The Natural Experiment

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Summer is normally cruise ship season in southeast Alaska. Every year around this time, these floating behemoths filled with tourists sail up the inside passage, stopping at little coastal port towns like Sitka and Ketchikan. One of the popular destinations along the route is Glacier Bay. It’s this spectacular bay full of glaciers, hence the name, and icebergs and sea otters and lots and lots of humpback whales. The National Park Service regulates how many cruise ships can come in and out of the bay and how close they can get to the whales. But still, the humpbacks that are there in the summer have to live alongside roaring boat engines.

[HUMPBACK WHALES SINGING]

Michelle Fournet:
What we know is that animals change their behavior when the ocean gets noisy.

Roman Mars:
Michelle Fournet is an acoustic ecologist at Cornell. Every summer she travels to Glacier Bay to drop a hydrophone in the water, listen in on what the whales are saying and study how it’s being affected by ship noise. This year, Michelle was preparing for her annual trip to Alaska when the COVID-19 shutdowns were announced.

Michelle Fournet:
So Friday the 13th was the last day that we were allowed to be in the lab at work before we had to start sheltering in place. And what that also meant, from my perspective, was that my summer field season was canceled. The trip to Alaska that I was meant to take to go and do work with these animals wasn’t going to happen.

Roman Mars:
The lab at Cornell would also need to close. And so all the scientists gathered together for a final in-person meeting to try to plan out how everyone was going to keep their research going from home. Michelle mentioned that the summer cruise season would probably not even happen this year in Alaska, at which point another person at the meeting broke in with a question.

Michelle Fournet:
And one of my colleagues and friends looked at me and she asked me, “Are you listening?”.

Roman Mars:
In other words, even if she couldn’t go to see the whales in person, was she still planning on listening to them?

Michelle Fournet:
And I realized I wasn’t. And all of a sudden, my personal, sentimental brain turned off and my biologist’s brain turned back on and an immediate flurry to get hydrophones in, the water ensued.

Roman Mars:
In that moment, Michelle realized that although her research trip had been canceled, the coronavirus shut down had created an incredible opportunity. For the first time in decades, the ocean would be quiet for an entire summer.

Michelle Fournet:
And so what that means for somebody like me as a researcher is that we have the opportunity to listen to undisturbed behavior for the first time.

Roman Mars:
Usually, Michelle relies on quiet periods in an individual day to try to understand how ship noise changes whale behavior.

Michelle Fournet:
I get excited when we have six or seven hours of silence in the ocean. I built an entire dissertation around the fact that Glacier Bay is one of the few areas in the world where you can predictably have moments of silence. And now what we have is months of silence. So this is unheard of.

Roman Mars:
Right after that final meeting at the lab, Michelle started calling people in Alaska who could help her out.

Michelle Fournet:
I had to call my best friend because all of my gear lives in her garage. And could she blow up some buoys for me and tie some line for me. And if I could put a hydrophone in the mail, would she be willing to attach it to a shackle and pass it off to someone else to put it on the anchor who would then get it onto a boat and drop it in the ocean… (chuckles)

Roman Mars:
Eventually, with the help of lots of people in Alaska, they got hydrophones into the water. Michelle is now set to record an entire summer of whale sounds in strangely quiet seas.

[HUMPBACK WHALES SINGING]

Michelle Fournet:
This is the first time in human history that we’ve been able to listen to truly quiet behavior.

Roman Mars:
Which is something that the researchers could have never engineered on their own. Michelle’s hypothesis is that the complexity of interactions between whales will go up.

Michelle Fournet:
So if you think about having a conversation in a really loud room, let’s say you’re at a bar and you’re trying to talk to someone, you’re going to talk louder and you’re going to talk higher and you’re gonna use pretty simple words to make sure that you’re understood. But if you’re sitting at home having a cup of tea on your couch and there’s no music playing and it’s quiet and you’re talking to someone who’s beloved to you. The nature of the conversation can get really nuanced. So that’s one of the things that we’d like to find out with these humpbacks is when they’re not struggling to be heard. Does the complexity of what they say increase? Are they willing and able to have more nuanced acoustic interactions that perhaps they can’t have when it’s noisy?

Roman Mars:
But whatever happens, Michelle is just excited to dig into the data.

Michelle Fournet:
We will finally get a baseline for what the ocean sounds like in the absence of human activity.

Roman Mars:
In general, the coronavirus shutdowns have been terrible for academic research. Trips have been canceled, labs have shut down and long-running experiments have been interrupted. But there are some researchers like Michelle, for whom the shutdowns have provided a unique opportunity, a whole new dataset, a chance to gather new information, or look at information in a new way. In science, the term natural experiment refers to an experiment that happens outside of the lab and outside of the control of the experimenter. With a pandemic, the world outside the lab has changed dramatically and it has affected all kinds of systems that can be measured for the first time in the modern era. So this week, our producers have brought us stories from very different fields about researchers who are using this tragic and bizarre moment to learn something new about the world.

——————————————

AIR POLLUTION

Emmett FitzGerald:
Jalandhar is a city in Northern India, in the state of Punjab. And like all Indian cities, Jalandhar has been in lockdown with everybody inside their homes. But a couple of weeks ago, there was this bright sunny day and the residents of the city went out onto their roofs, and what they saw was this amazing view of the snow-capped Himalayas which are about 100 miles away, and this view was celebrated all over Indian social media. There are tons of pictures of these mountains on Instagram and TikTok videos of people zooming in on the horizon.

