Australia's News Corp walks a delicate line on COVID politics

Elements within News Corporation are now fighting among themselves over how its platforms should position themselves in response to the worsening COVID crisis in New South Wales.This has become clear with the decision by the editor of News Corp's Daily Telegraph, Ben English, to ditch Alan Jones as a columnist.

Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus outbreak got inexorably worse, the Telegraph ran a series of characteristically shrill columns by Jones attacking mask-wearing, lockdowns and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Yet Jones also promotes these opinions on News Corp's Sky News, where his Sky-at-Night slot is undisturbed. Indeed, Jones makes a virtue of this, telling The Sydney Morning Herald:

Have a look at Sky News YouTube, Sky News Facebook and Alan Jones Facebook and you can see. The same column that I write for the Tele goes up on my Facebook page.

On July 29, the Telegraph also took the opportunity provided by an outburst against Jones by the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, to distance itself from its former columnist, referring to him as a “Sky News host".

At The Australian on July 30, Jones's opinions were confined to rugby union.

Trying to read the entrails of what goes on in News Corp is akin to Kremlinology, but this is the second piece of evidence in the past couple of weeks that the Telegraph is executing a delicate pivot.

A decision to switch to an overt anti-Coalition position would be well above the editor's pay grade. However, a couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph's editor-at-large, Matthew Benns, wrote a curious critique of Scott Morrison's handling of vaccination and quarantine, written as if by the Morrison family dog. It contained quite a lot of nipping at Morrison's heels.

Meanwhile, the paper's opinion columns have been replete with morale-boosting propaganda reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s.

It has continued to report the growing COVID crisis straight, publishing pictures of a strained-looking Berejiklian but refraining from attacking her in commentary.

Putting all this together, the Telegraph seems to be positioning itself as champion of an heroic people, contingently tolerant of Berejiklian, intolerant of attacks on her policies, restless with Morrison, yet anxious not to damage the Liberal Party politically.

The degree of difficulty involved in staying upright while executing this manoeuvre is considerable.

Meanwhile at Sky, Jones goes on as before, and Peta Credlin resorts to some very dodgy logic in an attempt to show that the performance of the Labor government in Victoria is still clearly inferior to the performance of the Coalition government in New South Wales.

Her proposition is that the 172 cases of the Delta strain reported on July 28 was nothing like as bad as the 700 cases a day at the height of the Victorian crisis last year, even though, she said, Delta was three times more infectious than last year's strain.

This, she said, should cause people in NSW to “take heart".

So a snapshot one-point reading of a curve that is still rising steeply – the case numbers on July 29 were 239 – is compared with the peak of a separate outbreak of a strain that Credlin says was three times less infectious.

If the people of New South Wales take heart from that, they are really grasping at straws.

Credlin does not attack Berejiklian, masks or lockdowns as Jones does, and she carries a torch for the Coalition while also trying to boost morale in Sydney.

Andrew Bolt threads his way through this maze by attacking politicians who he says have “smeared" the people who took part in the anti-lockdown marches on July 25. At the same time he remains uncharacteristically agnostic on whether lockdowns are right.

Last year Bolt was calling lockdowns an over-reaction. It evidently makes a difference when it is your side of politics doing the locking down.

As Australia enters a pre-election phase, it matters what the Murdoch media do. Its newspapers represent about two-thirds of the nation's metropolitan daily circulation, with monopolies in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart. In August, Sky News will re-enter free-to-air television via several Southern Cross Austereo regional channels, which it claims will give it an audience of seven million.

What the Telegraph does is particularly important because it is Murdoch's main populist political attack dog in Australia. It circulates widely in western Sydney, where there are several marginal seats.

Reading the entrails is an inexact science, to put it mildly, but there is a public-interest reason for trying.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dead, shrivelled frogs are unexpectedly turning up across eastern Australia

Over the past few weeks, we've received a flurry of emails from concerned people who've seen sick and dead frogs across eastern Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

One person wrote:

About a month ago, I noticed the Green Tree Frogs living around our home showing signs of lethargy & ill health. I was devastated to find about 7 of them dead.

Another wrote:

We previously had a very healthy population of green tree frogs and a couple of months ago I noticed a frog that had turned brown. I then noticed more of them and have found numerous dead frogs around our property.

And another said she'd seen so many dead frogs on her daily runs she had to “seriously wonder how many more are there".

So what's going on? The short answer is: we don't really know. How many frogs have died and why is a mystery, and we're relying on people across Australia to help us solve it.

Why are frogs important?

Frogs are an integral part of healthy Australian ecosystems. While they are usually small and unseen, they're an important thread in the food web, and a kind of environmental glue that keeps ecosystems functioning. Healthy frog populations are usually a good indication of a healthy environment.

The stony creek frog is one of the species hit by this mysterious outbreak.

Jodi Rowley, Author provided

They eat vast amounts of invertebrates, including pest species, and they're a fundamental food source for a wide variety of other wildlife, including birds, mammals and reptiles. Tadpoles fill our creeks and dams, helping keep algae and mosquito larvae under control while they too become food for fish and other wildlife.

But many of Australia's frog populations are imperilled from multiple, compounding threats, such as habitat loss and modification, climate change, invasive plants, animals and diseases.

Although we're fortunate to have at least 242 native frog species in Australia, 35 are considered threatened with extinction. At least four are considered extinct: the southern and northern gastric-brooding frogs (Rheobatrachus silus and Rheobatrachus vitellinus), the sharp-snouted day frog (Taudactylus acutirostris) and the southern day frog (Taudactylus diurnus).

A truly unusual outbreak

In most circumstances, it's rare to see a dead frog. Most frogs are secretive in nature and, when they die, they decompose rapidly. So the growing reports of dead and dying frogs from across eastern Australia over the last few months are surprising, to say the least.

While the first cold snap of each year can be accompanied by a few localised frog deaths, this outbreak has affected more animals over a greater range than previously encountered.

This is truly an unusual amphibian mass mortality event.

In this outbreak, frogs appear to be either darker or lighter than normal, slow, out in the daytime (they're usually nocturnal), and are thin. Some frogs have red bellies, red feet, and excessive sloughed skin.

A browned, shrivelled green tree frog

A browned, shrivelled green tree frog (Litoria caerulea)

Suzanne Mcgovern, Author provided

The iconic green tree frog (Litoria caeulea) seems hardest hit in this event, with the often apple-green and plump frogs turning brown and shrivelled.

This frog is widespread and generally rather common. In fact, it's the ninth most commonly recorded frog in the national citizen science project, FrogID. But it has disappeared from parts of its former range.

Other species reported as being among the sick and dying include Peron's tree frog (Litoria peronii), the Stony Creek frog (Litoria lesueuri), and green stream frog (Litoria phyllochroa). These are all relatively common and widespread species, which is likely why they have been found in and around our gardens.

We simply don't know the true impacts of this event on Australia's frog species, particularly those that are rare, cryptic or living in remote places. Well over 100 species of frog live within the geographic range of this outbreak. Dozens of these are considered threatened, including the booroolong Frog (Litoria booroolongensis) and the giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus).

The giant barred frog is a threatened species that lives in the geographic range of this outbreak.

Jodi Rowley, Author provided

So what might be going on?

