The problems with one-shot Covishield

NDTV quoted unnamed sources in the Indian government saying it will be conducting a study to assess the feasibility of deploying the Covishield vaccine in a single-dose regimen instead of continuing the extant double-dose regimen.

At any other time, such a statement may have been sufficient to believe the government would organise and conduct a well-designed trial, publicise the findings and revise policy (or not) to stay in line with the findings, informed by socio-economic considerations. But the last 15 months have thrown up enough incidents of public-health malpractice on the state’s part to make such hope outright stupid. I’m fairly certain, especially if the vaccine shortage persists and the outbreaks on an upward trajectory in some parts of the country at the moment aren’t tamped down quickly, that the government is going to conduct a trial, not publish its methods and findings and push through a policy to deploy Covishield as a single-dose shot.

Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong – but in the event that I’m not, I’m already filled with a mix of sadness and fury. The government seems set on finding new ways to play with our lives.

News that the government is going to conduct a feasibility study broke to the accompaniment of a suggestion, by NDTV’s same unnamed sources, that Covishield was originally intended as a single-dose vaccine and that it was later found to be better as a two-dose vaccine. This is ridiculous to begin with, considering Covishield’s phase 3 trials around the world, conducted by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, tested the two-dose regimen.

But it is rendered more ridiculous because Public Health England (PHE) reported just a week ago that two doses of Covishield are necessary for a recipient to be sufficiently protected against infections by the B.1.617.2 variant. The PHE study found that one dose of Covishield had an efficacy of 33% against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by the variant, increasing to 60% after both doses. Has the Indian government forgotten that B.1.617.2 is becoming the more common variant circulating in the country? Or is laundering the national party’s image more important than the safety of hundreds of millions? (The latter is entirely plausible: in the last seven years, the country has seldom been larger than the supreme leader’s ego.)

The PHE study isn’t without its shortcomings – but I’d be more inclined to pay attention to them at this moment if:

  1. I didn’t have to contend with the non-trivial possibility that the Indian government will bury, obfuscate and/or twist the data arising from its assessment, and therefore we (the public) need to bank on whatever else is available;
  2. I didn’t have to contend with the fact that data from Covaxin’s phase 3 trial (which apparently went past its final interim-analysis endpoint in April) and Covishield’s bridging trial (which IIRC concluded on March 24) are still missing from the public domain;
  3. If we could access large-scale effectiveness data of the two vaccines (the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, is set to begin collecting such data this week); and
  4. If there was any other reliable data at the moment about the two vaccines vis-à-vis the different variants circulating in India.

There is another problem. If Covishield is administered as a single-dose vaccine, its efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by B.1.617.2 viral particles is 33% – which is below the WHO’s recommended efficacy threshold of 50% for these vaccines. If the Indian government formalises the ‘Covishield will be one dose’ policy and if the B.1.617.2 variant continues its conquest, will the vaccine, as it is used in India, lose its place on the WHO’s vaccine list? And what of the consequences that will follow, including other countries becoming reluctant to admit Indians who received one dose of Covishield and one dose of the BJP’s way of doing things?

I would be wary, too. The longer the particles of the novel coronavirus are able to circulate within a population, the more opportunities they will have to mutate, and the more mutations they will accumulate. So any population that allows the virus to persist for longer automatically increases the chance of engendering potentially deadlier variants within its borders. One-dose Covishield plus B.1.617.2, and other variants, will set just such a stage – compounded by the fact that Serum Institute, which makes Covishield, has a much larger production capacity than Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin.

(The PHE study also found that Covishield and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an efficacy of “around 50%” against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by an infection of the B.1.1.7 variant.)

In fact, the government could have made more sense today by saying it would prioritise the delivery of the first dose to as many people as possible before helping people get the second one. This way the policy would be in line with the most recent scientific findings, be synonymous with a single-dose campaign and keep the door open to vaccinating people with both doses in a longer span of time (instead of closing that door entirely), while admitting that the vaccine shortage is real and crippling – something most of us know anyway. But no; Vishwaguru first.

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What is academic freedom?

Note: I originally wrote two versions of this article for The Wire; one, a ‘newsier’ version, was published in June 2020. I’d intended to publish the version below, which is more of a discussion/analysis, sometime last year itself but it slipped my mind. I’m publishing it today, shortly after rediscovering it by accident.

Since the Cold War, science has been a reason of state, as the social theorist Ashis Nandy has argued. So when scientists, or academicians in general, seek to assert themselves, their actions are a threat to the state itself and its stewards.

This is no different in India – but it’s particularly relevant because not just science but also pseudoscience has been adapted as a reason of state, amplifying scholars’ vaguely moral imperative to rebut the state’s claims to a nearly existential one. And in parallel, the perception of academic freedom has evolved from a human right to a more-enforceable fundamental one, if only to check a political class that no longer sees reason and democracy as boundary conditions.

“If deliberation is central to democracy, then it is not enough to to simply have a negative right to free speech. A democratic society should also cultivate forums where open deliberation takes place,” Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, said.

“Universities have traditionally been such forums, often involving young people who are seriously engaging with the public sphere for the first time in their lives, developing their civic identities. Maintaining academic freedom – understood as an atmosphere free of intimidation or intellectual control – is essential to preserving these spaces as hubs of participatory democracy.”

Researchers at the Global Public Policy Institute, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), the Scholars At Risk Network and the V-Dem Project at the University of Gothenburg have prepared a new report that offers a way to quantify this freedom. They have developed an ‘academic freedom index’ (AFI), which determines, with a few parameters, the relative extent to which different countries value academic freedom.

To quote from The Wire‘s news report,

India has an AFI of 0.352, comparable to the scores of Saudi Arabia and Libya. Countries that scored higher than India include Pakistan (0.554), Brazil (0.466), Ukraine (0.422), Somalia (0.436) and Malaysia (0.582). Uruguay and Portugal top the list with scores of 0.971 each, followed closely by Latvia and Germany. At the bottom are North Korea (0.011), Eritrea (0.015), Bahrain (0.039) and Iran (0.116).

