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Neuroscientists uncover a surprising similarity between diehard liberals and conservatives

More than 60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower took a break from his busy schedule to answer a letter from a terminally ill World War II veteran. The ailing man, Robert Biggs, had respectfully criticized Eisenhower's recent speeches for projecting a sense of uncertainty, explaining that "we wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth." The 34th president felt that people in democracies should be wary of needing to feel certain about important issues.

This article was originally published at Salon

"I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed," Eisenhower argued to Biggs. "Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life."

While some debate whether bipartisanship is desirable, a recent study in the scientific journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" (PNAS) reveals that Eisenhower may at least have been correct when he observed that people who feel a need for ideological certainty fuel political polarization. The scientists monitored and analyzed the brain activity of politically engaged people and found that, regardless of whether they were liberal or conservative, they shared at least one trait: If they had a strong aversion to feelings of uncertainty, they tended to become increasingly polarized in their ideology and perception of events.

The scientists recruited a few dozen participants, liberal and conservative alike, to watch video clips that included a nature documentary, a neutral news segment about a politically controversial subject and a segment from the 2016 vice presidential debate. Jeroen van Baar, PhD, a co-author of the study who is now a research associate at Trimbos, the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health & Addiction, explained to Salon that he and his colleagues noted that participants' brain activity looked different as they viewed "a polarizing video clip" from the vice presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence in 2016.

"When participants watched a nature video," van Baar explained, "their brains looked the same."

What exactly does it mean when van Baar says brains "looked" the same or different? The scientists used a technique called "brain-to-brain synchrony."

"If you show two people a video while scanning their brain activity, this activity ramps up and down at different times, depending on how these people feel," van Baar explained. "The brains of people who have similar subjective experiences tend to 'tick together', i.e. show synchronized activity."

The opposite is also true — the brains of two people who have different subjective reactions to the same video will respond "quite differently," according to van Baar.

The scientists learned that people with similar political views had increased synchronization when watching politically charged — as opposed to neutral — content. (That's what van Baar calls the "same-lens effect" at work.) And the team found this synchronization to be increased among people who are also intolerant of uncertainty.

Study co-author Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, told Salon that being intolerant of uncertainty is a personality trait that can have an effect on everything from a person's willingness to participate in risky behavior to their comfort when meeting new people — and it can exacerbate what FeldmanHall called "neural polarization."

"Two individuals who were intolerant to uncertainty exhibited a greater neural synchrony . . . when watching the same political content, regardless of whether they identify as a Democrat or Republican," FeldmanHall said. "To put it simply, intolerance to uncertainty led to more ideologically polarized brain responses."

The good news here, FeldmanHall explained, is that targeting the fear of uncertainty could help cross divides. That could help make political debate — democracy's "breath of life," as Eisenhower put it — more effective.

"There are lots of different things that one can do to reduce anxiety relating to uncertainty," FeldmanHall said. "And if you can harness these practices, effectively making yourself more comfortable with uncertainty, you are more likely to 'reach' the other side."

Van Baar elaborated on what this might look like.

"A solution would be for politicians—and anyone debating politics—to simplify, simplify, simplify," Van Baar told Salon. "Try to say what you mean in the most concrete and unambiguous terms you can come up with. You may still find that your opponent disagrees with you, but they might for the first time understand what you are trying to say. And mutual understanding may eventually grow trust between political factions."

This brings us back to Ike. The president probably did not intend to dismiss Biggs' concerns when he wrote that letter in 1959, but it appears that he may have wanted to listen to him more closely. Perhaps there is a case to be made for finding a middle ground — in politics and in life — between being overly-certain and not being reassuring enough.

Billions of bugs are about to take to the skies -- here's what to expect

Doug Yanega studies insects for a living, yet he has repeatedly missed out on one of North America's most awe-inspiring entomological events: the septdecennial (meaning once every 17 years) emergence of a swarms of cicadas known as Brood X.

Part of the reason for this is that Yanega, who works as senior scientist at the University of California Riverside's Entomology Research Museum, grew up in Long Island. This is one of the few areas in the Northeast that does not experience billions of Brood X cicadas dramatically arise from the ground for a mass aerial orgy once every 17 years. Brood X cicadas have been gradually going extinct there — perhaps because mass suburbanization has thoroughly destroyed any habitat where they could survive, Yanega theorizes — and that is where he lived in 1970 and 1987. (He missed the 2004 event for unrelated reasons and won't be on the East Coast in 2021.)

"I don't know," Yanega reflected somewhat ruefully. "I'll be 77 years old or so when the next one comes out."

It's a shame, because even if you aren't an entomologist, the Brood X cicadas put on a show that anyone would find spectacular.

The loud insects have blood-red eyes and orange-veined wings in stark contrast to their black bodies. When they emerge with a density up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre, they'll sing to prospective mates in the loudest possible tones. To a poet, the volume might smack of desperation: they will die within a few weeks of reproducing.

Unlike most human parents, these winged insects will never have the opportunity to know for sure if their young make it through the preordained stages of their lives. They will not witness whether the eggs they place on trees will hatch into nymphs, fall to the ground, burrow into the soil and enjoy the same 17-year lifespan that they did. Somehow this just winds up working out, with the next generation knowing how to pick up where the last one left off.

This is going to happen in a large swath of the country, between the East Coast to the Midwest, in the warm months of 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has created a detailed map of Brood X's range, which covers just about all of Indiana; eastern rural Illinois and western Ohio; a portion of east Tennessee and neighboring counties in adjacent states; and a triangle that runs from Long Island to northeast West Virginia to south Delaware.

The last time the Brood X emerged was in an era before COVID-19 and great recessions, back when crunk was mainstream, "Shrek 2" was the highest grossing movie in America and Donald Trump was an '80s tabloid fodder has-been trying his luck with a reality TV show. Given how climate change is transforming our world, the planet will likely be an even more radically different place when 2038 offers us another chance to see them.

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To appreciate the spectacle, though, you must first understand the science. Although the planet has nearly 3,400 species of cicadas, only the eastern United States has periodical cicadas that emerge from underground. (They are grouped into categories known as Broods.) Some make their appearance once every 13 years; others do so once every 17 years. The Brood X cicadas fall into the latter category, with three species — Magicicada cassinii, Magicicada septendecim, and Magicicada septendecula – synchronizing their breeding seasons to form that group.

Before they periodically swarm over the Northeast, Brood X cicadas spend their lives subsisting on plant sap, juices and water from roots underground. They grow very slowly, molting a few times along the way, and crawl up toward the surface as they get bigger. When they decide the temperature is just right, they shed their skin and fly off.

"Then they engage in what's basically one of nature's biggest orgies," Yanega explained. "It's just billions of these cicadas with the males calling for the females." He later added that if you listen carefully, you can even notice that differences in the singing among the three species of males.

"The enigma is why this happens the way it does," Yanega said. "Why is it 17 years and not some other number?" He also pointed out that the three species do not mate with each other, raising additional questions about how and why they behave as they do.

COVID-19 deaths in US are 57% higher than official reports, study suggests

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has had the unenviable task of announcing, each and every week, just how many Americans have died of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, the official tabulation was that almost 562,000 Americans had passed away with COVID-19 being cited as the cause on their death certificates. This includes more than 178,000 deaths in the first four months of 2021.

Yet one group of researchers believe that these numbers, tragic enough as they are, may actually be lower than reality.

A new study released by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that more than 900,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2, entered this country a little more than a year ago. They also argued that more than 7 million people have died worldwide from the disease, more than twice as many as the official estimate of 3.24 million.

The researchers reached these conclusions by first looking at excess mortality (which the CDC defines as "the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods") from March 2020 through May 3, 2021. After comparing those figures with what would be expected during an ordinary non-pandemic year, they adjusted the statistics to take a number of variables related to the pandemic into account. For instance, they accounted for how public health guidelines has reduced influenza infections during the pandemic era, while more people deferred their health care and might have therefore died from other ailments.

Ultimately they concluded that, effectively, all of the net extra deaths should be attributed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus because the drop in other death rates offset the additional deaths not caused by COVID-19.

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"When you put all that together, we conclude that the best way, the closest estimate, for the true COVID death is still excess mortality, because some of those things are on the positive side, other factors are on the negative side," Dr. Christopher Murray, who heads the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told NPR.

An epidemiologist at Harvard University was skeptical about the IMHE study's conclusions.

"I think that the overall message of this (that deaths have been substantially undercounted and in some places more than others) is likely sound, but the absolute numbers are less so for a lot of reasons," William Hanage told NPR by email.