Amphibians are susceptible to environmental toxins and a wide range of parasitic, bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. Frogs globally have been battling it out with a pandemic of their own for decades — a potentially deadly fungus often called amphibian chytrid fungus.

This fungus attacks the skin, which frogs use to breathe, drink, and control electrolytes important for the heart to function. It's also responsible for causing population declines in more than 500 amphibian species around the world, and 50 extinctions.

For example, in Australia the bright yellow and black southern corroboree frog (Pseudophryne corroboree) is just hanging on in the wild, thanks only to intensive management and captive breeding.

The teeny tiny southern corroborree frogs have been hit hard by the chytrid fungus.

Jodi Rowley, Author provided

Curiously, some other frog species appear more tolerant to the amphibian chytrid fungus than others. Many now common frogs seem able to live with the fungus, such as the near-ubiquitous Australian common eastern froglet (Crinia signifera).

But if frogs have had this fungus affecting them for decades, why are we seeing so many dead frogs now?

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The power of no: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Black women’s resistance

Simone Biles, the US gymnast widely considered “the greatest of all time", withdrew from the Olympic finals this week, saying:
I have to focus on my mental health […] We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.

Biles joins other Black women like Naomi Osaka and Meghan Markle who have chosen to forgo medals, trophies and royalty to prioritise their mental well-being.

In a recent Guardian article about “the rise of the great refusal" author Casey Gerald argued “Biles did not simply quit. She refused".

There is immense power in refusal. These women have awoken something in those of us who struggle to say “no" or who blindly serve institutions that do not have our best interest at heart. They challenge us to erect boundaries to protect our well-being.

Pressure to take on ever more work and ever more responsibility is familiar to many. But saying “no" can present unique difficulties for people from racially minoritised backgrounds.

Setting professional boundaries can be deeply challenging in the face of pressure, discrimination and adverse mental health impacts.

Pressure to take on ever more work

In academia, this pressure persists. Research by colleagues and I (Kathomi Gatwiri) shows academics from minoritised backgrounds continue to have radically different experiences to their colleagues. We argue that academics from minoritised backgrounds:

are often expected to be grateful, likeable, and […] to provide extensive pastoral care so as to maintain student happiness.

They are also exposed to more severe hostility and punishments through flawed tools of measuring performance such as Student Evaluations of Teaching if they choose not to perform this extra labour. This causes extended emotional overload for many teachers and can be especially damaging to their mental well-being.

Researchers have written about the pressure of Black tenure-track academics “to engage in service activities that are not expected of their White counterparts" such as doing extra mentoring and joining more committees:

When Black faculty members face enormous requests for service, White colleagues often advise and encourage Black faculty to “just say no".

However, just saying “no" does not always work to their best interest and can lead to institutional punishment, which can derail career progress.

Another paper which looked at how Black American women contend with the pressure to take on ever more responsibilities, noted “some women talked about the difficulty of saying no […] yet others talked about the empowerment of saying no." One interviewee said:

I don't know how to say no […] I feel I have an issue with saying no. I will spread myself like peanut butter out.

In our own research on the pressures faced by Black African professionals in the workplace in Australia, participants reported feeling the workplace was a site of constant surveillance and scrutiny, where they were often assumed to be “out of place". This increases the burden of having to work “twice as hard" to prove themselves worthy, which can result in an inability to say “no" at work.

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Your bed probably isn’t as clean as you think – a microbiologist explains

There's nothing quite like crawling into bed, wrapping up in your blankets, and nestling your head into your pillow. But before you get too comfortable, you might want to know that your bed isn't all that dissimilar to a petri dish. The combination of sweat, saliva, dandruff, dead skin cells and even food particles make it the optimal environment for a whole host of germs such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and even tiny bugs to grow.


Here are just a few of the things that lurk beneath our covers.

Bacteria

Our beds can play a host to a vast variety of bacterial species.

For example, research looking at hospital bed linens found that Staphylococcus bacteria were common. These bacteria are typically harmless, but can cause serious illness when they enter the body through an open wound – and certain species of Staphylococcus can cause more harm than others.

Take Staphylococcus aureus, which is fairly contagious and can cause skin infections, pneumonia and worsen acne. Not only have S. aureus been found to live on pillowcases, research also shows that some strains are resistant to antibiotics.

Research also shows that alongside Staphylococcus, E. coli and other similar bacteria, known as gram negative bacteria, are also common in hospital beds. Gram negative bacteria are a serious health problem as they're highly resistant to antibiotics and can cause serious human infections – including urinary tract infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea, meningitis and sepsis if they get into the body. Some strains of E. coli can also be very infectious, and may cause urinary tract infections, traveler's diarrhoea and pneumonia. This is why washing your hands properly after using the toilet is important to prevent transferring this bacteria to other parts of your home.

Of course, hospitals are very different from our at-home environment. But that doesn't mean it isn't still possible for these bacteria to get into our beds. In fact, around a third of people carry Staphylococcus aureus in their bodies. People that carry S. aureus can shed the organism in large numbers – meaning it'd be pretty easy for Staphylococcus bacteria to be transferred into your bed at home.

Bugs

You shed around 500 million skin cells per day – while sleeping in bed. These skin cells may attract and be eaten by microscopic dust mites. These mites and their droppings can trigger allergies and even asthma.

Bedbugs can also be a danger. Although these tiny bugs (around 5mm long) haven't been shown to transmit disease, they can cause itchy red bite marks – alongside a variety of mental health effects, including anxiety, insomnia and allergies.

Bedbugs can be carried into homes on soft surfaces, such as clothes or backpacks, or by other family members.

Washing and drying bed linens on a high temperature (around 55℃) will kill dust mites, but bedbugs may need to be professionally exterminated.

Household germs

You can also bring germs to your bed from contaminated household items – such as clothing, towels, the toilet or bath, kitchen surfaces, or even pets.

Bathroom and kitchen towels play host to a variety of bacterial species, including S. aureus and E. coli. Improper laundering can also spread these germs to other items – including our bed sheets. Even diseases like gonorrhoea can be transmitted through contaminated towels or bedding.

A bathroom hand towel hanging next to a shelving unit.

Germs lurking in your bathroom towels can easily be transferred to your bed sheets.

New Africa/ Shutterstock

Different microbial species will survive on fabrics for different periods of time. S. aureus, for example, can survive for a week on cotton and two weeks on terry cloth. And fungal species (such as Candida albicans, which can cause oral thrush, urinary tract infections and genital yeast infections) can survive on fabrics for up to a month.

Influenza viruses can also survive on fabrics and tissues for 8-12 hours. Some other types of viruses, such as the vaccinia virus, can live on wool and cotton for up to 14 weeks.

Bed hygiene

Proper and regular washing are all key to ensuring germs don't develop into a genuine health threat. But how often should you change your bed linen?

Since we can't wash our sheets every day, one thing you can do daily is air your sheet every morning. Since moisture builds up in them while we're sleeping, pulling the duvet back so the bed sheets can breathe before making the bed means your sheets and mattress become a less attractive nesting spot for bacteria and mites.

Mattresses can also be a big source of bacteria and microbes due to a build-up of skin flakes, food particles and fungi over the years. Since it's difficult to wash a mattress, using a washable cover – and washing it every week or two – can help cut down on the number of microbes living there. Vacuuming your mattress and bed base every month will also help remove allergens and dust. Flip your mattress often – or get a new one if it's older than ten years.

