This house believes in science and so it believes in human challenge trials
exformation #5 | Trump sues Twitter and Facebook, President Biden drops a new EO on competition, Dourado tackles geothermal, and much more.
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President Trump has filed a class-action lawsuit against both Twitter and Facebook. Matthew Feeney linked to the filing.
Trump claims that he was acting as a private citizen on Jan 7 when he was banned by Facebook and Twitter, even though, ah, he was clearly the president. Additionally, the suit claims that the platforms were effectively government appendages, what the legal profession calls a state actor because they shared CDC information. Again, the CDC was nominally under the power of Trump. Altogether then, the platforms violated 1st Amendment principles because they were restricting the speech of a citizen.
After the suit dropped, Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck began to circulate. It’s a great summary of the law as it stands:
Led by the State of Utah, officials in 36 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the company’s Play Store violated antitrust law. Google now faces lawsuits from the Justice Department as well as two different groups of state attorneys general. Here is the complaint.
This group of AGs claims that “Google unlawfully maintains its monopoly in the market for Android app distribution” which allows them to close the Android market to competitors and use exclusionary contracts to foreclose competition, among others.
I don't at all understand the intended outcome of this case. Paragraph 8 says that,
In the absence of Google’s anticompetitive conduct, there would be two main channels for U.S. consumers to obtain apps on an open Android operating system: (i) direct downloading and installation of apps or app stores; and (ii) apps or app stores pre-installed on devices by device manufacturers and/or mobile network operators.
Um. This already happens, if the defaults are changed, which this how-to explains. Google also allows other app stores to exist on Android, which is clearly recognized in paragraph 24:
In a more competitive environment, Google’s app distribution monopoly could be disrupted. Instead, because of Google’s exclusionary conduct, even Amazon, one of the biggest and most sophisticated content distributors, has tried but failed to create a competitive Android app store that could weaken Google’s app distribution monopoly through free and fair competition.
The best part is that paragraph 185 suggests Google should charges fees when customers want to download apps. Following the news of the case, House E&C Republicans began pushing a big tech accountability agenda.
Extra: Lots of good app data here.
This week on the podcast, Caden and I had a chat with Ellysse Dick of ITIF to talk about virtual reality policy.
On Friday, President Biden released an Executive Order on competition. Alec Stapp has some positive things to say about the labor market reforms that Biden is seeking:
In an extended thread, ITIF’s Doug Brake was less than enthused about the broadband part of the EO. The White House said that prices are 5 times higher in noncompetitive areas, even though the original paper was making this comparison via price per Mbps download:
My colleague Eli Dourado wrote a long blog post on the state of geothermal energy. I’ve been waiting for this long read for a while.
Antonio Garcia Martinez just published “the first in a n-part series on data and privacy, areas I’ve worked in and written about for an inordinate amount of time.” As always, it’s required reading.
I look forward to more entries in this series. A researcher is tracking their experiences applying for an NIH grant.
Joshua Stein reviewed Senator Josh Hawley’s Tyranny of Big Tech at LiberalCurrents. The nutgraf: “[A]ny potential interest to the book is clouded by Hawley’s insistence on partisan invective and a play at heroism that frequently collapses into a silly, anti-charismatic mess.”
The headlines seemed to have oversold the story slightly: “The Pentagon scrapped a $10 billion cloud-computing contract awarded in 2019 to Microsoft Corp. after several years of wrangling between the government and some of the biggest U.S. tech companies over the deal, indicating it plans to divide the work between Microsoft and rival Amazon.com Inc. instead.”
New FTC Chair Lina Khan has gagged staff, which I learned from Andrew Stivers. A core tenant of pluralist democracy is open conversation, and yes, it does ultimately lead to persuasion. I wonder how long the gag will last.
“Supertrees” engineered to capture more carbon stir anti-GMO backlash.
Europe's tech chief Margrethe Vestager warned Apple against using privacy and security concerns to fend off competition on its App Store. Does this mean that there is a tradeoff between privacy and competition?
Via Tim Carmody at Kottke, a history of regex (regular expressions) and artificial intelligence.
