Wednesday Round Up #24

Photo: Most detailed model of a human cell to date, obtained using x-ray, NMR and cryoelectron microscopy datasets. For more photos and info, see here.

The Denialist Playbook

I was shocked when I first learned about chiropractors’ opposition to the polio vaccine. The vaccine is widely viewed as one of medicine’s greatest success stories: Why would anyone have opposed it? My shock turned into excitement, however, when I began to recognize the chiropractors’ pattern of arguments was uncannily similar to those I was familiar with from creationists who deny evolutionary science. And once I perceived those parallels, my excitement became an epiphany when I realized that the same general pattern of arguments—a denialist playbook—has been deployed to reject other scientific consensuses from the health effects of tobacco to the existence and causes of climate change. The same playbook is now being used to deny facts concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

In brief, the six principal plays in the denialist playbook are:

1. Doubt the Science
2. Question Scientists’ Motives and Integrity
3. Magnify Disagreements among Scientists and Cite Gadflies as Authorities
4. Exaggerate Potential Harm
5. Appeal to Personal Freedom
6. Reject Whatever Would Repudiate A Key Philosophy

The purpose of the denialism playbook is to advance rhetorical arguments that give the appearance of legitimate debate when there is none. My purpose here is to penetrate that rhetorical fog, and to show that these are the predictable tactics of those clinging to an untenable position. If we hope to find any cure for (or vaccine against) science denialism, scientists, journalists and the public need to be able recognize, understand and anticipate these plays.

Otegha Uwagba: ‘I’ve spent my entire life treading around white people’s feelings’

Despite the title, the book is not really for white people. What Uwagba hopes to achieve through the chronology of emotion, anger and disappointment in white allies since the death of Floyd, is a sort of shared black commiseration, a communing via the upheavals since the summer of Black Lives Matter. “I know it’s got their name on it,” she says, “and in that sense it’s addressed to them, but what I thought about a lot was how to write a work about race and racism and whiteness that isn’t just for the consumption of white people. It’s really, really important to me that this was an essay that black people can read and take something from, because with a lot of these anti-racist books and handbooks that are being published – I don’t get anything from them.”

Donald Trump has lost the election – yet Trumpland is here to stay

“I don’t think I’m ever going to earn as much as my parents,” she said. “I don’t think my husband and I will ever have the same life as they did.”

We were in Pennsylvania, often painted as a land of blue-collar aristocracy and true-blue Democrats. But the political economy that had underpinned those ballot-box majorities was as rusted as an abandoned factory. Instead, Maura saw a political system that had failed her and her generation, in which every new day was worse than yesterday. And while the Stouts were leftwing, they had little in common with the party they supported. In their eyes, their home had been gutted of manufacturing and bilked by foreign trade deals, and appeared nowhere on the Clinton/Obama ideological map…

Trumpland is not the same as the old Republican heartlands, even if they overlap. What the dealmaker saw more clearly than the Bushes, the Romneys and the McCains was that there was a new electoral coalition to be forged out of downwardly mobile white voters. “The people that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned,” he called them in Ohio in 2016. “I am your voice.”

The Xenobot Future Is Coming—Start Planning Now

Crispr routinely makes headlines. To the degree that people are even aware that life can be edited, it’s this technique they tend to reference. But Crispr, while powerful, is problematic: Scientists can’t directly see the changes they’re making to a molecule. What if I told you that soon we’ll have not only read and edit access to genetic material, but write access too? Meaning that, in the not-too-distant future, we will program living, biological structures as though they are tiny computers.

A new field of science called “synthetic biology” aims to do just this by digitizing genetic manipulation. Sequences are loaded into software tools—like a word processor, but for DNA code—and are eventually printed using something akin to a 3D printer. Rather than editing genetic material in or out of DNA, synthetic biology gives scientists the ability to write entirely new organisms that have never existed. Imagine a synthetic biology app store, where you could download and add new capabilities into any cell, microbe, plant, or animal.

If that sounds implausible, consider this: Last year, UK researchers synthesized the world’s first living organism—E. coli—that contained DNA created by humans rather than nature. Earlier this year, a group of researchers started with a cluster of stem cells from an African clawed frog as a base, and then used a supercomputer, a virtual environment, and evolutionary algorithms to create 100 generations of prototypes to build. The result: a tiny blob of programmable tissue called a xenobot. These living robots can undulate, swim, and walk. They work collaboratively and can even self-heal. They’re tiny enough to be injected into human bodies, travel around, and—maybe someday—deliver targeted medicines.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: the woman who revolutionised feminism – and landed at the heart of the culture wars
Good profile of the lawyer and legal and social theorist behind intersectionality

For Crenshaw, who is now one of the most influential black feminist legal theorists in the US, Hill’s case cemented her idea of “intersectionality”, set out in a paper two years before the hearing. The idea suggests that different forms of discrimination – such as sexism and racism – can overlap and compound each other in just this way. At the time of Hill’s case, Crenshaw was writing another paper, Mapping the Margins, on the erasure of black women’s history of being sexually harassed and abused. The Hill case showed the result of the fact that sexual harassment had largely only been discussed in relation to white women.

“So many people were corralled by the idea that sexual harassment isn’t a black woman’s issue,” she says. “So many people didn’t understand that slavery was about institutionalised sexual harassment and abuse. There were 700,000 slaves in 1790; by the eve of the civil war, there were nearly 4 million. How did that happen? It’s right in front of us and there are no words for it.”

