The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Too much Oprah

I watched the new HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t much care for it. I very much liked the book, enough that I’ve made it assigned reading in some of my classes, but I wouldn’t use the movie in the same way. And, weirdly, what I consider a serious failing of the movie is considered a strength by other reviewers. Here’s Variety, for instance:

The HBO movie about this trio [Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Lacks] makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.)

See that last sentence? That covers in its entirety all of the science in the movie, completely. If you want to learn more about HeLa cells and their history and use in the laboratory, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, there are a few brief vignettes scattered here and there, but otherwise, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about the ethics (or lack thereof) of biomedical research, it’s alluded to, but otherwise, it’s not here. This is all about Oprah and her Emmy-deserving performance.

It’s not just me. Vulture, USA Today, The Ringer, LA Times, Time, and basically everyone who has reviewed it, says the same thing: Oprah was excellent, and she stole the show. I agree. But I think that’s a shame.

If you want to see a movie with some fine acting, with an impressive character study, with a singular character who sucks all the air out of the room when she’s on screen (which she is, most of the time), then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO is the show for you, enjoy it for what it is. If you want a richer, more complicated story of the intersection between science and culture and how it affects one larger family, then read the book…which, I notice, is out in a new edition with a new cover that replaces the photograph of Henrietta Lacks with a close-up of Oprah, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the movie.

More criticism of Neuralink

Antonio Relagado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review, isn’t too impressed with Elon Musk’s claims for Neuralink. In particular, he explains that the 8-10 year time line for the first available implants is absurd and impossible.

Let’s deal with Musk’s time line first. A brain implant is a medical device that requires neurosurgery. Proving that it works requires a stepwise series of experiments that each takes years, starting in rats or monkeys.

Here’s a time line from the real world: a company called NeuroPace was started in 1997 to develop an implant that controls epileptic seizures. It actually senses a seizure coming and zaps your brain to stop it. The device got approved in 2013—16 years later. And that was for a very serious medical condition in which brain surgery is common.

Putting an implant in healthy people? That would require extraordinary evidence of safety. And that’s hard to picture, because as soon as you open someone’s head you put that person’s life at risk. We at MIT Technology Review know of only one case of a healthy person getting a brain implant: a crazy stunt undertaken in Central America by a scientist trying to do research on himself. It caused life-threatening complications.

Musk doesn’t seem to be considering the ethical problems at all. It’s cool tech, but I wouldn’t let anyone stick wires in my brain unless it was to treat a serious medical problem with tested procedures.

So it’s not crazy to believe there could be some very interesting brain-computer interfaces in the future. But that future is not as close at hand as Musk would have you believe. One reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure. Another is that technology for safely recording from more than a hundred neurons at once—neural dust, neural lace, optical arrays that thread through your blood vessels—remains mostly at the blueprint stage.

So what facts am I missing? What makes it even remotely okay that Musk and Facebook are promising the public telepathy within a few short years?

We criticize religions for making false promises without evidence; we imprison people for bilking people out of money on false pretenses; so yes, I agree, why do we give billionaire industrialists a pass when they make secular claims that don’t stand a chance in hell of coming true, and when they do it on behalf of profit-making companies?

Students! Demanding weird pronouns! OFFENDED!

I was asked if I listened to this interview with Peter Boghossian.

No! I had not! Thanks for asking!

But, out of morbid curiosity, I did click on the link. I even listened to it for 15 minutes, in sick fascination.

He’s very annoyed that students ask him to address them by their preferred pronouns. How dare they! This is the problem with The Left nowadays, they take offense at everything, and are actively looking for excuses to be offended. It’s ridiculous that we professors are expected to master the impossible, arcane skill of talking to students appropriately.

