61: Steven Pinker, Progress, and Mental Health with Saloni Dattani

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Will Jarvis

Saloni Dattani is a PhD student in psychiatric genetics at King’s College London. She has also created Works in Progress, an excellent online magazine. In this episode, we talk about Steven Pinker, technological progress, the state of science, and the genetics of mental health.

Unknown Speaker 0:05
Hey folks,

Will Jarvis 0:06
welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse in the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

So, Hey, sweetie, how are you doing today? I’m good. I’m just chilling at home. It’s great, you know, COVID dimes. I wanted to go ahead and ask you, could you give us just kind of a short bio and what you’re interested in?

Saloni 0:58
Okay, yeah, so, so I’m still learning to Tani. I’m a PhD student, I study the genetics of mental health. I also write for a bunch of outlets on various science topics. And I, I’m an editor of a new magazine that I founded with some friends called works in progress, which kind of we publish writing on research on progress and ideas to make the future better?

Will Jarvis 1:28
That’s great. I want to go ahead and get started and just just ask you, I get the sense that science maybe works a little bit less well than it did in the recent past. Do you have a sense around that? And any thoughts about it?

Saloni 1:45
Um, so I guess I kind of see it the other way, almost, I think in recent years, we’ve had the kind of replication crisis has exposed a lot of bad research in the past, and the movement that’s come out of that the Open Science movement has, I think, made a lot of quite useful, important changes. So I think that scientists getting better. But there are, there are definitely things that can still be improved quite a lot.

Will Jarvis 2:17
Gotcha. And what are some of those areas where you think the biggest improvements can be made.

Saloni 2:23
Um, so one of the one of the most important ones is probably peer review. So peer review is essentially the the kind of act of getting a paper through editors and through other scientists before it’s shared with the rest of the world. And so I think that the reason that that doesn’t work so well is that the way that studies get filtered doesn’t always work, according to plan. So sometimes we’ll have reviewers who are incentivized by, you know, personal, personal gain in the sense that like, since they don’t get financially compensated for reviewing a paper, they might end up trying to use the system for for their own benefit by telling the researcher to cite their own work, or by rejecting papers that contradict their findings and things like that. So I think that’s that’s a big area that could be improved. Gotcha.

Will Jarvis 3:31
And do you have any ideas around that? I know, in a recent piece, you mentioned computer science journal that had some interesting ideas around that.

Saloni 3:38
Yeah, so I mentioned a journal called just the Journal of open opens. Science, I think. And they have a kind of journal that works through GitHub. So what happens is, people submit their work through GitHub with like, the software code along with the paper. And the reviewers of the paper will make comments on their code. And we’ll make comments on the manuscript that you can then read after, after the, the papers published. So you can look back at what edits were made, according to the reviewers comments. And that’s quite different from general peer review, which is, you know, it’s it’s very opaque, you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and you don’t have good metrics to find out how the piece has changed over time and the kind of skills that the reviewers have had and things like that. That’s really cool.

Will Jarvis 4:40
You wrote recently that many lines of evidence suggests that high impact journals, and these are journals which are said to be highly repeatable and have a wide reach except papers with similar or weakened weaker methods that low impact journals do. So is it just like kind of a status thing? What’s going on there? And I know you mentioned a path forward there. But could you just talk about that a little bit?

Saloni 5:05
Yeah, sure. So so I think that it’s not clear whether high impact journals are accepting papers that are just like this at the same level as low impact journals are actually at lower levels. And I think that if if it is the case, that they’re really accepting papers that are lower quality it might be, that might be a result of just trying to get this research out to the most people. So it’s kind of like a clickbait situation where you want to get to, you want to drive views and citations by publishing something that’s new or unexpected. And I think that’s, that can kind of go, that can kind of go wrong, because if we have like, coherent theories of how certain things work, and we have these like overarching theories, they’re derived for many different results over time, and if you’ve found something that’s like new and unexpected, it probably has some kind of impact on what else we know about the field. So lots of knowledge is kind of connected to each other. And if something’s wrong, then it might imply that lots of other things are wrong as well. And so I think that, you know, when when we see things are like new and unexpected, we should not just wonder if they overturn the theories that we already have. But we should also wonder whether those results themselves are really legitimate or reliable.

