Arquivo da tag: ciência

5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating (The Atlantic)

Zeynep Tufekci

February 26, 2021

We can learn from our failures.
Photo illustration showing a Trump press conference, a vaccine syringe, and Anthony Fauci
Alex Wong / Chet Strange/ Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.

One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.

The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.

This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.

Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.

The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.

Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.

The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.

Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.

Risk Compensation

One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.

The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.

But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefits overwhelm the ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predicted that wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmed exactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.

Rules in Place of Mechanisms and Intuitions

Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.

In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.

All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.

Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.

Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.

After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.

Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.

Outdoors? It’s the opposite.

There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.

And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.

We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.

Scolding and Shaming

Throughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.

Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?

On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.

While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditions necessary for more people to keep themselves safe.

And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.

Harm Reduction

Amidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.

As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, or just enjoying their lives. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.””

Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.

Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.

And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.

The Balance Between Knowledge And Action

Last but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.

Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.

Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.

And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.

At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.

Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.

Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”

Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.

As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.

Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.

These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.

And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.

Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.

Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.

So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?

Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.

Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”

So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.

But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.

People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.

Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.

As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.

And yet, from the beginning, a good chunk of the public-facing messaging and news articles implied or claimed that vaccines won’t protect you against infecting other people or that we didn’t know if they would, when both were false. I found myself trying to convince people in my own social network that vaccines weren’t useless against transmission, and being bombarded on social media with claims that they were.

What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.

A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.

The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.

Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.

An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.

You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.

There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.

And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.

The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.

Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.

The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.

Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associated with higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.

Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.

For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.

New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”

Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.

Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.

But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.

Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.

Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.

And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.

But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.

Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.

Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.

We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.

Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”

Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.

Climate crisis: world is at its hottest for at least 12,000 years – study (The Guardian)

Damian Carrington, Environment editor @dpcarrington

Wed 27 Jan 2021 16.00 GMT

The world’s continuously warming climate is revealed also in contemporary ice melt at glaciers, such as with this one in the Kenai mountains, Alaska (seen September 2019). Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The planet is hotter now than it has been for at least 12,000 years, a period spanning the entire development of human civilisation, according to research.

Analysis of ocean surface temperatures shows human-driven climate change has put the world in “uncharted territory”, the scientists say. The planet may even be at its warmest for 125,000 years, although data on that far back is less certain.

The research, published in the journal Nature, reached these conclusions by solving a longstanding puzzle known as the “Holocene temperature conundrum”. Climate models have indicated continuous warming since the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago and the Holocene period began. But temperature estimates derived from fossil shells showed a peak of warming 6,000 years ago and then a cooling, until the industrial revolution sent carbon emissions soaring.

This conflict undermined confidence in the climate models and the shell data. But it was found that the shell data reflected only hotter summers and missed colder winters, and so was giving misleadingly high annual temperatures.

“We demonstrate that global average annual temperature has been rising over the last 12,000 years, contrary to previous results,” said Samantha Bova, at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in the US, who led the research. “This means that the modern, human-caused global warming period is accelerating a long-term increase in global temperatures, making today completely uncharted territory. It changes the baseline and emphasises just how critical it is to take our situation seriously.”

The world may be hotter now than any time since about 125,000 years ago, which was the last warm period between ice ages. However, scientists cannot be certain as there is less data relating to that time.

One study, published in 2017, suggested that global temperatures were last as high as today 115,000 years ago, but that was based on less data.

The new research is published in the journal Nature and examined temperature measurements derived from the chemistry of tiny shells and algal compounds found in cores of ocean sediments, and solved the conundrum by taking account of two factors.

First, the shells and organic materials had been assumed to represent the entire year but in fact were most likely to have formed during summer when the organisms bloomed. Second, there are well-known predictable natural cycles in the heating of the Earth caused by eccentricities in the orbit of the planet. Changes in these cycles can lead to summers becoming hotter and winters colder while average annual temperatures change only a little.

Combining these insights showed that the apparent cooling after the warm peak 6,000 years ago, revealed by shell data, was misleading. The shells were in fact only recording a decline in summer temperatures, but the average annual temperatures were still rising slowly, as indicated by the models.

“Now they actually match incredibly well and it gives us a lot of confidence that our climate models are doing a really good job,” said Bova.

The study looked only at ocean temperature records, but Bova said: “The temperature of the sea surface has a really controlling impact on the climate of the Earth. If we know that, it is the best indicator of what global climate is doing.”

She led a research voyage off the coast of Chile in 2020 to take more ocean sediment cores and add to the available data.

Jennifer Hertzberg, of Texas A&M University in the US, said: “By solving a conundrum that has puzzled climate scientists for years, Bova and colleagues’ study is a major step forward. Understanding past climate change is crucial for putting modern global warming in context.”

Lijing Cheng, at the International Centre for Climate and Environment Sciences in Beijing, China, recently led a study that showed that in 2020 the world’s oceans reached their hottest level yet in instrumental records dating back to the 1940s. More than 90% of global heating is taken up by the seas.

Cheng said the new research was useful and intriguing. It provided a method to correct temperature data from shells and could also enable scientists to work out how much heat the ocean absorbed before the industrial revolution, a factor little understood.

The level of carbon dioxide today is at its highest for about 4m years and is rising at the fastest rate for 66m years. Further rises in temperature and sea level are inevitable until greenhouse gas emissions are cut to net zero.

‘Star Wars without Darth Vader’ – why the UN climate science story names no villains (Climate Home News)

Published on 12/01/2021, 4:10pm

As the next blockbuster science report on cutting emissions goes to governments for review, critics say it downplays the obstructive role of fossil fuel lobbying

Darth Vader: What would Star Wars be without its villain? (Pic: Pixabay)

By Joe Lo

On Monday, a weighty draft report on how to halt and reverse human-caused global warming will hit the inboxes of government experts. This is the final review before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues its official summary of the science.

While part of the brief was to identify barriers to climate action, critics say there is little space given to the obstructive role of fossil fuel lobbying – and that’s a problem.

Robert Brulle, an American sociologist who has long studied institutions that promote climate denial, likened it to “trying to tell the story of Star Wars, but omitting Darth Vader”.

Tweeting in November, Brulle explained he declined an invitation to contribute to the working group three (WG3) report. “It became clear to me that institutionalized efforts to obstruct climate action was a peripheral concern. So I didn’t consider it worth engaging in this effort. It really deserves its own chapter & mention in the summary.”

In an email exchange with Climate Home News, Brulle expressed a hope the final version would nonetheless reflect his feedback. The significance of obstruction efforts should be reflected in the summary for policymakers and not “buried in an obscure part of the report,” he wrote.

His tweet sparked a lively conversation among scientists, with several supporting his concerns and others defending the IPCC, which aims to give policymakers an overview of the scientific consensus.

David Keith, a Harvard researcher into solar geoengineering, agreed the IPCC “tells a bloodless story, and abstract numb version of the sharp political conflict that will shape climate action”.

Social ecology and ecological economics professor Julia Steinberger, a lead author on WG3, said “there is a lot of self-censorship” within the IPCC. Where authors identify enemies of climate action, like fossil fuel companies, that content is “immediately flagged as political or normative or policy-prescriptive”.

The next set of reports is likely to be “a bit better” at covering the issue than previous efforts, Steinberger added, “but mainly because the world and outside publications have overwhelmingly moved past this, and the IPCC is catching up: not because the IPCC is leading.”

Politics professor Matthew Paterson was a lead author on WG3 for the previous round of assessment reports, published in 2014. He told Climate Home that Brulle is “broadly right” lobbying hasn’t been given enough attention although there is a “decent chunk” in the latest draft on corporations fighting for their interests and slowing down climate action.

Paterson said this was partly because the expertise of authors didn’t cover fossil fuel company lobbying and partly because governments would oppose giving the subject greater prominence. “Not just Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They object to everything. But the Americans [and others too]”.

While the IPCC reports are produced by scientists, government representatives negotiate the initial scope and have some influence over how the evidence is summarised before approving them for publication. “There was definitely always a certain adaptation – or an internalised sense of what governments are and aren’t going to accept – in the report,” said Paterson.

The last WG3 report in 2014 was nearly 1,500 pages long. Lobbying was not mentioned in its 32-page ‘summary for policymakers’ but lobbying against carbon taxes is mentioned a few times in the full report.

On page 1,184, the report says some companies “promoted climate scepticism by providing financial resources to like-minded think-tanks and politicians”. The report immediately balances this by saying “other fossil fuel companies adopted a more supportive position on climate science”.

One of the co-chairs of WG3, Jim Skea, rejected the criticisms as “completely unfair”. He told Climate Home News: “The IPCC produces reports very slowly because the whole cycle lasts seven years… we can’t respond on a 24/7 news cycle basis to ideas that come up.”

Skea noted there was a chapter on policies and institutions in the 2014 report which covered lobbying from industry and from green campaigners and their influence on climate policy. “The volume of climate change mitigation literature that comes out every year is huge and I would say that the number of references to articles which talk about lobbying of all kinds – including industrial lobbying and whether people had known about the science – it is in there and about the right proportions”, he said.

“We’re not an advocacy organisation, we’re a scientific organisation, it’s not our job to take up arms and take one side or another” he said. “That’s the strength of the IPCC. If if oversteps its role, it will weaken its influence” and “undermine the scientific statements it makes”.

A broader, long-running criticism of the IPCC is that it downplays subjects like political science, development studies, sociology and anthropology and over-relies on economists and the people who put together ‘integrated assessment models’ (IAMs), which attempt to answer big questions like how the world can keep to 1.5C of global warming.

Paterson said the IPCC is “largely dominated by large-scale modellers or economists and the representations of others sorts of social scientists’ expertise is very thin”. A report he co-authored on the social make-up of that IPCC working group found that nearly half the authors were engineers or economists but just 15% were from social sciences other than economics. This dominance was sharper among the more powerful authors. Of the 35 Contributing Lead Authors, 20 were economists or engineers,  there was one each from political science, geography and law and none from the humanities.

Wim Carton, a lecturer in the political economy of climate change mitigation at Lund University, said that the IPCC (and scientific research in general) has been caught up in “adulation” of IAMs and this has led to “narrow techno-economic conceptualisations of future mitigation pathways”.

Skea said that there has been lots of material on political science and international relations and even “quite a bit” on moral philosophy. He told Climate Home: “It’s not the case that IPCC is only economics and modelling. Frankly, a lot of that catches attention because these macro numbers are eye-catching. There’s a big difference in the emphasis in [media] coverage of IPCC reports and the balance of materials when you go into the reports themselves.”

According to Skea’s calculations, the big models make up only 6% of the report contents, about a quarter of the summary and the majority of the press coverage. “But there’s an awful lot of bread-and-butter material in IPCC reports which is just about how you get on with it,” he added. “It’s not sexy material but it’s just as important because that’s what needs to be done to mitigate climate change.”

While saying their dominance had been amplified by the media, Skea defended the usefulness of IAMs. “Our audience are governments. Their big question is how you connect all this human activity with actual impacts on the climate. It’s very difficult to make that leap without actually modelling it. You can’t do it with lots of little micro-studies. You need models and you need scenarios to think your way through that connection.”

The IPCC has also been accused of placing too much faith in negative emissions technologies and geo-engineering. Carton calls these technologies ‘carbon unicorns’ because he says they “do not exist at any meaningful scale” and probably never will.

In a recent book chapter, Carton argues: “If one is to believe recent IPCC reports, then gone are the days when the world could resolve the climate crisis merely by reducing emissions. Avoiding global warming in excess of 2°C/1.5°C now also involves a rather more interventionist enterprise: to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, amounts that only increase the longer emissions refuse to fall.”

When asked about carbon capture technologies, Skea said that in terms of deployment, “they haven’t moved on very much” since the last big IPCC report in 2014. He added that carbon capture and storage and bio-energy are “all things that have been done commercially somewhere in the world.”

“What has never been done”, he said, “is to connect the different parts of the system together and run them over all. That’s led many people looking at the literature to conclude that the main barriers to the adoption of some technologies are the lack of policy incentives and the lack of working out good business models to put what would be complex supply chains together – rather than anything that’s standing in the way technically.”

The next set of three IPCC assessment reports was originally due to be published in 2021, but work was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Governments and experts will have from 18 January to 14 March to read and comment on the draft for WG3. Dates for a final government review have yet to be set.

The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn’t Just More — More Is Different (Wired)

WIRED Staff, Science, 06.23.2008 12:00 PM

Introduction: Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. […]

petabyte age
Marian Bantjes


Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. More is different.

The End of Theory:

The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete

Feeding the Masses:
Data In, Crop Predictions Out

Chasing the Quark:
Sometimes You Need to Throw Information Away

Winning the Lawsuit:
Data Miners Dig for Dirt

Tracking the News:
A Smarter Way to Predict Riots and Wars

__Spotting the Hot Zones: __
Now We Can Monitor Epidemics Hour by Hour

__ Sorting the World:__
Google Invents New Way to Manage Data

__ Watching the Skies:__
Space Is Big — But Not Too Big to Map

Scanning Our Skeletons:
Bone Images Show Wear and Tear

Tracking Air Fares:
Elaborate Algorithms Predict Ticket Prices

Predicting the Vote:
Pollsters Identify Tiny Voting Blocs

Pricing Terrorism:
Insurers Gauge Risks, Costs

Visualizing Big Data:
Bar Charts for Words

Big data and the end of theory? (The Guardian)

Mark Graham, Fri 9 Mar 2012 14.39 GM

Does big data have the answers? Maybe some, but not all, says Mark Graham

In 2008, Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired, wrote a provocative piece titled The End of Theory. Anderson was referring to the ways that computers, algorithms, and big data can potentially generate more insightful, useful, accurate, or true results than specialists or
domain experts who traditionally craft carefully targeted hypotheses
and research strategies.

This revolutionary notion has now entered not just the popular imagination, but also the research practices of corporations, states, journalists and academics. The idea being that the data shadows and information trails of people, machines, commodities and even nature can reveal secrets to us that we now have the power and prowess to uncover.

In other words, we no longer need to speculate and hypothesise; we simply need to let machines lead us to the patterns, trends, and relationships in social, economic, political, and environmental relationships.

It is quite likely that you yourself have been the unwitting subject of a big data experiment carried out by Google, Facebook and many other large Web platforms. Google, for instance, has been able to collect extraordinary insights into what specific colours, layouts, rankings, and designs make people more efficient searchers. They do this by slightly tweaking their results and website for a few million searches at a time and then examining the often subtle ways in which people react.

Most large retailers similarly analyse enormous quantities of data from their databases of sales (which are linked to you by credit card numbers and loyalty cards) in order to make uncanny predictions about your future behaviours. In a now famous case, the American retailer, Target, upset a Minneapolis man by knowing more about his teenage daughter’s sex life than he did. Target was able to predict his daughter’s pregnancy by monitoring her shopping patterns and comparing that information to an enormous database detailing billions of dollars of sales. This ultimately allows the company to make uncanny
predictions about its shoppers.

More significantly, national intelligence agencies are mining vast quantities of non-public Internet data to look for weak signals that might indicate planned threats or attacks.

There can by no denying the significant power and potentials of big data. And the huge resources being invested in both the public and private sectors to study it are a testament to this.

However, crucially important caveats are needed when using such datasets: caveats that, worryingly, seem to be frequently overlooked.

The raw informational material for big data projects is often derived from large user-generated or social media platforms (e.g. Twitter or Wikipedia). Yet, in all such cases we are necessarily only relying on information generated by an incredibly biased or skewed user-base.

Gender, geography, race, income, and a range of other social and economic factors all play a role in how information is produced and reproduced. People from different places and different backgrounds tend to produce different sorts of information. And so we risk ignoring a lot of important nuance if relying on big data as a social/economic/political mirror.

We can of course account for such bias by segmenting our data. Take the case of using Twitter to gain insights into last summer’s London riots. About a third of all UK Internet users have a twitter profile; a subset of that group are the active tweeters who produce the bulk of content; and then a tiny subset of that group (about 1%) geocode their tweets (essential information if you want to know about where your information is coming from).

Despite the fact that we have a database of tens of millions of data points, we are necessarily working with subsets of subsets of subsets. Big data no longer seems so big. Such data thus serves to amplify the information produced by a small minority (a point repeatedly made by UCL’s Muki Haklay), and skew, or even render invisible, ideas, trends, people, and patterns that aren’t mirrored or represented in the datasets that we work with.

Big data is undoubtedly useful for addressing and overcoming many important issues face by society. But we need to ensure that we aren’t seduced by the promises of big data to render theory unnecessary.

We may one day get to the point where sufficient quantities of big data can be harvested to answer all of the social questions that most concern us. I doubt it though. There will always be digital divides; always be uneven data shadows; and always be biases in how information and technology are used and produced.

And so we shouldn’t forget the important role of specialists to contextualise and offer insights into what our data do, and maybe more importantly, don’t tell us.

Mark Graham is a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and is one of the creators of the Floating Sheep blog

The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete (Wired)

Chris Anderson, Science, 06.23.2008 12:00 PM

Illustration: Marian Bantjes “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.

Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition. They are the children of the Petabyte Age.

The Petabyte Age is different because more is different. Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies.

At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later. For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn’t pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That’s why Google can translate languages without actually “knowing” them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.

Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”

This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.

The big target here isn’t advertising, though. It’s science. The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.

Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. Consider physics: Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth (wrong at the atomic level, but still useful). A hundred years ago, statistically based quantum mechanics offered a better picture — but quantum mechanics is yet another model, and as such it, too, is flawed, no doubt a caricature of a more complex underlying reality. The reason physics has drifted into theoretical speculation about n-dimensional grand unified models over the past few decades (the “beautiful story” phase of a discipline starved of data) is that we don’t know how to run the experiments that would falsify the hypotheses — the energies are too high, the accelerators too expensive, and so on.

Now biology is heading in the same direction. The models we were taught in school about “dominant” and “recessive” genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton’s laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

The best practical example of this is the shotgun gene sequencing by J. Craig Venter. Enabled by high-speed sequencers and supercomputers that statistically analyze the data they produce, Venter went from sequencing individual organisms to sequencing entire ecosystems. In 2003, he started sequencing much of the ocean, retracing the voyage of Captain Cook. And in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms.

If the words “discover a new species” call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn’t know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn’t even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.

This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It’s just data. By analyzing it with Google-quality computing resources, though, Venter has advanced biology more than anyone else of his generation.

This kind of thinking is poised to go mainstream. In February, the National Science Foundation announced the Cluster Exploratory, a program that funds research designed to run on a large-scale distributed computing platform developed by Google and IBM in conjunction with six pilot universities. The cluster will consist of 1,600 processors, several terabytes of memory, and hundreds of terabytes of storage, along with the software, including IBM’s Tivoli and open source versions of Google File System and MapReduce.111 Early CluE projects will include simulations of the brain and the nervous system and other biological research that lies somewhere between wetware and software.

Learning to use a “computer” of this scale may be challenging. But the opportunity is great: The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?

Chris Anderson ( is the editor in chief of Wired.

Related The Petabyte Age: Sensors everywhere. Infinite storage. Clouds of processors. Our ability to capture, warehouse, and understand massive amounts of data is changing science, medicine, business, and technology. As our collection of facts and figures grows, so will the opportunity to find answers to fundamental questions. Because in the era of big data, more isn’t just more. More is different.

1 This story originally stated that the cluster software would include the actual Google File System.

Science and Policy Collide During the Pandemic (The Scientist)

Science and Policy Collide During the Pandemic
COVID-19 has laid bare some of the pitfalls of the relationship between scientific experts and policymakers—but some researchers say there are ways to make it better.

Diana Kwon

Sep 1, 2020

Science has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, as SARS-CoV-2 started spreading around the globe, many researchers pivoted to focus on studying the virus. At the same time, some scientists and science advisors—experts responsible for providing scientific information to policymakers—gained celebrity status as they calmly and cautiously updated the public on the rapidly evolving situation and lent their expertise to help governments make critical decisions, such as those relating to lockdowns and other transmission-slowing measures.

“Academia, in the case of COVID, has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible,” says Chris Tyler, the director of research and policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP). 

But the pace at which COVID-related science has been conducted and disseminated during the pandemic has also revealed the challenges associated with translating fast-accumulating evidence for an audience not well versed in the process of science. As research findings are speedily posted to preprint servers, preliminary results have made headlines in major news outlets, sometimes without the appropriate dose of scrutiny.

Some politicians, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have been quick to jump on premature findings, publicly touting the benefits of treatments such as hydroxychloroquine with minimal or no supporting evidence. Others have pointed to the flip-flopping of the current state of knowledge as a sign of scientists’ untrustworthiness or incompetence—as was seen, for example, in the backlash against Anthony Fauci, one of the US government’s top science advisors. 

Some comments from world leaders have been even more concerning. “For me, the most shocking thing I saw,” Tyler says, “was Donald Trump suggesting the injection of disinfectant as a way of treating COVID—that was an eye-popping, mind-boggling moment.” 

Still, Tyler notes that there are many countries in which the relationship between the scientific community and policymakers during the course of the pandemic has been “pretty impressive.” As an example, he points to Germany, where the government has both enlisted and heeded the advice of scientists across a range of disciplines, including epidemiology, virology, economics, public health, and the humanities.

Researchers will likely be assessing the response to the pandemic for years to come. In the meantime, for scientists interested in getting involved in policymaking, there are lessons to be learned, as well some preliminary insights from the pandemic that may help to improve interactions between scientists and policymakers and thereby pave the way to better evidence-based policy. 

Cultural divisions between scientists and policymakers

Even in the absence of a public-health emergency, there are several obstacles to the smooth implementation of scientific advice into policy. One is simply that scientists and policymakers are generally beholden to different incentive systems. “Classically, a scientist wants to understand something for the sake of understanding, because they have a passion toward that topic—so discovery is driven by the value of discovery,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Whereas the policymaker has a much more utilitarian approach. . . . They have to come up with interventions that produce the best outcomes for the most people.”

Scientists and policymakers are operating on considerably different timescales, too. “Normally, research programs take months and years, whereas policy decisions take weeks and months, sometimes days,” Tyler says. “This discrepancy makes it much more difficult to get scientifically generated knowledge into the policymaking process.” Tyler adds that the two groups deal with uncertainty in very different ways: academics are comfortable with it, as measuring uncertainty is part of the scientific process, whereas policymakers tend to view it as something that can cloud what a “right” answer might be. 

This cultural mismatch has been particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as scientists work at breakneck speeds, many crucial questions about COVID-19—such as how long immunity to the virus lasts, and how much of a role children play in the spread of infection—remain unresolved, and policy decisions have had to be addressed with limited evidence, with advice changing as new research emerges. 

“We have seen the messy side of science, [that] not all studies are equally well-done and that they build over time to contribute to the weight of knowledge,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions.” 

Academia has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information  relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible. —Chris Tyler, University College London

Widespread mask use, for example, was initially discouraged by many politicians and public health officials due to concerns about a shortage of supplies for healthcare workers and limited data on whether mask use by the general public would help reduce the spread of the virus. At the time, there were few mask-wearing laws outside of East Asia, where such practices were commonplace long before the COVID-19 pandemic began.  

Gradually, however, as studies began to provide evidence to support the use of face coverings as a means of stemming transmission, scientists and public health officials started to recommend their use. This shift led local, state, and federal officials around the world to implement mandatory mask-wearing rules in certain public spaces. Some politicians, however, used this about-face in advice as a reason to criticize health experts.  

“We’re dealing with evidence that is changing very rapidly,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “I think there’s a risk of people perceiving that rapid evolution as science [being] a bad process, which is worrisome.” On the other hand, the spotlight the pandemic has put on scientists provides opportunities to educate the general public and policymakers about the scientific process, Azad adds. It’s important to help them understand that “it’s good that things are changing, because it means we’re paying attention to the new evidence as it comes out.”

Bringing science and policy closer together

Despite these challenges, science and policy experts say that there are both short- and long-term ways to improve the relationship between the two communities and to help policymakers arrive at decisions that are more evidence-based.

Better tools, for one, could help close the gap. Earlier this year, Ruggeri brought together a group of people from a range of disciplines, including medicine, engineering, economics, and policy, to develop the Theoretical, Empirical, Applicable, Replicable, Impact (THEARI) rating system, a five-tiered framework for evaluating the robustness of scientific evidence in the context of policy decisions. The ratings range from “theoretical” (the lowest level, where a scientifically viable idea has been proposed but not tested) to “impact” (the highest level, in which a concept has been successfully tested, replicated, applied, and validated in the real world).

The team developed THEARI partly to establish a “common language” across scientific disciplines, which Ruggeri says would be particularly useful to policymakers evaluating evidence from a field they may know little about. Ruggeri hopes to see the THEARI framework—or something like it—adopted by policymakers and policy advisors, and even by journals and preprint servers. “I don’t necessarily think [THEARI] will be used right away,” he says. “It’d be great if it was, but we . . . [developed] it as kind of a starting point.” 

Other approaches to improve the communication between scientists and policymakers may require more resources and time. According to Akerlof, one method could include providing better incentives for both parties to engage with each other—by offering increased funding for academics who take part in this kind of activity, for instance—and boosting opportunities for such interactions to happen. 

Akerlof points to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which place scientists and engineers in various branches of the US government for a year, as an example of a way in which important ties between the two communities could be forged. “Many of those scientists either stay in government or continue to work in science policy in other organizations,” Akerlof says. “By understanding the language and culture of both the scientific and policy communities, they are able to bridge between them.”  

In Canada, such a program was established in 2018, when the Canadian Science Policy Center and Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, held the country’s first “Science Meets Parliament” event. The 28 scientists in attendance, including Azad, spent two days learning about effective communication and the policymaking process, and interacting with senators and members of parliament. “It was eye opening for me because I didn’t know how parliamentarians really live and work,” Azad says. “We hope it’ll grow and involve more scientists and continue on an annual basis . . . and also happen at the provincial level.”

The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions. —Karen Akerlof, George Mason University

There may also be insights from scientist-policymaker exchanges in other domains that experts can apply to the current pandemic. Maria Carmen Lemos, a social scientist focused on climate policy at the University of Michigan, says that one way to make those interactions more productive is by closing something she calls the “usability gap.”

“The usability gap highlights the fact that one of the reasons that research fails to connect is because [scientists] only pay attention to the [science],” Lemos explains. “We are putting everything out there in papers, in policy briefs, in reports, but rarely do we actually systematically and intentionally try to understand who is on the other side” receiving this information, and what they will do with it.

The way to deal with this usability gap, according to Lemos, is for more scientists to consult the people who actually make, influence, and implement policy changes early on in the scientific process. Lemos and her team, for example, have engaged in this way with city officials, farmers, forest managers, tribal leaders, and others whose decision making would directly benefit from their work. “We help with organization and funding, and we also work with them very closely to produce climate information that is tailored for them, for the problems that they are trying to solve,” she adds. 

Azad applied this kind of approach in a study that involves assessing the effects of the pandemic on a cohort of children that her team has been following from infancy, starting in 2010. When she and her colleagues were putting together the proposal for the COVID-19 project this year, they reached out to public health decision makers across the Canadian provinces to find out what information would be most useful. “We have made sure to embed those decision makers in the project from the very beginning to ensure we’re asking the right questions, getting the most useful information, and getting it back to them in a very quick turnaround manner,” Azad says. 

There will also likely be lessons to take away from the pandemic in the years to come, notes Noam Obermeister, a PhD student studying science policy at the University of Cambridge. These include insights from scientific advisors about how providing guidance to policymakers during COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic times, and how scientists’ prominent role during the pandemic has affected how they are viewed by the public; efforts to collect this sort of information are already underway. 

“I don’t think scientists anticipated that much power and visibility, or that [they] would be in [public] saying science is complicated and uncertain,” Obermeister says. “I think what that does to the authority of science in the public eye is still to be determined.”

Talking Science to PolicymakersFor academics who have never engaged with policymakers, the thought of making contact may be daunting. Researchers with experience of these interactions share their tips for success.
1. Do your homework. Policymakers usually have many different people vying for their time and attention. When you get a meeting, make sure you make the most of it. “Find out which issues related to your research are a priority for the policymaker and which decisions are on the horizon,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.
2. Get to the point, but don’t oversimplify. “I find policymakers tend to know a lot about the topics they work on, and when they don’t, they know what to ask about,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Finding a good balance in the communication goes a long way.”
3. Keep in mind that policymakers’ expertise differs from that of scientists. “Park your ego at the door and treat policymakers and their staff with respect,” Akerlof says. “Recognize that the skills, knowledge, and culture that translate to success in policy may seem very different than those in academia.” 
4. Be persistent. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately, or if promising communications don’t pan out,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “Policymakers are busy and their attention shifts rapidly. Meetings get cancelled. It’s not personal. Keep trying.”
5. Remember that not all policymakers are politicians, and vice versa. Politicians are usually elected and are affiliated with a political party, and they may not always be directly involved in creating new policies. This is not the case for the vast majority of policymakers—most are career civil servants whose decisions impact the daily living of constituents, Ruggeri explains. 

Indigenous knowledge still undervalued – study (EurekaAlert!)

News Release 3-Sep-2020

Respondents describe a power imbalance in environmental decision-making

Anglia Ruskin University

New research has found that Indigenous knowledge is regularly underutilised and misunderstood when making important environmental decisions.

Published in a special edition of the journal People and Nature, the study investigates how to improve collaborations between Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists, and recommends that greater equity is necessary to better inform decision-making and advance common environmental goals.

The research, led by Dr Helen Wheeler of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), involved participants from the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Russia, Canada, and the United States.

Indigenous peoples inhabit 25% of the land surface and have strong links to their environment, meaning they can provide unique insights into natural systems. However, the greater resources available to scientists often creates a power imbalance when environmental decisions are made.

The study’s Indigenous participants identified numerous problems, including that Indigenous knowledge is often perceived as less valuable than scientific knowledge and added as anecdotes to scientific studies.

They also felt that Indigenous knowledge was being forced into frameworks that did not match Indigenous people’s understanding of the world and is often misinterpreted through scientific validation. One participant expressed the importance of Indigenous knowledge being reviewed by Indigenous knowledge holders, rather than by scientists.

Another concern was that while funding for Arctic science was increasing, the same was not happening for research rooted in Indigenous knowledge or conducted by Indigenous peoples.

Gunn-Britt Retter, Head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit of the Saami Council, said: “Although funding for Arctic science is increasing, we are not experiencing this same trend for Indigenous knowledge research.

“Sometimes Indigenous organisations feel pressured to agree to requests for collaboration with scientists so that we can have some influence in decision-making, even when these collaborations feel tokenistic and do not meet the needs of our communities. This is because there is a lack of funding for Indigenous-led research.”

Victoria Buschman, Inupiaq Inuit wildlife and conservation biologist at the University of Washington, said: “Much of the research community has not made adequate space for Indigenous knowledge and continues to undermine its potential for information decision-making. We must let go of the narrative that working with Indigenous knowledge is too challenging.”

The study concludes that values, laws, institutions, funding and mechanisms of support that create equitable power-relations between collaborators are necessary for successful relationships between scientists and Indigenous groups.

Lead author Dr Helen Wheeler, Lecturer in Zoology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “The aim of this study was to understand how to work better with Indigenous knowledge. For those who do research on Indigenous people’s land, such as myself, I think this is an important question to ask.

“Our study suggests there are still misconceptions about Indigenous knowledge, particularly around the idea that it is limited in scope or needs verifying by science to be useful. Building capacity for research within Indigenous institutions is also a high priority, which will ensure Indigenous groups have greater power when it comes to informed decision-making.

“Indigenous knowledge is increasingly used in decision-making at many levels from developing international policy on biodiversity to local decisions about how to manage wildlife. However, as scientists and decision-makers use knowledge, they must do so in a way that reflects the needs of Indigenous knowledge holders. This should lead to better decisions and more equitable and productive partnerships.”

Related Journal Article

Study suggests religious belief does not conflict with interest in science, except among Americans (PsyPost)

Beth Ellwood – August 31, 2020

A new study suggests that the conflict between science and religion is not universal but instead depends on the historical and cultural context of a given country. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

It is widely believed that religion and science are incompatible, with each belief system involving contradictory understandings of the world. However, as study author Jonathan McPhetres and his team point out, the majority of research on this topic has been conducted in the United States.

“One of my main areas of research is trying to improve trust in science and finding ways to better communicate science. In order to do so, we must begin to understand who is more likely to be skeptical towards science (and why),” McPhetres, an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, told PsyPost.

In addition, “there’s a contradiction between scientific information and many traditional religious teachings; the conflict between science and religion also seems more pronounced in some areas and for some people (conservative/evangelical Christians). So, I have partly been motivated to see exactly how true this intuition is.”

First, nine initial studies that involved a total of 2,160 Americans found that subjects who scored higher in religiosity showed more negative implicit and explicit attitudes about science. Those high in religiosity also showed less interest in science-related activities and a decreased interest in reading or learning about science.

“It’s important to understand that these results don’t show that religious people hate or dislike science. Instead, they are simply less interested when compared to a person who is less religious,” McPhetres said.

Next, the researchers analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WEVs) involving 66,438 subjects from 60 different countries. This time, when examining the relationship between religious belief and interest in science, correlations were less obvious. While on average, the two concepts were negatively correlated, the strength of the relationship was small and varied by country.

Finally, the researchers collected additional data from 1,048 subjects from five countries: Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Here, the relationship between religiosity and attitudes about science was, again, small. Furthermore, greater religiosity was actually related to greater interest in science.

Based on these findings from 11 different studies, the authors suggest that the conflict between religion and science, while apparent in the United States, may not generalize to other parts of the world, a conclusion that “severely undermines the hypothesis that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.” Given that the study employed various assessments of belief in science, including implicit attitudes toward science, interest in activities related to science, and choice of science-related topics among a list of other topics, the findings are particularly compelling.

“There are many barriers to science that need not exist. If we are to make our world a better place, we need to understand why some people may reject science and scientists so that we can overcome that skepticism. Everyone can contribute to this goal by talking about science and sharing cool scientific discoveries and information with people every chance you get,” McPhetres said.

