Planet Money: A case study in taking risk
ADAM DAVIDSON is the cofounder of NPR's Planet Money podcast and a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he covers economics and business. Previously he was an economics writer for The New York Times Magazine. He has won many of journalism's most prestigious awards, including a Peabody for his coverage of the financial crisis.
ADAM DAVIDSON: I think when you're a creative person and you're starting something new and you want to do great work it can be a little terrifying. You have yourself, maybe a small team. What are we supposed to do to be great? What are we supposed to do to be fully ourselves? It was looking back at Planet Money that I created with a small group of friends where I saw so many lessons in what you can do early on that sets you up for success.
Creating Planet Money came out like a lot of things out of frustration that I felt, I wasn't born interested in business. I grew up in a home of artists who could care less about business. In fact, I grew up in a world of artists where everything was open for discussion – sex and drugs and art and everything except money. Money was this lame, horrible thing that no one wanted to talk about. So I, of course, became fascinated by the lame, horrible thing no one wanted to talk about. But I didn't particularly care what the stock market was doing on any given day or what the Fed policy was. I had to learn to find that interesting.
And when I did find it interesting and I found that business is directly tied to every aspect of our lives. It determines how much comfort we have and in many ways it determines who we marry, how many kids we have, where we live, how we live. And business itself represents dramas that the characters in business and in economic policy have their personalities and their emotional states and all of the things that make a good drama. The drama is there. It just requires translation.
And as I began to feel, that and then I would think about most business coverage and it was so lifeless. Just the stock market did blah, blah, blah. The Federal Reserve blah, blah, blah announced this policy. And it just made me frustrated. It made me really, really frustrated. And surveying the landscape I felt not in every case but in a lot of, in many cases there was either serious but really boring and hard to understand business coverage or there was fun, lively business coverage that was sort of silly and thin. And so we, I guess it was an experiment but we felt like it would pay off. What if we just started the most of both. We wanna be very substantive, very serious, very grounded in smart, thoughtful stuff, but also fun and exciting and filled with drama and characters and all of that. And what if we just refused to accept that there's a tradeoff and just insist on the most of both.
And it's not that we always succeeded or every episode succeeds but setting that as a bar allowed us, frankly, to just not give up early in the process. And I've often said there's not a Planet Money way of telling a story. There's a lot of little tricks and gimmicks and approaches we came up with but it really is just a group of people who agree we're going to hold ourselves to this really high standard and we're just going to keep trying until we succeed. And that's true for every individual episode and then it's true for the show as a whole. And that's by the way what I've noticed, you know I've worked at This American Life, at The New Yorker. I've worked at places that, the New York Times magazine, that do really consistently incredible work. And that's what I keep noticing. Yes, I mean in all those places people are, there are very smart people. They're very capable people. But it really is just there's a tone set like we're gonna just go for this thing that we all agree is important and we all kind of know we could give up a little early but we're just going to push each other to get past the finish line. And that to me, as simple as that is, is the secret to a culture of excellence. It's not about oh, I'm excellent, therefore anything I do is excellent. And it's not oh, here's the excellence rule book and I'm just going to follow it. It's having a tone and an agreement that we're going to push each other until we succeed.
Another thing I'm proud of with the show is that from the very beginning we decided, we thought a lot about the tone of the show and the show was born at the time of the financial crisis when, to us it felt like what we saw as the traditional business journalism voice: "The Federal Reserve did this today." It's sort of a man usually in a suit telling you what happened with utter authority. We're like that voice is absurd. It's absurd. They completely missed the biggest financial story of multiple lifetimes. They don't know anything and you can't have a voice of authority when you're covering the complete collapse of authority. And luckily we also didn't feel like we knew everything. So we really developed this voice that we called 'holy crap, I just learned this fascinating thing. Let me tell you about it.'
So the authority we have is not we know and you don't. The authority we have is we happen to be lucky and have this job that allows us to really look into this stuff and allows me to tell you what's so interesting about it. And that was really important. Another thing is the host of the show, the voice of the show was a shared sensibility, not one person. Which sometimes was frustrating because I felt like in the beginning it was my baby and I wanted everyone to know that. And they didn't always. But it's allowed for real longevity because different voices have come in, added. Other voices like mine have left, but there's a central sensibility that remains and I'm very proud of that.
- Adam Davidson, staff writer for The New Yorker and cofounder of NPR's Planet Money, was raised in an environment in which everything was grounds for discussion — except money. So, of course, money was what he took an interest in.
- The idea for Planet Money came from a place of frustration that Davidson and his friends felt toward the shortcomings of current business coverage. They aimed to breathe new life into the field.
- Planet Money's road to success has consistently involved a team that holds each other to a high standard of thoughtfulness, intelligence, humility, and impeccable storytelling.
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.
- A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
- Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
- When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.
We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?
A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.
The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.
An unexpected culprit
The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.
What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.
"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.
"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)
Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think
The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.
You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.
For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.
Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.
The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.
However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."
The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.
As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.
The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."
The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.
"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.
Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."
We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.
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Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?