Will Jarvis 6:34
Gotcha. So it’s something where this is like a really new hot topic. This is really interesting. And so you know, and we will want people to be citing this. And so it’s not it. Okay, interesting. Yeah, it seems like a real problem and not an easy one to get around.

Saloni 6:50
Right? I guess the way that I would kind of look at it is thinking much more about theory, thinking about how things are connected to each other, like, different levels of knowledge and trying to explicitly reward novelty less. So a lot of journals will, you know, explicitly say that they’re looking for new new ideas or kind of, they’re not interested in replications. They’re not interested in people using the same data set more than once, and things like that. So that’s a big problem. And I think, sort of removing those explicit kind of encouragement for novelty and focusing much more on like, creating high quality data that we can reuse over and over again, is a better idea.

Will Jarvis 7:41
Gotcha. I think that’s a really good idea. I wanted to stick on the science for a little bit and talk about kind of zero and in some of your work. I know you’re working on getting a PhD in mental health gymnastics, is that correct? Yeah. Great. So what people lay people like, like, what’s common knowledge in your field that most lay people just don’t realize at all?

Saloni 8:05
Um, so I guess, I guess one thing is, understanding what heritability means. So lots of people will say, Well, I guess when you talk to, you know, a regular person who’s not very familiar with the science, they might say, you know, that somebody has inherited something from their father, they’ve inherited their bad traits, or maybe they’ll go the other way. And they’ll think that it’s all because of the person’s upbringing, and so on. And I think the reality is kind of somewhere in between. So in my field, we talk about this concept called heritability, which is the extent to which the differences between us are influenced by the differences in our genes. And for for many, kind of mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and autism, those things are very influenced by like are the differences between us are highly influenced by the differences in our genetics. And that’s something that’s not very well known. But at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that those things can’t be changed, or that there’s no sort of way to go forward with it. So lots of like, you know, that you might have some new medical treatment that changes changes people’s behavior, and it can sort of shift the levels of psychiatric conditions in the whole population, for example. So there’s still so if we’re talking about like, differences between people, those are highly influenced by our genetics, but we can still change the levels in the whole population.

Will Jarvis 9:49
Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense. It’s, it’s really interesting. I remember reading a I just finished a psychiatry textbook. It’s on neuroscience of psychiatry. It’s for psychiatry. That’s, and they have a chapter on genetics and they talked about heritability in for schizophrenics. And they did twins, people, schizophrenia. They had twin studies. And it What surprised me was it wasn’t 100% it was like some twins can get schizophrenia, and they their twin will not. Yeah. So I think that maybe that’s an example that feeds in there, I don’t know.

Saloni 10:23
Yeah, sure. So So I so what happens in the way that we estimate like what, what the heritability of some traders, is by comparing how similar identical twins are to how similar fraternal twins are. So even like, even within identical twins, they might still have lots of unique experiences that they have, they might go to different schools or have different brands and those kinds of things can still influence their lives. And then there are also like, random things that can happen during the development of their, their brains are the kind of life experiences that they have early on. So lots of things can influence whether two identical twins are like how similar they are to each other. But if we’re comparing identical twins and fraternal twins, then you kind of get this difference that you can tease apart because you know, that identical twin share pretty much all of their graphics, whereas fraternal twin share only half of that.

Will Jarvis 11:23
Really, that’s really interesting. So I wanted to move on now, for genetics and just take a complete, right, left hand turn. Can you talk about works work in progress? Excuse me, works in progress? How you started the online, it’s all my magazine. Correct? You guys. Do you do any other? multimedia with it?

Saloni 11:41
Um, no, we don’t. Although we did have a we had a video kind of conference a few weeks ago, where we had Tyler cow and Rachel load and Patrick Collison, Steven Pinker. And you think Steven Westlake as well. And so that was really cool. Just talking, having conversations about topics that they were interested in.

Will Jarvis 12:07
Definitely. So how’d you get started? And have you been interested in kind of progress studies for a while.