Roman Mars:
So why was this such a big deal?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Well, because many people were seeing these mountains for the very first time.

Raghu Karnad:
People who had lived in Jalandhar all their lives had suddenly woken up to this vista of snow-capped mountains across the horizon, a view that they said that they had never seen before.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Raghu Karnad. And he wrote about this phenomenon for The New Yorker. And he says that because of air pollution, the mountains have been completely obscured. Locals think the last time these mountains had been visible was about 30 years ago. But because of the shutdown and the lack of pollution from cars and industry, the skies were clear in a way that had seemed impossible before.

Raghu Karnad:
That was the kind of scope of the transformation that had made the unimaginable real.

Roman Mars:
And so was this phenomenon unique to Jalandhar?

Emmett FitzGerald:
I think it’s a particularly dramatic and poetic example, but really in cities all across India, the sky is blue and you can see the stars at night. The air feels clean in a way that it just hasn’t in a really long time. And, you know, air pollution is a huge problem in India. Of the 20 cities in the world with the worst air pollution, 14 of them are Indian cities.

Raghu Karnad:
You really can’t exaggerate it. India is still a global hotspot for air pollution. And that’s happened. We’ve sort of taken that place from China over the last 20 years.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And one of the cities with the worst air quality is the capital city, Delhi. Karnad has lived there for a lot of his adult life and he told me that a part of his morning routine would be to check a website that maps the air quality index throughout the city. And, just for context, when AQI is over 300, it’s considered hazardous to your health. But Karnad said he would often see readings of 999.

Raghu Karnad:
And the reason it was that figure – 999 – was not because that was the correct reading. It’s because that’s where the monitor is maxed out. Even if you’re right, it feels like language is failing you. You kind of describe it yourself like, “Oh god, this is a nightmare? This is a sci-fi movie. This is like the apocalypse.” And none of that helps you comprehend the fact that there’s smog visible inside your home.

Roman Mars:
That’s incredible. I mean, not seeing a mountain is one thing, but this is just a gigantic public health tragedy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Totally. I mean, I think air pollution is really one of the most underappreciated public health problems that we have. The WHO says that 4.6 million people die each year from causes related to air pollution, and that’s happening all over the world. But it really is most dire in India.

Raghu Karnad:
The World Health Organization had an estimate from 2016 that 100,000 Indian children below the age of five had died that year from exposure to a particular kind of particulates in air pollution. And the figures make it quite abundantly clear that Indians are dying and being made sick in really vast numbers, numbers that are almost sort of too large to process.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And, for years it’s felt like such a large problem that it’s almost unsolvable.

Raghu Karnad:
And that’s what makes this moment so extraordinary, which is that we’ve reached this solution. We fixed this problem without intending to.

Roman Mars:
That is incredible. I mean, it really does create this strange silver lining to an international tragedy.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. And, I think people are reluctant to use language like that because it’s obviously such a terrible situation. But there’s one group of people for whom the shutdown really has been a gift, and that’s air pollution researchers. Researchers like Sarath Guttikunda.

Sarath Guttikunda:
I’m Sarath Guttikunda. I’m the director and the founder of Urban Emissions. Urban Emissions is an independent research group and we do research on air pollution.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And the scientists at Urban Emissions are always looking to understand the baseline air quality, like what would a clean air scenario even look like? And usually, they use holidays when people are stuck inside or rainy days to do this. But those don’t last very long.

Sarath Guttikunda:
When it rains, it’s clean for one day and then maybe the next day that buildup starts happening. But what we’re seeing here is sustained. For a sustained period of time, we’re seeing lower numbers.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So Guttikinda says that the shutdown feels like the entire country is basically running a giant experiment for him.

Sarath Guttikunda:
The phrase that I’ve been using is “forced experiment.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
A forced experiment that shows you what happens if you turn many of the major sources of pollution down basically to zero. And when you do that, turns out the air is pretty clean, which might seem obvious but the air pollution problem has been so intractable in India. And here is this concrete example showing that it’s possible to clean up the air.

Sarath Guttikunda:
So here we have an example of a sustained period where we’re seeing we can maintain this level of emissions and this is the kind of quality we’re going to experience.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And having this extended period of clean air is also allowing them to do more fine-tuned research experiments. Some of those are really chemistry–looking at particular pollutants like ozone, for example, and sort of tracking it. But they’re also trying to do a forensic accounting of where all this air pollution is coming from because there’s actually a lot of confusion about this in India. And a big question people have is like, is the pollution generated inside the city by things like cars and trash burning and dirty cookstoves? Or is it floating in from outside sources, from things like power plants and heavy industry outside the city or farmers in the countryside who burn their fields before they replant? All those sources are contributing to the problem but the uncertainty about who to blame has allowed cities to basically throw up their hands and say, this isn’t a problem that we can solve.

Roman Mars:
Right. So the uncertainty allows the people in power to just do essentially just pass the buck and not deal with it at all.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, exactly. And so that’s been one of the goals of Guttikunda’s research. Because certain sources of pollution have been completely turned off while others have carried on, Guttikunda is able to isolate the different sources of emissions and calculate how much of the pollution that a city is experiencing is generated inside of the city itself. And it turns out it’s a lot.