It's recommended that you wash your bedding every week (or more often if possible) – especially if you spend a lot of time in bed, sleep in the nude, or sweat a lot at night. It's also recommended pillowcases are changed every two to three days.

All bed linens should be washed in warm to high temperatures (around 40℃-60℃) in order to effectively kill germs. Avoid overloading laundry machines and use enough soap, and make sure bed linens are completely dried before using.

Showering before bed, avoiding taking naps or getting into bed while sweaty, removing makeup and avoiding lotions, creams, and oils right before bed can all help keep linen cleaner between washes. Not eating or drinking in bed, keeping pets off your sheets, and removing dirty socks will also help.The Conversation

Manal Mohammed, Lecturer, Medical Microbiology, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How summer of 2021 has changed our understanding of extreme weather

A succession of record-breaking natural disasters have swept the globe in recent weeks. There have been serious floods in China and western Europe, heatwaves and drought in North America and wildfires in the sub-Arctic.
An annual report on the UK's weather indicates extreme events are becoming commonplace in the country's once mild climate. August 2020 saw temperatures hit 34°C on six consecutive days across southern England, including five sticky nights where the mercury stayed above 20°C. In the future, British summers are likely to see temperatures greater than 40°C regularly, even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C.

The Canadian national temperature record was shattered in June 2021 meanwhile, with 49.6°C recorded in Lytton, British Columbia – a town that was all but destroyed by wildfires a few days later.

Many of these events have shocked climate scientists. The Lytton temperature record, for example, was head-and-shoulders above those set during previous heatwaves in the region. Some scientists are beginning to worry they might have underestimated how quickly the climate will change. Or have we just misunderstood extreme weather events and how our warming climate will influence them?

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COVID-19 could cause male infertility and sexual dysfunction – but vaccines do not

Contrary to myths circulating on social media, COVID-19 vaccines do not cause erectile dysfunction and male infertility.

What is true: SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, poses a risk for both disorders.

Until now, little research has been done on how the virus or the vaccines affect the male reproductive system. But recent investigations by physicians and researchers here at the University of Miami have shed new light on these questions.

The team, which includes me, has discovered potentially far-reaching implications for men of all ages – including younger and middle-aged men who want to have children.


What the team found

I am the director of the Reproductive Urology Program at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. My colleagues and I analyzed the autopsy tissues of the testicles of six men who died of COVID-19 infection.

The result: COVID-19 virus appeared in the tissues of one of the men; decreased numbers of sperm appeared in three.

Another patient – this one survived COVID-19 – had a testis biopsy about three months after his initial COVID-19 infection cleared up. The biopsy showed the coronavirus was still in his testicles.

Our team also discovered that COVID-19 affects the penis. An analysis of penile tissue from two men receiving penile implants showed the virus was present seven to nine months after their COVID-19 diagnosis. Both men had developed severe erectile dysfunction, probably because the infection caused reduced blood supply to the penis.

Notably, one of the men had only mild COVID-19 symptoms. The other had been hospitalized. This suggests that even those with a relatively light case of the virus can experience severe erectile dysfunction after recovery.

These findings are not entirely surprising. After all, scientists know other viruses invade the testicles and affect sperm production and fertility.

One example: Investigators studying testes tissues from six patients who died from the 2006 SARS-CoV virus found all of them had widespread cell destruction, with few to no sperm.

It is also known that mumps and Zika viruses can enter the testicles and cause inflammation. Up to 20% of men infected with these viruses will have impaired sperm production.


A new study on vaccine safety

Additional research by my team brought welcome news. A study of 45 men showed the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines appear safe for the male reproductive system.

This, then, is another reason to get the vaccinations – to preserve male fertility and sexual function.

Granted, the research is only a first step on how COVID-19 might affect male sexual health; the samples were small. Studies should continue.

Still, for men who have had COVID-19 and then experienced testicular pain, it is reasonable to consider that the virus has invaded testes tissue. Erectile dysfunction can be the result. Those men should see a urologist.

I also believe the research presents an urgent public health message to the U.S. regarding the COVID-19 vaccines.

For the millions of American men who remain unvaccinated, you may want to again consider the consequences if and when this highly aggressive virus finds you.

One reason for vaccine hesitancy is the perception among many that COVID-19 shots might affect male fertility. Our research shows the opposite. There is no evidence the vaccine harms a man's reproductive system. But ignoring the vaccine and contracting COVID-19 very well could.

[Over 106,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]The Conversation


Ranjith Ramasamy, Associate Professor of Urology, University of Miami

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mars InSight: mission unveils surprising secrets of red planet's interior – new research

We may have walked on the Moon and sent probes across the solar system, but we know very little about what's going on inside other planets. Now, for the first time, we have been able to view the interior of one, thanks to Nasa's Mars InSight probe. The probe, which landed in 2018, is equipped with a solar-powered lander bristling with equipment, including a seismometer (a very sensitive vibration detector).

The results, published in three studies in Science, throw up some unexpected findings about Mars's interior, including a very large core.

Though Mars has no tectonic plates, the first “marsquakes" were detected within months of the probe landing. These may result from vibrations caused by meteorites hitting the surface or from processes inside the planet.

It is difficult to detect quakes on Mars, partly because the seismometer is subject to the extremes of Martian weather, with seasonally changing windy periods obscuring the data. The signals used to probe the Martian interior all come from relatively small quakes, the best among the hundreds detected so far.

Planets grow by accumulating material (accretion) early in the life of a solar system. But their interiors are not a uniform mix of these initial ingredients – they also undergo differentiation, where some lighter minerals “float" towards the surface, while heavier components like iron sink towards the planet's centre. We expect rocky planets like Mars to have an iron-rich core, followed by a silicate layer called the mantle and an outermost skin known as the crust. Until now, how much of Mars each of these layers occupied was unknown.

Metallic heart

It's impossible to get a sample of Mars's core. Instead, to estimate its size, we used seismic waves (created by marsquakes). On Earth, the core's radius was first estimated by finding its “shadow" – an area where the core disrupts the arrival of seismic waves from distant earthquakes. Our study had to rely on a particular kind of slow, sideways-travelling waves called S-waves which have been reflected back to the surface by the interface between the core and the mantle.

Careful seismic processing by seismologists from around the world revealed signals from six marsquakes relatively close to the probe. Combined with information from mineral physics and from seismic waves travelling through the mantle, we were able to estimate the size and density of the Martian core. This suggests that the radius is a whopping 1,830km (give or take 40km) – just over half of the planet's radius, which is bigger than we thought.

Shear waves travel from a marsquake and reflect off the iron-nickel core. (Chris Bickel/Science)


The larger than expected core requires that a relatively large proportion of lighter elements must be mixing with its iron. From our work, we now know that the Martian core should contain a high fraction of sulphur and other light elements. Experiments show that liquid iron compounds containing this much sulphur are unlikely to solidify at the pressures and temperatures we expect at the centre of Mars, so it is unlikely that it has an inner solid core as Earth does. This may help us understand why there is no planet-wide magnetic field on Mars today, unlike on Earth.

Layers and layers

A planet's crust comprises a tiny fraction of its mass. But the Martian crust's chemical and thermal interactions with the atmosphere, and with any water or ice present, helps set the conditions that determine whether life can exist there.

