Census Bureau Algorithm Adds Noise to the Population of Monowi, Nebraska

(p. B1) The resident of Nebraska’s only one-person town was surprised when she heard the news.

The U.S. Census Bureau was reporting that Monowi’s population had exploded by 100% and was now home to two people, according to 2020 Census data it recently released.

“Well, then someone’s been hiding from me, and there’s nowhere to live but my house,” Elsie Eiler said Wednesday. “But if you find out who he is, let me know?”

His name is Noise, and he was created by an algorithm to try to protect Eiler’s personal information. Monowi didn’t add another resident to its population, but the Census Bureau did.

“What you’re seeing there is the noise we add to the data so you can’t figure out who is living there,” a bureau spokeswoman said. “It protects the privacy of the respondent and the confidentiality of the data they provide.”

The bureau doesn’t invent respondents, the spokeswoman said. But it does shift them from one census block or tract to another. And while the discrepancies might be apparent and confusing at that micro level — like when a town’s only resident is shocked to hear that she has a neighbor — the numbers are still accurate when zoomed further out, like at the congressional district level.

For the full story, see:

PETER SALTER, Lincoln Journal Star. “Monowi, Nebraska, is still a one-person town, despite what 2020 Census says.” Omaha World-Herald (Sunday, Aug. 30, 2021): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 30, 2021, and has the title “Monowi, Nebraska, is still a one-person town, despite what 2020 Census says.”)

Precise Decisions Can Be Fairer (But Can You Be Precisely Wrong?)

There’s a famous quote, usually wrongly attributed to Keynes that ‘it’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.’ In a new book “noise” refers to inconsistent decisions, that need not be biased in any consistent way. But consistency is not the only value that matters. Academics are sometimes evaluated on the basis of the number of articles they publish. If this is done conscientiously, then the evaluation is consistent, and in that sense “fair.” But maybe there are other criteria that are harder to measure, but that matter more, like the profundity and insight of what is published. Evaluating on the basis of well-measured criteria, that matter less, rather than poorly-measured criteria, that matter more, may increase unfairness in a deeper sense.

(p. 10) A study at an oncology center found that the diagnostic accuracy of melanomas was only 64 percent, meaning that doctors misdiagnosed melanomas in one of every three lesions.

When two psychiatrists conducted independent reviews of 426 patients in state hospitals, they came to the equivalent of a tossup: agreement 50 percent of the time on what kind of mental illness was present.

. . .

Doctors are more likely to order cancer screenings for patients they see early in the morning than late in the afternoon.

. . .

In a study of the effectiveness of putting calorie counts on menu items, consumers were more likely to make lower-calorie choices if the labels were placed to the left of the food item rather than the right.

“When calories are on the left, consumers receive that information first and evidently think ‘a lot of calories!’ or ‘not so many calories!’ before they see the item,” Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein explain in this tour de force of scholarship and clear writing. “By contrast, when people see the food item first, they apparently think ‘delicious!’ or ‘not so great!’ before they see the calorie label. Here again, their initial reaction greatly affects their choices.” This hypothesis is supported, the authors write in a typically clever aside, by the “finding that for Hebrew speakers, who read right to left, the calorie label has a significantly larger impact if it is on the right rather than the left.”

These inconsistencies are all about noise, which Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein define as “unwanted variability in judgments.”

. . .

As the authors explain in their introduction, a team of target shooters whose shots always fall to the right of the bull’s-eye is exhibiting a bias, as is a judge who always sentences Black people more harshly. That’s bad, but at least they are consistent, which means the biases can be identified and corrected. But another team whose shots are scattered in different directions away from the target is shooting noisily, and that’s harder to correct. A third team whose shots all go to the left of the bull’s-eye but are scattered high and low is both biased and noisy.

Despite its prominence in so many realms of human judgment, the authors note that “noise is rarely recognized,” let alone counteracted. Which is why the parade of noise examples that the authors provide are so compelling, and why gathering the examples in one place to demonstrate the cost of noise and then suggesting noise reduction techniques, or “decision hygiene,” makes this book so important. We are living in a moment of rampant polarization and distrust in the fundamental institutions that underpin civil society. Eradicating the noise that leads to random, unfair decisions will help us regain trust in one another.

“Noise” seems certain to make a mark by calling attention to the problem and providing a tangible guide to reducing it. Despite the authors’ intimidating academic credentials, they take pains to explain, even with welcome redundancy, their various categories of noise, the experiments and formulas that they introduce, as well as their conclusions and solutions.

