Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

The Washington Post

Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

Nitasha Tiku – January 27, 2023

Big Tech was moving cautiously on AI. Then came ChatGPT.

Three months before ChatGPT debuted in November, Facebook’s parent company Meta released a similar chatbot. But unlike the phenomenon that ChatGPT instantly became, with more than a million users in its first five days, Meta’s Blenderbot was boring, said Meta’s chief artificial intelligence scientist, Yann LeCun.

“The reason it was boring was because it was made safe,” LeCun said last week at a forum hosted by AI consulting company Collective[i]. He blamed the tepid public response on Meta being “overly careful about content moderation,” like directing the chatbot to change the subject if a user asked about religion. ChatGPT, on the other hand, will converse about the concept of falsehoods in the Quran, write a prayer for a rabbi to deliver to Congress and compare God to a flyswatter.

ChatGPT is quickly going mainstream now that Microsoft – which recently invested billions of dollars in the company behind the chatbot, OpenAI – is working to incorporate it into its popular office software and selling access to the tool to other businesses. The surge of attention around ChatGPT is prompting pressure inside tech giants including Meta and Google to move faster, potentially sweeping safety concerns aside, according to interviews with six current and former Google and Meta employees, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

At Meta, employees have recently shared internal memos urging the company to speed up its AI approval process to take advantage of the latest technology, according to one of them. Google, which helped pioneer some of the technology underpinning ChatGPT, recently issued a “code red” around launching AI products and proposed a “green lane” to shorten the process of assessing and mitigating potential harms, according to a report in the New York Times.

ChatGPT, along with text-to-image tools such as DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, is part of a new wave of software called generative AI. They create works of their own by drawing on patterns they’ve identified in vast troves of existing, human-created content. This technology was pioneered at big tech companies like Google that in recent years have grown more secretive, announcing new models or offering demos but keeping the full product under lock and key. Meanwhile, research labs like OpenAI rapidly launched their latest versions, raising questions about how corporate offerings, like Google’s language model LaMDA, stack up.

Tech giants have been skittish since public debacles like Microsoft’s Tay, which it took down in less than a day in 2016 after trolls prompted the bot to call for a race war, suggest Hitler was right and tweet “Jews did 9/11.” Meta defended Blenderbot and left it up after it made racist comments in August, but pulled down another AI tool, called Galactica, in November after just three days amid criticism over its inaccurate and sometimes biased summaries of scientific research.

“People feel like OpenAI is newer, fresher, more exciting and has fewer sins to pay for than these incumbent companies, and they can get away with this for now,” said a Google employee who works in AI, referring to the public’s willingness to accept ChatGPT with less scrutiny. Some top talent has jumped ship to nimbler start-ups, like OpenAI and Stable Diffusion.

Some AI ethicists fear that Big Tech’s rush to market could expose billions of people to potential harms – such as sharing inaccurate information, generating fake photos or giving students the ability to cheat on school tests – before trust and safety experts have been able to study the risks. Others in the field share OpenAI’s philosophy that releasing the tools to the public, often nominally in a “beta” phase after mitigating some predictable risks, is the only way to assess real world harms.

“The pace of progress in AI is incredibly fast, and we are always keeping an eye on making sure we have efficient review processes, but the priority is to make the right decisions, and release AI models and products that best serve our community,” said Joelle Pineau, managing director of Fundamental AI Research at Meta.

“We believe that AI is foundational and transformative technology that is incredibly useful for individuals, businesses and communities,” said Lily Lin, a Google spokesperson. “We need to consider the broader societal impacts these innovations can have. We continue to test our AI technology internally to make sure it’s helpful and safe.”

Microsoft’s chief of communications, Frank Shaw, said his company works with OpenAI to build in extra safety mitigations when it uses AI tools like DALLE-2 in its products. “Microsoft has been working for years to both advance the field of AI and publicly guide how these technologies are created and used on our platforms in responsible and ethical ways,” Shaw said.

OpenAI declined to comment.

The technology underlying ChatGPT isn’t necessarily better than what Google and Meta have developed, said Mark Riedl, professor of computing at Georgia Tech and an expert on machine learning. But OpenAI’s practice of releasing its language models for public use has given it a real advantage.

“For the last two years they’ve been using a crowd of humans to provide feedback to GPT,” said Riedl, such as giving a “thumbs down” for an inappropriate or unsatisfactory answer, a process called “reinforcement learning from human feedback.”

Silicon Valley’s sudden willingness to consider taking more reputational risk arrives as tech stocks are tumbling. When Google laid off 12,000 employees last week, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the company had undertaken a rigorous review to focus on its highest priorities, twice referencing its early investments in AI.

A decade ago, Google was the undisputed leader in the field. It acquired the cutting edge AI lab DeepMind in 2014 and open-sourced its machine learning software TensorFlow in 2015. By 2016, Pichai pledged to transform Google into an “AI first” company.

The next year, Google released transformers – a pivotal piece of software architecture that made the current wave of generative AI possible.

The company kept rolling out state-of-the-art technology that propelled the entire field forward, deploying some AI breakthroughs in understanding language to improve Google search. Inside big tech companies, the system of checks and balances for vetting the ethical implications of cutting-edge AI isn’t as established as privacy or data security. Typically teams of AI researchers and engineers publish papers on their findings, incorporate their technology into the company’s existing infrastructure or develop new products, a process that can sometimes clash with other teams working on responsible AI over pressure to see innovation reach the public sooner.

Google released its AI principles in 2018, after facing employee protest over Project Maven, a contract to provide computer vision for Pentagon drones, and consumer backlash over a demo for Duplex, an AI system that would call restaurants and make a reservation without disclosing it was a bot. In August last year, Google began giving consumers access to a limited version of LaMDA through its app AI Test Kitchen. It has not yet released it fully to the general public, in spite of Google’s plans to do so at the end of 2022, according to former Google software engineer Blake Lemoine, who told The Washington Post that he had come to believe LaMDA was sentient.

But the top AI talent behind these developments grew restless.

