects where I was fairly at home, in which there was nothing especially recondite,” he wrote then, “but the expressions used in them were so obscure, the grammar so bad, and the arrangement so faulty, that they were scarcely intelligible on a first reading. … The writers of them may have been, and probably were successful investigators, but their powers of literary exposition were of a sadly low order; so low that they could hardly be made to realize their deficiencies.”

Things have only gotten worse since Galton’s gripe. When scientists settled on a lingua franca for their work, it meant that researchers around the world would have to write in English regardless of their skill at using it. At the same time, the growth of the scientific enterprise after World War II, and its balkanization into increasingly specialized sub-disciplines made research articles more technical and formalized. Around the mid-20th century, a dreary template for their writings began to spread throughout the sciences: First an Introduction, followed by the Methods used for the experiment, then a resume of the Results and a section for Discussion. By the 1970s, this “IMRaD” format was nearly universal in the literature.

As these changes solidified, scientific writing became less a vehicle for rhetoric than a conduit for data. Papers started to look more like packets on a network. If all those packets were the same—algorithmic in their composition, unembroidered, boring—that might only make them more efficient. In 1900, papers in Science and Nature were about as accessible to a general audience as pieces in the New York Times, according to a lexical analysis cited in a 2003 feature in Nature by Jonathan Knight. But their readability steadily eroded—and their jargon thickened—as the years went by.

“We are now in a system that incentivizes sameness,” says Melinda Baldwin, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal. “We’re in a system that doesn’t give people incentive to write beautiful scientific papers.” Individual researchers now feel pressure to produce a large quantity of publications, with less regard for style. The most important thing for them is to distribute their results as quickly, and as clearly, as they can.

Even now, scientists who aren’t comfortable in English, or who just want to save some energy, may outsource the writing of their manuscripts to paid professionals. Automated writing would be an even better fix for those with suspect language skills or busy schedules. With robo-writers at the keyboard every article might end up looking more or less the same; but that’s a good thing. Distracting differences in scholars’ backgrounds, or defects in their style, would be averaged out across the literature. Each of Galton’s literary bugaboos—obscure expressions, poor grammar, and the faulty arrangements of ideas—could be instantly deleted from the literature, or patched over in a set of updates to the paper-writing software.

Naturally, this flattening effect would also average out any charm or wit. Take, for example, one of the most famous scientific articles ever published: Francis Crick and James Watson’s 1953 announcement in Nature of the structure of DNA. Even as this paper laid out one of the most consequential discoveries in the history of biology, its authors allowed themselves just a single understated boast—one that has been celebrated for its wryness ever since: “It has not escaped our notice,” wrote Crick and Watson, “that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanisms for the genetic material.”

What if their paper had been written automatically by Klemen Zupancic’s software or something similar? We’d have been deprived of the duo’s all-time classic kicker. The article, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids,” would be as undistinguished in its writing, as insipid in its style, and as bereft of elegance as almost every other paper in the literature.

That could be a good thing, too.

If bad writing interferes with reading papers—if it slows down the sharing and transmission of experiments and data—then good writing does the opposite: It can make a paper slick and its logic slippery; it sands away the friction that helps readers get a handle on the findings it describes. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, poor writing in a research paper makes it hard to spot mistakes—but good writing does the same. It’s easiest to find errors, he says, in “average” papers, where you’re not distracted by the prose.

Psychological experiments have supported to this idea. The more easily one can process any given statement, the more believable it seems, according to what’s been called the “fluency heuristic.” If that’s true, then poorly written papers would be disadvantaged—i.e. their findings deemed less true—even when the underlying science was completely sound. And papers written in an easygoing entertaining style could be taken as reliable, even when they’re based on insubstantial evidence. But if robots wrote our papers for us, we’d never have to worry that we’re victims of this bias. Every manuscript would be written in an average way: not too bad and not too good.

Awareness of this problem, and a corresponding fear of eloquence in scientific writing, has been present since the earliest days of academic periodicals. One of the first dedicated scientific journals appeared in 1665, published by the Royal Society of London. In a history of the society published two years later, Thomas Sprat boasted of the group’s “constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style. … They have extracted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness: bringing all thing as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can.”

Not every scientist subscribed to the fellows’ “constant Resolution,” though. While the Royal Society set off in one direction, valorizing plainness, other communities of scholars, at other points in history, were more inclined to fancy talk. Science communication scholar Alex Cziszar cites the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt: Like other proponents of romantic science, Humboldt argued that the “lucid exposition of the great phenomena of the universe” should be drawn from “the effusions of creative fancy.”

Cziszar says this tension over what it means to write a paper “well”—whether scientists should strive for clarity, beauty, efficiency or something else—has been present all along. From the late 19th century, many scientists have favored more succinct and uncreative prose. “A florid, roseate style, full of polysyllabic, metaphorical phraseology, distracts the reader's attention,” wrote two medical journal editors in a style guide from 1925. “Seldom is it necessary in scientific writing to use other than simple, Anglo-Saxon terms to express an idea or to state a fact.”

Indeed as research grows more data-focused, there’s an ever stronger case for dreary, formulaic prose. At this point we have at least 24 million references in the biomedical literature alone, and 15 million scientists are actively writing papers. There’s simply too much knowledge for any single person to absorb, even in a single subfield of research, and even if the work were always written very clearly. To get a better handle of this corpus, then, we’ll increasingly rely on another piece of software—not a robo-writer but a robo-reader. These exist already: Scientists are automating their investigations of the literature, with bots that sort through millions of abstracts at a time. It’s here that we might find the greatest benefit from algorithmic text. If machines were writing up the papers from the start, it’s likely that machines would do a better job of understanding them, too.

How much further could the robo-revolution go? Last year a group of researchers at the University of Trieste offered something new: the automated peer review. Inspired by the SCIgen prank, these scientists set out to build a tool for generating referee reports. The program will spit out a positive, negative or neutral assessment of any given paper, depending on which mode you request. “It would be good if you can also talk about the importance of establishing some good shared benchmarks,” the computer told one author. “It would be useful to identify key assumptions in the modeling,” it advised another. When the scientists showed their fake reviews, intermixed with real ones, to a group of human readers, the computer-generated text was deemed more useful one-quarter of the time.

Once robot referees have improved enough, they can peer review our robot-written papers. From there, the next step should be obvious: robot science journalists to robo-write surprising takes on the latest science news.

Facebook’s Revamp Includes an Effort to Fight Fake News

Facebook’s Revamp Includes an Effort to Fight Fake News

by Daniel Engber @ Slate Articles

Facebook is shifting tactics in the war on fake news. A few weeks ago, in the quiet lead-up to the major revamp of its news feed announced Thursday, the company made another tweak to what users see: It said it would no longer mark bogus headlines with a red-flag warning, as had been its practice since the end of 2016. Previously, these “Disputed” tags showed up beneath any story that had been rated false by at least two independent, fact-checking organizations. Now those tags have been replaced by something less intrusive—one or more “Related Articles,” supplied by fact-checkers, that offer context for (and perhaps debunking of) the headline’s claims.

The new system should have some clear advantages: First, it gives the checkers greater flexibility and room to challenge stories that are not entirely, 100 percent made up; second, it will speed things up, because Facebook will no longer require two assessments before it starts to show corrective facts; third, it reduces the number of clicks or taps required before a user sees specific fact-check information. But taken as a whole, the change is somewhat mystifying and maybe even ill-advised. Its design appears to be based (at least in part) on the science of post-truth—and on the flashy but fishy notion that debunking myths only makes them stronger.

This idea, that addressing lies with facts may backfire, has been widely shared in both the media and social science literature over the past 10 years. Now it’s cited by the team at Facebook in explaining its approach to fake news: “Academic research on correcting misinformation has shown that putting a strong image, like a red flag, next to an article may actually entrench deeply held beliefs,” wrote product manager Tessa Lyons on Dec. 20, 2017. A concurrent Medium post, from three more Facebookers on the project, also mentioned this research. And Facebook’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, alluded to the backfire effect in his manifesto on building an “informed community” from last February: “Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas,” he wrote, “like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization.”

The problem is, the backfire effect that so worries Facebook may not exist at all. The Medium post described the above links to a review of debunking research from 2012, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which indeed contains a section, titled “Making Things Worse,” on the risk of backfire. But more recent efforts to study this phenomenon more carefully—large-scale, preregistered studies using thousands of participants—have turned up little evidence in its favor. That’s not to say that backfires never, ever happen. It’s possible that a red-flag warning on Facebook could end up entrenching false beliefs for certain users under certain circumstances. But, according to the latest science (which I reviewed in detail for Slate last week), this danger has been greatly overstated.

In fact, if we’re going by the academic research literature, there’s good reason to believe that Facebook’s abandoned red-flag warnings were somewhat useful and effective. Last May, Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan and his students conducted a preregistered study of news feed warnings on a sample of about 3,000 adults. The researchers showed each participant a half a dozen fake-news headlines—e.g. “Trump Plagiarized the Bee Movie for Inaugural Speech”—sometimes adding a red flag of just the kind that Facebook had been using to indicate the story was disputed by independent fact-checkers. Then they asked their subjects to rate these headlines on a four-point scale from “Not at all accurate” to “Very accurate.” Nyhan and his students found a nice effect: In the absence of a warning flag, 29 percent of their subjects said the bogus headlines were either “somewhat accurate” or “very accurate,” but when the flag was shown, that proportion of fake-news believers dropped by about one-third, to 19 percent.

Another very similar study—from Yale’s David Rand and Gordon Pennycook—was posted in September 2017. In that one, researchers showed real- and fake-news headlines, with or without red-flag warnings, to more than 5,000 participants. Like Nyhan and his students, Rand and Pennycook found the warnings worked, at least a bit: Subjects described the tagged headlines as being slightly less accurate, on average, than the ones that did not have a warning. (The warnings might have been even more effective, Pennycook told me in an interview this week, if Facebook had put them just above the fake-news headlines instead of just below them.)

Rand and Pennycook’s research did have one crucial caveat. According to their study, the presence of a warning flag on one fake-news story could make other, untagged stories seem more accurate. They referred to this as an “implied truth effect.” For certain subjects—especially young adults or those who supported Donald Trump—the absence of a fact-check tag ended up seeming like a badge of credibility; it made them more believable. (Nyhan failed to find the same, but when the data from the two papers are combined, the effect appears to be there.) Given the disturbing scope of Facebook’s fake news problem, it’s hard to see how human-powered fact-checks could ever tag more than a fraction of the phony headlines on the site. And if the implied truth effect applied to all the others, the end result would be catastrophic.

But this concern must be squared with the results from Rand and Pennycook’s earlier study of the Facebook warnings, first posted last April. That one, which had a somewhat different design and about 1,000 subjects, confirmed the basic finding that red flags in the news feed lower people’s belief in fake-news headlines. It also showed that those warnings made subjects more skeptical overall—rather than more credulous—when it came to other, untagged headlines.

In a brief interview on Tuesday, I asked the members of the Facebook team whether and how their work was influenced by the academic research literature. User-experience researcher Grace Jackson said that the backfire effect is “something that we wanted to be aware of based on the academic literature,” but that “in our own research, it actually only happens extremely rarely.” She did not address the Rand and Pennycook papers but did mention that the team had been inspired by a 2015 paper from Leticia Bode and Emily Vraga, which, said Jackson, found that corrective information “worked really well” when presented in a format similar to the one that Facebook just rolled out.

For that study, Bode and Vraga showed students postings from a mocked-up Facebook news feed, including a bogus story claiming that genetically modified foods will make you sick. Students in one experimental condition saw a pair of “Related Links” below that item, showing refutations of the claim from and the American Medical Association. Bode and Vraga found that among the people who came into the study with the belief that GMOs are harmful, the related links helped to change their minds.

Facebook’s new approach, in which fact-check information gets presented as “Related Articles,” closely mirrors Bode and Vraga’s experimental treatment. Yet the 2015 paper is, in fact, equivocal in its results. In addition to the claims about the health effects of GMOs, Bode and Vraga also looked at fake-news headlines on a supposed link between vaccines and autism. In this latter case, they found no effect from their corrections. The “Related Links” from and the American Medical Association did not change believers’ attitudes.

Bode says it’s not clear why their treatment didn’t work for the myth about vaccines. It could be that the false belief is more established, so it’s harder to uproot. Or else it could be that the anti-vaxxer myth is more politicized and thus more amenable to motivated reasoning. The same ambiguity applies to Facebook’s efforts. Are the most dangerous fake-news stories in people’s news feeds like the ones about GMOs—and thus perhaps amenable to this format of debunking? Or are they like the ones about vaccines, where “Related Stories” might have no effect?

It’s also hard to know how much confidence one should have in extrapolating from the Bode and Vraga findings. Their study had about 500 subjects, but these were split across eight experimental conditions. And their positive result concerned just the subset of participants—about half, overall—who believed that GMOs will make you sick. That means they looked at subgroups of about several dozen people per condition. For the vaccines question, these sample sizes were smaller still. That’s not to say that Bode and Vraga got things wrong—only that their findings were preliminary and constrained by opportunity and cost. (In subsequent work, they’ve found similar results on the topic of GMOs.) If Facebook cared to know whether “Related Stories” really work to counter lies, the company could check the numbers for itself. Instead of citing modest research done by academics, its employees could, in theory, run something like the same experiment on 1 million Facebook users, or 10 million, or 100 million. Do “Related Articles” change behavior? Do red-flag warnings backfire? Is there an implied truth effect when not every article is tagged? If anyone will ever know the answer to those questions, it’s the team at Facebook.

In fact, they may already have those answers. In our conversation on Tuesday, I asked what they’ve found from their own analyses. Tessa Lyons, the product manager, only mentioned one result: When the team compared its new “Related Articles” format to the old red-flag warnings, they found that click-thru rates remained the same, while shares declined. In other words, users were just as likely to read the fake-news articles that appeared on their feeds but less likely to repost them for their friends. How much less likely? Lyons wouldn’t say. What about comparisons to baseline? How effective were either of these formats at reducing fake-news spread when compared to giving no fact-check information whatsoever? Again, Lyons wouldn’t say.

It’s possible Facebook has mined its vast supply of internal data and optimized its fake news–fighting tactics accordingly. As Bode points out, the company is full of very smart people, including many social science Ph.D.s. But if that were really true, then why bother with a smoke screen of citations to a wobbly academic research literature? Why not just say, “Look, we’ve crunched the numbers for ourselves, and this approach works best,” without sharing proprietary details?

Here’s another thought: It could be that the change from red-flag warnings to “Related Articles” isn’t really that important anyway. According to Lyons, the most effective way to slow these stories’ spread is to bury them on news feeds, and Facebook already does that. Once a story has been tagged as “false” in either system, it gets demoted by the Facebook algorithm and becomes much less likely to appear to users—Lyons says this intervention is the main driver in reducing a fake story’s reach by 80 percent. Links to “Related Articles” from third-party fact-checkers only come into play in those instances when the fake-news story does pop up in spite of its demotion. In other words, even if the fact-check links were quite effective, their real-world impact would be marginal.

This all raises an unnerving question: Given that both the red-flag warnings and “Related Articles” methods likely offer little more than a limp, second-line defense against fake news, why bother with them at all? If Facebook can demote these stories in its users’ feeds, such that their spread will be shrunk by 80 percent, then certainly it has the the power to eliminate them altogether. Indeed, the main takeaway from Thursday’s large announcement is that Facebook is adjusting its news feed to focus less on news overall—at least, less on news shared from publishers. (Individuals can still share whatever they want.) “We don’t want any ‘false news’ on Facebook,” said Lyons, using the company’s preferred name for the phenomenon.

The best way to accomplish this would be to pull stories from the site as soon as they’ve been identified as fakes. Instead of squeezing bogus headlines through tighter filters in the news feed algorithm, the site could just delete them. In practice, though, that would look a lot like censorship—a top-down decree about what’s true and what isn’t. (Lyons says items are removed this way only when they violate Facebook’s community standards.) So instead the company has staked out a middle ground, where fake news isn’t deleted; it’s disappeared.

That seems a little icky, too: If it isn’t censorship, then it’s certainly censorshipish. On the other hand, Facebook’s second-line approach—giving context for a bogus story, surrounding it with facts—has the benefit of seeming ethical and optimistic; it assumes that people care about the truth and that, all things being equal, they’ll tend to handle information in a responsible way. Of course, it may not work as well as disappearance at reducing shares and clicks. Of course, it may not work at all. But at least it sends a signal to the rest of us: Facebook wants to keep us as informed as possible.

Maybe this explains its making hay of a subtle shift from red-flag warnings to “Related Stories.” Whether this was based on solid social science or a careful audit of internal numbers, the story hinges on the feel-good notion that Facebook will bury lies with wholesome facts—and in a way we all can see. Here’s the ugly truth behind that curtain of transparency: If the social network wins its war against fake news, it will be driven by the secret, brutal engines of its code.

Is Watching the News Actually Bad for Your Health?

Is Watching the News Actually Bad for Your Health?

by Alex Barasch @ Slate Articles

A Minnesota-based gym chain called Life Time caused a stir among its clients—and the rest of the internet, once the New York Times picked up the story—when it announced its decision to remove all cable news programming, left- and right-leaning alike, from the big-screen TVs in its 130 locations around the country. Amid cries of censorship, Life Time’s statement on Twitter emphasized that it was a decision borne of “significant member feedback received over time” and that the move was in line with the gym’s “healthy way of life philosophy.”

