What I'm Reading (Sept 24)

On tap this time 'round: Is Science magazine political? ... Do you suffer from Lesesucht? ... If life is a gift, are we sharing it? ... and shaming in the time of COVID-19 distributing vaccines, the 18th Century perspective.

I write for an organization whose mission is to debunk junk science, and we have seen a proliferation of junk, especially this year surrounding COVID-19. One of the main arguments made by opponents of “science” is that it is either politically or financially motivated. In truth, science is a human creation, and it always has had a cultural component. Consider the words of H. Holder Thorp, the editor of Science, arguably one of our best peer-reviewed journals. 


“Wired Magazine: “But one of the arguments those Fox News people, as you say, will make is that when scientists voice political opinions, they call into question the motivations behind the research they’re touting. Do you worry that becoming so outspoken makes you even more vulnerable to that criticism? Now you’re just in the political fray, right?


H. Holder Thorp: No. I believe we've been overly deferential to the idea that we should stay out of it. Look at what that’s gotten us. It’s gotten us climate denial. It’s gotten us creationism. It’s gotten us prohibited from doing stem cell research. These are all costs of scientists saying, “Oh, we’re just going to sit over here in our white coats and let people conclude what they want to.” You know, there is no apolitical science. Science is done by human beings in political environments funded by the federal government. The notion of apolitical science has never been real to begin with.”

Here is his editorial in response to the Woodward revelations on the President’s knowledge and statements on COVID-19. Here is the entire interview by Wired. 

“Go ahead, crack the spine. Run your hand up and down the page. Smell the binding. You know you want to. It’s the intoxicating smell of a new book, …There is a German word for that sweet, sweet book addiction. Lesesucht: an addiction to reading.”

If you follow this column, then you too share the addiction. From Ozy, There's a word for your weird book addiction

By acknowledging our obligation to follow certain rules that govern a delicately balanced ecosystem, we are practicing reciprocity. 

Since ancient times the practice of reciprocation has been a powerful cultural force throughout the world. It is only very recently that, as a global species, we have stopped practicing equal give-and-take relationships with the planet’s nonhuman communities and adopted a one-way relationship of extraction to serve the short-sighted interests of a select few. …

We started calling trees, and fish, and animals “Natural Resources.” That allowed us not to think of them as having their own autonomous life source and purpose, but rather as commodities over which we are guided by divine edict—or, among secular people, by force of custom and assumed human supremacy— to exploit.”

I learned that reciprocity is a necessary component of a gift. Gifting involves both give and take; for many of us, the idea is coarsened to tit for tat, like physicians and Big Pharma are alleged to do. But that is not a gift; it is a favor. I digress. From Nautil.us, Reciprocity in the Age of Extinction

“Public shaming used to take place in the public square. By the nineteenth century, it had moved to the newspaper, and in the twentieth century the forum was television. Today, people are scorned online. The Internet, with its opportunity for anonymity, its absence of gatekeepers, and its magnification of transient hurts, has made it unnervingly easy to generate instant mass outrage. The blog, a venue of self-reflection, has given way to the social-media post, which tends to favor the impulsive attack and the group pile-on.

Digital shaming delivers swift and overwhelming retribution, often unfairly.”

What could be a more perfect storm, the fear of COVID-19, anonymity, and the power/scale of the Internet? From the New Yorker, The Public-Shaming Pandemic

“In 1803, the [Spanish] king, convinced of the benefits of the vaccine, ordered his personal physician Francis Xavier de Balmis, to deliver it to the Spanish dominions in North and South America. To maintain the vaccine in an available state during the voyage, the physician recruited 22 young boys who had never had cowpox or smallpox before, aged three to nine years, from the orphanages of Spain. During the trip across the Atlantic, de Balmis vaccinated the orphans in a living chain. Two children were vaccinated immediately before departure, and when cowpox pustules had appeared on their arms, material from these lesions was used to vaccinate two more children.”

I love it when I find articles that make me say, “I didn’t know that.” From Marginal Revolution, a look at the early history of vaccination for smallpox, The Distribution of Vaccines in the 19th Century