In the past year or so, top AI researchers from Google have left to launch start-ups around large language models, including Character.AI, Cohere, Adept, Inflection.AI and Inworld AI, in addition to search start-ups using similar models to develop a chat interface, such as Neeva, run by former Google executive Sridhar Ramaswamy.

Character.AI founder Noam Shazeer, who helped invent the transformer and other core machine learning architecture, said the flywheel effect of user data has been invaluable. The first time he applied user feedback to Character.AI, which allows anyone to generate chatbots based on short descriptions of real people or imaginary figures, engagement rose by more than 30 percent.

Bigger companies like Google and Microsoft are generally focused on using AI to improve their massive existing business models, said Nick Frosst, who worked at Google Brain for three years before co-founding Cohere, a Toronto-based start-up building large language models that can be customized to help businesses. One of his co-founders, Aidan Gomez, also helped invent transformers when he worked at Google.

“The space moves so quickly, it’s not surprising to me that the people leading are smaller companies,” said Frosst.

AI has been through several hype cycles over the past decade, but the furor over DALL-E and ChatGPT has reached new heights.

Soon after OpenAI released ChatGPT, tech influencers on Twitter began to predict that generative AI would spell the demise of Google search. ChatGPT delivered simple answers in an accessible way and didn’t ask users to rifle through blue links. Besides, after a quarter of a century, Google’s search interface had grown bloated with ads and marketers trying to game the system.

“Thanks to their monopoly position, the folks over at Mountain View have [let] their once-incredible search experience degenerate into a spam-ridden, SEO-fueled hellscape,” technologist Can Duruk wrote in his newsletter Margins, referring to Google’s hometown.

On the anonymous app Blind, tech workers posted dozens of questions about whether the Silicon Valley giant could compete.

“If Google doesn’t get their act together and start shipping, they will go down in history as the company who nurtured and trained an entire generation of machine learning researchers and engineers who went on to deploy the technology at other companies,” tweeted David Ha, a renowned research scientist who recently left Google Brain for the open source text-to-image start-up Stable Diffusion.

AI engineers still inside Google shared his frustration, employees say. For years, employees had sent memos about incorporating chat functions into search, viewing it as an obvious evolution, according to employees. But they also understood that Google had justifiable reasons not to be hasty about switching up its search product, beyond the fact that responding to a query with one answer eliminates valuable real estate for online ads. A chatbot that pointed to one answer directly from Google could increase its liability if the response was found to be harmful or plagiarized.

Chatbots like OpenAI routinely make factual errors and often switch their answers depending on how a question is asked. Moving from providing a range of answers to queries that link directly to their source material, to using a chatbot to give a single, authoritative answer, would be a big shift that makes many inside Google nervous, said one former Google AI researcher. The company doesn’t want to take on the role or responsibility of providing single answers like that, the person said. Previous updates to search, such as adding Instant Answers, were done slowly and with great caution.

Inside Google, however, some of the frustration with the AI safety process came from the sense that cutting-edge technology was never released as a product because of fears of bad publicity – if, say, an AI model showed bias.

Meta employees have also had to deal with the company’s concerns about bad PR, according to a person familiar with the company’s internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. Before launching new products or publishing research, Meta employees have to answer questions about the potential risks of publicizing their work, including how it could be misinterpreted, the person said. Some projects are reviewed by public relations staff, as well as internal compliance experts who ensure the company’s products comply with its 2011 Federal Trade Commission agreement on how it handles user data.

To Timnit Gebru, executive director of the nonprofit Distributed AI Research Institute, the prospect of Google sidelining its responsible AI team doesn’t necessarily signal a shift in power or safety concerns, because those warning of the potential harms were never empowered to begin with. “If we were lucky, we’d get invited to a meeting,” said Gebru, who helped lead Google’s Ethical AI team until she was fired for a paper criticizing large language models.

From Gebru’s perspective, Google was slow to release its AI tools because the company lacked a strong enough business incentive to risk a hit to its reputation.

After the release of ChatGPT, however, perhaps Google sees a change to its ability to make money from these models as a consumer product, not just to power search or online ads, Gebru said. “Now they might think it’s a threat to their core business, so maybe they should take a risk.”

Rumman Chowdhury, who led Twitter’s machine-learning ethics team until Elon Musk disbanded it in November, said she expects companies like Google to increasingly sideline internal critics and ethicists as they scramble to catch up with OpenAI.

“We thought it was going to be China pushing the U.S., but looks like it’s start-ups,” she said.

Can Anything Be Done to Assuage Rural Rage?

By Paul Krugman – January 26, 2023

At the center of a photo, a small American flag is stuck in vines surrounding a telephone pole on an overgrown side of a one-lane road. Across the road are scrubby trees with brownish leaves in the distance under a later afternoon sky.
Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Rural resentment has become a central fact of American politics — in particular, a pillar of support for the rise of right-wing extremism. As the Republican Party has moved ever further into MAGAland, it has lost votes among educated suburban voters; but this has been offset by a drastic rightward shift in rural areas, which in some places has gone so far that the Democrats who remain face intimidation and are afraid to reveal their party affiliation.

But is this shift permanent? Can anything be done to assuage rural rage?

The answer will depend on two things: whether it’s possible to improve rural lives and restore rural communities, and whether the voters in these communities will give politicians credit for any improvements that do take place.

This week my colleague Thomas B. Edsall surveyed research on the rural Republican shift. I was struck by his summary of work by Katherine J. Cramer, who attributes rural resentment to perceptions that rural areas are ignored by policymakers, don’t get their fair share of resources and are disrespected by “city folks.”

As it happens, all three perceptions are largely wrong. I’m sure that my saying this will generate a tidal wave of hate mail, and lecturing rural Americans about policy reality isn’t going to move their votes. Nonetheless, it’s important to get our facts straight.

The truth is that ever since the New Deal rural America has received special treatment from policymakers. It’s not just farm subsidies, which ballooned under Donald Trump to the point where they accounted for around 40 percent of total farm income. Rural America also benefits from special programs that support housing, utilities and business in general.