Saloni 12:14
Um, so so it’s sort of there kind of two levels to how they started. The first is that we were inspired by Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, some piece in The Atlantic A few years ago, on, you know, that we need to, we need a new science of progress. So that was that was a big influence some deciding to get started with this. But in fact, to me and Sam Bowman, who kind of jointly founded this had the idea for it, pretty much, I think, a year before that, and we kind of came to that conclusion from different perspectives. So he was interested in trying to get more interesting, thoughtful ideas into the world. I think he had the he had the idea that like, people on social media off and get piled on for sort of trying to think things through and kind of rational, thoughtful way. So somebody is just trying to start out with thinking about some topic. And, you know, getting piled on is not the best way to add bouncer knowledge of something, so. So he noticed that lots of people were moving away from social media into private chat rooms, like group chats, and like personal spaces, sub stacks that are only available to their followers, and so on. So what we were interested in what what we were interested in was kind of bringing, sort of getting those thoughtful ideas, sort of putting them all together, and then getting them out into the world again. And I think for me, the motivation was, was quite different. So I was quite frustrated with the way science was communicated in, in public. So the way that statistics is presented by journalists, or how we think about how things whether things cause each other. And also just kind of explaining academic jargon to the general public, I think it’s something that lots of people struggle with. But there’s lots of knowledge in science that could be really useful to the rest of the world if they knew about it. And I think that’s something that we’ve kind of learned in the last year. So getting knowledge from epidemiology and Immunology into the wider world has helped people in other fields like economics and so on, to develop incentives to produce vaccines at scale and things like that.

Will Jarvis 14:48
That’s great. I really liked that. And one of my favorite questions, which I just asked you is, you know, what do you understand in your field is common knowledge that, you know, lay people understand I came up with that I was at my My wife, she’s a psychology researcher, we’re at a, like a party for her department. And I was just, and I was talking to an academic there who’s quite older. And I asked him that question, he told me this answer, and it just like, blew my mind. You know, he’s like, yeah, everyone knows this. But I know lay people do not understand this. Right? It seems like a real problem, is it that journalists just don’t have enough time? You know, they’re on a tight deadline. It’s like, I got to give this out and 10 minutes. And you know, I’m just gonna throw something up there. I know, Scott Alexander has a great post, where he talks about, you know, this one study talked about by six different outlets, and they all drew different conclusions. Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, it’s, yeah. What do you think is going on there?

Saloni 15:44
So I think that I think that part of it is that most journalists don’t have training in statistics,

Will Jarvis 15:51
like straight up,

Saloni 15:52
they, they they don’t have the knowledge of like, what makes good research or what questions to ask scientists when they’re reporting the news. And that’s, that’s quite a big problem. So I think that one thing that we do differently is that most of the people who write for us are actually academics or, like myself, I’m kind of used to being in the science field. And, like I and lots of people that I know, we regularly talk to people in different fields about what’s going on in our work. So having that experience helps you a lot and trying to figure out how to communicate things easily.

Will Jarvis 16:29
Gotcha. So you’ve kind of been in both places can understand it. I want to move on a little bit. So you know, the title of the magazine works in progress. What do you generally think about tech stagnation? You know, where do you fall in this camp? Do you think things are slower? Do you think we’re? Yeah.

Saloni 16:50
So I think it’s sort of, I’m not really convinced that there’s that much stagnation, I think in the last few decades, we’ve seen huge improvements in a bunch of things. So sort of sharing knowledge is a big one, I think, like the increasing the access of the Internet has been like a huge, a huge game that people don’t like, see for what it is. So you know, people used to have to go to libraries to find out very basic information, read through loads of books, just to find out like the details of when a particular thing happened in the past, or what happened with between people, whereas now you can kind of search for these things online and find them out in a few minutes. So that’s a big difference. And I think another one of those kind of services, things like Airbnb and Uber, have, I think, made a huge impact on lots of people’s lives made travel a lot easier. And it’s hard to it’s kind of fun to think about what the next like Airbnb or whatever will be. So that’s something that like, that, I think has gone right. And then, of course, there’s also like biomedical research, I think has improved so much in the, in the last few decades, like gene editing, and then obviously, vaccine research has has massively improved. Yeah, so I think those are, those are three big areas where I think there’s been the most change.