The study, “Religious Americans Have Less Positive Attitudes Toward Science, but This Does Not Extend to Other Cultures”, was authored by Jonathon McPhetres, Jonathan Jong, and Miron Zuckerman.

In a polarized world, what does ‘follow the science’ mean? (The Christian Science Monitor)

Why We Wrote This

Science is all about asking questions, but when scientific debates become polarized it can be difficult for average citizens to interpret the merits of various arguments.

August 12, 2020

By Christa Case Bryant Staff writer, Story Hinckley Staff writer

Should kids go back to school? 

One South Korean contact-tracing study suggests that is a bad idea. In analyzing 5,706 COVID-19 patients and their 59,073 contacts, it concluded – albeit with a significant caveat – that 10- to 19-year-olds were the most contagious age group within their household.

A study out of Iceland, meanwhile, found that children under 10 are less likely to get infected and less likely than adults to become ill if they are infected. Coauthor Kári Stefánsson, who is CEO of a genetics company tracking the disease’s spread, said the study didn’t find a single instance of a child infecting a parent.

So when leaders explain their decision on whether to send kids back to school by saying they’re “following the science,” citizens could be forgiven for asking what science they’re referring to exactly – and how sure they are that it’s right. 

But it’s become difficult to ask such questions amid the highly polarized debate around pandemic policies. While areas of consensus have emerged since the pandemic first hit the United States in March, significant gaps remain. Those uncertainties have opened the door for contrarians to gain traction in popular thought.

Some Americans see them as playing a crucial role, challenging a fear-driven groupthink that is inhibiting scientific inquiry, driving unconstitutional restrictions on individual freedom and enterprise, and failing to grapple with the full societal cost of shutting down businesses, churches, and schools. Public health experts who see shutdowns as crucial to saving lives are critical of such actors, due in part to fears that they are abetting right-wing resistance to government restrictions. They have also voiced criticism that some contrarians appear driven by profit or political motives more than genuine concern about public health.

The deluge of studies and competing interpretations have left citizens in a tough spot, especially when data or conclusions are shared on Twitter or TV without full context – like a handful of puzzle pieces thrown in your face, absent any box top picture to help you fit them together. 

“You can’t expect the public to go through all the science, so you rely on people of authority, someone whom you trust, to parse that for you,” says Aleszu Bajak, a science and data journalist who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. “But now you have more than just the scientists in their ivory tower throwing out all of this information. You have competing pundits, with different incentives, drawing on different science of varying quality.”

The uncertainties have also posed a challenge for policymakers, who haven’t had the luxury of waiting for the full arc of scientific inquiry to be completed.

“The fact is, science, like everything else, is uncertain – particularly when it comes to predictions,” says John Holdren, who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the duration of President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure. “I think seasoned, experienced decision-makers understand that. They understand that there will be uncertainties, even in the scientific inputs to their decision-making process, and they have to take those into account and they have to seek approaches that are resilient to uncertain outcomes.” 

Some say that in an effort to reassure citizens that shutdowns were implemented based on scientific input, policymakers weren’t transparent enough about the underlying uncertainties. 

“We’ve heard constantly that politicians are following the science. That’s good, of course, but … especially at the beginning, science is tentative, it changes, it’s evolving fast, it’s uncertain,” Prof. Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently told a British Parliament committee. One of the founding partners of his independent institute is Imperial College, whose researchers’ conclusions were a leading driver of U.S. and British government shutdowns.

“You can’t just have a single top line saying we’re following science,” he adds. “It has to be more dealing with what we know about the science and what we don’t.” 

Rick Bowmer/AP Granite School District teachers join others gathered at the Granite School District Office on Aug. 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City, to protest the district’s plans for reopening. Teachers showed up in numbers to make sure the district’s school board knew their concerns.

A focus on uncertainty

One scientist who talks a lot about unknowns is John Ioannidis, a highly cited professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health at Stanford University in California.

Dr. Ioannidis, who has made a career out of poking holes in his colleagues’ research, agrees that masks and social distancing are effective but says there are open questions about how best to implement them. He has also persistently questioned just how deadly COVID-19 is and to what extent shutdowns are affecting mental health, household transmission to older family members, and the well-being of those with non-COVID-19-relatedconditions.

It’s very difficult, he says, to do randomized trials for things like how to reopen, and different countries and U.S. states have done things in different ways.

“For each one of these decisions, action plans – people said we’re using the best science,” he says. “But how can it be that they’re all using the best science when they’re so different?”

Many scientists say they and their colleagues have been open about the uncertainties,despite a highly polarized debate around the pandemic and the 2020 election season ramping up. 

“One of the remarkable things about this pandemic is the extent to which many people in the scientific community are explicit about what’s uncertain,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is working on a study about how biases can affect COVID-19 research. “There has been a sort of hard core of scientists, even with different policy predispositions, who have been insistent on that.”

“In some ways the politicized nature has made people more aware of the uncertainties,” adds Professor Lipsitch, who says Twitter skeptics push him and his colleagues to strengthen their arguments. “That’s a good voice to have in the back of your head.” 

For the Harvard doctor, Alex Berenson is not that voice. But a growing number of frustrated Americans have gravitated toward the former New York Times reporter’s brash, unapologetic challenging of prevailing narratives. His following on Twitter has grown from around 10,000 to more than 182,000 and counting. 

Mr. Berenson, who investigated big business before leaving The New York Times in 2010 to write spy novels, dives into government data, quotes from scientific studies, and takes to Twitter daily to rail against what he sees as a dangerous overreaction driven by irrational fear and abetted by a liberal media agenda and corporate interests – particularly tech companies, whose earnings have soared during the shutdowns. He refers satirically to those advocating government restrictions as “Team Apocalypse.”

Dr. Lipsitch says that while public health experts pushing for lockdown like himself could be considered hawks while contrarians like Mr. Berenson could be considered doves, his “name-calling” doesn’t take into account the fact that most scientists have at least a degree of nuance. “It’s really sort of unsophisticated to say there are two camps, but it serves some people’s interest to demonize the other side,” he says.

Mr. Berenson, the author of a controversial 2019 book arguing that marijuana increases the risk of mental illness and violence, has been accused of cherry-picking data and conflating correlation and causation. Amazon initially blocked publication of his booklet “Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1” until Elon Musk got wind of it and called out the tech giant on Twitter. Mr. Berenson prevailed and recently released Part 2 on the platform, which has already become Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller among history of science and medicine e-books.

He strives to broaden the public’s contextual understanding of fatality rates, emphasizing that the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly; in Italy, for instance, the median age of people who died is 81. He calls into question the reliability of COVID-19 death tolls, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be categorized as such even without a positive test if the disease is assumed to have caused or even contributed to a death.

Earlier this spring, when a prominent model was forecasting overwhelmed hospitals in New York, he pointed out that their projection was quadruple that of the actual need. 

“Nobody had the guts or brains to ask – why is your model off by a factor of four today, and you made it last week?” says Mr. Berenson, referring to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projection in early April and expressing disappointment that his former colleagues in the media are not taking a harder look at such questions. “I think unfortunately people have been blinded by ideology.”

Politicization of science

Amid a sense of urgency, fear, and frustration with Americans who refuse to fall in line with government restrictions as readily as their European or especially Asian counterparts, Mr. Berenson and Dr. Ioannidis have faced blowback for airing questions about those restrictions and the science behind them.

Mr. Berenson’s book installments have prompted criticism that he’s looking for profits at the expense of public health, which he has denied. Dr. Ioannidis’ involvement in an April antibodies study in Santa Clara, California, which purported to show that COVID-19 is much less deadly than was widely believed was discredited by other scientists due to questions about the accuracy of the test used and a BuzzFeed report that it was partially funded by JetBlue Airways’ cofounder. Dr. Ioannidis says those questions were fully addressed within two weeks in a revised version that showed with far more extensive data that the test was accurate, and adds he had been unaware of the $5,000 donation, which came through the Stanford development office and was anonymized.

The dismay grew when BuzzFeed News reported in July that a month before the Santa Clara study, he had offered to convene a small group of world-renowned scientists to meet with President Donald Trump and help him solve the pandemic “by intensifying efforts to understand the denominator of infected people (much larger than what is documented to-date)” and developing a more targeted, data-driven approach than long-term shutdowns, which he said would “jeopardiz[e] so many lives,” according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed

While the right has seized on Dr. Ioannidis’ views and some scientists say it’s hard not to conclude that his work is driven by a political agenda, the Greek doctor maintains that partisanship is antithetical to the scientific method, which requires healthy skepticism, among other things.

“Even the word ‘science’ has been politicized. It’s very sad,” he says, observing that in the current environment, scientific conclusions are used to shame, smear, and “cancel” the opposite view. “I think it’s very unfortunate to use science as a silencer of dissent.”

The average citizen, he adds, is filtering COVID-19 debates through their belief systems, media sources, and political ideology, which can leave science at a disadvantage in the public square. “Science hasn’t been trained to deal with these kinds of powerful companions that are far more vocal and better armed to penetrate into social discourse,” says Dr. Ioannidis.

The polarization has been fueled in part by absolutist pundits. In a recent week, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC daily hammered home the rising rate in cases, trumpeted the daily death toll, and quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, while “The Tucker Carlson Show” on Fox News did not once mention government data, featuring instead anecdotes from business owners who have been affected by the shutdowns and calling into question the authority of unelected figures such as Dr. Fauci.

Fed on different media diets, it’s not surprising that partisan views on the severity of the pandemic have diverged further in recent months, with 85% of Democrats seeing it as a major threat – nearly double the percent of Republicans, according to a Pew Research poll from mid-July. And in a related division that predates the pandemic, another Pew poll from February showed that Republicans are less likely to support scientists taking an active role in social policy matters – just 43% compared with 73% for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

“If you have more of a populist type of worldview, where you are concerned that elites and scientists and officials act in their own interests first, it becomes very easy to make assumptions that they are doing something to control the population,” says Prof. Asheley Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University who specializes in science communication.

Beyond following the science

Determining what exactly “the science” says is only one part of the equation; figuring out precisely how to “follow” it poses another set of challenges for policymakers on questions like whether to send students back to school.

“Even if you had all the science pinned down, there are still some tough value judgments about the dangers of multiplying the pandemic or the dangers of keeping kids at home,” says Dr. Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, an engineer and physicist who now co-directs the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard Kennedy School.

Dr. Lipsitch echoes that point and offers an example of two schools that both have a 10% risk of an outbreak. In one, where there are older students from high-income families who are more capable of learning remotely, leaders may decide that the 10% risk isn’t worth reopening. But in another school with the same assessed risk, where the students are younger and many depend on free and reduced lunch, a district may decide the risk is a trade-off they’re willing to make in support of the students’ education and well-being.

“Following the science just isn’t enough,” says Dr. Lipsitch. “It’s incumbent on responsible leaders to use science to do the reasoning about how to do the best thing given your values, but it’s not an answer.”

Climate scientists increasingly ignore ecological role of indigenous peoples (EurekAlert!)

News Release 20-Jul-2020

Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In their zeal to promote the importance of climate change as an ecological driver, climate scientists increasingly are ignoring the profound role that indigenous peoples played in fire and vegetation dynamics, not only in the eastern United States but worldwide, according to a Penn State researcher.

“In many locations, evidence shows that indigenous peoples actively managed vast areas and were skilled stewards of the land,” said Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology and physiology. “The historical record is clear, showing that for thousands of years indigenous peoples set frequent fires to manage forests to produce more food for themselves and the wildlife that they hunted, and practiced extensive agriculture.”

Responding to an article published earlier this year in a top scientific journal that claimed fires set by Native Americans were rare in southern New England and Long Island, New York, and played minor ecological roles, Abrams said there is significant evidence to the contrary.

In an article published today (July 20) in Nature Sustainability, Abrams, who has been studying the historical use of fire in eastern U.S. forests for nearly four decades, refutes those contentions.

“The palaeoecological view — based on a science of analyzing pollen and charcoal in lake sediments — that has arisen over the last few decades, contending that anthropogenic fires were rare and mostly climate-driven, contradicts the proud legacy and heritage of land use by indigenous peoples, worldwide,” he said.

In his article, Abrams, the Nancy and John Steimer Professor of Agricultural Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences, argues that the authors of the previous paper assumed that the scarcity of charcoal indicated that there had not been burning. But frequent, low-intensity fires do not create the amount of charcoal that intense, crown-level, forest-consuming wildfires do, he pointed out.

“Surface fires set by indigenous people in oak and pine forests, which dominate southern New England, often produced insufficient charcoal to be noticed in the sediment,” said Abrams. “The authors of the earlier article did not consider charcoal types, which distinguish between crown and surface fires, and charcoal size — macro versus micro — to differentiate local versus regional fires.”

Also, lightning in New England could not account for the ignition of so many fires, Abrams argues. In southern New England, lightning-strike density is low and normally is associated with rain events.

“The region lacks dry lightning needed to sustain large fires,” he said. “Moreover, lightning storms largely are restricted to the summer when humidity is high and vegetation flammability is low, making them an unlikely ignition source.”

Early explorers and colonists of southern New England routinely described open, park-like forests and witnessed, firsthand, Native American vegetation management, Abrams writes in his article, adding that oral history and numerous anthropological studies indicate long-term burning and land-use for thousands of years by indigenous people.

Burning near Native American villages and along their extensive trail systems constitutes large land areas, and fires would have kept burning as long as fuel, weather and terrain allowed, he explained. Following European settlement, these open oak and pine woodlands increasingly became closed by trees that previously were held in check by frequent fire.

The authors of the previous paper also argued that fire should not be used as a present-day management tool, a view that Abrams does not support.

The role of anthropogenic fires is front and center in the long-running climate-disturbance debate, according to Abrams, who notes that fires increased with the rise of human populations. The world would be a very different place without those fires, he contends.

“Surprisingly, the importance of indigenous peoples burning in vegetation-fire dynamics is increasingly downplayed among paleoecologists,” he writes. “This applies to locations where lightning-caused fires are rare.”

Abrams points out that he is not denying the importance of climate in vegetation and fire dynamics or its role in enhancing the extent of human fires. “However,” he writes, “in oak-pine forests of southern New England, Native American populations were high enough, lighting-caused fires rare enough, vegetation flammable enough and the benefits of burning and agriculture great enough for us to have confidence in the importance of historic human land management.”


Gregory Nowacki, a scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Forest Service Office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed to the article.

Related Journal Article

Scientists launch ambitious conservation project to save the Amazon (Mongabay)

Series: Amazon Conservation

by Shanna Hanbury on 27 July 2020

  • The Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), an ambitious cooperative project to bring together the existing scientific research on the Amazon biome, has been launched with the support of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
  • Modeled on the authoritative UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the first Amazon report is planned for release in April 2021; that report will include an extensive section on Amazon conservation solutions and policy suggestions backed up by research findings.
  • The Science Panel for the Amazon consists of 150 experts — including climate, ecological, and social scientists; economists; indigenous leaders and political strategists — primarily from the Amazon countries
  • According to Carlos Nobre, one of the leading scientists on the project, the SPA’s reports will aim not only to curb deforestation, but to propose an ongoing economically feasible program to conserve the forest while advancing human development goals for the region, working in tandem with, and in support of, ecological systems.
Butterflies burst into the sky above an Amazonian river. Image © Fernando Lessa / The Nature Conservancy.

With the Amazon rainforest predicted to be at, or very close to, its disastrous rainforest-to-savanna tipping point, deforestation escalating at a frightening pace, and governments often worsening the problem, the need for action to secure the future of the rainforest has never been more urgent.

Now, a group of 150 leading scientific and economic experts on the Amazon basin have taken it upon themselves to launch an ambitious conservation project. The newly founded Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) aims to consolidate scientific research on the Amazon and propose solutions that will secure the region’s future — including the social and economic well-being of its thirty-five-million inhabitants.

“Never before has there been such a rigorous scientific evaluation on the Amazon,” said Carlos Nobre, the leading Amazon climatologist and one of the chairs of the Scientific Panel. The newly organized SPA, he adds, will model its work on the style of the authoritative reports produced by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in terms of academic diligence and the depth and breadth of analysis and recommendations.

The Amazon Panel, is funded by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network and supported by prominent political leaders, such as former Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos and the elected leader of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal. The SPA plans to publish its first report by April 2021.

Timber illegally logged within an indigenous reserve seized by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, before the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Under the Bolsonaro administration, IBAMA has been largely defunded. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

Reversing the Amazon Tipping Point

Over the last five decades, the Amazon rainforest lost almost a fifth of its forest cover, putting the biome on the edge of a dangerous cliff. Studies show that if 3 to 8% more forest cover is lost, then deforestation combined with escalating climate change is likely to cause the Amazon ecosystem to collapse.

After this point is reached, the lush, biodiverse rainforest will receive too little precipitation to maintain itself and quickly shift from forest into a degraded savanna, causing enormous economic damage across the South American continent, and releasing vast amounts of forest-stored carbon to the atmosphere, further destabilizing the global climate.

Amazon researchers are now taking a proactive stance to prevent the Amazon Tipping Point: “Our message to political leaders is that there is no time to waste,” Nobre wrote in the SPA’s press release.

