These are the science concepts you need to know to understand political life in 2017
Akshat Rathi, Corinne Purtill, Elijah Wolfson, Zoë Schlanger, Katherine Ellen Foley
It’s early days of 2017 still, but already it’s become apparent that this year science will play a larger role in public discourse than it has in the past, at least in the US. The scientific community has found itself at odds with the new White House administration in countless ways, and is gearing up for a fight that will take place in labs and hacker spaces, in the halls of civic buildings, and in streets nationwide.
The move science is making from the ivory tower to the polis is not limited to the US; labs across the world are already taking in scientists made homeless (in the institutional sense) by Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And since Trump’s policies will inevitably impact global concerns ranging from climate change to the free movement of scientists who rely on cross-border collaborations, we should expect to see science take on a more political flavor all across the world in 2017.
Quartz has put together a compendium of the scientific concepts and terms that will be at the heart of these conversations—and will characterize the world of scientific discovery through the rest of the year.
“Skepticism,” according to the Skeptic Society, “is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed.” Reason in this context is the scientific kind. Skeptics don’t take claims at face value. They demand proof in the form of concrete evidence and replicable results. In that sense, every scientist is a skeptic.
In a political era rife with linguistic manipulation, the word has been co-opted to mean its opposite: a person who denies the evidence in front of them, whether on climate change or vaccines. In the Orwellian, fact-fudging world of the US president Donald Trump administration, this trend will only get worse. Skepticism is a willingness to evenly assess the scientific evidence available. It is not and never was denial of the truth. “I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe,” one prominent skeptic wrote, “but because I want to know.”
At this point, the reality of the US opioid epidemic is widely accepted across the political spectrum. Toward the end of 2016, Congress committed $1 billion to fight a growing public health problem affecting 2 million Americans and causing 33,000 overdose deaths a year as of 2015. But reversing the often-fatal course of addiction will be far more difficult than, say, stopping the spread of Zika, because the opioid problem is not rooted in a microscopic enemy virus that can be isolated and identified. Instead, it frequently starts with compassion.
Iatrogenesis, Greek for “brought forth by the healer,” is a useful term to keep in mind when thinking about the opioid epidemic—and when assessing the state of health care more broadly. The phrase refers to any negative health effect on a person resulting from doctors or other health care workers promoting or applying services as beneficial to their health. That’s a mouthful, but it’s the perfect explanation of how the opioid epidemic came to be: A patient in pain they can’t explain comes to an overworked doctor who prescribes the miracle drug that makes everyone’s problems go away, and then another addict is made.
It’s not just an opioid problem, either. By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the US—and it has nothing to do with incompetence, laziness, or malevolence. Instead, it’s the result of doctors applying medical practices they think will work, but don’t. So the real health care question of 2017 is this: how do you solve a problem like iatrogenesis?
Social cost of carbon
It’s been hailed as the “most important number you’ve not heard of.” Simply put, the social cost of carbon is the measure of economic damage that each ton of carbon dioxide causes to society. The US government puts the price today at $36 per ton. But estimates for it range from as little as $6 to as much as $250 per ton.
Another way to think about the social cost of carbon is as an environmental insurance policy. If carbon emitters pony up money for the emissions they put out, high-emission products are priced at the value that they should be based on, i.e. the amount of harm those emissions cause to common resources like air and water that we all use.
You’ve already heard this term bandied around by Trump. And he is likely to keep bandying it around for quite some time. Clean coal is not a thing, it’s a process. When coal is burnt, it releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Clean-coal technology captures the carbon dioxide and buries it underground or puts it to some use.
So far, carbon capture and storage, also called CCS, hasn’t taken off because it’s too expensive for commercial viability. But if the Trump administration is willing to admit climate change is real, and buys into the idea of a carbon tax—which takes into account the social cost of carbon, and which other Republicans are loudly supporting—it could make clean coal a realistic possibility.
The field of genetics has come a long way, and very quickly. We discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, and now we can manipulate it to create plants with exquisite properties, pig-human hybrids, and genetically modified babies. Next up: outsmarting evolution through a new technology called gene drives.
Normally, an organism has a 50% chance of inheriting any given gene from each of its parents. But certain genes can increase their own chances of being inherited. Scientists are developing techniques to exploit this natural trick and enhance it. If they are successful (and pass stringent ethics tests), we could use gene drives to wipe out whole species of mosquitoes. But as with any powerful technology, it’s also possible to use gene drives to do ill.
The human genome has 3 billion letters, and they’re 10 million times smaller than a human hair. To change only a handful of the letters to manipulate DNA requires extraordinary precision. That’s where CRISPR comes in. The term stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and it’s the most precise cut-and-paste genetic tool ever developed.