For the full review, see:

Steven Brill. “No Chance.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 30, 2021): 10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2021, and has the title “For a Fairer World, It’s Necessary First to Cut Through the ‘Noise’.”)

The book under review is:

Kahneman, Daniel, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021.

Volatile Investor Goaded WeWork Entrepreneur “to Think Bigger”

(p. B1) Adam Neumann and Masayoshi Son were negotiating a possible $20 billion check when Mr. Son pulled up an image of Yoda on his iPad.

It was summer 2018 and Mr. Son’s tech conglomerate, SoftBank Group Corp., had already pumped over $4 billion into WeWork, the shared office space startup Mr. Neumann co-founded eight years earlier. Now Mr. Neumann was trying to get Mr. Son to buy a majority stake in WeWork. It would have been the largest acquisition ever of a startup, part of a bid to turbocharge a three-pronged strategy to dominate global real estate.

Mr. Son, a risk-taking investor who likened his gut-based strategy of “use the force” to that of the bat-eared Star Wars Jedi, was visibly excited that his new disciple was pushing for such an ambitious plan. Mr. Neumann, more than 20 years younger than Mr. Son and roughly a foot taller, charted out (p. B6) gargantuan growth projections in presentation after presentation throughout the summer. Mr. Son, scribbling on his iPad, calculated WeWork would be worth $10 trillion in a decade, more than 10 times the price tag of Apple at the time, the world’s most valuable company.

Still, Mr. Son kept urging Mr. Neumann to think bigger.

WeWork’s salespeople, real estate professionals and buildings numbered in the low hundreds. Mr. Son, though, told Mr. Neumann each category needed to grow—to 10,000. On his iPad, he commemorated the dictate.

“10k, 10k, 10k!” Mr. Son wrote in yellow, above Yoda grasping a green lightsaber. He signed below: “Masa.”

Fourteen months later, WeWork underwent one of the most spectacular corporate meltdowns of the decade.

. . .

Mr. Neumann, a long-haired, energetic entrepreneur, started WeWork after struggling to build a baby-clothes business in New York, where he moved from Israel in 2001.

. . .

Following a dinner with Walter Isaacson, biographer of Steve Jobs, he gathered staff around to read a complimentary email from the author. He told his employees he wanted Mr. Isaacson to write a biography about him.

. . .

Playing a role in Mr. Neumann’s growing ambitions was Mr. Son, who was frequently needling Mr. Neumann to think bigger.

At a meal in Tokyo with Mr. Son and Cheng Wei, CEO of Chinese ridehail giant Didi Global Inc., Mr. Son told Mr. Neumann that the Didi CEO beat out Uber Technologies Inc. in China not because he was smarter than Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Mr. Cheng was crazier, Mr. Son said.

On the same Tokyo trip, Mr. Son asked Mr. Neumann who would win a fight between a smart guy and a crazy guy, according to people familiar with the conversation. He told Mr. Neumann that being crazy is how you win and that Mr. Neumann was not crazy enough, according to these people.

Roughly a year later at another meeting in Tokyo, Mr. Son clicked on a promotional video of SoftBank-backed Oyo Hotels & Homes, led by the then 24-year-old Ritesh Agarwal. Oyo was growing far faster than WeWork, Mr. Son told Mr. Neumann, ribbing him about lagging behind his SoftBank-backed counterpart, whom Mr. Son equated with a sibling.

“Your little brother is going to beat you,” Mr. Son told Mr. Neumann, according to people familiar with the conversation. “He is being bolder than you.”

Following meetings like this, Mr. Neumann often pushed for bigger ideas, aides said.

For the full commentary, see:

Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell. “The We That Didn’t Work.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 17, 2021): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the title “The We That Didn’t Work at WeWork.”)

The commentary quoted above is based on the authors’ book:

Brown, Eliot, and Maureen Farrell. The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion. New York: Crown, 2021.

Dreams May Be a Byproduct of Brain Repair, Without Deep Meaning

(p. 20) Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist and pioneering sleep researcher who disputed Freud’s view that dreams held hidden psychological meaning, died on July 7 [2021] at his home in East Burke, Vt.

. . .

“He showed that sleep isn’t a nothing state,” Ralph Lydic, who conducted research with Dr. Hobson in the 1980s and is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Tennessee, said in a phone interview.