Amid escalating forest loss in the Amazon, propelled by the anti-environmentalist agenda of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, experts fear that this year’s burning season, already underway, may exceed the August 2019 wildfires that shocked the world. Most Amazon basin fires are not natural in cause, but intentionally set, often by land grabbers invading indigenous territories and other conserved lands, and causing massive deforestation.

“We are burning our own money, resources and biodiversity — it makes no sense,” Sandra Hacon told Mongabay; she is a prominent biologist at the Brazilian biomedical Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and has studied the effects of Amazon forest fires on health. It is expected that air pollution caused by this year’s wildfire’s, when combined with COVID-19 symptoms, will cause severe respiratory impacts across the region.

Bolivian ecologist Marielos Penã-Claros, notes the far-reaching economic importance of the rainforest: “The deforestation of the Amazon also has a negative effect on the agricultural production of Uruguay or Paraguay, thousands of kilometers away.”

The climate tipping point, should it be passed, would negatively effect every major stakeholder in the Amazon, likely wrecking the agribusiness and energy production sectors — ironically, the sectors responsible for much of the devastation today.

“I hope to show evidence to the world of what is happening with land use in the Amazon and alert other governments, as well as state and municipal-level leadership. We have a big challenge ahead, but it’s completely necessary,” said Hacon.

Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, but researchers say there is enough already degraded land there to support significant cattle expansion without causing further deforestation. The SPA may in its report suggest viable policies for curbing cattle-caused deforestation. Image ©Henrique Manreza / The Nature Conservancy.

Scientists offer evidence, and also solutions

Creating a workable blueprint for the sustainable future of the Amazon rainforest is no simple task. The solutions mapped out, according to the Amazon Panel’s scientists, will seek to not only prevent deforestation and curb global climate change, but to generate a new vision and action plan for the Amazon region and its residents — especially, fulfilling development goals via a sustainable standing-forest economy.

The SPA, Nobre says, will make a critical break with the purely technical approach of the United Nation’s IPCC, which banned policy prescriptions entirely from its reports. In practice, this has meant that while contributing scientists can show the impacts of fossil fuels on the atmosphere, they cannot recommend ending oil subsidies, for example. “We inverted this logic, and the third part of the [SPA] report will be entirely dedicated to searching for policy suggestions,” Nobre says. “We need the forest on its feet, the empowerment of the traditional peoples and solutions on how to reach development goals.”

Researchers across many academic fields (ranging from climate science and economics to history and meteorology) are collaborating on the SPA Panel, raising hopes that scientific consensus on the Amazon rainforest can be reached, and that conditions for research cooperation will greatly improve.

Indigenous Munduruku dancers in the Brazilian Amazon. The SPA intends to gather Amazon science and formulate socio-economic solutions in order to make sound recommendations to policymakers. Image by Mauricio Torres / Mongabay.

SPA participants hope that a thorough scientific analysis of the rainforest’s past, present and future will aid in the formulation of viable public policies designed to preserve the Amazon biome — hopefully leading to scientifically and economically informed political decisions by the governments of Amazonian nations.

“We are analyzing not only climate but biodiversity, human aspects and preservation beyond the climate issues,” Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay.

Due to the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative’s initial dates for a final report were pushed forward by several months, and a conference in China cancelled entirely. But the 150-strong team is vigorously pushing forward, and the first phase of the project — not publicly available — is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The hope on the horizon is that a unified voice from the scientific community will trigger long-lasting positive changes in the Amazon rainforest. “More than ever, we need to hear the voices of the scientists to enable us to understand how to save the Amazon from wanton and unthinking destruction,” said Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, on the official launch website called The Amazon We Want.

Banner image: Aerial photo of an Amazon tributary surrounded by rainforest. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

“Como pesquisadores, precisamos ter a humildade de assumir que nos deparamos com os limites da técnica e da ciência” (Revista Pesquisa Fapesp)

Depoimento concedido a Christina Queiroz. 5 de julho de 2020

“A chegada da Covid-19 causou um impacto muito forte em todos os meus colegas na Universidade Federal do Amazonas [Ufam]. Com minha esposa, estou fazendo um isolamento rigoroso em Manaus, porque tenho quase 60 anos, tomo remédios para controlar pressão e diabetes. Vivemos semanas muito tristes, marcadas por muita dor e sofrimento. Como indígena, sigo perdendo amigos, familiares e lideranças de longa data. Fomos pegos de surpresa. Não acreditávamos na possibilidade de uma tragédia humanitária como essa. Faço parte de uma geração de indígenas que tem fé no poder da ciência, da tecnologia e acredita nos avanços proporcionados pela modernidade. No nosso pensamento, o vírus representa um elemento a mais da natureza. E, por causa da nossa fé no poder da ciência e da medicina científica, não esperávamos uma submissão tão grande da humanidade a um elemento tão pequeno e invisível. Assim, a primeira consequência da chegada da pandemia foi pedagógica e causou reflexões sobre nossa compreensão do mundo e de nós mesmos. 

Como pesquisadores acadêmicos, também precisamos ter a humildade de assumir que nos deparamos com os limites da técnica e da ciência. Ter humildade não significa se apequenar, mas, sim, buscar complementar os conhecimentos acadêmicos com outros saberes, para além da ciência eurocêntrica, e isso inclui as ciências indígenas. Ficou evidente o quanto é perigosa a trajetória que a humanidade está tomando, um caminho à deriva, sem lideranças, sem horizonte claro à possibilidade da própria existência humana. Somos uma sociedade que caminha para sua autodestruição. A natureza mostrou sua força, evidenciou que a palavra final é dela, e não dos humanos. 

Com o passar das semanas, essa ideia foi sendo incorporada em nossa maneira de compreender, explicar, aceitar e conviver com a nova realidade. Os povos indígenas apresentam cosmovisões milenares, mas que são atualizadas de tempos em tempos, como tem acontecido na situação atual. Passamos a olhar para a nova situação como uma oportunidade para empreender uma revisão cosmológica, filosófica, ontológica e epistemológica da nossa existência e buscar formas pedagógicas para sofrer menos. Nós, indígenas, somos profundamente emotivos. Amamos a vida e nossa existência não é pautada pela materialidade. O momento atual representa uma situação única de formação, pois afeta nossas emoções e valores. Ficamos surpresos com o pouco amor à vida das elites econômicas e de parte dos governantes, mas também de uma parcela significativa da população. A pandemia revelou essas deficiências. 

Por outro lado, um dos elementos que emergiu desse processo é uma profunda solidariedade, que tem permitido aos povos indígenas sobreviver no contexto atual. Identificamos fragilidades e limites. Também potencializamos nossas fortalezas. Uma delas, a valorização do conhecimento tradicional, considerado elemento do passado. Redescobrimos o valor do Sistema Único de Saúde [SUS], com toda a fragilidade que foi imposta a ele por diferentes governos. O SUS tem sido um gigante em um momento muito difícil para toda a sociedade.

Coordeno o curso de formação de professores indígenas da Faculdade de Educação da Ufam e me envolvo diariamente em discussões como essas com os alunos. São mais de 300 estudantes que fazem parte desse programa, divididos em cinco turmas. Recentemente, um deles morreu por conta de complicações causadas pelo novo coronavírus. No Amazonas, há mais de 2 mil professores indígenas atuando nas escolas das aldeias. Tenho muito trabalho com atividades burocráticas, para atualizar o registro acadêmico dos alunos e analisar suas pendências. Estamos planejando como fazer a retomada das atividades presenciais de ensino, mas essa retomada só deve acontecer em 2021. Enquanto isso, seminários on-line permitem dar continuidade ao processo de ensino-aprendizagem e ajudam a fomentar a volta de um espírito de solidariedade entre os estudantes indígenas, a valorização da natureza e a recuperação de saberes tradicionais sobre plantas e ervas medicinais. Em condições normais, a possibilidade de participar de tantos seminários e discussões não seria possível. Essas reflexões realizadas durante os encontros virtuais vão se transformar em material didático e textos publicados. Escrever esses textos me ajuda na compreensão da realidade e permite que esse saber seja compartilhado. 

Estamos realizando uma pesquisa para identificar quantos alunos do programa dispõem de equipamentos e acesso à internet. Muitos estão isolados em suas aldeias, alguns deles se refugiaram em lugares ainda mais remotos e só acessam a internet em situações raras e pontuais, quando precisam ir até as cidades. Em Manaus, constatamos que apenas 30% dos estudantes da Faculdade de Educação da Ufam dispõem de equipamento pessoal para utilizar a internet. No interior, entre os alunos dos territórios, esse percentual deve ser de menos de 10%. Devemos ter os resultados desse levantamento nas próximas semanas. Sou professor há 30 anos e trabalho com organizações e lideranças indígenas e vejo como esse fator dificulta o planejamento de qualquer atividade remota. Quando tivermos os resultados dessa pesquisa, a ideia é ter uma base de dados para que o movimento indígena se organize para solucionar o problema. Essa situação de ensino remoto pode se prolongar e precisamos estar preparados para não prejudicar os direitos dos alunos e vencer a batalha da inclusão digital.

Há 50 dias, vivíamos o pico da pandemia em Manaus. Estávamos apavorados, com 140 mortes diárias e as pessoas sendo enterradas em valas coletivas. Essa semana foi a primeira que sentimos um alívio. Hoje, 25 de junho, foi o primeiro dia em que nenhuma morte por coronavírus foi registrada na cidade. O medo agora é que pessoas desinformadas, ou menos sensíveis à vida, com o relaxamento das regras de isolamento, provoquem uma segunda onda de contaminação. Percebemos que as pessoas abandonaram as práticas de isolamento e muitas nem sequer utilizam máscaras. Mas começamos a sair do fundo do poço, inclusive o existencial. As estruturas montadas para o caos, como os hospitais de campanha, estão sendo desmontadas. 

Tivemos perdas de lideranças e pajés indígenas irreparáveis e insubstituíveis. Com a morte desses sábios, universos de sabedoria milenar desapareceram. Os pajés são responsáveis por produzir e manter o conhecimento tradicional, que só é repassado para alguns poucos herdeiros escolhidos, que precisam ser formados em um processo ritualístico longo e repleto de sacrifícios. As gerações mais jovens apresentam dificuldades para seguir esses protocolos e, por causa disso, o conhecimento tradicional tem enfrentado dificuldades em ser repassado. Eu e meus colegas da Ufam e dos movimentos indígenas estamos incentivando a nova geração a criar estratégias para absorver essa sabedoria, porque muitos sábios seguirão vivos. Escolas e universidades também podem colaborar com o processo, reconhecendo a importância desses saberes. Com os jovens, estamos insistindo que chegou a hora de garantir a continuidade dos saberes tradicionais. 

Com a melhoria da situação em Manaus, minha preocupação agora se voltou para o interior, onde foram notificadas 24 mortes nas últimas 24 horas. A população do interior representa menos de 50% da do Amazonas, estado onde as principais vítimas têm sido indígenas, do mesmo modo que acontece em Roraima. Toda minha família vive em São Gabriel da Cachoeira, incluindo minha mãe de 87 anos. A cidade já registrou mais de 3 mil casos e 45 mortes e ainda não atingiu o pico da pandemia. Há cerca de 800 comunidades no entorno do município e sabemos que o vírus já se espalhou por quase todas elas.

Porém há algo que nos alivia. Inicialmente ficamos apavorados, pensando que o vírus causaria um genocídio na população da cidade e seus entornos. O único hospital de São Gabriel não possui leitos de UTI [Unidade de Terapia Intensiva]. Passados 45 dias da notificação do primeiro caso na cidade, apesar das perdas significativas, vemos que as pessoas têm conseguido sobreviver à doença se cuidando em suas próprias casas, com medicina tradicional e fortalecendo laços de solidariedade. Minha mãe ficou doente, apresentou os sintomas da Covid-19. Também meus irmãos e uma sobrinha de minha mãe de 67 anos. Eles não foram testados. Decidiram permanecer em suas casas e cuidar uns dos outros, se valendo de ervas e cascas de árvores da medicina tradicional. Sobreviveram. Sabiam que ir para o hospital lotado naquele momento significaria morrer, pois a estrutura é precária e eles ficariam sozinhos. Ao optar por permanecer em casa, possivelmente transmitiram a doença um ao outro, mas a solidariedade fez a diferença. Um cuidou do outro. Culturalmente, a ideia de isolar o doente é algo impossível para os indígenas, pois seria interpretado como abandono, falta de solidariedade e desumanidade, o que é reprovável. Os laços de solidariedade vão além do medo de se contaminar.”

How ‘vaccine nationalism’ could block vulnerable populations’ access to COVID-19 vaccines (The Conversation)

June 17, 2020 8.16am EDT

Ana Santos Rutschman, Assistant Professor of Law, Saint Louis University

Hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine candidates are currently being developed. The way emerging vaccines will be distributed to those who need them is not yet clear. The United States has now twice indicated that it would like to secure priority access to doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Other countries, including India and Russia, have taken similar stances. This prioritization of domestic markets has become known as vaccine nationalism.

As a researcher at Saint Louis University’s Center for Health Law Studies, I have been following the COVID-19 vaccine race. Vaccine nationalism is harmful for equitable access to vaccines – and, paradoxically, I’ve concluded it is detrimental even for the U.S. itself.

Vaccine nationalism during COVID-19

Vaccine nationalism occurs when a country manages to secure doses of vaccine for its own citizens or residents before they are made available in other countries. This is done through pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer.

In March, the White House met with representatives from CureVac, a German biotech company developing a COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. government is reported to have inquired about the possibility of securing exclusive rights over the vaccine. This prompted the German government to comment that “Germany is not for sale.” Angela Merkel’s chief of staff promptly stated that a vaccine developed in Germany had to be made available in “Germany and the world.”

On June 15, the German government announced it would be investing 300 million euros (nearly US$340 million) in CureVac for a 23% stake in the company.

In April, the CEO of Sanofi, a French company whose COVID-19 vaccine work has received partial funding from the U.S Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, announced that the U.S. had the “right to the largest pre-order” of vaccine.

Following public outcry and pressure from the French government, Sanofi altered its stance and said that it would not negotiate priority rights with any country.

In India, the privately held Serum Institute is developing one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The Serum Institute signaled that, if development of the vaccine succeeds, most of the initial batches of vaccine will be distributed within India.

At the same time, India, alongside the U.S. and Russia, chose not to join the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which was launched by the World Health Organization to promote collaboration among countries in the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Vaccine nationalism is not new

Vaccine nationalism is not new. During the early stages of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, some of the wealthiest countries entered into pre-purchase agreements with several pharmaceutical companies working on H1N1 vaccines. At that time, it was estimated that, in the best-case scenario, the maximum number of vaccine doses that could be produced globally was 2 billion. The U.S. alone negotiated and obtained the right to buy 600,000 doses. All the countries that negotiated pre-purchase orders were developed economies.

Only when the 2009 pandemic began to unwind and demand for a vaccine dropped did developed countries offer to donate vaccine doses to poorer economies.

The problems posed by nationalism

The most immediate effect of vaccine nationalism is that it further disadvantages countries with fewer resources and bargaining power. It deprives populations in the Global South from timely access to vital public health goods. Taken to its extreme, it allocates vaccines to moderately at-risk populations in wealthy countries over populations at higher risk in developing economies.

Vaccine nationalism also runs against the fundamental principles of vaccine development and global public health. Most vaccine development projects involve several parties from multiple countries.

With modern vaccines, there are very few instances in which a single country can claim to be the sole developer of a vaccine. And even if that were possible, global public health is borderless. As COVID-19 is illustrating, pathogens can travel the globe. Public health responses to outbreaks, which include the deployment of vaccines, have to acknowledge that reality.

How nationalism can backfire in the US

The U.S. in notorious for its high drug prices. Does the U.S. government deserve to obtain exclusive rights for a vaccine that may be priced too high? Such a price may mean that fewer U.S. citizens and residents – especially those who are uninsured or underinsured – would have access to the vaccine. This phenomenon is a form of what economists call deadweight loss, as populations in need of a welfare-enhancing product are priced out. In public health, deadweight loss costs lives.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has told Congress that the government will not intervene to guarantee affordability of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S.

Secretary Azar has said the U.S. government wants the private sector to invest in vaccine development and manufacturing; if the U.S. sets prices, companies may not make that investment because the vaccines won’t be profitable. This view has been widely criticized. A commentator has called it “bad public health policy,” further pointing out that American taxpayers already fund a substantial amount of vaccine research and development in the U.S. Moreover, as legal scholars have pointed out, there are many regulatory perks and other incentives available exclusively to pharmaceutical companies.

If COVID-19 vaccines are not made available affordably to those who need them, the consequences will likely be disproportionately severe for poorer or otherwise vulnerable and marginalized populations. COVID-19 has already taken a higher toll on black and Latino populations. Without broad access to a vaccine, these populations will likely continue to suffer more than others, leading to unnecessary disease burden, continued economic problems and potential loss of life.

What needs to be done

Nationalism is at odds with global public health principles. Yet, there are no provisions in international laws that prevent pre-purchase agreements like the ones described above. There is nothing inherently wrong with pre-purchase agreements of pharmaceutical products. Vaccines typically do not generate as much in sales as other medical products. If used correctly, pre-purchase agreements can even be an incentive for companies to manufacture vaccines that otherwise would not commercialized. Institutions like Gavi, an international nonprofit based in Geneva, use similar mechanisms to guarantee vaccines for developing countries.