The AFI has eight components, defined by the following questions:

  1. “To what extent are scholars free to develop and pursue their own research and teaching agendas without interference?”
  2. “To what extent are scholars free to exchange and communicate research ideas and findings?”
  3. “To what extent do universities exercise institutional autonomy in practice?”
  4. “To what extent are campuses free from politically motivated surveillance or security infringements?”
  5. “Is there academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression related to political issues?”
  6. “Do constitutional provisions for the protection of academic freedom exist?”
  7. “Is the state party to the ICESCR without reservations to Article 15 (right to science)?”
  8. “Have universities (ever) existed in this country?”

According to the report, some 1,810 academicians responded to the first five questions, for each of their countries. (For a closer look at the methods, please read The Wire‘s news report.)

On this count, the report’s authors themselves advise caution: “While there is evidence of a deteriorating condition for academics in [India], the extent of the AFI score’s decline seems somewhat disproportional in comparison to earlier periods in the [country’s] history as well as in comparison to other countries over the same period.” It’s likely this caveat extends to all countries.

Our impression of universities as simply centres of learning has divorced them from their status as places where students can investigate ideas without fear. So an entity like AFI is notable because it reminds us of the need for universities to be free as well as active participants in realising the ‘right to science’, as embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

After it came into force from January 1976 – with India ratifying it in April 1979 – the covenant, among other things, entitles the people of its party states “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” and requires the states “to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity”.

So the AFI’s makers suggest the UN could read the indicator with self-assessment reports the parties submit. They also suggest other ways their findings could prove useful – but the report doesn’t escape the fate all indices share: the farther it ventures from its status as an index, the less useful it becomes.

Among academicians, conventionally underprivileged groups – such as women and transgender people – as well as underprivileged areas of study like women’s studies, could use the AFI as a way to strengthen protections for themselves.

A post published on the Times Higher Education blog in 2019 read, “Scholars of feminism attract an overwhelming amount of intimidation; their right to explore controversial issues demands explicit protection.”

However, one of the AFI’s constituent questions – “To what extent are scholars free to exchange and communicate research ideas and findings?” – treats scholars as one monolithic unit. What happens when scholars themselves oppose each other’s right to study certain subjects? Such a contention may not always fit within the bounds of academic debate either, and could even compromise another question: “Is there academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression related to political issues?”

For example, academicians in the UK have been embroiled in a fierce debate over the freedom to critique transgender rights. One group has accused the other of adopting “a ‘censorious’ approach to gender identity”. The other has accused the first of transphobia. However, “universities are negotiating a minefield, trying to maintain free speech while faced with two groups of people who both argue they are being made to feel unsafe,” Anna Fazackerley wrote for The Guardian in January 2020.

But without a close reading of the ‘codebook’ accompanying the report, which explains the questions the academicians answered, the UK’s AFI of 0.934 doesn’t immediately suggest that external interference isn’t the only kind of problem.

More broadly, Madhusudhan Raman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, said he is “suspicious” of attempts “to reduce what is a complex, often fluid, social-political consensus to a number between 0 and 1.” For one, such ‘metrics’ “don’t shed light on how societies arrive at their respective consensuses.”

And even more broadly, the report’s data isn’t grainy enough to examine the type of academic freedom available at a university. Menon, for example, identified two ways to justify that freedom of expression is not inherently valuable but for a purpose: for deliberative democracy – described earlier – and for the marketplace of ideas.

And “a free marketplace of ideas, where that freedom is interpreted exclusively as freedom from government intervention, will tend to produce knowledge that is valuable to powerful monied interests, not democratic interests more broadly construed”.

This is more so when so few Indians study at universities, and even fewer among them are not of the upper castes.

“Academic freedom is crucial but we need to talk about specific factors like caste,” an anthropologist at the University of Delhi, who didn’t wish to be named, said. “Another thing that destroyed academic freedom is the artificial binary of teaching and research encouraged by various governments, including the current one. Many Indian universities and colleges are still feudal and patriarchal. We also need to talk about the institutional cultures and the way in which it restricts academic freedom through the contractualisation of appointments.”

In addition, middle-class parents could even use an index like the AFI to identify places where their children could study without being ‘distracted’ by political activities.

Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor of political science at FAU, who conceived the AFI and helped prepare the report, pointed to the codebook, which explains how the results were arrived at, and thus how they could and couldn’t be interpreted.

“In these clarifications, we state clearly that interference by ‘non-academic actors’ includes not only interference by government representatives and politicians but also businesses, foundations, other private funders as well as religious groups and advocacy groups,” she told The Wire. “As a matter of fact, we consciously avoided an exclusive focus on government interference.”

In India, a strong politics-business-media nexus has allowed the government to exert its will through a combination of social, financial, legal and even religious instruments. Together with the fact that the state has also become the chief ‘intervener’ in student affairs – from censoring conversations on some topics to turning a blind eye to violence against students backed by politico-religious powers – it’s hard to separate each intervention from another when all of them seem to have the same outcome: to reduce the university to a collection of classrooms by eroding the culture of debate that the state perceives as a threat to itself.

So, Menon said, “genuinely democratic academic freedom” should also consider “inclusivity of education, resistance to privatisation of education and funding, resistance to the vocationalisation of education.”

But without these considerations, the report’s “priorities … are in line with the neoliberal consensus according to which academic freedom essentially just means laissez-faire applied to the academic realm just as it is to the economic realm.”

Kinzelbach contested this conclusion: she “echoed” Menon’s thoughts on the lack of inclusivity and the perils of privatised education but, she continued, “I would argue that [inclusivity] would be more appropriately studied under a ‘right to education’ framework, not under the notion of ‘academic freedom’.”

She added that had her team “included the funding structure of universities as an indicator of academic freedom, it would not be possible to study these hypothesised causal relationships, and that would make the data much less useful for further research.”

Magic bridges

The last two episodes of the second season of House, the TV series starring Hugh Laurie as a misanthropic doctor at a facility in Princeton, have been playing on my mind off and on during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of its principal points (insofar as Dr Gregory House can admit points to the story of his life) is that it’s ridiculous to expect the families of patients to make informed decisions about whether to sign off on a life-threatening surgical procedure, say, within a few hours when in fact medical workers might struggle to make those choices even after many years of specific training.