Sarath Guttikunda:
We can easily see a large chunk of it is actually coming from the local sources. In a city like Delhi, maybe we find that easily 70% of the pollution is actually locally generated.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So just so I understand, normally a city like Delhi would sort of blame the pollution on outside forces saying this is coming from power plants outside the city or this is coming from agricultural burning. And the reality is, Delhi is responsible for a lot of Delhi’s pollution problem.

Sarath Guttikunda:
Absolutely.

Emmett FitzGerald:
A lot of this research is just confirming what the scientists that Urban Emissions had really been seeing in their models before, but Raghu Karnad says that because that analysis was based on more hypothetical modeling, policymakers were finding it much easier to reject and ignore.

Raghu Karnad:
Now they have data that confirms exactly what their models have been demonstrating, which is that cities can do much more to fix their own problem and to clean up their own house.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And the biggest thing that a city like Delhi could do to clean up its own house is really to take on traffic.

Roman Mars:
Right. Which can be a pretty hard problem to solve unless you’re willing to take pretty drastic measures and change the nature of a city.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. And, you know, Delhi has tried to do something about this before. They tried one of those odds and evens policies where only people with an odd last digit on their license plate could drive on some days and then only people with an even last digit could drive on the others. But it really wasn’t very well received.

Raghu Karnad:
There was so much criticism for this policy that I don’t think that it was carried out for long enough for us to really evaluate whether it was making a difference. You know, so. So that’s why the specificity and the credibility of this data is so important. You really need to be able to back up your policy plans. And the policy plans need to be very comprehensive and they need to be very convincing because a lot of people may be put out of work or are severely inconvenienced by the kind of changes that we need to see.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But cities have cleaned up their air before. It’s possible. Beijing, for example, used to have the worst air quality in the world. But then that became something of an embarrassment when they were chosen to host the Olympics in 2008.

Roman Mars:
Right. You can’t have athletes huffing and puffing the most toxic air in the world for days and days on end.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. And so they put in all these really intense restrictions to clean up the air in time for the games.

Raghu Karnad:
The Olympics took place. And when they were done, all those restrictions were lifted. And very quickly, the air went back to being as bad as it had been before. But now people were unhappy about it. What had seemed impossible to ask for had proven to be possible to deliver, which was blue skies and clean air and to not live in the most polluted city in the world, which was what Beijing was. So now there was a public outcry.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And the city responded to that public outcry. Beijing tightened emission standards on trucks. They subsidized electric cars. They regulated traffic in particularly congested areas and built the giant bike share program. They offer people cleaner fuels to burn in their homes.

Raghu Karnad:
Twelve years later, Beijing is nowhere on the list of the worst polluted cities in the world. I don’t even believe that it’s in the top 100. So the example of the Beijing Olympics doesn’t just demonstrate that it is possible to improve the air, but it also demonstrates that people, once they’ve experienced that it’s doable, will want that and can be moved to demand that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Do you have hope that something similar could happen in India?

Raghu Karnad:
As with a lot of things right now, hope is non-negotiable. But it’s never felt more possible that Indian cities could be livable, sane, and even healthy. And so we’ve just got to hope that everyone can be brought around to realizing the necessity of this collective action just the way everyone has been brought around to realizing that with coronavirus.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Do you think it’s interesting that we’ve seen people make the decision that, COVID-19 is a threat to public health, that it’s so severe that we need to take these extremely severe actions? What is it about that’s different than air pollution? Like if the numbers show that air pollution is also a public health crisis, what about a virus is easier to sort of wrap your head around as a public health problem than air pollution?

Raghu Karnad:
I think I think that’s a fascinating question. And I think that it’s something well worth investigating what it was that made us capable of this really inspiring, robust collective sacrifice that made us capable of this determination to transform our lives and escape this crisis just with the coronavirus, when in fact our cities have been in a state of crisis for a long time. They have been practically unlivable and frankly unbearable for a long time and it never moved us to anything like this kind of collective effort.

Roman Mars:
As a society, we just process different types of risks so differently. If we were just looking at the raw numbers of deaths, we would never get into a car again.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. And, just to be clear, the point I don’t think is that we’re overreacting to COVID-19, it’s that we’re under-reacting to all these other public health threats, in part, I would argue because many of them have disproportionate impacts on poor people and people of color, especially air pollution. If you have money and you live in a city like Delhi, you can take an Uber from your air-conditioned apartment to your air-conditioned office job. But there are millions of people who can’t afford to do that, people who ride their bike or walk to get around, shop in open-air markets, those people are just breathing the air all the time.

Roman Mars:
So it’s also like an environmental justice issue.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. It’s a huge environmental justice issue. And for my mind, just like the best example of under-appreciated public health threat.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Although I think that probably climate change is also another pretty good example of that, too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Totally. Totally. I’ve been thinking about climate change a lot lately. I mean, I’m always thinking about climate change, but particularly now in part because, like coronavirus, it’s a problem that just like demands collective global action. And Raghu Karnad said that he’s been thinking about climate change a lot too, these days.

Raghu Karnad:
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I do want to make India sound special, but when it comes to climate change, we are in the frontline because there are really parts of the country in the interior where the increased heat is making life unlivable. If there’s any country that should be confronting climate change as an emergency that we take on, on a war footing – as an emergency that makes anything possible and any measures acceptable – then this is that country. And just like the other crises, as you mentioned, it’s just never seemed justified. It’s never seemed justified to do something like this, not even for climate change.