In terms of resources, major federal programs disproportionately benefit rural areas, in part because such areas have a disproportionate number of seniors receiving Social Security and Medicare. But even means-tested programs — programs that Republicans often disparage as “welfare” — tilt rural. Notably, at this point rural Americans are more likely than urban Americans to be on Medicaid and receive food stamps.

And because rural America is poorer than urban America, it pays much less per person in federal taxes, so in practice major metropolitan areas hugely subsidize the countryside. These subsidies don’t just support incomes, they support economies: Government and the so-called health care and social assistance sector each employ more people in rural America than agriculture, and what do you think pays for those jobs?

What about rural perceptions of being disrespected? Well, many people have negative views about people with different lifestyles; that’s human nature. There is, however, an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to seek rural votes by insulting big cities and their residents, but it would be unforgivable for urban politicians to return the favor. “I have to go to New York City soon,” tweeted J.D. Vance during his senatorial campaign. “I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there.” Can you imagine, say, Chuck Schumer saying something similar about rural Ohio, even as a joke?

So the ostensible justifications for rural resentment don’t withstand scrutiny — but that doesn’t mean things are fine. A changing economy has increasingly favored metropolitan areas with large college-educated work forces over small towns. The rural working-age population has been declining, leaving seniors behind. Rural men in their prime working years are much more likely than their metropolitan counterparts to not be working. Rural woes are real.

Ironically, however, the policy agenda of the party most rural voters support would make things even worse, slashing the safety-net programs these voters depend on. And Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to point this out.

But can they also have a positive agenda for rural renewal? As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently pointed out, the infrastructure spending bills enacted under President Biden, while primarily intended to address climate change, will also create large numbers of blue-collar jobs in rural areas and small cities. They are, in practice, a form of the “place-based industrial policy” some economists have urged to fight America’s growing geographic disparities.

Will they work? The economic forces that have been hollowing out rural America are deep and not easily countered. But it’s certainly worth trying.

But even if these policies improve rural fortunes, will Democrats get any credit? It’s easy to be cynical. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new governor of Arkansas, has pledged to get the “bureaucratic tyrants” of Washington “out of your wallets”; in 2019 the federal government spent almost twice as much in Arkansas as it collected in taxes, de facto providing the average Arkansas resident with $5,500 in aid. So even if Democratic policies greatly improve rural lives, will rural voters notice?

Still, anything that helps reverse rural America’s decline would be a good thing in itself. And maybe, just maybe, reducing the heartland’s economic desperation will also help reverse its political radicalization.

Science has finally cracked the mystery of why so many people believe in conspiracy theories


Science has finally cracked the mystery of why so many people believe in conspiracy theories

Adam Rogers – January 26, 2023

Man sitting cross-legged, using laptop underneath a very big brain filled with conspiracies theories, from the Illuminati, September 11 attacks and COVID hoax
People don’t buy into conspiracy theories because of ignorance or social isolation. They do it because of a more prevalent personality quirk: overconfidence.Getty Images; iStock; Alyssa Powell/Insider

When it comes to the spread of cockamamie conspiracy theories, Twitter was a maximum viable product long before Elon Musk paid $44 billion for the keys. But as soon as he took the wheel, Musk removed many of the guardrails Twitter had put in place to keep the craziness in check. Anti-vaxxers used an athlete’s collapse during a game to revive claims that COVID-19 vaccines kill people. (They don’t.) Freelance journalists spun long threads purporting to show that Twitter secretly supported Democrats in 2020. (It didn’t.) Musk himself insinuated that the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband was carried out by a jealous boyfriend. (Nope.) Like a red thread connecting clippings on Twitter’s giant whiteboard, conspiratorial ideation spread far and wide.

By some measures more than half of Americans believe at least one tale of a secret cabal influencing events. Some are more plausible than others; a few are even true. But most — from classics like the faked moon landing to new-school stuff like 5G cell towers causing COVID — defy science and logic. And while social-media platforms like Twitter and Meta may help deranged conspiracy theories metastasize, a fundamental question remains: Why does anyone fall for stuff like that?

Social scientists are closing in on some answers. The personality traits known as the “Dark Triad” — that’s narcissism, psychopathy, and a tendency to see the world in black-or-white terms — play a part. So do political beliefs, particularly populism and a tolerance for political violence. Cognitive biases, like believing only evidence that confirms what you already think, also make people more vulnerable.

But according to new research, it isn’t ignorance that makes people most likely to buy into conspiratorial thinking, or social isolation or mental illness. It’s a far more prevalent and pesky personality quirk: overconfidence.

The more you think you’re right all the time, a new study suggests, the more likely you are to buy conspiracy theories, regardless of the evidence. That’d be bad enough if it applied only to that one know-it-all cousin you see every Thanksgiving. But given how both politics and business reward a faith in one’s own genius, the news is way worse. Some of the same people this hypothesis predicts will be most prone to conspiracy thinking also have the biggest megaphones — like an ex-president who believes he’s never wrong, and a CEO who thinks that building expensive cars makes him some sort of visionary. It’d be better, or at least more reassuring, if conspiracy theories were fueled by dumb yahoos rather than self-centered monsters. Because arrogance, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is a lot harder to stamp out than stupidity.

Have faith in yourself (but not too much)

A decade or so ago, when Gordon Pennycook was in graduate school and wanted to study conspiracist thinking, a small but powerful group of unelected people got together to stop him. It wasn’t a conspiracy as such. It was just that back then, the people who approved studies and awarded grants didn’t think that “epistemically suspect beliefs” — things science can easily disprove, like astrology or paranormal abilities — were deserving of serious scholarship. “It was always a kind of fringe thing,” Pennycook says. He ended up looking into misinformation instead.

Still, the warning signs that conspiracy theories were a serious threat to the body politic go way back. A lot of present-day anti-semitism can be traced back to a 19th-century forgery purporting to describe a secret meeting of a Jewish cabal known as the Elders of Zion (a forgery based in part on yet another antisemitic conspiracy theory from England in the 1100s and re-upped by the industrialist Henry Ford in the 1920s). In 1962, the historian Richard Hofstadter warned against what he called the “paranoid style” of America’s radical right and its use of conspiracy fears to whip up support. Still, most scientists thought conspiracy theories weren’t worth their time, the province of weirdos connecting JFK’s death to lizard aliens.