The line struck me to be a chasm stretching between two points on the healthcare landscape – so wide as to be insurmountable by anything except magic, in the form of decisions that can never be grounded entirely in logic and reason. Families of very sick patients are frequently able to conjure a bridge out of thin with the power of hope alone, or – more often – desperation. As such, we all understand that these ‘free and informed consent’ forms exist to protect care-providers against litigation as well as, by the same token, to allow them to freely exercise their technical judgments – somewhat like how it’s impossible to physically denote an imaginary number (√-1) while still understanding why they must exist. For completeness.

Sometimes, it’s also interesting to ask if anything meaningful could get done without these bridges, especially since they’re fairly common in the real world and people often tend to overlook them.

I’ve had reason to think of these two House episodes because one of the dominant narratives of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of uncertainty. The novel coronavirus is, as the name suggests, a new creature – something that evolved in the relatively recent past and assailed the human species before the latter had time to understand its features using techniques and theories honed over centuries. This in turn predicated a cascade of uncertainties as far as knowledge of the virus was concerned: scientists knew something, but not everything, about the virus; science journalists and policymakers knew a subset of that; and untrained people at large (“the masses”) knew a subset of that.

But even though more than a year has passed since the virus first infected humans, the forces of human geography, technology, politics, culture and society have together ensured not everyone knows what there is currently to know about the virus, even as the virus’s interactions with these forces in different contexts continues to birth even more information, more knowledge, by the day. As a result, when an arbitrary person in an arbitrary city in India has to decide whether they’d rather be inoculated with Covaxin or Covishield, they – and in fact the journalists tasked with informing them – are confronted by an unlikely, if also conceptual, problem: to make a rational choice where one is simply and technically impossible.

How then do they and we make these choices? We erect magic bridges. We think we know more than we really do, so even as the bridge we walk on is made of nothing, our belief in its existence holds it up and stiff beneath our feet. This isn’t as bad as I’m making it seem; it seems like the human thing to do. In fact, I think we should be clearer about the terms on which we make these decisions so that we can improve on them and make them better.

For example, all frontline workers who received Covaxin in the first phase of India’s vaccination drive had to read and sign off on an ‘informed consent’ form that included potential side effects of receiving a dose of the vaccine, its basic mechanism of action and how it was developed. These documents tread a fine line between being informative and being useful (in the specific sense of the risk of debilitating action by informing too much and of withholding important information in order to skip to seemingly useful ‘advice’): they don’t tell you everything they can about the vaccine, nor can they assert the decision you should make.

In this context, and assuming the potential recipient of the vaccine doesn’t have the education or training to understand how exactly vaccines work, a magic bridge is almost inevitable. So in this context, the recipient could be better served by a bridge erected on the right priorities and principles, instead of willy-nilly and sans thought for medium- or long-term consequences.

There’s perhaps an instructive analogy here with software programming, in the form of the concept of anti-patterns. An anti-pattern is a counterproductive solution to a recurrent problem. Say you’ve written some code that generates a webpage every time a user selects a number from a list of numbers. The algorithm is dynamic: the script takes the user-provided input, performs a series of calculations on it and based on the results produces the final output. However, you notice that your code has a mistake due to which one particular element on the final webpage is always 10 pixels to the left of where it should be. Being unable to identify the problem, you take the easy way out: you add a line right at the end of the script to shift that element 10 pixels to the right, once it has been rendered.

This is a primitive example of an anti-pattern, an action that can’t be determined by the principles governing the overall system and which exists nonetheless because you put it there. Andrew Koenig introduced the concept in 1995 to identify software programs that are unreliable in some way, and which could be made reliable by ensuring the program conforms to some known principles. Magic bridges are currently such objects, whose existence we deny often because we think they’re non-magical. However, they shouldn’t have to be anti-patterns so much as precursors of a hitherto unknown design en route to completeness.

SSC: Addendum

It’s wonderful how the mind has a way of cultivating clarity in the background, away from the gaze of the mind’s eye and as the mind itself is preoccupied with other thoughts, on matters considered only a few days ago to be too complicated to synthesise into a unified whole.

Recap: On February 14, the New York Times published a profile of Slate Star Codex, the erstwhile blog penned by Scott Alexander Siskind that had become one of the internet’s few major water coolers for rationalists. Siskind had previously appeared to make peace with the newspaper’s decision to reveal his full name – he hadn’t been using his last name on the blog – in the profile, but since February 14 at least, he has seemingly taken a vindictive turn, believing the New York Times doxxed him on purpose for “embarrassing” them.

Somewhat separately, many of Siskind’s supporters have rejected the profile as an unfaithful portrayal of the blog’s significance in the rationalism community and for its allegedly overtly conspiratorial overtones about the blog’s relationship with powerful figures in Silicon Valley. Many of these supporters have since decided to boycott Cade Metz, the New York Times reporter who crafted the profile.

A few days ago, I put down my thoughts about this affair to clarify them for myself as well as, less importantly, lay out my views. Since then, but especially this morning, I’ve realised the essence of my struggle with composing that post. A shade less than 100% of the time, I start a post with thoughts on some subject, and by the time I’m through a thousand words, I discover a point or two I need to make that stitches the thoughts together. I’d struggled to find this point with the SSC affair but I now I think I have some clarity:

(The sources for claims in the points below are available in my first post.)

  • The New York Times profile’s simpler mistakes are a significant problem, and I agree with those supporters’ decision boycott the reporter. But I would also encourage them to find other reporters they’d rather speak to – and do so. Even if this means their words start to appear in publications whose other contents may be objectionable (like, say, Quillette), they will still be part of the public conversation instead of finding themselves silenced.
  • On a related note: it’s quite amusing that a community so wedded to a particular impression of its identity and self-perception thought it would be profiled by the New York Times in line with this perception. Granted, this may not have been an entirely foreseeable outcome, but the magnitude of the supporters’ reactions seems disproportionate to the chances of Siskind’s and their views being lost in translation (from their PoV).
  • The New York Times‘ decision to reveal Scott Alexander’s last name for the profile is difficult to understand, even as it’s not hard to see that the profile could have been composed together with Siskind’s objections and his reasons. Some commentators have advanced an argument that free speech, an absolute version of which Siskind as well as the rationalists’ community desires, is incompatible with anonymity – but be this as it may, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Metz’s and the newspaper’s decision-making process itself and only smells like post-hoc justification.
  • Siskind’s allegation, based on some things people “in the know” told him, that the New York Times doxxed him because he embarrassed them (with his decision to unplug his blog from the internet after Metz first told him Metz might have to reveal his full identity) is more laughable the more you think of it, no? I’m also curious as to why Siskind goes from apparently making his peace with the newspaper’s decision to reveal his last name to taking steps to ensure his “survivability” in a scenario where his full name is known to all to, finally, resorting to invoking a vague authority (“people in the know”) – as if to advance a justification for his victimisation.