But I see vaccine nationalism as a misuse of these agreements.

Contracts should not trump equitable access to global public health goods. I believe that developed countries should pledge to refrain from reserving vaccines for their populations during public health crises. The WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is a starting point for countries to test collaborative approaches during the current pandemic.

But more needs to be done. International institutions – including the WHO – should coordinate negotiations ahead of the next pandemic to produce a framework for equitable access to vaccines during public health crises. Equity entails both affordability of vaccines and access opportunities for populations across the world, irrespective of geography and geopolitics.

Insofar as the U.S. can be considered a leader in the global health arena, I believe it should stop engaging in overly nationalistic behaviors. Failure to do so harms patient populations across the globe. Ultimately, it may harm its own citizens and residents, and perpetuate structural inequalities in our health care system.

Cientistas pedem paralização acadêmica em apoio ao movimento Vidas Negras Importam (GIZMODO)

Por Ryan F. Mandelbaum, 9 de junho de 2020. Tradução de Renzo Taddei; revisão de Fernando Martins.

Artigo original

A supremacia branca é parte da organização da ciência e da academia, desde a linguagem racista presente em livros didáticos até uma cultura que exclui cientistas negros do avanço e inovação profissional em ritmo similar ao de seus colegas brancos. Neste momento, no lugar de mais declarações tímidas de apoio e iniciativas de promoção de diversidade racial, os pesquisadores querem ação. Os organizadores do movimento #ShutDownSTEM estão pedindo à comunidade científica que participe de uma paralisação do trabalho na quarta-feira, 10 de junho, para chamar a atenção para o racismo no mundo da pesquisa.

Dois grupos de cientistas, tecnólogos e especialistas em diversidade e inclusão se reuniram para organizar uma paralisação e greve em 10 de junho, com as hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM e #Strike4BlackLives. Ambos os grupos solicitam aos pesquisadores e acadêmicos que paralisem suas atividades cotidianas e, concentrem-se em ações de longo prazo: educando-se nos problemas enfrentados pelos acadêmicos negros, protestando e elaborando planos com base no trabalho realizado pelos líderes negros para desmantelar o racismo entrincheirado em seus respectivos campos de atuação. Centenas de cientistas, incluindo ganhadores do Prêmio Nobel e pesquisadores renomados, assinaram o compromisso de participar.

“Precisamos assumir a responsabilidade de acabar com o racismo contra pessoas negras em nossas comunidades nas áreas de ciência, tecnologia, engenharia e matemática (grupo de disciplinas designadas pela sigla STEM nos países de língua inglesa), e na academia em geral. Isso é extremamente importante por causa do nosso papel na sociedade”, disse Brittany Kamai, física experimental que atua na Universidade da Califórnia, Santa Cruz e no Caltech, ao Gizmodo,. “Vai ser difícil, e a comunidade crescerá com isso. Pedimos a toda a comunidade do STEM e da academia que se comprometam a crescer juntos para erradicar isso”, disse Kamai, organizadora da #ShutDownAcademia/# ShutDownSTEM e nativa do Havaí.

Os protestos contra a violência policial direcionada às pessoas negras nos EUA serviram como catalisador para o movimento #ShutDownAcademia/# ShutDownSTEM colaborar com uma iniciativa de pesquisadores do campo da física, o Partículas para a Justiça (Particles for Justice). Mas essas questões há muito vêm borbulhando na comunidade científica. Um relatório no início deste ano constatou que a já desanimadora percentagem de estudantes negros formados em física não mudou em 10 anos, em parte devido à falta de apoio e orientação, assim como decorrente do declínio no financiamento de faculdades e universidades historicamente negros.

A discriminação contra os cientistas negros também se faz presente de maneira insidiosa. Os laboratórios ainda se referem a parte de equipamentos como “mestre” e “escravo”, enquanto o marco mais comumente discutido na computação quântica é a “supremacia quântica”. Há poucos, se houver algum, periódicos científicos trabalhando de forma ativa para avaliar essa forma de linguagem. Os prédios nos campi das faculdades recebem o nome de pessoas racistas ou que foram proprietários de escravos, e pseudociência costuma ser usada para tentar racionalizar e justificar o racismo.

“Quando [a comunidade acadêmica] tenta mostrar o valor da diversidade e da inclusão, o faz transferindo às pessoas marginalizadas a responsabilidade por sua própria libertação”, comentou Brian Nord, pesquisador do Fermilab, “Eles fazem com que nós, que já estamos inseridos nesse sistema e que enfrentamos os problemas que o sistema criou, realizemos essas atividades e nos juntemos a esses comitês (de promoção de igualdade racial) e todas essas coisas, que acabaram servindo apenas como vitrines … Não há investimento real e compromisso com esta questão”.

Esse trabalho de ativismo coloca os acadêmicos negros em desvantagem e afeta as perspectivas de avanço na carreira, uma vez que os demais pesquisadores destinam período de tempo equivalente para publicar artigos,. Quando surgiram questões de violência policial contra negros, disse Kamai, seus colegas procuraram apoio em outros lugares que não a comunidade acadêmica, como coletivos acadêmicos liderados por negros.

“Não queremos mais seminários sobre diversidade, inclusão e equidade”, disse Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, professora assistente de física e integrante do corpo docente dos estudos de gênero da Universidade de New Hampshire, ao Gizmodo. “Queremos que as pessoas tomem medidas efetivas, incluindo a participação em protestos por justiça. Precisamos que as pessoas sejam ativas na reforma das instituições em que trabalham, em vez de esperar por uma solução de cima para baixo”. Prescod-Weinstein é uma das organizadoras do movimento Particles for Justice.

Tais grupos pedem a todos os cientistas que usem o dia 10 de junho para educar a si mesmos e a seus alunos, organizar protestos, entrar em contato com seus representantes locais e fazer planos de ação sobre como eles trabalharão para mudar a ciência e a academia, ao invés de simplesmente fazer um dia de greve. Igualmente importante, dizem os organizadores, é que os colegas negros usem o dia para priorizar suas necessidades e encontrar apoio em suas comunidades.

Kamai disse que o #ShutDownSTEM não se destina a cientistas diretamente envolvidos na mitigação da pandemia global de covid-19. Ainda assim, o grupo Particles for Justice incentiva os pesquisadores sobre a COVID-19 a tomar um momento na quarta-feira para refletir sobre como seu trabalho pode contribuir para esses pedidos de justiça.

Nord disse ao Gizmodo que espera que os físicos apliquem ao movimento a mesma paixão que eles trazem para descobrir as verdades fundamentais do universo, como se sua vida e a de todos os cientistas negros dependesse disso. “Essa energia e criatividade são o que precisamos. Precisamos que eles tragam sua compaixão e vontade de aprender novos métodos e coisas novas, de pessoas que já sabem como fazer isso. ”

Esses movimentos exigem a participação de aliados não-negros para que as mudanças ocorram, especialmente em campos como a física. “A física de partículas é uma das disciplinas acadêmicas com as mais baixas representações dos cientistas negros”, disse Tien-Tien Yu, professor assistente de física da Universidade do Oregon. “A greve trará atenção a esse fato, e é importante para nós, como comunidade, entender por que a situação está neste ponto, e mais crucialmente, propor soluções concretas. Mas, primeiro, esperamos que os físicos não-negros finalmente aprendam a ouvir o que os cientistas negros vêm dizendo durante todos esses anos”.

Mais de 3.100 acadêmicos se comprometeram a atuar com o Particles for Justice, incluindo os ganhadores do Prêmio Nobel de Física Adam Riess e Art McDonald.

Grupos científicos de primeira importância já declararam sua participação. A plataforma de artigos arXiv, onde os cientistas costumam postar seus trabalhos de pesquisa antes da publicação, não enviará sua comunicação diária. Grupos como o LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, o Dark Energy Survey e outros já concordaram em adiar reuniões regulares ou estão planejando discussões com os membros de seus grupos. A Associação Canadense de Físicos também anunciou sua participação.

Os movimentos Particles for Justice e #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM listaram ações que acadêmicos e profissionais da academia interessados em participar podem adotar para desmantelar o racismo em seus respectivos campos.

Ryan F. Mandelbaum, divulgador da ciências, fundador da Birdmodo

Breve reflexão sobre racismo estrutural nos institutos de produção de ciência no Brasil

Renzo Taddei e Fernando Martins – 10 de junho de 2020

Na data de hoje (10/06) aconteceu o enterro de George Floyd. Temos acompanhado as notícias de protestos e um crescimento da indignação social com relação ao racismo ao redor do mundo durante esta última semana. O portal GIZMODO publicou o artigo “Scientists Call for Academic Shutdown in Support of Black Lives” que tomamos a liberdade de traduzir para a língua portuguesa (ver abaixo).

Nosso intuito é promover uma reflexão e discussão sobre as questões raciais na comunidade acadêmica e como, nós professores/pesquisadores compreendemos a questão, e que propostas podemos apresentar para trabalhar esta temática de forma efetiva nas nossas ações, sejam na nossa rotina acadêmica, sejam em nossa vida particular.

Todas as organizações e institutos de produção científica existem dentro de um contexto maior social, cultural, político e econômico. De maneira geral, tais organizações refletem estes elementos do mundo social na forma como existem e levam a cabo suas atividades. Desta forma, disparidades e injustiças históricas que acabaram por transformar-se em parte das estruturas da sociedades maior se fazem presentes também em instituições científicas. Quando tais desigualdades e injustiças vinculam-se a questões raciais, têm-se o chamado racismo estrutural.

O racismo estrutural mantém-se presente mesmo que as pessoas não se comportem de forma intencionalmente racista. Basta que as coisas se reproduzam como são, e as injustiças presentes nas estruturas da realidade se propagam no tempo, mesmo que as pessoas envolvidas não sejam capazes de entender onde exatamente o racismo se encontra.

O fato de que a imensa maioria dos departamentos universitários no Brasil não possuem sequer um professor negro sugere uma de duas alternativas: 1) os acadêmicos negros não se interessam por temas ligados aos temas de pesquisa de tais departamentos; ou 2) o racismo estrutural está vivo e firme entre nós. Obviamente, a primeira opção não faz qualquer sentido, e estamos assumindo que não houve ação racista intencional nos concursos que proveram o corpo docente de cada departamento e instituição.

A ocasião dos movimentos antirracistas no Brasil, nos Estados Unidos e em outros países é propícia para que a campo da ciência no Brasil promova reflexões internas e busque entender se o problema do racismo estrutural existe dentro das instituições, e o que pode ser feito para que diagnósticos sejam elaborados e soluções sejam propostas. É muito provável que exista um componente de racismo estrutural nas formas de ingresso à universidade, tanto na graduação como na pós; nos critérios de avaliação de desempenho de estudantes, na questão das reprovações, no problema da evasão. Só saberemos a respeito com dados empíricos sobre estes temas, em que a variável racial seja tomada em conta.

Universidades, institutos e departamentos precisam formar grupos de trabalho, com docentes, técnicos administrativos e alunos, para debater o problema e propor encaminhamentos.

Segue o texto do artigo traduzido:


Por Ryan F. Mandelbaum, 9 de junho de 2020. Tradução de Renzo Taddei; revisão de Fernando Martins.

Artigo original

A supremacia branca é parte da organização da ciência e da academia, desde a linguagem racista presente em livros didáticos até uma cultura que exclui cientistas negros do avanço e inovação profissional em ritmo similar ao de seus colegas brancos. Neste momento, no lugar de mais declarações tímidas de apoio e iniciativas de promoção de diversidade racial, os pesquisadores querem ação. Os organizadores do movimento #ShutDownSTEM estão pedindo à comunidade científica que participe de uma paralisação do trabalho na quarta-feira, 10 de junho, para chamar a atenção para o racismo no mundo da pesquisa.

Dois grupos de cientistas, tecnólogos e especialistas em diversidade e inclusão se reuniram para organizar uma paralisação e greve em 10 de junho, com as hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM e #Strike4BlackLives. Ambos os grupos solicitam aos pesquisadores e acadêmicos que paralisem suas atividades cotidianas e, concentrem-se em ações de longo prazo: educando-se nos problemas enfrentados pelos acadêmicos negros, protestando e elaborando planos com base no trabalho realizado pelos líderes negros para desmantelar o racismo entrincheirado em seus respectivos campos de atuação. Centenas de cientistas, incluindo ganhadores do Prêmio Nobel e pesquisadores renomados, assinaram o compromisso de participar.

“Precisamos assumir a responsabilidade de acabar com o racismo contra pessoas negras em nossas comunidades nas áreas de ciência, tecnologia, engenharia e matemática (grupo de disciplinas designadas pela sigla STEM nos países de língua inglesa), e na academia em geral. Isso é extremamente importante por causa do nosso papel na sociedade”, disse Brittany Kamai, física experimental que atua na Universidade da Califórnia, Santa Cruz e no Caltech, ao Gizmodo,. “Vai ser difícil, e a comunidade crescerá com isso. Pedimos a toda a comunidade do STEM e da academia que se comprometam a crescer juntos para erradicar isso”, disse Kamai, organizadora da #ShutDownAcademia/# ShutDownSTEM e nativa do Havaí.

Os protestos contra a violência policial direcionada às pessoas negras nos EUA serviram como catalisador para o movimento #ShutDownAcademia/# ShutDownSTEM colaborar com uma iniciativa de pesquisadores do campo da física, o Partículas para a Justiça (Particles for Justice). Mas essas questões há muito vêm borbulhando na comunidade científica. Um relatório no início deste ano constatou que a já desanimadora percentagem de estudantes negros formados em física não mudou em 10 anos, em parte devido à falta de apoio e orientação, assim como decorrente do declínio no financiamento de faculdades e universidades historicamente negros.

A discriminação contra os cientistas negros também se faz presente de maneira insidiosa. Os laboratórios ainda se referem a parte de equipamentos como “mestre” e “escravo”, enquanto o marco mais comumente discutido na computação quântica é a “supremacia quântica”. Há poucos, se houver algum, periódicos científicos trabalhando de forma ativa para avaliar essa forma de linguagem. Os prédios nos campi das faculdades recebem o nome de pessoas racistas ou que foram proprietários de escravos, e pseudociência costuma ser usada para tentar racionalizar e justificar o racismo.

“Quando [a comunidade acadêmica] tenta mostrar o valor da diversidade e da inclusão, o faz transferindo às pessoas marginalizadas a responsabilidade por sua própria libertação”, comentou Brian Nord, pesquisador do Fermilab, “Eles fazem com que nós, que já estamos inseridos nesse sistema e que enfrentamos os problemas que o sistema criou, realizemos essas atividades e nos juntemos a esses comitês (de promoção de igualdade racial) e todas essas coisas, que acabaram servindo apenas como vitrines … Não há investimento real e compromisso com esta questão”.

Esse trabalho de ativismo coloca os acadêmicos negros em desvantagem e afeta as perspectivas de avanço na carreira, uma vez que os demais pesquisadores destinam período de tempo equivalente para publicar artigos,. Quando surgiram questões de violência policial contra negros, disse Kamai, seus colegas procuraram apoio em outros lugares que não a comunidade acadêmica, como coletivos acadêmicos liderados por negros.

“Não queremos mais seminários sobre diversidade, inclusão e equidade”, disse Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, professora assistente de física e integrante do corpo docente dos estudos de gênero da Universidade de New Hampshire, ao Gizmodo. “Queremos que as pessoas tomem medidas efetivas, incluindo a participação em protestos por justiça. Precisamos que as pessoas sejam ativas na reforma das instituições em que trabalham, em vez de esperar por uma solução de cima para baixo”. Prescod-Weinstein é uma das organizadoras do movimento Particles for Justice.

Tais grupos pedem a todos os cientistas que usem o dia 10 de junho para educar a si mesmos e a seus alunos, organizar protestos, entrar em contato com seus representantes locais e fazer planos de ação sobre como eles trabalharão para mudar a ciência e a academia, ao invés de simplesmente fazer um dia de greve. Igualmente importante, dizem os organizadores, é que os colegas negros usem o dia para priorizar suas necessidades e encontrar apoio em suas comunidades.

Kamai disse que o #ShutDownSTEM não se destina a cientistas diretamente envolvidos na mitigação da pandemia global de covid-19. Ainda assim, o grupo Particles for Justice incentiva os pesquisadores sobre a COVID-19 a tomar um momento na quarta-feira para refletir sobre como seu trabalho pode contribuir para esses pedidos de justiça.

Nord disse ao Gizmodo que espera que os físicos apliquem ao movimento a mesma paixão que eles trazem para descobrir as verdades fundamentais do universo, como se sua vida e a de todos os cientistas negros dependesse disso. “Essa energia e criatividade são o que precisamos. Precisamos que eles tragam sua compaixão e vontade de aprender novos métodos e coisas novas, de pessoas que já sabem como fazer isso. ”

Esses movimentos exigem a participação de aliados não-negros para que as mudanças ocorram, especialmente em campos como a física. “A física de partículas é uma das disciplinas acadêmicas com as mais baixas representações dos cientistas negros”, disse Tien-Tien Yu, professor assistente de física da Universidade do Oregon. “A greve trará atenção a esse fato, e é importante para nós, como comunidade, entender por que a situação está neste ponto, e mais crucialmente, propor soluções concretas. Mas, primeiro, esperamos que os físicos não-negros finalmente aprendam a ouvir o que os cientistas negros vêm dizendo durante todos esses anos”.