In the second new study, another team investigated seismic waves which converted from P-waves, which are rapid, compressional waves, to S-waves (or vice versa) when they encountered different rocky material, and an assessment of background vibrations and gravity, to probe the Martian crust. This suggested the possible average Martian crust thickness is between 24km to 72km. This means we can rule out earlier estimates of up to about 100km.

From over 100 years of seismology on Earth, we know that beneath the thin crust lies the mantle, but the mantle itself is not uniform all the way to the core. The upper mantle and the crust, collectively known as the lithosphere, are rigid, while the lower mantle is a solid that can flow. On Earth, it is the lithospheric plates that move as part of plate tectonics, but on Mars, it is unclear what role the lithosphere plays.

To sample different depths of the mantle we can use both direct and reflected seismic waves. Direct P- or S-waves dive deep into the mantle and then return to the surface. The depth they travel down to depends on the structure of the planet and the distance from the quake to the seismometer. Reflected waves return to the surface and then dive again two or three times. A third study identified eight low-frequency marsquakes that produced both direct and reflected waves, and used these to create and test different models of the Martian crust and mantle.

By comparing the data and the models, they found that Mars's lithosphere is between 400km and 600km thick. This is considerably thicker than any rigid layer seen in the Earth and implies that the Martian crust has a higher concentration of radioactive heat-producing elements than previously thought.

We now know more about the ingredients that went into building Mars, and that it has a very thick lithosphere, allowing our smaller sister planet to retain its internal heat. Though future astronauts won't have to worry about the small marsquakes we used to probe the red planet, the lack of a magnetic field generated by the sulphur-rich core will mean they and their equipment will need to be more careful of the harsh solar wind.

Our new understanding of the Martian interior is part of a new era of planetary seismology, more than fifty years since the Apollo missions landed seismometers on the Moon. New seismometers will be deployed to the Moon as part of the Artemis mission, while the Dragonfly mission will place a seismometer on Saturn's moon Titan in the mid-2030s. These experiments will help us understand more about how planets form and evolve – seeing deep into Mars is just one piece of a solar-system sized puzzle.The Conversation


Jessica Irving, Senior Lecturer in Geophysics, University of Bristol and Anna Horleston, Senior Research Associate in Planetary Seismology, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Experts: 2020 election polls produced 'error of unusual magnitude'

More than eight months after the acute polling embarrassment in the 2020 U.S. elections – that produced the sharpest discrepancy between the polls and popular vote outcome since 1980 – survey experts examining what went wrong say they have no definitive answers about why polls erred as markedly as they did.

That inconclusive finding reported by a polling industry task force will do little to assuage popular skepticism about election polls which, in one way or another, have misfired in all U.S. presidential races but one since 1996.

And if the source of the 2020 polling error cannot be pinpointed, then addressing and correcting it obviously becomes daunting.

Moreover, as I discussed in my book “Lost in a Gallup," polling failures in presidential elections since 1936 rarely have been repetitive. Just as no two elections are alike, no two polling failures are quite the same.

Over the years, pollsters have anticipated tight presidential elections when landslides have occurred. They have signaled the wrong winner in closer elections. The estimates of venerable pollsters have been singularly in error. Wayward exit polls have thrown Election Day into confusion by identifying the losing candidate as the likely winner. Off-target state polls have confounded expected national outcomes, which essentially was the story in 2016.

One voter standing at a white voting both that sits on blue metal legs with casters.

A voter walks to a booth to fill out their ballot at Public School 160 on Nov. 3, 2020, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Trump support underestimated

In 2020, election polls pointed to Democrat Joe Biden's winning the presidency. But collectively, the polls underestimated backing for then-President Donald Trump no matter how close to the election the survey was conducted and regardless of the methods pollsters chose. Surveys in races for U.S. senator and governor were beset by similar flaws.

Those were among the findings described in a report made available on July 19, 2021, that noted that voter-preference surveys in 2020 “featured polling error of an unusual magnitude" and that the discrepancy in the presidential race was the greatest in 40 years.

The experts, who comprised a task force of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a survey industry organization, speculated that some Republicans may have been less willing than Democrats to be interviewed by pollsters – a hypothesis that could explain some of the polling error. But the task force report said “identifying conclusively" why polls erred “appears to be impossible with the available data."

The task force, which included 19 members from the polling industry, the news media and academia, said it reviewed data from more than 2,800 polls and found that surveys in the 2020 presidential race overstated Biden's popular vote advantage by 3.9 percentage points.

This marked the fourth presidential election in the past five in which the national polls, at least to some extent, exaggerated support for Democratic candidates.

Masking dramatic miscalls

Averaging the polling errors, as the task force did in conducting its months-long analysis, is broadly revealing about the extent of those errors. But it also has the effect of masking several dramatic miscalls in late-campaign polls conducted in 2020 by, or for, leading news organizations.

The final CNN poll had Biden ahead by 12 points. Surveys for The Wall Street Journal-NBC News and by the Economist-YouGov had Biden winning by 10 percentage points as the campaign wound down. A few polls, such as Emerson College's survey, came close in estimating the outcome.

Biden won the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points.

The report said the task force rejected several prospective causes of polling error in 2020 – including those that likely distorted survey results in key states in 2016 when Trump unexpectedly won an Electoral College victory. Those factors included undecided voters swinging to Trump late in the campaign and a failure by some pollsters to adjust survey results to account for varying levels of education.

White voters without college degrees were understood to have voted heavily for Trump in 2016, but those voters were underrepresented in some polls in key states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Trump won narrowly and surprisingly.

The task force also rejected as a factor in 2020 any errors pollsters made in projecting the likely makeup of the electorate in terms of age, race, ethnicity and other factors – an estimate common to preelection surveys.

The task force reported finding “no evidence that polling error was caused by the underrepresentation or overrepresentation of particular demographics" in the preelection surveys.

Additionally, it is unclear whether Trump's sharp criticism of preelection polls in 2020 dissuaded his supporters from participating in surveys.

“So it's possible that these may be short-term phenomena that will abate when Trump is not on the ballot," Daniel Merkle, the then-president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, said in a speech in May.

[Over 106,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

“On the other hand," Merkle said, “it could be a broader issue of conservatives becoming less likely to respond to polls in general because of a decline in social trust, or for some other reasons. It will take further evaluation to understand this nonresponse issue and to adjust for it.

"This may not be an easy task."

A screenshot of a Wall Street Journal story on Nov. 1, 2020, reporting a 10-point lead for Joe Biden in the final days of the 2020 campaign

Like many news outlets, the WSJ overestimated Biden's lead in the 2020 campaign.

The Wall Street Journal

Overblown characterizations

In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, several media critics declared that polling could be “irrevocably broken" and faced “serious existential questions."

Such disquieting assertions seem overblown; polls are not going to melt away. After all, election polling represents a slice of a multibillion-dollar industry that includes consumer and product surveys of all types.

And if election polling survived the debacle of 1948 – when President Harry S. Truman defied predictions of pollsters and pundits to win reelection – then it surely will live on after the embarrassment of uncertain origin of 2020.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 20, 2021.The Conversation

W. Joseph Campbell, Professor of Communication Studies, American University School of Communication

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

'Jesus was definitely a Republican': Why some younger evangelicals are leaving the faith

The extent to which the number of white evangelicals have declined in the United States has been laid bare in a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute's 2020 Census on American Religion.