Roman Mars:
That is so remarkable.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I guess like with climate change and with air pollution and with all of this, I think this story in India really raises for me just kind of this question of like, what are we going back to when we come out of all this? And like, are we… We don’t want to talk about silver linings when so much bad is happening. But are there things we can learn from the ways in which the world has been changed by this moment, even in the weird ways in which it’s been changed for the better?

Roman Mars:
Totally. I don’t think it diminishes the moment to treat the moment as having lessons for us in the future. I mean, I think that it would be a double tragedy if we went through this and learned nothing. So let’s just take advantage of what we’ve learned about pandemics, about air pollution, about everything, and try to make the world better.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I think it’s all we can do.

——————————————

BOREDOM

Roman Mars:
So we’re now moving on to the next natural experiment, which is presented by our producer, Joe Rosenberg. Hey, Joe.

Joe Rosenberg:
Hey there.

Roman Mars:
So it’s time for your report. What kind of scientific study is on the precipice of advancement as an unexpected result of COVID-19?

Joe Rosenberg:
I’m so glad you asked because, for the past few days, I had been delving into the very latest research being done at the very cutting edge of an exciting, highly specialized scientific field: Boredom Studies.

Roman Mars:
Boredom studies. I mean, I guess because everything’s a thing, but I didn’t know that was a thing.

Joe Rosenberg:
It is a thing. Although even the boredom study experts themselves seem to be surprised that it is a thing and that they study it.

Erin Westgate:
No one, I think, as a little kid ever says, like, “You know what, I really want to do what I grow up? I want to study boredom.” So it certainly… it was totally unplanned.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Erin Westgate. She’s an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida. And one of her specialties is boredom. And Erin says one good reason to study boredom is that, for starters, most people don’t have the first clue about how boredom works, including apparently their own.

Erin Westgate:
One of the fun things of being a boredom researcher is like when I meet someone, the conversation usually goes like this: “Hi, I’m Erin.” “What do you study?” “I study boredom.” And they go, “Oh, I never get bored.” And that always takes me aback because I want to be like, “Yes, you do.”

Roman Mars:
It’s so funny. I was thinking the exact same thing. I never get bored.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh, you never get bored? Well, you see, this is where Erin would prove you wrong because this is her specialty. She gets this kind of “evil genius” thrill out of bringing unsuspecting people into the lab and figuring out ways to bore them to death.

Erin Westgate:
People hate my studies. They’re so bad. We do these debriefings at the end. We say, “How was it?” And they just look at me and they’re like, “That was the most boring thing I’ve ever done.” And inside, I’m like, “Yes. Yes. I’m so glad.”

Roman Mars:
So what is the most boring thing she has them do? Paradoxically, I’m pretty interested in how boring she can make someone’s life.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And that’s the thing, you say you don’t get bored. But the truth is, you have been presented with boring tasks in life that you have no choice but to concentrate on. So maybe just like a video of a sidewalk, like literally one foot above the sidewalk pointed down. And because you don’t know it’s a boredom study, you expect something to happen, but nothing happens. Or it will be something like you’re going to play this air traffic control game where you get to direct all this traffic to make sure all the planes land safely and this is how it works. And people are like, “Oh. Okay, a game!” But then they make it really easy — like they make it stultifyingly easy. And in fact, Erin is so good at inducing boredom that her whole career started when she accidentally bored some people while studying something slightly different.

Roman Mars:
So what was that study and how did it later focus on boredom?

Joe Rosenberg:
So a little more than five years ago, Erin was running this study where they were trying to find out how much people enjoy being left alone with their own thoughts. And so what they did is they gathered a bunch of participants in a lab and first expose them to a quick electric shock.

Erin Westgate:
It’s this nasty little electrode you put around your ankle so I always say it kind of felt like a cat, like biting your ankle. You know, like if a cat dives out and attacks you.

Joe Rosenberg:
And not surprisingly, most participants said they did not like being shocked. But then she says they told the same participants to just sit in this room. No magazines, no fun, and just enjoy being alone with their thoughts for a little while.

Erin Westgate:
Oh, and by the way, that little button that electrodes are still hooked up if you want… I don’t know why you’d want to… but if you want, you could press the button and it will still deliver an electric shock. And then we simply left them in the room by themselves for, it was actually 15 minutes and waited to see what they would do.

Joe Rosenberg:
And apparently, one-quarter of the women and I’m sad to report two-thirds of the men chose to shock themselves. And most people shot themselves multiple times.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that is incredible.

Erin Westgate:
There is one man, it was a man who shocked himself… oh I forget now… it was well over a hundred times.

Joe Rosenberg:
Can I just say, though, that that guy then, he was definitely not bored?

Erin Westgate:
Oh, no, he was having the time of his life. He was like, this is exactly what I always needed.

Joe Rosenberg:
But apparently a lot of the participants who shocked themselves were not like that guy. When asked why they did it, they were just like, “I got bored. And it was better than nothing.”

Roman Mars:
It’s like if you’re in a waiting room and there’s a 10-year-old magazine and you’re actually reading it. You’d never read otherwise but in a really boring setting, you just go for it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. And then like you can like a can devolve from there. When you’re done with the magazine, now you have like the candy wrapper nutritional information. And then below that is the electrode strapped to your ankle that feels like a cat biting you.