If the IMHE number is accurate, that would mean that roughly the same number of Americans have died of COVID-19 as died fighting in both the Civil War (498,332) and World War II (405,399). The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through the planet and left havoc in its wake, destroying economies and forcing much of the world to go into periodic stages of lockdown. The pandemic also became a big issue during the 2020 presidential election and likely played a role in why the incumbent, President Donald Trump, lost to the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump wouldn't be the first ex-president to run again — but he might be the last

As I write this article, Arizona Republicans are conducting a fake audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, the state's major population center. The purpose of that audit, as my colleague Amanda Marcotte accurately observes, is to satisfy Donald Trump and his supporters by doing two things. First, it applies unproved conspiracy theories to the recount process in the hope of "proving" Trump actually won the state. More importantly, it demonstrates how easy it would be for Republicans to steal elections if Trump supporters and their ilk controlled the political process.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Since the most direct way for the Trump movement to gain power would be for Trump himself to be elected again in 2024, this article will look at a phenomenon that has recurred several times in American history: a defeated ex-president running again. (Only one actually won. We'll get to that.) Of course it's also possible that a future Trump-style movement could be led by a pseudo-Trump suck-up like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

The fundamental difference between Trump and other ex-presidents who have considered or attempted a political comeback is the question of attitude. Prior to Trump, former presidents who tried to run again did so by appealing to democratic instincts. Sometimes their party leaders believed they were the most electable alternative. Sometimes they ran as third-party candidates to advance causes they believed were important.

Trump, by contrast, would run in 2024 based on the assumption that power is his right, and something only he (or his sycophantic followers) are allowed to hold. He has conditioned his supporters since the 2016 election cycle to believe that the only possible outcomes when he's a candidate are that he wins the election or the election was stolen. This disturbing personality trait, which has bound many people to him through a process known as narcissistic symbiosis, is why many people (including this author) believed that Trump would try to stage a coup if he lost the 2020 election. It didn't help that, as scientists have demonstrated, many Trump supporters are also motivated by their own insecure conception of masculinity.

Trump has already destroyed many of the precedents that would stop the rise of an authoritarian dictator. He has used fascistic tactics to create a cult of personality that his party is expected to slavishly follow, has become the first incumbent president to lose an election and refuse to accept the result and has spread a Big Lie about his defeat so that his followers will believe he has a right to be returned to power. Most significantly, he actually egged on his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a futile attempt to overturn the election results.

The good news is that the Trump movement represents a minority point of view. The bad news is, that may not matter. If Trump stages a successful comeback, it won't be viewed in normal political terms, as an ex-president losing one election and then being vindicated in another. It will be perceived as a validation of all of Trump's fascist, dishonest behavior — and will provide him all the justification he needs to stay in power indefinitely.

Nothing like that was ever the case for any of the other ex-presidents who tried to return to power. Let me clarify that I'm including some borderline cases of ex-presidents who launched half-hearted efforts to get back in the game but never waged full campaigns, as well as those who were encourage to run again by others but chose not to.

The first defeated ex-president to seriously consider another run was Martin Van Buren, who had been narrowly elected over William Henry Harrison in 1836, and then lost to Harrison four years later. (Harrison went on to have the shortest tenure of any president, dying of a severe infection after 31 days in office.) Because of Van Buren's close ties to Democratic Party founder Andrew Jackson — who had chosen him as his running mate for Jackson's second term — Van Buren was originally viewed as a leading contender for the 1844 nomination, at least until he came out against annexing Texas on the grounds that it could spark a war with Mexico (as in fact it did). Democratic slaveholders wanted to annex Texas so they could expand slavery throughout the West, so Van Buren was suddenly no longer a viable candidate. Four years later, Van Buren was nominated as a third-party candidate by the Free Soil Party, which wanted to gradually abolish slavery by prohibiting its expansion into the newly-acquired western territories.

The next ex-president to take a shot at the White House didn't do so for a noble cause. Millard Fillmore had been elected vice president as Zachary Taylor's running mate in 1848, and served nearly three years as president after Taylor's death. The Whig Party didn't even nominate Fillmore to run for a full term in 1852, and he wound up running in 1856 as the candidate of the Know Nothing Party, which was opposed to immigration and especially the large numbers of Irish Catholics then arriving in the country. Fillmore did extremely well for a third-party candidate, winning more than 21 percent of the popular vote and Maryland's electoral votes. Since the Whig Party had just collapsed, Fillmore had a hypothetical opportunity to turn the Know Nothings into America's second major party but did not even come close, with the newly-formed Republicans surging onto the scene. The Know Nothings dissolved a few years later, as did any chance of Fillmore becoming president again.

For more than 20 years after Fillmore, no ex-president actively tried for a restoration. Then, in the 1880 election, a powerful faction of Republicans wanted Ulysses S. Grant to be their nominee, even though the Civil War hero had already served two terms, leaving office in 1877. Rutherford B. Hayes, the president elected in the notorious compromise of 1876, was not running again, and Republicans needed a candidate. (The 22nd Amendment had not yet been passed, so there was no legal impediment to Grant running again.) Grant had been a great general but controversial president, due to a series of scandals that beset his administration, but was still a widely beloved figure. The Republican convention was sharply divided between Grant's supporters and his opponents. Although Grant had more delegates than any other candidate, he could not muster a majority, and delegates eventually united around a compromise candidate, James Garfield, who went on to win the election.

Twelve years later, in 1892, the above-referenced Grover Cleveland became the first and only ex-president to be elected to a second, non-consecutive term. There were a number of reasons why that worked: Democratic leaders trusted Cleveland's conservative economic philosophy and thought he was electable, which was reasonable enough, since Cleveland actually won the popular vote in 1888, despite losing the election to Benjamin Harrison (grandson of William Henry Harrison), who had become unpopular amid an economic downturn. There were no primary elections to select a party nominee, and Cleveland was well known and well liked by leading Democrats.

That brings us to Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president in 1901 after William McKinley's assassination and was then elected in his own right in 1904. After leaving office in 1909, replaced by his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt became dissatisfied with Taft's leadership and the Republican Party's direction. He first tried to wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft in 1912, and when that failed, wound up running as the nominee of the Progressive Party. Roosevelt didn't win the election but outperformed Taft in both popular and electoral votes — his 27 percent share of the popular vote remains the largest proportion won by any third party candidate ever — and for better or worse was instrumental in the election of Woodrow Wilson.

That was the last serious campaign mounted by a former president, nearly 110 years ago. The gradual emergence of the primary system probably has something to do with that, as does the growing cynicism among Americans about politicians perceived as "losers." Other former presidents, including Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford, have considered running again, but none has actually done so.

Until, perhaps Donald Trump.

No previous ex-president was anything like Trump, as is blatantly obvious. Of course they were ambitious, but none of them tried to argue that the presidency was his God-given right. None urged the kinds of party purges that Trump and his crew are leading against "disloyal" Republicans like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney. None of them flat-out lied about the reason why they'd lost power or urged anti-democratic means in order to reclaim it.

Right now Republicans across the country are pouring millions into voting restrictions, clearly targeting Democratic voters, primarily people of color. They hope to win elections simply by preventing certain voters from exercising their constitutional rights. Even if this gambit fails in the near term, Republicans have laid the foundations for overturning unfavorable outcomes. They can simply appoint loyal Trumpers or GOP partisan to the right positions to ensure that they can win even if they lose, and then create another Big Lie to justify their behavior.

It is entirely conceivable that Trump could become the first ex-president since Cleveland to be elected to another term, given the potential effects of these voter suppression laws and the ardor of his supporters. Whether we will still have anything left that could be called a democracy, if that happens, is anyone's guess.

The airline industry says planes are pandemic-proof. Public health experts disagree

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for the airline industry. Besides the obvious need for safety measures to counter an airborne virus, the industry suffered "the largest drop in air travel in history," according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a 290-member trade association for the global airline industry. This drop in traffic was not entirely consumer-driven, as governments throughout the world limited travel to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"IATA estimates global passenger numbers fell 61% in 2020," a spokesperson explained — a drop from 4.54 billion air passengers in 2019 to 1.76 billion passengers.

The trade association forecasts 2.38 billion passengers in 2021. They noted that they "expect 2021 net losses of $47.7 billion."

The losses for the industry are shattering, though likely not surprising. Anyone who has been conscious since the start of 2020 knows about how the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a wave of fear, in particular of flying. There you are, in a tight space with nowhere to escape, surrounded by strangers packed tightly together like sardines in a can. How could anyone feel safe in those conditions when there is a deadly, airborne disease causing a global panic?

Inevitably, major American airline companies have been touting their safety procedures as a response to this, and in an attempt to get consumers feeling safe about travel again. From Delta talking up the importance of safety while explaining its mask-wearing requirement and Southwest explaining its travel restrictions as part of "taking care of you" to United declaring that "your safety is our priority," airlines make a point of emphasizing that they care about protecting their customers from infection. (All three companies are part of the trade association Airlines for America, not the IATA.)