The institute's study found that only 14% of Americans identify as white evangelical today. This is a drastic decline since 2006, when America's religious landscape was composed of 23% white evangelicals, as the report notes.

Along with a decline in white evangelicalism, the data indicates a stabilized increase in the number of those who no longer identify as religious at all. Scholars of religion refer to this group as "nones," and they make up about a quarter of the American population. These statistics are even more drastic when considering age. In short, older Americans are much more religious than younger Americans, while millennials are likely to not practice or identify with religion.

This data is significant. Even though white evangelicals tend to be politically vocal and influential, several are known to be leaving the faith.

Increasingly, scholarship is tracking the emergence of those defecting from religion. Religious studies scholar Elizabeth Drescher's 2016 book, "Choosing Our Religion," examines numerous cases in which people transition away from their faith. She notes that people leaving evangelicalism "tended to express anger and frustration with both the teachings and practices of their childhood church."

Although the statistics are sure to capture the attention of various readers, the data can give only limited insights into the more nuanced perspectives specific to critiquing white evangelicalism.

Over the past six years, I have been part of a team of scholars from various disciplines and universities examining the hesitancy and rejection of younger individuals either leaving or attempting to reform evangelicalism in America. Some younger evangelicals are disenchanted with their faith traditions' staunch and divisive political positions and how theology has been used to prop up these positions.

Younger evangelicals' experiences

Between 2010 and 2018, I conducted over 75 interviews with those dissatisfied with their evangelical faith and observed multiple white evangelical megachurches.

My interviewees, all white, were typically in their late 20s to early 40s and highly critical of the Christian faith of their youth. These interviewees respond differently to their dissatisfaction. Some completely leave their faith while others try to reform their faith from within. For the majority, church was a major part of their social life, and they described rigid expectations to defend their theology, politics and spiritual communities to outsiders.

Several of those interviewed during my research mentioned how politics had influenced the theology of white evangelicalism in the United States. Rob, who resides in Florida and spent the majority of his early adult life as a musician in a white evangelical megachurch, told me that his church preached "God, country and the Republican Party." He was even taught as a teenager that "Jesus was definitely a Republican," and he characterized God as "quite angry, a cosmic referee" seeking to regulate the lives of the faithful. Today, Rob identifies as a progressive Christian and holds a much more generous view of his god.

My research shows some younger evangelicals are fatigued with white evangelicalism's allegiance to the Republican Party and to specific stances on racism and sexuality. White evangelicals categorize these issues as a "culture war" for the soul of America – an internal struggle for who will define and decide the future of America.

By framing these issues as a cultural battle, white evangelicals maintain an embattled posture targeting a list of such enemies as liberals, secularists and atheists. As sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry note in their study of Christian nationalism, white evangelicals maintain a "collective desire to protect their cultural-political turf."

Furthermore, in a racially and ethnically diversifying and increasingly pluralistic country, some evangelicals' experiences transform their positions on political issues. Take for instance, the issue of immigration policies in the United States. White evangelicals as a group highly favor restrictive immigration policies.

However, Jerry, one of my interviewees who lives in North Carolina and grew up Methodist, cited the white evangelical position against restrictive immigration policies as a reason to question his faith. Today, Jerry identifies as spiritual but not religious; while still an evangelical, Jerry explained, "When it came to issues of immigration, we wanted our kids to know what it means to be an outsider. We want our kids to have a global experience." His theological interpretation of the Bible at that time taught Jerry to welcome outsiders, and he applied this to national borders.

Political changes can shift religious beliefs. Jerry's growing cultural awareness eventually replaced his evangelical interpretation of Scripture. He notes, "As opposed to looking to the Bible or church for answers, let's have a multicultural world perspective to answer those questions."

Likewise, Sarah grew up in Kentucky, spending much of her childhood in church services, Bible studies and Christian camps within a Baptist denomination. "Part of me likes the idea of church," she says, "but I think I like the idea of just helping people more. That's my idea of what a Christian is, someone who helps others." She admits this while maintaining that for her personally, religious identity is unimportant.

Sarah's involvement in poverty alleviation in Kentucky influenced her attitudes on how she sees white evangelical worship today: "The way that the church operates in Kentucky is so backwards. It's all about the self. About pleasing yourself. It's all white, middle- to upper-class people watching a big screen with a full band. I think that's probably the opposite of what Jesus wanted."

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Why is this happening now?

For those trained and disciplined within white evangelicalism, the insular and authoritarian nature of the faith often creates circumstances where questioning or critiquing the faith seems impossible and can lead to shunning.

Brandy, in Tennessee and raised a Baptist, recounted that her family actually held a religious intervention, with a screen, PowerPoint and projector, after she stopped attending her family's church. She experienced ostracization: "I felt rejected, overlooked, looked down upon," she says. "I felt apart from the community." Brandy is still a Christian and attends another more progressive church regularly, but her evangelical family refuses to accept her church as legitimate.

This is only a sample of interviewee comments I heard indicating a growing disaffection with the political stances and alliances of white evangelicalism. They represent a growing movement of "exvangelicals" – those who grew up in the faith but have since abandoned it.

The staunch resistance to civil unions, transgender rights and women's equality, along with the inability of white evangelicalism to grapple with its racialized and patriarchal structures, is misaligned with some of these younger perspectives today.

As the report indicates, many millennials are simply rejecting traditional forms of religion altogether.The Conversation

Terry Shoemaker, Lecturer Religious Studies, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

25-year-long study of Black women links frequent use of lye-based hair relaxers to a higher risk of breast cancer

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Frequent and long-term use of lye-based hair straightening products, or relaxers, may increase the risk of breast cancer among Black women, compared with more moderate use.

Boston University's Black Women's Health Study followed 59,000 self-identified African American women for over 25 years, sending questionnaires every two years on new diagnoses and factors that might influence their health.

Using these data in our own study, my team of epidemiologists and I found that Black women who used hair products containing lye at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had an approximately 30% increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer compared with more infrequent users.

The minimal association between hair relaxers (with or without lye) and breast cancer risk for moderate users is generally reassuring. But the elevated risk for the heaviest users of lye-based hair products – which included about 20% of study participants – is concerning.

Why it matters

There is an urgent need to address racial disparities in breast cancer.

Black women diagnosed with breast cancer are 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women. While systemic factors such as delays in diagnosis and poorer health care likely contribute to this disparity, they don't seem to fully explain the survival gap between Black and white women.

Three diverse women practicing yoga outdoors, with a Black woman in the focus

Black and white women have the same lifetime risk for breast cancer, but Black women are often diagnosed with more aggressive forms earlier in life.

kali9/E+ via Getty Images

Black women are more likely than white women to develop highly aggressive breast cancers that have higher mortality rates, but researchers don't really know why. However, scientists do know that chemical hair relaxers, more often used by Black women, contain potentially harmful chemicals, including possible carcinogens and chemicals known as endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with hormone function and could raise breast cancer risk. In the Black Women's Health Study, 95% of women reported past or current use of these products.

This study fills a knowledge gap on the potential health effects of a consumer product popular among Black women. Given these findings, women may want to be cautious about the types of personal-care products they choose.