Mais de 3.100 acadêmicos se comprometeram a atuar com o Particles for Justice, incluindo os ganhadores do Prêmio Nobel de Física Adam Riess e Art McDonald.

Grupos científicos de primeira importância já declararam sua participação. A plataforma de artigos arXiv, onde os cientistas costumam postar seus trabalhos de pesquisa antes da publicação, não enviará sua comunicação diária. Grupos como o LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, o Dark Energy Survey e outros já concordaram em adiar reuniões regulares ou estão planejando discussões com os membros de seus grupos. A Associação Canadense de Físicos também anunciou sua participação.

Os movimentos Particles for Justice e #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM listaram ações que acadêmicos e profissionais da academia interessados em participar podem adotar para desmantelar o racismo em seus respectivos campos.

Ryan F. Mandelbaum, divulgador da ciências, fundador da Birdmodo

Crédito: Antonio O. Silva

Book Review: Why Science Denialism Persists (Undark)


Two new books explore what motivates people to reject science — and why it’s so hard to shake deep-seated beliefs.

By Elizabeth Svoboda – 05.22.2020

To hear some experts tell it, science denial is mostly a contemporary phenomenon, with climate change deniers and vaccine skeptics at the vanguard. Yet the story of Galileo Galilei reveals just how far back denial’s lineage stretches.

BOOK REVIEW “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages).

Years of astronomical sightings and calculations had convinced Galileo that the Earth, rather than sitting at the center of things, revolved around a larger body, the sun. But when he laid out his findings in widely shared texts, as astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” the ossified Catholic Church leadership — heavily invested in older Earth-centric theories — aimed its ire in his direction.

Rather than revise their own maps of reality to include his discoveries, clerics labeled him a heretic and banned his writings. He spent the last years of his life under house arrest, hemmed in by his own insistence on the expansiveness of the cosmos.

Nearly 400 years later, the legacy of denial remains intact in some respects. Scientists who publish research about climate change or the safety of genetically modified crops still encounter the same kind of pushback from deniers that Galileo did. Yet denialism has also sprouted some distinctly modern features: As Alan Levinovitz points out in “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” sometimes we ourselves can become unwitting purveyors of denial, falling prey to flawed or false beliefs we may not realize we’re holding.

Levinovitz passionately protests the common assumption that natural things are inherently better than unnatural ones. Not only do people automatically tend to conclude organic foods are healthier, many choose “natural” or “alternative” methods of cancer treatment over proven chemotherapy regimens. Medication-free childbirth, meanwhile, is now considered the gold standard in many societies, despite mixed evidence of its health benefits for mothers and babies.

BOOK REVIEW “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” by Alan Levinovitz (Beacon Press, 264 pages).

“What someone calls ‘natural’ may be good,” writes Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University, “but the association is by no means necessary, or even likely.” Weaving real-life examples with vivid retellings of ancient myths about nature’s power, he demonstrates that our pro-natural bias is so pervasive that we often lose the ability to see it — or to admit the legitimacy of science that contradicts it.

From this perspective, science denial starts to look like a stunted outgrowth of what we typically consider common sense. In Galileo’s time, people thought it perfectly sensible that the planet they inhabited was at the center of everything. Today, it might seem equally sensible that it’s always better to choose natural products over artificial ones, or that a plant burger ingredient called “soy leghemoglobin” is suspect because it’s genetically engineered and can’t be sourced in the wild. Yet in these cases, what we think of as common sense turns out to be humbug.

In exploring the past and present of anti-science bias, Livio and Levinovitz show how deniers’ basic toolbox has not changed much through the centuries. Practitioners marshal arguments that appeal to our tendency to think in dichotomies: wrong or right, saved or damned, pure or tainted. Food is either nourishing manna from the earth or processed, artificial junk. The Catholic Church touted its own supreme authority while casting Galileo as an unregenerate apostate.

In the realm of denialism, Levinovitz writes, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change. Righteous laws and rituals are universal. Disobedience is sacrilege.”

The very language of pro-nature, anti-science arguments, Levinovitz argues, is structured to play up this us-versus-them credo. Monikers like Frankenfood — often used to describe genetically-modified (GM) crops — frame the entire GM food industry as monstrous, a deviation from the supposed order of things. And in some circles, he writes, the word “unnatural” has come to be almost a synonym for “moral deficiency.” Not only is such black-and-white rhetoric seductive, it can give deniers the heady sense that they occupy the moral high ground.

Both pro-natural bias and the Church’s crusade against Galileo reflect the human penchant to fit new information into an existing framework. Rather than scrapping or changing that framework, we try to jerry-rig it to make it function. Some of the jerry-rigging examples the authors describe are more toxic than others: Opting for so-called natural foods despite dubious science on their benefits, for instance, is less harmful than denying evidence of a human-caused climate crisis.

What’s more, many people actually tend to cling harder to their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. Studies confirm that facts and reality aren’t likely to sway most people’s pre-existing views. This is as true now as it was at the close of the Renaissance, as shown by some extremists’ stubborn denial that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous.

In the realm of denialism, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change.”

In one of his book’s most compelling chapters, Livio takes us inside a panel of theologians that convened in 1616 to rule on whether the sun was at the center of things. None of Galileo’s incisive arguments swayed their thinking one iota. “This proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy,” the theologians wrote, “and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Cardinal Bellarmino warned Galileo that if he did not renounce his heliocentric views, he could be thrown into prison.

Galileo’s discoveries threatened to topple a superstructure that the Church had spent hundreds of years buttressing. In making their case against him, his critics liked to cite a passage from Psalm 93: “The world also is established that it cannot be moved.”

Galileo refused to cave. In his 1632 book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he did give the views of Pope Urban VIII an airing: He repeated Urban’s statement that no human could ever hope to decode the workings of the universe. But Livio slyly points out that Galileo put these words in the mouth of a ridiculous character named Simplicio. It was a slight Urban would not forgive. “May God forgive Signor Galilei,” he intoned, “for having meddled with these subjects.”

At the close of his 1633 Inquisition trial, Galileo was forced to declare that he abandoned any belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. “I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies.” He swore that he would never again say “anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me.” Yet as he left the courtroom, legend goes, he muttered to himself “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves).

In the face of science denial, Livio observes, people have taken up “And yet it moves” as a rallying cry: a reminder that no matter how strong our prejudices or presuppositions, the facts always remain the same. But in today’s “post-truth era,” as political theorist John Keane calls it, with little agreement on what defines a reliable source, even the idea of an inescapable what is seems to have receded from view.

Levinovitz’s own evolution in writing “Natural” reveals how hard it can be to elevate facts above all, even for avowed anti-deniers. When he began his research, he picked off instances of pro-natural bias as if they were clay pigeons, confident in the rigor of his approach. “Confronted with a false faith, I had resolved that it was wholly evil,” he reflects.

Yet he later concedes that a favoritism toward nature is logical in domains like sports, which celebrate the potential of the human body in its unaltered form. He also accepts one expert’s point that it makes sense to buy organic if the pesticides used are less dangerous to farm workers than conventional ones. By the end of the book, he finds himself in a more nuanced place: “The art of celebrating humanity and nature,” he concludes, depends on “having the courage to embrace paradox.” His quest to puncture the myth of the natural turns out to have been dogmatic in its own way.

In acknowledging this, Levinovitz hits on something important. When deniers take up arms, it’s tempting to follow their lead: to use science to build an open-and-shut case that strikes with the finality of a courtroom witness pointing out a killer.

But as Galileo knew — and as Levinovitz ultimately concedes — science, in its endlessly unspooling grandeur, tends to resist any conclusion that smacks of the absolute. “What only science can promise,” Livio writes, “is a continuous, midcourse self-correction, as additional experimental and observational evidence accumulates, and new theoretical ideas emerge.”

In their skepticism of pat answers, these books bolster the case that science’s strength is in its flexibility — its willingness to leave room for iteration, for correction, for innovation. Science is an imperfect vehicle, as any truth-seeking discipline must be. And yet, as Galileo would have noted, it moves.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.”


Opinion: The Roots of Modern Medical Denialism

The religious roots of Trump’s magical thinking on coronavirus (CNN)

Analysis by Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor

Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT) May 21, 2020

(CNN) As the novel coronavirus has spread across the globe, President Trump has repeated one phrase like a mantra: It will go away.

Since February Trump has said the virus will “go away” at least 15 times, most recently on May 15.

“It’s going to disappear one day,” he said on February 27. “It’s like a miracle.”

Invoking a miracle is an understandable response during a pandemic, but to some, the President’s insistence that the coronavirus will simply vanish sounds dangerously like magical thinking — the popular but baffling idea that we can mold the world to our liking, reality be damned.

The coronavirus, despite Trump’s predictions, has not disappeared. It has spread rapidly, killing more than 90,000 Americans.

In that light, Trump’s response to the pandemic, his fulsome self-praise and downplaying of mass death seems contrary to reality. But long ago, his biographers say, Trump learned how to craft his own version of reality, a lesson he learned in an unlikely place: a church.

It’s called the “power of positive thinking,” and Trump heard it from the master himself: the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, a Manhattan pastor who became a self-help juggernaut, the Joel Osteen of the 1950s.

“He thought I was his greatest student of all time,” Trump has said.

Undoubtedly, the power of positive thinking has taken Trump a long way — through multiple business failures to the most powerful office in the world.

Trump has repeatedly credited Peale — who died in 1993 — and positive thinking with helping him through rough patches.

Norman Vincent Peale wrote the bestselling 1952 self-help book, "The Power of Positive Thinking." It sold millions of copies.

Norman Vincent Peale wrote the bestselling 1952 self-help book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It sold millions of copies.

“I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren’t great,” Trump said of the early 1990s, when his casinos were tanking and he owed creditors billions of dollars.

But during a global public health crisis there can be a negative side to positive thinking.

“Trump pretending that this pandemic will just go away is not just an unacceptable fantasy,” said Christopher Lane, author of “Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life.”

“It is in the realm of dangerous delusion.”

Trump says Peale has made him feel better about himself

Though they were professed Presbyterians, it’s more accurate to call Trump’s family Peale-ites.

On Sundays, Trump’s businessman father drove the family from Queens to Peale’s pulpit at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

The centuries-old edifice was, and remains, the closest thing Trump has to a family church. Funerals for both of his parents were held there, and Peale presided over Trump’s marriage to Ivana at Marble Collegiate in 1977. Two of his siblings were also married in the sanctuary.

The draw, Trump’s biographers say, was Peale, who elevated businessmen like the Trumps to saint-like status as crusaders of American capitalism.

Known as “God’s Salesman,” Peale wrote many self-help books, including “The Power of Positive Thinking,” that sold millions of copies.

From left to right, Donald Trump, Ivana Trump, Ruth Peale and Dr. Norman V. Peale at Peale's 90th birthday party in 1988.

From left to right, Donald Trump, Ivana Trump, Ruth Peale and Dr. Norman V. Peale at Peale’s 90th birthday party in 1988.

Peale drew throngs of followers, but also sharp criticism from Christians who accused him of cherry-picking Bible verses and peddling simplistic solutions.

But the young Donald Trump was hooked.

“He would instill a very positive feeling about God that also made me feel positive about myself,” Trump writes in “Great Again,” one of his books. “I would literally leave that church feeling like I could listen to another three sermons.”

Peale peppered his sermons with pop psychology. Sin and guilt were jettisoned in favor of “spirit-lifters,” “energy-producing thoughts” and “7 simple steps” to happy living.

“Attitudes are more important than facts,” Peale preached, a virtual prophecy of our post-truth age.”Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” Peale writes in “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade.”

Peale has also influenced Trump’s spiritual advisers

To this day, Trump surrounds himself with Peale-like figures, particularly prosperity gospel preachers.

One of his closest spiritual confidantes, Florida pastor Paula White, leads the White House’s faith-based office and is a spiritual descendent of Peale’s positive thinking — with a Pentecostal twist.

White, a televangelist, belongs to the Word of Faith movement, which teaches that God bestows health and wealth on true believers.

In a Rose Garden ceremony for the National Day of Prayer earlier this month, White quoted from the Bible’s Book of Job: “If you decree and declare a thing, it will be established.”

“I declare no more delays to the deliverance of Covid-19,” White continued. “No more delays to healing and a vaccination.”

Paula White, a televangelist and religious adviser to President Trump.

Paula White, a televangelist and religious adviser to President Trump.

The Book of Job, a parable of human suffering and powerlessness, may be a strange book for a preacher to cite while “declaring” an end to the pandemic. If it were so easy, Job’s story would involve fewer boils and tortures.

But in a way, White perfectly captures the problem with positive thinking: It tries to twist every situation into a “victory,” even when reality demonstrates otherwise.

“Positive thinking can help people focus on goals and affirm one’s merits,” said Lane, author of the book on Peale. “But it does need a reality check, and to be based in fact.

“Sometimes, the reality is that you’ve failed and need to change course. But to Peale, that wasn’t an option. Even self-doubt was a sin, he taught, an affront to God.

“He had a huge problem with failure,” Lane said. “He would berate people for even talking about it.”

Peale’s teachings can explain why Trump won’t accept criticism

You can hear echoes of Peale’s no-fail philosophy in Trump’s angry response to reporters’ questions about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio.

“Nothing is an exchange of ideas or discussion of facts,” D’Antonio said. “Everything is a life or death struggle for the definition of reality. For him, being wrong feels like being obliterated.”

President Donald Trump answers questions with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 3, 2020 in Washington.

President Donald Trump answers questions with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 3, 2020 in Washington.

And that’s one reason why the President refuses to accept any criticism or admit to any failure. To do so would puncture his bubble of positivity, not to mention his self-image.

So, despite his administration’s early missteps in preparing for and responding to the coronavirus, Trump won’t acknowledge any errors.

Instead, he has misled the public, claiming in February that the situation was “under control” when it was not; promising a vaccine is coming “very soon,” which it is not; and falsely insisting that “anyone can get tested,” when they could not and many still cannot.

Still, when asked in mid-March to grade his administration’s response, Trump gave himself a perfect score.

“I’d rate it a 10,” he said. “I think we’ve done a great job.”

Trump’s self-appraisal might not match reality. But Peale would be proud.

Covid Fallout [2] (Synthetic Zero)

· by Patrick jennings

Solutions to Enable Your COVID-19 Research | BD Biosciences-CA

Throughout the Covid crisis, the use of the war metaphor, as means of persuasion and matrix of explanation, has become pervasive in politics and the popular media.

Both practices have been able to make use of such rhetoric because the discourse on war, attrition and the destruction of enemies is so deeply embedded in the structure of public discourse, from ubiquitous and seemingly benign tropes valorising competition, to the outright eulogising of violence as the natural mediator between individuals, groups, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and nation-states.

Moreover, it seems entirely plausible to extend the metaphor of war and struggle to our relation with the natural world, enabling a discourse in which natural processes, set in motion by bio-molecular mechanisms, are capable of being mastered by science.

Science just is, from this perspective, a series of feed-back loops in which the accumulation of knowledge and experimental know-how leads to mastery over nature and mastery over nature leads to more knowledge and know how,  ad infinitum.

This is a version of the Baconian trope in which nature is put to the wrack and interrogated for it’s secrets but one in which cybernetics, systems theory and big data allow for an expansion of the field of knowable objects to include the system of the interrogator and his acts of interrogation.

Defeated, abased, nature must yield.

In this war on nature, in which the war on Coronavirus is but one “theatre of operations”, the techno-scientific industrialised exploitation and extermination of non-human and human animals is it’s quintessential modus operandi.

What is good and true for science just is, necessarily, good and true for the human as such.  But human here is an image abstracted from and other than the human-animal and it’s symbiotic connection with the ecology of living entities. It is, rather, an excess of the human animal carried over after an operation in which experience is subsumed under a system of bifurcations. This excess is an illusory mode of transcendence.

The Covid crisis is most probably a dry run for what awaits us down the road as the climate crisis intensifies.

During the unfolding of the pandemic, it was notable that scientists and doctors remained, for the most part, wary of presumption in the face of the unknown, choosing to concentrate instead on the behaviour of the virus in particular human environments before attempting generalised pronouncements.

Grounded in observation, this was good science, a science in which anthropomorphic presumptions played only a small part. It was made possible by wide-scale testing and the correlation and analysis of data on the actual unfolding of the pandemic, which, for all science knew, could have included the annihilation of the species.

Here, for all to see, was an example of the difference between the actual practice of science, always localised contingent and rather anarchic in it’s evolution, and the ideology of mastery, control and expertise; an ideology enabled on a philosophical structure in which the real is bifurcated, producing a thought-complex of human subject-agents and a field of objects and processes subjected to a regime of mastery.

One productive way of looking at the ideology of mastery is as the explicit expression of an implicit or philosophically esoteric sufficiency in which science becomes the arbitrator of what is known and knowable and what is known and knowable just is scientific, in all but name.