Roman Mars:
You might as well.

Joe Rosenberg:
Which I find kind of sad. But Erin, evil genius that she is, she just thought, “Fascinating!”

Erin Westgate:
It was this magnificent, wonderful puzzle. And I got totally hooked and I sort of switched gears and really started investigating what boredom is, why we experience it, and what happens when we do.

Roman Mars:
So let’s just start with that first question. So what is boredom? Because one of the things that makes this hard for me to sort of picture what boredom studies are about is what is the scientific basis of boredom? Is there actually a distinct emotion that you can pin down and measure, or is it just a word that actually means a variety of things?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, this is actually where things get really interesting because that is something we’re still trying to figure out in some ways. Erin says that in the last two decades there has been a growing consensus that boredom is in fact, a real emotion. And just like other emotions, it’s not intrinsically good or bad. Much like pain, it’s a signal telling you something is amiss with your situation that needs to be changed somehow. But when it comes to the question of what exactly is amiss. In other words, when it comes to Erin’s second question, “Why do we get bored?”, that’s where the scientific consensus ends.

Erin Westgate:
When you get down to the nitty-gritty of what exactly is causing boredom, you’re going to start finding a lot of disagreements. So there are folks, for instance, who preferred to define boredom as just about attention.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is the attentional model. The idea being that you get bored when you’re stuck doing something that requires only a little attention. So the rest of your attentional capacity is desperately looking for something else to do, in which case you just kind of check out and the task loses all meaning.

Erin Westgate:
There’s other folks that are like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. You have it completely backwards. It’s all about meaning.” If you have trouble paying attention to something when you’re bored, it’s because that thing wasn’t meaningful.

Joe Rosenberg:
And this is the meaning-based model. And in the meaning-based model, for an experience to not be boring, it just needs to seem somehow worthwhile. So you could do a challenging puzzle that requires the right amount of attention. But if you don’t find it genuinely interesting, it’s still boring. Or conversely, you can do something repetitive and simple. But if you think it’s saving lives, you will get bored.

Roman Mars:
That’s really interesting. I mean, I think I kind of see how both models work. I mean, it makes me wonder if they’re entirely separate emotions or I don’t know. It just seems like it’s really hard to tell how you would know which one is true.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly. And Erin works with a model that tries to incorporate both. But this is where your original question, “Is boredom just a word?”, actually comes back into play.

Erin Westgate:
So, for instance, in French, the word for boredom really eludes more to what we would think of as its “meaning components.” In German, the word for boredom emphasizes the sense that time is slowing down.

Joe Rosenberg:
Which is a classic symptom of attentional boredom. And in Japanese, there are in fact two different words for boredom that loosely map onto these two different meanings.

Roman Mars:
And so is this one of those cases where the word actually affects the meaning? They become sort of self-fulfilling prophecies, where if you’re French, you only get bored in a meaningful way. If you’re German, you get bored in the sort of attentional way.

Joe Rosenberg:
We don’t know yet. And Erin points out that even within English, there’s this issue that the word boredom didn’t even really exist before 1600.

Erin Westgate:
And it’s not clear to me how much boredom is something that is a problem of modernity. I think there’s very, very limited data right now that speaks to this point at all.

Roman Mars:
So it strikes me that figuring this out isn’t just an intellectual exercise because our understanding of boredom must have some kind of public health implications, especially when you imagine how we respond to being bored, like as a culture. Like do we have a problem with boredom to make people do bad things?

Joe Rosenberg:
That’s a good question because we know there is a correlation at least between people reporting being bored and things like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, but also of education and social connections and exercise. So this is one reason why Erin’s third and final big question is, “What do we do once we’re bored?” And it turns out it’s also the question which COVID-19 and the quarantine might actually help us answer.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I can see where this is heading. There’s a lot of people who are bored at home right now. But lay it out for me. What is she going to look at?

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay, so there’s this big mystery, right? How is boredom affecting us, including when we’re bored, do most of us start doing something healthy or something unhealthy? And unfortunately for Erin and other boredom researchers, the data on this is just all over the place.

Erin Westgate:
For instance, there’s some work that finds that experimentally inducing boredom increases prosocial behavior. There’s other work that finds that experimentally inducing boredom increases antisocial behavior. So which is it?

Joe Rosenberg:
Erin says that the thing getting in the way of good data and a clear answer on this is which activities people turn to when bored can be really hard to study in a lab setting. For the simple reason that when you confine people to a lab, you can’t actually give them that many options of things to do.

Erin Westgate:
So you’re in the boring group, you’re not — you can shock yourself or not. You’re in the boring group, you’re not — you can eat a snack or not. And I don’t know how useful that’s going to be to us in understanding the effects of boredom in the real world where we often have many multiple options available to us. And that question always kind of hangs over you. Does it matter? Who cares if you find an effect in the lab if no one actually does it in the real world.

Joe Rosenberg:
So obviously there’s this incentive to do studies outside of the lab, in the real world. But there was a problem with reality and it’s the opposite of the problem with the lab, which is people don’t get bored enough.

Erin Westgate:
You know, for better or worse, people are not that bored all the time in everyday life. I think the best estimates suggest people are bored around 5% of the time, which isn’t really that bad. If you calculate it out, it’s about 30 minutes a day. But 30 minutes a day of boredom is probably not all in one chunk, it’s separated out across time.