So how effective are these safety measures? Knowing that means knowing how likely it is to get the virus from air travel — and it turns out that the numbers there are still debated.

"It is difficult to tease out exposure on the plane from community exposures," a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Salon by email. The IATA offered a similar response, writing that "there have been instances of COVID-19 spreading on planes, however, the number of confirmed or suspected instances of onboard infection are quite low measured compared to the nearly 1.8 billion passengers last year."

Yet that does not mean people can't be at risk while sitting on planes. The question is what airlines can — and should — do about it.

One recent study looked at boarding procedures, and how they might be optimized to prevent transmission. Recently, companies like Delta and United have been loading passengers in the reverse order — from the back rows first, working their way up to the front rows — in order to minimize how often customers pass each other. (Business class still boards first on Delta and usually on United, according to the report.)

But a new study, published last month by Royal Society Open Science, suggested that such practices are not actually that helpful in minimizing transmission. Rather, researchers argue that the main factor fueling increased exposure to infection is how passengers will cluster together while waiting to take their seats and for their luggage to be put away. As a result, back-to-front boarding leads to approximately twice as much exposure to infection as random boarding procedures, and increases exposure by 50% from the usual pre-COVID-19 process. They instead urge airlines to board seats starting with the windows and then moving to the aisles.

Moreover, the researchers in the Open Science study suggested that banning the use of overhead bins to store luggage would greatly reduce exposure to possible infection. They also studied the effect of keeping middle seats empty and found that doing so "yields a substantial reduction in exposure," although they added that "our results show that the different boarding processes have similar relative strengths in this case as with middle seats occupied."

Are airlines doing this? Not anymore.

"They generally started last summer," Dr. Ashok Srinivasan, a professor of computer science at the University of West Florida who helped author the report, wrote to Salon when asked about leaving middle seats unoccupied. "It included Delta, Southwest, etc. Even those that did not guarantee middle seats being empty took some measures to enable it when possible, which was not too difficult with empty flights."

He added that this is no longer the case. "They started stopping it early this year, with Delta being the last one that I am aware of, which stopped this end April," Srinivasan explained. The IATA told Salon that it did not have statistics on airlines' middle seat policies and that "we do not have data" on airlines barring the use of overhead storage bins.

Another recent study, this one released by the CDC in conjunction with Kansas State University, reinforces the importance of not occupying middle seats. The researchers found that passengers were exposed to "viable" virus particles 23% to 57% less often in planes that block middle seats. According to USA Today, no American carriers are blocking the middle seats for economy passengers at the time of this writing.

In response to Salon's questions about their COVID-19 safety precautions, a spokesperson for Airlines for America emphasized that the company is very serious about keeping passengers safe and has relied on scientific research to do so.

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"U.S. airlines have implemented multiple layers of measures aimed at preventing virus transmission, including strict face covering requirements, pre-flight health-acknowledgement forms, enhanced disinfection protocols and hospital-grade ventilation systems," the spokesperson explained by email. "Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low." They added that scientists with the Harvard Aviation Public Health Initiative had praised airplane ventilation and the use of layers of protection in terms of their effectiveness in reducing possible COVID-19 exposure.

Southwest Airlines told Salon by email that it "does not assign seats and has always had an open seating policy – Customers can choose any seat they like. We simply board in numerical order determined by time of check-in." The representative added that Southwest has not considered banning overhead bins and only blocked middle seats through Dec. 1.

United Airlines referred Salon to their trade association for comment on the studies and to its website for answers to other safety questions. Delta did not respond to a request for comment as of the time of this writing.

In its official statement responding to the CDC report, the IATA said that "it's important to note that this laboratory study did not consider the significant risk-reduction impacts of the wearing of facemasks by passengers and cabin staff (nor could it have, given that the data collection occurred in 2017)." The statement cited scientific studies which it claimed supported its argument that mask-wearing keeps transmission to a minimum. The IATA also told Salon by email that, when it comes to the Royal Society study, it believes it is "an interesting mathematical modeling study of social proximity" but "does not look directly at infection risk." They noted the authors' support of boarding passengers at random, not using overhead bins, boarding window seats before aisles and leaving middle seats vacant, concluding that "we await with interest their planned further study."

Srinivasan told Salon, "They are relying mostly on the mask mandate. They do perform disinfecting intensively, which is not particularly useful because fomite transmission is rare." (Fomites are inanimate objects which can transmit diseases after they have been on them for a lengthy period of time.)

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California — San Francisco, told Salon that the studies suggest there is a higher risk associated with proximity but said that conditions may have changed since we have developed vaccines.

"However, with more and more people vaccinated in the U.S., passengers may move towards putting children (who can't be vaccinated yet) in the middle between parents," Gandhi told Salon by email. "Moreover, with universal masking still on planes and higher rates of those in the U.S. getting vaccinated, the risk of transmission will definitely be much lower than once these studies were done. I would think about boarding differently to avoid too much mixing in the aisle and advising airlines to only book the middle seats for families while we are in this in-between period of vaccines."

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, expressed a similar view.

"While spacing out passengers remains a sound practice, the raising degree of vaccination in the country is making this practice less important," Benjamin emailed Salon. "Mask wearing on planes is still an essential part of protections for now in line with CDC recommendations even for vaccinated individuals." He added that while the studies are interesting, "there are so many confounding variables in an airport travelers experience that it is very very difficult to process these kind of findings without several other confirmatory studies."

Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, told Salon by email that "CDC guidelines are based on the relative contribution of these multiple transmission risk factors so that today, based on the best current scientific data, airline travel is considered safe for the individual if one is both fully vaccinated and adheres to rigorous mask-wearing."

A complex new phase of the pandemic is here. What should we expect to happen next?

When the COVID-19 era is chronicled in the history books, the first phase will be marked as beginning with the outbreak itself and ending with the development of successful vaccines. The last phase, of course, will be the one in which we have contained the pandemic and can resume the normal rhythms of life as they had been pre-2020 (although early research suggests some who were infected may experience long-term health problems).

This article first appeared in Salon.

Yet what about the middle phase, the one we're in right now? We know what the beginning looked like, and what the end will (hopefully) resemble. What should expect as we transition from one to the other?

"We're really just moving between phases," Dr. Sarah Cobey, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, told Salon. "It's not going to be some sort of binary switch back to normal. I might describe the phase that we're in now as not just being one where obviously there's a lot of immunity that's being gained through vaccination, but also we have, of course, they're accumulating immunity, especially when we take a step back and look globally."

She noted that we are entering a "complex period" defined by the fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19) is adapting.

"I think many of us who previously studied viruses like influenza, we were waiting for this," Cobey explained. "We're seeing this fast evolution of the virus, and this evolution is of course relevant to vaccination policy."

Dr. Bernard Lo, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, expressed a similar view.

"I think our concern is that some of these variants might be less effectively blocked by the current vaccine," Lo explained. "The question is, will further variants emerge that are even more resistant to the antibodies that the vaccine stimulates?"

Lo added that this concern is exacerbated by the large number of people who remain unvaccinated — either by choice or because they are unable to access a vaccine — and are thus at risk of getting infected in a way that helps mutant strains.

"It's a worldwide issue as well," Lo pointed out, referring to how many poorer countries do not have access to the vaccines that wealthier nations do. "There are a lot of countries that really don't have access to vaccines, and variants could emerge there."

He predicted that there is a "very good chance" we will need regular booster shots to combat emerging strains, similar to what already exists with influenza.

Cobey echoed that view.

"I really think that worst case scenario here is that a variant does arise that really does escape a lot of the vaccine-induced protection and we're slow to recognize it, and slow to distribute vaccines to the populations that need either to get the first dose or a booster," Cobey told Salon.

Another aspect of the vaccine management phase is the growing awareness that vaccine passports — some kind of official proof that recipients have either been vaccinated or tested negatively for the disease — could become prevalent.

"Vaccine passports will probably be very important and useful as a transition," Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who specializes in public health law, told Salon. "Once everybody is fully vaccinated and we have herd immunity, there'll be no need for a vaccine passport, but what vaccine passports do is get us back to a state of more normal quicker because it means that you have to show proof that you're vaccinated in order to get into high risk environments."

Gostin pointed to Israel as "probably the best example" of a country which has succeeded with its "green pass" policy. (Israel has aroused controversy for not prioritizing Palestinians in its vaccination process, however.) "Basically life is normal in Israel already," Gostin said.

Although some conservatives have claimed that vaccine passports would violate individual rights, Gostin does not share that view. His position is that from an ethics point of view, vaccine passports are on solid ground.

"They're inherently a good thing because they maximize our health and safety, and I don't think they violate any privacy or autonomy," Gostin explained. "A person doesn't have to show proof of vaccination. It's their choice. But if they don't, they can't get into certain places. Everyone has a right to make decisions about their own health, but they don't have an ethical right to expose other people to a potentially dangerous infectious disease."