Science, taken up into the ideology of mastery, arbitrarily sets it’s compass and draws, godlike, the arc of the world.

As with Covid, the evolution of the climate crisis will most probably unfold unevenly  across geographical regions as a series of local emergencies, each set on its own trajectory by the generation and replication of feedback loops in which human agency is only one strand in a complex of becomings.

As with Covid this “dance of agency” between human and non human entities will unfold inclusive of the decisions, actions and reactions of the presumed primary actors – those who are supposed to exercise control over outcomes by “managing” the crisis on our behalf.

The ideology of management and eventual mastery is a doubling in thought of the always and already immanent unfolding of the real, inclusive of the subject-object dichotomy which enables the illusion of transcendent knowing and techno-mastery.

Such a real never enters into the realm of the scientific or philosophical subject and it’s field of knowable objects and systems of objects.

Recent climate discourse has taken on board talk of the “Anthropocene” as evidence for the emergence of an epoch of human dominance over nature in which the human “footprint” is literally inscribed on geological strata.

The inscription of the human onto planetary geology is often accompanied by speculations about an acceleration in human technological prowess leading to a “singularity” at some time in the near future; at which point technological civilization will make a qualitative leap, establishing the dominance of the human over the planetary system and it’s myriad life forms as an accomplished fact.

Thus, a positivist rhetoric of acceleration, mastery and control sees the human take charge of the contingent, variable and complex earth-system to impose a consciously interested anthropomorphic regime on what is perceived as a complex of “mechanical” and therefore “manageable” processes.

Such rhetoric almost always includes a naturalization of capitalism in which acceleration is a spontaneous result of the free reign of market forces, an unruly energy domesticated by a corporate or state structure, more often than not presided over by a charismatic individual.

Under such a scenario democracy is optional at best, at worst a hindrance to the generation of what is conceived as the proper management and eventual mastery of the eco/social system.

It is still unclear how such a planetary wide consensus among ruling elites could be achieved, taking into account the resurgence of the ideology of the nation state and the discrediting of the idea of inter-state unions, international bodies and structures of trans-national governance.

The Covid crisis has intensified the contradiction between a strong version of nation-statehood and a neo-liberal valorisation of free markets, deregulation, free flow of labour and capital, international supply chains and minimal state interference.

The axioms of neo-liberal ideological orthodoxy have been, almost universally, unceremoniously abandoned, if only for the present.

More importantly Covid has driven an even bigger wedge between liberal, democratic and rights based ideologies of reform, “new deal” regeneration and green transition and the more authoritarian forms of “new nationalism”.

As we emerge from the first phase of the pandemic, the struggle between these two tendencies will probably intensify. Already, international bodies such as the U.N are aligning themselves with those who see the transition from lock-down as an opportunity to establish the structural changes necessary for a more ecologically sustainable economy.

Capitalism has, of course, always had to negotiate a balance between the model advocating for a strong public sector, fiscal and regulatory intervention, forward planning and a welfare state and the neo-liberal free market, anti-state and anti-regulatory model we have endured for the last thirty years.

In reality this ideological difference masks periodic shifts from one one extreme to the other as cycles of boom and bust override ideological preferences. Both the climate crisis and the Covid pandemic underscore the limitations of all existing capitalist models to adequately account for the real cost of the consumption driven economy.

The real cost has always been borne by the human and non human animal, that is by the ecological community of life forms.

As the pandemic has made clear, even something as unvarying in its constitution as a virus will have varied consequences as it interacts with local economies, social systems and cultures.

This “uneven development” is equally applicable to the spread of capital, which must negotiate local conditions as it expands and contracts, mutates and recalibrates according to the complex of human affordances of which it is a particular expression.

This network of relation extends beyond the economic, the social and the cultural and includes, ultimately, all of the extended complexities of the planetary eco-system. As a species we are dependent on a complex of ecological checks and balances all of which have been progressively undermined by human activity.

At a more fundamental level we are subject to entirely arbitrary events beyond our present understanding and indifferent to our interests.

The ideology of techno-mastery, management and expertise is based on a vision of control over the variable and the contingent. This fallacy is exposed time and again, even within the supposed confines of the social and economic system. Indeed, it is this very act of conceptual enclosure which makes possible the belief in some future state of absolute control over the social/ecological/planetary system.

Paradoxically, this very ideology of control, more often than not, acts as a top-down hindrance to the bottom-up exercise of a plurality of collective and individual responses. It is out of this anarchic mech of knowings and doings that forms of relative control arise as a collective orientation around workable solutions.

In a network of contingencies, in which our own agency forms only one strand in a myriad of becomings, it is this diversity of response which enables the sort of open-ended social, political, administrative and scientific plasticity necessary for our continued existence as a species.

The ideology of mastery, management and control, despite it’s claim to have transcended the particular and the local, is itself enabled on contingent processes and diverse responses. It’s claim is a reworking of the religious impulse on the secular plane, in which knowing has ascended to a level of sufficiency akin to godlike omniscience.

It’s undoing, likewise, will most likely proceed from the ground up, inclusive of the political, ethical and philosophical practices of those who consciously set themselves against the existing state of the situation.

This, of course, excludes the possibility of sheer bad luck and the unfolding of an unexpected disaster, against which our life would be seen to have been bracketed as a moment of contingent grace.

The struggle against Covid could have been our swan song. That possibility is the simple and absolute refutation of the theory and practice (the ideology) of mastery.


I use the term animal, human animal, becoming and the real interchangeably, as free floating placeholders, in the spirit expressed below by Deleuze and Guattari:

“Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation. Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, “appearing,” “being,” “equaling,” or “producing.””

This puts the series of terms in some sort of relation with Laruelle’s use of “The Real” or “Man-in-person” and distinguishes it from the forms of empirical knowledge which are taken up into ecological or systems theorising of a strictly scientific nature or into loose scientific/philosophical combinations.

Crises are no excuse for lowering scientific standards, say ethicists (Science News)

Date: April 23, 2020

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Summary: Ethicists are calling on the global research community to resist treating the urgency of the current COVID-19 outbreak as grounds for making exceptions to rigorous research standards in pursuit of treatments and vaccines.

Ethicists from Carnegie Mellon and McGill universities are calling on the global research community to resist treating the urgency of the current COVID-19 outbreak as grounds for making exceptions to rigorous research standards in pursuit of treatments and vaccines.

With hundreds of clinical studies registered on, Alex John London, the Clara L. West Professor of Ethics and Philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon, and Jonathan Kimmelman, James McGill Professor and director of the Biomedical Ethics Unit at McGill University, caution that urgency should not be used as an excuse for lowering scientific standards. They argue that many of the deficiencies in the way medical research is conducted under normal circumstances seem to be amplified in this pandemic. Their paper, published online April 23 by the journal Science, provides recommendations for conducting clinical research during times of crises.

“Although crises present major logistical and practical challenges, the moral mission of research remains the same: to reduce uncertainty and enable care givers, health systems and policy makers to better address individual and public health,” London and Kimmelman said.

Many of the first studies out of the gate in this pandemic have been poorly designed, not well justified, or reported in a biased manner. The deluge of studies registered in their wake threaten to duplicate efforts, concentrate resources on strategies that have received outsized media attention and increase the potential of generating false positive results purely by chance.

“All crises present exceptional situations in terms of the challenges they pose to health and welfare. But the idea that crises present an exception to the challenges of evaluating the effects drugs and vaccines is a mistake,” London and Kimmelman said. “Rather than generating permission to carry out low-quality investigations, the urgency and scarcity of pandemics heighten the responsibility of key actors in the research enterprise to coordinate their activities to uphold the standards necessary to advance this mission.”

The ethicists provide recommendations for multiple stakeholder groups involved in clinical trials:

  • Sponsors, research consortia and health agencies should prioritize research approaches that test multiple treatments side by side. The authors argue that “master protocols” enable multiple treatments to be tested under a common statistical framework.
  • Individual clinicians should avoid off-label use of unvalidated interventions that might interfere with trial recruitment and resist the urge to carry out small studies with no control groups. Instead, they should seek out opportunities to join larger, carefully orchestrated studies.
  • Regulatory agencies and public health authorities should play a leading role in identifying studies that meet rigorous standards and in fostering collaboration among a sufficient number of centers to ensure adequate recruitment and timely results. Rather than making public recommendations about interventions whose clinical merits remain to be established, health authorities can point stakeholders to recruitment milestones to elevate the profile and progress of high-quality studies.

“Rigorous research practices can’t eliminate all uncertainty from medicine,” London and Kimmelman said, “but they can represent the most efficient way to clarify the causal relationships clinicians hope to exploit in decisions with momentous consequences for patients and health systems.”

NIH Cancels Funding for Bat Coronavirus Research Project (The Scientist)

The abrupt termination comes after the research drew President Trump’s attention for its ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

NIH Cancels Funding for Bat Coronavirus Research Project
The canceled grant included money for surveillance of coronaviruses in Yunnan, China.
Shawna Williams
Apr 28, 2020

A grant to a New York nonprofit aimed at detecting and preventing future outbreaks of coronaviruses from bats has been canceled by the National Institutes of Health, Politico reports, apparently at the direction of President Donald Trump because the research involved the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The virology institute has become a focal point for the idea that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the laboratory and caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, a scenario experts say is not supported by evidence. Instead, virologists The Scientist has spoken to say the virus most likely jumped from infected animals to humans.

The grant, first awarded in fiscal year 2014 and most recently renewed last year, went to EcoHealth Alliance, which describes itself as “a global environmental health nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease.” The aims of the funded project included characterizing coronaviruses present in bat populations in southern China and conducting surveillance to detect spillover events of such viruses to people. The project has resulted in 20 publications, most recently a March report on zoonotic risk factors in rural southern China.

EcoHealth Alliance’s partners on the project include researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 facility that has for months been a focus of conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 escaped or was released from a lab. On April 14, the The Washington Post published a column highlighting State Department cables about concerns regarding safety at the institute. (Experts tell NPR that, even in light of the cables, accidental escape of the virus from a lab remains a far less likely scenario than a jump from animals.) 

Then, in an April 17 White House coronavirus briefing, a reporter, whom Politico identifies as being from Newsmax, falsely stated in a question that “US intelligence is saying this week that the coronavirus likely came from a level 4 lab in Wuhan,” and that the NIH had awarded a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan lab. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?” she asked. “We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said in his answer.

An NIH official then wrote to EcoHealth Alliance to inquire about money sent to “China-based participants in this work,” Politico reports, and the organization’s head, Peter Daszak, responded that a complete response would take time, but that “I can categorically state that no fund from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed.” Days later, NIH notified EcoHealth Alliance that future funding for the project was canceled, and that it must immediately “stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant”—an unusual move generally reserved for cases of scientific misconduct or financial improprieties, according to Politico.

In a statement about the cancellation, EcoHealth Alliance says the terminated research “aimed to analyze the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats,” and that it addresses “all four strategic research priorities of the NIH/NIAID Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, released just this week.” The organization will, it says, “continue our fight against this and other emerging diseases.”

See “Theory that Coronavirus Escaped from a Lab Lacks Evidence

We Still Don’t Know How the Coronavirus Is Killing Us (The Intelligencer)

David Wallace-Wells, Apr. 26, 2020

Omar Rodriguez organizes bodies in the Gerard J. Neufeld funeral home in Elmhurst on April 22. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, the country has managed to stabilize the spread of the coronavirus sufficiently enough to begin debating when and in what ways to “reopen,” and to normalize, against all moral logic, the horrifying and ongoing death toll — thousands of Americans dying each day, in multiples of 9/11 every week now with the virus seemingly “under control.” The death rate is no longer accelerating, but holding steady, which is apparently the point at which an onrushing terror can begin fading into background noise. Meanwhile, the disease itself appears to be shape-shifting before our eyes.

In an acute column published April 13, the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel listed 48 basic questions that remain unanswered about the coronavirus and what must be done to protect ourselves against it, from how deadly it is to how many people caught it and shrugged it off to how long immunity to the disease lasts after infection (if any time at all). “Despite the relentless, heroic work of doctors and scientists around the world,” he wrote, “there’s so much we don’t know.” The 48 questions he listed, he was careful to point out, did not represent a comprehensive list. And those are just the coronavirus’s “known unknowns.”

In the two weeks since, we’ve gotten some clarifying information on at least a handful of Warzel’s queries. In early trials, more patients taking the Trump-hyped hydroxychloroquinine died than those who didn’t, and the FDA has now issued a statement warning coronavirus patients and their doctors from using the drug. The World Health Organization got so worried about the much-touted antiviral remdesivir, which received a jolt of publicity (and stock appreciation) a few weeks ago on rumors of positive results, the organization leaked an unpublished, preliminary survey showing no benefit to COVID-19 patients. Globally, studies have consistently found exposure levels to the virus in most populations in the low single digits — meaning dozens of times more people have gotten the coronavirus than have been diagnosed with it, though still just a tiny fraction of the number needed to achieve herd immunity. In particular hot spots, the exposure has been significantly more widespread — one survey in New York City found that 21 percent of residents may have COVID-19 antibodies already, making the city not just the deadliest community in the deadliest country in a world during the deadliest pandemic since AIDS, but also the most infected (and, by corollary, the farthest along to herd immunity). A study in Chelsea, Massachusetts, found an even higher and therefore more encouraging figure: 32 percent of those tested were found to have antibodies, which would mean, at least in that area, the disease was only a fraction as severe as it might’ve seemed at first glance, and that the community as a whole could be as much as halfway along to herd immunity. In most of the rest of the country, the picture of exposure we now have is much more dire, with much more infection almost inevitably to come.

But there is one big question that didn’t even make it onto Warzel’s list that has only gotten more mysterious in the weeks since: How is COVID-19 actually killing us?

We are now almost six months into this pandemic, which began in November in Wuhan, with 50,000 Americans dead and 200,000 more around the world. If each of those deaths is a data point, together they represent a quite large body of evidence from which to form a clear picture of the pandemic threat. Early in the epidemic, the coronavirus was seen as a variant of a familiar family of disease, not a mysterious ailment, however infectious and concerning. But while uncertainties at the population level confuse and frustrate public-health officials, unsure when and in what form to shift gears out of lockdowns, the disease has proved just as mercurial at the clinical level, with doctors revising their understanding of COVID-19’s basic pattern and weaponry — indeed often revising that understanding in different directions at once. The clinical shape of the disease, long presumed to be a relatively predictable respiratory infection, is getting less clear by the week. Lately, it seems, by the day. As Carl Zimmer, probably the country’s most respected science journalist, asked virologists in a tweet last week, “is there any other virus out there that is this weird in terms of its range of symptoms?”

You probably have a sense of the range of common symptoms, and a sense that the range isn’t that weird: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath have been, since the beginning of the outbreak, the familiar, oft-repeated group of tell-tale signs. But while the CDC does list fever as the top symptom of COVID-19, so confidently that for weeks patients were turned away from testing sites if they didn’t have an elevated temperature, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, as many as 70 percent of patients sick enough to be admitted to New York State’s largest hospital system did not have a fever.

Over the past few months, Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been compiling and revising, in real time, treatment guidelines for COVID-19 which have become a trusted clearinghouse of best-practices information for doctors throughout the country. According to those guidelines, as few as 44 percent of coronavirus patients presented with a fever (though, in their meta-analysis, the uncertainty is quite high, with a range of 44 to 94 percent). Cough is more common, according to Brigham and Women’s, with between 68 percent and 83 percent of patients presenting with some cough — though that means as many as three in ten sick enough to be hospitalized won’t be coughing. As for shortness of breath, the Brigham and Women’s estimate runs as low as 11 percent. The high end is only 40 percent, which would still mean that more patients hospitalized for COVID-19 do not have shortness of breath than do. At the low end of that range, shortness of breath would be roughly as common among COVID-19 patients as confusion (9 percent), headache (8 to 14 percent), and nausea and diarrhea (3 to 17 percent). That the ranges are so wide themselves tells you that the disease is presenting in very different ways in different hospitals and different populations of different patients — leading, for instance, some doctors and scientists to theorize the virus might be attacking the immune system like HIV does, with many others finding the disease is triggering something like the opposite response, an overwhelming overreaction of the immune system called a “cytokine storm.”

The most bedeviling confusion has arisen around the relationship of the disease to breathing, lung function, and oxygenation levels in the blood — typically, for a respiratory illness, a quite predictable relationship. But for weeks now, front-line doctors have been expressing confusion that so many coronavirus patients were registering lethally low blood-oxygenation levels while still appearing, by almost any vernacular measure, pretty okay. It’s one reason they’ve begun rethinking the initial clinical focus on ventilators, which are generally recommended when patients oxygenation falls below a certain level, but seemed, after a few weeks, of unclear benefit to COVID-19 patients, who may have done better, doctors began to suggest, on lesser or different forms of oxygen support. For a while, ventilators were seen so much as the essential tool in treating life-threatening coronavirus that shortages (and the president’s unwillingness to invoke the Defense Production Act to manufacture them quickly) became a scandal. But by one measure 88 percent of New York patients put on ventilators, for whom an outcome as known, had died. In China, the figure was 86 percent.