All of the connective tissue of the Internet is rotting: “This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy and freedom. It’s not trivial to censor a network as organic and decentralized as the internet. But more recently, these features have been understood to facilitate vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms, or to quickly identify their sources. While both assessments have power to them, they each gloss over a key feature of the distributed web and internet: Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on. Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge.”
Papers and research
The YouTube algorithm provides. Here is Alexander MacDonald, Chief Economist at NASA, talking about the long history of space exploration. He begins with a discussion of George Ellery Hale, who happens to be a great uncle of mine. My grandmother still remembers Uncle Bruin.
Gus Hurwitz has a new paper on reforming the Universal Service Fund: “The pending infrastructure bill would invest $8.125 billion per year in an effort to close the digital divide, while the FCC’s Universal Service program has spent just under $8.3 billion per year for each of the past three years. Perhaps some attention should be given to reforming and updating this existing program, alongside consideration of new investment in infrastructure.”
A new NBER paper finds that the zoning taxes on housing “in the big west coast markets now are the largest in the nation. In the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle metropolitan areas, the price of land everywhere within those three markets having been bid up by amounts that at least equal typical household income.” Caleb Watney posted this brutal graph:
“This paper identifies the extent to which knowledge from U.S. universities drives industry agglomeration. Establishment-level data indicate faster growth in employment, wages, and corporate innovation after the Bayh-Dole Act's shock to the spread of innovation from universities in industries more closely related to the nearby university's innovative strengths. Federal research funding amplified the effect. University knowledge spillovers strengthen with geographic proximity, density, and local skills. Consistent with spatial equilibrium models, the growth effect is driven by nearby entry in university-linked industries, especially of multi-unit expansions; these firms disproportionately partner with universities in R&D, transfer IP, and innovate.” [SSRN]
Should common carriage apply to social media? Eugene Volokh tackles the subject in a new law review article.
“In 2020, over a billion people spent at least three hours a day on social media, primarily engaging in what is described as mindlessly scrolling through their newsfeed. This illustrates the growing societal concern of digital wellbeing and social media addiction. Reducing the time spent on these platforms is challenging since they are designed to be addictive. This paper presents the design and evaluation of a digital nudging intervention that unhooks users from their mindless social media use by making them more mindful. We evaluated the intervention through a two-week single case experimental design (N =20). The findings show that weekly digital consumption was significantly reduced by over 20.58%. The evaluation of the intervention's usability and potential revealed that the intervention made participants mindful of their digital behavior and scored high on usability. Our findings advance how ethical nudges could be self-designed, considering privacy to mitigate social media addiction.” [ResearchGate]
Cleaner air has boosted U.S. corn and soybean yields, Stanford-led research shows.
In 1962 the United States conducted its final nuclear test, Ripple II, test 2. This article pulls everything together and makes a strong case that Ripple was revolutionary since it was a pure fusion device.
This house believes in science and so it believes in human challenge trials
I cannot remember the exact date of my anagnorisis, the moment of discovery, but I do remember its cause. On Facebook, one of my friends in the medical field posted a picture of an early Christmas present, elated at what they had acquired. It was a bobblehead of Fauci and a statement, this house believes in science.
I immediately started laughing. Science is now a folk religion with its own totems, idols to enlightenment.
Fauci has had a recent fall from grace, but that moment in late November was it for me. To be clear, this piece isn’t an invective against Fauci. He is flawed, just as I am, and we all are. Today I want to offer an apologia for the scientific process, the open and fraught and messy conversation of science, which is more artistic than most would want to concede.
Hours before the picture was posted I was working with some students on human challenge trials (HCT), diving into research, gaming out the benefits and costs of the idea for a piece that never got published. For the uninitiated, an HCT is a clinical study where volunteers are intentionally exposed to some pathogen so that researchers can study the effects.
To my surprise, I learned Fauci wasn’t a fan of HCTs, as WaPo had reported in August:
“You generally do [human challenge trials] if you don’t have enough infections in the community at any given time to get a signal from the vaccine,” Fauci said. “Unfortunately for us, we don’t have that problem — we have a lot of infections.”