Joe Rosenberg:
And this is because most people don’t stay bored for very long. Thanks to the structure of their daily life, they go back to work or school. Almost always, very quickly something happens without them even having to think about it and they stop being bored.

Roman Mars:
Right. So the upshot is that you can either get people really bored in a lab, but not see how they’d actually realistically behave. Or you could study how people realistically behave to boredom. But out in the real world, they’re actually rarely bored for very long. So it’s hard to catch them in the act, so to speak.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly. And this is where the coronavirus outbreak comes in, because thanks to the quarantine, people outside the lab in the real world are at long last more bored more often than they’ve ever been before.

Erin Westgate:
And for better or worse, certainly for worse for the people experiencing it, but better for me and my graduate student and my other fellow boredom researchers around the world.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, go ahead. Be happy about it.

Erin Westgate:
Yeah! We’re kind of thrilled. I have not been bored. Other people’s boredom has made very sure that I have not been bored these past few weeks.

Roman Mars:
It’s just hours and hours of glorious boredom to study.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, yeah, it’s beautiful. And so one of Erin’s doctoral students named Yijun Lin proposed doing this study. And to be clear, this does not actually fit the formal definition of a natural experiment.

Roman Mars:
Right. So the boredom level isn’t the only variable that’s changed, some of the out-of-house activities that people might turn to when they’re bored are off the table.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, but on the plus side, it is potentially getting people bored in this kind of sustained way where they have to make up their own minds about what to do if they hope to be unbored. Erin’s team is really curious to see what activities people choose. And one way they’re doing that is they’re having participants fill out this kind of daily survey of how they’ve been feeling and what they’ve been up to in which they can choose from this checklist of possible activities.

Erin Westgate:
And other researchers keep asking like, “Oh, can you add this to the checklist? Can you add that to the checklist?” Because there’s so many questions like, are people baking sourdough bread out of boredom, are people buying games out of boredom, are people… There’s a whole set of questions. Are people hooking up and becoming lovers with their roommates out of boredom? Like what’s going on? What are people doing?

Joe Rosenberg:
And so, they’re looking into all sorts of things. They’re looking into whether there is a discrepancy between how people think they react to boredom versus how they actually react to boredom. And also, is boredom followed by maladaptive behaviors, including breaking the quarantine. But also, they can record something that by definition is almost impossible to record in the lab, which is “novelty-seeking”, people trying things they’ve never tried before. I just recently asked her to send me a list of some of these novel activities that people are trying. And in some ways, it’s just very sweet. So like, “spray-painted a string of lights outside,” “tried a new hair color,” “tried making my own music,” “went under my house to look for a dead rat, used my cats to help search for the rat.” But also, “watched a church sermon with my family, something we don’t do very often,” “helped my little brother set up a kite to fly in the front yard,” “talked to a new person.” And then a few fun ones, “I’m about to smoke weed.”

Roman Mars:
(laughs) Okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s a Slim Jims for breakfast. That’s pretty grim. Yeah. Some of these you could classify as maladaptive behavior itself.

Roman Mars:
Self-harm.

Joe Rosenberg:
I think we can joke about this like, “Oh, we’re baking bread. Oh, we’re doing this little thing.” And it may seem even kind of banal to us. But to Erin and her fellow researchers, these are like these precious stones. Precisely, these are the activities that they weren’t able to study or record in a lab and now they’re getting.

Erin Westgate:
So we might not have the experimental control out in the world, but we have something that’s just as valuable, which is reality.

Roman Mars:
So they could have all the boredom of the lab, but all the novelty possibilities of the real world. That’s a really kind of amazing experiment to have land at your feet.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And for Erin, it really gets back to these core questions — what is boredom and what should we do with it?

Erin Westgate:
I think the thing I always try to touch on is that boredom’s not good or bad except that we make it so, that boredom is an important signal. It’s healthy, it’s adaptive. We would not get very far without it. Boredom makes sure that we stay engaged in the world and it doesn’t feel good, but that’s okay. It just depends on how we react to it.

Roman Mars:
In that way, boredom is like all things.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, it’s like everything else. But with its own unique mysteries, which in this weird, unexpected, accidental way, we just might get to learn a little bit more about.

Roman Mars:
That’s super interesting. Well, thanks so much, Joe.

Joe Rosenberg:
Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much to Professor Erin Westgate and her doctoral student, Yijun Lin at the University of Florida for helping us investigate the great mystery that is boredom. To learn more about their research, you can visit Erin’s website at erinwestgate.com where you can also volunteer to participate in one of her ongoing COVID-19 studies. Whether you’re bored or not, Erin wants to know.

——————————————

VACCINATION

Roman Mars:
Now I’m talking with Delaney Hall, our senior editor who is currently trapped in her home in Santa Fe with two children, two small children.

Delaney Hall:
Yes. Yes. I hope you cannot hear them screaming in the background. I actually sent everyone outside because working from your home, there’s no sound isolation.

Roman Mars:
Totally. There’s no amount of foam padding that will protect you from little children. It’s just the way it is. So how are you coping there with the children?

