All posts filed under: Science

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …

It’s Still Early Days. But Pfizer’s Stunning Vaccine Results Could Be a Real Game-Changer

With COVID-19 cases surging in the United States and many other countries, Monday’s announcement that ongoing vaccine tests had produced positive results comes as much-needed good news. In a placebo-controlled trial of 43,538 subjects, a vaccine developed by Pfizer, working with the German company BioNTech, was found to be “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.” (Although the early work was done in Germany, by Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, the BioNTech co-founders, subsequent development work has been performed collaboratively with Pfizer, which is why it is commonly referred to in the media simply as the Pfizer vaccine.) Half the subjects received the placebo and half the vaccine (dubbed “BNT162b2”); and an independent monitoring committee unlocked the data when 94 COVID-19 cases had been recorded among all subjects (a predetermined point of interim analysis). Pfizer reports that “the case split between vaccinated individuals and those who received the placebo indicates a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 percent, at seven days after the second dose.” In …

Sex Differences in Occupational Attainment are Here to Stay

In many nations and for many people, the sex difference in occupational attainment is a social pathology that begs for corrective intervention. The ultimate societal goal for many is equal numbers of high-achieving men and women across high-status fields, including those that typically draw more of one sex or the other (e.g., men in engineering)[1]. Here, I place the sex difference favoring men in occupational attainment in an evolutionary perspective and show that this pattern will be immune to all but the most draconian interventions, such as legally-imposed quotas. The reason for this is simple: The relation between social dominance and reproductive success is typically stronger for males than for females, and this in turn favors the evolution of traits that facilitate male status striving[2]. In the first section, I show that the achievement of social status and some degree of success in culturally-important domains are more strongly related to men’s than women’s reproductive prospects and success. The sex difference here is found in hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies, as well as in early empires, …

Jack Turban’s Dangerous Campaign to Smear Ethical Psychotherapy as Anti-Trans ‘Conversion Therapy’

This essay is adapted from a letter published on October 21 by the listed authors in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It has been abridged for a non-academic readership. A subset of the scholarly citations included in the original letter appear below in the form of web links. Readers who wish to read the full text of the authors’ original letter, including the complete list of sources, are invited to consult the Archives of Sexual Behavior web site.   In September 2019, JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association, published an article entitled ‘Association Between Recalled Exposure to Gender Identity Conversion Efforts and Psychological Distress and Suicide Attempts Among Transgender Adults‘ by psychiatrists Jack Turban and Noor Beckwith, and epidemiologist Sari Reisner. Turban, the article’s corresponding author, is a well-known advocate for trans rights and medical treatment of transgender-identifying individuals. This publication concluded that therapy causes harm, and has been used to promote bans on psychotherapy for gender dysphoria worldwide. As the title of the published study indicates, Turban and his co-authors (whom we will …

The Evolutionary History of Man’s Best Friend Revealed

Man and dog share a long history. In much of the world, a history as old as humanity. The latest genetic evidence now tells us that the emergence of the domestic dog lineage occurred soon after the human expansion out of Africa 50,000 years ago, in the depths of the last Ice Age. We came. We saw. And we befriended. This we knew, but now we can closely examine how. A paper out today in Science uses 27 ancient dog genomes from the past 11,000 years to construct an evolutionary history nearly as rich as that produced by human population geneticists over the last decade. The authors found five lineages of ancient dogs that were present at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the dogs that interacted with human migrations during the rise of agriculture and the fall of civilizations to produce the riotous dog diversity that we know today. Familiar breeds like the Pekingese and the St. Bernard, as well as stray Asian village mutts, they’re all the products of a …