His only caveat was the same as Lo's: Vaccines are not being equitably distributed and, therefore, vaccine passports could give the wealthy unfair privileges. As such, vaccine passports are only unethical until "everyone who wants a vaccine can get a vaccine, because we don't want to give privilege to the already privileged, and we don't want to leave the disadvantaged behind."

Republicans still try to claim Abe Lincoln's heritage — that's offensive and absurd

The challenge these days isn't proving that the Republican Party has become a hotbed of racism and fascism. It's figuring out where to start with the evidence. Do we begin with Donald Trump's Hitler-esque Big Lie about the 2020 election? Should we focus on its attempts to suppress minority voters? Perhaps we should emphasize the way Trump used fascist tactics throughout his presidency, or go all the way back to when the Republican Party began its rightward shift in the middle of the 20th century?

This article first appeared in Salon.

I'll pass on pinpointing exactly when the problem began and instead look at one of its most recent examples. Earlier this month, a flier promoting a proposed "America First" caucus in the House of Representatives sparked controversy because of its white nationalist language. The notional caucus would promote "common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions," view mass immigration as a threat to "the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and a unique identity" and embrace the debunked claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the infamous Georgia Republican, later backed away from the proposed caucus and claimed that the flier had been written by an outside group, but the damage had been done. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy felt the need to distance himself from the entire thing, tweeting that "the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans — not nativist dog whistles."

Of course it's true that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, but the modern Republican Party has no right to cite the 16th president's name. It is utterly impossible to reconcile his values with those of his successors 160 years later.

This hasn't stopped those successors from trying. Take Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly embraced white nationalist talking points, most recently in denouncing the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd.

Back in 2019, I interviewed Carlson about a monologue he delivered on his Fox News show urging in Republicans to pursue more populist policies. I quoted him the passage from Lincoln's 1861 State of the Union message in which he denounced the effort "to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government."

"Exactly!" Carlson said, interrupting me. I continued with another quotation from the same speech: "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration."

"Hold on, I'm writing this down," Carlson said. "I hadn't read that. OK, first, God bless you for noticing that. You are like the only person noticing that part of the script, which to me was the essence."

As the eminent Columbia University historian Eric Foner, author of "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War," told Salon by email, Lincoln was articulating "what we call the free labor ideology — that labor is the source of wealth (a common idea in the 19th century, a society of small scale capitalism), that slavery denies the dignity of labor, and that opportunity for the laborer to rise in the social scale is essential for a good society and for economic growth."

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer echoed this view, noting the link between Lincoln's free labor ideology and his personal opposition to slavery. "I think they intersect (the word du jour in academia) — the pursuit and spread of free labor (aka limitless opportunity — what Lincoln called 'a fair chance in the race of life') meant ending slavery," Holzer wrote to Salon. "And while he first envisioned the West as a place where white laborers did not have to compete with Black slave labor, he certainly made clear also, as he said in 1858, that a person of color had the right to eat the bread she makes with her own hands — that she had an equal opportunity to earn."

Earlier, Holzer expressed the view that Lincoln's formulation, "labor is prior to, and independent, of capital," was "something of a clunker because Lincoln was always more effective talking about individual people than about political theory. But he tries hard to connect the dots — and those who understand Lincoln know what he's getting at: opportunity for free labor."

None of that implies that Republicans of Lincoln's era were socialists (they were not) or abolitionists (most were not). That said, Lincoln evolved immensely in his views on race over the course of his lifetime, and never wavered in his disgust for slavery or his belief that people who labor for their livelihoods have a right to dignity and economic security. This is why he ultimately seized the opportunity to abolish slavery, and passed a number of laws that would be inconceivable in the laissez-faire Republican Party today.

"His vision of the Union meant opportunity for all — hence homestead acreage for the many," Holzer explained, referring to the 1862 Homestead Act that made it easy for Americans to buy Western land at low prices. "It meant encouraging farming over hunting — independent farming to replace plantation aristocracies — hence [creating] the Agriculture Department." He also noted that Lincoln, as a former member of the Whig Party, "had always passionately believed in infrastructure, including government investment in railroads, canals, and roads," which is why he pushed for bills to construct the first transcontinental railroad.

From the moment Lincoln became president and until shortly before his assassination, everything he said and did occurred within the context of, first, trying to prevent the Civil War, and then trying to win it. Much as with Donald Trump's insurrection attempt, the Civil War was sparked by dissatisfaction with the outcome of a legitimate election. In the 1860 election, Southern states left the Union because they believed a Republican president would bar slavery from the Western territories and ultimately lay the foundations for abolition. In the 2020 election, Trump became the first president to lose an election but refuse to accept the results, instead filing a series of ludicrous lawsuits and spreading misinformation to his supporters in hopes he could stay in power.

The Republican Party is, decisively, no longer the party of Lincoln. You cannot square Lincoln's free labor ideology with a party that unanimously opposed President Biden's stimulus bill (and also opposed all of Barack Obama's efforts to restart the economy during the Great Recession). You cannot square Lincoln's support for labor in general with a party that actively ignores poor and working-class people and whose efforts at pandemic relief disproportionately aided the wealthy.

Similarly, you can't square the modern party's dehumanizing of immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community and people of color with Lincoln's ideals. Lincoln was a man with many of the prejudices of his time, but his great redeeming quality was his ability learn from his mistakes and his willingness to overcome his limitations. Left to his own devices, he instinctively moved toward compassion and generosity. The modern Republican Party instinctively moves away from those things.

Finally, it's impossible to square Lincoln's prosecution of the Civil War with a party that refused to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot and is now desperately trying to shove that insurrection attempt down the memory hole. First of all, Lincoln literally used military force to put down a rebellion sparked by unhappiness over an election result. In 1864, Lincoln was deeply worried he might lose to Democratic nominee George McClellan, his former commanding general, whom Lincoln feared would be unable to save the Union. Despite that, Lincoln never even considered whipping his supporters into a frenzy or rejecting the verdict of the voters if McClellan defeated him. He respected the importance of elections and democracy, even at the potential cost of his presidency and the nation itself.

Flawed as he was, Lincoln's greatness lay in personal values worlds away from the cynical, know-nothing ideology of today's Republicans. We could debate exactly when the Republican Party began to turn away from Lincoln, but it abandoned him entirely a long time ago.

Pfizer may have an anti-viral COVID-19 pill available by the end of the year

Pfizer, which along with Moderna developed successful mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 late last year, announced on Tuesday that it could have ready by the end of the year an experimental oral drug which would treat COVID-19 as soon as patients display symptoms. The announcement was made by CEO Albert Bourla on the CNBC program "Squawk Box," who said that for the drug to be released to the public it will first need to perform well at clinical trials and receive approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"This is an inhibitor of the protease enzyme in the SARS-CoV-2 which is promising in pre-clinical studies to block the ability of the virus to replicate," Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California — San Francisco, told Salon by email.

Pfizer had announced that Phase I trials, the first stage in testing a new drug, were to start soon to see if the virus was safe in adults.

Gandhi said that it was a "promising" oral antiviral drug, one that "could be used easily in the outpatient setting to treat COVID-19." Remdesivir is the only other existing antiviral drug used to fight COVID-19; famously, it was administered to President Trump when he contracted the virus.

Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, said the drug held "significant promise as a potential treatment to be used at the first sign of infection or exposure to the SARS-CoV2 virus," with the caveat that the clinical trial process had barely begun.

"To have this drug available for broad use by the end of the year is very ambitious but not without precedent as exemplified by the extraordinary rapidity in which multiple COVID-19 vaccines were developed, tested and deployed," Medford added.

Because such a drug would be administered to those who contracted COVID-19, and thus were either unvaccinated or breakthrough cases, its utility may be slightly more limited than the vaccine. Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, noted that preventing a disease through a vaccination is more cost effective than treating it after a person has been infected and diagnosed.

Pfizer, like Moderna, currently distributes a vaccine using a revolutionary new technology called mRNA vaccines. While conventional vaccine platforms take a weak or dead version of a pathogen (disease-causing organism) and inject it into the body, mRNA vaccines simply use a bespoke RNA strand that trains the body's cells to recognize proteins associated with the microscopic invaders. In the case of their COVID-19 vaccine, the immune system is trained to recognize proteins associated with the spikes that poke out of the virus' central sphere like spines from a sea urchin.


Here's how to keep Jolene away from your man

If you're wooing a mate that has potential, the last thing you want is a potential rival to distract them from your advances. The nightmare scenario of the partner-stealer is a tale as old as time — what Dolly Parton sang about in "Jolene," and key to the plots of the Betty & Veronica comics, "The Wedding Planner," and just about every season of "The Bachelor."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Aside from penning a catchy ballad, how do you signal to the Jolenes of the world to back off from taking your man? A new study into how straight women flirt reveals how women use nonverbal communication to signal their connection to men in which they are interested, and thereby ward off observers who may try to interfere with attempts at courtship. The study has intriguing insights into the oft-unconscious mechanisms that women in Western cultures use to signal their claim over a potential mate.