The statement gave me whiplash, and to understand why a little background on vaccine testing is needed. As I explained last November,
The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that human trials would progress quickly. Fundamentally, clinical trials test a hypothesis about vaccine efficacy, which is dubbed the primary efficacy endpoint. Once the primary endpoint is selected, a sample size can be calculated to ensure the trial is properly powered. For COVID-19 vaccines, researchers have been looking for a set number of infections.
A grisly calculus then ensues. As more of the population gets sick with the disease, the potential vaccine racks up more cases to reach its endpoint. In contrast, diseases that progress slower, like cancers, will be in clinical trials for years because it takes that long to reach the primary efficacy endpoint. The recent increase in COVID-19 cases advanced everyone’s timetable. As one report noted, Pfizer had expected to reach its 164 case efficacy point in December, but was in a position to release the data earlier because of the surge. As Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said, “The election was always, for us, an artificial deadline. It may have been important for the president, but not for us.”
To be fair, when Fauci said it in August, there was a relative peak in Covid cases. But things got much worse at the end of the year, which allowed vaccines to hit their endpoint faster, finishing the clinical trials early. Weeks later, vaccines got emergency approval and inoculation began in earnest in January.
Alternative scenarios are hard to prove, but what if those trials concluded even earlier because of HCTs? One estimate from October suggested that HCTs would have reduced the total number of infections in the US by 1.1M and total deaths by 8,000 through accelerated vaccine development. HCTs held and still hold the promise of fewer infections, fewer lives lost, less damage to our collective mental health and our livelihoods.
Fauci stood atop a system that was poised to act but never did. A group within his agency was prepping for HCTs by readying a strain to be used. But Fauci was dismissive of the idea, like many in the public health profession.
In Science, a group of doctors dismissed HCTs due to the “uncertainties inherent in making such a [value] determination.” Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, formerly a CFO of Merck and now a dean at Tufts, similarly argued in Stat that,
Volunteers need to be protected from both known and unknown risks. The effort to develop a vaccine should not be jeopardized by this well-intentioned but unnecessary experiment.
But HCTs don’t change the risks. Everyone faces the same risks, both known and unknown. Rather, HCTs change the consumption of risk. It’s really no wonder that Alex Tabarrock, an economist, became a sage for HCTs. Modern economics requires a basic understanding of risk.
The first Covid HCTs are only now just happening in the UK and volunteers clearly know the risk. Alastair Fraser-Urquhart explained his feelings in the Washington Post just a couple weeks ago, saying,
A month ago, in one of the most terrifying moments of my life, I was deliberately exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The coronavirus itself came as a clear liquid dropped into my nose — a process that took a team of six, with some unsealing the virus, some recording the doses and a nurse counting down the seconds. I submitted to this for one simple reason: This was my way to help advance our fight against the novel coronavirus.
I don’t read naivety in those words. I don’t read an ignorance to the uncertain. I read bravery. I read a willingness to consume risk for everyone else’s benefit.
Most people are like this, not surprisingly. In January, Vaccine posted the results of a large cross-cutting national survey in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. After being explained the process and the risks, “We found broad majorities prefer for scientists to conduct challenge trials (75%) and integrated trials (63%) over standard trials.” Just as important, survey participants “perceived both accelerated trials as similarly ethical to standard trial designs.” By clear majorities, people were and still are willing to risk it with HCTs to end the pandemic.
Alec Stapp, rightly, has scorn for those pushing against the idea:
But I only stand in partial agreement with Alec here. They deserve our pity, not our scorn. The institution of medicine has clearly created a blindness with HCTs. Why is that happening? It deserves our attention. It deserves science.
My kind of science isn’t used as a slogan on a t-shirt. It a science of argument. It is a kind of science that channels conflict among institutions of knowledge. My kind of science attends to institutional boundaries and liminalities. My view of science sees it as a deeply rhetorical enterprise in the best sense, in the sense that Auntie D sees it.
My science cannot be found in a totem. My science is found in reasoned talk.