Philosophy Is Being Hijacked by Woke Twitter Mobs

Philosophers tend to be highly influenced by their environment, and can often be found rationalizing instead of critically examining the conventional views of the people around them. But if anything warrants philosophical scrutiny, surely it is our national taboos. As a philosopher of biology, one taboo is of particular interest to me: the taboo on considering the possibility that genes play a role in group differences in psychological traits. So I wrote a paper arguing that, while nothing can be definitively proved, there is strongly suggestive evidence that genes are involved in group differences, and we should stop suppressing and censoring research into this topic. I submitted the paper to Philosophical Psychology—a respected journal that publishes work on the connection between philosophy and psychology, which at the time was co-edited by Mitchell Herschbach (a philosopher) and ‪Cees van Leeuwen (a psychologist). To my pleasant surprise, I received two positive referee reports along with a request for revisions. After two rounds of review, the paper was accepted and published in the January 2020 issue of the …

The Real Causes of Human Sex Differences

Scholarly debate over the magnitude and origin of human sex differences is seemingly interminable. As one might imagine, the arguments are often quite acrimonious, and the associated positions differ sharply in terms of the relative focus on social or biological contributions to sex differences. The prevailing view in the social and behavioral sciences is that human sex differences are typically small in magnitude, largely social in origin, and driven by gender roles (below).[1], [2]  The proponents of this view will give ground to biology for traits that are all but impossible to refute, such as the sex difference in height, but quickly dismiss these as being of trivial importance in the modern world. The gender roles explanation of sex differences enjoys wide popularity inside and outside of academia, a level of acceptance that qualifies—given abundant contradictory evidence—as one of Mackay’s extraordinary popular delusions.[3] Here, I describe how gender roles are thought to shape human sex differences and why these theories fall short. I illustrate the latter using the social development and play patterns of boys …

At Dalhousie University, Ideology Comes First, Science Comes Second

The massive COVID-19 death toll in the United States—206,000 and counting—shows what happens when science becomes politicized, and people make health decisions on the basis of political ideology. Donald Trump was originally dismissive of coronavirus and the efficacy of masks. On the other side of the political spectrum, meanwhile, liberal contagious-disease experts lined up to tell Americans that it was fine to join massive street protests in June and July, so long as the participants were on the side of social justice. It is one thing to pollute the liberal arts with absurd misinformation and vapid grievances. But when actual science is subordinated to ideological cults, there are real-world consequences. The same unsettling pattern is now playing out in and around the Atlantic Canadian city of Halifax, whose radicalized political culture I wrote about for Quillette back in July. Over the summer, a group of Indigenous-run lobster fishermen began flouting federal rules by creating a small out-of-season fishery in St. Mary’s Bay, off the west coast of Nova Scotia. These fisheries are closely regulated, in …

The Bias that Divides Us

As we sit here over six months after the initial lockdown provoked by COVID-19, the United States has moved out of a brief period of national unity into distressingly predictable and bitter partisan division. The return to this state of affairs has been fuelled by a cognitive trait that divides us and that our culture serves to magnify. Certainly many commentators have ascribed some part of the divide to what they term our “post-truth” society, but this is not an apt description of the particular defect that has played a central role in our divided society. The cause of our division is not that people deny the existence of truth. It is that people are selective in displaying their post-truth tendencies. What our society is really suffering from is myside bias: People evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. That we are facing a myside bias problem and not a calamitous societal abandonment of the concept of truth is perhaps good news in …

Rallying to Protect Admissions Standards at America’s Best Public High School

This week, a group of about 200 students, parents, alumni, and concerned local residents flooded the sidewalk in front of America’s number-one-ranked public high school—Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. This was no back-to-school event. It was a rally to save the soul of the school itself. The parents included Norma Muñoz, a Peruvian immigrant who told us she was there to “fight for TJ” (as the school is known locally). Other parents were from China, India, and South Korea. They stepped forward, one by one, to describe their families’ journeys—from marching in Tiananmen Square decades ago to arriving in the United States with only dollars in their pockets. “I came here for freedom,” said Yuyan Zhou, a Chinese-American woman who’s spent eight years as a TJ parent. “Moral courage is the only solution for this madness. Stand up for your rights. Stand up for your values. Fight for the future of our students!” And what is this “madness” Ms. Zhou describes? Since early June, a small but vocal group …