“He demonstrated that the brain is as active during R.E.M. sleep as it is during wakefulness,” he added, referring to sleep characterized by rapid eye movement. “We know as much about sleep as we do in part because of him.”

One of his most influential contributions to dream research came in 1977, when Dr. Hobson and a colleague, Robert McCarley, produced a cellular and mathematical model that they believed showed how dreams occur. Dreams, they said, are not mysterious codes sent by the subconscious but rather the brain’s attempt to attribute meaning to random firings of neurons in the brain.

This view, that dreams are the byproduct of chemical reactions, was a departure from psychological orthodoxy and heresy to Freudians, and it remains in dispute.

But to Dr. Hobson, the content of dreams was not as important as the electrical activity of the brain during the dream state.

. . .

“I’m skeptical about any absolute set of rules, scientific rules, moral rules, behavioral rules,” he said in a 2011 interview with The Boston Globe.

For the full obituary, see:

Katharine Q. Seelye. “J. Allan Hobson, 88, Who Took Sleep Seriously, Dies.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 1, 2021): 20.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 28, 2021, and has the title “Dr. J. Allan Hobson, Who Studied the Dreaming Brain, Dies at 88.”)

Auerbach Talked to Hikers, Skiers, and Divers to Advance Wilderness Medicine: “He Never Stopped”

(p. B10) Dr. Paul Auerbach, an emergency care physician who pioneered the field of wilderness medicine in the 1980s and then taught ways to heal people injured by the unpredictable, died on June 23 [2021] at his home in Los Altos, Calif.

. . .

Out in the wild, knowing how to treat a venomous snake bite or a gangrenous infection can mean the difference between life and death. In the 1970s, however, the specialized field of health care known as wilderness medicine was still in its infancy. Then Dr. Auerbach showed up.

A medical student at Duke University at the time, he went to work in 1975 with the Indian Health Service on a Native American reservation in Montana, and the experience was revelatory.

“We saw all kinds of cases that I would have never seen at Duke or frankly anywhere else except on the reservation,” Dr. Auerbach said in a recent interview given to Stanford University, where he worked for many years. “Snakebites. Drowning. Lightning strike.”

. . .

“I kept going back to literature to read, but there was no literature,” he said. “If I wanted to read about snake bites, I was all over the place. If I wanted to read about heat illness, I was all over the place. So I thought, ‘Huh, maybe I’ll do a book on wilderness medicine.’”

Dr. Auerbach started researching material for the book in 1978, when he began his medical residency at U.C.L.A., finding the time to do so despite grueling 12-hour hospital shifts. He collected information about how to treat burn wounds, hypothermia, frostbite and lightning injuries. He interviewed hikers, skiers and divers. And he assigned chapters to doctors who were passionate about the outdoors.

The resulting book, “Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies,” which he edited with a colleague, Edward Geehr, was published in 1983 and is widely considered the definitive textbook in the field, with sections like “Protection From Blood-Feeding Arthropods” and “Aerospace Medicine: The Vertical Frontier.” Updated by Dr. Auerbach over 30 years, it is in its seventh edition and now titled “Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine.”

. . .

Last year, shortly before he received his cancer diagnosis, the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, and Dr. Auerbach decided to act.

“The minute it all first happened, he started working on disaster response,” his wife said. “Hospitals were running out of PPE. He was calling this person and that person to learn as much as he could. He wanted to find out how to design better masks and better ventilators. He never stopped.”

For the full obituary, see:

Alex Vadukul. “Dr. Paul Auerbach, 70, Who Pioneered Treatment of Wilderness Emergencies.” The New York Times, First Section (Tuesday, July 20, 2021): B10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 19, 2021, and has the title “Dr. Paul Auerbach, Father of Wilderness Medicine, Dies at 70.”)

The latest edition of Auerbach’s book is:

Auerbach, Paul S., Tracy A. Cushing, and N. Stuart Harris, eds. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. 2 vols. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2017.

Labrador Noses May Be Cheaper and More Accurate Than Rapid Antigen Test at Detecting Covid-19

(p. A1) . . . three Labradors, operating out of a university clinic in Bangkok, are part of a global corps of dogs being trained to sniff out Covid-19 in people. Preliminary studies, conducted in multiple countries, suggest that their detection rate may surpass that of the rapid antigen testing often used in airports and other public places.

. . .

(p. A6) . . . as a group, the dogs being trained in Thailand — Angel, Bobby, Bravo and three others, Apollo, Tiger and Nasa — accurately detected the virus 96.2 percent of the time in controlled settings, according to university researchers. Studies in Germany and the United Arab Emirates had lower but still impressive results.