Then the weirdos started gaining ground. Bill Clinton, they claimed, murdered Vince Foster. George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks. Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Belief in baseless theories could lead to actual violence — burning cellphone towers because of that COVID thing, or attacking the Capitol because Hugo Chávez rigged the US election. By the time of the January 6 insurrection, Pennycook had already switched to studying conspiracy.

It still isn’t entirely clear whether more people believe conspiracy theories today. Maybe there are just more theories to believe. But researchers pretty much agree that crackpot ideas are playing a far more significant role in politics and culture, and they have a flurry of hypotheses about what’s going on. People who believe in conspiracies tend to be more dogmatic, and unable to handle disagreement well. They also rate higher on those Dark Triad personality traits. They’re not stark raving mad, just a tick more antisocial.

But at this point, there are just way too many believers in cuckoo theories running around for the explanation to be ignorance or mental illness. “Throughout most of the 1970s, 80% — that’s eight zero — believed Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “Would we say all of those people were stupid or had a serious psychological problem? Of course not.”

Which brings us to the overconfidence thing. Pennycook and his collaborators had been looking at the ways intuition could lead people astray. They hypothesized that conspiratorial thinkers overindex for their own intuitive leaps — that they are, to put it bluntly, lazy. Most don’t bother to “do their own research,” and those who do believe only things that confirm their original conclusions.

“Open-minded thinking isn’t just engaging in effortful thought,” Pennycook observes. “It’s doing so to evaluate evidence that’s directed toward what’s true or false — to actually question your intuitions.” Pennycook wanted to know why someone wouldn’t do that. Maybe it was simple overconfidence in their own judgment.

Sometimes, of course, people are justified in their confidence; after four decades in journalism, for example, I’m right to be confident in my ability to type fast. But then there’s what’s known as “dispositional” overconfidence — a person’s sense that they are just practically perfect in every way. How could Pennycook’s team tell the difference?

Their solution was pretty slick. They showed more than 1,000 people a set of six images blurred beyond recognition and then asked the subjects what the pictures were. Baseball player? Chimpanzee? Click the box. The researchers basically forced the subjects to guess. Then they asked them to self-assess how well they did on the test. People who thought they nailed it were the dispositional ones. “Sometimes you’re right to be confident,” Pennycook says. “In this case, there was no reason for people to be confident.”

Sure enough, Pennycook found that overconfidence correlated significantly with belief in conspiracy theories. “This is something that’s kind of fundamental,” he says. “If you have an actual, underlying, generalized overconfidence, that will impact the way you evaluate things in the world.”

The results aren’t peer-reviewed yet; the paper is still a preprint. But they sure feel true (confirmation bias aside). From your blowhard cousin to Marjorie Taylor Greene, it seems as if every conspiracist shares one common trait: a supreme smugness in their own infallibility. That’s how it sounds every time Donald Trump opens his mouth. And inside accounts of Elon Musk’s management at Twitter suggest he may also be suffering from similar delusions.

“That’s often what happens with these really wealthy, powerful people who sort of fail upwards,” says Joe Vitriol, a psychologist at Lehigh University who has studied the way people overestimate their own expertise. “Musk is not operating in an environment in which he’s accountable for the mistakes he makes, or in which others criticize the things he says or does.”

An epidemic of overconfidence

Pennycook isn’t the first researcher to propose a link between self-regard and epistemically suspect beliefs. Anyone who has attended a corporate meeting has experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect — the way those who know the least tend to assume they know the most. And studies by Vitriol and others have found a correlation between conspiracy thinking and the illusion of explanatory depth — when people who possess only a superficial understanding of how something works overestimate their knowledge of the details.

But what makes Pennycook’s finding significant is the way it covers all the different flavors of conspiracists. Maybe some people think their nominal expertise in one domain extends to expertise about everything. Maybe others actually believe the conspiracy theories they spread, or simply can’t be bothered to check them out. Maybe they define “truth” legalistically, as anything people can be convinced of, instead of something objectively veridical. Regardless, they trust their intuition, even though they shouldn’t. Overconfidence could explain it all.

Pennycook’s findings also suggest an explanation for why conspiracy theories have become so widely accepted. Supremely overconfident people are often the ones who get handed piles of money and a microphone. That doesn’t just afford them the means to spread their baseless notions about Democrats running an international child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor, or Sandy Hook being a hoax. It also connects them to an audience that shares and admires their overweening arrogance. To many Americans, Pennycook suggests, the overconfidence of a Musk or a Trump isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

coronavirus protest disinformation fake news
To many Americans, new research suggests, the overconfidence of an Elon Musk or a Donald Trump isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket

It’s not necessarily unreasonable to believe in dangerous conspiracies. The US government really did withhold medical treatment from Black men in the Tuskegee trial. Richard Nixon really did cover up an attempted burglary at The Watergate HotelJeffrey Epstein really did force girls to have sex with his powerful friends. Transnational oil companies really did hide how much they knew about climate change.

So distinguishing between plausible and implausible conspiracies isn’t easy. And we might be more likely to fall for the implausible ones if they’re being spouted by people we trust. “The same thing is true for you,” Pennycook tells me. “If you hear a scientist or a fellow journalist at a respected outlet, you say, ‘This is someone I can trust.’ And the reason you trust them is that they’re at a respected outlet. But the problem is, people are not that discerning. Whether the person says something they agree with becomes the reason they trust them. Then, when the person says something they’re not sure about, they tend to trust that, too.”

The next step, or course, is to figure out how to fight the spread of conspiratorial nonsense. Pennycook is trying; he spent last year working at Google to curb misinformation; his frequent collaborator David Rand has worked with Facebook. They had some meetings with TikTok, too. That pop-up asking whether you want to read the article before sharing it? That was them.