The subtext is that watching cable news could harm your health—a maxim that might sound downright intuitive in this day and age. But among scientists, the jury is still out. It’s true that certain types of news seem to have a measurable impact on our mental health: Researchers from the University of Toronto found that journalists who regularly deal with images of extreme violence in the course of their work are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and alcoholism. The authors conclude that “frequent, repetitive viewing of traumatic images can come with adverse psychological consequences.” Interestingly (and worryingly), the opposite can also be true: Increased exposure to these images can lead to desensitization, a kind of emotional numbing effect as they become used to the horrors that come with the job. While non-journalists won’t bear the brunt of this, it follows that stories of police brutality, terrorist attacks, and other violence could start to wear on our emotional well-being (or at the other end of the spectrum, our ability to respond emotionally in the first place), particularly if we’re always plugged in.

Importantly, though, cable news in and of itself has no such effect. Although individual elections might affect our stress levels—Duke scientists tracking the stress hormone cortisol in McCain voters vs. Obama voters on the night of the 2008 election saw a spike among members of the losing party—the steady drumbeat of political developments doesn’t seem to do the same. One 2017 study of older adults, the largest consumers of cable news, exposed volunteers to Fox News, MSNBC, and PBS (respectively deemed right, left, and center), then monitored their psychological, physiological, and cognitive responses. In short, there wasn’t one: “Cable news watching had no effect on psychological stress, physiological stress, or cognitive function.

This remained true even if the news exposures were discordant with participants’ political affiliation.” While a 2012 study at Texas A&M found that New York Times stories about Obama’s success led to higher cortisol levels than those about Mystic Pizza or Taylor Swift among the college’s conservative student body, the authors were quick to note that “the effects we observed were within the range of normal, daily variations in cortisol,” and they pushed back against the notion of political coverage as a kind of “secondary smoke” for partisan opponents. So from an empirical perspective, it seems that both watching and reading the news, even when it scares us or disappoints us or we disagree with it, are relatively safe habits.

Natalie Bushaw, a spokeswoman for Life Time, assured the Times that when it comes to cable news at the gym, this went beyond Trump. “This has been a growing issue over years, not weeks or months,” she said. That may have been more about the gym’s desire to combat accusations of censorship in these polarized times. But she’s right that people have worried about information overload being bad for one’s health for a long time: As early as the 1840s, Victorians feared for the fate of “brain workers”—the academics, financiers, and clergymen inundated with information at rates that had previously been impossible. As the advent of commercial telegraphs and the mass production and distribution of pamphlets and periodicals radically altered the speed and frequency of communication, doctors advised those facing mental and emotional overload to “take rest,” literally checking out and retiring to, say, Davos for months or even years at a time.

A six-month vacation from reality may sound tempting, perhaps even healthy considering the current state of the world. Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Things have obviously changed fundamentally since the 1840s, but they’ve also changed since 2016. It’s worth noting that while the most recent of these studies was published in 2017, volunteers were recruited between July 2014 and May 2015—in other words, well before the Trump administration or the #MeToo moment. Our current 24-hour news cycle, dominated by stories of sexual assault, environmental crises, and impending nuclear disaster, may well be more distressing than it has been in the past, and plenty has been written about what we can do to cultivate a healthier “media diet” in response. There are cases in which limiting our exposure is in fact a valid and worthwhile course of action: It’s OK (and probably even advisable) to go to bed on an election night instead of obsessively refreshing the Upshot’s robot predictor needle. And there’s no shame in choosing not to bear witness to every moment of violence, as long as we don’t shy away from what they tell us about the world we live in.

Life Time has offered its customers a compromise: The channels that have been removed from large-screen TVs are still available on smaller ones, and the gym’s Wi-Fi allows them to tune in to whatever they like on mobile phones. While it may not be scientifically necessary to take cable TV off its biggest screens, the gym is simply letting its customers make a choice about where, whether, and how much they want to engage—and that seems like a perfectly reasonable step to me.

Climate Litigation Needs to Become a Mass Movement

Climate Litigation Needs to Become a Mass Movement

by Ketan Jha @ Slate Articles

Things are not going well for the Earth. It goes well beyond the Trump administration’s decision to eventually leave the Paris Agreement and Scott Pruitt’s purge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific experts. Even non-American efforts to curb climate change aren’t going so well: Newly released data from the World Meteorological Organization reveal a record increase in average global concentrations of CO2 between 2015 and 2016. The United Nations Environment Programme recently issued its annual synthesis report on the emissions gap, which is the difference between country-specific plans and reductions suggested by scientific consensus. One of the salient findings is that domestic carbon-reduction policies for the 168 countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement amount to just one-third of what is necessary to limit global temperature rise to the Paris boundary of “well below 2 degrees Celsius.”

At the same time, and perhaps in response, litigating to protect the climate is on the rise. If climate litigation is construed broadly, the past 20 years have seen 654 cases tried in the United States and at least 230 in other jurisdictions.

Is readying our collective casebooks and heading for the courthouse actually the best solution? Litigation, after all, is typically an inefficient method of achieving policy reform. The flagship public-interest law efforts during the civil rights movement provide instructive lessons here, particularly when academics and activists are increasingly extending historical parallels between environmental protection and racial justice to climate change. Even where many of the necessary conditions for successful legal reform strategies are present—as with some of the landmark cases tried by NAACP lawyers—there is a strong argument that lawsuits constrained by narrow legal doctrines and limited remedies will rarely be able to produce the kinds of sweeping economic changes required to combat the approaching climate catastrophe.

And yet, even though the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the parent treaty to the Paris Agreement) was drafted 25 years ago, we still do not have coherent global or local plans to limit destructive warming. The Paris Agreement was certainly the right direction after international law’s failure to achieve binding targets, but bottom-up targets only work when national commitments are extremely ambitious. So, in sum, it seems that litigating to reform energy policy is both utterly inefficient and entirely necessary.

These climate cases are not new, but the types of claims at stake are changing. The first wave of momentous actions in the United States chiefly involved efforts by state governments to compel either the executive or private entities to take action, either by forcing agencies to regulate emissions or forcing companies to steadily abate them. Other legal actions by local interest groups and environmental nongovernmental organizations sought to make agencies take climate change into account in relation to species-specific issues, such as the effect of global warming on food security for grizzly bears. More recent American suits tend to tackle specific deregulation plans or administrative omissions and delays. Success rates for local issues vary, and they are a vital part of an effective mass litigation strategy. However, since an ambitious suit calling power companies to account was unanimously shot down in the Supreme Court in 2011, high-impact litigation efforts slowed considerably while temperature-rise projections accelerated. The early American cases failed to unify scientific narratives, the stories and voices of people affected by climate change, and opportune legal moments.

Climate litigation in other countries, however, tells a different story. Here, it is a story about seizing the law as a means of collective action instead of leaving an elite cadre of lawyers to represent the concerns of a few activists and scientists. That narrative begins with the Urgenda case. A Dutch NGO, headed by one of the professors who first suggested the 2 degrees Celsius target, enlisted almost 900 claimants and alleged that government action was insufficient. Urgenda argued, among other things, that even if the Dutch government was bound by EU emissions targets, commitment did not immunize them from legal liability resulting from human health risks posed by climate change. In 2015, the court ordered the government to cut its emissions by 25 percent by 2020. The argument advanced by Urgenda is particularly relevant in light of the new emissions-gap data—governments cannot rest on the laurels of existing targets to deflect the need for comprehensive action.

Even still, the global impact of Urgenda is as much about the form and optics of litigation as the substantive arguments. Urgenda paved the way for multiclaimant lawsuits that highlight the importance of climate action by giving platforms to those who stand to suffer disproportionate harms. Put differently, this nascent wave of climate litigation is about forcing governments to see climate change as a collective human-rights issue and to take action that reflects the dire picture painted by scientists about climate risks to human health.

A similar claim filed by 450 Swiss women, all at least 65 years of age, is currently pending. Like Urgenda, the claimants argue that existing legal targets are insufficient to safeguard their rights under both the European Convention on Human Rights and Swiss constitutional law.

In Belgium, a lawsuit that closely mirrors Urgenda advertises that citizens can become claimants through their website in just two minutes. That case now has nearly 32,000 co-claimants. The NGO responsible for the claim, Klimaatzaak, has enlisted a range of celebrity ambassadors to bolster its legal campaign through social media.

A group of Portuguese schoolchildren, all from a region plagued by destructive forest fires, is suing 47 countries in the European Court of Human Rights to compel similar emissions reductions in the first instance of multistate climate litigation. In just over a month, they have raised about $35,000 from more than 700 donors through CrowdJustice, a platform that connects ordinary people to public-interest lawsuits.

In the United Kingdom, where I’m based and also the ancestral home of the American common law, our case at Plan B.Earth implores the British government to amend their carbon targets to reflect the need for a net-zero emissions policy. The claimants, aged 9–79, include a rabbi concerned about the imminent humanitarian crisis, university students scared for their future, and a supporter with Mauritian heritage who represents the risk of small island states being submerged. In parallel to Urgenda, the U.K.’s current targets fall short of what climate science tells us is necessary to stop dangerous warming.

These European suits bolster the case for unifying social movements mobilized around climate change with legal ones: We can fight political reluctance with grassroots legal actions around the globe. Environmental lawyers in the United States are not oblivious to this opportunity: Juliana v. United States broke new legal ground by enlisting youth plaintiffs, attempting to repurpose a Roman legal doctrine of contested historical provenance, and alleging a constitutional right to a stable climate. In the first rejection of the government’s argument to throw out that case, Judge Thomas Coffin referred to Urgenda as proof that courts can redress climate change.

Old uncertainties about the climate system are fading. Litigation in Australia has helped force the financial sector to consider climate risks that the oil industry has known about for decades. Litigation in Pakistan has helped remedy profound governmental inaction even where legislation had already been passed. These cases make clear that for all the cozy rhetoric, Champagne, and cheering, legislative and executive branches are not doing enough. We need more legal actions engaging citizens in every country to pressure governments to secure a habitable planet for future generations. A number of these lawsuits could be a hollow hope, but they might be all we have left.

Trump Wants to Go to the Moon. Do Private Space Companies?

Trump Wants to Go to the Moon. Do Private Space Companies?

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

On Monday, President Donald Trump signed a new space policy directive, aimed at sending American astronauts back to the moon. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been obsessing over this goal for months now. In a recent interview with Scientific American, Scott Pace, the executive secretary for the White House’s newly resurrected National Space Council, gave a short defense of exactly why Trump was so interested in the moon, arguing that while President Obama’s previous push for Mars- and asteroid-oriented missions had some merits, they “were so ambitious that they really didn’t provide opportunities for international or commercial partnerships.” These partnerships, Pace noted, are the real reason to engage with space exploration—as he put it, “the reason we do space is not simply to do it, but to advance U.S. national interests.”

The White House thinks it can use crewed lunar missions to bolster its relationship with the commercial space industry. The only problem with this reasoning is that the commercial space industry isn’t really that interested in the moon—they have their sights set on loftier goals, and there isn’t really great evidence that a pit stop at the moon will help them achieve these aims.

The real thing that would make redirecting to the moon worthwhile for them is if there’s money to be made there. It’s true that companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making fast strides in cutting costs through reusable architectures, but each launch is still far from profitable. And even though the space industry has always been understood as a long-term play—eventually, ventures like asteroid mining, space tourism, deep-space travel, and others will put their books in the black—in the meantime, they have to be cautious and discerning. “These folks are not running charities,” says Scott Hubbard, a Stanford professor and 40-year veteran in space-related research. (Hubbard also recently authored a piece in New Space arguing that a shift to the moon could derail plans to get to Mars.) “This is for-profit business, whether it’s Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk, or Lockheed Martin, or Boeing.”

If there are valuable resources on the moon to mine, the investment could pay off. But so far we don’t have a clear enough picture of what might be worth taking to warrant the investment of sending people up there. Helium-3 has been touted as one resource, but there’s no certainty it’s available in large quantities on the moon, nor is there a financially sustainable method of extracting it and transporting it back to Earth yet. Similarly, there could be huge reserves of water ice on the moon, which could give rise to a water-based lunar economy, but that is similarly hypothetical and hard to establish. We could verify that with more investigation, but it would be faster (and cheaper) to do that with robots, not people.

Perhaps this explains why so few private companies have lunar ambitions. Astrobotic, Moon Express, and Blue Origin are developing robotic technologies relevant to delivering cargo to and from the moon, which could support something like a mining operation, but this doesn’t actually require them to land on the moon. Similarly, others, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing are focused on getting to the moon—but to orbit it, not to land on its surface. And both companies are already partnering with NASA to develop architectures related to the Deep Space Gateway, a space station capable of moving between Earth and the moon, as a staging platform for human missions to Mars in the 2030s, and places beyond after that.

“Our ultimate mission and goal is really to get humans to the vicinity of Mars, and to the surface as soon as possible,” says Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP program manager. “[Our program] is focused primarily on the on-orbit piece, not surface missions.”

Nevertheless, Pratt said the Deep Space Gateway project can be used to support crewed (or uncrewed) lunar surface missions, and the company would be open to seeing to what role it could play in landing on the moon. Likewise, Boeing doesn’t currently have any surface lunar plans of its own, but a Boeing spokesperson says if NASA elects to send a crewed mission to the moon, its willing to support that approach and find ways to participate.*

It’s understandable that even though private industry might be more jazzed about Mars, they’ll still follow the money to the moon. If the government is offering lucrative contracts to commercial players for lunar missions, few companies are going to say no.

If private companies want to go to Mars to make money, then isn’t it already in their financial interest to use the lunar surface as a proving ground for testing and developing new technologies? Maybe! But that reasoning is somewhat tenuous. The moon might be a useful way to test out certain technologies relevant to traveling to and living on Mars—Pratt cites remote navigation instruments and guidance tracking—but these things could be tested remotely from orbit. But humans don’t need to land on the moon and build a lunar colony to train for Mars. There’s no lunar atmosphere, which makes testing launch and entry technologies designed for Mars irrelevant. The utter lack of climate and lower gravity means the two worlds require vastly different life-support system designs.

There are more abstract reasons for the U.S. to go to the moon (mostly that it could be a PR win for our country and our president), but for the private industry, it would most likely mean forgoing the long-term vision of Mars in favor of short-term gains. If the government is ponying up the cash, though, the commercial sector will have little trouble making that pivot—maybe with one eye still on the red planet.

*Correction, Jan. 5, 2018: This article originally misstated that Boeing doesn't have lunar plans. Boeing doesn't have any surface lunar plans. (Return.)

Are there pros to taking probiotics?

Are there pros to taking probiotics?

Global News

A new study casts doubts on the benefits probiotics can have on a healthy gut.

Dr. Banting’s Miracle Drug

Dr. Banting’s Miracle Drug

by Adam Bolt @ Slate Articles

This video is part of a series on diabetes produced by the Science Communication Lab. It’s published here in partnership with Slate.

Warning: the video above contains graphic images of sick children.

Just 100 years ago, Type 1 diabetes meant certain death for millions of children. The discovery of insulin in the early 1920s changed all that—but it also helped fuel a powerful myth that still affects how we see science today. “Dr. Banting’s Miracle Drug,” the short documentary above, peels back the layers of this myth and reveals what it really takes to achieve a scientific breakthrough.

Previously in this series: Fat is a Complex Organ, As Essential to Human Life As the Heart or Liver. Why Do We Hate It?

Why Did 20 Octopuses Recently Wash Up on a Wales Beach?

Why Did 20 Octopuses Recently Wash Up on a Wales Beach?

by Gavan Cooke @ Slate Articles

This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished here with permission.

A beach in Wales recently faced an eight-armed invasion. Over 20 octopuses were reportedly seen crawling up New Quay beach on the west coast of the country, with many later being found dead after failing to make it back to the sea.

Strandings of octopuses and other cephalopods (squishy, intelligent creatures including squid and cuttlefish) are pretty rare, and the exact truth of why this happened may never be known. But there are several theories that might help us to better understand this unusual event.

1. They became stranded like whales do.

Whale strandings are often put down to failures in the animals’ natural navigating abilities, which involve sending out sonar signals and sensing the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Sometimes the shoreline is too complex for these abilities to work, or there may be interference from human activities or even magnetic space weather.

But similar explanations aren’t likely to apply to the octopuses as they don’t navigate this way (instead we think they use a mental map like humans). Their hearing and auditory organs are comparatively simple and they can only hear at very narrow frequencies, which are not thought to be used for navigation.

2. A storm blew them ashore.

This is quite an appealing idea. Octopuses are (relatively) small and it’s easy to imagine them being caught in the forceful waves and washing up in large numbers. The coast of Britain has certainly been battered by storms recently.

There was also a high tide at around the time the octopuses are thought to have started appearing—so could a storm surge have dropped them on the beach? A sandy beach is not where you would expect these rocky seabed animals to be, so something unusual must have taken them to it.

3. They were looking for food.

While there have been anecdotal reports of octopuses leaping from rock pool to rock pool at low tide to grab a snack, this hasn’t included the curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa) found on New Quay beach. Although they do eat crabs, this species is normally found at much greater depths. We can’t rule this theory out but we also know that, instead of undergoing a frenzied feasting period, this species eats less in these waters at this time of year.