In an article for the journal "Personality and Individual Differences," American and Canadian researchers analyzed female behavior while flirting. At the outset of their paper, they write that women tend to initiate the courtship process, citing earlier research which found that women are often "the 'selectors' and, thereby, the 'initiators' in the courtship process, and that the communication of this selection is primarily performed through nonverbal channels."

With that in mind, the researchers set out to learn about how women "competitively flirt," the role played by nonverbal messages in competitive flirting, and whether the different possible tactics used during competitive flirting are perceived as effective.

"Actions that suggest the woman has a connection to the man are most effective (actions that indicate there is some relationship between the woman and her target man)," Dr. T. Joel Wade, corresponding author on the paper and presidential professor of psychology at Bucknell University, told Salon by email.

The paper identifies this type of behavior as "tie-signs." These include initiating eye contact, butting in between him and a rival, touching a man, hugging him and laughing at his jokes. He explained that these kinds of actions can be effective at signaling to potential competitors that they need to stay away, regardless of whether the woman performing them actually does have a connection with the man, because observers would not want to be perceived as "mate poachers."

"My prior research, as well as the research of others, indicates that mate poachers are not viewed positively," Wade explained, to the surprise of no one. "Being labelled as a mate poacher can lower an individual's mate value, making it harder for them to attract mates. Thus the competitor is more likely to stop competing when she sees that a potential partner is already connected to someone else."

He added that indicating a tie to a man also works because potential rivals will assume it is easier to attract someone who is not already in a relationship.

"The mating effort to acquire that unconnected potential partner could be much much lower, so one would be less likely to pursue (compete for) the connected individual," Wade told Salon.

Salon asked Wade about how the study's findings apply to people on the autism spectrum, who struggle with non-verbal communication.

"Flirting is harder for individuals on the autism spectrum as they may not be as aware of their nonverbal behavior as those not on the spectrum are," Wade responded. "This is true for both men and women."

In the paper, the authors explained that when heterosexual women flirt by "conveying sexual accessibility," they are more likely to attract the man, but that this can sometimes conflict with efforts that are undertaken "to deter a female competitor." Wade talked about the practical implications of the paper's findings for women seeking relationships.

"People should be aware that nonverbal behavior plays a large role in social relationships, and that they can send strong messages to intended partners and romantic competitors with their nonverbal behavior," Wade told Salon. He added that shy heterosexual women may be able to better compete for a potential male partner by "effectively using their nonverbal behavior."

The quest for a universal coronavirus vaccine

Scientists working on a vaccine for a specific virus that affects pigs may have inadvertently created a prototype for a universal coronavirus vaccine — one that protects against all coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and, theoretically, its mutations. Such a vaccine would be a boon in fighting the ever-mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus, for which some subsequent mutations have been discovered to be more resistant to the existing approved vaccines.

This article first appeared on Salon.

Specifically, the researchers attempting to address porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) believe they may have developed a way to someday create a universal vaccine against all coronaviruses, from SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) to those responsible for certain types of the common cold. PEDV is also a type of coronavirus, the broad class of related RNA viruses that resemble a spherical, pointy star and whose members also include SARS-CoV-2 (the "novel coronavirus"), SARS and MERS.

The theoretical vaccines, developed by the University of Virginia's Steven L. Zeichner, and Virginia Tech's Xiang-Jin Meng, could offer many advantages over existing vaccines. In addition to potentially protecting patients from all kind of coronaviruses, researchers claim that the vaccines would be cheap, easy to mass produce and likewise easy to transport and store. Perhaps most importantly, the vaccine yielded promising results in early animal testing.

Salon spoke with Zeichner by email, who emphasized that researchers have not yet experimented to determine whether the PEDV vaccine can protect against people against SARS-CoV-2. He also noted that the early vaccine trials with pigs did not cause what virologists refer to as "sterilizing immunity," or "raise antibodies in the blood of the pigs that could completely kill the virus," but that they were able to protect our porcine friends against clinical disease caused by PEDV. Pigs that received a control vaccine still got sick, while those which received either the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine or the PEDV one developed by the researchers either did not get sick at all or only got slightly sick.

"This was really just a first try, with some pretty arbitrarily chosen experimental parameters," Zeichner explained. "We are working hard now to try to improve the immune responses, by testing different doses, dose schedules, routes of administration, and adjuvants to promote a better immune response. We think that with a few tweaks we should get better responses."

One reason Zeichner and his team are hopeful about the possible broader uses of their vaccine is that it works by attacking a part of a coronavirus' spike protein (the protein which causes those little needles to stick out from its sphere, like the spines on a sea urchin) known as the "viral fusion peptide." A fusion peptide is essentially universal among all coronaviruses.

"We target the fusion peptide, not the entire spike protein or the receptor binding domain," Zeichner pointed out.

While fusion peptides could hypothetically mutate and allow coronaviruses to evade vaccines, Zeichner claimed this had not been observed to date, adding that "all the SARS-CoV-2 sequenced to date share the same core fusion peptide sequence exactly, and every sequenced coronavirus has an identical 6 amino acid fusion peptide core." This means that even coronaviruses which are only distantly related — as is the case for PEDV and SARS-CoV-2 — could be vulnerable to inoculations that focus on fusion peptides, as they share the same 13 amino acid fusion peptide core sequence.

Finally, he added that because the researchers demonstrated that the SARS-CoV-2 fusion peptide vaccine can protect pigs against disease they might develop after being infected with PEDV, their vaccine platform could alleviate concerns about another COVID-19 outbreak being caused by mutant strains. A number of variants are already in the United States, with a public health official from President Joe Biden's administration admitting that she is concerned about a possible surge in cases for that reason.

"There would be a suggestion that since the SARS-CoV-2 fusion peptide vaccine protected against clinical disease in the pigs caused by PEDV, that the SARS-CoV-2 fusion peptide vaccine would also be able to protect people against a very wide range of SARS-CoV-2 variants, which are becoming of increasing concern," Zeichner observed. "This is what we meant when we wrote the fusion peptide vaccine would likely be 'evolution resistant.' Because of the broad cross protection, a further implication might be that a fusion peptide vaccine might be able to protect against many different coronaviruses."

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Salon reached out to several experts regarding their thoughts on the new vaccine.

"An interesting approach that remains to be tested in clinical trials," Dr. Carlos del Rio, Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told Salon by email.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, leader of Columbia University's Pandemic Response Initiative, thought that the results were promising.

"The technology they cited is legitimate and there is genuine promise in what has been reported," Redlener told Salon by email. But he cautioned the need for subsequent studies and more science, saying that "thorough evaluation of the scientific methodology and conclusions must be done by credible, independent peers and meet the rigorous standards of appropriate journals."

He added, "Yes we're in a major pandemic crisis, but rushing to judgement without adhering to appropriate evaluation of studies is asking for trouble. That said, am I excited about the possibilities suggested by the press release? Of course. But I am withholding any kind of final judgement."

Dr. William Haseltine, founder and former CEO of Human Genome Sciences and currently the chair and president of the global health think tank Access Health International, wrote to Salon that "this is not materially different from a number of efforts to produce peptide (small protein vaccines) in bacteria, yeast or other cell systems," some of which are in more advanced clinical trial stages. When asked if he felt that the new vaccine platform could help scientists fight mutant strains of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, he replied: "Possible but definitely not guaranteed."

Exactly how did dinosaurs mate, anyway?

Here's an adorable, if wholly hypothetical, thought: two dinosaurs in love. Jim Henson's anthropomorphic sitcom "Dinosaurs" comes to mind. But what exactly would dinosaur mating look like — in the real world, not on TV?

This article first appeared on Salon.

Obviously we will never know for sure what they did to woo each other, but science buffs did receive a clue about dinosaur mating mechanics earlier this year. In January scientists from the University of Bristol and the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed in the journal Current Biology that they had found a dinosaur cloaca. Cloacas, for the uninitiated, are the equivalent of an anus, urethra and genitalia, found in animals like amphibians, birds and reptiles. This particular cloaca was discovered in a fossil that had preserved the skin patterns of a Psittacosaurus, a dinosaur related to the Triceratops that was roughly the size of a dog.

Salon reached out to two of the scientists behind that study to find out what we now know, more broadly, about dinosaur reproduction.