What still isn't known

Because the Black Women's Health Study did not have information on specific brands of hair relaxers, my team and I could not determine which specific ingredients might be most relevant for breast cancer risk. In addition, because we asked about hair relaxer use before 1997, the results of this study may not apply to products on the market today.

Though our findings suggest a link between the use of certain types of hair relaxers and breast cancer, epidemiologic studies such as this one cannot definitively prove that hair relaxers cause breast cancer. Additional research is needed, especially on currently available products.

What other research is being done

Evidence from animal and other experimental studies support a possible link between chemicals included in hair relaxers and cancer development. Studies on hair relaxer use and breast cancer risk in people, however, have had inconsistent results, possibly because of differences in the types of products used or asked about.

What's next

Thanks to 59,000 study participants in the Black Women's Health Study, our research team continues to investigate risk factors for breast cancer and other diseases in Black women. By understanding what causes disease and learning about ways to lower risk, society can move one step closer toward eliminating health disparities.

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Kimberly Bertrand, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trump can’t beat Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in court – but the fight might be worth more than a win

From condo salesman to reality TV host to leader of the free world, Donald Trump has occupied several lifetimes' worth of identities over a remarkable career of reinventions. Even so, the billionaire mogul's latest metamorphosis – into a consumer-rights plaintiff seeking to regulate big business – is a peculiar one.

With a volley of lawsuits against the operators of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, former President Trump is asking the courts to do what tycoon Trump once would have denounced: tell some of America's most powerful corporations that they have no choice who they do business with.

As a First Amendment and media law scholar, I believe the former president knows he can't win in court. Here's why – and why even his most ardent supporters don't really want him to.

Screenshot of the Voice of America website headline,

When Twitter banned Trump, it made headlines.

Screenshot, Voice of America website

Content moderation rules

After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by rioters bent on preventing Congress from certifying President Biden's electoral win, all of the major social platforms – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – pulled the plug on Trump's accounts. The companies cited internal rules about misuse of their platforms to spread misinformation and incite violence.

Trump's lawsuit barrage seeks not just to overturn his own bans but to invalidate a 1996 federal statute, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that entitles website operators to choose who and what appears on their pages without fear of liability. His attorneys are arguing – creatively, but I believe without much legal foundation – that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional in that Congress has given platforms too much speech-policing power.

Section 230 has been called the law that “created the internet," as it enables anyone who operates or uses a website – not, as Trump claims, only social media behemoths – to disavow responsibility for what outsiders come onto the site and say.

The law does enable YouTube to deactivate videos, or entire accounts, without assuming “ownership" of anything libelous that remains viewable. But it also allows the proprietor of a small-town news site to entertain reader comments without being considered the “publisher" of – and thus liable for – every scurrilous statement that ends up in the comments section.

Social networks have enforced their “content moderation" rules spottily and without much transparency. That's a bad business practice, and it's arguably unfair. But the Constitution doesn't offer a remedy for all of life's adversities. It certainly doesn't offer one for Donald Trump here.

Social media isn't government

Court after court has rejected the argument that because social networks are widely considered – in the Supreme Court's words – “the modern public square," speakers are entitled to demand access to their platforms just as they are entitled to use a physical public square. That's not how the First Amendment works.

The protections of the First Amendment are triggered when a public agency exercises governmental power to restrict people's speech – what is known as “state action." On rare occasions, private organizations can be considered “governmental" – for instance, when a private hospital or university is given police power to make arrests on its premises.

But operating a video-sharing platform is not a “governmental" function – and judges have said so, unanimously.

Conservatives, including Trump, cannot possibly want private businesses to be governed by the same constitutional standards that apply to cities and counties. If courts started applying the Bill of Rights to Walmart or McDonald's just because they are large and powerful entities that control a lot of property, those establishments would be forced to welcome even the most disagreeable speakers – let's say, a diner wearing a “F*** Trump" T-shirt – no matter how many offended customers complain.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a man with bright blue eyes, brown hair and a wiry hipster beard, speaking on a monitor.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other Big Tech leaders testified virtually at a congressional hearing in October 2020 regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which guarantees that tech companies cannot be sued for content on their platforms.

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Upending conservative gospel

For decades, conservatives have fought – quite hard and quite successfully in court – to establish that corporations have First Amendment rights equivalent to those of living, breathing people. That includes the corporations operating social media channels.

In a recent essay about democracy in the social media age, I explain how the Communications Decency Act has evolved into the near-impenetrable liability shield that it is today.

In the essay, I describe how the proprietor of a hotel or tavern isn't liable for harm caused by customers visiting the establishment – unless the customer has a known history of dangerousness that the proprietor chooses to ignore. That might offer a split-the-difference path for addressing the worst trolling behavior on social media by repeat bad actors – but, to be clear, it's not the law today.

Today, the law unmistakably entitles the Twitters of the world to do just about anything with their customers' posts: take them down, leave them up, add warnings or modifiers. If users are aggrieved by the way they're treated, they can do exactly what they'd do in the offline world: Take their business somewhere else.

[Understand key political developments, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation's politics newsletter.]

Old news

The Supreme Court already decisively dealt with this issue a half-century ago, when newspapers and television stations held power over political discourse comparable to that of Facebook and Twitter today. In the case, Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, the justices rejected a state legislative candidate's insistence that he was entitled to space in the local newspaper to respond to criticism in two editorial columns.

While the justices acknowledged that a big-city newspaper might have a near-monopoly over information about local elections – sound familiar? – they agreed that the First Amendment would not tolerate commandeering the presses of a private publisher in the interest of government-enforced “fairness."

A federal judge in Florida, relying on the Tornillo case, just ordered the state not to enforce a newly enacted “anti-deplatforming" law enabling any Florida political candidate whose social media posts are hidden, modified or deactivated to sue the platform. The judge concluded that the law violates the First Amendment rights of the platforms by (for example) compelling platforms to let candidates post anything they want, without moderation. “Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers," the judge wrote, “is not a legitimate governmental interest."

The top of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

'The Supreme Court,' writes the author, 'already decisively dealt with this issue a half-century ago, when newspapers and television stations held power over political discourse comparable to that of Facebook and Twitter today.'

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

No one involved with this case could be serious about winning in federal court. But that is not the “court" to which the former president is playing.

Tilting at Silicon Valley appeals directly to Trump's populist followers, many of whom probably suspect that their own clever tweets failed to go viral only because the system is rigged against them.

But even if, as experts suggest, Trump's case is destined to fail, dismissal would be yet another headline and fundraising hook, along the lines of, “You knew those socialist judges were in Hillary's pocket." And even if Trump were ordered to pay Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's attorney fees, they'd have to queue up behind decades' worth of unpaid Trump creditors.

As Trump would tweet, if given the chance: “So much winning!"The Conversation

Frank LoMonte, Director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Do I need a COVID-19 booster shot? 6 questions answered on how to stay protected

The increasing prevalence of new coronavirus variants is raising questions about how well protected those who've already had their COVID-19 shots are against evolving forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Here, microbiology and infectious disease specialist William Petri of the University of Virginia answers some common questions about COVID-19 booster shots.

1. What is a booster shot?

Boosters are an extra dose of a vaccine given to maintain vaccine-induced protection against a disease. They are commonly used to bolster many vaccines because immunity can wear off over time. For example, the flu vaccine needs a booster every year, and the diphtheria and tetanus vaccine every 10 years.

