Doomscrolling? Here’s Non-COVID Science News You Might Have Missed

10:19 minutes

a black large-ish bird with its mouth open and calling while sitting on a branch against a yellowish-green background
Corvus corone (carrion crow). Credit: Cristian Gusa/Shutterstock

Among all the COVID-19 news of the past week, other stories have gotten less attention than they deserve—including a discussion of climate issues at the presidential debate a week ago. The 12 minutes the candidates spent on climate change and the policy surrounding it marks the first substantive discussion of climate at a presidential debate in years. 

Science journalist Annalee Newitz joins Ira to unpack the climate discussion, and other science news—including a gruesome ancient punishment, and research into the savviness of crows

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Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Among all the COVID chaos of the past week, I want to catch up on some other important stories that have gotten less attention than they deserve. This week the vice presidential debate included some discussion of climate change. And at the presidential debate just a week ago, the night was filled with interruptions and lies and messy back and forths. But a highlight of the event, if one can be found, centered around the topic of climate change. Climate change has not been brought up in these debates in over a decade.

Annalee Newitz is here to fill us in on the climate part of the debate and other science headlines. Annalee is a science journalist and author based out of San Francisco. Welcome back.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Hey, thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: I remember that four years ago there was not one question about the climate, right?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. And so in a debate that was mostly characterized by yelling, it was quite extraordinary to have that one phase of the debate devoted to talking about climate change that was actually a relatively clear exchange between the president and former vice president.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it was actually very quiet because the president– the only time in the debate– never interrupted Joe Biden once in those 12 minutes.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It’s true. And Biden got a chance to talk a lot about his plans for what he would do if he became president, including developing green jobs, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, and a whole host of other issues, including simply acknowledging that climate change is caused by people and that people have a role to play in mitigating it.

IRA FLATOW: A little bit of it, I think, the president said.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, the president admitted that a tiny amount of climate change might perhaps be caused by people. But his solutions to climate change were, as always, to fix the economy, to loosen regulations on things like emissions from cars. And it was never really clear how he squared the circle on that, how that was fixing climate change. But Biden had a very, very different vision. And I think it was especially good when he was talking about things like setting up charging stations for electric vehicles and really laying the groundwork for a new green infrastructure.

IRA FLATOW: And the interesting thing about that is he actually had a point-by-point plan that he had come out with.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right, the Biden plan, which he was very careful to say was not the same thing as the Green New Deal. Although it does, of course, contain a lot of elements of the Green New Deal, and it clearly takes its inspiration from there.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another topic. We’re hearing about clinical trials these days because of the COVID-19 vaccine and criticism of the FDA about this. Tell me more about that.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So Science magazine just did an investigative report where they spent many months filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the FDA to find out how the agency has been regulating people who violate its guidelines for conducting clinical trials and doing a lot of other kinds of medical research which the agency oversees. And what this investigative report discovered was that, over the past three years, roughly, or four since Trump has been elected, that the agency has declined in its efforts to prevent people from violating its rules.

And so what the investigators found was that, for example, during the Obama administration, almost 150 warnings were issued to clinicians and researchers about their research practices. And a number of those people were, in fact, sanctioned formally. Some were barred from conducting any clinical research. But during the Trump administration, there have been less than 10 disqualifications.

And it’s been a really big change for an agency whose entire job is, in some ways, to oversee how clinical trials are done. And a lot of the violations we see have to do with how patients in clinical trials were treated, how accurate the trials were. And, of course, all this stuff is very interesting right now because we’re looking at these vaccine trials.

IRA FLATOW: So how does this lax oversight from the FDA affect the outcomes of these trials or development of treatments, as you just pointed out?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: The effect that this has is that we can’t be sure, as the public, that this agency is really doing its due diligence, it’s investigating individuals who violated their rules, who have, say, not informed their subjects during trials about all of the different things that they’re going to be going through. They haven’t been reporting negative results in trials.

And so this could mean that when a vaccine comes to market, we can’t have as much confidence that the FDA has really investigated it and has investigated all of the different actors involved in doing these trials, because a lot of the time, pharmaceutical companies will outsource these trials to organizations or researchers who specialize in running these trials. And so if one of these organizations keeps violating the rules, and the FDA doesn’t ever sanction them for it, even though the FDA knows they’re violating the rules, it raises a lot of questions about how the agency is doing its work.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. One other story or two to talk about, a very Annalee story, and I say that because the type of archaeology story that only you could dig up.


IRA FLATOW: I had to get a dad joke in there. That’s archaeologists found evidence of people punished by having their noses cut off? Is that right?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. So the old saying about cutting off your nose actually has its basis in real history. So archaeologists and anthropologists have known for a while that in England and other places, that people were punished for various crimes by having their noses cut off. And we see this written into law in England in the Anglo-Saxon period, about a thousand years ago.

And a group of archaeologists recently discovered actual evidence of this on a skull of a woman who lived in the 800s in England. And she was young. She was probably around 18. And it’s likely that she was probably a slave, based on what we know from the laws about who gets their nose cut off. And she was probably accused of adultery, because we also have evidence that this was part of the law, that women especially were singled out for having their noses cut off for this kind of crime.

And it’s really interesting that they were able to find the skull. It had actually been buried in a vault for about 50 years. And they found the vault. They found this box with this skull that had never been cleaned and discovered that there were these markings, very distinctive markings, on the face that made it obvious that a sharp instrument had been used to cut off the person’s nose and upper lip.

And so what this tells us is that the practice of punishing slaves and women with this particularly brutal act goes back further than the written record, because we do have it in the written record about 100 years later. So take it as an example of how law enforcement has been treating prisoners cruelly and brutally for a very long time. And this woman’s life was finally revealed. And so now we know the harm that was done to her.

IRA FLATOW: Very sad story– let’s go to a more uplifting story. The last story you have looks at crow consciousness. We know that crows are pretty smart, don’t we?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: We already knew that they were very smart, because crows have been very popular with animal behavior researchers because they’re very good at solving multi-stage puzzles. They’re easy to teach about puzzles. And they solve them at this level that’s almost like a human child.

And so this is a further example of how smart they are because crows, it turns out, know what they don’t know, which is something that makes you very smart. And the way that researchers figured this out was they gave crows a test where they had to push a button when they saw a little light go off. But each time they did the test, the researchers changed the rules. So they’d, say, teach the crow, OK, hit the blue button if you see the light. OK, now hit the red button if you see the light.

And as the crows were having to change their frame of reference, they were also doing brain scans on the birds. So they could see that the birds weren’t just randomly picking a button to push. They weren’t just sort of like, I don’t understand the rules of change. I don’t care. They were actually using neurons in their brains associated with cognition. So they were re-evaluating the task, figuring out what they had to do, and then poking the button to show that they’d seen the light.

So they call this knowing what you don’t know, because it shows that they were able to, with each successive test, they were having to think about the test again. They weren’t just acting mechanically. They were re-evaluating the situation.

IRA FLATOW: How do you measure the inside of a crow’s brain?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: You use brain scanning techniques, just like the ones that we use on humans.

IRA FLATOW: I thought maybe you’d use a crowbar.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: [LAUGHS] OK. Yeah, it’s all for the birds isn’t it?

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Delightful again, Annalee, and informative– Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based out of San Francisco. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks for having me.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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