"In terms of dinosaurs we know that they had sex as all animals have unless they are hermaphrodites, which is not the norm amongst animal with a spine," Dr. Jakob Vinther, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, told Salon by email. "A bigger question is how!!" He noted that birds, which are descended from dinosaurs, often lack reproductive organs like a penis and "instead have cloacas that are virtually indistinguishable between the sexes and then rub them against each other while vibrating vigorously and thereby sperm is transferred. This is so elegantly called cloacal kissing." This is in contrast to copulatory sex, in which a male introduces sperm directly into the female's body.

"We could tell that the cloaca had an anatomy that is suited for copulatory sex rather than cloacal kissing," Vinther told Salon regarding the fossilized cloaca. "So far so good, but we can't tell its sex based on the external anatomy. The penis is elegantly tucked away inside the cloaca."

Dr. Diane Kelly, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped co-author the dinosaur cloaca paper, elaborated on what we do know for sure about dinosaur sex — and what we don't.

"Our study of the fossilized cloaca let us make some inferences about possible Psittacoasaur social signals, which may or may not have been sexual," said Kelly. "We just don't know!"

What Kelly can say for sure is that dinosaurs used internal fertilization.

"We have widespread examples of dinosaur species that laid shelled eggs — the shell is laid down inside the female reproductive tract, so fertilization also had to happen there," Kelly explained. "There are no examples of fossilized dinosaur genitalia, but we can make some guesses about how those bits would have worked by looking at the anatomy of dinosaurs' closest living relatives."

Kelly said that because crocodilians and birds like ostriches and emus have sex in which males can insert their penises and turn them inside out (meaning they are reversible), "It's a reasonable guess that dinosaurs did that as well."

And some answers only lead to more questions.

"Sure, they had copulatory sex, but how did a diplodocus mount another?" Vinther asked. "Could they do that at all and did they instead stand side by side and then the male had a very long and dextrous penis that could find its way? Barnacles are crustaceans, which are attached and still have copulatory sex. How do you find the most optimal mate then? Well, you have a penis that is 10-15 times longer than yourself and then you grope around until another barnacle lets you in."

He expressed doubt as to whether dinosaurs did that, noting that "apart from in dolphins and whales, the penis in animals with a spine is typically a turgid organ or it has erectile tissues that make an organ with limited ability to feel its way without some assistance."

Alas, according to Kelly, everything else about the mating process — including any speculative dinosaur romance — remains pretty much a mystery.

"Mating behaviors don't fossilize," said Kelly. "So we don't know anything at all about dinosaur courtship."

Scientists calculated how many T. Rexes lived on Earth — here's how

The Tyrannosaurus rex is perhaps the most iconic of all the dinosaurs, immortalized in film, children's toys and silly Halloween costumes. Its name translates into "king of the tyrant lizards," and its fearsome profile makes it clear why: T. Rex had a massive head, powerful jaws, razor-sharp teeth and a whip-like tail. (Although its puny arms are a comic contrast to the rest of its visage.) The T. Rex is believed to have been one of the largest land carnivores of all time, more than 40 feet long and 12 feet tall at the hips.

But like many extinct animals, it is hard to know just how much of a threat the T. Rex was during its reign. (Notably, for years there was debate over whether T. Rex was a predator or scavenger, though recently the scientific consensus tilts towards predator.) Were they as common as rabbits, or highly dispersed predators like snow leopards?

A group of scientists led by University of California Museum of Paleontology director Charles R. Marshall set out to answer just that. They believe they can now roughly estimate how many T. Rexes roamed the planet.

Their estimate is roughly 2.5 billion specimens that roamed Earth collectively during their existence, which lasted a few million years. (They would likely have lived more generations if not for the extinction event likely caused by either a meteor or comet 66 million years ago.)

The researchers, who published their findings in Science Magazine, estimate that the abundances of T. Rexes at any given period was roughly 20,000 individuals, and that they lived for roughly 127,000 generations. To put that in context with today's predator populations, that 20,000 number is comparable to today's African lion population, which conservationists estimate at 25,000.

The scientists arrived at their estimate using a wide range of data. For one thing, they took into account a principle known as Damuth's Law, which holds that species with larger body sizes will usually have lower average population densities. Because this formula includes individuals in a species that had not reached their maximum size, the scientists used an estimate for "postjuvenile individuals" — the T. Rex equivalent of an angsty teenager. (Now there is a sobering thought.) Once they had that information, they multiplied it by the estimated geographic area where paleontologists believe the monstrous beasts once roamed. They then incorporated what we know about when the T. Rex lived, although the scientists acknowledge that this figure is particularly unclear "because of the poor temporal control on most T. rex fossil localities and because there is a substantial dinosaur preservational gap below the oldest T. rex fossils."

Since experts believe based on fossil evidence that they lived for anywhere from 1.2 million years to 3.6 million years, the team settled on the mean figure of 2.4 million years. From there, they plugged in other numbers until they eventually arrived at their estimates.

Despite their short reign over the planet — one regrettably cut short by the Cretaceous-Triassic Boundary Extinction Event — the fact that another bipedal predator would perform a census of them 66 million years later speaks to their cultural immortality.


Anti-Asian violence is nothing new: It has a long, disturbing history in the United States

Less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit America, leading to a surge in hate incidents against people of Asian descent, I spoke with "Star Trek" actor George Takei about a graphic memoir he had written. The erstwhile Ensign Sulu described living in a Japanese-American internment camp as a small child. His book was a harrowing depiction of a shameful chapter in American history: During World War II, roughly 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage (a majority of them U.S. citizens) were imprisoned simply because of their ethnicity. The government was unwilling to distinguish between the Japanese empire that America was fighting and Americans who happened to be of Japanese ancestry. (We were also fighting Germany and Italy, and while there was some discrimination against Americans with German or Italian backgrounds, none were sent to concentration camps.)

This article first appeared in Salon.

"The Japanese Americans did get a formal apology," Takei recalled. "President Ronald Reagan did officially and on behalf of the U.S. government apologize for it. He did sign the Civil Liberties Act, which paid a token redress of $20,000."

That particular human rights violation may have been put behind us, but there's still a very long way to go. A bill called the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, intended to combat anti-Asian hate crimes, is en route to passage at the time of this writing, but six Republican senators voted to block it from consideration. (Three of them — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — are potential presidential candidates in 2024.) It is illegal to openly discriminate against people of Asian ancestry, but that hasn't halted the growing number of anti-Asian hate crimes and related incidents, including a mass shooting last month at three Atlanta spas where six of the eight victims were Asian American women.

To understand what is happening, it is important to go back to the history of hate against Asians in the United States.

"We have to look at around the Civil War, and post-Civil War," when the United States deliberately began allowing Chinese men to enter the country as low-wage labor, Rosalind Chou, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, told Salon. "There was the assumption that they'd be easier to control than freed black Americans and that they would be laborers to use not only on the railroads, but on plantations." Chou added that by only allowing Chinese men, lawmakers reinforced existing laws that barred interracial relationships and made it less likely that the immigrants could "procreate and then produce progeny that would then become U.S. citizens."

Not long after that came the 1875 Page Act, "the first exclusion act against Asian-Americans," Nadia Y. Kim, professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University, explained to Salon. She noted that the law was rationalized by supporters by drawing on "the racist, sexist stereotype that all Chinese women were prostitutes," creating an environment in which "anyone who resembled a Chinese woman was barred, harassed or sexualized." She described this as a precursor to the better-known Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers; to this day it remains the only immigration legislation ever implemented that specifically barred one ethnic or national group.

"One of the bases for racism against Asian Americans is the notion of us as contagion and contamination," Kim explained. "So the laws in both 1875 and 1882 reflect that, because the idea is that Chinese women are carrying sexual diseases and effecting the white and healthy United States. Then, in 1882, it continues that rationale that immigrants are carriers of foreign disease that can infect the country."

Another factor, predictably, was the notion that Chinese American laborers would compete with Americans for jobs. As a result, Chinese immigrants were frequently degraded and debased, even though their contributions to America's success were essential.

"The United States, as we know it, wouldn't exist without those railroad workers because they took part in bridging the eastern region and the western region of the United States, and allowed them to transfer goods and people for a booming capitalist country," Kim explained. "Many of them were killed from working in inhumane, completely exploitative conditions and freezing winters, blasting holes through rock for tunnels for the train. Many of them actually had spent much of their lives building this railroad. Then, because of racism, they weren't even allowed to ride on the railroad."

Chou pointed to a landmark Supreme Court case of 1922, Takao Ozawa v. U.S., which further codified the idea that people of Asian descent could not be American citizens. Ozawa had lived in the U.S. for 20 years, but was denied the rights of citizenship because of alien land laws.

"He brought a case to the Supreme Court challenging at the time how whiteness was defined by ocular inspection of the skin," Chou told Salon. "If your skin looked white, you were white. And then you had all the rights of white Americans. His argument, obviously, was that some Japanese are very light-skinned — lighter skinned than people of some Spanish descent or Italian descent — and his argument was also that he was American through and through, and that Benedict Arnold was white-skinned and white by the law, but he was a traitor."