Sniffer dogs work faster and far more cheaply than polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., testing, their proponents say. An intake of air through their sensitive snouts is enough to identify within a second the volatile organic compound or cocktail of compounds that are produced when a person with Covid-19 sheds damaged cells, researchers say.

“P.C.R. tests are not immediate, and there are false negative results, while we know that dogs can detect Covid in its incubation phase,” said Dr. Anne-Lise Chaber, an interdisciplinary health expert at the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide in Australia who has been working for six months with 15 Covid-sniffing dogs.

Some methods of detection, like temperature screening, can’t identify infected people who have no symptoms. But dogs can, because the infected lungs and trachea produce a trademark scent. And dogs need fewer molecules to nose out Covid than are required for P.C.R. testing, Thai researchers said.

The Thai Labradors are part of a research project run jointly by Chulalongkorn University and Chevron. The oil company had previously used dogs to test its offshore employees for illegal drug use, and a Thai manager wondered whether the animals could do the same with the coronavirus.

. . .

Dogs, whose wet snouts have up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared with roughly six million for humans, can be trained to memorize about 10 smell patterns for a specific compound, Dr. Kaywalee said. Dogs can also smell through another organ nestled between their noses and mouths.

Some research has suggested that dogs of various breeds may be able to detect diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, malaria and certain cancers — that is, the volatile organic compounds or bodily fluids associated with them.

Labradors are among the smartest breeds, said Lertchai Chaumrattanakul, who leads Chevron’s part of the dog project. They are affable, too, making them the ideal doggy detector: engaged and eager.

Mr. Lertchai noted that Labradors are expensive, about $2,000 each in Thailand. But the cotton swabs and other basic equipment for canine testing work out to about 75 cents per sample. That is much cheaper than what’s needed for other types of rapid screening.

For the full commentary, see:

Hannah Beech. “The Best Rapid Covid-19 Test Adores Treats and Belly Rubs.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 1, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 31, 2021, and has the title “On the Covid Front Lines, When Not Getting Belly Rubs.”)

Media Used “Censorship and Vilification” to Suppress Wuhan Lab-Leak Theory

(p. A23) If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.

But this possible scandal, which is as yet unproved, obscures an actual scandal, which remains to be digested.

I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously. The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.

. . .

Was it smart for science reporters to accept the authority of a February 2020 letter, signed by 27 scientists and published in The Lancet, feverishly insisting on the “natural origin” of Covid? Not if those reporters had probed the ties between the letter’s lead author and the Wuhan lab (a fact, as the science writer Nicholas Wade points out in a landmark essay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that has been public knowledge for months).

Was it wise to suppose that the World Health Organization, which has served as a mouthpiece for Chinese regime propaganda, should be an authority on what counted as Covid “misinformation” by Facebook, which in February [2021] banned the lab-leak theory from its platform? Not if the aim of companies like Facebook is to bring the world closer together, as opposed to laundering Chinese government disinformation while modeling its illiberal methods.

. . .

Yet the lab-leak theory, whether or not it turns out to be right, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific “consensus” disputed it. Even if bigots — who rarely need a pretext — drew bigoted conclusions from it.

Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.

Anyone wondering why so many people have become so hostile to the pronouncements of public-health officials and science journalists should draw the appropriate conclusion from this story. When lecturing the public about the dangers of misinformation, it’s best not to peddle it yourself.

For the full commentary, see:

Bret Stephens. “The Lab-Leak Theory and The Media.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 1, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 31, 2021, and has the title “Media Groupthink and the Lab-Leak Theory.”)

“If It’s Consensus, It Isn’t Science”

(p. C9) . . . science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

. . .

As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

. . .

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

. . .

Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled.

For the full review, see:

Mark P. Mills. “The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.”)

The book under review is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Virologist “Dismayed” That Wuhan Lab Conducted Two Coronavirus Studies “With Only a Modest Level of Safety Measures”

(p. A6) On the heels of President Biden’s abrupt order to U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, many scientists reacted positively, reflecting their push in recent weeks for more information about the work of a virus lab in Wuhan, China. But they cautioned against expecting an answer in the three-month time frame of the president’s request.

