Canvassing Conversations, Animal Organ Transplants, and a Stumble in Providing Internet Access

11:54 minutes

In a study out this week in the journal Science, researchers found that door-to-door canvassing that involved 10-15 minute conversations could shift attitudes about transgender people. Azeen Ghorayshi, a science reporter at Buzzfeed, discusses this story and other selected short news briefs in science. Plus, an experiment in free but limited Internet access turns into an underground file-sharing service in Angola. Motherboard’s Jason Koebler explains the good and bad of the Angolan “Wikipedia Zero” project.

Segment Guests

Azeen Ghorayshi

Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzfeedNews in New York, New York.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler is Editor-in-Chief of Motherboard, based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. Later this hour, we’ll look at how fiction writers are addressing climate change, call it climate fiction, or [? cli-fi. ?] But first, with the primaries underway, springtime has become the season of canvassing. You might have received one of those knocks at the door. A volunteer asking for just a minute of your time. Do these short face-to-face chats really work, though? Can you change a voter’s mind?

A study out in Science this week looked at the effects of canvassing on changing attitudes towards transgender people. Azeen Ghorayshi is here to tell us about this study and some other science news from the week. She’s a science writer at Buzzfeed. She joins us here in our studios. Welcome back to the show.

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So we’ve seen a study kind of like this before that was retracted. How is this different?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Yeah, so the back story to this is there was a huge study that came out in 2014 showing that if gay canvassers went door to door that they could effectively change voters minds about gay marriage. This was a huge study. It was published in Science. There was this American Life episode on it. It was sort of touted as a huge development because it had never been shown before, really, that you could actually change people’s minds. It was thought to be pretty stubbornly held, those types of beliefs.

Then, these two grad students, Josh [? Collin, ?] David Brockman, were brought in to do a follow up study looking at trans attitudes, and whether that same sort of shift could happen. What they found when they started looking into the LaCour study, the original one, was that basically, he hadn’t actually done the analysis at all. The entire analysis had been faked. It was this huge controversy. The paper had to be retracted from science, and the field was sort of temporarily cast and there was sort of a shadow cast over it that this wasn’t actually true.

What’s interesting, though, is that the two grad students actually ended up completing their study looking at trans attitudes, and the paper that was just published this week showed that, in fact, a 10 minute conversation with either a trans canvasser or anyone else could effectively change voter attitudes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: With a trans canvasser or anyone else. That’s different. That’s interesting.

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: So that was different from the original study. And what they actually– so they had 56 canvassers going to about 500 people. The control group, they talked about recycling. But the 250 people who got the talk about trans attitudes actually showed a durable and huge sort of change in positive attitudes towards trans people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Does it matter how good the canvassers are? I mean, the quality of the conversation you’re having or anything?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: They did have a sort of– I mean, the actual conversations are quite elaborately, deliberately meant to sort of put the person in a trans person’s shoes, sort of think about anyone in their lives they’ve known who’ve been like, excluded. There is sort of, definitely an art to it. For sure.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course, the issue of transgender attitudes is pretty timely right now, isn’t it?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Yes, so this is now being heralded as a huge victory because across cities and states in the US – Houston, Mississippi, Tennessee, and most recently North Carolina, there have been many anti LGBT ordinances passed. A lot of the ones specifically focusing on trans people have been the bathroom laws that have been trying to restrict. Which bathrooms trans individuals can use.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So yeah, these findings are coming at a really interesting time. There’s another report in Buzzfeed this week that looked at government aerial surveillance programs. First of all, really, really cool pictures on this. But what do the patterns in this report find?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Right. So this was a huge investigative endeavor by Peter Althouse and Charles Sife. They looked at flight pattern data from May to August of last year to the end of December. And then they found 200 planes that were part of a federal airborne surveillance program. So basically, what they saw was that every week day planes piloted by either FBI agents or the Department of Homeland Security fly and slowly circle over major American cities. These planes are outfitted with high resolution video cameras. They often have augmented reality software that can superimpose street names, business names, people’s names, anything. Some have devices that can track cell phones, exhaust mufflers. They’re floating about a mile above the ground. And what they found that was particularly interesting was that the flights actually drop off by about 70% every weekend and federal holiday.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So, hold it. They’re flying during the week, the surveillance, but they’re sort of taking the weekends off?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Yeah, so this is– it’s weird, right? Basically, privacy advocates have argued that this is indication that these aren’t sort of high profile dangerous terrorist targets, for example. These are routine surveillance that are being conducted, sort of 9 to 5 week day activities. And this is something that the FBI has denied before. They can’t launch investigations based on race, ethnicity, or religion, i.e. groups of people versus individual suspects. But it seems like that’s what’s going on here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, if you really want to take a look at these maps you sort of can see that in various places, and wonder why there are planes with the FBI flying over some spots. I want to turn to another study that looks at the obesity epidemic globally. We’ve been hearing a lot of obesity news over the years that’s not good. This is not good news, is it?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: This seems particularly bad. So they’ve, basically, these researchers out of London looked at data from 1975 to 2014 in adults 18 and over, 186 countries, over 19.2 million people. And they looked at the body mass index of those people over time. And they found that for the first time ever, we now have more obese people than underweight people in the world. The number of obese people has jumped from 105 million in 1975 to 641 million in 2014. That’s a six-fold increase in 40 years. And for men, it’s gone up from 3.2% to 10.8% of men are obese. Women, 6.4% to 14.9%.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are there some places where there’s more of a problem than others? I would assume there is.

