Why Do Some of Our Best Minds Speak "Higher Twaddle"?

Why do some smart folk spout such bad ideas? Marilynne Robinson says it's because we teach them "higher twaddle.” She's right, but the situation is worse than she fears.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


1. We teach "higher twaddle” to our best minds, says the ever insightful Marilynne Robinson. I think she has a point—many smart folk are now educated into error—but the problem is worse than she fears.

2. Robinson’s complaint that colleges teach students to “master… twaddle” and thereby “to think... badly,” focus mainly on the humanities, but worse twaddle is taught in fields whose ideas are less ivory-tower quarantined.

3. STEM disciplines teach a dazzling faith in “the data” and the pretty precision their tools promise. But they also risk a method-level fall for the “McNamara Fallacy,” and much math-swaddled twaddle.

4. Named for Robert McNamara’s metrics-obsessed management of the Vietnam War, this disastrous recipe (aka the “Quantitative Fallacy”) goes as follows: measure what data you easily can, then to handle what you can't, arbitrarily estimate, or better, declare it minor, or nonexistent. And don’t adjust for exclusions, it fogs up the faux-clarity.

5. To see how far teaching and tech have spread McNamara’s number-struck folly, consider these cases.

6. Experts who excel at seeing only what can be “read on a spreadsheet” often skip other plainly important factors, to the point that great “companies can be wrecked by idiots with MBAs” (Rory Sutherland).

7. Business schools preach the same spreadsheet-blinder metric-mad mentality, which can sometimes encourage “immoral profit strategies" (Duff McDonald) and the ruthless “financialization” numbers game behind “how Wall Street destroyed Main Street” (Rana Foroohar).

8. Algorithms enact McNamara-on-steroids logic, vastly amplifying techno-twaddle’s reach (see Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction”).

9. Much economics (the world’s operating system) builds on textbook McNamara-moves. Paradoxically, preferring highly precise methods, but used in a way that ensures they’ll almost always be widely wrong. Economics “equation filters” away whatever won’t squeeze into its algebra, then fails to adjust for exclusions (see “Few Maximize. Most Muddle”)

10. Even babies know what many educated experts ignore: People aren’t biological billiard balls. Toddlers use different thinking tools for objects versus agents, but many math-manacled minds use the same treasured nerd tools (algebra, stats, and data) for all pattern types.

11. Amazingly, the well-educated are taught to characterize behaviors known to be collectively self-destructive as “rational,” to profit by preying on and damaging what they (and their communities) need to survive.

12. And many smart folk are educated into ignoring how communities work by “social contract” thinking, which, despite its shiny logic-like appeal, is self-evidently anthropologically incoherent. Hume called it “implausibly individualistic” (it’s really more an asocial contraction than a realistic contract).

13. Examples abound, but the main point here is that seductive math-masked “higher twaddle” is worse than garden-variety bullshit.

14. Besotted logic-over-loving nerds can suffer “theory [or tool] induced blindness” that can cause great harms (e.g. when algorithm-wielding techies “disrupt” the infrastructure democracy needs).

15. It’ll take many emperor’s-new-clothes moments to reveal all the naked folly, math-wrapped myopia, and data-driven drivel that can parade as intelligence in these highly techno-twaddle-ridden times.

 

 

 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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