Will Jarvis 18:24
Gotcha, that makes sense. And you wrote a review of enlightenment now. Can you talk about that

Saloni 18:30
a little bit? Yeah, sure. So um, so enlightenment now is the guest recent most recent book from Steven Pinker kind of focuses on how much progress has been made in various areas of human life, and how those have changed over time and what we know about or how we can expect them to change in the future. And I thought it was, it was a really good book, lots of information there that most people don’t really know about. So I think for me, it was it was not very new, because I’ve been kind of following that kind of research for a while. But for the general public, I think most people don’t know that poverty has declined in a big way. Most people don’t know that, like deaths from traffic accidents, or from like, homicides, and things like that have declined over time. So kind of getting that information out there. And explaining the causes or how we know that that’s happened is, is very important. And I think it’s something that the book does quite well.

Will Jarvis 19:37
Definitely, yeah, that just even the infant mortality stats, it’s just it’s pretty mind blowing the progress you made. Yeah, that really matters. I mean, yeah, people like, I remember reading a few reviews where people just kind of brush this off like, Man, that’s kind of a big deal. Right, exactly. But it’s really quite interesting. Um, so going off of that, are you optimistic or pessimistic about The direction we’re going right now, it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic.

Saloni 20:04
Um, so I guess it kind of depends on what we’re talking about in like the timescale that we’re looking at. So I think, in the next few years, or maybe the next couple of decades, there are things that are more worried about, particularly things like climate change, but also, if thinking about politics and what’s happening in like, big dictatorships, India, China, Myanmar, Turkey, places like that. It’s, it’s, I think, difficult and like worrying, because you don’t know how long those things will last, I guess in history, there have been lots of dictatorships that have lasted many decades, right. So it’s, it’s hard to see how that could improve quickly in a big way. So that’s something I’m worried about a lot. But then, of course, there’s also lots of things that I’m optimistic about particularly technological progress.

Will Jarvis 20:58
Excellent. I really like that. Are you down for kind of a little bit overrated? underrated? I stole this boy. Yeah, sure. Sure. Awesome. So epigenetics overrated, underrated and maybe, you know a little bit why

Saloni 21:13
I’m so I think, I think it’s it’s overrated in the way that the public understands it. But the actual science of it is underrated. So, so just to kind of give an overview to your listeners, epi epigenetics refers to things around and above the genome. So when you have your DNA in your cells, these are like huge, really long molecules, and they don’t fit together, that they can’t just be kind of open all the time. So they’re kind of usually condensed into cells. And the way that that condensing is done is with these other proteins that are attached to them. And these proteins have little signatures on them, that that can be changed and stuff. And those signatures allow the cell to know which genes to turn on and which genes to turn into proteins. So that’s a really important feature, because it means that you can, so different cells will be using different dreams at different times. And it helps you to create certain proteins in your in your cells that are needed at a particular time for some function. And I think what’s wrong with the public understanding of that is that people assume that, that what that means is that your genes don’t really matter. And what matters is your environment and how those how environmental factors influence your IP genome and determine which genes to turn on and off. And I think that’s, that’s quite misguided. The main reason for that is that your epi genome is substantially influenced by your genome. So your genes determine in a big way, which which sort of signatures are on those little proteins that tell green said turn on and off. And also, it sort of works in a very mechanistic way. So it’s, it’s like a domino effect, where you have this one gene turn on this one gene produces a protein, that protein does something, and then that protein gives a signal to turn on another gene. And the whole process just goes on and on. So you might you might have like one thing happen, and there’s a knock on effect, that means that lots of other genes are turned on to produce some kind of function. So and like going back to my own field of genetics, if we look at identical twins and fraternal twins, it turns out that they show that like, a lot of your epi genome is influenced by genetic differences between people. Gotcha. So the epi genome does matter. And it is influenced by the environment, but not in the way that people think that it is.

Will Jarvis 24:05
Interesting. That’s that that’s really interesting. So I’ll put the Human Genome Project overrated, underrated.