Slate Star Codex: No time for malice

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

To the uninitiated: Scott Alexander Siskind is a noted member of the international community of rationalists and wrote the once-celebrated blog Slate Star Codex. I use the past tense because Siskind used to write this blog from the relative obscurity afforded by using only his first and middle names – ‘Scott Alexander’ – and which was threatened after a New York Times reporter got in touch to profile him, and then decided to ‘out’ his identity thanks to some editorial rule the reporter said he was was bound by.

Siskind, fearing for his privacy as well as the wellbeing of his clients (he’s a psychiatrist by profession) threatened to delete his entire blog if the reporter didn’t back off – and then proceeded to do so. At the time of the incident, Siskind also called for support from his readers, who flooded the New York Times with telephone calls, emails and online comments, cancelled their subscriptions in droves, and also doxxed (revealed online without permission and with an intent to harass) the reporter’s personal information. Siskind subsequently restored his blog posts and also moved to Substack, where he currently writes under the title ‘Astral Codex Ten’ using his full name.

The New York Times profile in question was published on February 14 under the authorship of reporter Cade Metz. Many members of the rationalists’ community centred on Slate Star Codex have described the article as a “hit job” and it has since become something of a referendum, at least on one other intellectual’s blog (Shtetl Optimized by Scott Aaronson), on the appropriate way to sanction journalists and/or news publishers that fail to properly represent the views of their subjects to their audience.

(I’m an occasional reader of Slate Star Codex, now Astral Codex Ten, but have never been a full participant of the rationalist movement. I occasionally pop in and out and absorb interesting ideas. I also don’t defend the rationalists, being aware of the tendency of most members of this community to over-rationalise, to debate ideas without paying attention to their social consequences, which often lie outside the realm of reason, and to be cynical of politics.)

Here are a few contiguous paragraphs from the article that I think capture its spirit and purpose:

Part of the appeal of Slate Star Codex, faithful readers said, was Mr. Siskind’s willingness to step outside acceptable topics. But he wrote in a wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.

Mr. Aaronson, the University of Texas professor, was turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs of the Rationalists, but he is one of the blog’s biggest champions and deeply admired that it didn’t avoid live-wire topics.

“It must have taken incredible guts for Scott to express his thoughts, misgivings and questions about some major ideological pillars of the modern world so openly, even if protected by a quasi-pseudonym,” he said.

It was the protection of that “quasi-pseudonym” that rankled Mr. Siskind when I first got in touch with him. He declined to comment for this article.

As he explored science, philosophy and A.I., he also argued that the media ignored that men were often harassed by women. He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books. He said that affirmative action was difficult to distinguish from “discriminating against white men.”

In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”

He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” – the blogs he endorsed – included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.

In 2017, Mr. Siskind published an essay titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes.” The main reason computer scientists, mathematicians and other groups were predominantly male was not that the industries were sexist, he argued, but that women were simply less interested in joining.

That week, a Google employee named James Damore wrote a memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions at the company was a result of biological differences, not anything else – a memo he was later fired over. One Slate Star Codex reader on Reddit noted the similarities to the writing on the blog.

Mr. Siskind, posting as Scott Alexander, urged this reader to tone it down. “Huge respect for what you’re trying, but it’s pretty doomed,” he wrote. “If you actually go riding in on a white horse waving a paper marked ‘ANTI-DIVERSITY MANIFESTO,’ you’re just providing justification for the next round of purges.”

There are some obvious problems with the article. The foremost is that Metz makes some questionable assumptions about the foundations of Siskind’s arguments to the effect that Siskind sounds like a conservative, dogmatic person who draws on questionable scholarship to frame his thoughts. This is quite off-target. The article also oversimplifies some of the rationalist community’s positions, although this may be unavoidable in anything less than a book-length treatment of such an involved subject.

On the other hand, a not inconsiderable amount of the Slate Star Codex community’s derision towards the New York Times seems to be rooted in the idea that the newspaper is pursuing a smear campaign – ostensibly in retaliation for Siskind asking his (sizeable) audience to call on New York Times editors to not have his name outed, but who also went on to doxx Metz. Siskind wrote on his Substack after the article was published:

The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.

The “in the know” bit sounds funny to me because, based on my experience at The Hindu at least, it’s extremely unlikely for a legacy newspaper to identify one person that’s giving one reporter a tough time as a threat to the extent that the institution, as such, considers intentionally doxxing him – not to mention an accusation like this also insults the intelligence of the people it. I agree with journalist and Gawker cofounder Elizabeth Spiers’s take on this view:

SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject.

I also agree with Will Wilkinson, a politics writer and author, on the limited point of the Slate Star Codex community’s conviction that Metz’s actions were malicious, that Metz or the New York Times were “out to get them”. Instead, Wilkinson argues, the community need only examine the sequence of events from Metz’s point of view to find that common sense offers a simpler and more rational explanation.

Somebody tells Metz about SSC, he finds it really interesting, wants to write some kind of article about Siskind, his popular and influential blog, and the fascinating community around it. He starts to do some preliminary research. … Metz contacts Siskind and at some point he tells Scott that he already knows his real name and at some point Scott tells Metz it’s very important that he doesn’t use his real name. Metz says, sorry, house rules say I have to use your real name. To Metz, things are already getting pretty interesting. He’s a reporter. He’s not going to take what people tell him at face value. He’s probably wondering why Scott’s really sweating so hard about his real name. Then, at some point Siskind flips the fuck out and tells the Times that he’s going to burn SSC to the ground if they don’t promise not to use his real name. At this juncture basically any competent reporter is going to think, “Whoa! Yeah, there’s something deeper here for sure.”

