Monday, January 16, 2023

New Paper Forthcoming on Women's Heath and Wellbeing

My latest article titled "Longevity Science and Women’s Health and Wellbeing" has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Population Ageing.  

Researching and writing this piece was a true labour of love.  Without realizing it at the time, my interest in this topic was shaped over decades as I first witnessed the demanding caring responsibilities my mother took on to care for her own mother during the last 10+ years of her mother's life.  And then this same dynamic of a period of prolonged management of chronic conditions, coupled with an unequal distribution of the burdens of care, played out for my mother in her final years.  And this predicament is occurring in millions of families around the world as populations survive into late life.  Geroscience can help redress some of these predicaments, because it aspires to improve the quality of life for older persons (vs simply increasing the lifespan by treating single diseases).   

The abstract:

In most areas of the world women comprise the majority of older persons (especially at the most advanced ages), but the additional longevity (globally it is 4.8 years) women have often comes with poorer health status compared to age-matched men.  This article draws attention to four distinct ways an applied gerontological intervention designed to increase the human healthspan via “rate (of ageing) control” could positively impact the health and wellbeing of women in today’s ageing world.  The four benefits examined are: (1) improving women’s health in late life; (2) increasing reproductive longevity and improving maternal health, (3) reducing the financial vulnerability many women experience at advanced ages (especially in the developing world); and (4) reducing the caring burdens which typically fall, at least disproportionately, on daughters to care for their ageing parents.  Highlighting these factors is important as is helps focus geroscience advocacy not only on the potential health dividend age retardation could confer on those in late life, but also the distributional effects on health throughout the lifespan (e.g. improving maternal health) and on helping to ameliorate other important inequalities (e.g. reducing the financial vulnerabilities of late life and easing the burdens on the care givers for ageing parents). By making vivid the benefits “rate (of ageing) control” could confer on women, especially in the developing world, the goal of retarding biological ageing can be rightly construed as a pressing public health priority for the 21st century.  



Sunday, January 15, 2023

Toleration for Today


An excerpt from the conclusion of my chapter contribution to Palgrave's Handbook of Toleration:

Virtue epistemology shifts the traditional focus of ethics away from the question
how should I act?towards the question what should I believe?. Virtue epistemology makes our cognitive lives (e.g., beliefs, motivations, attitudes, thought processes, etc.) a subject of moral inquiry and scrutiny. As such virtue epistemology provides the foundations for an original and compelling account of toleration as a virtue, one which makes the psychology of toleration a central focus of normative analysis. The so-called paradox of toleration arises when an agent or polity holds the following two, apparently contradictory, beliefs: (1) the belief that some belief or practice is objectionable and (2) the belief that, despite its being objectionable, the belief or practice in question should not be suppressed.
The virtue epistemological account of toleration advanced in this chapter attempts
to resolve this alleged tension by utilizing the epistemic virtuesthat help explain
how the introspective and flexible mind can consistently hold these two, apparently contradictory, beliefs. Such a mind possesses a cluster of intellectual virtues that Siegel describes as mindsight” – the ability to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, . . . to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habituated responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in(Siegal 2010).

Mindsight requires having the ability to recognize the salient facts, intellectual
humility, insight into problems, fairness in evaluating the arguments of others, etc.
Unlike an autonomy-based account of toleration which makes respect for autonomy the central justification for exercising toleration, the virtue epistemological account advanced here emphasizes a number of distinct epistemic virtues. And the central cases of toleration examined in this chapter the teen-parent relationship, tolerant employers and neighbors, and the censorship of hate speech were utilized to reveal the importance, and provide some specific details, of how mindsightcan help illuminate toleration as a virtue. Virtue epistemology can offer us an original and helpful normative lens for exploring the appeal and limits of toleration.



Monday, January 09, 2023

Study on Genetics of Brain Growth and Complexity


reports on an interesting study into the genetics of brain growth and complexity:  

Now, a study identifies mutations that transform seemingly useless DNA sequences into potential genes by endowing their encoded RNA with the skill to escape the cell nucleus—a critical step toward becoming translated into a protein. The study’s authors highlight 74 human protein genes that appear to have arisen in this de novo way—more than half of which emerged after the human lineage branched off from chimpanzees. Some of these newcomer genes may have played a role in the evolution of our relatively large and complex brains. When added to mice, one made the rodent brains grow bigger and more humanlike, the authors report this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

....When Hu introduced one of these genes into mice, their brains also grew larger than normal and developed a bigger cortex, the wrinkly outer layer of the mammalian brain that in humans is responsible for high-level functions such as reasoning and language. The second gene did likewise in mice, and also caused the animals’ brains to develop more humanlike ridges and grooves. Those mice performed better on tests of cognitive function and memory than mice lacking this gene, the team says it will report soon in Advanced Science.

Overall, the findings suggest these de novo human genes “may have a role in brain development and may have been a driver of cognition during the evolution of humans,” says Erich Bornberg-Bauer, an evolutionary biophysicist at the University of Münster.  