The reason it works so well is that it’s based on a naturally developed tool that bacteria have been using to fight off viruses for billions of years. That means evolution has had its sweet time to hone it into a near-perfect biological mechanism. Ever since CRISPR was first published in scientific literature, geneticists around the world have flocked to use it.
In 2016, researchers announced a precision-gene-editing alternative to CRISPR, called NgAgo, that appeared to be even more precise. But so far, attempts to replicate the process have failed.
Nature Biotechnology, which published the initial findings, said it would give the research team the opportunity to investigate and respond to criticisms by January 2017. However, on Jan. 19, the journal said it would postpone any final announcement. Meanwhile, a large Danish biotech firm announced it would be backing the Chinese university lab that had reportedly used NgAgo successfully.
When scrolling through Twitter, do you reflexively retweet things affirming what you already know? When thinking back on a relationship turned sour, is it easy to see in hindsight the comments and slights revealing the other person’s true character? If so, you’re guilty of confirmation bias. But don’t feel bad. We all are.
Faced with a bombardment of environmental data, our brains make constant unconscious judgments about what’s worth our attention. Confirmation bias is the flaw in our reasoning that impels us to seek information that supports our beliefs and discount or ignore that which doesn’t. It’s a constant presence in our politics, media, and personal relationships.
When it comes to science, confirmation bias can lead to flawed research and disastrous results. It’s the reason doctors are prone to overlook symptoms that undermine their diagnoses, or researchers dismiss as errors results that don’t support their hypotheses.
IPFS (InterPlanetary File System)
Each time you click on an HTTP link, your browser has to establish a connection with the physical servers where that website stores its information, wherever they are in the world. That’s costly, slow, and ultimately very fragile—if a single link between your computer and a far-away server breaks, the information transfer fails. It also makes both censorship and inadvertent erasure very easy; take down the HTTP link, or simply stop paying for your server space, and suddenly that information drops out of the web and becomes inaccessible.
The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a relatively new idea to radically remake the internet into a peer-to-peer distributed web. Instead of relying on an origin server to house and transfer data, IPFS would make it possible to permanently store a copy of that data—effectively turning your computer into another host server. When you click on a link, the data within it would be stored permanently, resulting in copies of data on many computers that can be retrieved easily. Pages would be labeled with a fingerprint-like “cryptographic hash,” or a long string of numbers and letters, that would make it easily identifiable as a legitimate copy of the original data. If anything changes on the page, so does the hash.
Right now, programmers and archivists are scrambling to download government data for fear that the Trump administration might alter it, or take it offline. But even in “rescuing” that data, the most the programmers can do is upload the data back onto one (or at best, a few) origin servers. But IPFS would change that; just as hundreds of libraries may have a copy of the same book, many servers could have a legitimate copy of the file containing a data set—so there would be thousands of servers hosting that information in a legitimate form, not just one. And that information could be retrieved easily from the nearest source by anyone looking for it.
During the contentious Senate confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, careful observers might have heard the acronym “PFOA” name-checked by a Republican senator from West Virginia. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, an ingredient in Teflon, and its sister compound, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid or PFOS, a widely used flame retardant, have been in the spotlight lately. That’s because the cancer-causing toxins keep turning up in drinking water supplies of US towns and cities.
As with roughly 80,000 other chemicals approved for use in the US, PFOA is not currently regulated by the EPA—so state or local governments aren’t required to test for them. But after years of debate and a major scientific report connecting PFOA to two cancers and several other serious diseases, the EPA was rumored to want to start regulating the toxin this year—but that was before Trump became president. Now his promises to gut the EPA leave that and all other public health regulation up in the air.
When introduced in the early 1990s, this class of pesticides was hailed as a godsend. Neonicotinoids were just as effective at protecting crops as then-popular organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, but with none of the toxic impact that the latter had on birds and mammals, including humans. Then we started to realize they had been harming us all along—just in a way hidden from view.
Neonicotinoids, it turned out, were culpable in the bee colony collapse disorder that became a global trend. The crisis isn’t bad just for the insects; bees and other pollinating insects are key cogs in the planetary food chain. Honeybees alone pollinate one-third of US crop species.
Over the past few years, the EPA has been reviewing the scientific literature on all approved neonicotinoids.; both the EPA and the EU’s environmental regulator were expected to make final decisions in 2017 about whether or not the substances should be banned. But under an industry-friendly Trump administration, the EPA’s recent work to regulate these chemicals could be scuttled.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) began with the dawn of the space age, but the effort has long remained on the fringes of science. That’s changing, though, because many years of investment in astronomy and imaging technology are finally paying off.
“It’s like we’ve gone from looking down a drinking straw while using older generations of telescope to using a full-picture IMAX camera with the newer telescopes,” says Steve Croft, a radio astronomer at the Berkeley SETI Research Center. That means, as early as this year, a lot of new phenomena will be found that will need explaining by scientists. ■