Well, the Times won’t promise, so Siskind actually does it. This seems super-crazy and the natural journalistic response to it is “What the hell is this man hiding? What’s he so afraid I’ll find on his blog?”

Let’s pause to acknowledge that Siskind eventually acknowledged that he had been behaving in a way that seemed incredibly suspicious to outside observers and that it does make a great deal of completely non-malicious sense for a journalist to tune into this. It’s interesting, though, that this apparently hadn’t occurred to him. “Contacts in the news industry” had to tell him.

But as it happens, Siskind had assumed similarly well before the New York Times article was published: that Metz or the newspaper may not be thinking as much about Slate Star Codex’s true identity as much as Siskind and the community was:

I think they just didn’t expect me to care about anonymity as much as I did. In fact, most of my supporters, and most of the savvy people giving me advice, didn’t expect me to care as much as I did. … Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn’t literally necessary to keep me alive. I feel bad admitting this, like I conscripted you all into a crusade on false pretenses. Am I an entitled jerk for causing such a stir just so I can feel safe and comfortable? I’m sure the New York Times customer service representatives who had to deal with all your phone calls thought so. …

In the New York Times‘ worldview, they start with the right to dox me, and I had to earn the right to remain anonymous by proving I’m the perfect sympathetic victim who satisfies all their criteria of victimhood. But in my worldview, I start with the right to anonymity, and they need to make an affirmative case for doxxing me. I admit I am not the perfect victim. The death threats against me are all by losers who probably don’t know which side of a gun you shoot someone with. If anything happened at work, it would probably inconvenience me and my patients, but probably wouldn’t literally kill either of us. …

I don’t think anyone at the Times bore me ill will, at least not originally. But somehow that just made it even more infuriating. In Street Fighter, the hero confronts the Big Bad about the time he destroyed her village. The Big Bad has destroyed so much stuff he doesn’t even remember: “For you, the day [I burned] your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.” That was the impression I got from the Times. They weren’t hostile. I wasn’t a target they were desperate to take out. The main emotion I was able to pick up from them was annoyance that I was making their lives harder by making a big deal out of this. For them, it was Tuesday.

I sort of also see Siskind’s point here: it’s unreasonable to destabilise a community because it failed to explain the terms of its existence to an interloper. Instead, his anonymity and the reasons for it could have been part of the story, irrespective of Metz’s and others’ assertion that Scott Alexander’s last name wasn’t hard to find.

Some others, but also Wilkinson, have read this ‘privacy v. public interest’ contention a bit differently, by invoking Siskind’s presumed absolute right to free speech. I’m personally uncomfortable with the Slate Star Codex community’s view that the interference of Siskind’s right to free speech with his profession as a psychiatrist (and the wellbeing of his patients) shouldn’t be seen as a confounding factor in his decision to react with arguably disproportionate alarm when Metz expressed his intent to use Siskind’s full name – and that the newspaper isn’t very much to blame here. But I can’t be sure if this matters to how Metz constructed the Slate Star Codex profile.

Very broadly, Wilkinson questions the cons of free-speech absolutism not just vis-à-vis the topics that benefit from such a license (like white supremacy or “women have smaller brains”) but vis-à-vis the concept itself. He argues that the absolute right to free speech and a right to anonymity can’t go together, and it’s possible from a journalistic standpoint that Metz may have been encouraged by this incompatibility and by the fact of Siskind’s name showing up after a few searches on Google to ‘reveal’ his last name.

But I think this argument is neither here nor there – plus the profile doesn’t contain any evidence that this is how Metz approached the decision (some anecdotal reports I came across suggested Metz was simply following some newsroom rule). This alternative also doesn’t sit well with Spiers’s and Siskind’s shared belief that the New York Times may never care about the consequences of its gaze on a particular subject more than the subject will.

But the profile being what it is, Scott Aaronson – and I’m sure many others – have decided to boycott Cade Metz, meaning they won’t speak to him on future stories, in an effort to register their disapproval.

Is this fair? I think it’s hard to be sure, although I also suspect this question may be moot. Right now, I’ve yet to find a self-consistent explanation for either party to stand its ground. The verbosity of all the arguments in this debate, save for the New York Times profile itself, is also quite suspicious. I’m implicitly wary of arguments that overuse words because it’s a sign, to me, that the author is either attempting to massage the reader’s intelligence into accepting an otherwise unintelligent, and often deleterious, proposition or that the author is trying to make a point that they themselves don’t fully understand yet. (I may be guilty of either given the length of this post.)

For now, I can see why, without agreeing with it, Aaronson et al have decided to boycott Metz. The relationship between a reporter and their source has only one degree of freedom – trust – and that’s what Aaronson et al have resolved to strike at. But based on what I have read, I don’t see water in the community’s argument that Metz’s efforts have resulted in a “hit job” that violated their trust, of being represented ‘fairly’, by focusing on the rationalist community’s negative attributes. This seems like the rationalists are conflating journalism and reputation management – even considering the New York Times has one of the world’s largest newspaper audiences and a single misinformed article can deal significant reputational damage.

In Aaronson’s and Siskind’s telling, Metz did the rationalists a disservice by focusing on the “wrong” parts of what made Slate Star Codex awesome. But as Wilkinson, Spiers and others have argued, their very ability and freedom to collect as rationalists and openly discuss potentially dangerous or even antisocial ideas is hard to separate from the fact that the rationalists are also “overwhelmingly white and male and clustered in a very narrow of range of heavily white, male analytical symbol manipulation occupations” – a fact that the rationalists tend to dismiss as a distraction.

On the other hand, Metz’s article – while definitely not a “hit job” – is flawed where it seems to imply Siskind’s guilt by association with writers he’s quoted, topped off by the decision to reveal Siskind’s identity. At the same time, Metz is also justified in framing the article the way he did, or worked with his editor to do so.

This isn’t just in terms of, as Spiers put it, going where the story took him but also of revealing a relatively small and cloistered community to the larger world that mostly didn’t know the community existed. And I sense that the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms of this act of revelation.