Delaney Hall:
Well, I’ve actually been spending a lot of time in a couple of different parenting-related Facebook groups where parents are commiserating with each other and sharing tips about how to get through this crazy time. And I recently came across a post in one of those groups that got me thinking about this idea of “the natural experiment.” The post was about vaccination, which honestly is a subject that does not come up that often in this group.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I mean, that’s always a hot button topic. And even if you have a strong scientific-based feeling about the subject, you just don’t want to fight with strangers on the internet about it.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, exactly. But this post, just when there, you know, head-on. And to paraphrase, it basically said we’re all terrified of this disease that’s going around and we’re living in lockdown. And, this is what life looks like without vaccines. This is how life used to be. And the post really struck me like I have been thinking a lot about it.

Roman Mars:
What aspect have you been thinking about?

Delaney Hall:
Well, the sentiments of the post represent my feelings, like I cannot wait for a vaccine. But it also made me wonder about people who are anti-vaccination, like how are they experiencing this moment as the pandemic unfolds? Are people’s minds changing? And so I started looking around for a researcher who studies those issues and who would have some insight into how a pandemic might influence people’s attitudes about vaccines.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
You know, this is a generation-defining experience. My dad’s 95. He doesn’t remember anything ever like this in his lifetime.

Delaney Hall:
This is Dr. Bernice Hausman and she leads the Department of Humanities within the Penn State College of Medicine.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
So it’s almost like too big an experience when you’re in it to figure out how you’re going to study it.

Delaney Hall:
So what Dr. Hausman’s studies is the history and meaning of anti-vaccination sentiment. She looks at what vaccine dissenters actually believe and why. And more broadly, she’s interested in medical controversies that spill over into the public realm and become social controversies.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
This interface between science and society, right? You have to work with people, which means you’re working with culture and tradition and ritual and history, not just with science.

Delaney Hall:
And if it were just science, then there wouldn’t be a controversy, right?

Roman Mars:
I mean, this is a situation where the scientific evidence shows that vaccines are really important, like essential for public health. But that hasn’t changed the fact that there are people skeptical about them.

Delaney Hall:
Right. And if you understand the history of where that skepticism comes from and why it’s so durable and how it connects to these very big ideas about individual freedom and state power, all of that helps you understand why the phenomenon continues today, even in the middle of a global pandemic. So Roman, do you want to hear some really disgusting early vaccination history?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely!

Delaney Hall:
I thought you would. Okay, so the earliest method of immunization, which dates back to the 10th century was something called “variolation” and it was used to protect people against smallpox. And the way it worked is that you would scrape a little pus out of a smallpox blister and then scratch your arm and put the pus into the wound. Or alternately, you could also take a scab from the smallpox blister and then crush it up and suck it up your own nose. With either method, the idea was that hopefully, a mild and protective infection would result.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
That idea that if they had a mild course of the disease, they would not be scarred and they would survive. It had a pretty significant mortality rate, but not as high as smallpox itself.

Delaney Hall:
And so after a while, variolation spread from China and India, where it originated, into the West, and eventually, the practice gave way to vaccination. In the late seventeen hundreds, an English physician named Edward Jenner made a vaccine for smallpox that was based on cowpox, a related animal infection. And amazingly, that’s actually where the word vaccination comes from. It’s based on the Latin word “vacca” for cow. So a lot of people welcomed the many new vaccines that began to develop from that point forward. But there were also objections right from the start.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
Some of them, based on the notion that you should not mess around with nature, it’s always dangerous to mess around with nature, and people who do so are punished. There were some anti-scientific arguments based on the notion that naturally becoming ill was preferable to being vaccinated. There were perceptions of the dangers of vaccination. So all of the same concerns that we see today in contemporary vaccination dissent, you can see them historically.

Delaney Hall:
And a big sticking point for a lot of people were vaccine mandates. People hated the idea of the state requiring them to vaccinate, which started happening pretty quickly. Great Britain implemented compulsory vaccination in the mid-eighteen hundreds. And people actually rioted.

Roman Mars:
I don’t know. I mean, I think that people, when it comes to civil liberties, they really think about their bodies as the ultimate dividing line that, that’s only theirs. But you can see why they would be required because you would mandate a vaccine because it only works if a critical mass of people do it. You have to get that herd immunity going.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Exactly. And so it kind of presents this catch-22.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
If you didn’t have the mandate, you probably wouldn’t have the movement because the mandate is what forces people who don’t want to vaccinate to vaccinate their children. So our mandates the way to go? That is a really interesting question because it feels like mandates are both very American and very un-American in the sense that we really have a tradition of individual personal liberty in this country and the notion that the state cannot make you do certain things. And so I don’t think the mandates are going away, but I do think that we see the friction that they cause at the political level.

Delaney Hall:
So here in the U.S., vaccine dissenters organized to challenge those mandates. And then eventually in 1905, there was a famous Supreme Court case which you actually covered on Trump Con Law a couple of weeks ago.

Roman Mars:
I know this one. This is Jacobson versus Massachusetts, which upheld the rights of states to enforce vaccination laws. And it basically said that sometimes public welfare is more important than individual freedom.

Delaney Hall:
Right. And even though the decision did allow for some exemptions, it was one of the things that really mobilized the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. It provided fuel. And as time went on, Dr. Hausman said that two broad groups of vaccine dissenters began to emerge.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
One group is a sort of more ideologically anti-vaccination group. So this is the group that is against the science of vaccination. They may use their own scientific evidence. They’re largely middle-class, educated people who believe that vaccination is dangerous or wrong in some way. And then there’s another group of people, often working-class people who object to the government’s intrusion on the family.