And what about the bird site? “Twitter? Well, that’s another thing altogether,” Pennycook says. He and Rand worked on the crowdsource fact-check function called Community Notes. But now? “It’s all in flux, thanks to Elon Musk.”

But Pennycook’s new study suggests that the problem of conspiracy theories runs far deeper — and may prove far more difficult to solve — than simply tweaking a social-media algorithm or two. “How are you going to fix overconfidence? The people who are overconfident don’t think there’s a problem to be fixed,” he says. “I haven’t come up with a solution for that yet.”

Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.

DeSantis finally tells the truth; ‘Florida is where “Woke” (education) comes to die:’ US governor defends ban on African American history course


US governor defends ban on African American history course

January 23, 2023

The Republican leader of the US state of Florida defended his ban on an African American studies course Monday, railing against its pushing of “social justice” topics such as “queer theory.”

“We want education, not indoctrination. If you fall on the side of indoctrination, we’re going to decline. If it’s education, then we will do (it),” Governor Ron DeSantis, who is considered one of the favorites for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination, told reporters.

“This course on Black history: what is one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids,” he added.

The class covers more than 400 years of African American history and is being rolled out as part a nationwide “advanced placement” program giving high school students the chance to take college-level subjects before graduation.

But Florida’s Department of Education has objected to the inclusion of “Black Queer Studies” and topics such as Black feminism and the alleged promotion of critical race theory, an academic discipline investigating systemic racism in American society.

Officials have also complained about its approach to the debate over reparations — the argument for compensating Black Americans for slavery — telling organizers the program violated state law and rejecting its inclusion in Florida schools.

DeSantis has seen his political stock rise following a big election win in November and he is now considered former president Donald Trump’s main rival in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination.

He has gained support on the right for his hardline stances on “culture war” issues such as public health restrictions during the pandemic and alleged “woke” indoctrination in education.

He argued Monday that the purpose of education was the “pursuit of truth,” and not to use schools as “an instrument of what they consider social justice and social change.”

“We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them,” DeSantis said. “When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

The decision to block the course has been met with outrage from the American Civil Liberties Union, which said DeSantis had “no right to censor speech he disagrees with” while Vice President Kamala Harris said at the weekend anyone banning teaching US history “has no right to shape America’s future.”

Comet last seen during Ice Age will be visible over Idaho. Here’s when and how to watch

Idaho Statesman

Comet last seen during Ice Age will be visible over Idaho. Here’s when and how to watch

Shaun Goodwin, Patrick McCreless, Genevieve Belmaker – January 11, 2023

A comet last visible by the naked eye when Neanderthals roamed the Earth should be observable in Idaho skies again soon.

The comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is passing through the inner solar system and will get closest to the sun on Jan. 12, according to The comet will continue to travel near the Earth, making its closest passage between Feb. 1 and Feb. 2.

The comet could be visible to the naked eye if it continues to brighten. Such a sight can be difficult to predict for comets, states. However, even if the comet does dim a bit, it should still be visible with binoculars or a telescope for several days around its approach.

Though ancient, C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was only discovered by astronomers at the Zwicky Transient Facility at CalTech in March 2022. The facility operates at the Palomar Observatory at California’s Palomar Mountain, about 90 minutes northeast of San Diego.

The comet has a period of about 50,000 years, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory states. As such, the last time the comet came so close to the sun and Earth was during the last Ice Age, when humans and Neanderthals existed on the planet at the same time.

It was reported in the scientific journal Space in early January 2023.

How to watch

According to NASA, observers in Idaho and throughout the northern hemisphere should be able to find the comet in the morning sky as it travels northwest in late January.

Viewers should look for the comet when the moon is dim in the sky. The new moon on Jan. 21 will offer an excellent opportunity. Although the National Weather Service only provides accurate day-by-day forecasts five days out, the Climate Prediction Center predicts a 40-50% higher-than-normal chance for rain in the next eight to 14 days.

Although a higher chance of precipitation does not necessarily mean more cloud cover, clouds form when the atmosphere reaches its saturation point; more moisture in the atmosphere means a higher chance for clouds.

Brian Jackson, an associate professor at Boise State’s Physics Department, has previously told the Idaho Statesman that Camel’s Back Park in North Boise is an excellent spot to look toward the night sky. The park allows watchers to turn their backs on the light pollution from Boise and look out toward the Boise Mountains.

Jackson also recommended the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve in the Sun Valley, which offers one of the darkest night skies in the United States. The Light Pollution Map website also shows the best spots in Idaho to escape light pollution.

Weather Service meteorologist Josh Smith told the Statesman that Bogus Basin is an excellent place to stargaze and look for comets if there is cloud cover. Bogus Basin’s base sits at 5,800 feet, meaning it should be above any low cloud ceiling above the Treasure Valley.

What are comets?

Comets consist of ice and frozen gases, along with rocks and dust left after the solar system’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. They orbit the sun in highly elliptical orbits. When a comet approaches the sun, it heats up quickly, causing some ice to turn into gas. This heated gas and dust are what form a comet’s tail.

The ‘runner’s high’ may result from molecules called cannabinoids – the body’s own version of THC and CBD

The Conversation

The ‘runner’s high’ may result from molecules called cannabinoids – the body’s own version of THC and CBD

Hilary A. Marusak, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wayne State University – January 7, 2023

Exercise spurs the release of the body's natural cannabinoids, which have myriad benefits for mental health and stress relief. <a href=
Exercise spurs the release of the body’s natural cannabinoids, which have myriad benefits for mental health and stress relief. Luca Sage/Stone via Getty Images

Many people have experienced reductions in stress, pain and anxiety and sometimes even euphoria after exercise. What’s behind this so-called “runner’s high”? New research on the neuroscience of exercise may surprise you.

The “runner’s high” has long been attributed to endorphins. These are chemicals produced naturally in the body of humans and other animals after exercise and in response to pain or stress.

However, new research from my lab summarizes nearly two decades of work on this topic. We found that exercise reliably increases levels of the body’s endocannabinoids – which are molecules that work to maintain balance in the brain and body – a process called “homeostasis.” This natural chemical boost may better explain some of the beneficial effects of exercise on brain and body.