This speaks to the larger question of yearning for objectivity where there is none. To one group, Slate Star Codex appeared to be yet another portal to fascism-curious thinking that is sustained not-inexplicably by yet another group of white men, and had some notable connections to Silicon Valley. To the other, Slate Star Codex was a salon at which certain people could gather to discuss topics that other members of society had decided they couldn’t debate without also contravening the limitations imposed on free speech.

The values underlying these positions are largely incommensurable, and I suspect the rationalists came away smarting not because they didn’t see the incommensurability but because they expected Metz or anyone else to be objective to the extent that the topics of conversation in the Slate Star Codex community and the demographic characteristics of the people who tended to have them wouldn’t matter.

I realise that this is an older, more-well-hashed debate, and I’m questioning myself whether this whole ‘scandal’ – on which many smarter people have expended tens of thousands of words – can be distilled to such a simple premise. But I’m more certain that disillusionment with the ‘view from somewhere’ is part of the story, even if ironically so considering the New York Times was synonymous with the futile pursuit of objectivity during the Trump presidency.

UAE’s spaceflight shortcut to making history

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

In an hour or so, the UAE’s Hope probe, currently en route to Mars, will beam a signal to Earth about whether it managed to get into orbit around the red planet. Thanks to the Indian experience of the same feat, achieved in 2014, we all know what this moment must be like to the people of the UAE… I think.

I’m also seeing a lot of quotes doing the rounds on Twitter and also in the news including messages of Arab pride, that this moment is a success for the Arab world irrespective of whether the Hope probe successfully completes orbital capture. While I’m sure a lot of writers will unpack the meaning of this moment in the days to come – including the fact that the UAE’s riches in particular are erected on a desperate workforce that migrated to the Gulf in search of better fortunes, and still labours in the shadows with none of the labour rights that the country’s full-time citizens enjoy – I hope some of them will be able to focus on two things: the connection between making history and spaceflight itself, and between UAE’s age and ambitions.

On the first count, the complexity of spaceflight seems to offer a shortcut, of sorts, to history-making today: perfecting a rocket launch, building a functional satellite capable of lasting many months in space, deploying a suite of instruments that can semi-autonomously investigate the properties of another world seems to be able to guarantee a significant amount of notability.

This is not tautological: there are many enterprises today that demand a considerable amount of resources, focus and skill to execute – a vaccination drive that doesn’t abuse its healthcare workers, for example, or even building a big bridge over the sea without injuring any of the workers involved in its construction, but neither compares to spaceflight in the latter’s ability to capture the public imagination. I suspect strongly that the crises currently facing humankind are becoming an increasingly larger part of this perception – both in terms of spaceflight being a sort of epitome of the human ability to innovate humankind’s way out of sophisticated problems as well as by stoking fantasies of escape – as might be the fact that spacefaring is a preoccupation of the billionaire class, and the capitalism world-system seems to be predicating the solutions to many of the world’s more wicked problems on the collective benevolence of these people.

In this sense, small but rich countries might as well be primed to buy their way into history – in this moment, today – using the spaceflight route, after doing the same thing in years past by benefitting from the exploitation of their natural resources, of outsourced labour and by offering anti-accountable financial services that help keep the global capitalist machine running.

Second, many Emiratis seem intent to make known the UAE’s relative youth – “some of our parents were born before the UAE became a country,” one social media post said – vis-à-vis the Hope probe’s impending orbital capture. It’s worth noting here that three prominent American universities were involved in putting the probe together. The Emirati monarchy may see reason to be proud here, considering the sort of internationalism they’ve been fond of promoting in Dubai, but the celebrations rooted in the UAE’s age (50 years) would be misplaced in turn. If anything, the UAE may demonstrate that in some particular enterprises of the 21st century, achieving great things needn’t have anything to do with national longevity – and in fact may benefit more from a political leadership able to do what it pleases.

Featured image credit: NASA.

Pandemic: Science > politics?

By Mukunth and Madhusudhan Raman

Former Union health secretary K. Sujatha Rao had a great piece in The Indian Express on January 14, whose takeaway she summarised in the following line:

Science, evidence and data analytics need to be the bedrock of the roll-out policy, not politics and scoring brownie points for electoral advantages.

However, we can’t help but be reminded of the difference between what should be and what will be. We all (at least those of us who have been on the same side since 2014) know what should be. But as we’ve seen with the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 and most recently the farm laws, our present government doesn’t change its mind.

In the last example, the Supreme Court intervened to stay the laws’ implementation but the mediation committee it put together somehow wound up with most members being known to be sympathetic to the government’s position. So what will be, will be – and this is likely to be true vis-à-vis Covaxin as well.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already guaranteed as much by determining to foot the cost of 5.5 million doses of Covaxin using the PM CARES fund, which lies beyond public oversight. The Central Drug Standards Control Organisation also played its part by pushing through Covaxin’s approval on terms no one has heard of – and which no one can therefore falsify.

However, this isn’t a pitch for a nihilist position. When Sujatha Rao writes that the government should prize science, evidence and data more than politics and elections, she is right – but we must also ask why. The government has clear incentives to prioritise politics. By thrusting Bharat Biotech – Covaxin’s maker – to the forefront, Modi can claim his ‘Atma Nirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ schemes have been successful. Also, two important state elections are around the corner: West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

These are issues that people, but especially ‘Middle Indians’, have an eye on and according to which they vote. The government has also said it is approving Covaxin because it is concerned with the ‘UK variant’. While no reason can be good enough to justify the use of a vaccine candidate in the population sans data from phase 3 clinical trials, the government has effectively set up Covaxin to be failure-proof: if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it becomes the fault of the variant.

Taken together, Modi’s biggest mistake here is criminal negligence – for pushing Covaxin in the absence of efficacy data (which leads to a cascade of ethical dilemmas) – especially since there are fewer questions over Covaxin’s safety. And negligence is a difficult case to stick to this party or in fact to many people.

Granted, public-spirited science teachers, communicators and journalists can take it upon themselves (ourselves) to persuade readers as to why Covaxin’s approval is really bad – that though everything may turn out okay, it sets a terrible precedent for what this government is allowed to do, how such unchecked power may wreak deadly havoc in future crises, and ultimately that we become a people okay with settling for less, increasingly blind to the banal incrementalism of evil.

