Issue 09: Cheap shots and killer bots
Plus: Why scientific writing is so bad, how to stop snakebites from killing 100,000 people every year, and what science can learn from the fight against global poverty.
Hello from the Works in Progress team! We hope you’re staying warm this winter or, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, enjoying the summer sun. Our new issue, out today, includes essays on fighting pandemics by learning from how we fight fires; understanding the past decade in artificial intelligence and what that means for developing it safely; and the case for a history that focuses on technology and ideas rather than politics and war.
Our lead article – The story of VaccinateCA – by Patrick McKenzie (known to the internet as @Patio11), tells the epic story of how a group of volunteers worked to get surplus Covid vaccines to people who needed them in California during the early part of the vaccine rollout, when they would otherwise be thrown in the trash. This involved a mammoth effort of contacting nearly every pharmacy in the state every day and building a public API to help people know where to go to get jabs in their arms. Doing this meant bypassing obstacles thrown in front of them by the federal and state governments – but the result was an untold number of lives saved. The piece is rather long, but it’s worth it.
Our cover art (above) comes from Nicholas Matej, an illustrator based in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find more of his work here. It also features an illustration (below) from Venus Krier, an illustrator based in London. You can find more of her work here.
Scientific writing tends to be obscure, clogged with acronyms and jargon, and difficult to follow for even those inside the paper’s field, let alone laypeople. That is bad news for scientific understanding and advancement. Étienne Fortier-Dubois explains why scientific writing has gotten so bad, and says it doesn’t have to be that way, in The elements of scientific style.
Empirical evidence and randomized trials revolutionized the field of international development, by allowing researchers to find out which interventions actually worked. In Developing the science of science, economists Paul Niehaus and Heidi Williams detail how these improvements were generated and spread: it took both individual effort, and generous funding to expand methods that worked. Similar approaches, they say, could be applied to improving the way we do science.
We are close to defeating fire as a major cause of death in the developed world, after millennia of major fires destroying entire cities. This didn’t happen by accident: we went to great trouble to make buildings and materials less flammable, set up fire detectors in nearly every indoor space, and respond urgently to small fires that break out. And today we take this for granted, if we notice it at all. In Pandemic prevention as fire-fighting, Richard Williamson argues that we can conquer pandemic disease in the same way.
Science fiction fans have long wondered if an artificial intelligence could ever gain sentience, or even turn evil. But even if we fall short of true consciousness, things still might go wrong, says Séb Krier in AI from Superintelligence to ChatGPT. A non-sentient but powerful AI with flawed goals could cause us serious problems, undermining all the great things AI could do for us too. Detailing the dramatic recent advances in AI, Krier writes that we should be sure to pay attention to advancing AI safety alongside artificial intelligence itself.
More than a hundred thousand people die from snakebites every year, according to some credible estimates, and hundreds of thousands more are injured and permanently disabled by them. But we’ve actually gotten worse at treating them – we still hand-milk snakes for venom today, and the supply of antivenom has dried up in some parts of the world. Mathias Kirk Bonde argues in Advancing antivenom that we can make treatments for snakebites cheaper and easier to deploy, and work towards a synthetic, mass-producible antivenom that could solve the problem for good.
Most of us recognize the dates 1789, 1914, 1917, and 1066. But fewer will know what’s special about, say, the 22nd of January 1970, or the 26th of April 1956. The first are recognizable because they are some of the major wars and political events that most of us are taught at school. But the latter two have had at least as big an impact on people’s lives today: they are the date of the first Jumbo Jet flight, and the maiden voyage of the first container ship, the Ideal X. Teaching history with a greater emphasis on ideas and new inventions like these, says Stephen Davies in History is in the making, could change how we think about the present and future, too.
Recently on our Substack: Notes on Progress
Hopefully you have noticed our foray into short, first person accounts over the past few months on Substack, which we call Notes on Progress. We look for brilliant researchers doing interesting work who can share a bit about what they’re up to.
Most recently, we had Jack Devanney’s ‘A tale of two particles’, which explained why we shouldn’t worry about nuclear waste. Basically, fission produces very little waste, and you can stick it behind concrete for 600 years, by which point you’d have to eat it to do yourself any harm.
Before that, Ben did a deep dive into agglomeration benefits, showing that despite a new academic paper, they are very much attested to by the academic evidence.
What we’ve been up to
Saloni has been on an absolute tear.
Ben asked whether there was a better term for ‘rent seeking’ than rent seeking, which confuses non-economists, and got lots of interesting answers. He also wrote on the risk of the Bank of England driving the UK into a deep recession.
Underrated reasons to be thankful, like the fact that ‘there’s been a 93% decline in stomach cancer deaths over the past 100 years’, which was once by far the biggest killer among cancers.
Index funds allow us to follow what other people who are better informed and incentivised to invest smartly are doing. Sam Atis argues we can use these insights to save time and mental energy in other areas, like charitable giving and predicting the future.
There is an excellent new magazine called Asterisk. In their first issue, Scott Alexander says that wine expertise isn’t fake, but you personally probably can’t taste the difference between fine wines.
Hannah Ritchie has launched a new Substack ‘sustainability by numbers’ – climate commentary without the hot hair.
Why do all of Europe and America’s freshwater eels breed in the Sargasso Sea, including the ones in landlocked bodies of water? We literally didn’t know the answer to this until very recently.
Latest UK government review of all the empirical evidence on the health effects of e-cigarettes and vaping – still finds that they are many, many times safer than smoking.
A new paper finds that expensive housing bisects cities between the rich and poor, driving the middle classes out.
How do we get state agencies to take more risks?
The invention of the thermometer shows that innovators usually invent things because they’re trying to, not because they get a eureka moment.
— Ben, Saloni, Sam and Nick
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