I am a neuroscientist at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. My lab studies brain development and mental health, as well as the role of the endocannabinoid system in stress regulation and anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.

This research has implications for everyone who exercises with the aim of reducing stress and should serve as a motivator for those who don’t regularly exercise.

Health benefits of exercise

Several decades of research has shown that exercise is beneficial for physical health. These studies find a consistent link between varying amounts of physical activity and reduced risk of premature death and dozens of chronic health conditions, including diabeteshypertensioncancer and heart disease.

While cannabinoids are produced in cannabis, the marijuana plant, they are also made in the human body. <a href=
While cannabinoids are produced in cannabis, the marijuana plant, they are also made in the human body. Iuliia Bondar/Moment via Getty Images

More recently – over about the past two decades – mounting research shows that exercise is also highly beneficial for mental health. In fact, regular exercise is associated with lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease and other common mental health or neurological problems. Consistent exercise is also linked to better cognitive performance, improved mood, lower stress and higher self-esteem.

It is not yet clear what is behind these mental health boosts. We do know that exercise has a variety of effects on the brain, including raising metabolism and blood flow, promoting the formation of new brain cells – a process called neurogenesis – and increasing the release of several chemicals in the brain.

Some of these chemicals are called neurotrophic factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF is intricately involved in brain “plasticity,” or changes in activity of brain cells, including those related to learning and memory.

Scientists have also shown that exercise increases blood levels of endorphins, one of the body’s natural opioids. Opioids are chemicals that work in the brain and have a variety of effects, including helping to relieve pain. Some early research in the 1980s contributed to the long-standing popular belief that this endorphin release is related to the euphoric feeling known as the runner’s high.

However, scientists have long questioned the role of endorphins in the runner’s high sensation, in part because endorphins cannot cross into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins and pathogens. So endorphins are not likely to be the main driver for the beneficial effects of exercise on mood and mental state.

This is where our research and that of others points to the role of our body’s natural versions of cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids.

The surprising role of endocannabinoids

You may be familiar with cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol – better known as THC – the psychoactive compound in cannabis (from the Cannabis sativa L. plant) that causes people to feel high. Or you may have heard of cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, an extract of cannabis that is infused in some foods, medicines, oils and many other products.

But many people do not realize that humans also create their own versions of these chemicals, called endocannabinoids. These are tiny molecules made of lipids – or fats – that circulate in the brain and body; “endo” refers to those produced in the body rather than from a plant or in a lab.

Endocannabinoids work on cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body. They cause a variety of effects, including pain relief, reduction of anxiety and stress and enhanced learning and memory. They also affect hunger, inflammation and immune functioning. Endocannabinoid levels can be influenced by food, time of day, exercise, obesity, injury, inflammation and stress.

It’s worth noting that one should not be tempted to forgo a run or bike ride and resort to smoking or ingesting cannabis instead. Endocannabinoids lack the unwanted effects that come with getting high, such as mental impairment.

Understanding the runner’s high

Studies in humans and in animal models are pointing to endocannabinoids – not endorphins – as the star players in the runner’s high.

These elegant studies demonstrate that when opioid receptors are blocked – in one example by a drug called naltrexone – people still experienced euphoria and reduced pain and anxiety after exercise. On the flip side, the studies showed that blocking the effects of cannabinoid receptors reduced the beneficial effects of exercise on euphoria, pain and anxiety.

While several studies have shown that exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids circulating in the blood, some have reported inconsistent findings, or that different endocannabinoids produce varying effects. We also don’t know yet if all types of exercise, such as cycling, running or resistance exercise like weightlifting, produce similar results. And it is an open question whether people with and without preexisting health conditions like depression, PTSD or fibromyalgia experience the same endocannabinoid boosts.

To address these questions, an undergraduate student in my lab, Shreya Desai, led a systematic review and meta-analysis of 33 published studies on the impact of exercise on endocannabinoid levels. We compared the effects of an “acute” exercise session – like going for a 30-minute run or cycle – with the effects of “chronic” programs, such as a 10-week running or weightlifting program. We separated them out because different levels and patterns of exertion could have very distinct effects on endocannabinoid responses.

We found that acute exercise consistently boosted endocannabinoid levels across studies. The effects were most consistent for a chemical messenger known as anandamide – the so-called “bliss” molecule, which was named, in part, for its positive effects on mood.

Interestingly, we observed this exercise-related boost in endocannabinoids across different types of exercise, including running, swimming and weightlifting, and across individuals with and without preexisting health conditions. Although only a few studies looked at intensity and duration of exercise, it appears that moderate levels of exercise intensity – such as cycling or running – are more effective than lower-intensity exercise – like walking at slow speeds or low incline – when it comes to raising endocannabinoid levels. This suggests that it is important to keep your heart rate elevated – that is, between about 70% and 80% of age-adjusted maximum heart rate – for at least 30 minutes to reap the full benefits.

There are still a lot of questions about the links between endocannabinoids and beneficial effects from exercise. For example, we didn’t see consistent effects for how a chronic exercise regimen, such as a six-week cycling program, might affect resting endocannabinoid levels. Likewise, it isn’t yet clear what the minimum amount of exercise is to get a boost in endocannabinoids, and how long these compounds remain elevated after acute exercise.

Despite these open questions, these findings bring researchers one step closer to understanding how exercise benefits brain and body. And they offer an important motivator for making time for exercise during the rush of the holidays.

Read more:

Germ Experts Share How Often You Should Really Be Washing Your Sheets


Germ Experts Share How Often You Should Really Be Washing Your Sheets

Emily Laurence – January 6, 2023

It’s probably more often than you think.

A recent survey conducted in the UK found that almost half of single men wash their sheets once every four months. How do your bed linen habits compare? Maybe you aren’t quite as neglectful as these bachelors and are in the habit of washing your sheets once a month. Or maybe you don’t have a set schedule; you can just tell when it’s time.