Thursday, January 05, 2023

The Decline of Disruptive Science

Nature News
has this interesting story (the source of the image) on this Nature study on the decline of disruptive science. 

A sample from the news piece:

It is important to understand the reasons for the drastic changes, Walsh says. The trend might stem in part from changes in the scientific enterprise. For example, there are now many more researchers than in the 1940s, which has created a more competitive environment and raised the stakes to publish research and seek patents. That, in turn, has changed the incentives for how researchers go about their work. Large research teams, for example, have become more common, and Wang and his colleagues have found3 that big teams are more likely to produce incremental than disruptive science.

Finding an explanation for the decline won’t be easy, Walsh says. Although the proportion of disruptive research dropped significantly between 1945 and 2010, the number of highly disruptive studies has remained about the same. The rate of decline is also puzzling: CD indices fell steeply from 1945 to 1970, then more gradually from the late 1990s to 2010. “Whatever explanation you have for disruptiveness dropping off, you need to also make sense of it levelling off” in the 2000s, he says.

And the abstract from the study:

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes1,2, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’3,4,5,6,7. Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances8,9. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields10,11. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index12—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics1,13,14,15,16,17. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.



Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Media coverage of Aging Research

Some recent media stories on aging and longevity science worth noting.

The FT has this piece, and National Geographic has this piece.



Thursday, December 29, 2022

Disciplinary Roots of Gerontology


  The Journals of Gerontology has this fascinating article on the disciplinary roots of gerontology (see image here). 


There is also a list of the top 300 scholars in the field, which is a helpful resource to reference. 



Year in Review (2022)


As 2022 comes to an end I was thinking of a word which could summarize my impression of the past 12 months of my career and one popped into my head almost immediately- exhaustion!  It was another very busy academic year.  I had deferred my winter 2022 sabbatical as the prospect of doing any travel looked precarious and I also wanted to ensure the students that had endured prolonged campus closures could enjoy some quality in-person courses when classes returned to in-person teaching last year. 

In total I taught 7 courses in the year 2022- 3 courses in the winter term, a summer course, and 3 courses again in the fall semester.  That is by far the most teaching I have ever done in my 23 years of teaching, nearly twice as many classes as the normal 4 course load.  

Despite my optimism that all the courses would be in-person, unfortunately the first half of the winter term was actually online because campus closed again when the Omicron strain appeared.  Fortunately I had already learned to manage the "online pivot" in 2020 so I was able to manage things this year, despite the additional course load.  However in the winter 2022 term I was also teaching a brand new 4th year seminar titled "The Politics of Pandemics and Epidemics".  This course covered public health ethical issues pertaining to 4 infectious diseases- malaria, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and COVID-19- and 3 non-infectious disease predicaments- the "war on drugs", obesity and gun violence.  So teaching that course online during the Omicron wave lockdown was not the kind of "experiential learning" I wanted to explore with my students!  Nevertheless, we managed to get through it.  

Face masks remained in place until halfway through my summer course "Science and Justice".  And then in the Fall of 2022 it was the first time I lectured again to my large (300 students) class since March 2020.  Returning to large lectures, and seeing students' faces again, was a great joy.  So while an exhausting year of teaching, it was well worth it.  

I am on sabbatical this coming winter term, so I will have the opportunity to focus on more on research.  In terms of publications out this year I had two journal articles appear in print- here and here.  And most of my research was consumed writing a new textbook on the history of Western political thought.  I completed drafts of chapters on utilitarianism, feminism, Marx, Black Political Thought, conservatism.  This leaves me the last chapter on Aristotle and the Stoics, and then revisions and the conclusion.  So I hope to get this work completed on my sabbatical.

I have some other projects in mind further down the road, but they will have to wait till I have completed the current projects I am committed to.  I am looking forward to 2023!



Friday, December 23, 2022

Career Advice RE: Maintaining a "Growth Mindset"


A few weeks ago I organized a research and teaching luncheon for junior faculty, post-docs and graduate students in my department with two retired faculty (here and here), and the idea was to share thoughts about "advice I wish I received at the beginning of my career". 

There was a very interesting discussion about the isolation of academic work, the pressures of balancing research, teaching, administration, and life.  While I am not (at least yet) at the retired stage of my career, I shared a few insights based on how things look to me now after 23+ years into my academic career.

My comments were informed by the fascinating psychological research done on the difference between a "growth" vs "fixed" mindset.  As I was reading through this book I made a number of linkages with a career in higher education.  And so my comments at the luncheon focused on the importance of 3 "epistemic virtues" that I think, at the start of one's career, it is really important to be aware of and consciously cultivate to help improve the odds that one develops a "growth" vs "fixed" mindset in one's research and teaching. 

The 3 epistemic virtues I emphasized are: 

1.    Curiosity:  a genuine desire to fill the gap between knowledge and understanding vs having a closed/indifferent mindset.

2.    Humility:  being comfortable to acknowledge your own “gaps” in knowledge and the limits of one’s expertise vs acting and thinking like an arrogant “know it all”.

