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Our opinion section took us to the front lines of COVID, revealed how racists misuse evolutionary biology, illuminated a mental health epidemic in kids, and more
A year of incredible science news was complemented with wide-ranging commentary at Scientific American. Our opinion section featured some of the best and brightest minds, taking us to the front lines of COVID, teaching us about the many fraught Supreme Court decisions involving science and evidence, and more. We learned, for example, about the pitfalls of artificial intelligence, how racists misuse evolutionary biology, and how our children’s troubled mental health is another ongoing epidemic. Whether they were thought-provoking, deeply moving or challenged long-held beliefs, here are some of our editors’ favorite opinion articles of 2022.
This year, language models proved they can write humanlike text, with one AI chatbot generating such impressive responses that it convinced an engineer it was sentient. But once we have AI-generated text, what do we do with it—we have systems that we use for human writing, but can they accommodate something not written by a human? I enjoyed how Almira Osmanovic Thunström explores these issues in her essay about using GPT-3 to produce an academic paper, and the very human ethical questions that arose when she decided to submit the paper for publication.
— Sophie Bushwick, Tech Editor
I thought it was novel for us to use the Agenda (editorial) section of the magazine, to be uplifting and inspirational about science itself—we being a science magazine! Once in a while it’s valuable to remind readers, and ourselves, that exploration and discovery are cool, and fundamentally important to improving our lives. I’m also glad we painted scientists as explorers; hopefully that will help encourage younger people to consider a science career.
— Mark Fischetti, Senior Editor for Sustainability
Space elevators have long been a part of science fiction, but Stephen Cohen thinks they could one day be reality. In an engaging op-ed, he takes us through his research on the topic via years of conversations with friends and colleagues, against the backdrop of his beleaguered wife, who wants nothing more than a new topic of conversation around the dinner table. This witty and charming essay is rife with fascinating descriptions of physics and infused with optimism that one day, we will be able to transport people and stuff into orbit more easily than riding in rockets, and we will thrive in space.
— Clara Moskowitz, Senior Editor, Space and Physics
The COVID pandemic gave the general public a crash course in infectious disease science and terminology. But like me, many of us didn’t have a full understanding of what it was like on the front lines. The opinion piece by respiratory therapist Victor Ruiz brought me into his world, on the front lines. He also brought so much perspective to a struggle I had the privilege of never having to think about—how to be the one who says goodbye to a stranger who should be taking their last breaths alongside family and loved ones. Ruiz’s piece broadened my insight into the challenges of working in health care during a pandemic and the lasting impact that has.
— Jeanna Bryner, Managing Editor
The epidemic of gun deaths in the U.S. is heartbreaking—even more so because it’s preventable. More children in the country now die from guns than from car crashes, cancer or any other type of disease. Emergency physicians Eric Fleegler and Lois Lee explain how this came to be a uniquely American problem, and what we as a society can do to mitigate it, taking lessons from the automobile industry and other areas where we have successfully reduced unnecessary deaths. And let’s face it: every child gun death is unnecessary—and unthinkable.
—Tanya Lewis, Senior Editor, Health & Medicine.
There was a time when the Supreme Court viewed scientific expertise as a central guide to protecting public health through policy. This powerful essay by Wendy Parmet examines the ever-evolving relationship between science and the highest court in the land over the course of decades. It also provides crucial context for the worrying antiscience trend and the rejection of expertise, science and data we’ve witnessed in this year’s court rulings. I recommend following up this essay with Parmet’s fascinating longer analysis of the dynamic between states’ and federal rights over matters of science and health policy.
— Andrea Gawrylewski, Chief Newsletter Editor
Science journalism—or any journalism—always tries to look ahead to see what can be learned from major societal upheavals and to point to what might be done to avoid running headlong toward a new catastrophe. One painful lesson from COVID is that we (and the world) have failed to fix public health or even make major strides to achieve that goal. We are at risk again of another pandemic, and our willingness to do what is needed to prepare for the next one or the one after that has greatly diminished. That’s why I wrote this editorial—as a reminder of our continuing inability to learn from an experience that none of us will forget.
— Gary Stix, Senior Editor, Mind & Brain
Artificial general intelligence, or “AI that has the flexibility and resourcefulness of human intelligence,” is still far from reality. But if you’ve been listening to the effusive hype from the tech companies that are working on these products, such capabilities are already here. One of the problems, Gary Marcus explains, is that “the biggest teams of researchers in AI are no longer to be found in the academy, where peer review was the coin of the realm, but in corporations.” It’s a powerful reminder that basic, foundational science in the field is still sorely missing—even if the companies want investors to believe otherwise.
— Jen Schwartz, Senior Editor, Features
We started the pandemic celebrating “health care heroes” and then quickly forgot about them as we argued about masks and vaccines and mandates and the reality of the disease. Kathryn Ivey reminded us what was happening in hospitals in poetic writing, talking about the anger over our ignorance, the frustration, the endless grief and the refusal to give up. The story brought tears to my eyes when I read the first draft and again when I reread it just now. “This is what it is to be a nurse: facing that darkness and telling it that you are not afraid.”
— Josh Fischman, Senior Editor
Pediatric suicide is hard to think about, but we can’t begin to solve the problem unless we understand the factors underlying it. As an emergency pediatric psychiatrist, Tyler Black knows how the stress of school can drive kids toward mental health crisis, but he has also looked into the data to confirm what he has observed in his work. Creating the graphics for this piece was jarring for me (a parent whose child is just beginning his school career) because the patterns are so stark. But the greatest strength of the essay is that Black offers solutions, and they are all eminently doable if we decide to make kids’ mental health a priority.
— Amanda Montañez, Associate Graphics Editor
I think we’d all love to be done with the COVID pandemic, but the COVID pandemic is not done with us. As Tanya Lewis, one of our health editors at Scientific American, wrote earlier this year, people, not science, determine when a pandemic is over. But it’s not just any people—it’s people with power and motivation to claim that we shouldn’t worry so much about death or disability or spreading death and disability. Steven Thrasher, a Scientific American columnist and author of a new book on The Viral Underclass, wrote a powerful essay saying that we must not accept or normalize the horrible toll of COVID. When he wrote the commentary, one million people had died in the U.S. It didn’t and doesn’t have to be this way. Better access to health care, more equitable public health, more compassion and less politicization could stop the United States’ continued loss of life expectancy—we just lost 26 years’ worth of progress!—while other countries recover from the pandemic.
— Laura Helmuth, Editor in Chief
Having spent much of my adult life in large American cities, I have seen all manner of urban wildlife, but it took this essay for me to make the connection back to science—and scientists. I, like so many other people, saw ecology as the study of unpopulated areas. Nearly all of the ecologists I’ve met in my careers have been white. In writing this essay, Nyeema C. Harris took us into her upbringing, sharing vulnerable moments to challenge our views on what ecologists look like, and what ecological spaces look like. I think about my city differently now, and the complexity of the ecosystems therein. One of my goals for the opinion section is to bring in work that will make you go “Oh cool!,” that will make you see the world a bit differently, and this essay is one of the finest examples of that in 2022.
— Megha Satyanarayana, Chief Opinion Editor
Megha Satyanarayana is chief opinion editor of Scientific American. Follow her on Twitter @meghas
Sarah Lewin Frasier
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