Boghossian must be incredibly stupid, because I’ve found that it’s really easy — the harder task is to remember all those names, and when I’ve got 50 students in a class, it sometimes takes the entire term before I’ve got them all straight. Pronouns are trivial. If I could address everyone as he, she, they, or “hey, you”, it would be so easy to sail through the semester, never bothering to recognize students as individuals. It’s even easier to adapt to these pronoun requests because most students are gender-conforming and wearing clothing that signals their gender identity, and it’s only a few exceptions that you have to consider…and again, it’s no big deal, no more difficult than recognizing that Student A needs help with statistics, Student B did really well on the last test but is struggling in organic chemistry, Student C is looking for a chance to do summer research. Student D wants to be addressed by “they, them”? No problem.

Boghossian doesn’t get it. He seems to think students are his enemy, and that this is all a leftist tactic to make him suffer. Try a different point of view, guy: maybe your students are looking for respect, and would like you to recognize that they have a history and a context and opinions and needs and desires, too, and would appreciate that being acknowledged. Maybe they’re not looking to be offended, but are already tired of being treated as faceless, interchangeable tuition-paying blobs, who are expected to conform to your expectation that they will readily fit into two and only two boxes.

I had to stop listening after a quarter hour, though, because he started complaining about how these pronoun issues are taking away from his valuable class time, and important issues like establishing his seating chart (???) for the class.

P.S. I’ll mention this because I know it will infuriate self-identified Classical Liberals like Boghossian. One simple tip I got at my conference at Howard Hughes Medical Institute was a suggestion to help foster more inclusion: professors should include their preferred pronouns in their syllabi. I had never thought of that, because of course I am an obvious male figure who would be addressed as “he/him”, and then I realized…yep, that’s my privilege talking, that I’m your standard male-conforming American citizen, and the only “of course” in this situation is that I assume the minority will have to take the effort to explain things to me, while I will benefit from the default assumptions.

So naturally, as a craven leftist, I’m going to follow the recommendation of a major granting authority and take 5 seconds to type in “Preferred pronouns: he/him” into all of my syllabi next term. I know, it’s a disgraceful submission that will snatch away so much time that I could have spent teaching cell biology or evolution, but hey, I’m taking the long view that respecting student identities will actually help them learn. And if I slip up, and a student needs to correct me, I won’t take it as a conspiracy by the Left to attack me, but will thank them for helping me improve my awareness of who they are.

P.P.S. Remember when people got all outraged at the introduction of “Ms.”? It was very important to know whether a woman was a “Miss” or a “Mrs.”, for some reason, but we didn’t have to make any such distinctions within the category of “Mr.”

Goddamn police

Fire these cops.

Five twelve-year-old kids walking home from a basketball game; a policeman pulls up, opens his car door, and immediately pulls a gun on them and tells them to get on the ground. Nobody gets shot this time, fortunately, but it’s hard to watch — those poor kids are initially confused, and then terrified, and you get to hear them crying and wailing in fear as the brave police officer calmly and politely threatens them with death.

The kids were in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. They tell a distraught parent afterwards “you have to understand our position as well”. Yeah, I understand your position very well, you cowardly motherfucker: you are confident that you have the right to use deadly force against unarmed children, if you even have the slightest suspicion that they might be “bad guys”. They were “just doing their job”. They completely fail to understand the perspective of others. One mother summarizes the situation perfectly: “Y’all didn’t see a gun but y’all pulled a gun on my kids”. The earnest certainty of the police officers is galling — they absolutely think they are in the right, but they threatened children with a gun.

Treat these cops the same way they would be treated if they pulled this shit on white kids in a white suburban neighborhood — you know they’d be off the force in a flash, and the chief of police would be getting savaged in the press for incompetent management.

This is unacceptable.

Strangely, the political position that accepts science is favored by scientists

Robert Tracinski writes for The Federalist, so you know where this is going to go — that site is a wretched hive of right-wing woo. He has a weird way of praising Carl Sagan, saying that he liked the guy but he ruined science because he poisoned it with liberalism. Unfortunately for his thesis, he can’t even get the science right.

“Cosmos” is an interesting intellectual time capsule, because it was broadcast just at the point when predictions of global environmental catastrophe were tipping between global cooling and global warming. So he presented the two as equally likely scenarios that required further study (and, of course, massive government funding).

