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Annoying Questions #1: Pandemics, Protests, Prizes & Peer Review

I’m trying out something new for the Friday emails for the rest of the Northern Hemisphere summer. Let me know what you think of it.

Do Women Leaders Really Do Pandemics Better?

Hilda Bastian reports in WIRED that we don’t have the evidence yet — and science “won’t solve gender bias with more bias.”

Why Do Some Protests Work & Others Don’t?

The sociologist Zeynep Tufecki says “maybe,” if they’re high-effort and high-risk and don’t get repressed and undermine power’s legitimacy by moving the Overton window and (most of all) creating generational cultural shifts through what research calls the “biographical impact” of activism. Her essay for The Atlantic is a cook’s tour through recent protests over the last decade, both in the United States and elsewhere, applying her framework but with no reference to any research outside of that last link.

Social scientist Shom Mazumder takes the opposite approach for FiveThirtyEight — combing the political science literature on whether, for instance, violent protests “yield outcomes that achieve a movement’s goals” better than nonviolent ones, or what impact protests can have on elections. It’s fair to say he lands on “maybe” as well, although it’s a “maybe” based in individual variables looked at by individual studies, rather than the needle-threading narrative Tufecki lays out for success.

To my mind, Tufecki’s “maybe” is far more useful because it’s a narrative — a recipe, a map and a guidebook to the contingencies that so easily derail protest movements, all in one. But — maybe — that’s also the distorting power of narrative: In the service of momentum, it sands off all the rough edges of research-based uncertainty.

Virus Questions

Maggie Koerth examines why the culture is shifting around mask-wearing even though the science hasn’t.

Aaron Carroll asks why public health messaging continues to be such a mess. (Interesting that he couldn’t place this piece in a media outlet and had to post it on his blog, The Incidental Economist. Yet another reason it’s good to have a blog.)

Why won’t COVID-19 help turn the tide on global emissions? Because, according to a new report from DNV GL(HT: Axios), we would need the impact of a COVID-19 on emissions every year to reach the Paris 1.5-degree C target. (Below: Axios rendering of DNV GL chart on bending emissions curves.)

Why does the percentage of US adults very closely following news about COVID-19 continue to drop? It’s now less (for the moment) than the percentage of US adults who approve of Donald Trump’s job performance, and nearly the same percentage say the COVID-19 outbreak was planned by people in power. (Full survey from Pew.)

What Might Make Everyone Stop Slagging off on Sci-Hub?


Do Red Team Challenges Really Work? And Could They Replace Peer Review?

A Red Team, of course, is a team of bounty hunters you pay to find errors in your manuscript before you submit it. Nicholas Coles and his collaborators paid a Red Team $3,000 and loved it and writes about the experience for The 100 CI, extolling “the power of such a critical and thorough approach to detecting errors in science.” That blog also ran pieces on what it’s like to be a neutral arbiter in a Red Team Challenge (examining the bugs the Red Team found to see if they’re worth addressing) as well as whether Red Teams are feasible in practice. Money quote from the arbiter, Ruben Arslan:

One thing that struck me though, was the contrast with typical peer review. It seems to me that most peer-reviewers follow a low-effort strategy (e.g., suggesting many robustness checks, some of which are certain not to make a substantial difference, or a suspicion without laying out a path how they might be reassured). My sense is that many authors have had the experience that reviewer comments are a mixed bag of crucial issues, “nice-to-haves”, annoying idiosyncrasies, and flat out wrong comments. This is part of my frustration with peer review and a reason why I doubt that peer review always improves a paper.

Why Does the Kitchen of 2020 Look Much Like the Kitchen of 1970 (Except for No Avocado Paint)?

“Scientific and technological progress has been sputtering for a while,” argues Tim Harford. Why? In part, he says, because we’ve abandoned innovation prizes for things like vaccines that aren’t normally profitable.

Why on Earth Did This Study Get Covered?

A study, that is, suggesting people who watch movies with apocalyptic storylines are better prepared for actual pandemics. In review. Thanks, Guardian.

What Do a Dead Great White Shark, the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and COVID-19 Have in Common?

Michael Lewis knows.