4. The octopuses were senile.

As silly as this sounds, it is a plausible option. Like nearly all cephalopods, these octopuses are strictly semelparous, meaning they breed once and then die. October is the last hurrah for this species, and adults go through a period known as “senescence” after breeding.

This final stage of their lives causes the animals to rapidly deteriorate and behave very oddly. Many of the videos showing giant squid behaving weirdly in the shallows can probably be explained by this old-age senility.

This was my first thought, but a major reservation about this hypothesis is that these older octopuses normally show signs of physical deterioration. For example, their skin goes white and peels, cataracts can be common, and the animals generally appear to be in poor condition and get skin diseases. So far, I have not seen any evidence of this poor body condition normally associated with senescence.

5. Octopus numbers may be increasing.

One apparently encouraging implication to this sad tale is that it might indicate an increase in the numbers of octopuses in the sea. All year, I have been seeing reports of greater and greater numbers of all cephalopods in U.K. waters, especially octopuses. At the end of the summer, my social media feed was comparatively buzzing with videos of excited bathers spotting octopuses in rock pools, something not seen much before in U.K. waters. I’ve also seen many videos of huge groups of cuttlefish, a cephalopod species usually found in much smaller groups.

There are several possible explanations for this. Overfishing might be reducing numbers of cephalopod predators. The increase in sea temperatures related to climate change could be helping southerly species, such as Octopus vulgaris, “invade” our waters.

Another intriguing aspect of this event is that so many were found in the same place. Octopuses generally are thought to be solitary creatures, including Elodone cirrhosa. But a recent finding suggests we may have to reevaluate much of what we know regarding the sociability of these animals. Perhaps these octopuses had gathered for mating and got caught up in a powerful set of waves.

In the longer term, and at a more global scale, human interference may benefit some species rather than others. We joke that rats and cockroaches will inherit the Earth, but cephalopods may also be a benefactor. We overfish their predators and they possibly do not suffer from ocean acidification like other invertebrates. If this is indeed a happy note in a time of generally bad news for marine life, I for one welcome our new cephalopod overlords.

It’s Surprisingly Easy to Lose a Satellite, Even One Worth Millions

It’s Surprisingly Easy to Lose a Satellite, Even One Worth Millions

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are not having a good week. On Sunday, SpaceX launched a secret military satellite called Zuma from Florida into orbit. But the satellite, built by Northrop Grumman and owned by the U.S. government for classified purposes, was nowhere to be seen once SpaceX’s rocket carried the payload into space. At this point, the one thing that is clear is that Zuma failed to make it to orbit.

SpaceX quickly denied blame, with company COO Gwynne Shotwell releasing a statement saying its flagship Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly on Sunday night.” This is supported by the fact that the payload adaptor that works to release the satellite into orbit was not provided by SpaceX (as is common for most of the company’s missions), but by Northrop Grumman.

So if the adaptor failed to release the payload, then the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket dragged the satellite back through Earth’s atmosphere unwittingly, and Northrop Grumman would be the party to blame for losing a government satellite reportedly worth as much as a billion. (For its part, the company has not publicly commented on the Zuma debacle, except to say: “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”)

The mystery of who’s to blame makes for a nice bit of drama that’s often missing from the space industry, but the truth is that while the failure of this mission cannot be understated, it’s actually not really that surprising. And that really comes down to the fact that getting to space is hard.

There were 91 launch attempts in 2017, and six were failures. That’s not high, but it’s significant. Imagine booking a flight and knowing there was a 6.6 percent chance it might crash. You’d probably cancel your trip and go back to binge-watching The Crown.

And that’s because there’s an incomprehensibly long list of things that could go wrong during launch, which SpaceX is no stranger to after a Falcon 9 exploded in midflight in 2015 and a launch pad test in 2016 destroyed both a rocket and a half-billion dollar Facebook satellite. Both of those events are quick examples of how small anomalies or flaws can cascade into disastrous results. And that’s understandable, because the sheer nature of launching things into space is a literally explosive process.

In addition, this is far from the first time an expensive satellite has been lost. Russia, the country whose Sputnik 1 was the first satellite ever launched, lost contact with a $45 million satellite just last year, and that’s just the latest in a long string of launch failures to plague the country in recent years. Japan lost contact with a $250 million astronomy satellite a month after launch in 2016. Closer to home, the U.S. military lost contact with a reconnaissance satellite in 2006 shortly after launch and had to shoot it down two years later.

Sunday’s failure is going to hurt a lot more than those other losses, but perhaps it’s the high-profile development that might push the space industry forward in the long run. Rocket scientist and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin told NBC News he compares the risks of spaceflight today to the risks of air travel in its infancy and that running more launches and missions will inevitably help teach all launch parties how to conduct safer space travel.

In addition, this might also be the incentive we need to push for more radical approaches to satellites. The advent of 3-D printing technology means we might soon just build our satellites directly in space and avoid the potential mess (and insane costs) that come with a rocket launch and payload deployment.

Nevertheless, the risks to any satellite will never fully go away.
Earth’s orbit will always be an unstable region for any object, thanks to continued atmospheric drag, solar wind, gravitational influences from outside Earth, the nuanced physics we still have a shaky grasp of. When it comes to space, there will always be a host of factors that can turn a routine mission into an aggravating setback.

How Interesting Does Science Have to Be for the Public to Fund It?

How Interesting Does Science Have to Be for the Public to Fund It?

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

If you’ve read the phrase alien megastructures over the past few years, you probably have Tabetha Boyajian to thank. The Louisiana State University–based astronomer has been the driving force behind investigating the mysteries of KIC 8462852, a little star 1,280 light-years away whose incredibly bizarre behavior has flummoxed scientists since October 2015. Boyajian and her colleagues worked furiously to figure out why observations of KIC 8462852 (affectionately called Tabby’s Star, after Boyajian), first made with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, showed the star was exhibiting insanely rapid, irregular dips in brightness.

Why was KIC 8462852 acting this way? Scientists didn’t know. It couldn’t be explained by conventional causes, like orbiting planets. Aliens were one theory, because of course they were. At some point, the theory that the dips might be caused by gigantic infrastructures built by an intelligent alien civilization started circulating. And from there alien megastructures really took off.

As the news spread, Boyajian took the unorthodox step of launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund new observations of the star, raising more than $100,000 from more than 1,700 online donors to reserve time to study KIC 8462852 with instruments operated by Las Cumbres Observatory.

Unfortunately, a new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters put the alien megastructures dreams to rest. Whatever is causing Tabby’s Star to randomly dim like a lightbulb on the fritz has nothing to do with alien megastructures. In fact, it looks like the culprit is probably dust—maybe from the remnants of a nearby planet or moon, or from another source. Questions remain, and Boyajian and her team are anxious to learn more, but we can at least say for certain: Gigantic alien infrastructure is not at play here.

This revelation is a bit of a bummer, of course. And the crowdfunded nature of the project adds its own strange dimension to what happens next when it comes to investigating Tabby’s Star. Indeed, it raises interesting questions about how scientific investigations are supposed to proceed if they rely on public funding.

There are very clear advantages to crowdfunding scientific investigations. Sometimes it proves to be a useful way to raise money fast without trudging through the bureaucratic process that slows down traditional avenues. It can also bring the scientific and nonscientific communities closer and foster better communication and partnerships.

But the general public isn’t known for its patient foresight. People like bombastic spectacles; sexy, viral news; Boaty McBoatface. It’s hard to remember that an investigation into an obscure molecule could lead to a groundbreaking treatment for cancer two decades later, or how climate change is going to doom us all later this century. The pace of science and the pace of news are fundamentally at odds with each other.

Scientists, however, have to remember those things. So do the agencies that normally decide which projects deserve money. And perhaps more importantly, traditional institutions also have a healthy respect for the disappointment and surprise that permeates through research. When a hypothesis is disproven or something unexpected arises from the experiment, scientists don’t see failure; they see progress, just in a direction they hadn’t predicted before. Those results are still essential in filling gaps of knowledge, and they may prove useful later on.

Would Boyajian have really raised so much money if KIC 8462852 hadn’t generated so much hype about intelligent extraterrestrials? Both Boyajian and her colleague Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University and co-author of the new study, and practically every other scientist studying the star made it adamantly clear the chances alien megastructures were orbiting the star were extremely small.

“I would be mortified if any one of the contributors thought that they were tricked into supporting the project because of E.T.,” Boyajian told Slate. “We worked very hard on clearly describing our intent to collect data to be used in testing any hypothesis.”

But one can’t help but suspect that many donors shelled out the cash for this project specifically in the hopes that the observations would prove the existence of aliens. People get hyped up about aliens, understandably—extraterrestrials are a serious part of space research these days. But it’s probably safe to say 1,700 people didn’t donate money in hopes of finding dust.

How can scientists keep their crowds interested after the crowdfunding? The key might be transparency. “I think the success of this project is a good template for others doing high-profile research to follow,” Wright told me. “Especially important has been the way that Tabby and her team have appreciated the backers, kept them involved, given them everything that was promised, and acknowledged their support.” He credits that work as the reason why some donors have already asked how they can contribute to follow-up studies, despite the dust finding.

Boyajian “absolutely” intends to pursue follow-up observations of KIC 8462852, but she isn’t sure whether many of the same contributors to the first Kickstarter campaign would come back in light of the fact that aliens have been ruled out. Can you raise $100,000 to study cosmic dust? Maybe. Boyajian’s challenge will be to market that investigation in a way that replicates the excitement of alien megastructures. That’s not a case that one would have to make to a panel of experts more familiar with and sensitive to the intricacies of scientific research.

It’s Time to Let Go of Our Dreams of Going to Venus

It’s Time to Let Go of Our Dreams of Going to Venus

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

The most recent time NASA launched a mission to Venus was in 1989. The Magellan orbiter lasted four years, transmitting data back to Earth that had to be recorded onto physical tapes. These were archaic times.

The generation-long drought of missions solely intended to study Venus was extended further last Wednesday, when NASA selected two projects as finalists for a mid-2020s science mission. None of the three Venus projects were chosen. One did receive additional funding for more research and development, but it will have to wait till the next application cycle to contend again for mission selection.

The general public might be more or less ambivalent to such a decision, but within the scientific community, there’s plenty of lamenting that Venus continues to draw the short straw when it comes to NASA’s science program.

But NASA is right. It’s time to let go of Venus.

There have always been good reasons to conduct missions to Venus: Earth and Venus share comparable sizes, densities, and overall geographies, and many scientists believe Venus represents a sort of glimpse into an alternate reality of what Earth could have turned out to be. While our planet is a warm, loving environment that’s allowed life to evolve and thrive, Venus is an 850 degree Fahrenheit extraterrestrial hell, covered in a dense atmosphere of sulfuric acid and surface pressures that we only see on Earth at depths of about 1 kilometer underwater. When previous missions have gone to Venus, they’ve been searching for clues that could explain how some planets transform into habitable worlds, and others don’t. That information could be very useful for understanding what other worlds and directions we ought to focus our attention on.

But there are two major reasons it’s time to move on from Venus. The first is cost and accessibility. Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, told reporters last Wednesday that going to Venus is still an incredibly difficult venture. The planet’s hellacious environment is a destructive force. Spending millions or billions of dollars on a lander that can’t last more than a few hours is a hard sell against projects that can study other worlds for several years on end, like Mars or Saturn’s moon Titan. Scientists are making strides in computer chips and technologies that could handle Venus, but a working lander or rover is still very far in the future. We could stick to orbiters and be safe, but there’s only so much you can learn about a place from high above.

The second reason to ignore Venus harkens back to what NASA is more interested in these days: extraterrestrial life. NASA is pivoting its science program deeper into astrobiology to find worlds that could be habitable to life—be it by humans or aliens. Mars, for instance, is a place we will certainly set foot on one day, and there are high hopes we could find signs of past or present microorganisms on the planet. Ocean worlds, like Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, also possess subsurface liquid oceans that might be breeding grounds for lifeforms. And even though these worlds are freezing, habitat technologies that keep colonists warm and fuzzy are already conceivable. If we can eventually perfect terraforming technologies, we could warm these worlds up so they’re more amenable to future denizens.

Venus is not like that. It’s almost certainly lifeless in its current state. We can’t even get simple instruments on Venus to survive for more than a few hours before they melt and combust. It’s almost unthinkable humans will ever set foot on the surface. And terraforming as we currently think about it means warming a planet up (which we’re pretty experienced at!), not cooling it down. If Venus ever decides to chill out, it will be millions or billions of years from now, as a natural process.

It’s sad to say, but Venus is more of a sideshow when it comes to planetary science these days. It might be time to accept we won’t be visiting the yellow planet for quite a long time. Let’s give ourselves a moment to mourn, and move on.

Here’s the Expertise Scott Pruitt Is Removing From the EPA’s Advisory Boards

Here’s the Expertise Scott Pruitt Is Removing From the EPA’s Advisory Boards

by Lila Thulin @ Slate Articles

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has made yet another frightening decision that seems likely to further untether the agency he leads from sound environmental science. The former attorney general of Oklahoma announced Tuesday that scientists receiving EPA grants for their research would no longer be eligible to serve on committees that provide his agency with expert scientific input, including the Scientific Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors. In a memo that echoed a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, Pruitt outlined the unprecedented rules as a way to guard against conflict of interest (no comparable rules prohibit committee members from having ties to industry) and “promote fresh perspectives” (likely Pruitt’s own personal euphemism for incorporating climate change denialism). The EPA head also reprised the controversial decision he’d made this June to not renew contracts for the Board of Scientific Counselors: Incumbent committee members who have only served one three-year term will not be asked to return to the agency, even though it has recently been routine for them to serve two terms, according to the New Republic.

This roster slashing allows Pruitt, who has extensive ties to the energy industry, to fill 21 of the 42 seats on the Scientific Advisory Board. According to a list procured by E&E News—but unconfirmed by the EPA—Pruitt loaded the panel with male scientists from the Midwest and South, several with ties to industry or local government (he also recently decreased its annual number of meetings through a new charter), and announced that Michael Honeycutt, who has expressed doubt over the health dangers posed by ozone, would chair the committee.

The move to limit scientists who receive grants is particularly worrisome. As Ana Diez Roux, the just-replaced chairwoman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, said in an email to Science magazine, “The top scientists, the ones most qualified to provide objective and transparent scientific advice to EPA, are of course the scientists who will likely be most successful at obtaining highly competitive federal grants. … It would be a disservice to the American public to exclude those most qualified from serving on these panels.”

By comparing the leaked list of Pruitt’s nominations to current rosters that included term limit data, Slate compiled a list of the scientists whose expertise the EPA will no longer benefit from because these changes cut their time on its advisory boards short:

The Scientific Advisory Board provides reports on scientific topics (like fracking or toxic chemicals) that pertain to EPA regulations. Here are the members whose terms will not be renewed:

Deborah Hall Bennett (first term slated to end in 2019) of the University of California, Davis, an expert on pollutants and environmental epidemiology

Kiros Berhane (first term slated to end in 2018) of the University of Southern California, an EPA-funded expert on using statistics to analyze the health impacts of climate change, air pollution, and occupational exposure

Sylvie Brouder (first term ended in 2017) of Purdue University, an expert on crop nutrition, soil fertility, and agricultural systems

Ana Diez Roux (former CASAC chairwoman, first term on SAB ended in 2017) of Drexel University, an expert on race and neighborhood-related health disparities.

Robert Johnston (second term slated to end in 2018) of Clark University, an expert on the economics of flooding and sea level rise. When asked about the new rules, Johnston said to Politico Pro, “I think it’s really unfortunate that that role is now being politicized in a way that it never has before under any administration.”

Catherine Karr (second term slated to end in 2018) of the University of Washington, an expert on children’s environmental health.

Francine Laden (second term slated to end in 2018) of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an EPA-funded expert on environmental risk factors for cancer and respiratory disease. Laden told Politico Pro she has “serious concerns about the motivations and implications of this decision.”

Denise Mauzerall (first term ended 2017) of Princeton University, an expert on air pollution policy

Kari Nadeau (first term slated to end in 2018) of the Stanford University School of Medicine, an expert on allergy and asthma immunology

Jeanne VanBriesen (second term slated to end in 2018) of Carnegie Mellon University, an expert on environmental systems and the impacts of energy extraction

Elke Weber (first term ended 2017) of Princeton University, an expert on decision-making and risk analysis in financial and environmental choices

Charles Werth (first term ended 2017) of the University of Texas at Austin, an expert in clean energy, water treatment, and pollution

Robyn Wilson (first term slated to end in 2018) of Ohio State University, an EPA-funded expert in land management decision-making and risk analysis. Wilson tweeted:

On the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a smaller panel that offers insight on air pollution standards and health effects, these members will be leaving their positions earlier than anticipated:

Donna Kenski (first term slated to end in 2019) of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (an EPA-funded nonprofit), an expert on air quality monitoring. Kenski told the New York Times, “The really galling part of this is that it’s all in an effort to avoid conflict of interest, but they pretend that the industry people who are being offered up positions on the panel are somehow unbiased because they’re not getting money from EPA.”