Boosters are often identical to the original vaccine. In some cases, however, the booster shot has been modified to enhance protection against new viral variants. The seasonal flu vaccine, most notably, requires an annual booster because the flu virus changes so rapidly.

2. Do I need to get a COVID-19 booster?

Not yet. As of early July 2021, none of the U.S. government authorities is recommending a booster. This includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to the CDC.

3. Why aren't booster shots recommended yet?

While vaccine-induced immunity may not last forever, it is not clear when a booster will be needed.

Encouragingly, all of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines induce a robust immune memory against the coronavirus. The vaccine teaches your immune system's memory B cells to produce antibodies when you're exposed to the virus. Researchers have detected high levels of memory B cells in the lymph nodes of people who received the Pfizer vaccine for at least 12 weeks after they got the shot.

Studies also suggest that authorized COVID-19 vaccines are continuing to offer protection even against emerging strains of the coronavirus. One study found that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was between 73% and 82% effective at warding off severe disease from the beta variant. And a preliminary study that has not been peer-reviewed found the Pfizer vaccine to be 88% effective against the delta variant.

The other source of long-lasting antibody responses against the coronavirus is cells called plasmablasts that reside in bone marrow. These cells continuously produce antibodies and do not require boosting to maintain their activity. Fortunately, plasmablasts have been detected in the bone marrow of people who received the COVID-19 vaccine for up to 11 months, indicating some degree of long-lasting immune memory.

Booster shots remind your immune system of the pathogen it's been immunized against.

4. How will I know if I need a booster?

You may need to wait for an outbreak in people who have been vaccinated. Researchers are still figuring out the best way to measure the strength of someone's vaccine-induced immunity. The COVID-19 vaccines have been so effective that there are not many failures to test.

The best candidate to measure are certain antibodies the vaccine induces the immune system to make. They recognize the spike protein that allows the coronavirus to enter and infect cells. Evidence supporting the importance of anti-spike antibodies includes a study showing that the somewhat more effective mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna generate higher antibody levels in the blood than the adenovirus vector vaccines like Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. In a preliminary study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, anti-spike antibody levels were lower in people who caught COVID-19 after they were vaccinated with the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine.

Medical workers would love to be able to give patients a blood test that would tell them how well protected they are or aren't against COVID-19. That would be a clear indication as to whether a booster shot is needed.

But until researchers know for sure how to measure vaccine-induced immunity, the next indication that boosters may be needed are breakthrough infections in older adults who have already been vaccinated. People over the age of 80 make lower levels of antibodies after vaccination, so their immunity may wane sooner than that of the general population. The elderly would also most likely be the most susceptible to new viral variants that evade the protection current vaccines provide.

5. I'm immunocompromised – should I worry?

Boosters may be necessary for immunocompromised people. In one study, 39 of 40 kidney transplant recipients and a third of dialysis patients failed to make antibodies after vaccination. Another study identified 20 patients with rheumatic or musculoskeletal diseases on medications that suppress the immune system who also did not have detectable antibodies. Both of these studies were done after patients received the full vaccine dose.

Boosters have been shown to help in these cases. In one study, one-third of solid organ transplant patients who had a suboptimal response to two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were able to develop an antibody response with a third dose.

Those who are immunocompromised may wonder if the vaccine they received is successfully generating immunity in their body. A preliminary study that has not yet been peer-reviewed did find that a test that specifically targets the anti-spike antibodies the vaccines trigger may be helpful in determining whether the vaccine worked. But for now, the FDA does not recommend antibody tests to assess immunity.

6. Does my booster need to match my first shots?

Likely not. Recent research has shown that mRNA vaccines, like Pfizer and Moderna, can be mixed with adenovirus-based vaccines like AstraZeneca with comparable results.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation's science newsletter.]The Conversation

William Petri, Professor of Medicine, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Benjamin Franklin’s fight against a deadly virus: Colonial America was divided over smallpox inoculation, but he championed science to skeptics

Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak. Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today's world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.

As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.

Smallpox strikes Boston

Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city's population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.

What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation" or “inoculation," and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter" from a victim's scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity" against smallpox.

Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.

The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.

etching of an 18th century man in white wig

Cotton Mather heard about variolation from an enslaved West African man in his household named Onesimus.

Bettman via Getty Images

Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used" in West Africa, where he was from.

Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation's effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.

The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman's mind. But others were not convinced.

Stirring up controversy

A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.

frontpage of a 1721 newspaper

From its first edition, The New-England Courant covered inoculation.

Wikimedia Commons

One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?" The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers" such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God."

In contrast to Mather and Boylston's research, the Courant's articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn't it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?

Franklin, the Courant's editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.

Historians don't know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world's current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.

Independent thought

You might expect that James' little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.

That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin's capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.

Truth, not victory

etching of Franklin standing at a table in a lab

Franklin matured into a well-known scientist and statesman, with many successes aided by his open mind.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What happened next shows that Franklin, unlike his brother – and plenty of pundits and politicians in the 21st century – was more interested in discovering the truth than in proving he was right.

Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.

Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv'd the Distemper in the common Way of Infection."

Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret" not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen."

A scientific perspective

A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.

19th-century photo of a smallpox patient

Smallpox was characterized by fever and aches and pustules all over the body. Before eradication, the virus killed about 30% of those it infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today's researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.

The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.

We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.

When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn't take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.

[Insight, in your inbox each day. You can get it with The Conversation's email newsletter.]The Conversation

Mark Canada, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University Kokomo and Christian Chauret, Dean of School of Sciences, Professor of Microbiology, Indiana University Kokomo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Declaration of Independence wasn’t really complaining about King George -- and 5 other surprising facts for July Fourth

Editor's note: Americans may think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence, but many of those ideas are elitist and wrong, as historian Woody Holton explains.

His forthcoming book “Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution" shows how independence and the Revolutionary War were influenced by women, Indigenous and enslaved people, religious dissenters and other once-overlooked Americans.

In celebration of the United States' 245th birthday, Holton offers six surprising facts about the nation's founding document – including that it failed to achieve its most immediate goal and that its meaning has changed from the founding to today.

Ordinary Americans played a big role

The Declaration of Independence was written by wealthy white men, but the impetus for independence came from ordinary Americans. Historian Pauline Maier discovered that by July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to separate from Britain, 90 provincial and local bodies – conventions, town meetings and even grand juries – had already issued their own declarations or instructed Congress to.

In Maryland, county conventions demanded that the provincial convention tell Maryland's congressmen to support independence. Pennsylvania assemblymen required their congressional delegates to oppose independence – until Philadelphians gathered outside the State House, later named Independence Hall, and threatened to overthrow the legislature, which then dropped this instruction.

A woodcut of people in colonial dress gathered in the street

A depiction of the reading of the Declaration of Independence by John Nixon, from the steps of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 8, 1776.

Edward Austin Abbey, Harper's Magazine, via Library of Congress

American independence is due in part to African Americans

Like the U.S. Constitution, the final version of the Declaration never uses the word “slave." But African Americans loomed large in the first draft, written by Thomas Jefferson.

In that early draft, Jefferson's single biggest grievance was that the mother country had first foisted enslaved Africans on white Americans and then attempted to incite them against their patriot owners. In an objection to which he gave 168 words – three times as many as any other complaint – Jefferson said George III had encouraged enslaved Americans “to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them."

