Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Musa al-Gharbi on the Value of Intellectual Diversity

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

In the service of seeking truth, there would seem to be value in intellectual diversity, both in keeping ourselves honest and in the possibility of new ideas coming from unexpected quarters. That’s true in the natural sciences, but even more so in the humanities and social sciences, where the right/wrong distinction is sometimes less clear. But academia isn’t always diverse; as an empirical fact, there are a lot more liberals on university faculties than there are conservatives. I talk with Musa al-Gharbi about why this is true — self-selection? discrimination? — the extent to which it’s a real problem, and how we should better think about the value of diverse viewpoints.

More here.

Inside the Fall of the CDC: How the world’s greatest public health organization was brought to its knees

James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg in ProPublica:

At 7:47 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Jay Butler pounded out a grim email to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Butler, then the head of the agency’s coronavirus response, and his team had been trying to craft guidance to help Americans return safely to worship amid worries that two of its greatest comforts — the chanting of prayers and singing of hymns — could launch a deadly virus into the air with each breath.

The week before, the CDC had published its investigation of an outbreak at an Arkansas church that had resulted in four deaths. The agency’s scientific journal recently had detailed a superspreader event in which 52 of the 61 singers at a 2½-hour choir practice developed COVID-19. Two died.

More here.

Letter from Karachi

Alia Ahmed at The Hudson Review:

Today I am in Saddar, the former colonial center, clamorous and poetically falling to bits. Pakistan is a particularly loud country (“Well, yes,” a famous doctor once countered, rolling his eyes, “there are people here,” yet I stand by it), and Saddar is no different. Once a pedestrian zone crisscrossed by tram lines, it is now clogged by technicolor buses and auto-rickshaws, dusty vans, beat-up cars, or the tinted 4 x 4 of a Very Important Person, complete with armed bodyguards limply hanging off the side like party streamers. Traffic cops, elegant in starched white uniforms, stand bravely amidst the chaos to direct it with waving arms and screeching whistles. Saddar is home to the Karachi Press Club, the Cotton Exchange, the City Railway Station and, of course, the experiment in human ingenuity that is the parking lot outside the National Bank. Cars are parked in tight rows, squeezed into whatever available space, no sensible way to vacate. A smattering of biryani restaurants lines the far end of the lot. Dilawar (a young Pushtun with green eyes, a migrant from the cold north) hollers for the other “valets” and, consolidating their manpower, lift stationary cars out of the way, hooting encouragement, so I can reverse.

more here.

The Thinkers Who Tried To Strip Metaphysics From Philosophy

Gary Saul Morson at The American Scholar:

Austria between the world wars fostered an extraordinary number of talents in diverse fields: Sigmund Freud in psychology, Arnold Schoenberg in music, Karl Kraus in journalism, Robert Musil in literature, Gustav Klimt in art, the Bauhaus in architecture, and the “Austrian school” in economics. In some of these areas, the overriding ethos was hostility to what the Bauhaus called “ornament.” The Vienna Circle of philosophers, led by Moritz Schlick, hoped to cleanse philosophy of anything vague or, to use their favorite term of abuse, “metaphysical.” Some members also aspired to provide firm foundations for knowledge, an ambition that can be traced back to Descartes and the 17th-century rationalists.

They hoped to realize this ambition by rethinking the bases of mathematics and science. As British philosopher David Edmonds points out in this informative and well-written account, by “science” the Circle philosophers meant physics because, surprisingly enough, they were ignorant of recent major innovations in biology.

more here.

Are Poly-aneuploid Cancer Cells the Keystone Cure for Cancer?

From Scientia:

Cancer is a global health concern. There are over 100 types of cancer, which taken together, kill more than 10 million people across the world each year. Although localised cancers can be treated successfully through excision or localised radiotherapy, metastatic cancers spread throughout the body and are incurable, eventually leading to death. Once cancer cells have metastasised, they grow aggressively and are resistant to virtually all treatments. Despite enormous funds and dedicated efforts put into cancer research over the last half-century, half of all people diagnosed with cancer still die from their disease.

Traditional thinking in cancer therapy accepts that cancer is incurable once it spreads. There are billions of cells in a tumour and it only takes one cell to randomly mutate into a form with increased tolerance to survive treatment and then to clone itself. Cancer therapies have focussed on multi-drug chemotherapies to tackle the progression of new cancers as they occur, or to develop drugs that target resistance-associated mutations. However, cancer cells have proven resistant to all high-tech medical innovations to date. Researchers have not understood exactly what cells or mechanisms that cause this remarkable resilience amongst cancer cells. Dr Kenneth Pienta at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, USA, is leading an amazing and bold line of discovery in cancer research. Critically, his team now believes that polyaneuploid cancer cells (PACCs) are the master mediators of this resilience and provide an adaptive way for tumours to survive almost any type of stress.