Ronald Wyzga (second term slated to end in 2018) of the Electric Power Research Institute, an expert on the health effects of air pollution

If there’s any silver lining to be had, it’s this: Pruitt didn’t seem to rely on his panel of experts much anyway. In September, outgoing board chairman Peter Thorne wrote to the administrator that “the SAB stands ready to serve and encourages you to take full advantage of the vital resource we can provide,” but then, the Washington Post notes, “Pruitt never met with the group.”

Unfortunately, given Pruitt’s history, it seems quite likely that he’ll make better use of the board once he’s stocked it with industry insiders.

Will Puerto Rico’s Official Death Count From Maria Ever Be Accurate?

Will Puerto Rico’s Official Death Count From Maria Ever Be Accurate?

by Alexis R. Santos-Lozada @ Slate Articles

This story is republished with permission from the Conversation.

“If you don’t get away from those areas, you are going to die.” That phrase concluded Puerto Rico Secretary of Public Safety Héctor Pesquera’s press conference before Hurricane Maria.

Three months after the storm, he is one of the fiercest protectors of the official death count. As of Dec. 29, the Department of Public Safety had certified 64 deaths due to Hurricane Maria.

However, estimates reported by CNN, the New York Times, and others tell a very different story.

I was part of the team of demographers that developed the first independent estimates of excess deaths, with the objective of informing the public. Like the estimates published by those media outlets, our numbers contrasted significantly with the official figure. The most shocking results from our study suggest that deaths in September and October were 25 percent above the historical patterns—with about 1,085 added deaths following the hurricane.

Determining the number of excess deaths after a natural disaster is not only a mathematical exercise. Undercounting deaths reduces the attention to the crisis Puerto Ricans live day by day. It can also delay international recovery efforts and the approval of policies to help those who need it the most.

Death counts for Hurricane Maria
How many people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria? The official count is at 64, but studies by other researchers and media outlets estimate many hundreds more.

Our study compared preliminary data from the Department of Public Safety with historical patterns for the same months in the past decade. In other words, we compared the number of deaths in September and October last year with data from the same period of time in 2010 to 2016. This is how we concluded that there were 1,085 extra deaths, in excess of historical ranges.

So why are more than 1,000 deaths missing from the official count? My colleagues and I suspect it may come down to how deaths are recorded by government officials.

In Puerto Rico, deaths are recorded using international classifications. This system doesn’t capture all of the circumstances surrounding a death that happens following a natural disaster. The death may have been accelerated by some conditions—like difficulty communicating during the emergency.

Deaths associated with a particular natural disaster can be classified as direct or indirect deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, direct deaths are those “directly attributable to the forces of the disaster or by the direct consequences of these forces, such as structural collapse, flying debris or radiation exposure.”

“Indirect deaths” may be associated with any unsafe or unhealthy conditions before, during, and after the natural disaster.

For example, Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s power grid. So, someone whose life depended on a dialysis machine would no longer be able to use one. In official certificates, their death would be classified as kidney-related and not attributed to the hurricane—even though the death was accelerated by lack of resources required by the patient to stay alive.

The same would happen to someone whose life depended on respiratory aid. Their death would be classified as pulmonary-related.

Or, say a person feels chest pain and suspects a heart attack. Their immediate reaction might be to call 911. A working communications structure may be able to get help in time and save a life. But in the days following Hurricane Maria, only 25 percent of the cellphone towers were working. Communication was virtually impossible.

Under the international system, a death resulting from these circumstances would be classified as a result of cardiovascular conditions and would not be attributed to the hurricane either.

In light of the mounting evidence, Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló has ordered a review of the causes of death for those who died after Hurricane Maria.

The review is a step in the right direction. But will the official count change? Probably not. As of Wednesday, the government was requiring families to visit the Department of Public Safety and to report if a death was related to Hurricane Maria. But merely revising the causes of death is not enough to determine whether that death was indirectly related to Hurricane Maria. Those in charge of the death count review will need to interview families and ask them about the conditions surrounding the tragedy.

Following the impact of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the CDC published guidelines that state and territorial governments should follow to determine whether a death is related or not to a specific event. Following these guidelines could provide the government of Puerto Rico with a more realistic death count. It remains to be seen whether the new count will follow this protocol.

An accurate death count could be used to inform policies, supplement requests for aid in the national and international context, and inform local governments as they prepare for future natural disasters that may impact Puerto Rico, particularly extreme weather events now that climate change is expected to worsen. Hurricane Maria was the first storm to destroy the power grid in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is six months away from the next hurricane season, and experts predict it will be an active one.

Finally, minimized figures could weaken efforts to provide relief to communities affected by the hurricane at the local and international level. Given that Puerto Rico does not hold political power in Congress and that the only representative does not vote, it’s crucial to convey the reality to all elected officials, so that their votes align with the necessities of those who are still in Puerto Rico.

Trump’s Cuts to National Monuments Hurt Native Americans Most

Trump’s Cuts to National Monuments Hurt Native Americans Most

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

In Utah on Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced their decision to dramatically reduce the size of two of the state’s national monuments—Bears Ears National Monument will be cut by 80 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 45 percent. The move, which is legally fraught and an unusual use of presidential power, will likely allow for mining and drilling to return to the land.

The move is not just an attack on beautiful landscapes, treasured public lands that are widely revered by Americans at large, though it is that. The administration’s assault on these national monuments is in line with many of its other moves, which is to say that it is also an attack on minorities. In this case, it’s an affront to the Native American tribes that actively petitioned against these particular delistings.

Bears Ears, which will reportedly be reduced by some 1.15 million acres, was established by President Barack Obama in December 2016, making it one of his final moves in office. Co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and several Native American tribal groups that have lived in the region for millennia, Bears Ears has both unusual geographic features—like the two protruding mesas from which the monument got its name—and numerous archaeological and spiritual sites. (Grand Staircase-Escalante, which will be reduced by about 900,000 acres, was established by President Bill Clinton in 1996.)

In response to Trump’s Salt Lake City speech and signing, the Navajo Nation, one of several stewards of Bears Ears, issued a statement stating its intent to take the matter of the monument to court. “The decision to reduce the size of the Monument is being made with no tribal consultation. The Navajo Nation will defend Bear Ears,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in the statement. “The reduction in the size of the Monument leaves us no choice but to litigate this decision.”

While Trump’s move is unusual, it’s not completely unprecedented. Woodrow Wilson redrew the boundaries on Mount Olympus National Monument, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an effort to appease ranchers, cut away at the Grand Canyon when it was a monument. (Both have since been made, by acts of Congress, national parks, protected for their scenic, inspirational, educational, or recreational value, rather than their historical, cultural, or scientific interest.) But despite these actions, the legal rights of presidents to redraw such boundaries has never been clarified explicitly, which is why the court challenge could have legs.

What is more clear are Trump’s motivations. By redrawing the boundaries on two Utah national monuments, he creates new opportunities for private industry to profit off the land. While grazing cattle was already allowed at Bears Ears under the Obama-era rules, reducing the amount of protected land could allow for the infiltration of mining, drilling, and other resource extraction companies. The decision also allows Trump to solidify his friendship with Utah’s leadership, including Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, many of whom believe Obama’s decision to place Utah’s land under federal control was unfair and maybe unlawful. While the Antiquities Act of 1906 gave presidents fairly limitless power when it came to designating of national monuments, it called for monuments to be restricted to the  “smallest area compatible” with the preservation of key features. By slicing and dicing the land, Trump and Zinke seem to believe they’re rightfully reversing Obama’s “federal overreach” and bringing the monuments into agreement with the law as they interpret it.

Zinke said Monday that the move was “giving rural America a voice.” But the proposed cuts clearly violate the wishes of the five Native American tribes that are partners in protecting the land. This is the second statement the Navajo Nation has had to release about President Trump in the past week: The first came after an earlier event ostensibly to honor the Navajo code talkers who served the United States during World War II, during which Trump used the slur Pocahontas in reference to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all while standing under a prominent portrait of his favorite president, Andrew Jackson, whose Indian Removal Act started the Trail of Tears. The plan also seems to fly in the face of the majority of the 1 million public comments Americans left on Zinke’s monument proposal earlier this year, most of which were in support of continued land conservation.

Like so many of Trump’s favorite initiatives, the modifications of these two national monuments is certain to make some already rich men even richer—and the rest of our nation a lot poorer.

2017 Is the Year We Should Have Realized That Climate Change Is Already Here

2017 Is the Year We Should Have Realized That Climate Change Is Already Here

by Adam Rogers @ Slate Articles

This story is republished with permission from Wired, as part of a collaboration with Climate Desk.

This past year, 2017, was the worst fire season in American history. More than 9.5 million acres burned across North America. Firefighting efforts cost $2 billion.

This past year, 2017, was the seventh-worst Atlantic hurricane season on record and the worst since 2005. There were six major storms. Early estimates put the costs at more than $180 billion.

As the preventable disease hepatitis A spread through homeless populations in California cities in 2017, 1 million Yemenis contracted cholera amid a famine. Diphtheria killed 21 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, on the run from a genocide.

Disaster, Pestilence, War, and Famine are riding as horsemen of a particular apocalypse. In 2016, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403 parts per million, higher than it has been since at least the last ice age. By the end of 2017, the United States was on track to have the most billion-dollar weather- and climate-related disasters since the government started counting in 1980. We did that.

Transnational corporations and the most powerful militaries on Earth are already building to prepare for higher sea levels and more extreme weather. The FIRE complex—finance, insurance, and real estate—knows exactly what 2017 cost them (natural and human-made disasters: $306 billion and 11,000 lives) and can calculate more of the same in 2018. They know that the radical alteration of Earth’s climate isn’t just something that’s going to happen in 100 years if we’re not careful, or in 50 years if we don’t change our economy and moonshot the crap out of science and technology. It’s here. Now. It happened. Look behind you.

Let me rephrase: Absent any changes, by 2050 Earth will be a couple degrees hotter overall. Sea levels will be a foot higher. Now, 2050 seems as impossibly far away to me as 2017 did when I was 12 years old. I live in the future! And I like a lot of it. I like the magic glass slab in my pocket and the gene therapy and the robots. I mention this because in 2050, my oldest child will be the same age I am today, and I have given him a broken world.

I don’t want that.

So 2017 taught a lesson, at last, that scientists and futurists have been screaming about. Humanity has to reduce the amount of carbon it’s pumping into the air. Radically. Or every year will be worse from here on out.

But 2017 also made plain the shape of the overall disaster. All those fires and floods and outbreaks are symptoms of the same problem, and it’s time to start dealing with that in a clear-eyed way. It’s also time to start building differently—to start making policies that understand that the American coastline is going to be redrawn by the sea and that people can’t keep building single-family homes anywhere they can grade a flat pad. The wildland-urban interface can’t keep spreading at will. People can’t keep pumping fresh water out of aquifers without restoring them. Infrastructure for water and power has to be hardened against more frequent, more intense storms, backed up and reinforced so hundreds of thousands of people don’t go without electricity as they are in post-hurricane Puerto Rico.

In short: Change, but also adapt. Fire season in the West is now a permanent condition; don’t build buildings that burn so easily in places that burn every year. Hurricanes and storm surges are going to continue to walk up the Caribbean and onto the Gulf Coast, or maybe along the seaboard. Don’t put houses on top of the wetlands that absorb those storms. Don’t insure the people who do. Build ways for people to get around without cars. Create a power grid that pulls everything it can from renewable sources like wind and solar. Keep funding public health research, surveillance, and ways to deal with mosquito-borne diseases that thrive in a hotter world.

And the next time someone in a city planning meeting says that new housing shouldn’t get built in a residential area because it’s not in keeping with the sense of the community and might disrupt parking, tell them what that means: that they want young people to have lesser lives, that they don’t want poor people and people of color to have the same opportunities they did, and that they’d rather the planet’s environment get crushed by letting bad buildings spread to inhospitable places than increasing density in cities.

This apocalypse doesn't hurt everyone. Some people benefit. It’s not a coincidence that the FIRE industries also donate the most money to federal political campaigns. Rich people living behind walls they think can’t be breached by any rising tide, literal or metaphoric, made this disaster. And then they gaslighted the vulnerable into distrusting anyone raising the alarm. The people who benefit have made it seem as if this dark timeline was all perfectly fine.

It isn’t. And that’s why it’ll change.

In 1957 Charles Fritz and Harry Williams, the research associate and technical director, respectively, of the National Academy of Sciences’ Disaster Studies Committee, wrote a paper that sparked the field of disaster sociology. Their findings were counterintuitive then, and somehow remain so. People in disasters, they said, don’t loot and riot. They help each other. “The net result of most disasters is a dramatic increase in social solidarity among the affected populace during the emergency and immediate post-emergency periods,” they wrote. “The sharing of a common threat to survival and the common suffering produced by the disaster tend to produce a breakdown of pre-existing social distinctions and a great outpouring of love, generosity, and altruism.”

In a disaster, we help each other. The trick is recognizing the disaster. Through that lens, fixing the problem and protecting one another against its consequences isn’t merely inarguable. It’s human nature. We’re all in this together.

This Land Was Your Land

This Land Was Your Land

by Elizabeth Shogren @ Slate Articles

This story is republished from High Country News as part of a collaboration with Climate Desk.

President Donald Trump has spent the past year steadily undoing Obama-era environmental protections, especially rules designed to fight climate change. By law, agencies must go through a lengthy process to rescind or rewrite many rules, but executive orders and other policies are easier to erase. Some of the rollbacks have major implications for the West and public lands.

Here we take a look at some of the most important rollbacks of the past year:


Trump slashed two national monuments in southern Utah and is considering changes to other monuments in the West. Under Trump’s boundaries, Bears Ears becomes two separate management units: Indian Creek and Shash Jáa. The two together are just 15 percent of the footprint protected by President Barack Obama in 2016. The new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is about half its original size. Countless archaeological, paleontological, cultural, and scenic treasures are left out of Trump’s new boundaries. Bears Ears and Escalante supporters are suing to block this unprecedented action.

Arctic Refuge

At the Trump administration’s urging, Congress in December opened parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. This was an enormous loss for the Gwich’in, a Native Alaskan people, and environmental groups, which had successfully protected the refuge from drilling for decades. Drilling in the refuge is part of a broader policy of the administration to increase oil production in Alaska and in Western public lands in general. In December, the administration offered the largest lease sale ever in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. But companies bid on a tiny fraction of land available—only seven of the 900 tracts offered.

Clean Water Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule. This rule—particularly important in the arid West—mandates, for example, protecting tributaries that connect to navigable waterways and adjoining wetlands, even if they flow only part of the year. If it’s revoked, those tributaries could be filled in, ditched, or diverted for construction or farming without federal review.

In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether federal district courts or appeals courts should hear several pending cases challenging the rule. It’s unclear when it will issue a decision. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to write a new rule describing which waters and wetlands warrant federal protection and which should be left to state discretion. In the meantime, the Trump administration is trying to delay the date the Obama rule goes into effect until 2020 in case the courts uphold it.

The EPA also plans to eliminate protection of many wetlands and streams by narrowing the definition of a “navigable water.” This will be especially significant in the arid West, where most streams run only part of the year or after rain events.

Fossil fuel royalties rule

In August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke repealed a 2016 Obama rule designed to ensure that taxpayers get a fair return on oil, gas, and coal. The Obama administration estimated the rule would have increased the royalties that fossil fuel industries pay to mine and drill federal lands and waters by about $80 million a year. The rule was meant to eliminate a loophole that allows companies to sell to affiliated companies that then export and resell the minerals at higher prices, reducing royalties. Zinke said it was too complex and plans to draft a new rule.

BLM methane rule

In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management implemented a rule limiting how much methane can be released from some 96,000 oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and the 2016 rule’s goal was to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, smog and health problems, as well as to increase royalties. Industry claims the rule is too onerous and duplicates state rules.

Congressional Republicans tried unsuccessfully in May to erase the rule using the Congressional Review Act. The BLM in December suspended it until 2019, and Zinke plans to rewrite it.

EPA methane rule

The EPA also passed a rule in 2016 designed to limit methane emissions, but from new and modified oil and gas wells, compressor stations, pneumatic pumps, and similar equipment. It was a key part of Obama’s climate change agenda; his administration projected that industry’s costs would be partially offset by revenues from recovering and selling more natural gas. Pruitt has sought to prevent the rule from going into effect, but environmentalists and the states of New Mexico and California have been fighting him in court. The EPA now has proposed suspending the rule for two years while it redrafts it.

National Environmental Policy Act reviews

In an Aug. 31 secretarial order, the Department of Interior “streamlined” agencies’ processes for analyzing the environmental impacts of major actions. Now, agencies may not spend more than a year to complete environmental impact statements, nor may their final reports be more than 150 pages or 300 pages “for unusually complex projects.”

Environmental groups fear the arbitrary deadlines will hinder public engagement in public-land decisions. But John Freemuth, a public policy professor at Boise State University, said environmental impact statements are often long and incomprehensible to most people. “Trying to make this process work better and happen quicker is probably not a bad thing, unless it’s done for surrogate reasons, like to get more coal off the land,” Freemuth says.

Federal coal

Obama wanted the federal coal-mining program to better reflect its costs to taxpayers and the planet. So in 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell placed a three-year moratorium on new coal leases on federal land while reviewing the program, which produces about 40 percent of the coal burned in the U.S. for electricity.