On April 20 in the New York Times, an ER doctor named Richard Levitan who had been volunteering at Bellevue proposed that the phenomenon of seemingly stable patients registering lethally low oxygen levels might be explained by “silent hypoxia” — the air sacs in the lung collapsing, not getting stiff or heavy with fluid, as is the case with the pneumonias doctors had been using as models in their treatment of COVID-19. But whether this explanation is universal, limited to the patients at Bellevue, or somewhere in between is not yet entirely clear. A couple of days later, in a pre-print paper others questioned, scientists reported finding that the ability of the disease to mutate has been “vastly underestimated” — investigating the disease as it appeared in just 11 patients, they said they found 30 mutations. “The most aggressive strains could generate 270 times as much viral load as the weakest type,” the South China Morning-Post reported. “These strains also killed the cells the fastest.”

That same day, the Washington Post reported on another theory gaining traction among American doctors treating the disease — that one key could be the way COVID-19 affects the blood of patients, producing much more clotting. “Autopsies have shown that some people’s lungs are filled with hundreds of microclots,” the Post reported. “Errant blood clots of a larger size can break off and travel to the brain or heart, causing a stroke or a heart attack.”

But the bigger-picture perspective the newspaper offered is perhaps more eye-opening and to the point:

One month ago, as the country went into lockdown to prepare for the first wave of coronavirus cases, many doctors felt confident that they knew what they were dealing with. Based on early reports, covid-19 appeared to be a standard variety respiratory virus, albeit a very contagious and lethal one with no vaccine and no treatment. But they’ve since become increasingly convinced that covid-19 attacks not only the lungs, but also the kidneys, heart, intestines, liver and brain.

That is a dizzying list. But it is not even comprehensive. In a fantastic survey published April 17 (“How does coronavirus kill? Clinicians trace a ferocious rampage through the body, from brain to toes,” by Meredith Wadman, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Jocelyn Kaiser, and Catherine Matacic), Science magazine took a thorough, detailed tour of the ever-evolving state of understanding of the disease. “Despite the more than 1,000 papers now spilling into journals and onto preprint servers every week,” Science concluded, “a clear picture is elusive, as the virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.”

In a single illuminating chart, Science lists the following organs as being vulnerable to COVID-19: brain, eyes, nose, lungs, heart, blood vessels, livers, kidneys, intestines. That is to say, nearly every organ:

And the disparate impacts were significant ones: Heart damage was discovered in 20 percent of patients hospitalized in Wuhan, where 44 percent of those in ICU exhibited arrhythmias; 38 percent of Dutch ICU patients had irregular blood clotting; 27 percent of Wuhan patients had kidney failure, with many more showing signs of kidney damage; half of Chinese patients showed signs of liver damage; and, depending on the study, between 20 percent and 50 percent of patients had diarrhea.

On April 15, the Washington Post reported that, in New York and Wuhan, between 14 and 30 percent of ICU patients had lost kidney function, requiring dialysis. New York hospitals were treating so much kidney failure “they need more personnel who can perform dialysis and have issued an urgent call for volunteers from other parts of the country. They also are running dangerously short of the sterile fluids used to deliver that therapy.” The result, the Post said, was rationed care: patients needing 24-hour support getting considerably less. On Saturday, the paper reported that “[y]oung and middle-aged people, barely sick with COVID-19, are dying from strokes.” Many of the patients described didn’t even know they were sick:

The patient’s chart appeared unremarkable at first glance. He took no medications and had no history of chronic conditions. He had been feeling fine, hanging out at home during the lockdown like the rest of the country, when suddenly, he had trouble talking and moving the right side of his body. Imaging showed a large blockage on the left side of his head. Oxley gasped when he got to the patient’s age and covid-19 status: 44, positive.

The man was among several recent stroke patients in their 30s to 40s who were all infected with the coronavirus. The median age for that type of severe stroke is 74.

But the patient’s age wasn’t the only abnormality of the case:

As Oxley, an interventional neurologist, began the procedure to remove the clot, he observed something he had never seen before. On the monitors, the brain typically shows up as a tangle of black squiggles — “like a can of spaghetti,” he said — that provide a map of blood vessels. A clot shows up as a blank spot. As he used a needlelike device to pull out the clot, he saw new clots forming in real-time around it.

“This is crazy,” he remembers telling his boss.

These strokes, several doctors who spoke to the Post theorized, could explain the high number of patients dying at home — four times the usual rate in New York, many or most of them, perhaps, dying quite suddenly. According to the Brigham and Women’s guidelines, only 53 percent of COVID-19 patients have died from respiratory failure alone.

It’s not unheard of, of course, for a disease to express itself in complicated or hard-to-parse ways, attacking or undermining the functioning of a variety of organs. And it’s common, as researchers and doctors scramble to map the shape of a new disease, for their understanding to evolve quite quickly. But the degree to which doctors and scientists are, still, feeling their way, as though blindfolded, toward a true picture of the disease cautions against any sense that things have stabilized, given that our knowledge of the disease hasn’t even stabilized. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is not just a public-health crisis but a scientific one as well. And that as deep as it may feel we are into the coronavirus, with tens of thousands dead and literally billions in precautionary lockdown, we are still in the very early stages, when each new finding seems as likely to cloud or complicate our understanding of the coronavirus as it is to clarify it. Instead, confidence gives way to uncertainty.

In the space of a few months, we’ve gone from thinking there was no “asymptomatic transmission” to believing it accounts for perhaps half or more of all cases, from thinking the young were invulnerable to thinking they were just somewhat less vulnerable, from believing masks were unnecessary to requiring their use at all times outside the house, from panicking about ventilator shortages to deploying pregnancy massage pillows instead. Six months since patient zero, we still have no drugs proven to even help treat the disease. Almost certainly, we are past the “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” stage of this pandemic. But how far past?

Opinion | When Will Life Be Normal Again? We Just Don’t Know (The New York Times)

By Charlie Warzel, April 13, 2020

Many Americans have been living under lockdown for a month or more. We’re all getting antsy. The president is talking about a “light at the end of the tunnel.” People are looking for hope and reasons to plan a return to something — anything — approximating normalcy. Experts are starting to speculate on what lifting restrictions will look like. Despite the relentless, heroic work of doctors and scientists around the world, there’s so much we don’t know.

We don’t know how many people have been infected with Covid-19.

We don’t know the full range of symptoms.

We don’t always know why some infections develop into severe disease.

We don’t know the full range of risk factors.

We don’t know exactly how deadly the disease is.

We don’t have answers to more detailed questions about how the virus spreads, including: “How many virus particles does it even take to launch an infection? How far does the virus travel in outdoor spaces, or in indoor settings? Have these airborne movements affected the course of the pandemic?”

We don’t know for sure how this coronavirus first emerged.

We don’t know how much China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in that country.

We don’t know what percentage of adults are asymptomatic. Or what percentage of children are asymptomatic.

We don’t know the strength and duration of immunity. Though people who recover from Covid-19 likely have some degree of immunity for some period of time, the specifics are unknown.

We don’t yet know why some who’ve been diagnosed as “fully recovered” from the virus have tested positive a second time after leaving quarantine.

We don’t know why some recovered patients have low levels of antibodies.

We don’t know the long-term health effects of a severe Covid-19 infection. What are the consequences to the lungs of those who survive intensive care?

We don’t yet know if any treatments are truly effective. While there are many therapies in trials, there are no clinically proven therapies aside from supportive care.

We don’t know for certain if the virus was in the United States before the first documented case.

We don’t know when supply chains will strengthen to provide health care workers with enough masks, gowns and face shields to protect them.

In America, we don’t know the full extent to which black people are disproportionately suffering. Fewer than a dozen states have published data on the race and ethnic patterns of Covid-19.

We don’t know if people will continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines once infections go down.

We don’t know when states will be able to test everyone who has symptoms.

We don’t know if the United States could ever deploy the number of tests — as many as 22 million per day — needed to implement mass testing and quarantining.

We don’t know if we can implement “test and trace” contact tracing at scale.

We don’t know whether smartphone location tracking could be implemented without destroying our privacy.

We don’t know if or when researchers will develop a successful vaccine.

We don’t know how many vaccines can be deployed and administered in the first months after a vaccine becomes available.

We don’t know how a vaccine will be administered — who will get it first?

We don’t know if a vaccine will be free or costly.

We don’t know if a vaccine will need to be updated every year.

We don’t know how, when we do open things up again, we will do it.

We don’t know if people will be afraid to gather in crowds.

We don’t know if people will be too eager to gather in crowds.

We don’t know what socially distanced professional sports will look like.

We don’t know what socially distanced workplaces will look like.

We don’t know what socially distanced bars and restaurants will look like.

We don’t know when schools will reopen.

We don’t know what a general election in a pandemic will look like.

We don’t know what effects lost school time will have on children.

We don’t know if the United States’s current and future government stimulus will stave off an economic collapse.

We don’t know whether the economy will bounce back in the form of a “v curve” …

Or whether it’ll be a long recession.

We don’t know when any of this will end for good.

There is, at present, no plan from the Trump White House on the way forward.

We’re working on a project about the ways people’s lives might be permanently altered by the coronavirus, even after the pandemic subsides. In what ways do you think your life will change in the long term? What will be your new “normal”?

To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience (Undark)

Original article

By Ruchi Kumar 04.19.2020

Blending nationalism and pseudoscience, the “cures” touted by an Indian ministry are raising public health concerns.

A government banner at Arogya, an Ayurvedic expo funded by the government of India, in December of 2010. Visual: Hari Prasad Nadig / flickr By Ruchi Kumar 04.19.2020

When it was announced in late March that Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was well on his way to recovering from Covid-19, there was some celebration 4,000 miles away in India, a former British colony. But it was not colonial nostalgia that brought on the cheer, so much as the declaration a few days later by an Indian government minister that the Prince of Wales had been cured using Ayurveda — a blend of, among other things, herbal medicine, breathing exercises, and meditation.

At an April 2 press conference, Shripad Naik, India’s minister for alternative medicines, declared that the treatment’s supposed success “validates our age-old practice.” The British government swiftly issued a statement rejecting his claim. “This information is incorrect. The Prince of Wales followed the medical advice of the National Health Service in the U.K. and nothing more,” a spokesperson said the following day.

But this hasn’t deterred Naik’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy — or AYUSH for short — from promoting Indian alternative medicines as treatments for Covid-19. Established in 2014, the goal of AYUSH is to develop and popularize these treatments, many of which have their historical roots in India. Ayurveda, for example, has been practiced in India for thousands of years.

Now, Naik said, the ministry aims to confirm that Prince Charles was cured using a combination of Ayurveda and the pseudoscience known as homeopathy, which has its roots in Germany, so that the treatment can be rolled out to the masses. This is in stark contrast to the position of mainstream medicine, which has not yet confirmed any evidence-based medicine for Covid-19, and is still highly cautious of giving experimental drugs to patients.

And yet for many, the actions of the right-wing Indian government don’t come as a surprise. Aside from the popularity of alternative medicine in India generally, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is known for supporting Hindutva, a form of nationalism that seeks to transform India from being a secular nation into an openly Hindu one. This partly plays out in the field of health, where alternative therapies that have their roots in India, such as Ayurveda, are considered more “Hindu” or “Indian” than modern medicine. Supporting them becomes an opportunity to push forward this nationalist agenda.

In the early days of the epidemic, AYUSH heavily promoted therapies that lack an evidence base, said Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist based at the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience at Linköping University Hospital in Sweden. Shaikh is also editor of science at Alt News, an Indian website that works to expose misinformation.

Examples of treatments pushed by AYUSH included a homeopathic medicine containing diluted arsenic, an Ayurvedic drug developed by the ministry to treat malaria, and dietary changes including drinking warm water, putting sesame oil inside the nose, or consuming holy basil, ginger, cloves, and turmeric. The ministry suggested these interventions could prevent people from developing Covid-19 as well as treat its symptoms.

“There was some amount of criticism to that,” said Shaikh. And so in response, the ministry provided a list of “scientific evidence” to bolster its claims. Aside from the fact that homeopathy has been repeatedly shown to have no biological effects, Shaikh said that when she and her team reviewed the list, the only actual research they could find was one analysis that examined the the same homeopathic treatment in bovines with gastric infections. Despite this, the ministry’s promotion of the therapy increased demand in many Indian states.

This isn’t the first time the ministry has faced criticism for promoting unscientific claims or backing research derived from religious myths and beliefs. One of its repeated focuses has been cow urine, which is believed by many Hindus to have healing properties given the sacred nature of cows in Hinduism. The urine has been touted as a treatment for many illnesses, including diabetes, epilepsy, and AIDS. Naik himself has made several comments in parliament about how cow urine can cure cancer. In reality, its use can be dangerous.

In fact, so widespread is the belief in cow urine that on March 17, an activist working for the BJP in Kolkata organized a “gomutra (cow urine) party” to ward off Covid-19. He believed that drinking the urine would protect them from the disease. Unfortunately, one of the volunteers fell seriously ill after ingesting the urine.

The Ministry of AYUSH’s research portal carries papers on the uses of panchagavya, the five products derived from a cow, of which urine is one, supporting its use as a medical product. However, Ipsita Mohanty, who co-wrote a paper listed there titled “Diversified Uses of Cow Urine,” said in an email that she couldn’t definitively answer whether cow urine fights off Covid-19, as “it has not been proven by independent researchers.”

This reflects how AYUSH researchers and doctors seek validation, explained Shaikh. “If a paper gets published anywhere — doesn’t matter what type of journal it is or how bad the statistics are — they take it as scientific proof,” she said, adding that the alternative medicine community also has a lot of journals of its own. These are regulated and edited by the same people who are published in them, Shaikh said.

Despite being an advocate of cow urine, Mohanty urges doctors to not spread misinformation. “It is misleading to spread the rumor about something so important when more than half of our world is engulfed by Covid-19,” she said. “There is no vaccine nor any treatment for it. At this point, promoting cow urine against Covid-19 can be very fatal, as people might resort to it for treatment as their only hope.”

The Ministry of AYUSH did not respond to requests for comments from Undark.

“Practitioners of such therapies get their clientele from two distinct groups,” said Aniket Sule, a science education researcher and astronomer at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education. He is part of a steadily growing rationalist movement in India that is encouraging dialogue and critical thinking to counter misinformation, including within the realm of alternative medicine.

The first group Sule identified is patients from impoverished communities and remote villages, “who don’t have access to doctors prescribing modern medicines.” The other set of clients is the “affluent and educated class in the cities, who have read half-baked internet posts and develop strong skepticism towards modern medicines,” he said.

“Pushing such a narrative to gullible masses is akin to actively spreading misinformation, and senior functionaries of government should take strict action against such baseless propaganda,” he urged.

The ministry has faced some institutional backlash. The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, has issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 treatments.

But despite that, the Ministry of AYUSH continues not only to receive political backing but also a large share of the annual health budget. From 2019 to 2020, the Indian government allotted approximately $250 million for study and promotion of alternative medicines, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. According to Shaikh, only the defense ministry saw a larger proportional increase to its budget last year.

Indian scientists fighting disinformation say there is an underlying nationalist agenda to this move. Certain radical groups affiliated with the government have dreams of spreading Hindu values beyond India’s borders to create an “Akhand Bharat,” or “consolidated Hindu nation,” which would include annexing a large part of the Indian subcontinent. One of these is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant organization that has a long history of promoting Hindutva. Its leader recently said that Ayurveda is part of India’s “soft power” in the South Asian region, said Shaikh.

The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, has issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 treatments.

Since coming to power in 2014, India’s current government (BJP) has increasingly backed divisive policies that consolidate the power of the majoritarian Hindu population. “Overall, this government has made virtue out of extreme and thoughtless nationalism. Increased support to all these questionable therapies is a natural byproduct of that,” Sule said, adding there is also a distinct motivation among many people who believe in these claims. “There are people who are so completely blinded by ‘glorious ancient India’ that they willingly walk into any trap if it is presented as ‘this is what our great ancestors did,’” he said.

Sule also thinks that AYUSH exists, in part, to protect commercial interests. There are nearly 800,000 practitioners of alternative medicine in India, he said, and over 650 colleges teaching related courses. The Ayurveda industry alone in India is worth $4.4 billion and is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next five years.

Shaikh, Sule, and others have been critical of the Ministry of AYUSH for years, exposing and unmasking its questionable research and dubious medical advice. “It is very dangerous, especially now. We are the only country that has a parallel ministry for alternative systems,” Shaikh said. “Why not just have the one ministry and then have everything under it? Use whatever herbs you want, but run them through appropriate trials, and if they work then they should be in the mainstream and everybody should benefit from them,” she said.

Shaikh doesn’t call for closing the ministry but insists the way it works needs to change.

“Don’t start with a belief system, start with the hypothesis,” she advised. “Don’t start with the basis that this drug is going to work. Start with realizing that ‘we don’t know and we want to find out.’ That is unbiased research.”

Many experts say that statements like Naik’s are false and dangerous, particularly now that the country is struggling to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, among its 1.35 billion people. With a lack of testing and a shortage of physicians, many experts feel the Indian government is failing its people by directing attention and resources to unsubstantiated and unscientific practices — especially when these practices themselves can be harmful.


In Germany, a Heated Debate Over Homeopathy