Her paper set out how feminism had failed to “analyse that race was playing a role in making some women vulnerable to heightened patterns of sexual abuse.

And it was also the case that anti-racism wasn’t very good at dealing with that issue either.”

Overtaxed Working Memory Knocks the Brain Out of Sync

The explanation for why working memory starts to falter at such a seemingly low threshold has been elusive. Scientists can see that any attempt to exceed that limit causes the information to degrade: Neuronal representations get “thinner,” brain rhythms change and memories break down. This seems to occur with an even smaller number of items in patients who have been diagnosed with neurological disorders, such as schizophrenia.

The mechanism causing these failures, however, has remained unknown until recently.

In a paper published in Cerebral Cortex in March 2018, three scientists found that a significant weakening in “feedback” signals between different parts of the brain is responsible for the breakdown. The work not only provides insights into memory function and dysfunction, but also offers further evidence for a burgeoning theory of how the brain processes information.

Motivation Is Overrated

But what if motivation wasn’t always the key to sticking with your New Year’s resolutions or habit change in general? What if the opposite was true? What if the best thing you can do to feel good and accomplish your goals is ignore your motivation altogether?

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation leads to action: The better you feel and the more energized you are, the more likely you are to take your desired step. Though this can certainly be true, what about when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? In those instances, the best thing you can do to change your mental state is to change your physical state. In the words of ultra-endurance athlete and self-improvement guru Rich Roll, “Mood follows action.”

“If I’m down or in a rut, I force myself to move my body, even if only a little bit,” says Roll. “This helps shift my perspective and reset my operating system—and more often than not, the sun starts shining again”…

Consider, for example, a period during which you find yourself in a rut. Your thoughts and feelings are pummeling you with some flavor of “you suck, you’re going to fail, it’s cold outside, stay in bed.” It’s really hard to talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself to ignore your thoughts and feelings and simply take action, you give yourself the best chance of changing your thoughts and feelings. This is one reason exercise has been proven so effective at diminishing or even reversing mild depression.

Why We Sigh

In 2016, Pagliardini and her colleagues were able to understand how sighs are generated in even more detail. In rats, they found a small cluster of neurons in an area of the brainstem called the pre-Bötzinger complex that generates normal breathing as well as sighing and gasping. Specific molecules called neuropeptides activated those brain cells and generated a sigh. “If you add these peptides into this specific part of the brain, you increase the sighs, and if you block the receptors that detect these neuropeptides, you sigh less,” Pagliardini said.

“Sighing appears to be regulated by the fewest number of neurons we have seen linked to a fundamental human behaviour,” Pagliardini’s co-author, Jack Feldman from the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a press release at the time.

The Professor and the Politician
For Max Weber, only the most heroic figures could generate meaning in the world. Does his theory hold up today?

Education and government, said Freud, are two of the world’s “impossible professions.” Weber had a theory as to why. Every effort of the professor and the politician is haunted by the spectre of its disappearance. As a scholar, the professor wagers his soul on getting “this specific conjecture exactly right about this particular point in this particular manuscript.” The smaller the question, the larger the devotion—a “strange intoxication,” Weber concedes, “mocked by all who do not share it.” That is the poignancy of the scholar’s vocation: to demonstrate his worth by taking on a task that no one believes is worth doing, and in which “success is by no means guaranteed.” Even if he is successful, the scholar must face the fact that his work will produce new questions. Those can be answered only by new scholarship, which, one day, will surpass his. It is the “destiny,” and even the “point,” of the scholar’s work to be “left behind.”

The politician faces a different annihilation. It is in the nature of political action, Weber said, that it “leads to final results that totally fail to fit, or even entirely go against, the original intention.” We seek freedom; we produce tyranny. We want peace; we wage war. Machiavelli, writing four centuries earlier, had made a similar point about the gulf, so puzzling and peculiar to politics, between intention and result. A prince wishes to be generous. He showers the people with gifts, which must be paid for with taxes; the people now see him as rapacious. Thrift, on the other hand, even miserliness, saves the prince from lavishness and levies. It wins for him a reputation for generosity. That is the way of politics…

The spectre haunting Weber is neither bureaucracy nor capitalism (although capitalism does play an under-remarked role in these lectures). Instead, it’s an ancient tension between hero and fate, transposed to modern life. Where classical tragedy sees the hero felled by a destiny that he resists, the nemesis of the Weberian actor is absorption in the institutions that he’s meant to oppose. Society is a siren, forever tempting us to forsake our tasks and seek the smaller goods of reputation and status. The scholar becomes a scribe; the politician, a hack. The danger is not defeat of the opposing self from without but corruption of the self from within, where the self’s diminishing desire to oppose comports all too well with society’s needs.

The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race

There are about a dozen experimental vaccines in late-stage clinical trials globally, but the ones being tested by Pfizer and Moderna are the only two that rely on messenger RNA.

For decades, scientists have dreamed about the seemingly endless possibilities of custom-made messenger RNA, or mRNA.

Researchers understood its role as a recipe book for the body’s trillions of cells, but their efforts to expand the menu have come in fits and starts. The concept: By making precise tweaks to synthetic mRNA and injecting people with it, any cell in the body could be transformed into an on-demand drug factory.

But turning scientific promise into medical reality has been more difficult than many assumed. Although relatively easy and quick to produce compared to traditional vaccine-making, no mRNA vaccine or drug has ever won approval.

Even now, as Moderna and Pfizer test their vaccines on roughly 74,000 volunteers in pivotal vaccine studies, many experts question whether the technology is ready for prime time.

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