This March, Zinke canceled both the moratorium and the review. Given declining demand for coal, though, there’s been no rush for new leases. One exception: Cloud Peak Energy is seeking to expand operations in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

National parks management

The National Park Service in August rescinded a sweeping December 2016 policy instructing managers to use an adaptive approach to decision-making, taking into account uncertainties such as climate change impacts, and erring on the side of caution to protect natural and cultural resources. The policy also committed to address worker harassment. Now, NPS says revoking the order avoids confusion while Zinke establishes his own vision for the parks.

Also in August, the agency ended a six-year policy that allowed parks to ban the sale of disposable water bottles to decrease waste and greenhouse gas pollution. Western parks that banned bottled water included Arizona’s Grand Canyon; Arches, Bryce, and Canyonlands in Utah; Saguaro in Arizona; and Colorado National Monument.

Power plants

The EPA has taken steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005. The Supreme Court had already stayed the rule, pending court review. The Trump administration asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit not to rule in the case, and in August the court agreed to suspend its review.

Trump’s EPA also is reconsidering an earlier Obama administration rule that required that all new power plants meet greenhouse gas standards, which roughly equate to emissions from modern natural gas plants. The rule effectively banned the construction of new conventional coal-fired power plants and remains in effect.


Trump revoked Obama administration policies that had blocked or postponed construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Environmentalists had long objected to Keystone XL because the heavy tar sands crude oil that it carries has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude oil. It requires a lot of energy to get tar sands out of the ground and process it for transporting by pipelines.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and many supporters from other tribes and the environmental community staged a monthslong protest to oppose DAPL. They raised concerns about sovereignty and the risk that potential spills pose to water resources that the tribe needs for farming and other uses. Trump touts the pipeline projects as key parts of his energy independence and infrastructure plans.

Cleaner cars

The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are considering backtracking from Obama’s plans to boost fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.

The outcome is important in the West because California has led the rest of the country in pressing for cleaner cars, both to improve its air quality and achieve its climate change goals. California has fiercely objected to the possible rollback and vows to keep the standards. Thirteen other states, including Oregon and Washington, also warned Pruitt not to weaken the fuel standards and vowed to defend them in court if he does.

Offshore drilling

Obama withdrew large sections of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from drilling to protect marine habitats. In an April executive order, Trump reversed the withdrawals and ordered annual lease sales in those areas, including in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic. Environmental groups have sued in federal court, challenging the legality of Trump’s action.

Blowout prevention rule

In April, Trump ordered a reconsideration of a 2016 rule designed to prevent the kind of engineering failures that led to the catastrophic 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That explosion killed 11 workers and inundated the fragile coast and deep sea with the largest marine oil spill ever seen, pummeling the Gulf’s seafood industry, killing thousands of marine mammals and rare sea turtles, and contaminating their habitats.

The chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling warned in a New York Times opinion piece that Trump’s order threatens the most important safeguard for preventing repeats of the BP disaster.

Social cost of carbon

Trump abolished policies crafted by the Obama administration to consider the cost of climate change to future generations when considering the costs and benefits of proposed regulations and when analyzing the environmental impacts of government actions under the National Environmental Policy Act. The social cost of carbon is a dollar amount that represents how much a ton of carbon pollution will “cost” society over the long run, such as the loss of usable dry land because of sea level rise, stresses to agriculture from droughts, and increased need for air conditioning. Trump’s March executive order directs agencies to use a 2003 policy that does not include directions on calculating these future costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump administration’s approach has started to run afoul of the courts. A federal judge in August blocked a major expansion of a coal mine in Montana and ordered the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to redo its environmental analysis. The judge took issue with the agency’s argument that the millions of tons of extra greenhouse gas emissions from the Montana mine would not result in any costs to society because if that coal weren’t burned, other coal would be. Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana said the conclusion was illogical and put the agency’s “thumb on the scale by inflating the benefits of the action while minimizing its impacts.”

Floods and infrastructure

As part of his strategy to prepare the United States for the greater risks of climate change, Obama signed an executive order in 2015 requiring that the federal government consider sea level rise and storm surge when designing infrastructure and building in flood-prone areas. Just days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Trump signed an executive order revoking Obama’s order.

Trump defended his decision as an incentive for investments in infrastructure. Many professional engineers, insurance companies, and environmentalists objected to the repeal, saying that the standard protected people and property and reduced expenses to the federal government associated with rebuilding after flooding.

Seattle columnist urges Americans to side with B.C. in wine war with Alberta

Seattle columnist urges Americans to side with B.C. in wine war with Alberta

by Emily Lazatin @

In a column, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Joel Connelly said "British Columbia seems to not be asking for too much, just a modest use of intelligence."

The California Wildfires Have Ravaged These Areas the Worst

The California Wildfires Have Ravaged These Areas the Worst

by Lila Thulin @ Slate Articles

The images and accounts of the fires ravaging the greater Los Angeles area look like still frames from an apocalyptic film: cars on a highway to hell, charred skeletons of houses, red-tinged skies. You’ve likely seen the images of freeway exit signs backgrounded by blazes or heard Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch’s Bel-Air vineyard estate was being singed. “These are days that break your heart,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the Los Angeles Times.

But beyond this horror reel of images, here’s an update on the extent of the numerous brush fires, which, propelled by the strong Santa Ana winds, have torched more than 116,300 acres.

The largest and longest-lasting fire threatening the palm-treed landscape around Los Angeles is the Thomas Fire, which began Monday evening in Ventura County, more than 60 miles northwest of the city. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as of Thursday morning, the fire has burned 96,000 acres (that’s 150 square miles, or close to three times the size of the largest of the devastating Napa Valley fires this October), but it’s only 5 percent contained.

More than 50,000 residents have been evacuated, and more than 100 structures have been destroyed (including, the Los Angeles Times reports, the Vista del Mar psychiatric hospital). In the course of firefighting, the 101 freeway was shut down between 4 and 7 a.m. Thursday morning, effectively cutting off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. (A woman’s body was found in the evacuation area as part of a single-vehicle crash, but authorities haven’t concluded whether the death was related to the fire.)

The Skirball Fire was Wednesday’s most dramatic headline fodder: It broke out early that morning in the wealthy Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, near UCLA and the famous Getty Museum. It temporarily shut down the 405 freeway, the busiest interstate in the county, during peak morning commute hours. It also prompted UCLA officials to cancel classes for half of Wednesday and all of Thursday. As of Thursday morning, it spanned 475 acres and was only 5 percent contained.

Further north in the Angeles National Forest, the Creek Fire burned 12,605 acres and was 10 percent contained as of Thursday morning. Since its start in the predawn hours Tuesday, it had destroyed 15 structures. California State University, Northridge, canceled classes. While there have been no confirmed human casualties, nearly 30 horses died in the fire, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The last uncontained wildfire covers a 7,000-acre swath of the northern suburb of Santa Clarita. The Rye Fire, which began Tuesday morning, had caused 1,300 homes to evacuate by Wednesday afternoon but had destroyed only one structure and was 15 percent contained by Thursday morning.

Other fires, like a 260-acre fire in San Bernardino or a blaze that popped up in Malibu on Thursday morning, have been fully contained as of publication time.

What prompted the series of quick-moving wildfires? The brush burning index, a way for the fire department to tabulate risk based on moisture readings, dead vegetation fuel, meteorologist forecasts that factor in humidity and wind, and historical data, is considered to be “extreme” if it’s above 162. But the brush burning index for this Wednesday into Thursday was a whopping 296, the highest the fire chief said he’s ever seen, according to NBC Los Angeles.

The notorious Santa Ana winds this year are especially vicious; CNN reports that the previous time the winds resulted in multiple days of red flags and warnings was a decade ago. Fortunately, on Thursday, the winds did not reach the fire-whipping speeds that forecasters had feared.

And there’s one last thing to keep in mind with these fires: It’s the new normal. As Daniel Berlant, deputy director of Calfire, told the New York Times, “In the last decade we’ve had more and more fires in nontraditional fire season months, which really emphasizes the changing climate that we have here in California.”

More and More Americans Are Learning Basic First Aid for Gunshot Wounds

More and More Americans Are Learning Basic First Aid for Gunshot Wounds

by Lisa L. Lewis @ Slate Articles

I frequently exchange parenting advice with my sister, an emergency room physician whose kids are younger than mine. My advice tends to be pretty straightforward, like how to help your kids transition to a new school or just the occasional kid-friendly recipe. Hers, given her profession, tends to be a little more intense. Recently, she offered this useful guidance: If someone’s been shot in the leg, use the heel of your hand to slow the bleeding by pressing down on the femoral artery located in the middle of the crease at the top of the thigh. If the bleeding doesn’t slow or is pulsing, use a T-shirt or other piece of clothing to tie a tourniquet as close to the top of the thigh as possible.

Against the backdrop of ongoing mass shootings, being prepared for such a worst-case scenario seems increasingly prudent. It appears I’m not alone in thinking so: From Bismarck, North Dakota, to San Diego, ordinary citizens are now signing up for classes to learn how they, too, can maximize their chances for survival by learning skills such as how to stanch blood loss after a mass shooting. In Georgia, all public schools are receiving “Stop the Bleed” kits so they’ll have what they need while they wait for professional first responders to arrive. And last month in Washington, D.C., nearly 40 members of Congress were trained in bleeding control techniques. The training they received is modeled on life-saving techniques first honed on the battlefield but now being promoted for civilian use in schools, churches, shopping malls, and other everyday venues.

These sorts of lessons have been gathering steam for years. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012, the American College of Surgeons pulled together first-response experts from law enforcement, the medical community, and the military. Their recommendations, known as the Hartford Consensus, stemmed from the realization that injuries from mass shootings are similar to those found in combat. The resulting five-point response plan was based in part on military trauma guidelines and led to the “Stop the Bleed” campaign, launched by the White House in 2015, to “encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped, and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives.”

Mass tragedies often yield lessons that can be applied the next time around. Five months before Sandy Hook, the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, showed the need for better coordination between responding police and firefighters. It also underscored that getting victims to the hospital as quickly as possible, rather than waiting for ambulances, saves lives.

In 2007, the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, led to improvements in campus safety, including requirements for emergency message systems and physical changes such as better door locks. And perhaps the seminal event that changed how we think about and respond to mass shootings was the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, which led to regular school lockdown drills and changed how police respond to active shooters. (Instead of waiting for specialized backup to arrive, responding officers now enter the building immediately to try to stop the carnage.)

If you consider the chronology of these examples, it’s apparent that our reactions are skewing toward figuring out how to survive mass shootings rather than prevent them. Mass shootings such as the recent tragedy in Las Vegas are often what spur ordinary citizens to enroll in “Stop the Bleed” classes. In just the last two years, more than 70,000 Americans have taken the courses, according to the American College of Surgeons. In fact, a 2015 telephone poll of 1,000 respondents found that 82 percent of those who said they were physically able to take a course like this were interested in doing so.

Being prepared is pragmatic: According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 323 mass shootings (which they define as four or more people shot or killed, not counting the shooter) so far this year, including two just last week. Even my sister, despite all of her training, found herself searching online for bulletproof backpack inserts for her kids. Last year, the PTSA at my son’s high school, which was put on lockdown during the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting, purchased body bags and triage center supplies to use in the event of a similar tragedy on school grounds.

It’s hard to know where the line is between prudent preparation and diminishing returns. Learning to tourniquet a bullet wound might make you feel safe. It could also make you feel anxious or diminish the reserves you have to fight gun violence in other ways. As the Hartford Consensus noted, “Active shooter/mass casualty events are a reality in modern American life.” What’s worse is that they’re an accepted reality.

Shark With Head of a Snake and 300 Teeth Found Swimming Off Coast of Portugal

Shark With Head of a Snake and 300 Teeth Found Swimming Off Coast of Portugal

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

The world may seem like it’s in shambles, but ocean scientists are having quite a run. Over the last year, the ocean has periodically belched up prehistoric deep sea creatures for photographing, studying, and nightmaring over. The latest find? The brutishly ugly and scientifically storied frilled shark.

On Thursday, scientists trawling Portuguese waters caught one of these snake-bodied beasts. The photos are, naturally, making their way around the internet. Revered as one of the last living fossils, the spade-faced swimmer, which can grow over 6 feet long, has been floating through the fossil record for the last 80 million years.

In addition to its unusual shape, the frilled shark has a number of other noteworthy features. For one, it has more than 300 teeth, in 25 orderly rows. This impressive dental array is useful when it comes to devouring its prey, which includes octopus and smaller sharks. Similarly, like a snake, the frilled shark can open its “beak” wide enough to swallow prey whole. However, its hunting patterns—and much else about the shark’s life—remain mostly a mystery. The shark usually lives deeper in the bottomless depths of the ocean, making human–frilled shark interactions rare.

And the frilled shark isn’t even the rarest sea sighting this year. In June, scientists encountered a faceless fish that hadn’t been seen since 1873. Like a tight-lipped—and gelatinous—demogorgon, the little guy reemerged in Sydney’s harbors after an absence that’d been stretching out over a century. Other researchers also found the world's largest bony fish, which weighs in at a whopping two tons, and a new species of seafloor-loving sponges.

In the immediate aftermath of these discoveres, people tend to feel a lot of reverence for the mysteries of the ocean, as they should. But the real excitement is slowly revealed in the resulting days and months of lab research. Scientists learned, for example, that the “faceless fish” really does have a face (sort of), it's just buried underneath its skin. What they’ll learn about the frilled shark, though, is anyone’s guess.

The Wait Can Kill You

The Wait Can Kill You

by Chavi Eve Karkowsky @ Slate Articles

Jane Doe, the 17-year-old girl held in federal custody, underwent her termination of pregnancy on Wednesday, at approximately 16 weeks of gestation, four weeks after requesting the procedure. Four weeks is 28 days—less than a full calendar month, but as long as one cycle of the moon, at least one and maybe two paychecks. But in the end, she received the procedure; she got what she chose and what she needed.

But that delay mattered, because when it comes to abortion, timing is everything. Time is blood loss. Time is risk. Time is danger.

The easiest way to understand this is to discuss surgical complexity. A termination procedure prior to 10 weeks is simple and common. It can be performed via a medical abortion, using pills, and can be safely recommended. Many patients can have their terminations done in the office, without special machinery, without an operating room.

A termination at 12 weeks is still a simple procedure, involving a dilation and curettage, which almost any qualified OB-GYN provider can do. It is over in less than 20 minutes.

A termination performed after approximately 14 weeks becomes a more complicated surgery. Sometime around this gestational age, the cervix—the opening to the uterus—needs to be dilated more than can safely be accomplished in the operating room on the day of procedure. The cervix needs to prepared, either with medications or with dilators placed the day prior to the procedure. The most common dilators are osmotic ones; they are placed during a speculum exam and left in the cervix, where they absorb moisture and expand over 12 to 24 hours. This dilates the cervix, and it often creates some cramping. The dilators are removed immediately prior to the termination of pregnancy the next day. Even with the best medical care, pain medications, and moral support, none of this is pleasant.

A termination performed even later—sometimes 17 weeks, sometimes 18 weeks, sometimes 20 weeks—needs two days of dilation. So the patient, here a 17-year-old, might get dilators placed on a Wednesday and go home. She would return on a Thursday, have those dilators removed and new ones placed, and go home. She would then return, finally, on a Friday, with nothing to eat before her operating-room time. Finally, 48 hours after she started, she would undergo her procedure.

That’s one of the differences a month can make.

Here’s another difference a month can make: Study after study has shown that termination of pregnancy is, overall, an extremely safe procedure. (Please note, ideally before you comment, that termination of pregnancy is, at every gestational age, safer than continuation of pregnancy. Continuing a pregnancy and delivering a baby is one of the riskiest things a young woman can do in this country of high and rising maternal mortality rates.) But the risks attendant to the surgical procedure of abortion dramatically increase with gestational age. Again, time is risk. For example, in one study looking at the overall risk of death from abortion, the overall risk was very low—0.7 deaths per 100,000 legal induced abortions. But the risk of death from termination of pregnancy increased exponentially—by 38 percent—for each additional week of gestation. Women who have abortions at 13 to 15 weeks are almost 15 times more likely to die of abortion-related causes than women who undergo one before eight weeks; women who undergo one at 16 to 20 weeks are 30 times as likely to die. In this damning study, the authors point out that “up to 87 percent of deaths in women who chose to terminate their pregnancies after 8 weeks of gestation may have been avoidable if these women had accessed abortion services before 8 weeks of gestation.” The finding that increasing gestational age equals increased risks of all kinds in pregnancy termination has been consistently found through many studies.

This tactic of delay isn’t just Jane Doe’s problem. All around this country, anti-abortion groups are working to make abortion take longer. They may not be able to outlaw it, but they make it harder—they make it more onerous, and they make it happen later. And that costs a patient a week, two weeks, a month. But what it really costs her is pain, and safety, and maybe sometimes more. Those tactics mean that sometimes the abortion is prevented, and that’s the goal of the anti-abortion groups. But sometimes those tactics mean that the abortion does happen, but is more uncomfortable, more extensive, and less safe. These tactics are very comfortable offering as casualties a woman’s pain, and her risks, and her body.