…Two key questions across all types of cancer research are, why do some cancer cells become immune to treatment and why do they metastasise? Returning to thinking about cancer cells as an ecosystem paradigm, discussions with cancer biologist Dr Sarah Amend and ecologist Dr Joel Brown turned to the example of short-horned grasshoppers. When food is abundant, grasshoppers are typically green and healthy solitary specimens, but in times of nutritional stress, the next generation becomes yellow locusts, growing wings and changing their behaviour to become more gregarious, swarm-forming animals that travel to seek new food sources. Once resources are again abundant, the next generation once again transmogrifies back to the grasshopper morph.

More here.

The Long History of Blaming Immigrants in Times of Sickness

Tara Wu in The Smithsonian:

On a chilly morning in February, about a thousand Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans and others filled the streets of San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. They marched down Grant Avenue led by a bright red banner emblazoned with the words “Fight the Virus, NOT the People,” followed by Chinese text encouraging global collaboration to fight Covid-19 and condemning discrimination. Other signs carried by the crowd read: “Time For Science, Not Rumors” and “Reject Fear and Racism.” They were responding to incidents of bias and reported significant drops in revenue in Chinatown and other local Asian American-owned businesses, even at a time when the city had not yet experienced any Covid-19 cases. The rally banner is soon to join the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for the story it tells of America’s history of associating its immigrants with disease.

“There have been long-standing messages about disease being particularly something that Chinese immigrants, Chinese spaces incubate, that Chinese people spread, either because of their unsanitary living conditions or especially the weird, exotic food that Asians allegedly eat,” says Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

…On the cover of an 1899 issue of another mainstream magazine, Judge, U.S. President William McKinley is depicted bathing a Filipino native baby in the “waters of civilization.” In the background, two figures dressing themselves in clothes made from the Puerto Rican flag have presumably just been freshly washed with the same “brush of education” that McKinley holds in his hand. Published during the Spanish-American War just after the U.S. colonized the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the illustration vividly visualizes the racist ideas of the period, according to Theodore Gonzalves, a curator at the museum who specializes in Asian American and performing arts history.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Blue Heron

The startled blue heron erupts out of its long-legged
inwardness and flies low to the pond over its
shadow. My eye flickers between its great sweep

of wings and its blurred mirror motion almost white
in the pond’s sky-shine. At the end of each wingbeat,
the long body dips toward its rising shadow. Now

the heron settles back down onto itself as far away
from me as the pond allows and I finish my walk half gangly,
half graceful thinking if I were a bird, this is how I’d fly.

by Nils Peterson
All the Marvelous Stuff ,
Caesura Editions, 2019
—winner for poetry, San Francisco Book Festival 2020

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

by Thomas R. Wells

Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.

‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Epidemiologists can inform the political process but not replace it. In particular, they can advise governments on the sources of risk and the projected levels of risk associated with different Covid policies. However, as we have seen in the various approaches to lockdown and rollback around the world, how governments address Covid does not follow directly from their different epidemiological circumstances. Governments make two specific political choices well or badly: how much Covid risk to tolerate and how that risk ‘budget’ should be allocated between competing social needs and interest groups. Read more »

Racial disparity and racial bias

by Raji Jayaraman

Racial disparities are present in all aspects of life. In the U.S. labor market black men are 28 per cent less likely to be employed than white men, and those that are employed earn 69 cents on a white man’s dollar. Blacks and hispanics are 50 percent more likely to experience some kind of force in their interactions with police. Blacks drivers are 40 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers. The prevalence of, and mortality from, Covid-19 is disproportionately high among blacks.

Megan Thee Stallion’s opinion piece was one of last week’s most popular articles in the New York Times. In it, the hip-hop star notes that, “Maternal mortality rates for Black mothers are about three times higher than those for White mothers, an obvious sign of racial bias in health care.” What is obvious to me is that this disparity is unacceptable. What is less evident is that it is “an obvious sign of racial bias”. Is race per se to blame for racial disparities? Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that healthcare workers or employers harbour racial prejudice against blacks. But it’s not obvious and yet, this type of claim—that racial bias can be inferred from the presence of racial disparities—is commonplace.