Incorrect. Completely missing the point. Also a common talking point among ignoramuses that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. They weren’t. The denialists are often confused (probably intentionally so) because Sagan also wrote about the “nuclear winter” scenario, the idea that a nuclear war would throw so many particulates into the atmosphere that it would reduce solar warming, or that industrial pollution would do likewise. You can read Sagan’s original essay on climate change from Cosmos. He’s pretty clear on the problem.

Like Venus, the Earth also has a greenhouse effect due to its carbon dioxide and water vapor. The global temperature of the Earth would be below the freezing point of water if not for the greenhouse effect. It keeps the oceans liquid and life possible. A little greenhouse is a good thing. Like Venus, the Earth also has about 90 atmospheres of carbon dioxide; but it resides in the crust as limestone and other carbonates, not in the atmosphere. If the Earth were moved only a little closer to the Sun, the temperature would increase slightly. This would drive some of the CO2 out of the surface rocks, generating a stronger greenhouse effect, which would in turn incrementally heat the surface further. A hotter surface would vaporize still more carbonates into CO2, and there would be the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect to very high temperatures. This is just what we think happened in the early history of Venus, because of Venus’ proximity to the Sun. The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.

The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long- term effects of our course of action.

He also discusses the possibility that changes in human land use would change the planet’s albedo, reflecting more light into space, leading to cooling. That scenario is not winning out, obviously. But critically, what you should take away from the essay is that human activities are changing the global climate — he’s making a case for anthropogenic climate change. I don’t see a demand for “massive government funding” in the essay, by the way.

Tracinski is only complaining about Sagan because he wants to complain about the March for Science, though. It’s political — shock, horror — but worse, it doesn’t support his politics.

All you really need to know about the “March for Science” is that it is scheduled for Earth Day. The organizers may say the march is nonpartisan and has a variety of goals, but it’s mostly just about global warming. It’s not just about whether global warming is actually happening, or whether it is caused by human activity, but about a specific political program for dealing with global warming.

To be sure, there are other goals involved in the march and some contention, even among the organizers, about the extent to which the march should embrace causes like “diversity.” So the goals run the gamut from the left to the far-left. And that’s the problem. The “March for Science” is an attempt to equate the Left’s political goals with Science Itself, claiming the intellectual and moral authority of science for the Left’s agenda.

Let us consider some simple logic here.

Science is a process for learning from empirical evidence. The evidence was weaker in 1980, so citing a 37 year old book to cast doubt on modern evidence is dishonest and denies the progressive accumulation of knowledge.

Climate change is happening. It’s real. It’s now an inescapable conclusion from the evidence.

These changes will require a response, because they will have economic, political, and social consequences. That is, reality has effects, science can measure and predict those effects, so science is necessarily intertwined with politics.

Conservatives deny the science. This will have political ramifications. Ignoring a problem rarely has good outcomes.

Liberals accept the science (at least in this case: there are others where it doesn’t). This is the only reason science currently has a liberal bias — because the right-wing is opposing the facts. The Left has aligned itself with reality, while the Right is rejecting it.

Which will bend, the way your politics works, or the way the laws of nature operate? In that battle, politics is the one that will break, and I wouldn’t mind seeing wingnuts butt heads with reality, except that they’re going to drag the rest of us down with them in their futile efforts to distort the truth to conform to their biases.

I’ll also mention that the way Tracinski put “diversity” in quotes is also telling — he’s one of those who resents the growth of science beyond the domain of only white men, so diversity is nothing he wants to celebrate. Too bad. Reality is also going to smack that attitude around. Charles Pierce has a few words on the March for Science.

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

To no one’s surprise, Robert Tracinski is an older white male, one who touts his appearances on Limbaugh and the O’Reilly shows. Why does my demographic have to be so heavily populated with entitled assnuggets?