3.    Intellectual risk-taking: taking on some new challenges that have uncertain or more difficult payoffs vs only inhabiting the safety of established research paradigms and professional norms.

Below are a few personal reflections of how I think these virtues can apply in research and teaching.

In the classroom, an instructor can motivate students to learn the class material by stoking their curiosity.  There are a diverse range of ideas historical political thinkers have advanced for diagnosing the societal predicaments that face our societies, and a diverse range of prescriptions for addressing those problems.  What are the merits and demerits of viewing the political landscape through the lens of Marxism vs liberalism vs critical race theory vs feminism vs utilitarianism vs conservatism, etc.?  Where did these different ideas come from? What events or observations inspired thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Marx, Du Bois or MLK, Jr.?

As an instructor if you demonstrate intellectual curiosity in the classroom students will mimic this.  Curiosity is infectious.  In my classes students will often ask me what my own political convictions and perspectives are because they can not discern them from the way I teach.  I take such comments as a complement!  I tell my students I am still figuring out my own political convictions and perspectives. 

In my final year as an undergraduate student I was swayed by anarchism, libertarianism, existentialism and Marxism all within the span of about 12 months!  I am still growing and exploring the moral and political landscape.  I think instructors that approach the classroom with strong ideological commitments do a disservice to the mission of higher education.  They approach the classroom from a fixed mindset (e.g. “I, the course instructor, know the truth about justice, democracy and equality, and my goal is to get you, the student, to espouse what I espouse”).  When the intellectual journey is instead approached as a joint collaboration (e.g. “We all have our starting beliefs and experiences, assumptions and intuitions, and together we will critically assess and explore them and see where that takes us”) that is genuinely open then real learning occurs.  The desire to “virtue signal” that one is “on the right side of some ideological battle” must not trump the prime directive of higher education-  to help facilitate and celebrate critical thinking.

Intellectual humility is another (related) critical mindset for an instructor and researcher.  The opposite of humility is arrogance, the uncritical presumption that you know all the answers to important questions, as well as what constitutes the important questions to be answering in the first place.  Arrogance should not be confused with confidence.  Of course an instructor and researcher should have confidence, at least when they are teaching and researching something they actually have competence in.  But humility is also critical to the educational mission.  Possessing the ability to distinguish between the topics one can speak to with some confidence, vs those that one cannot, is a mark of a good instructor and inquisitive intellectual.  The mindset that tries to prove one knows all things, whether it be to their students or “Twitter followers”, is coming from a motivation of “ego” vs intellectual humility and curiosity. 

For one’s research, I think having intellectual humility can help one step back and re-evaluate the future trajectory of one’s research.  For example, after my PhD I published a few articles from my thesis, defending the Rawlsian paradigm of political philosophy by applying it to the issues of a basic income, free speech and economic incentives.  But then I began to critically reflect on the shortcomings of that paradigm.  If my primary goal was to simply publish more of the same stuff I had already published, or to defend the theoretical tradition I happened to find attractive as a graduate student, I would have constrained my intellectual growth and probably contributed much less to the field in terms of original insights.         

And finally, the third and final epistemic virtue I would encourage a young academic to cultivate is “intellectual risk-taking”.  This virtue occupies the mean between the foolish or careless academic who says “I will write what I want to write, where and when I want… the publishing expectations of the discipline and tenure be dammed!” (good luck getting tenure or even finding a TT job with such an attitude!) and the conservative approach of trying to hedge bets on what would yield the safest and most prodigious publication record in the future.  

One might ask why do any intellectual risk-taking at all?  I think the answer to that question depends on that type of academic you are/want to be.  If you are like me then intellectual risk-taking is where the most significant intellectual development and growth occurs, and it is really fun challenging the wisdom of established research paradigms and trying to forge novel ground in a discipline.

For me, the most rewarding research I have done has involved intellectual risk-taking of the following kind: 

(1) writing a textbook as my first published book (vs my dissertation);

(2) publishing a second book which in some respects represented my anti-dissertation vs dissertation;

(3) publishing papers and books that criticize the dominant methodology of the discipline;

(4) exploring new ways (here and here) to understand a historical thinker whose central ideas I do not espouse (but I think are worth seriously engaging with)

(5) spending 15 years writing a book on a neglected topic in the field in the hopes that a reputable publisher would eventually publish it;

(6) and then, after (5), agreeing to write another book on that same topic from a completely new methodological perspective.

(7) devoting 15 years of my research to a topic that is completely ignored by my discipline, and publishing my articles in journals outside my field, like science, medicine.

Wrapping this long post up… the bottom line in terms of advice I wish when I started my career:  academics ought to reflect, often and deeply and critically, on the question of the type of scholar and instructor they aspire to be.  The research on fixed vs growth mindsets is very relevant to these issues.  I have spent 20+ years refining the epistemic virtues of curiosity, humility and intellectual risk-taking. I am still learning and growing.  And I think the growth mindset has paid the generous dividend of helping me successfully navigate some of the challenges of a career in academia and do so in a way that has not diminished my passion for teaching and research.