Economists have an arguably simplistic, but nevertheless useful way to think about the question of racial disparity. They break it down into two categories: racial bias and statistical discrimination. Racial bias refers to plain vanilla “racism”—I treat a black person differently than I do a white person because I harbour racial prejudice against blacks. Statistical discrimination is at play when I treat blacks and whites differently because, quite apart from race, they have substantively different underlying characteristics. Read more »

Monday Poem

A Simple Ontology

maybe flower petals are held to stems by thought
and the wind’s a counter-thought that plucks
and sets them elsewhere in the grass
to grow in contemplative resolution
beside the notion of a grub-pulling crow

maybe the wind itself is a palpable bright idea,
something about motion and the abhorrence of vacuums
something about coming and going,
about ferocity and stillness
about war and its absence

maybe the moon’s the concept of fullness,
loss, abatement, regeneration from slivers,
hope at the hour of the wolf, the opposite of
darkness at the break of noon

maybe Descartes had it right
and this, from horizon to horizon, is
a simple ontology, an inherent daisy chain
of ideas chasing its tale —regardless,

……………….. one

……..               idea
hatched in this synapse nest
is to harvest
……………….. thought
from thought
under a
……………….. perception
of blue
while the
……………….. conception
of breeze
riffles the
……………….. hint
of hair
and I place them
……………….. dreams
of plums
into the
……………….. essence
of basket
and give them
with the
……………….. intention
of love
to my
……………….. belief
in the natural being
……………… you

Jim Culleny

If you hold liberal values, you should vote!

by Emrys Westacott

Some people whose political views are liberal and progressive say they will not vote in the 2020 US election. They detest Donald Trump and his Republican enablers like senate leader Mitch McConnell; they oppose Trump’s policies on most issues–the environment, immigration, health care, voting rights, police brutality, gun control, etc.; but they still say they won’t vote. Why not?

One justification sometimes given for such a stance is: It has to get worse before it gets better. Yes, Trump and co are ruining much that is precious and causing a lot of suffering; but that is what has to happen to provoke revolutionary change. People will only be goaded into action when things become sufficiently dire.

To this, I have two responses. First, if you really believe that, then you should vote for Trump. If you want to see the country driven into a ditch, he’s clearly your man! Just look around. Why leave the job half done? Read more »

Not Even Wrong #4: A Brief History of “The System”

by Jackson Arn

Slurs have a way of mellowing into labels. History is full of Yankees and Cockneys, Methodists and Jesuits, Whigs and Tories, who steal a term of abuse and apply it to themselves as an act of sardonic revenge. Sometimes the tactic works too well, and people forget that the word was ever tainted. And sometimes the definition changes so many times people lose count, and the word is left to drag a muddle of meanings behind it.

“System” is such a word. Its DNA is full of recessive genes ready to reappear in the next generation. It suggests the banal and the sinister equally, a low, humming scientism and a hiss of danger. Politicians use it with both connotations in mind, sometimes both at once. Immigrants, trans activists, thwarted unionists are advised to have faith in the system, even as other politicians mock them for gaming it—can the two systems really be the same? Political science majors, not yet disillusioned, dream about the day they’ll change the system from within. In 1969, Bill Clinton, 23 years old and already impatiently waiting to be president, wrote, “I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system.” Today, everyone seems to agree that the system, whatever it might be, is rigged. The word’s ambiguity is its longevity.

From the Greek: sun, meaning “with,” and histanal, meaning “set up, stand”—thus, a whole made out of parts, standing together. Which parts, and why they stand together, is left unclear—an ambiguity the rest of the sentence is supposed to correct but rarely does. This ambiguity is a part of the modern condition, since modernity depends on systems. Systems, rather than deities or monarchs, keep us safe: systems, for which individual parts are important but never all-important; systems, whose purpose, by definition, cannot be found in any single one of these parts.

Modernity is supposed to be an age of science, and the recent history of science is largely a history of systems. The word is already there, waiting for someone to connect the pieces: 1543, the solar system; 1628, the circulatory system; 1900, the nervous system; 1902, the endocrine system; 1956, the earliest mention of computer systems. In 1962, a NASA technician became the first person to say, “All systems go,” which isn’t a bad description of modernity itself. Read more »


Anab Jain & Superflux. The Madison Flying Billboard Drone, 2015.

” … So there are five drones, and each of these drones is designed to embody specific tasks and functions that are already gaining popularity. We are not trying to imagine new roles for drones; we are trying to build them as consumer products. The aesthetic we’ve chosen is not a hacked DIY aesthetic, but instead a carefully designed consumer product aesthetic.

Madison, the flying billboard or the advertising drone, is a hovering display platform; it uses sophisticated facial recognition to cater advertising to the interests of those that it’s around. And companies could probably hire it, and have it beam its advertisements out to people, by farming all potential data from all these potential consumers.”

More here, here, and here.

A sketch including the painter, Paraskeva Clark

by Eric Miller


A robin in the floating height of a pine warbled its fat phrases of three and, with its chest matching the tint of twilight clouds and light on leaves and houses—a lucent, resinous colour such as collected at the lower tip of every cone—, it seemed at once the motivation and the record of the fall of night.