The Supreme Court ruled against him, determining, as Chou put it, that authorities would no longer use "inspection of the skin as rationale for deeming whiteness," but instead would "use this new pseudo-race science and this term 'Caucasian.'"

It isn't difficult to draw a direct line from the racism toward Chinese and Japanese immigrants seen in these incidents and the internment camps where George Takei lived in childhood. Arguably, this kind of racism also made it easier for America to rationalize bloody and costly wars in other Asian countries, like Korea and Vietnam, in the mid-20th century.

"I always emphasize how widespread and tolerated anti-Asian racism is, and how closely tied it is to U.S. foreign policy objectives," Josephine Park, a faculty member of the Asian American Studies Program and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, told Salon by email. "American global dominance has been predicated on its military entanglements in the East (and more recently in the Near East) — the American Century was the Pacific Century — and because Asians have always been rendered 'alien' and hence shackled to Asia, our treatment at home is directly tied to broader, often militarized, contexts."

She added, "It is hard to overstate the hatred and condescension that governed U.S. relations with Asia during the Cold War, for example — even with our stated allies — and the treatment of Asian Americans as alternately friends and enemies because of these global contests has ensured that they aren't seen as simply Americans."

Around this same time, however, Asian Americans began to mobilize to defend themselves. As Kim explained, many Asian Americans were inspired by the civil rights and Black Power movements and founded a "Yellow Power" movement, which was influential in the rise of ethnic studies in academia. Around the same time, immigration laws became less overtly discriminatory: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, although not fully enacted until 1970, relaxed racial quotas in the immigration process, leading to a large influx of people from Asia and Latin America.

"This was a surprise to Congress because [they] thought that they were mostly going to get southern and eastern European immigrants, and European immigrants in general," Kim observed, "but it ended up opening up the floodgates for Asia and Latin America."

One horrific crime in particular, as Kim notes, galvanized the Asian American community: The 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, an industrial draftsman and part-time waiter in the Detroit area, came just as Japan's booming auto industry was eclipsing America's struggling automakers. Predictably and tragically, Japan was blamed when auto workers in the U.S. were laid off, and two white men targeted Chin — who was of Chinese, not Japanese descent and of course had nothing to do with the auto industry. Unfazed by common sense, human decency or facts, the two white men taunted and harassed Chin, chased him down and eventually beat him to death with a baseball bat.

"They never actually spent a full night in jail for the murder of the human being," Kim told Salon. That's true: The presiding judge, asked why he sentenced the two men to just three years' probation and a fine, said: "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail. ... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."

"Most of what Asian Americans had been organizing around had tended to be more region-specific," Kim said, but the Chin murder "touched all Asian ethnic groups and all Asian American groups living across the United States, whether it was in urban areas or the Midwest or the coastal states. It really allowed for cross-ethnic and cross-regional organizing to bond the Asian American movement."

This brings us to the present. The language of that 1980s Detroit judge is distressingly similar to that of the sheriff who responded to the Atlanta shootings by saying that the suspect had "a really bad day," was "fed up" and was at the "end of his rope." (He also denied that racism played a role, although he himself had publicly expressed anti-Chinese racism on social media.) Of course there was also the racist language and terminology used by our most recent former president, associating Asian people with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I've been saying this for a year: The rhetoric from Trump has emboldened people to openly speak in an anti-Chinese way, which —being Asian American in the United States, part of the stigma is people can't tell Asians apart, we're forced into a racial group and lumped together," Chou said. "I'm Taiwanese American, but people walking down the street couldn't differentiate, right? Because we ignore the diversity of this group. I've been saying for a year that people are going to get hurt if we keep placing blame and calling COVID-19 the 'China virus,' if we have radio talk show hosts and news reports constantly using rhetoric that is anti-Chinese.

"That rhetoric of blame on COVID-19," Chou continued, "has led to harassment on playgrounds where Asian children are being called names, being spit upon, being shoved, all the way through the elderly being pushed and shoved and robbed on the street, called names, having things thrown at them, even more violent things where people have been stabbed and shot. We see that rhetoric is so dangerous. Words do matter."

"Racism pretty much was government policy regarding the virus for the previous administration," said Park, "which frankly did little more than alternately demonize and minimize China and Asians more broadly. These attacks are not going away, and as the [economic] contest with China intensifies, the violence likely will, too. The silver lining is that so many are engaged with this broader history now. They want to understand what has now become impossible to ignore, and to combat this longstanding discrimination."

Facebook didn't stop 10 billion impressions from 'repeat misinformers' during 2020 election cycle: report

Facebook does not need any more bad publicity. The company is currently being publicly scorned after more than 500 million users had their personal information leaked. It has also been faced with an antitrust suit endorsed by more than 40 states since last year, with reports alleging that CEO Mark Zuckerberg would intimidate potential competitors.

Now the big blue social media titan has some more bad press — namely, a new report which claims that it failed miserably in its promise to stop misinformation during the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, the report accuses Facebook of being so lax that the top 100 "repeat misinformers" on the site received millions more interactions than the combined total netted by the top 100 traditional U.S. media pages.

Released by the online advocacy group Avaaz, the report argues that if Facebook had not waited until October (roughly one month before Election Day) before altering its algorithm to reduce the visibility of inaccurate and hateful content, it could have stopped roughly 10.1 billion views from accumulating on 100 pages that frequently disseminated misinformation in the eight months prior to the 2020 election. You read that right: 10.1 billion impressions of misinformation.

"Failure to downgrade the reach of these pages and to limit their ability to advertise in the year before the election meant Facebook allowed them to almost triple their monthly interactions, from 97 million interactions in October 2019 to 277.9 million interactions in October 2020 — catching up with the top 100 US media pages 2 (ex. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) on Facebook," Avaaz reported.

The report noted that an October 2020 poll found that 44% of registered voters (or roughly 91 million people) saw false claims about mail-in voter fraud on Facebook, with 35% of registered voters (or roughly 72 million people) believing them.

The organization also noted that Facebook has rolled back many of the changes it made before the election, which is allowing right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon and Stop the Steal to thrive on the site. Avaaz says that they have identified 267 pages and groups, as well as many "Stop the Steal" groups, that have a combined 32 million followers and which spread "violence-glorifying content" based around the 2020 presidential election. More than two-thirds of these groups are in some way connected to QAnon, Boogaloo, militia-aligned or other violent far right groups. Despite violating Facebook's policies, Avaaz says that 118 of those pages and groups are still active.

Facebook denied the report's conclusions. As Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Time Magazine, "This report distorts the serious work we've been doing to fight violent extremism and misinformation on our platform. Avaaz uses a flawed methodology to make people think that just because a Page shares a piece of fact-checked content, all the content on that Page is problematic."

Trump's Big Lie and Hitler's: Is this how America's slide into totalitarianism begins?

It is a question I often hear people ask during conversations about the rise of Adolf Hitler: If I had been alive in Germany when the Nazis took power, would I have had the courage to side against them?

This article first appeared in Salon.

Thanks to the 2020 presidential election, there is now a convenient way to answer that query. Hitler rose to power because he told a Big Lie. Millions of people believed that Big Lie because they held more sinister beliefs; millions more likely didn't believe it, but weren't willing to denounce it as an outright lie at the time.

The same dynamic is true regarding Donald Trump's claim that Joe Biden stole the election from him. It is a Big Lie being embraced to advance a racist, anti-democratic agenda. Anyone who doesn't stand up to that Big Lie today would have likely been complicit in Hitler's Big Lie last century. Anyone who actually believes Trump's Big Lie ... do I need to finish that sentence?

A lot of prominent Republicans who are trying to worm their way around this issue by not quite saying they believe the Big Lie, but rather that it is somehow validated by the fact that many other people agree with it. Shortly before Trump egged on his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas argued that America should rely on a white nationalist precedent to resolve the election (presumably in Trump's favor) because "recent polling shows that 39 percent of Americans believe the election that just occurred, quote, was rigged. You may not agree with that assessment. But it is nonetheless a reality for nearly half the country."

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made a similar argument one month later. In a dissent about a case regarding the use of mail-in ballots in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Thomas wrote that "an election free from strong evidence of systemic fraud is not alone sufficient for election confidence," but that people on the losing side of an election need "the assurance that fraud will not go undetected." Never mind that there is literally no evidence that mail-in voting being particularly susceptible to fraud. Thomas' argument was essentially the same as Cruz's: Even if there isn't evidence of fraud, if one side claims the other side might have stolen an election, that's enough to justify making it harder for the other side to vote.