After long steering clear of the debate, some influential scientists have lately become more open to expressing uncertainties about the origins of the virus. If the two most vocal poles of the argument are natural spillover vs. laboratory leak, these new voices have added a third point of view: a resounding undecided.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure against speaking up, because it was tied to conspiracies and Trump supporters,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. “There was very little rational discussion going on in the beginning.”

. . .

While researchers generally welcome a sustained search for answers, some warn that those answers may not arrive any time soon — if ever.

“At the end of this process, I would not be surprised if we did not know much more than we know now,” said W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University who was one of the first U.S. scientists to visit China in early 2020 and consult with public health authorities there.

China’s lack of cooperation with the W.H.O. has long fueled suspicions about how the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, had emerged seemingly from nowhere to seize the world.

. . .

Speaking recently to the former New York Times journalist Donald McNeil Jr., Dr. Lipkin said he was dismayed to learn of two coronavirus studies from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that had been carried out with only a modest level of safety measures, known as BSL-2.

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Lipkin said this fact wasn’t proof in itself that SARS-CoV-2 spread from the lab. “But it certainly does raise the possibility that must be considered,” he said.

A BSL-2 level of research would also add to the difficulty researchers will face trying to pin down clear evidence that a coronavirus infected the staff. At higher levels of security, staff regularly give blood samples that can be studied later for genetic material from viruses and antibodies against them. There may be no such record for SARS-CoV-2.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer, James Gorman, and Benjamin Mueller. “Scientists Welcome a Search That Might Never Bear Fruit.” The New York Times (Friday, May 28, 2021): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 27, 2021, and has the title “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence.”)

Biden’s “Abrupt Shift” on Wuhan Lab Origin of Covid-19

(p. A1) WASHINGTON — President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies on Wednesday to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, indicating that his administration takes seriously the possibility that the deadly virus was accidentally leaked from a lab, in addition to the prevailing theory that it was transmitted by an animal to humans outside a lab.

. . .

But the president’s carefully worded directive underscored a new surge in interest about the lab, which President Donald J. Trump and some of his top aides repeatedly blamed for the pandemic. Some scientists attributed the renewed focus on the lab to Mr. Trump’s departure from the White House — and being less identified with the theory — while others said it reflected the deep frustrations with the recent W.H.O. report that was co-written by Chinese scientists.

. . .

(p. A8) “For over a year, anyone asking questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been branded as a conspiracy theorist,” Mr. Hawley said. “The world needs to know if this pandemic was the product of negligence at the Wuhan lab, but the C.C.P. has done everything it can to block a credible investigation.”

In the past several days, the White House had played down the need for an investigation led by the United States and insisted that the W.H.O. was the proper place for an international inquiry. Mr. Biden’s statement on Wednesday was an abrupt shift.

. . .

Scientists had been reluctant to discuss the lab leak hypothesis last year because they had been on guard against disinformation, said Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist.

“Nobody wants to succumb to conspiracy theories,” he said.

But the March report by the group of W.H.O.-chosen experts in collaboration with Chinese scientists, dismissing the possibility of a lab leak as “extremely unlikely,” compelled some scientists to speak out.

“When I read that, I was very frustrated,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. Along with Professor Lipsitch, she signed a letter published in the journal Science this month saying that there was not enough evidence to decide whether a natural origin or an accidental laboratory leak caused the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s really an unanswered question that really needs more rigorous investigation,” Dr. Iwasaki added.

From the earliest weeks of the outbreak, the Chinese government has worked to delay, deflect or block independent investigation of the virus’s origins.

Chinese officials said in early 2020 that the outbreak began at a Wuhan market, and they blamed illegal wildlife sales there. They did so despite having evidence that undermined that theory: Early data showed that four of the first five coronavirus patients had no clear links to the market. The government resisted accepting an international scientific mission.

For the full story, see:

Michael D. Shear, Julian E. Barnes, Carl Zimmer, and Benjamin Mueller. “President Orders Report in 90 Days on Virus Origins.” The New York Times (Thursday, May 27, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 27, 2021, and has the title “Biden Orders Intelligence Inquiry Into Origins of Virus.” Where the wording in the online and print versions of the passages quoted above differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Journals Publish Positive Results So Scientists “File-Drawer” Negative Results

(p. A15) In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

. . .

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Mr. Singal’s analysis is thus a quick fix for readers who want to be more enlightened and thoughtful consumers of psychological science.

For the full review, see:

Sally Satel. “BOOKSHELF; A Bias Toward Easy Answers.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 12, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 11, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers.”)

The book under review is:

Singal, Jesse. The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.