In fact, if the mainstream press manages to forget concerns about vaccine apartheid within the country, the dominant narrative as the vaccine roll-out is a few months in is going to be: “India is doing just fine, thank you very much.”

But while the Modi government’s actions may only be negligent – albeit criminally so – in the domains of public healthcare and ‘scientific temper’, they amount to something more egregious if we include the political dimensions of our present moment as well.

None of this means words like those of Sujatha Rao are unnecessary. We need to never forget what should be, and we need to keep protesting for our own sakes. (“Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.” – Zeynep Tufekci) If we don’t, this government might pretend even less than it currently does that it is following some rules or guidelines from time to time.

However, limiting our exhortations to insist at every turn that “science is more important than politics during a pandemic” risks playing down the importance and influence of political motivations altogether – as well as assuming that the state machinery will automatically give way to scientific ones when lives are at stake.

A politician’s principal responsibility is not to govern but to win elections; good governance is a means to this electoral end. And the way people have voted for many decades attests to the reality of this incentive. While this claim may not be palatable from a theoretical point of view, consider it empirically: the Indian government has seldom responded to national crises to the detriment of potential electoral gains. Examples of such crises include the 1962, 1971 and 1999 conflicts, the nuclear tests and economic liberalisation. During the Emergency, the government itself embodied this crisis.

More recently, numerous ministers and diplomats urged the India and Pakistan governments to find diplomatic solutions after the Pulwama attack and also after the questionable Balakot airstrike, in early 2019. In previous years, they had been preceded by the disagreeable events of Aadhaar implementation, demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. But Modi and his fellows won by a bigger margin in 2019 than they had five years earlier.

This happened partly because his success in elections rests on his impression as the Strongman of India, so his resolutions of choice involve flashy displays of strength and machismo.

Against this background: we need to admit political factors into the conversations we – rather, experts like health policymakers, heads of institutions, epidemiologists, healthcare workers, etc. – have from the beginning, instead of ruing the inevitable influence of politics later, so that we may anticipate it and take advantage of it.

For example, consider the conversation surrounding academic publishing. Academics perform most of the work that goes into publishing an academic paper (research, writing and reviewing). Publishing houses add only marginal value to journals – yet publishers charge exorbitant fees to access the results of publicly funded research once it is published. This is unfair, and many academics have said so.

However, the fact that publishing conglomerates are publicly traded companies whose primary responsibility is to generate profits for their shareholders finds little mention in conversations. In this case, the publishers’ profit-seeking motives are fundamental to the problem at hand – but are often disregarded in the first analysis (what should be) and subsequently bemoaned (what will be). For this to happen once is tragic; for it to repeat itself every few months is wasteful.

Similarly, the nationwide lockdown from March to July 2020 served a political purpose: it was a grand gesture, decisive, appealing to ‘Middle Indians’, in addition to supplying the government a pretext to disband protests against the CAA and the NRC. Just before the lockdown, the public conversation had been centred on what the government should be doing. However, most scientists and economists didn’t engage with the political dimension of this decision.

If we had, we may not have been side-tracked into conversations about weekend curfew versus night curfew, or cash transfers versus vouchers, etc. We would perhaps have recognised that our responsibility is not to operate within the parameters set by the government (“How effective was the lockdown?”) but instead recognise that the government’s decisions are politically motivated – so we can ask “Why lock down in the first place?”

Poverty, psychology and pseudoscience

From the abstract of ‘Why Do People Stay Poor? Evidence on Poverty Traps from Rural Bangladesh’, November 24, 2020:

There are two broad views as to why people stay poor. One emphasizes differences in fundamentals, such as ability, talent or motivation. The other, poverty traps view, differences in opportunities stemming from differences in wealth. We exploit a large-scale, randomized asset transfer and panel data on 6000 households over an 11 year period to test between these two views. The data supports the poverty traps view — we identify a threshold level of initial assets above which households accumulate assets, take on better occupations and grow out of poverty. The reverse happens for those below the threshold.

In the resulting worldview this ‘condition’ imposes on people, it’s tempting to see justification for the existence of pseudoscientific enterprises like astrology. Actually, a faith-based binary like ‘requiring faith’ v. ‘not requiring faith’ may be more appropriate here than a science-based binary (‘scientific’ v. ‘unscientific’), if only to emphasise the presence of faith here over the absence of scientific reasoning. So that is, while I can’t ascertain a causal relationship between conditions like the poverty trap and opaque practices like astrology, there’s enough of a correlation here to understand astrology et al as the means by which people rationalise their shared predicament – a predicament that refuses to be allayed by their own efforts.

For example, astrology could provide social, mental and moral incentives for individuals to believe – without having to know – that they were denied any opportunities because ‘their time isn’t right’ and/or that they will continue to luck out, while social realities instead of the alignment of their stars will ensure this is true in some measure. Such faith could also subdue or redirect individuals’ anger or sense of wrongdoing at forces beyond their control, creating ground for social conditions that tolerate oppression more than it ought to be.

Another observation this paper brings to mind is from the work of Sendhil Mullainathan, among others. Researchers from various fields have reported differences in the way poor people make decisions, compared to those who aren’t poor – as if they were less intelligent. However, this perception arises from a sort of cognitive John-Henryism: that is, just as disadvantaged members of society – like Black people in the US – can incur a physical toll imposed by the need to fight for their rights, poor people incur a cognitive toll brought on by the limited availability of resources and the short-lived nature of good fortune.

This doesn’t mean poor people become or are less intelligent, or anything nonsensical like that. Instead, it means poor people’s priorities are different – for example the need for discounts on products, and to maximise absolute savings over percentage savings – in a way that those who aren’t poor may not find optimal for their needs, and that more tasks compete for their attention when they are short on the resources required to execute all of them. As Alice Walton wrote for the Chicago Booth Review in 2018,

In the Wheel of Fortune–style game, the researchers [including Mullainathan] measured how cognitively fatigued the players became. Logic would predict that rich players would be more fatigued, since they were allowed more turns to make more guesses. Instead, the researchers observed that poor players, having received fewer tries to guess at the answers, were more fatigued, having put more effort into each guess.