That’s the month Jane Doe just went through. None of us can imagine what Jane Doe’s extra month of waiting cost her, emotionally or financially or legally. But medically, this month had consequences. That month of delay tactics meant that her body was placed in more danger and more pain than it needed to be, just as those delay tactics do the same to women everywhere around this country every day. That month mattered to her, and to all of them, and maybe to you.

Trump’s New NASA Chief Controls One of the Most Important Parts of Climate Science

Trump’s New NASA Chief Controls One of the Most Important Parts of Climate Science

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

President Donald Trump has made no effort to hide his vehement disbelief that climate change is real: He’s chosen to pull the country out of the 2016 Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and he’s found egregious ways to dismantle much of former President Barack Obama’s moves to combat it, too. And now, NASA, it seems, will not escape Trump’s disdain of sound environmental policy. Trump’s nominee for the agency’s new administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a man who’s been vying for the job since the election, and who is also no friend to climate science.

In 2013, for instance, Bridenstine said matter-of-factly on the congressional floor that global temperatures “stopped rising 10 years ago”—a pretty bold statement for someone with no real scientific background. His explanation? “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.” Needless to say, that’s not quite how it works.

On Wednesday, the Senate’s science committee held a hearing to finally question Bridenstine on his qualifications, and the Democratic members of the committee raced to grill him on his scientific literacy. For his part, the congressman told the committee his views of climate change have evolved.

“I believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I believe that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he said. Bridenstine said that he “absolutely” believes climate change is real and that it was creating tangible problems in the form of increased rain and storm formation. “All that is very real and happening.”

It is, of course, good that he could get behind a true statement like that, but it’s extremely disheartening that his reputation necessitated such a statement to be made in the first place. Even more disheartening was that he copped out on the question of whether human activity was the leading cause of climate change—something the vast majority of scientists say is true. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he said, defecting to the classic denialist line that more studies were needed.

Obviously Bridenstine should join us in the year 2017 and accept that humans are causing climatic havoc, but hey, if he actually does think we need to learn more, NASA’s the perfect place to start.

Although NASA’s a powerhouse name thanks to its space travel exploits, it also plays a critically underrated role in the world of Earth science research. One of the reasons why climate scientists are so good at their jobs is because they’re able to utilize the data observed and collected by a variety of NASA’s orbital satellites, taking real-time measurements of the Earth’s temperatures, atmospheric chemistry, fluctuations and changes in ocean currents and air movements, and glacier melts. The world’s scientists are given unimpeded access to that data, so they can translate those raw numbers into trends and conclusions that help us understand the world that we inhabit. That’s one of the reasons we know the Earth is getting warmer, the sea levels are rising faster, and humans are to blame. NASA’s tools and minds are essential to tracking this phenomenon.

A lot of this is in the form of imagery. Those state-of-the-art cameras on those satellites are some of the best tools used in showing people much of the Arctic has been lost in the past few decades; the extent to which coastlines are now becoming inundated by flood waters and rising tides; the loss of fertile, green land to extended drought; and more. Moreover, this isn’t work other government agencies could easily pick up. Besides how crucial it is to have NASA engineers at the helm in designing, building, and operating these forms of equipment, there’s an institutional knowledge and expertise that would be lost by trying to shuffle these investigations into other places.

Trump clearly doesn’t care about this work. The administration’s proposed 2018 budget—hypothetical, yes, but meaningful when it comes to discerning intent—would put the kibosh on five different Earth science missions, including a pernicious move to needlessly end an Earth-imaging mission that’s already ongoing. It’s proposed as a cost-saving measure, but in government terms, the savings are not huge—$191 million in 2018 and $850 million over four years amounts to a fraction of NASA’s overall annual budget of about $19 billion.

Bridenstine said Wednesday he wants to continue NASA’s Earth science work, but it’s entirely unclear how aggressive he’ll work to this end. Those five missions Trump wants to nix were meant to replace a fleet of old climate satellites that are on their last legs, and currently there’s no real plan to replace them. Moreover, while Bridenstine has said he intends to lead NASA apolitically and will not seek to punish or reassign Earth science researchers for their views, it’s incredibly doubtful NASA’s personnel will have much confidence in Bridenstine’s ability to protect NASA from Trump’s brash whims.

Instead, Bridenstine’s nomination feels a lot like another recurring theme of the new administration: disarm the clout of federal agencies from the inside by appointing heads who will toe an adversarial line. He seems to be a softer cut of that strategy but part of the plan nonetheless.

Why Is Monsanto Inviting This Alt-Right Hero to a Fireside Chat on Farming?

Why Is Monsanto Inviting This Alt-Right Hero to a Fireside Chat on Farming?

by Kavin Senapathy @ Slate Articles

On Sunday, during the annual American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement, Vance Crowe, will host a fireside chat with University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, addressing “The Danger of Allowing Ideologies to Grow Unopposed.” The topic makes sense, given the agrichemical company’s stake in agricultural genetic engineering and the fearmongering and errors driving the non-GMO movement. Monsanto and American farmers should explore why people embrace false narratives about food. It’s the guest choice that raises questions.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist studying social, abnormal, and personality psychology. But he is best known for the YouTube channel that has made him a “belle of the alt-right,” as described in a November 2017 profile in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine. His “lectures about profound psychological ideas” became hugely popular following his swift rise to notoriety in the fall of 2016, when he refused to comply with university policy on addressing students with preferred gender pronouns. Missing from these videos—which net him more than $50,000 a month on Patreon according to a July report from the Toronto Star—is any commentary on agriculture. Rather, Peterson’s oratory cloaks bigotry in pseudointellectual arguments, revealing a chillingly detached dismissal of civil rights.

Crowe, who has worked as Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement since 2014, described Peterson as a “compelling speaker.” Crowe explained his impetus for the talk on his LinkedIn page: “It is my sincere hope that [Peterson] can help farmers develop an understanding of how to speak truth in a complex world where speaking up can make you a target,” Crowe wrote. “I asked Dr. Peterson to address how farmers can prepare their children to go to college with the skills needed to push back effectively on bad ideologies.” He echoed that language in an email to Slate, writing that “an invitation was extended to Dr. Peterson so that he could offer insights from outside the agriculture and genetic engineering communities. His expertise is wide ranging, but he was selected for his research into why people believe what they do and how those beliefs drive actions.”

Why people believe what they believe is a wide topic that many psychology professors investigate. And while Peterson’s lectures certainly do tend to focus on the idea of “pushing back,” the contents of them raise questions about whether the bad ideologies are the ones he’s rejecting or the ones he espouses.

Consider, for instance, Peterson’s insistence that our culture is doomed because physical violence is forbidden when conversations with women move “beyond the boundaries of civil discourse.” As Peterson declared in an October 2017 video, “I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me. The reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical.” A man who wouldn’t fight another man under any circumstances deserves “absolutely no respect,” according to Peterson, because the “underlying threat of physicality is always there,” serving to “keep things civilized to some degree.”

That society is “increasingly dominated by a view of masculinity that’s mostly characteristic of women who have terrible personality disorders and who are unable to have healthy relationships with men,” isn’t men’s crisis to solve, Peterson suggests. “[I]t’s sane women who have to stand up against their crazy sisters and say, ‘Look, enough of that, enough man-hating, enough pathology, enough bringing disgrace on us as a gender.’ ” The fact that “sane women” have so far failed to successfully accomplish this has meant that there is no “regulating force for that—that terrible femininity” and that we are “undermining the masculine power of the culture in a way that’s, I think, fatal.”

Peterson seeks to eliminate women’s studies, ethnic studies, sociology, and other swaths of the humanities and social sciences, which he calls “postmodern neo-Marxist” “indoctrination cult classes,” from being taught in universities—an interesting philosophy for someone who “plans to provide his own perspective on how farmers can prepare their children to go to college and be open to new ideas while resisting the temptation to view the world through over-simplified ideologies,” as Crowe wrote in his email to Slate. Peterson also often rails against “political correctness” and “identity politics,” framing these issues as a “war against free speech” and positioning himself as a martyr. (“If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike,” he told a TVOntario panel in 2016.) Particularly chilling is the professor’s amusement (and the audience’s chuckles) as he offers his take on “identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege,” asking, “What if you're gay and black and female, well then, what if you’re not very bright and gay and black and female, and then what if you're ugly and not very bright and gay and black and female?” The “game,” as he describes marginalized people’s attempts to bring light to social inequity, can be played an infinite number of ways. Peterson describes the idea that there is such a thing as marginalized groups as “comical.”

In an October 2016 letter to the professor, which was also shared with the media, members of the University of Toronto administration acknowledged Peterson’s right to “express and debate views that may be discomfiting or even offensive to others,” but admonished that his rights “are not without limitation.” Fellow University of Toronto faculty have condemned Peterson’s statements on nonbinary and transgender people. (He is still listed as a professor at the university.)

Monsanto declined to comment further when we reached out, instead referring us to Crowe’s comments. In our questions, we asked whether, given Monsanto’s boasting of its rating as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality” and its “inclusive environment where employees of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and orientations feel welcome and able to contribute,” hosting Peterson ran counter to its stated ethos. Crowe said the company was “proud” of that distinction and noted that Monsanto is “the most diverse and inclusive” place he’s ever worked. He added that “At Monsanto, creating an inclusive environment where employees of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and orientations feel welcome and able to contribute is core to creating a great place to work.”

That is why it’s even more baffling that the company would choose to bring an alt-right darling to address, of all things, how dangerous ideologies spread. Crowe noted that “While Monsanto’s position[s] on certain topics may not align with those of everyone[’s], including Dr. Peterson[’s], we have a deep culture of respect of those who hold different views and are willing to listen. It is important for all of us to have meaningful and constructive conversations with numerous parties in order to better understand different points of views.”

But Monsanto is not just listening to these views. It is inviting them into a fireside chat, the result of which will promote Peterson, his work, and, by extension, the offensive views he espouses on his YouTube channel. It’s hard to see what good that will do for encouraging more understanding toward GMOs—and that’s a shame, because more open conversation around GMOs is necessary.

How to Listen to and Support Victims of Sexual Trauma

How to Listen to and Support Victims of Sexual Trauma

by Jonathan Foiles @ Slate Articles

Before Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis, he was a neurologist whose growing interest in psychiatry led him to study hysteria. “Hysteria” was a catch-all term for a number of symptoms, both physical and mental, believed to only affect women; the term itself derives from the Greek word for uterus. Women who were diagnosed with hysteria tended to faint, have trouble breathing, developed physical maladies with no organic cause, lost all interest in food or sex, were nervous, and were generally considered to be troublemakers. Hysteria had been an object of fascination since ancient Greece, and of the variety of treatments proposed to treat it, most failed to help.

Hypnosis was the treatment of choice in Freud’s day, but he soon deviated from that trend to develop his own method. Freud was one of the first practitioners to actually listen to patients with hysteria, and as he developed his “talking cure,” he was struck by the pervasiveness of childhood sexual trauma in his patients’ histories. In The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896), he proposed that “at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience.” This was an explosive assertion, and Freud soon began to backpedal. If his patients were to be believed, rape, molestation, and incest were not uncommon occurrences but instead happened at a depressing frequency. Freud found this to be unbelievable, so he slowly began to shift these reports of premature sexual experience to the realm of fantasy, giving birth to the Oedipus and Electra complexes and so forth.

The history of the psychological treatment of trauma is strewn with such false starts and missteps. When soldiers in World War I began to exhibit unfamiliar psychological symptoms, doctors initially believed they resulted from the concussive impact of exploding shells, hence “shell shock.” When this theory was disproven, those afflicted were seen as “moral invalids” not capable of handling the rigors of warfare. When the same phenomenon was observed in World War II, the military developed procedures to rapidly stabilize impacted soldiers and returned them to the front as quickly as possible. According to one report, 80 percent of American soldiers experiencing acute stress were returned to the front lines within a week, 30 percent of those to active combat units. It wasn’t until Vietnam that things began to change, and that was only because the Vietnam War went on for so long that veterans were able to return and talk about the horrors they had witnessed while the conflict was still ongoing, causing a public reckoning. At the same time, feminists were bringing to light the pervasiveness of sexual violence and reframing rape as a crime of power rather than of misdirected passion. It was these parallel efforts that actually spurred the creation of the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which was added to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980.

These stories help illustrate the depth of a problem most people understand through their own lived experience: Trauma is uncomfortable to confront. Indeed, for most of human history we’ve done all we could to avoid it. Unfortunately, even after these misfires, mental health professionals like myself still haven’t quite corrected the problem. My graduate program in social work, for example, offered one class on the treatment of trauma, capped to only a handful of students. The DSM-V diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder remains flawed: The symptoms of PTSD better match an individual who experienced one traumatic incident rather than someone who has endured multiple traumatic events, and the number of criteria required to merit the diagnosis far exceeds that of most other mental disorders.

From time to time, events arise that force us to reconsider this legacy. The revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s years of unchecked predatory behavior is one of those times. Indeed, it has opened the floodgates to reveal a myriad of other such stories. It’s common to observe a snowball effect in the disclosure of trauma. The multiple disclosures made by Weinstein’s victims coupled with the fact that their accusations brought about some form of justice enabled others to come forward, and as the #MeToo phenomenon has demonstrated, this is not limited to celebrities.

It is in the face of such suffering that we are often most tempted to look away. Of course, this sort of intentional ignorance is precisely what enables predators to continue their abuse. As Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing.” Most of us can agree that we do not want to do this. We know that the prevalence rate of false reports of sexual assault is low. It’s actually extremely low, at about 2 percent. It’s far more common for sexual violence to simply go undisclosed; only about a third of all rapes are reported, and of those, only 2 percent result in a conviction.

So what should we do? It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of stories. Given the unfortunate prevalence of sexual trauma, most of us know several survivors. I suggest that we start by simply choosing to believe all survivors. As someone who works with trauma survivors daily, I cannot count the number of patients who were retraumatized when someone near them disbelieved their disclosure. Those who have not yet shared their private pain may very well be looking for an ally, and they will be watching how we speak about survivors of sexual assault to determine whether or not it is safe to open up.

If someone chooses to open up, just listen. If they get overwhelmed, take a break. It is human to want to try to make it better, whether that’s by trying to problem-solve the situation or relativize their pain (“well, at least he didn’t …”). Avoid these urges at all costs. It is enough to be present and to offer the occasional “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Thank them for sharing their story with you. Suggest that they find a therapist, and if they are nervous or unsure, offer to accompany them to their first appointment.

Freud abandoned his initial findings regarding trauma because they were simply too much for him to bear. In later years, trauma survivors would be made to bear the blame of what happened to them, if their claims were believed at all. Society has made some progress since those times, but the temptation to look away remains. The Harvey Weinsteins and Louis C.K.s of the world depend upon us doing just that. We can do better—indeed, we know we must do better. The easiest place to start is by listening.

Ice cream to make any Valentine swoon with delight

by Matt @ Pierre's Ice Cream

Valentine’s Day is a perfect opportunity to tell everyone important to us just how special they truly are. A little... Read more »

The post Ice cream to make any Valentine swoon with delight appeared first on Pierre's Ice Cream.

Is That Starving Polar Bear Dying From Climate Change? Probably Not.

Is That Starving Polar Bear Dying From Climate Change? Probably Not.

by Eleanor Cummins @ Slate Articles

When National Geographic published a video of a disturbingly thin polar bear struggling to walk across snow-free pastures on Thursday, it seemed like an image visceral enough to finally shake us out of our complacency to start doing something about climate change. “We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” the magazines own staffers said of the images they collected. Thousands of viewers joined in, expressing their dismay at the majestic bear’s disturbing demise and regret over the current state of carbon emissions.

Polar bears have been the poster child of climate change for years—as we all know, the shrinking amount of ice in the Arctic makes it increasingly hard for them to hunt. This photo seems to be the epitome of this problem. But “seems” is the operative word here: In the past few days, as the image has drawn more attention, Arctic scientists have spoken up to explain why they’re not convinced the bear is dying of climate change after all.

Jeff W. Higdon is a wildlife biologist who has been working in the Canadian Arctic for more than a decade. When he first saw the images, he says he tried to ignore them—“manipulative” and “emotional” images like this circulate on the web all the time. But after being tagged by a local student-researcher seeking his comment, he decided to take his concerns to Twitter. “I thought the message was too simplified, basically,” Higdon told me. “And a little too over the top in the sense that, ‘This is what climate change looks like.’ ”

What’s a more accurate read? For one thing, he says, during summertime, part of the Arctic is often ice-free. That’s due to seasonal changes, not climatic shifts. And while it can be hard to stomach never mind witness, animals starve to death all the time, for a million different reasons. “We may start to see more [climate-caused starvation] over time, but at this point, there’s no evidence I’m aware of that we’re seeing that,” Higdon adds.

Higdon’s best guess is that the bear was dying of bone cancer or some other disease. His hypothesis remains unverified since that would require further evidence to be substantiated—evidence that could have been collected. “My biggest issue with this is that we’ll never know what happened with that bear,” Higdon says. Instead of leaving after the photo session, he said he wished National Geographic had asked the local conservation officials to euthanize the animal (which he said would have been more humane at that point) and then perform a necropsy to determine scientifically the true cause of death—and to further the scientific understanding of the bear populations in that region.