Cartwheeling girls were to be expected. I knew, as one of the few boys in the neighbourhood, girls are more athletic than boys. They spun across the thick grass, not all grass, not meticulously kept; they spun beneath the widow’s white pine, she did not mind all the kids on her grass or depending like apes from her tree. A scent of crushed stems (in equal parts acrid and balmy), the clover-like odour of sweat in hair, made the affinity of plants and us amenable of olfactory proof.

The hill behind the widow’s house, pressing a slow muzzle to its foundation, distorted the building’s shape amiably—amiably, that is, to outward inspection. There must have been interior cracks and derangements. I have no evidence. I never went into it, only looking at it from the porch, or aslant from a higher elevation than the wrested roof. The widow had red hair, redder at dusk.

One girl especially was a virtuoso of jumping rope. She sang out the lyric that helped coordinate her steps; she might have been a sword-dancer, she was so agile; I listened for how her confident rendition of the rhyme became intermitted with gasps as, her pace not slacking, her smile brightening while she held it, her eyes contemptuous of any downward glance, her exertion made her fetch air harder into her lungs. The lyric went, Or-di-na-ry sec-re-ta-ry. Here was nothing ordinary, I would be happy to be its secretary: which has the word “secret” bosomed in it. Besides, I knew that secretaries were among the kindest people in the world. Read more »

Erring on the Slippery Earth: Conceptions of Moral Identity

by Jochen Szangolies

Who Are You?

Figure 1: Who are you? Here’s one answer, from the ‘Get a Mac’-advertising campaign.

I want you to take a moment to reflect on the answer that first came to mind upon reading this question. Was it something related to your job? Are you a baker, a writer, a physicist, a construction worker? Or did you start thinking about your passions—the things you love, the things that drive and inspire you? Perhaps you define yourself by your values: you are who you are, because of what you hold right and good.

Identity has become a central, and somewhat fraught, topic in contemporary discourse. I believe that, in itself, is a sign of progress: in earlier times, identity was not something that was up for discussion; by and large, what made you you was decided by circumstances of your birth. You were born either noble, or a commoner; male or female; free or in bondage—and whichever of those buckets happenstance chose to place you in, would be the central driving force of your fortune. That today, we can worry about, struggle with, and redefine our identities is a sign of increasing self-determination—who we are is no longer just who we were born to be, but a matter of discovery and deliberation. Read more »

The Invisible Boot

by Joseph Shieber

If you’ve any familiarity with the history of economic theory, you’ll no doubt have heard of the idea of the “Invisible Hand”. The image was introduced by Adam Smith in his masterwork The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Smith suggests that, even though each individual participant in a market may be pursuing their own individual benefit, by doing so they are in fact maximizing the benefit for society as a whole:

[Each] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention … By pursuing his own interests, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The willingness of many on the Right to embrace the notion of the Invisible Hand strikes me as odd, given the unwillingness of many of those same thinkers to countenance the possibility of, to take one salient recent example, systemic racism.

In other words, thinkers on the Right often have a quasi-religious faith in positive market outcomes that transcend the self-serving intentions of the individuals making open those markets. This faith, however seems inconsistent with the flat rejection, by those on the Right, of other systemic effects in which individual agents might give rise to negative outcomes — again, not through any intentions of theirs on an individual level, but rather through the unintended consequences of their group-level interactions.

At the same time, on the Left, there at least at times seems to be a parallel unwillingness to recognize that, if the negative consequences of a certain institution are in fact systemic, then moralizing about the individuals involved in those institutions is likely misplaced. Furthermore, such moralizing will also likely be counterproductive, as it is difficult to change the mind of someone that you’re busy demonizing. Read more »

“The Social Dilemma” and the Politics of Horror

by Joshua Wilbur 

Last month’s most popular movie on Netflix is a horror show in the guise of a documentary.  In 2020, reality has turned scarier than fiction, and The Social Dilemma expends more dread per minute than any episode of Black Mirror. It’s a timely, manipulative film, built for one purpose: to scare the f*ck out of everyday Americans.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma draws authority from an impressive group of Big Tech apostates—ex-employees of Google and Facebook ilk—who, in a series of pull-back-the-curtain interviews, lay bare the evils of social media and its attendant technologies. The fact that services like Facebook and Tik Tok are addictive by design will surprise few viewers. What’s unique to the film is its interweaving of a fictional morality tale, a gloomy mini drama about a suburban every-family caught in the throes of social media addiction.

The teenage son can’t resist looking at his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram. The youngest daughter, a middle-schooler, obsesses over the perfect selfie while the oldest daughter, a college-aged know-it-all, criticizes the rest of the family for succumbing to “surveillance capitalism.” The watchful mother does what little she can to connect with her eternally distracted children. These are cardboard characters, but the fictional scenes counterbalance the Ted Talk feel of the interviews and allow for a nimble back-and-forth between explanation and illustration, telling and showing. It’s an effective formula. Read more »