In an Angry Birds–style game in which people tried to shoot targets, rich players were given more chances to train a virtual slingshot on a target. Poor players, given fewer attempts, spent longer lining up their shots, and many scored more points per shot than rich players. For all the extra shots rich players had, they didn’t do as well, proportionally. “It seems that to understand the psychology of scarcity, we must also appreciate the psychology of abundance. If scarcity can engage us too much, abundance might engage us too little,” the researchers write.

This toll subsequently compromises future choices, and effectively installs another barrier, or trap, in front of people trying to go from being poor in one resource – money, in poverty’s case – to being rich. Walton offers a few examples of policymakers building on these findings to devise better schemes and improve uptake.

In India, where sugarcane farmers are paid annually after the harvest, farmers’ attention scores were the equivalent of 10 IQ points higher than just before the harvest, when farmers were relatively poor, according to data from the 2013 Science study

Offering subsidies or other incentives when people are more receptive to and have the spare capacity to consider them, such as after a harvest or a payday, may make a difference over the long run. One effort, in Tanzania, asked people to sign up for health insurance at cashpoint locations right after payday, and the timing led to a 20 percentage point increase in health-insurance use.

Introducing cognitive aids can help address the limited capacity for attention that may constrain people in poverty. In one study, it helped to show farmers research regarding the most productive ways to plant their crops. When poor, stressed, and in a scarcity mind-set, farmers had a harder time taking in the information. “This result has nothing to do with the intelligence of the farmers,” writes Bryan’s team. “A fact is only obvious if the observer has the spare attentional capacity to notice it.”

I wonder if the converse could also be true: that when homeopaths, phytotherapists, many Ayurveda practitioners and other quack healers offer dubious ways out of difficult healthcare situations, people who are short on attentional space could be likelier to buy into them in order to free up space for other tasks. If so, governments and activists may also need to consider fighting superstition and pseudoscience in healthcare by ensuring more legitimate outcomes – like visiting the local clinic or being able to procure a given drug – require as little cognitive bandwidth as possible.

The overlay bias

I’m not very fond of some highly popular pieces of writing (I won’t name them because I’m nervous about backlash from authors and/or their supporters) because a part of their popularity is undeniably rooted in technological ‘solutions’ that asymmetrically promote work published in the solution’s country of origin.

My favourite example is Pocket, the app that allows users to save copies of articles to read later, offline if required. Not long ago, Pocket introduced an extension for the Google Chrome browser (which counts hundreds of millions of users) such that every time you opened a new tab, it would show you three articles lots of other Pocket users have read and liked. It’s fairly brainless, ergo presumably non-malicious, and you’d expect the results to be distributed equally from among magazines, journals, etc. published around the world.

However, nine times out of ten – but often more – I’d find articles by NYT, The Atlantic, The Baffler, etc. there. I was reluctant to blame Pocket at first, considering their algorithm seemed too simple, but then I realised Pocket was just the last in a long line of other apps and algorithms that simply amplified existing biases.

Before Pocket, for example, there might have been Twitter, Facebook or some other platform that allowed stories from some domains (,, etc.) to persist for longer on users’ feeds because they were more easily perceived to be legitimate than articles from other sources, say, a Venezuelan newspaper, a Kenyan blog, a Pakistani magazine or a Vietnamese journal. Or there might have been Nuzzle, which auto-compiles a digest of articles that others your friends on the social media have shared most – likely unmindful of the fact that people quite often share headlines, or domains they’d like to be known to be reading, instead of the articles themselves.

This is a social magnification like the biological magnification in nature, whereby toxic substances pile up in greater quantities in the gizzards of animals higher up in the food chain. Here, perceptions of legitimacy and quality accumulate in greater quantities in the feeds and timelines of people who consume, or even glance through, the most information. And this way, a general consciousness of what’s considered desirable erects itself without anything drastic, with just the more fleeting and mindless actions of millions of people, into a giant wheel of information distribution that constantly feeds itself its own momentum.

As the wheel turns, and The Atlantic publishes an article, it doesn’t just publish a good article that draws hundreds of thousands of readers. It also rides a wheel set in motion by American readers, American companies, American developers, American interests and American dollars, with a dollop of historical imperialism, that quietly but surely brings the world a good article plus a good-natured reminder that The Atlantic is good and that readers needn’t go looking for anything else because The Atlantic has them covered.

As I wondered in 2017, and still do: “Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers tech stack?” Then again, how much is one more amplifier, Pocket or anything else, going to change?

I went into this tirade because of this Twitter thread, which describes a similar issue with arXiv – the popular preprint repo for physical sciences, computer science and applied mathematics papers (don’t @ me to quibble over arXiv’s actual remit). As the tweeter Jia-Bin Huang writes, the manuscripts that were uploaded last – i.e. most recently – to arXiv are displayed on top of the output stack, and what’s displayed on top of the stack gets more citations and readership.

This is a very simple algorithm, quite like Pocket’s algorithm, but in both cases they’re algorithms overlaid on existing bias-amplifying architectures. In a sense, they’re akin to the people who might stand by and watch a lynching, neither egging the perpetrators on nor stopping them. If the metaphor is brutal, remember that the effects on any publication or scientist that can’t infiltrate or ‘hack’ social biases are brutal as well. While their contents and their ideas might deserve international readership, these publications and scientists will need to spend more – energy, resources, effort – to grab international attention again and again.

The example Jia-Bin Huang cites is of scientists in Asia, who – unlike their American counterparts – can’t upload a paper on arXiv just before the deadline so that their papers sit on top of the stack because 2 pm in New York is 3 am in Taipei.

As some replies to the thread indicated, the people maintaining arXiv can easily solve the problem by waiting for the deadline to pass, then randomising the order of papers displayed in its email blast – but as Jia-Bin Huang notes, doing that would mean negating the just-in-time advantage that arXiv’s American users enjoy. So here we are.

It isn’t hard to see how we can extend the same suggestion to the world’s Pockets and Nuzzles. Pick your millions of users’ thousand most-read articles, mix up their order – even weigh down popular American publishers if necessary – and finally advertise the first ten items from this list. But ultimately, until technological solutions actively negate the biases they overlie, Pocket will lie on the same spectrum as the tools that produce the biases. I admit fact-checking in this paradigm could be labour-intensive, as could relevance-checking vis-à-vis arXiv, but I also think the latter would be better problems to solve.