Instead, we don’t know exactly what the cause of death was, which made it all too easy for viewers to turn one diseased polar bear into a symbol of climate change’s destruction. Higdon says we should be skeptical of anyone who thinks the complex phenomenon of climate change caused the misfortune of this one individual animal. That’s certainly true from a purely scientific standpoint—climate change increases the likelihood of certain events, but it is still extremely tricky to attribute a single event, particularly one that often happens naturally, back to climate change.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t tempting to use this as an example of what could happen if we don’t curb our emissions. Reductive storytelling like this can have a place in making complicated phenomena more relatable for humans. We’re built to crave narrative after all. The important thing is that we construct these narratives out of the truth—that we say “climate change will make more bears die like this one,” rather than “climate change killed this bear.” The side benefit of this is that it’s also correct, and doesn’t feed ammunition to climate change deniers who will seize on any over-exaggerated claim to bolster their case. (It’s not like deniers are swayed by the truth, either, though: Higdon also said that his comments have already been used out of context by people desperate to see his criticism of the photo as “proof” polar bears aren’t endangered or climate change isn’t happening at all. Go figure.)

In the end, the best battle to wage is the one for people’s attention. “What I would like to see is people learning more about these issues. It infuriates me, it’s a five-minute activism kind of thing for people,” Higdon says. “The photo gets thrown around and two days later it’s forgotten about and no one’s behavior has changed.”

Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?

Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?

by John Ehrenreich @ Slate Articles

Many conservatives have a loose relationship with facts. The right-wing denial of what most people think of as accepted reality starts with political issues: As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels” (it doesn’t). A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim (…he isn’t).

Then there are the false beliefs about generally accepted science. Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time.

And then it gets really crazy. Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama , insisted that the former were larger. Sixty-six percent of self-described “very conservative” Americans seriously believe that “Muslims are covertly implementing Sharia law in American courts.” Forty-six percent of Trump voters polled just after the 2016 election either thought that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex trafficking ring run out of the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., or weren’t sure if it was true.

If “truth” is judged on the basis of Enlightenment ideas of reason and more or less objective “evidence,” many of the substantive positions common on the right seem to border on delusional. The left is certainly not immune to credulity (most commonly about the safety of vaccines, GMO foods, and fracking), but the right seems to specialize in it. “Misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right,” concluded a team of scholars from the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University at a February 2017 conference. A BuzzFeed analysis found that three main hyperconservative Facebook pages were roughly twice as likely as three leading ultraliberal Facebook pages to publish fake or misleading information.

Why are conservatives so susceptible to misinformation? The right wing’s disregard for facts and reasoning is not a matter of stupidity or lack of education. College-educated Republicans are actually more likely than less-educated Republicans to have believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and that “death panels” were part of the ACA. And for political conservatives, but not for liberals, greater knowledge of science and math is associated with a greater likelihood of dismissing what almost all scientists believe about the human causation of global warming.

It’s also not just misinformation gained from too many hours listening to Fox News, either, because correcting the falsehoods doesn’t change their opinions. For example, nine months following the release of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, the percentage of Republicans who believed that he was not American-born was actually higher than before the release. Similarly, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Democrats corrected their previous overestimates of the unemployment rate after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the actual data. Republicans’ overestimated even more than before.

Part of the problem is widespread suspicion of facts—any facts. Both mistrust of scientists and other “experts” and mistrust of the mass media that reports what scientists and experts believe have increased among conservatives (but not among liberals) since the early ’80s. The mistrust has in part, at least, been deliberately inculcated. The fossil fuel industry publicizes studies to confuse the climate change debate; Big Pharma hides unfavorable information on drug safety and efficacy; and many schools in conservative areas teach students that evolution is “just a theory.” The public is understandably confused about both the findings and methods of science. “Fake news” deliberately created for political or economic gain and Donald Trump’s claims that media sites that disagree with him are “fake news” add to the mistrust.

But, the gullibility of many on the right seems to have deeper roots even than this. That may be because at the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence and trusting science is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, faith and intuition and trust in revealed truth appear as equally valid sources of truth.

To understand how these differences manifest and what we might do about them, it helps to understand how all humans reason and rationalize: In other words, let’s take a detour into psychology. Freud distinguished between “errors” on the one hand, “illusions” and “delusions” on the other. Errors, he argued, simply reflect lack of knowledge or poor logic; Aristotle’s belief that vermin form out of dung was an error. But illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes; Columbus’s belief that he had found a new route to the Indies was a delusion based on his wish that he had done so.

Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, modern cognitive psychology suggests that he was on the right track. The tenacity of many of the right’s beliefs in the face of evidence, rational arguments, and common sense suggest that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are instead illusions rooted in unconscious wishes. 

This is a very human thing to do. As popular writers such as Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler have pointed out, we often use shortcuts when we reason, shortcuts that enable us to make decisions quickly and with little expenditure of mental energy. But they also often lead us astray—we underestimate the risks of events that unfold slowly and whose consequences are felt only over the long term (think global warming) and overestimate the likelihood of events that unfold rapidly and have immediate consequences (think terrorist attacks).

Our reasoning is also influenced (motivated, psychologists would say) by our emotions and instincts. This manifests in all kinds of ways: We need to maintain a positive self-image, to stave off anxiety and guilt, and to preserve social relationships. We also seek to maintain consistency in our beliefs, meaning that when people simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, one or the other must go. And so we pay more attention and give more credence to information and assertions that confirm what we already believe: Liberals enthusiastically recount even the most tenuous circumstantial evidence of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians, and dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters happily believe that the crowd really was bigger at his candidate’s inauguration.

These limits to “objective” reasoning apply to everyone, of course—left and right. Why is it that conservatives have taken the lead in falling off the deep edge?

The answer, I think, lies in the interaction between reasoning processes and personality. It’s each person’s particular motivations and particular psychological makeup that affects how they search for information, what information they pay attention to, how they assess the accuracy and meaning of the information, what information they retain, and what conclusions they draw. But conservatives and liberals typically differ in their particular psychological makeups. And if you add up all of these particular differences, you get two groups that are systematically motivated to believe different things.

Psychologists have repeatedly reported that self-described conservatives tend to place a higher value than those to their left on deference to tradition and authority. They are more likely to value stability, conformity, and order, and have more difficulty tolerating novelty and ambiguity and uncertainty. They are more sensitive than liberals to information suggesting the possibility of danger than to information suggesting benefits. And they are more moralistic and more likely to repress unconscious drives towards unconventional sexuality.

Fairness and kindness place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives than for liberals. Conservatives show a stronger preference for higher status groups, are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathic (at least towards those outside their immediate family). As one Tea Party member told University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “People think we are not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”

Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts put it succinctly. Campaigning for Sen. Rand Paul in Iowa in 2015 he observed, “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”

These conservative traits lead directly to conservative views on many issues, just as liberal traits tend to lead to liberal views on many issues. But when you consider how these conservative traits and these conservative views interact with commonly shared patterns of motivated reasoning, it becomes clearer why conservatives may be more likely to run into errors in reasoning and into difficulty judging accurately what is true and what is false.

It’s not just that Trump is “their” president, so they want to defend him. Conservatives’ greater acceptance of hierarchy and trust in authority may lead to greater faith that what the president says must be true, even when the “facts” would seem to indicate otherwise. The New York Times cataloged no less than 117 clearly false statements proclaimed publicly by Trump in the first six months of his presidency, with no evident loss in his supporters’ faith in him. In the same way, greater faith in the legitimacy of the decisions of corporate CEOs may strengthen the tendency to deny evidence that there are any potential benefits from regulation of industry.

Similarly, greater valuation of stability, greater sensitivity to the possibility of danger, and greater difficulty tolerating difference and change lead to greater anxiety about social change and so support greater credulity with respect to lurid tales of the dangers posed by immigrants. And higher levels of repression and greater adherence to tradition and traditional sources of moral judgment increase the credibility of claims that gay marriage is a threat to the “traditional” family.

Conservatives are also less introspective, less attentive to their inner feelings, and less likely to override their “gut” reactions and engage in further reflection to find a correct answer. As a result, they may be more likely to rely on error-prone cognitive shortcuts, less aware of their own unconscious biases, and less likely to respond to factual corrections to previously held beliefs.

The differences in how conservatives and liberals process information are augmented by an asymmetry in group psychological processes. Yes, we all seek to keep our social environment stable and predictable. Beliefs that might threaten relationships with family, neighbors, and friends (e.g., for a fundamentalist evangelical to believe that humans are the result of Darwinian evolution or for a coal miner to believe that climate change is real and human-made) must be ignored or denied, at peril of disrupting the relationships. But among all Americans, the intensity of social networks has declined in recent years. Church attendance and union membership, participation in community organizations, and direct political involvement have flagged. Conservatives come disproportionately from rural areas and small towns, where social networks remain smaller, but denser and more homogeneous than in the big cities that liberals dominate. As a result, the opinions of family, friends, and community may be more potent in conservative hotbeds than in the more anonymous big cities where Democrats dominate.

The lack of shared reality between left and right in America today has contributed greatly to our current political polarization. Despite occasional left forays into reality denial, conservatives are far more likely to accept misinformation and outright lies. Deliberate campaigns of misinformation and conservative preferences for information that fits in with their pre-existing ideology provide only a partial explanation. Faulty reasoning and judgment, rooted in the interactions between modes of reasoning and judgment shared by all with the specific personality patterns found disproportionately among conservatives may also play a central role.

How to Watch November’s Weekend Meteor Showers

How to Watch November’s Weekend Meteor Showers

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

Late fall is usually the last opportunity to spend several hours outside at night without losing feeling in your extremities. You should take advantage of this chance and watch the two major meteor showers on the way for the month: the Taurids and the Leonids.

The Taurids, which are caused by debris kicked off by the Comet Encke, will peak on Friday and Saturday. Although the moon is going to be waning during its last quarter, there should still be an ample amount of darkness for the Taurids to be visible, especially around midnight.

The Taurids take their name from the constellation Taurus, from which the shooting stars appear to emanate. The bull-shaped constellation is Orion’s neighbor, so if you’ve got a sense of where to find Orion or the three famous belt stars, try to stick your eye on that constellation first. Then, look for Taurus’ V-shaped cluster of stars, which are called the Hyades, and from there you should have a focus for the center of the constellation.

You should be able to see between five and seven meteors streaking through the sky every hour. That’s certainly a slower rate than many other showers, but that modesty is balanced by the brightness—there will be some intense fireballs, a type of very bright meteor.

If you miss those, fear not: The Leonids show up one week later, peaking on Nov. 17. The moon will be out of sight, which means the shooting stars won’t be competing with any other celestial lights. That’s particularly good for this year, since the Leonids aren’t expected to rain down like a storm as they sometimes have in the past (1966 anyone?)

The Leonids, as you might predict, can be spotted streaming out of the constellation Leo. In the fall, look toward the eastern sky, and look for a pattern of bright lights making up the shape of a backward question mark. The bottom is a star called Regulus, which should guide you to the rest of the constellation.

The source of the Leonids is Comet Tempel-Tuttle. You should expect to see about 10 to 15 meteors zooming through the sky per hour when the Leonids peak around 3 a.m. local time.

The best way to watch both meteor showers is, as always, to find a spot in the countryside or less crowded suburbs. You’ll have a hard time watching either of these spectacles in the city, especially with the moon out for the Taurids and a fainter version of the Leonids rolling around this year. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to look in sky for the shooting stars, download a constellation app on your smartphone to help you out.

You Don’t Need to Change Your Birth Control Method Due to the New Study on Cancer Risk

You Don’t Need to Change Your Birth Control Method Due to the New Study on Cancer Risk

by Ruth Graham @ Slate Articles

For the past several decades, women have been told that modern versions of hormonal birth control contain significantly lower doses of hormones and therefore did not carry the same pitfalls as their predecessors—pitfalls including a slightly increased risk of breast cancer. But according to a large study published Wednesday, even low-dose hormonal contraception raises women’s risk of getting breast cancer. Researchers followed 1.8 million women in Denmark for more than a decade, comparing women who used hormonal birth control and those who relied on nonhormonal methods such as condoms and copper IUDs. They found that women who used any kind of hormonal contraception still had a slightly elevated risk of breast cancer, similar to the risk of older forms of birth control. The longer the women used those methods, the higher their risk.

The new study is notable in part because it did not just track the effects of the pill, but also hormone-releasing IUDs, the birth-control patch, and other methods, which were all thought to be improvements on older methods thanks to the concentrated nature of how the hormones were released. As it turned out, the particular delivery method didn’t make much of a difference in the cancer risk. Many gynecologists assumed the lower doses of estrogen in newer generations of contraception would have lowered the risk of breast cancer, but this new research suggests that assumption is likely incorrect. (It’s also worth noting that the research, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, only showed an association and was limited in certain ways—the authors didn’t parse how other factors, such as physical activity or childbearing, might factor into the relationship, for instance.)

It’s always tricky to talk about studies like this one. A finding that has major implications for public health does not necessarily have major implications for personal health. And there are several reasons that women should not panic about these findings. First, the increase in the risk of any one birth-control user is vanishingly small. “A 20 percent increase of a very small number is still a very small number,” as one epidemiologist put it to NPR. Here’s how the New York Times explained it:

For a 20-year-old woman, for example, the probability of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years is .06 percent, or 1 in 1,732, according to Even if the relative risk increases 20 percent, it remains less than one-tenth of 1 percent. But by the time a woman reaches 40, her probability of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years is 1.45 percent, or 1 in 69. A 20 percent increase raises her risk to 1.74 percent, or 1 in 57.

Second, this study only investigated the chances that birth control increases one’s risk of breast cancer. But birth control does other things, too: The pill seems to lower the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers, for example. If taking hormonal contraceptives comes with a slight uptick in breast cancer risk and a slight downtick in other cancer risks, that might be an even trade. And not for nothing, hormonal contraception also does a pretty spectacular job at lowering the risk of another major health problem for women: unplanned pregnancy. Medicine should not be assessed only by its rare side effects. Throwing your pill pack in the trash without a solid plan B could lead to, er, Plan B, which would have much more immediate and serious health consequences. When it comes to making your own personal health choices, you need to consider the entire set of benefits and risks—and stories like these can obscure that personal calculus. If you have concerns, the best thing to do is to bring them to your doctor and find the solution that’s the right fit for you, as an individual.

But zooming out to the public health level, this study is also an important reminder that women still bear the overwhelming responsibility for managing reproduction and the negative ramifications that come with it. Women research contraception. Women see their doctors about contraception. Depending who occupies the White House, women pay for contraception. Women set alarms and make appointments and pick up refill packs. Women read stories like this one, and call their doctors, and agonize about whether they should stay on the pill even if they have a family history of breast cancer, or try a new method—even though the pill has worked perfectly well for them for their entire reproductive lives. And all of that is not counting the work of actually bearing and raising children.

The promise of hormonal birth control for men has been researched for years, but has so far come to nothing. In the meantime, women will keep doing the math.

When a Hurricane Takes Your Home

When a Hurricane Takes Your Home

by Nathalie Baptiste @ Slate Articles

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and has been republished here with permission from Climate Desk.

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy—a monstrous post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds—struck New York, bringing record-breaking wind gusts and deadly flooding. In New York City, 53 people diednearly half of them were from Staten Island. The Ocean Breeze, Midland Beach, and Dongan Hills communities were especially hard hit, with 11 fatalities.  A few months after the storm, WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman described the square mile that makes up parts of these communities as “the most dangerous place to be in New York City” during Sandy.

Joe Herrnkind, a middle-aged man who moved to Ocean Breeze in 2000, remembers those days, as he walks through the deserted streets of his once tightknit beach community. Most of the homes have been torn down, and a few are boarded up waiting to be demolished. The homes that do remain are surrounded by empty plots of land where wild turkeys wander. Unlike many other New York victims of Sandy, who have rebuilt their communities, those from these neighborhoods knew that rebuilding was not the best option. Some sold their land to developers, and a few others, like Herrnkind and his neighbors, sold their land to the governor’s office so it can be returned to its natural state.

“We’re a low-lying community,” he says. “We had constant flooding and wildfires. You hear all this and you’re saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ ”

Recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have all raised the same question: What is to be done with the dozens of towns and cities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico that have developed infrastructure on vulnerable flood-prone land that routinely requires massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts after each disastrous storm? Altogether, the recent storms could cost up to nearly $400 billion in damages. But some communities and local leaders are starting to realize that this model won’t break the cycle. In Ocean Breeze, instead of rebuilding on vulnerable flood plains, some residents have chosen to leave old neighborhoods behind and let nature take its course.

In 2012, when Sandy approached New York, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered evacuations of nearly 375,000 people in low-lying communities ahead of the storm. Herrnkind gathered his two dogs and left to stay with a friend in New Jersey. Most of his neighbors followed the evacuation orders, but eight or nine families stayed behind. Two of his neighbors died.

Sandy’s peak winds were recorded at 115 miles per hour, and Staten Island saw wind gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. Father Cappodano Boulevard, the main road separating Ocean Breeze from the Atlantic, rose several feet above the side streets. Sandy’s unprecedented 16-foot surge overtopped the roads and poured into homes. A few days later, when Herrnkind was able to return, he had no idea whether his home was going to be standing. The city estimated that more than 300,000 homes were damaged by the storm’s flood.