Numerous other white Southerners joined Jefferson in venting their rage at the mother country for, as one put it, “pointing a dagger to their Throats, thru the hands of their Slaves."

Britain really had forged an informal alliance with African Americans – but it was the slaves who initiated it. In November 1774, James Madison became the first white American to report that slaves were plotting to take advantage of divisions between the colonies and the mother country to rebel and obtain their own freedom. Initially the British turned down African Americans' offer to fight for their king, but the slaves kept coming, and on November 15, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the last British governor of Virginia, finally published an emancipation proclamation. It freed all rebel- (patriot-) owned slaves who could reach his lines and would fight to suppress the patriot rebellion.

The Second Continental Congress was talking about Dunmore and other British officials when it claimed, in the final draft of the Declaration, that George III had “excited domestic insurrection amongst us." That brief euphemism was all that remained of Jefferson's 168-word diatribe against the British for sending Africans to America and then inciting them to kill their owners. But no one missed its meaning.

A painting of five men presenting papers to a group of men

The drafters of the Declaration of Independence present their document to the Continental Congress.

John Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons

The complaints weren't actually about the king

Britain's king is the subject of 33 verbs in a declaration that never once says “Parliament." But nine of Congress' most pressing grievances actually were about parliamentary statutes. And even British officials like those who cracked down on Colonial smuggling worked not for George III but for his Cabinet, which was in effect a creature of Parliament.

By targeting only the king – who played a purely symbolic role in the Declaration of Independence, akin to modern America's Uncle Sam – Congress reinforced its novel argument that Americans did not need to cut ties to Parliament, since they had never had any.

The Declaration of Independence does not actually denounce monarchy

As Julian P. Boyd, the founding editor of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson," pointed out, the Declaration of Independence “bore no necessary antagonism to the idea of kingship in general."

Indeed, several members of Congress, including John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, openly admired limited monarchy. Their beef was not with all kings and queens but with King George III – and him only as the front man for Parliament.

The Declaration of Independence fell short of its most pressing purpose

In June 1776, delegates who supported independence suggested that if Congress declared it soon, France might immediately accept its invitation to an alliance. Then the French Navy could start intercepting British supply ships bound for America that very summer.

But in reality it took French King Louis XVI a long 18 months to agree to a formal alliance, and the first French ships and soldiers did not enter the war until June 1778.

Abolitionists and feminists shifted the Declaration of Independence's focus to human rights

A portrait of a man in a heavy coat

Lemuel Haynes, a free Black man, was one of the first to interpret the Declaration of Independence's words as applying to individual liberties.

New York Public Library

In keeping with the Declaration of Independence's largely diplomatic purpose, hardly any of its white contemporaries quoted its now-famous phrases about equality and rights. Instead, as the literary scholar Eric Slauter discovered, they spotlighted its clauses justifying one nation or state in breaking up with another.

But before the year 1776 was out, as Slauter also notes, Lemuel Haynes, a free African American soldier serving in the Continental Army, had drafted an essay called “Liberty Further Extended." He opened by quoting Jefferson's truisms “that all men are created equal" and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

By highlighting these claims, Haynes began the process of shifting the focus and meaning of the Declaration of Independence from Congress' ordinance of secession to a universal declaration of human rights. That effort was later carried forward by other abolitionists, Black and white, by women's rights activists and by other seekers of social justice, including Abraham Lincoln.

In time, abolitionists and feminists transformed Congress' failed bid for an immediate French alliance into arguably the most consequential freedom document ever composed.

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Woody Holton, Professor of History, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Florida condo collapse – searching for answers about what went wrong in Surfside can improve building regulation

The collapse of a huge condominium building near Miami, Florida was shocking news to wake up to on the morning of June 24, 2021. It is one of the worst building collapses in recent U.S. history.

I am a professor of engineering and have been studying structural failures – and the lessons people learn from them – for about 25 years. My colleagues and I from the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Concrete Institute will be studying this tragedy to figure out what lessons we might learn.

How does a building stand for 40 years and then collapse, perhaps with little or no warning? Why did it collapse so that part of the building stayed up, sparing many lives? It might take months or longer for engineers to find answers to these questions. But those reports, when they do come, are important because engineers can use them to improve building codes and other safety measures – and hopefully prevent future collapses.

How does a building collapse?

A collapse needs only two things – the right conditions and a trigger.

The conditions that make a building weak could be design errors, construction errors or corrosion. In this case, 40 years of corrosive ocean air may have degraded steel, concrete and other materials. Triggers can be natural events – like an earthquake or a tornado – or man-made like a bomb or collision.

So why, after standing 40 years, did the building in Florida collapse?

To look for clues about the condition of a building, engineers often start by reviewing all available records. In this case, the town of Surfside, Florida, quickly released a number of key documents for the public to access. These include the building plans from 1979 and a nine page report documenting a structural field survey carried out in 2018. It is unusual for engineers to get a field survey report because these usually aren't done or are only provided to the owner. It will probably prove very useful in understanding the building's condition before the collapse.

And the trigger? As I write this, no one yet knows what event caused the collapse. The key evidence is likely still buried under the rubble. Finding the trigger will be the job of forensic engineers who will come up with a series of hypotheses and then use the available evidence to eliminate the options until one trigger remains. Essentially, it's the Sherlock Holmes method: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Failures improve regulation

When a building collapses, finding out what caused the failure is critical so that engineers can suggest updates to building codes, specifications and regulations and prevent future disasters.

A team of investigators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology has already traveled to the site. These engineers serve on code-writing committees and will be in an excellent position to implement what they learn.

In my book “Beyond Failure," I discuss many examples of how collapses have led to changes in codes. The 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, for example, led to an entire new field of research into how to predict and address wind effects on flexible bridges.

In 1981, the National Institute of Standards and Technology – then known as the National Bureau of Standards – investigated the collapse of the Harbour Cay Condominium that occurred while the building was under construction in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Due to a building boom in Florida at the time, as I report in my book, there was a shortage of qualified structural engineers. As a result, the Harbour Cay Condominium was designed by two retired NASA engineers instead of engineers who specialize in building design. These two made many basic blunders in designing the reinforced concrete, particularly with regards to the concrete slabs and columns and the critical connections between them. In this case, existing codes were adequate but not followed. On Sept. 13, 1981, the Associated Press reported that the two engineers had surrendered their licenses following investigation by the Florida Department of Professional Regulation.

Usually when buildings collapse, forensic engineers are hired by lawyers on behalf of parties who might get sued – the building owner, the architect, the structural engineer, the contractor and others. Lawsuits are already underway after the recent collapse in Florida. Since these lawsuits are between private parties, the results of private investigations for the lawsuit will be confidential and thus may never come to light. But with the National Institute of Standards and Technology getting involved, I expect there will a separate public report in this case, unrelated to the private investigations. When government agencies aren't involved, there is an established system for engineers to anonymously report problems that might cause risk to public health and safety. The system is still very new, but something similar has worked well in the U.K.

While engineers may not know for some time exactly what happened in Surfside, I expect this to be a landmark case with many important lessons. By carefully studying this tragedy, we may be able to save lives in the future.


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Norb Delatte, M.R. Lohmann Professor of Engineering and the Head of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Oklahoma State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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