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: There is definitely. I mean, in the six high income English speaking countries alone there were 118 million obese people. And yeah, what was really interesting and also particularly problematic, is that although there are now more obese people than underweight people, the number of underweight people has also increased. So we’ve seen an increase from 330 million in 1975 to 462 million in 2014. And the researchers say that the problem really is the same then. We’re really seeing that people either are not having enough to eat, or they’re not having enough things to eat.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so I’ve got one minute to ask you about a transplant between a pig and a baboon?

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Yes. S0 a baboon has survived for over two years, 945 days, with a pig heart in its body in addition to its own. This is part of zenotransplantation, which is basically trying to look for interspecies transplants because we have, obviously, a shortage of human organs. 8,000 people die a year waiting for transplants. Pigs are about the right size for potential organ transplants for us, so they’re testing it out in baboons first. And this is almost double the amount that it survived in a baboon’s body before. These are genetically modified pig organs that are made to survive in a baboon’s body without them rejecting it. So this is a huge deal. And so the next phase is going to be then trying to actually replace the baboon’s heart with the pig’s heart and see if they can–

JOHN DANKOSKY: So not just a heart inside the baboon, but actually a working heart inside a baboon.

AZEEN GHORAYSHI: Yeah, a heart.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is the next thing. My goodness. Azeen Ghorayshi, a science writer at Buzzfeed. Thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate it.


JOHN DANKOSKY: Now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.

Because every story has a flip side, there are several efforts to try to bring limited internet access to people in the developing world. By zero rating certain services and sites, not charging for data to and from those services on a mobile phone. Now, Facebook’s effort was eventually banned in India after regulators decided you couldn’t give a financial preference to some sites over others, kind of a net neutrality argument. Now there’s another snag. People are finding a way to use the free services in ways that the creators probably did not intend. Joining me now to talk about it is Jason Koebler. He’s a staff writer at Motherboard. You can read his articles on Wikipedia Zero in Angola there. Welcome back to the program Jason.

JASON KOEBLER: Hey, thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So sketch out what’s happening here.

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, it’s kind of a crazy story. So there are two services, Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero, which allow people in Angola and other developing countries to use data for free. The average cost of data in these countries is very high. Salary is very low, so this is often their only access to the internet. And basically, what they’re doing in Angola is uploading movies, music, pirated data in general to Wikipedia, and then they’re sharing it using Facebook.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So hold it. They’re like burying it in Wikipedia entries?

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, they’re burying it deep in Wikimedia comments, which is kind of this free repository of Creative Commons type stuff. And they’re kind of hiding it as PDF or JPEG files, and then putting them on Facebook and saying, hey, here’s the new Star Wars movie. It’s like being hidden as a book.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And it’s being hidden as a book on– so there’s a Facebook site and it’s a closed group, right? That you can’t just join, and they’re telling people where to search on Wikimedia for this free stuff.

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, exactly. It’s pretty ingenious, and it kind of just underscores the fact that these people want access to the broader internet. Like Wikipedia and Facebook are great services, but in the developed world we can pirate things if we choose to. It might not be legal, but we have the opportunity to do it. And there, they’re kind of making the best of a bad situation.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m going to guess that the copyright holders of the movies and other content think that this is all a very bad thing, but what’s the good thing here? I mean, you said it’s creative, certainly.

JASON KOEBLER: Right, it’s definitely creative. The good thing is that they’re getting some sort of access. I want to kind of talk about the bad thing, though, is that it’s not the copyright holders who are stopping them from doing this. It’s the Wikipedia editors in Portugal, because Angola is a foreign Portuguese colony. And they have kind of like a very– Wikipedia editors, in general, have a very strict rule set. And they’re saying, you know, they’re kind of ruining our site.

And it’s interesting because you’re saying, you guys can have the this product but you have to use it exactly how we say. And so it’s sort of this form of like, digital colonialism, is kind of what it’s being called. And it’s hard to say who is right here because, you know, these people want to be able to share files, which is very important. And the people in Portugal want to be able to have their site not be defaced, I guess. And there’s kind of no real good answer here, other than opening up cheaper access to the full internet.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Is it a bandwidth problem for them? I mean, are they seeing their Wikimedia source being cluttered with all sorts of stuff that now they have to find bandwidth for?

JASON KOEBLER: Right, they’re calling it defacement. I mean, I think that if you’ve ever gone into like the top pages of a Wikipedia article, people fight over everything. And basically, it’s just they’re using the product in a way that is illegal. Maybe not in Angola because they have different copyright laws, it actually might be legal there. But it’s illegal in most of the world to share copyrighted material for free, and they just kind of don’t want this sort of thing on their site.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We just have a moment, but there is this sort of interesting notion, though, that you give people something for free and then you tell them how they have to use it. I mean, I think probably the people in Angola are saying, well, look, I have access to something that I didn’t have access to before. And I want to watch cat videos and movies, too, just like the west does.

JASON KOEBLER: Right. They want to do everything that we’re doing. And there’s this saying about copyright and piracy, in general, is that life finds a way, kind of like that Jurassic Park quote. Piracy finds a way often.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s usually one of the first things that people try to do on the internet, among other things. Jason Koebler is a staff writer at Motherboard. Thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

JASON KOEBLER: Yeah, thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: When we come back, we’ll talk about the impact of climate change on cultures, both in the past and also in the future.

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