Oh, no, the Science Communications Debate is starting up again

Here we go again, with communications experts lecturing scientists on how to better reach their audience. While we appreciate support, you’d think the communications experts would actually be good at the communications side…yet over and over again, they tell us the same old stuff and exhibit the same terrible habits they accuse scientists of having. The latest lecture on how to teach good comes from Slate and someone who runs a network of workshops to help scientists learn to reach the masses.

It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. This is because the way most scientists think about science communication—that just explaining the real science better will help—is plain wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they’re trying to achieve.

Wait…telling people they’re wrong and telling people how to be right doesn’t work, and may actually have a backfire effect? Gosh. But didn’t you just declare that the scientists are all wrong — and are about to tell us how to do everything correctly?

Please, please, please, O Communications Pundit, I wish that just once one of you would practice what you preach. I have been at conferences and have debated with people who pull this stunt: arrogantly tell science communicators to stop being arrogant, announce that we should stop just citing papers and they have the papers to prove that it’s ineffective, and rudely bring us up short by scorning what we’ve done, since scorn and rudeness never work.

I was just at a meeting about science education, run by scientists, and one of them got a good laugh (or groan) from us by asking if we’d ever been at a meeting to promote active learning and had a speaker do a straight-up lecture for an hour on the subject. Yes. Yes we have. It gets old. (This speaker then gave us a small set of problems and simple exercises to work on in small groups to illustrate how to teach about restriction enzymes and molecular cloning, so he didn’t make this mistake.)

The Communications Pundits then typically make another mistake: they hector the scientist with stuff they already know.

Before getting fired up to set the scientific record straight, scientists would do well to first consider the science of science communication. The theory many scientists seem to swear by is technically known as the deficit model, which states that people’s opinions differ from scientific consensus because they lack scientific knowledge. In 2010, Dan Kahan, a Yale psychologist, essentially proved this theory wrong. He surveyed over 1,500 Americans, classifying each person’s “cultural worldview” on a scale that roughly correlates with politically liberal or conservative. He then assessed each person’s scientific literacy with questions such as “True or False: Electrons are smaller than atoms.” Finally, he asked them about climate change. If the deficit model were correct, Kahan reasoned, then people with increased scientific literacy, regardless of worldview, should agree with scientists that climate change poses a serious risk to humanity.

That’s not what he found. Instead, Kahan found that increased scientific literacy actually had a small negative effect: The conservative-leaning respondents who knew the most about science thought climate change posed the least risk. Scientific literacy, it seemed, increased polarization. In a later study, Kahan added a twist: He asked respondents what climate scientists believed. Respondents who knew more about science generally, regardless of political leaning, were better able to identify the scientific consensus—in other words, the polarization disappeared. Yet, when the same people were asked for their own opinions about climate change, the polarization returned. It showed that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it.

Uh, guy, I already know this stuff. I teach. I’m pedagogically aware. I read the educational literature. I tinker with my classes all the time to try and improve them. I assess. I started teaching in 1993, and I knew then that standing on a podium, hiding behind a lectern, and droning facts at a class wasn’t always, or even usually, an effective strategy. So try telling me something new.

Nowadays, when I hear a communications expert tell me that I believe in the “deficit model”, as they always do, I just shut down and walk away. This is a person who is trying to shoehorn me into their incorrect model of how science communicators work. Sorry, you’ve got nothing to teach me. You’re a communications failure.

This fellow does try to provide some positive suggestions, at least. Unfortunately, they’re also old and familiar ideas that I already know.

Is it any surprise, then, that lectures from scientists built on the premise that they simply know more (even if it’s true) fail to convince this audience? Rather than fill the information deficit by building an arsenal of facts, scientists should instead consider how they deploy their knowledge. They may have more luck communicating if, in addition to presenting facts and figures, they appeal to emotions. This could mean not simply explaining the science of how something works but spending time on why it matters to the author and why it ought to matter to the reader. Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites. And they might consider writing op-eds for their local papers, focusing on why science matters to their particular communities.