Let's call these things what they are: Attempts by Republican officials to exploit Trump's Big Lie to create permanent Republican rule, but without quite saying that they agree with the Big Lie itself. But even if such prominent Republicans don't flat-out say that the Big Lie is true, refusing to denounce it emboldens more people to believe it — and emboldens policymakers to change society based around it.

This is where the Hitler analogy comes into play. When he and the Nazis were fighting to gain power in Germany during the 1920s, they did so by claiming that their country had been defeated in World War I because they were betrayed by a secret coalition of Jews and socialists. Hitler connected his Big Lie to the cult of personality he was creating for himself by connecting the emergence of his epiphany to Nov. 9, 1918, the day that Kaiser Wilhelm II was overthrown in a democratic revolution. (Germany officially lost the war two days later.) Hitler exaggerated his own experiences as a soldier and argued that he began to pursue a career in politics to restore Germany's stolen valor as a result of the supposed Jewish and socialist treachery.

It is impossible to overstate how much this Big Lie enabled Hitler to rise to power. Although the Nazis never won more than 37.3% of the vote in an election, they were able to leverage that minority into seizing power in 1933. Shortly after that they began to systematically dismantle the democracy that had been created after the German Revolution, suppress and murder political opponents, implement policies that oppressed Jews and other minority groups and lay the foundations for an aggressive foreign policy to reestablish a German empire. Over and over again, these actions were rationalized as being not exactly evil or discriminatory, but as a necessary response to the fact that so many people were convinced Germany would have won the Great War (as it was called at the time) if it hadn't been stabbed in the back by a cabal of enemies. Perhaps the perfect symbol for this was that Kristallnacht, the massive pogrom that wound up being a prelude to the Holocaust, was scheduled to occur on Nov. 9, 1938, on the 20-year anniversary of the supposed betrayal.

You may be wondering, at this point, what evidence Hitler and his supporters had to back up their claims. The answer is, simply put, none whatever. They had no documents, no verifiable firsthand accounts, no smoking guns of any kind. There was a lot of misinformation put out by Nazi and Nazi-adjacent media outlets, to be sure, but not a single shred of it was backed up by any concrete facts. This is why Hitler's claim was a Big Lie: It was a lie so massive in its implications, and so boldly untethered to reality, that it becomes more difficult to challenge simply because no one could imagine that something so audacious was 100% false.

This brings us back to the 2020 election. There are a number of demonstrable ways to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Biden defeated Trump. For one thing, Trump has always been a sore loser. When he was still a reality TV star, he argued that the Emmys were "rigged" against him after he was snubbed for his work on "The Apprentice." During the 2016 Republican primaries, he falsely accused Cruz of "fraud" and stealing the crucial Iowa caucuses, hinting that if Cruz wound up winning the presidential nomination instead of him (as seemed possible at the time) it would be illegitimate. After Trump was nominated, he turned his sights on his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly accused Clinton and the Democrats of doing dishonest things "at many polling places" without providing proof. He said that the election was "rigged" against him, refused to answer questions about whether he would concede if he lost and eventually said he would only accept the election's results "if I win."

Trump did win, of course, but only in the Electoral College. Because his failure to win the popular vote undermined his legitimacy (only four presidents before him had been elected without winning the popular vote), Trump insisted that millions of people had voted illegally. He even created a voter fraud commission to back up what he said, although it was later disbanded after its members couldn't find or prove any significant fraud. As the 2020 election approached, Trump moved on to the possibility that he might join the 10 previous incumbent presidents defeated in their next election. To avoid suffering that fate, he argued that mail-in ballots were ripe for fraud (again, without any actual evidence) and, as in 2016, told his supporters, "The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged."

After Biden won a convincing victory, both in the national popular vote and the Electoral Colleg, Trump disgraced himself by being the only defeated president in American history to refuse to accept his loss. Over and over again, he and his surrogates fabricated stories about vote dumps, corrupted voting machines, Republican poll watchers being obstructed and fraudulent mail-in ballots. He engaged in the rhetorical tactic known as "gish-galloping," or overwhelming people with so many bad-faith arguments that they get overwhelmed and struggle to tell the difference between truth and fiction.

It isn't really necessary to go through every specious Trump claim with a fine-toothed comb. He already had the opportunity to do so multiple times, and he lost on every single occasion. His own attorney general, William Barr, investigated Trump's claims and found that Biden had won legitimately. Republican leaders in the key states whose results would need to be overturned for Trump to win admitted that he had lost. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Trump's assertions had no merit. He filed dozens of lawsuits and lost every single one that asserted fraud, as well as nearly all of the ones in which he did not claim fraud. (More than two-thirds of the 60 cases he brought to court did not claim fraud at all but appear to have been PR stunts; he won only one of those, a Pennsylvania case over technical procedural issues.) Many of those judges were Republicans, including some appointed by Trump himself.

Unwilling to accept his loss even though it had been unanimously and overwhelmingly reaffirmed by the entire legal system, Trump then falsely claimed that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to overturn the election by refusing to certify the electoral votes on Jan. 6. When Pence did not do so (because he simply didn't have that power), Trump told a mob that he had urged to assemble in Washington that day, "We are going to the Capitol" so Republicans like Pence could find "the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country." Everyone in the world knows what happened next.

To be clear: If you believe Joe Biden stole the election, you would necessarily have to believe in a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of Republicans — judges, state legislators, the president's own attorney general and vice president — to deny him his rightful victory. You would also have to believe that it's just a coincidence that Trump has repeatedly been a sore loser — in the Emmys, in the 2016 Republican primaries, during and after the 2016 election and in the build-up to the 2020 election — and claim that on this particular occasion, he was right.

Of course, as my Salon colleague Amanda Marcotte recently pointed out, "conspiracy theories are rarely about a literal, sincere understanding of the facts, but closer to religious fables or myths — comforting narratives that a person tells themselves in order to justify an underlying belief system." She noted that recent polls show Republicans believing a lot of things that blatantly contradict each other. In addition to 60% agreeing or somewhat agreeing that Biden stole the election, 55% agree or somewhat agree that the Capitol rioters were actually staged by antifa and 51% agree or somewhat agree that the rioters were mostly peaceful and law-abiding. How can someone say that the rioters were violent left-wing radicals members yet actually peaceful pro-Trump protesters, all at the same time?

This paragraph from Marcotte's essay is worth quoting in full:

In this case, the underlying belief being rationalized is the Republican turn against democracy itself. Republican voters understand their ideology and party are both unpopular. They know that maintaining power means overruling the wishes of the majority of Americans. But rather than admit out loud — or possibly even to themselves — that they would rather end American democracy, they cling to these comforting conspiracy theories that let them tell a story where they're the heroes, not the villains trying to strip rights away from other Americans.

That, right there, is the bottom line. The Germans who "believed" in Hitler's Big Lie did so not because he had any proof that Germany had been stabbed in the back, but because they hated Jews, hated leftists and wanted to restore the German Empire to its pre-World War I glory. The Republicans who "believe" in Trump's Big Lie do so not because there is any logical argument that Biden stole the election, but because they don't want to admit that a majority of Americans do not support their policies. In order to stay in power, they need to disenfranchise racial minorities, low-income voters and anyone else who might be inclined not to support Republican politicians.

They simply can't admit that they are supporting white nationalists who mean to destroy democracy. So they embrace a Big Lie.

As my colleague Chauncey DeVega recently wrote, Republican state legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills that would restrict voting. More measures like this are being proposed, with Trump's Big Lie being cited over and over again as a rationalization for them. Some of these bills have already been enacted, with dozens more heading toward probable passage.

As DeVega writes:

In public statements, leading Republicans have basically admitted that their efforts to nullify multiracial democracy are not driven by concerns about "voter fraud" or "voter security" but rather by the desire for power and control.
This has fueled an inevitable counter-narrative from the right wing and its enablers, in which the American people are being told, to borrow from Trump's command, not to believe their lying eyes.

Ironically enough, one of the wisest statements that could be made to apply to this predicament came from another disgraced Republican, Richard Nixon. Before he was elected to the presidency in 1968, he lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. Unlike the 2020 election, there actually was some evidence of chicanery in the 1960 contest, and Nixon seriously considered challenging the results. There wasn't enough evidence for him to be able to overturn the election in court, however, and he ultimately decided that his defeat was more his own fault than anyone else's. As he wrote in his memoir, "Six Crises," "it was not that I believed I should accept defeat with resignation," but rather that he remembered the words of his college football coach. As Nixon recalled, Chief Newman told him that "the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not on his victorious opponents or on his teammates."

If Republicans want to learn the right lessons from the 2020 election, they should look at Trump's massive failures as president and their own failures as a political party. They should find a way to modernize their message so that it is both consistent with conservative values and distances itself from the corrupt regime of Trump and the ugly bigotry that has driven away so many potential supporters.

That would be the way of democracy. The path of enabling Trump's Big Lie, by contrast, is the way of fascism.

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