According to germ experts (yep, they exist), it’s important to wash your sheets regularly. Otherwise, you’ll be sleeping in a bed of bacteria—literally. But how often should you really change your sheets? Keep reading to find out.

Related: 10 Cleaning Hacks to Save You Time and Money! Quick Tips To Keep Your Household Clean and Running Smoothly

How Often Should You Wash Your Sheets?

While there aren’t any scientific studies on people’s bed linens at home, Dr. Charles Gerba, PhD., a professor of virology in the Department of Environmental Science at The University of Arizona, says that there have been studies of sheets in hospitals. Dr. Gerba says that these studies have found that bacteria from the human skin is transferred to bedding and about one-third of this bacteria is fecal bacteria (E.coli). “Fungi also appears to be common,” he adds.

“Sheets are a great place for bacteria to reside and grow. All they need are water and food, which our bodies provide,” says Jason Tetro, a scientist and author of The Germ Files. If you go too long without washing your sheets, Tetro says that the bacteria will continue to grow, which could then potentially lead to skin irritation and possibly infection.

Related: Hold Up—These Surprising Effective Home Cleaning Hacks Use Ketchup, Mayo and What Else?!

Tetro says that in a laboratory, bacteria can multiply as quickly as every 20 minutes. In the real world, he says it takes several hours. With this in mind, Tetro recommends washing your sheets every two weeks. If you tend to sweat in bed or eat in bed, both experts recommend washing them even more often. “What matters more is the amount of bacteria transferred—the inoculum if you wish,” Tetro says. “If you are not sweating much, the inoculum won’t be too significant from night to night and two weeks should be sufficient. If you tend to sweat a significant amount, then the nightly inoculum goes up and you may want to clean them every week.”

Interestingly, Tetro says that polyester has been found to hold more bacteria than cotton. “It also took in more of the body’s natural secretions meaning the bacteria would be able to grow to higher numbers,” he adds. So if your sheets are made of polyester, you may want to wash your sheets more often.

Related: These 50 Best Decluttering Tips Will Help You Get Organized at Last!

What About Pillowcases, Blankets and Comforters?

You may want to wash your pillowcases even more often than you wash your sheets. Dr. Gerba says that’s where most bacteria and fungi are found.

As for comforters, duvets and throw blankets, Tetro says that anything that comes in direct contact with the skin regularly should be washed as frequently as your sheets. But if your throw blankets or comforter is coming into contact with the sheets instead of your skin, he says they can be washed less frequently, roughly once a month.

Even with all this in mind, if you’re still debating whether or not you should throw your bed linens in the wash, Tetro says to give them a sniff. “One can never discount the smell test,” he says. “Bacteria tend to stink once they get to high enough numbers. If your sheets—and clothes for that matter—tend to have an odor, then there’s a good likelihood that there’s a high bacterial count and a wash may be needed.”

Put this advice into practice and you’ll be able to sleep easy. (And maybe pass the info along to the single men in your life too.)

Next up, check out these viral TikTok cleaning hacks that actually work.

Sources announces word of the year: ‘woman’

The Guardian announces word of the year: ‘woman’

Erum Salam – December 14, 2022

<span>Photograph: Nathan Posner/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Nathan Posner/Rex/Shutterstock

The website has named its word of the year for 2022: woman.

In a statement, the website said: “Our selection of woman … reflects how the intersection of gender, identity and language dominates the current cultural conversation and shapes much of our work as a dictionary.”

Related: Biden signs landmark law protecting same-sex and interracial marriages

It also said: “Searches for the word woman on spiked significantly multiple times in relation to separate high-profile events, including the moment when a question about the very definition of the word was posed on the national stage.”

That was a reference to a supreme court confirmation hearing in March, when the nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was asked by Marsha Blackburn, a Republican senator from Tennessee, to define the word woman.

Jackson said: “No I can’t.”

Soon after, Jackson became the first Black woman confirmed to the court.

Searches for woman increased by 1,400% after the hearing, said, the highest spike for the word this year.

According to, the definition of woman is “an adult female person”.

Other key moments that led to the word being chosen included the supreme court voting to overturn Roe v Wade and thereby revoke the constitutional right to abortion; the death of Queen Elizabeth II; tennis player Serena William’s retirement announcement; freedom protests led by women in Iran; and more.

Referring to the supreme court abortion decision, said: “Unsurprisingly, it resulted in both polarization and galvanization. That dynamic played out in November’s midterm elections, which upended trends and expectations.

“The outcome has been attributed in part to an electorate, and particularly women, voting in reaction to the Dobbs ruling. The election also added to the ranks of the nation’s women governors, resulting in what will be a record number of women – 12 – serving as governors in 2023.”’s senior director of editorial, John Kelly, said that to qualify as word of the year, a word must see “a significant increase in searches” and “capture the major cultural themes and trends in language” for the 12 months in question.

In 2022, shortlisted words included inflation, quiet quitting, democracy, the Ukraine flag emoji and Wordle – the last a popular word game bought by the New York Times.

In 2021, named allyship as its word of the year. Previous words of the year were pandemic (2020), existential (2019), misinformation (2018), complicit (2017), xenophobia (2016), identity (2015), exposure (2014), privacy (2013), bluster (2012), tergiversate (2011), and change (2010).

How nuclear fusion works, and why it’s a big deal for green energy that scientists made a ‘breakthrough’

Business Insider

How nuclear fusion works, and why it’s a big deal for green energy that scientists made a ‘breakthrough’

Paola Rosa-Aquino – December 12, 2022

David Butow / Contributor
Engineers work at the National Ignition Facility in California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.David Butow / Contributor
  • Scientists produced a nuclear fusion reaction that created a net energy gain, preliminary results suggest.
  • The Department of Energy is expected to make an official announcement about the finding on Tuesday.
  • Fusion energy advocates say it’s a step forward in clean, cheap, and almost limitless electricity.

Scientists have reportedly made a “breakthrough” in their quest to harness nuclear fusion.

The US Department of Energy is expected to make an official announcement regarding the milestone in fusion energy research on Tuesday, the the Financial Times reported.