“Appeal to emotions”…because everyone knows scientists are robots who’d rather emit mathematical symbols at an audience. How about if, next time you’re motivated to give advice, you recognize that most scientists are really smart people who know what they’re doing? We tailor our approach to our audience. When we’re at a scientific meeting talking to people in our field, we can spew out amazing streams of information-dense jargon, and know we don’t have to provide a lot of background. When we’re teaching a class of 18 year olds, we know we have to build a story from more basic foundations. When we’re on TV with a huge, mixed audience, we know we have to try and reach out with even more basic appeals to common interests.

This is not to say we’re all good at it. There are difficult skills involved in this process. But please stop treating science communicators as if they’re completely unaware of elementary human interactions. It’s condescending and stupid (cue communications expert to start lecturing condescencingly about how condescention puts off your audience).

Here’s an example of how science communicators actually work. CNN brought Bill Nye together with William Happer — Happer, as many of you already know, is a Princeton physicist who is astoundingly stupid on the matter of climate change, and ought not to be on television at all. Happer gets the first words in, and they are idiotic. Watch how Nye responds.

Happer makes this pronouncement.

There’s this myth that’s developed around carbon dioxide that it’s a pollutant, but you and I both exhale carbon dioxide with every breath. Each of us emits about two pounds of carbon dioxide a day, so are we polluting the planet? Carbon dioxide is a perfectly natural gas, it’s just like water vapor, it’s something that plants love. They grow better with more carbon dioxide, and you can see the greening of the earth already from the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I sure wish communications experts would spend a little more effort looking at what bozos say, because they break all the rules the experts lay down, and they’re effective with their audiences. So there is Happer, with “Princeton” repeated over and over again in the background to give him authority, basically stating bald lies as facts, and looking far more robotic than Nye.

Now in response to what Happer said, I would have approached it rather differently than Nye: my first thought was “well, we make about a pound of poop every day, it’s perfectly natural, plants love it, but do we really believe more sewage would make the world a better place for humans?” You can see what Nye’s first thought was: he was thinking like an engineer, and wanted to discuss rates — there’s a whole lot of stuff he could have lectured on, relative rates of carbon dioxide production and fixation and sequestration, the balance of gases, etc., but he checked himself. I guarantee you that he knows that with the right audience, that kind of discussion would go over well, and he could probably also do a kids’ show all about that concept. But it wasn’t going to work on CNN, with an audience that had just smugly congratulated itself on hearing Happer’s idiocy affirming all their biases and ignorance.

So he switched gears, and you can even see it happening. He pointed out that Happer was an oddball, not representative of science at all, undermining his claim to authority. He criticizes CNN for having a crank on to represent a marginal view, poorly representing the consensus. He points instead to concerns about the economy. He briefly reminisces about his personal experience with Earth Day. He talks about how we’ll fall behind in competition with other nations. He invokes the US Constitution. He reminds everyone that the EPA was established by a conservative president, Richard Nixon.

Sir, with some respect, I encourage you to cut this out so we can all move forward and make the United States a world leader in technology. What we want are advanced wind turbines, advanced photovoltaics, advanced solar concentrated energy plants. And, everybody, if we were to do that, we would have at least 3 million new jobs in the United States that could not be outsourced. We would not need to have our military on the other of the world defending what people call ‘our oil.’ We could move forward and we could export this technology. We could be world leaders in this instead of wringing our hands and cherry picking data and pretending that this problem that’s obvious to the scientific community is somehow not obvious to you.

Every effective science communicator does this. And then the communications ‘experts’ will come along and complain that they spent too much time trying to correct ignorance, that damned ‘deficit’ model they love to invoke, if anyone makes any effort to explain why Happer was wrong.

You need it all: emotion, appeals to common interests, criticism of bad ideas and bad actors, and the facts. I swear, if these clowns had their way, I’d be teaching genetics by spending 14 weeks explaining why the students ought to care and be motivated, and when I got to briefly explaining a monohybrid Mendelian cross in the 15th week, they’d jump on me for wasting time trying to correct a ‘deficit’.