“An officer told me ‘You can’t go down there,’ ” Herrnkind recalls. When he finally arrived, the water was still nearly waist deep. “It’s still there,” he remembers thinking when he first saw his house. “I have something to work with.” The watermark on a lamppost today shows that the storm surge reached far above his head, which explains why his furniture and all his personal belongings were gone.

Local leaders struggled to respond to the crisis. New York City created Build It Back, a program for rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes. There are more than 8,000 participants and by 2017, the mayor’s office estimates 87 percent of those who enrolled have received compensation, completed construction, or had their homes acquired by the city. But the program has come under criticism. Many homeowners dropped out due to delays. City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents parts of Brooklyn, have been fierce critics of the program. In a letter to Build It Back director Amy Peterson, the two wrote that the number of dropouts “raises serious questions about our City’s ability to mount an efficient and effective recovery operation in the event of a future disaster.” Herrnkind jokingly refers to it as “Build It Wrong.”

After six months of living in his car, which he had parked in front of his abandoned house, and being disappointed by the city’s program, Herrnkind realized “the land itself should never have been built on.” Much of the region was a salt marsh, particularly vulnerable to storm surge and floods. “It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes,” Robert Brauman, a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection told Curbed New York in 2016, “and that was where the problems started.”

Another option for some homeowners was a program from the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which has been buying houses that were destroyed or substantially damaged and transforming them to open space and wetlands. The goal is to create a natural coastal buffer that can protect communities from future storms. In late 2013, more than a year after the storm, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Ocean Breeze would join Oakwood Beach as a town eligible for state buyouts, and Herrnkind’s entire block was included. Reluctant to “put someone else in harm’s way,” Herrnkind concluded that he and his neighbors should take advantage of the state buyout program. He was able to sell his home to the state at pre-storm value and move elsewhere on the island.

So far, more than 600 homes have been purchased through the buyout program. Once the sale goes through, the state government demolishes the home and lets nature reclaim the land. Today, Ocean Breeze is mostly empty, but complicating matters are the residents who refuse to leave. In Oakwood Beach, where most of the land is going back to nature, remaining residents struggle with lack of trash pickup and crumbling roads. One of Herrnkind’s former neighbors who stayed behind is an elderly woman who feared her children would put her in a nursing home if she left. Some opted out of the program because they didn’t have the proper paperwork required to sell their homes. Others didn’t want to give up their homes in a community they loved.

But staying behind comes with a cost. According to the New York Times, flood insurance premiums could rise up to 25 percent for homes that were damaged by Sandy.

On Herrnkind’s section of the street, only one home remains out of eight. “Around here, 90 percent of each block went,” he says, “and only one or two people stayed.” Just down the street from where Herrnkind used to live, more turkeys mill about on empty lots where homes used to be.

Herrnkind’s former neighbor Frank Moszczynski, a tall man with a large presence, took the state buyout and moved to another neighborhood on Staten Island. He doesn’t have much sympathy for someone who willingly stays in a vulnerable area. “Why should … emergency workers have to go out and risk their lives for someone who chose to stay in harm’s way?” he asks pointedly. Today, the only thing protecting Ocean Breeze from another storm is a 4-foot hill of sand.

Across the street from the vacant lot he used to call home, Herrnkind stands on the beach looking at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a view he used to be able to see from his bedroom window. “If it weren’t for Sandy,” he says, “I’d still be here.”

Could the 17-Foot Python Swallow the Avocado as Big as Your Head?

Could the 17-Foot Python Swallow the Avocado as Big as Your Head?

by Matthew Dessem @ Slate Articles

It’s hard to keep track of all of the signs that we’re living in the Biblical End Times lately, but there are two recent, seemingly unrelated developments worthy of special notice. First, as the Miami Herald reports, snake hunter Jason Leon captured a 17-foot Burmese python in the Florida Everglades early Monday morning. The python is an invasive species which has been preying on small mammals in the area, and the South Florida Water Management District has been offering a bounty for these snakes; Leon’s snake is the largest caught in the hunt so far. It’s a really big snake:

Meanwhile, West Hawaii Today reports that Kealakekua resident Pamela Wang has discovered an avocado the size of a human head. The avocado, a mammoth example of the Daily 11 variety, weighed in at 5.23 pounds; if its weight is verified by Guinness, it will smash the previous world record for heaviest avocado, a now-puny-seeming 4 pounds, 13.2 ounces. According to Wang, half of one half of the avocado was sufficient to feed ten people. It’s a really big avocado:

Beyond the omens-and-portents quality of giant snakes and giant avocados appearing in the same week—and really, what doesn’t seem like a sign of impending doom these days?—the simultaneous appearance of a giant serpent and a giant avocado raises one very important, very scientific question: Could the 17-foot Burmese python swallow the gigantic avocado?

My initial inquiries into this crucial matter were, unfortunately, inconclusive. Google Scholar revealed a shocking lack of peer-reviewed research into the matter:

It’s not for me to speculate as to whether this gap in scientific knowledge stems from a deliberate cover-up on the part of Big Avocado or Big Python. Rather, my mission was a simpler one: to bring the correct answer to Slate’s readers before a plague of avocado-eating pythons devastated the country, particularly avocado-loving millennials.

As modern science offered very little hard research on the subject of 17-foot Burmese pythons eating avocados the size of a human head, I decided to consult sources from a time when science was a less timid about asking the tough questions: the thirteenth century. Deep within the British Library’s collection of illuminated manuscripts, I discovered a long-forgotten text (Harley MS 3244, written sometime between 1236 and 1250) with an illustrated bestiary that, I hoped, would some light on the matter. Almost immediately, I found exactly what I was looking for:

As Medieval scholars well knew, but we have apparently forgotten, serpents, including the Burmese python, have long, dog-like ears and enjoy flying through the air over open flames, calling out merrily to their fellow snakes, presumably in Latin. Although this did not have a direct bearing on the question of Burmese pythons swallowing avocados the size of human heads, it is difficult to explain the tell-tale bulge in the serpent’s belly as anything other than an avocado (or, perhaps, several avocados). Conveniently, this also explains why human-head-sized avocados were such a rare ingredient in medieval cooking: the flying, talking, dog-eared Burmese pythons ate them all!

With this scientific and historical breakthrough in mind, I consulted H. Bradley Shaffer, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science. Jealous of credit, I did not share the fruits of my research into medieval knowledge of avocado-eating pythons, but I did ask directly whether or not a 17-foot python could eat an avocado the size of a human head. The professor responded immediately and definitively:

Based on what I saw in the video and my knowledge of large snakes, I’d estimate that a 17 foot Burmese has a head about 8 inches long. That means it can essentially ingest something roughly 16 inches in diameter, more or less. The avocado looks to me to be about 6–8 inches in diameter. Its shape makes it much easier for a snake to eat—if it were the same volume, but a sphere, it would be a lot harder.
My opinion:
- No problem for that snake to eat that avocado
- However, snakes are purely carnivores. It would never, ever eat an avocado. Or a watermelon or a head of lettuce.

You’ll notice that Professor Shaffer’s response does not rule out the possibility that the flying, talking snakes of the thirteenth century enjoyed eating giant avocados, so expect my findings on that matter to be published in a leading scientific journal soon. However, the 17-foot Burmese python recently discovered in Florida, according to Professor Shaffer, could eat the human-head-sized avocado recently discovered in Hawaii, but would choose not to as a matter of personal preference. Lending credence to Professor Shaffer’s theory is one additional piece of evidence: the 17-foot Burmese python was shot in the head upon capture, and is reportedly dead. Although research in the matter is not definitive, scientists have long argued that dead snakes don’t eat much of anything at all, not even delicious, enormous avocados.

Which raises another question, even more important: could the avocado the size of a human head eat the 17-foot Burmese python? Probably not, at least not that particular avocado: it’s already been picked and eaten. However, especially in the case of dead 17-foot Burmese pythons, it seems plausible that an avocado tree could, in a sense, eat the python, by absorbing nutrients from its corpse as it decomposed and was reabsorbed in the soil. According to the California Avocado Commission, the plant’s roots are only six inches under the surface, making them ideal for sucking up every last bit of nutrition from dead, 17-foot Burmese pythons, and it seems plausible that a well-irrigated, python-rich soil would help produce more avocados the size of human heads. Advantage: avocado!

The results, then, are clear and irrefutable: avocado growers should immediately wrap dead, 17-foot Burmese pythons around the trunks of each of their avocado trees near the base, water normally, and wait patiently for a crop of human-head sized avocados. Burmese python problem: solved. Tiny avocado problem: solved. Flying, talking, fire-loving serpent problem: not an actual problem. As the odor of rotting snakes wafts over the human-head-sized avocado orchards of tomorrow, we should all remember who to thank: science.

Where’s the Outrage Against This Attack on the ACA?

Where’s the Outrage Against This Attack on the ACA?

by Danielle Ofri @ Slate Articles

Sasha (not her real name) was on break from college when she saw me for her annual check-up. It’d been a stressful year but a good one: She’d finally selected her major, and her first round of exams had gone well, though she still had to work nights at a restaurant to make ends meet.

Sasha’s mother is also my patient, so I have some sense of the family background. Sasha’s father left years ago, and Sasha’s mother—an immigrant who speaks only modest English—has held things together working as a street vendor and a housecleaner.

In many ways, Sasha is living the American dream. She was raised in a single-parent, struggling immigrant family and is now the first person in her family to attend college. She is on her way to a professional career that will not require the backbreaking physical labor her mother has spent decades doing.

But from caring for both Sasha and her mother, I know that this storybook trajectory is far from assured. They both rely on Medicaid for their health care. If the Affordable Care Act is undone, they could be one of the millions of unlucky Americans who lose their health insurance. That could have catastrophic effects on their health and their finances.

Luckily, the Affordable Care Act survived three frontal assaults over the summer and into the fall. Now suddenly, it’s in the crosshairs again. But this time, it’s more of a sneak attack: Congressional Republicans have to find a way to pay for their tax cut, and they’ve stumbled upon a politically ingenious way to do so. If they repeal the individual mandate that is a cornerstone of the ACA, they’ll be able to come up with some $300 billion to offset their tax cuts. And by pulling out this key girder, they’ll be able to hobble their hated ACA without the effort of passing an unpopular repeal bill.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that pulling out the individual mandate will knock 4 million Americans off the health insurance rolls by 2019, and 13 million by 2027. (Once the mandate is not in force, many people—mostly the healthy ones—will choose not to buy insurance. Premiums will then rise steeply, pricing millions more out of the market.)

So, the other day, I called the office of Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy to talk about Sasha. I’m not from Louisiana and neither is Sasha, but Sen. Cassidy’s vote could have a huge impact on Sasha’s health. I chose Cassidy because he is one of the nominally “swing state” senators, but mainly because he is one of the three physicians in the Senate, and I wanted to talk medicine with him, doctor-to-doctor.

The staffer in Cassidy’s office was very polite. I told him about Sasha and how I was worried about her health, how losing her insurance could derail her health as well as her job prospects. I told them about Sasha’s mother, who could die if her diabetes and heart disease went untreated. “What will happen to them if they lose their insurance?” I asked. The staffer didn’t have a reply for me. “What’s Dr. Cassidy’s backup plan for my patients when they lose access to medical care?” The staffer was sheepish about not having any sort of answer. I actually felt sorry for him.

I received the same shamefaced response when I called the other two physicians in the Senate—Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Barrasso of Wyoming. I pressed the staff about my patients, but they could only backpedal uncomfortably. I reminded them that Dr. Paul and Dr. Barrasso are still doctors, even if they are sitting in the Senate chamber instead of an exam room. The commitment to “do no harm” doesn’t disappear when you take off your white coat.

Before this year, I’d never called a member of Congress in my entire life. Even when I disagreed with what was happening in our government, it never crossed my mind. I didn’t even know that you actually could call Congress.

But something changed for me when the House, and then the Senate, aggressively pushed to repeal the ACA this past summer. The gravity of the potential harm to my patients made it impossible to sit on the sidelines. This bill was a medical emergency, and we in medicine had to treat it as such.

Medical professionals of all stripes—typically a politically reticent group—stepped up to the plate. Individual doctors, nurses, medical students, and physical therapists called lawmakers, organized demonstrations, circulated petitions, and rallied colleagues. Even more strikingly, medical organizations—an even more hidebound group—lined up uniformly and publicly against the repeal of the ACA. There was a recognition that they we have a duty to protect the health of their patients

This most recent sideswipe to the ACA garnered some press when it first came out two weeks ago, but it has largely dropped out of the news, as the tax bill tussle focuses on standard deductions, corporate rates, 401(k)s, deficits, estate taxes, and “pass-through” businesses. Somehow, this new threat to the ACA feels less urgent than the past ones we have weathered—indeed, the entire tax bill hasn’t inspired quite the same sense of alarm as any of the attacks on the ACA.

But we can’t let this attempt go unchallenged. There were many reasons for the failure of the earlier ACA repeal attempts, but there’s no doubt that the universal opposition by medical groups and individual health care providers played an important moral role.

Repeal attempt No. 4 may go by another name—tax reform—but its effect will be the same, with millions of Americans losing access to health care. Medical organizations have again released statements opposing this backdoor attack on the ACA, but it has hardly made the news. There are almost no media interviews with doctors and nurses on how the tax bill will affect their patients. There are hardly any medical experts on the cable news shows, and certainly none on Capitol Hill.

Something about it being a tax bill rather than a medical bill has made it feel less personal to doctors, to patients, to medical organizations, and to the media. But for the millions of Americans like Sasha and her mother, the fallout from this bill will be intensely personal.

We in the medical profession cannot rest easy. Political forces seem determined to push their agendas, no matter how many ordinary people are harmed. Sens. Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain have each made impassioned speeches about the danger of Trump to the nation. We need to make sure their actions match their rhetoric. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins have backed away from ACA repeal in the past. Let’s keep them focused on medical “side effects” of this tax bill.

For those of us who see real medical side effects in our daily work, this is a critical matter of patient safety. We have to keep reminding our elected officials about the human costs of their political agenda.

NASA Is Pivoting to Astrobiology

NASA Is Pivoting to Astrobiology

by Neel V. Patel @ Slate Articles

On Wednesday, NASA announced its selection of two robotic mission concepts as the top finalists for a launch to be held in the mid-2020s: an exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan and a trip to a comet to retrieve compound samples for lab testing. While the missions are radically different in what they’ll investigate, both underscore a larger pivot in NASA’s allocation of time, resources, and manpower toward extraterrestrial worlds in the hopes of one day finding a planet or moon capable of hosting life—or already hosting, yes, aliens.

The mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, would send a dronelike spacecraft out to the moon to study the world’s chemistry and potential habitability. Titan is thought to possess a subsurface liquid ocean that could be a breeding ground for biological life. Along with Titan’s dense atmosphere, its conditions are extremely encouraging for scientists hoping to stumble on signs of extraterrestrial life within our solar system.

The other mission, the Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return, or CAESAR, would expand on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to assess the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. CAESAR would take a step forward and study the comet’s origin and history in hopes of learning more about how comets could be the delivery boys of materials essential to the evolution and support of life, such as water and other organic compounds.

NASA will select one mission sometime in spring 2019 for continued development, ostensibly for launch sometime in the next decade. But more importantly, the selection of these two missions, over 12 others, is key evidence that NASA is pivoting its science missions toward astrobiology. This is a purposeful pivot that makes sense given recent history.

In just a few years, for example, NASA will launch its Mars 2020 rover to the red planet with the explicit goal of investigating whether Mars was once habitable and home to extraterrestrial organisms. The Juno spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter is surveying the planet’s atmosphere to learn whether gas giants are a sort of chemical lab for materials essential to life. Some agency experts are making the case for why other ocean worlds orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, like Enceladus or Europa, are worthy destinations for the search for alien life, too.   

Outside the solar system, scientists already suspect nearly every star in the galaxy possesses a planet. Rough estimates suggest the vast majority of those aren’t gaseous giants like Saturn or Jupiter but rocky like Earth. Many of them, we’re learning as we tally up our exoplanet discoveries, sit in regions around their stars where they might be capable of possessing an atmosphere and liquid surface water—meaning life could make a home there. Of the 3,504 exoplanets scientists have found and confirmed, 53 are thought to be potentially habitable. And when you remember space is literally infinite, it seems bonkers to bet against the possibility life exists somewhere.

Additionally, the more we learn about life here on Earth, the more it seems possible that even in harsh environmental conditions, alien life could still evolve and learn to survive. The ability of tardigrades to survive the vacuum of space itself feels like proof of that.

There’s more reason to believe the astrobiology push is a permanent fixture of NASA’s vision for its future. Just this week, New Scientist reported on NASA’s ongoing efforts to develop plans for a robotic mission into interstellar space by 2069 (the 100-year anniversary of Apollo 11). The plan is to send a spacecraft to investigate the nearest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b, located just 4.24 light-years away. Although those plans are far in the future and will require a massive upgrade in space propulsion technology, it’s clear the agency wants to be at the forefront of what is possibly the most exciting scientific endeavor of the century. (Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is already throwing $100 million to that goal in the form of his Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to send ultralight nanocraft to explore the same region that’s home to Proxima b.)

This year, Congress told NASA to “search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” It seems the agency is taking that directive to heart and pivoting to astrobiology.

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