For the first time, researchers created a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than they put into it, FT and the Washington Post reported.

The experiment, conducted within the last two weeks at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, generated 2.5 megajoules of energy, 120% more than the 2.1 megajoules put into creating it, FT reported, citing preliminary data.

“Scientifically, this is the first time that they showed that this is possible,” Gianluca Sarri, a physicist at Queen’s University Belfast, told New Scientist. “From theory, they knew that it should happen, but it was never seen in real life experimentally.”

What is fusion energy and why is it a big deal?
This illustrationdepicts a capsule with laser beams entering through openings on either end. The beams compress and heat the target to the necessary conditions for nuclear fusion to occur.
This illustration shows how lasers heat a target to the necessary conditions for nuclear fusion to occur.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Nuclear fusion works by forcing together two atoms — most often hydrogen — to make a heavier one — like helium.

This explosive process releases massive amounts of energy, the Department of Energy explains. Fusion is the opposite of fission, the reaction that powers nuclear reactors used commercially today.

Fusion occurs naturally in the heart of the sun and the stars, providing these cosmic objects with fuel.

Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to replicate it on Earth in order to tap into what nuclear energy advocates suggest is clean, cheap, and almost limitless electricity.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, fusion generates four times more energy per kilogram than the fission used to power nuclear plants, and nearly 4 million times more energy than burning oil or coal.

What’s more, unlike fossil fuels, fusion doesn’t release carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas that’s the main driver of climate change — into the atmosphere. And unlike nuclear fission, fusion doesn’t create long-lived radioactive waste, according to the Department of Energy.

A view of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, in Leningrad, Russia on September 14, 2022.
A view of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, in Leningrad, Russia on September 14, 2022.Sezgin Pancar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But so far, nuclear fusion hasn’t solved our energy problems on a grand scale.

What Tuesday’s ‘breakthrough’ announcement means for the future

Tuesday’s announcement is likely a huge step forward in nuclear fusion energy, but applying the technology at commercial scale is likely still years away.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist, pointed out that the process the Department of Energy uses requires tritium, a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

“It may yet yield important information that is ultimately transformative. We don’t know yet,” Prescod-Weinstein tweeted on Monday. “Being able to do this once a day with a laser does not at all mean that this mechanism will scale!”

Investors, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, have poured billions into clean energy startups trying to make fusion commercially viable, and Tuesday’s announcement is likely to continue that trend.

What is nuclear fusion, and could it power our future?

CBS News

What is nuclear fusion, and could it power our future?

Haley Ott – December 12, 2022

What is nuclear fusion, and could it power our future?

Scientists, governments, and companies from around the world have been increasingly investing in a potential source of energy that could provide unlimited, clean power to everyone on Earth: nuclear fusion. Fusion is the process that powers the sun and the stars. It’s the opposite of nuclear fission, the process used in today’s nuclear power plants, which splits atoms apart.

U.S. Department of Energy was expected to announce in mid-December a major breakthrough in the quest to harness the power of nuclear fusion. The Financial Times reported that scientists at the government-run Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California had managed for the first time ever to create more energy in a fusion reactor than was required to drive the process — a “net energy gain.”

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, said if confirmed it “could be a game changer for the world” in the bid to create sustainable electricity. 

The interior of the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak in the United Kingdom is shown with a superimposed plasma. / Credit: EUROfusion
The interior of the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak in the United Kingdom is shown with a superimposed plasma. / Credit: EUROfusion

In fusion, two atomic nuclei are combined to create a heavier nucleus, and the process releases energy. The reaction takes place in a state of matter called plasma, which is distinct from liquids, solids or gasses.

In the sun, nuclei collide at hot enough temperatures to overcome the electric repulsion that would normally keep them apart. When they are very close together, the attractive nuclear force between them becomes stronger than the electric repulsion, and they are able to fuse. The gravity of the sun ensures that nuclei are kept close enough together to increase their chances of colliding.

If humans can harness the power of fusion on an industrial scale, it could help create a virtually limitless source of clean energy on earth, with the power to generate four million times more energy than burning coal or oil, according to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

That is the goal of a multinational, multibillion-dollar project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, which is under construction in southern France.

Scientists believe fusion plants would be much safer than today’s nuclear fission plants — if the process can be mastered.

Parts of the ITER tokamak are prepared for assembly, August 3, 2022. / Credit: Haley Ott/CBS News
Parts of the ITER tokamak are prepared for assembly, August 3, 2022. / Credit: Haley Ott/CBS News

“It can’t run away. It’s a very difficult reaction to sustain; it needs to be driven. Whereas fission can run on a chain reaction, and it has to be controlled,” Tim Luce, the head of science at ITER, told CBS News.

Fusion also creates much less radioactive byproduct than fission, and what it does leave behind is “not water soluble — they won’t get into the food supply, the water supply,” Luce said.

Some concepts for fusion reactors being developed today will use two types of hydrogen atoms, deuterium and tritium, for fuel.

Deuterium can be easily and cheaply extracted from sea water. Tritium, which does not exist abundantly in nature, could potentially be produced by a reaction between fusion-generated neutrons and lithium. It is also a byproduct of the nuclear fission process used in power plants around the world today.

Scientists have already managed to produce fusion reactions, but not without using more energy to trigger the process than they were able to produce through it.

Assuming scientists are able to achieve “net energy” — producing more energy than they use to create the fusion reaction — other things will still need to fall in place for fusion to become a secure, viable energy source for the world.

“We must also prepare the path broadly for fusion commercialization, going well beyond R&D,” Dr. Scott C. Hsu, lead fusion coordinator in the Office of the Undersecretary for Science and Innovation at the U.S. Department of Energy, said in a Senate hearing last month.

“This includes public engagement and energy justice, diverse workforce development, a regulatory framework that engenders public trust and supports timely deployment, market identification, attracting investment and commercialization partners, export controls, nuclear nonproliferation, cybersecurity, international coordination, building critical supply chains and manufacturing capabilities, and waste disposition,” Hsu said.