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TiB 144: Infecting people on purpose; Google's golden handcuffs; China's soft power agenda; and more...

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December 8 · Issue #144 · View online
Matt's Thoughts In Between
This week: why smart people disagree on human challenge trials for COVID; identity, status and quitting your job; the social science research that China’s funding; and more…

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Should we have deliberately given people COVID?
Last week I made a passing comment about human challenge trials (HCTs) and their (non-)role in COVID vaccine development and got some helpful reader responses. The idea of an HCT is to intentionally expose healthy people to a pathogen to create more data, more quickly on, for example, the efficacy of vaccines. People I respect believe our failure to conduct them was one of our gravest mistakes in the fight against coronavirus. But lots of smart people disagree. This thread is in an interesting example; see also here and here (the replies are worth reading too).
There are two core arguments. The first is that HCTs are unethical for diseases where we lack effective therapies. The second is that HCTs wouldn’t have got us a vaccine any quicker, not least because they would have lacked external validity, given that the participants would have been young and healthy (and that does seem a big deal - see, e.g. here). I’m not persuaded on the ethics point. There are some good counterarguments in the BMJ - and, more broadly, I don’t think any one ethical framework can be taken as given here; there are plenty of reasonable ones that would allow HCTs.
The second point is more compelling - though I do wonder if we got lucky this time: the first wave of vaccines proved effective (hurray!), but if they hadn’t we might have wished for faster filtering of the candidates. The nuances here are why the tensions between technology and regulation are so fraught. Beware of anyone with easy answers! That’s not to give our authorities a free pass. There are plenty of errors to focus on - not least the manufacturing bottleneck for effective vaccines. The show is a long way from over. 
Why don't more people quit Google et al?
The Applied Divinity Studies (ADS) blog has an interesting post asking why more engineers in Big Tech jobs don’t quit to pursue their passions. These people, the argument goes, have more than enough money to take a year off to start a company or try something else, so why don’t they? ADS runs through the arguments (perks, opportunity cost, Bay Area cost of living) and finds none of them compelling (though I think “upper middle class precarity” is underrated as a driver). Do read the excellent reader responses for some interesting takes.
Given that I make a living persuading people to quit their (often lucrative) jobs and start companies, I’ve spent some time thinking about this. My best answer, in common with some of ADS’s readers, is that it’s about status risk. It’s often said in startup-land that it’s good to start companies in your 20s before you have major financial commitments. And it’s often countered that the most successful founders are those in their 40s. Both are wrong - or at least misleading. 
The reason to start a company in your 20s is that your identity is not yet tied up in monotonic success. That’s valuable: you can spend years trying and failing and it doesn’t touch your identity at all. By contrast, if you’ve succeeded throughout your career, quitting to start a company risks a big hit to status, even if you can afford it financially. That’s also why founders in their 40s appear more successful: if you’re willing to quit at that stage, you really must be onto something special. In startups, as in education, selection effects are everything. 
China's soft power funding agenda
Macro Polo, a think tank whose work we discussed a couple of weeks ago, has a good short report on what kinds of social science the Chinese Government is funding (or see the Twitter summary). We’ve talked a lot about how the CCP is increasingly promoting its values outside its borders, but this provides an interesting insight into what “internal soft power” in China looks like.
There are three striking findings. First, that the government is rapidly increasing funding for social science (though it still lags a long way behind the US). Second, that this funding has increasingly ideological goals. For example, the fastest growing categories in terms of funding are Marxism and Scientific Socialism, Ethnic Studies, and CCP history and Party Building. Third, there’s a remarkable focus on work on Xi specifically - far more than on any other CCP leader in their heyday (see this chart).
One of the things I’ve changed my mind about over the last two years is the nature of the competition the West faces from China. Influenced by people like Tanner Greer and Bill Bishop, I’ve come to see this through an ideological rather than purely economic lens. We’ve discussed this a lot, for example in TiB 86, TiB 88 and TiB 124, and this study seems to provide further evidence (see also this recent thread for a perspective from inside China). President Biden will bring a change in tone and ease off the “trade war” rhetoric, but there’s no quick fix to ideological conflict. 
Quick links
  1. “We have quite a number of physicists here”. Robert Oppenheimer’s recommendation letter for Richard Feynman, November 1943.
  2. p-hacking is overrated. Why you shouldn’t worry about that suspicious-looking chart of Z-values that’s going around.
  3. Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. A particularly striking, but valid, Mercator projection of the world.
  4. By machines, for machines. Public companies’ regulatory filings are increasingly written to be read by algorithm.
  5. Maybe the total level of societal belief is a constant? Striking chart on the partisan religious belief gap over the last three decades.
PS: There were two big “TiB-adjacent” news topics this week that I didn’t have time to cover properly:
  • DeepMind’s protein folding breakthrough: best primer here
  • Timnit Gebru’s abrupt departure from Google AI: good take and links from Jack Clark’s Import AI here
You know the drill...
Thanks for reading. This is the penultimate Thoughts in Between of the year. Next week we’ll have the now traditional (see 2018 and 2019) TiB review of the year, followed by a two week break for the holidays.
As always, I’d love you to link to TiB on Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn - or, even easier, forward this email to a friend who might like it.
You can always email me or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions.
Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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