Saloni 24:12
I think underrated even though people read it very highly. I think it’s still underrated. Because it kind of made a, it made a big impact on genetic research in the future. So so this is a project that began in the 19, early 1990s. And it was kind of developed as a way to find out the sequence of the whole human genome. And people didn’t really know like, how that would be important or, like, they didn’t know the details of why it would be important, but they thought that it was and they kind of, I think the thing that’s important about the project itself is the way that scientists worked on it. So I think in the in the years of the project, there were kind of two main camps of scientists working on this project. So there was one group of scientists that were kind of publicly funded. And they wanted the data from the project to be shared with the wider world. So they wanted all the data to be available, they wanted people to be able to look up somebody’s genetic sequence. So so that everyone knew what the human genome was like. Whereas there was another camp of people who were interested in kind of commercializing the project. So they wanted to be able to pay two genes. And what that means is, you wouldn’t know the sequence of a particular gene, unless you use the patient, which is, you know, kind of observed to think about now. But it was, it was, I think, common in some other related fields, like agricultural genetics and stuff like that. It used to be common in those areas. So so there was kind of a clash between these two camps of scientists, and eventually, the people who are on the kind of public data sharing side of the side of that battle kind of won out in the in the ideas movement. So they kind of they convinced they sort of started this movement, where, during the project, everyone was required to share any thing that they found, if they use public funding with the rest of the world. So every single day, like on a daily basis, you were expected to share any genetic information that you found out about any gene. And that’s been really influential on genetic projects that have happened after after that. So there are like tons of genetic databases now, where you’re expected to share lots of information about the results that you found, how you find them, and so on. And so people can use lots of this information to find out about like a particular gene and loads of different ways that other people have already researched those jeans. And I think that’s a really important thing, because it saves a lot of time, it means that you don’t have to constantly be looking for the same things over and over again, because you know, that somebody else has already found out about them.

Will Jarvis 27:20
Gotcha. That’s really cool. It sounds like, yeah, they came around, it’s a really good method. And it’s established a cool culture within the field, where people are open to sharing, it’s not like, Oh, god, I’m to patent this gene. And you know, you can’t see Yeah, exactly. That’s a good norm. So Steven Pinker overrated or underrated.

Saloni 27:39
I’m so underrated. I guess I’m a big fan. I think that his kind of body of work is just really impressive, and like, big. And so he’s written about lots of things like genetics, language, history, cognitive psychology, and lots of things that like, are explained in a way that is, that kind of makes sense. But it’s also understandable on various like levels of, of the science. So I think, I guess if you read his, if you read his books, or listen to his interviews, whenever people ask him a question, he’ll sort of break it into components and kind of answer them one by one, and then put the whole thing together. And I think that’s really useful because it helps you to understand how to think about a problem, not just what to think about the problem, or what the answer is, it helps you think about the, it helps you think about solving new problems,

Will Jarvis 28:37
gotchas, he’s got a really good process of breaking things down at any rate, and answering the question, he’s teaching you how to almost do that, in a way. Yeah, exactly. Cool. That’s an awesome skill. VIXX Victor, and I’m gonna butcher his last name. Is it Sudan off? I’m not sure. I think it’s john. Oh, okay.

Saloni 28:57
So this is a think Ukrainian scientist. He was a us a big deal in the program to eradicate smallpox. I would say he’s very underrated, primarily, because not many people, if anyone knows really who he is, but also what he did made a very big impact on the world. So he convinced the World Health Organization to develop a program to eliminate smallpox. And the way that he did that is is really interesting, because he kind of had a background in epidemiology and public health. And he himself was involved in eliminating smallpox in the Soviet Union, in places in Central Asia, so he had a lot of expertise in the actual process of elimination and also he had his own background as a biologist, so he knew that like, it would be easier to eradicate smallpox than a lot of other diseases. Because it’s a disease that’s limited to humans. It’s, you don’t have to worry about it coming back from other animals. But also because there were new techniques available to store and administer vaccines in a way that would make it easy to inoculate people in poor areas of the world where transport is not that efficient.

Will Jarvis 30:32
Gotcha. That’s really cool. Um, yeah, it’s it’s surprising no one we haven’t heard about him. You know, I read a piece on him. It’s really cool. And inspiring. Saloni. That’s all the questions I had. And I wanted to thank you for coming on. Are there any parting thoughts you’d like to leave us with and where can people find you? I know we mentioned works in progress.

Saloni 30:57
Yeah, so I guess people can mostly find me on Twitter. very responsive on there. I’m also starting out with working with our world and data on mental health, doing some research for them and lab. But you can also get me at works in progress.co.

Will Jarvis 31:17
Excellent. Thanks so much. Thank you. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with the new episode of narratives

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