Delaney Hall:
So these are people who believe the government just should not be telling people what to do with their bodies, kind of like you were talking about earlier, that that is the realm of the individual. That is the realm of the family. And it’s worth pointing out that sometimes this was for good reason. You know, working-class people, in general, had a harder time getting out of vaccination. People with more money could just pay a fine and skip it. So working-class people were often forced to do this thing that they objected to.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
What you tend to see in the United States at least, is a mingling of arguments about freedom and about individual rights with the notion of bodily danger.

Delaney Hall:
And this idea of bodily danger is really compelling to people. Dr. Hausman made this point that was really interesting. She said that public support for vaccination is actually very fragile, meaning that even if the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, all it takes for some people to abandon it is just a small number of bad outcomes.

Roman Mars:
And so what are some examples of that?

Delaney Hall:
So something that you can see historically is the power of media that highlights a few vivid worst-case scenarios. Dr. Hausman traces the modern anti-vaccination movement to the 1970s, and that was when parents started to express concerns about the original pertussis vaccine, which caused high fevers and febrile seizures in some children.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
In the 1970s, there was an increasing belief that it could cause some neurological damage. There was a paper that was published in Britain claiming that it actually did so. There is controversy about whether or not that paper is valid.

Delaney Hall:
And in the early 1980s, there was an influential TV news story called “Vaccine Roulette” that highlighted some of these concerns. It aired on a local NBC affiliate in Washington, DC.

VACCINE ROULETTE CLIP
[It’s a fact of life, all children must get four DPT shots to go to school. Shots, we are told, will keep our children healthy. Shots, we are told, will protect every child from a dreaded disease, pertussis, its whooping cough. But the DPD shot can also damage to a devastating degree.]

Delaney Hall:
The report caused a lot of controversy. In general, it emphasized the risks of the vaccine while minimizing the dangers of the actual disease, and some of its more serious claims have since been debunked by further research. The story gave a big platform for this group called “Dissatisfied Parents Together,” which would go on to become the National Vaccine Information Center. And that’s one of the biggest “vaccine safety” organizations in the country. Many people would call them anti-vaxxers.

Roman Mars:
Another example I’m thinking of in terms of like a single article that had outsized influence was the Andrew Wakefield — just completely fraudulent paper that linked the MMR vaccine to autism, which had no basis in anything. But it became the starting point.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, that one came out in 1998 and it’s been very damaging. As you said, there’s no link between MMR and autism, but that association continues and it still motivates some vaccine refusal. So those are a couple of the big moments that get us to where we are today.

Roman Mars:
So now that we’re in this moment where an infectious disease affects our daily lives, like the coronavirus pandemic, what is Dr. Hausman seeing in these different movements?

Delaney Hall:
So right now, she’s just observing and formulating some questions that might be interesting to investigate. And to start with, she says that this is a really interesting time to be studying vaccination dissent because what we’re experiencing is really unprecedented. This is the first big worldwide pandemic of the vaccine era.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
We haven’t had one since we’ve had all these vaccines. That’s really the case, right? The last big pandemic like this was in 1918.

Delaney Hall:
So what Dr. Hausman is doing is she’s checking on these online hubs like the National Vaccine Information Center to see how they’re messaging around the issue of the coronavirus and among hardcore ideological anti-vaxxers, there is a lot of fear. People are seeing the government enact these stay-at-home orders requiring businesses to close.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
They see the heavy hand of government coming down and they are concerned about what might happen with respect to vaccines. And is this going to embolden states to use these same powers to compel vaccine use? There’s a whole set of concerns around that.

Roman Mars:
I feel like I’ve actually seen some of this manifesting in the protests against the state-at-home orders. They’re pretty small, but they’ve been happening last couple weeks. And if you watch the footage, you will see anti-vax signage along with signs that talk about tyranny and, you know, needing haircuts and stuff like that. It seems to be part of that same worldview.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, it’s in the mix at those protests and it’s just clear that the government orders have people quite worried. I came across this video that a pastor who is also anti-vaccination posted on Twitter recently.

TWITTER VIDEO
[Pastor: They will be sipping Frosty’s in the lake of fire before the government ever gets their greasy, grimy hands on me and my family and forces us to take a stupid implant or a vaccination that we don’t believe in. I have a First Amendment right that allows me to reject it and say no. I have a Second Amendment right that protects my first one and I have a God-given right to tell you, you have got buck wild. The government is out of control and Christians, you need to wake up.]

Roman Mars:
The mingling of fear about state power and anti-vaccination seems to be kind of a natural mix that’s happening right now.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. I mean, it is not the case that the pandemic is causing really hardcore anti-vaccination people to rethink their views, as I perhaps naively thought it would. In fact, it seems to be creating this environment where some people are really doubling down.

Roman Mars:
Right. So I can imagine that the anti-vax pastor, whose whole identity is wrapped up in this, not budging. But is there may be some people on the edges that might be just a little wary of vaccines that, when presented with a world in which a vaccine would greatly improve the quality of life all around the world, are they moving at all?

Delaney Hall:
Dr. Hausman does think this experience will probably affect the views of people who are vaccine-hesitant. So they don’t have super strong beliefs about vaccine. They’re not connected to these communities and movements of vaccine dissenters. But they are people who’ve picked up a sense of unease about vaccination. She thinks that those people, the hesitant people, might, in fact, come around to the idea that vaccination is a really good thing. And in fact, there’s this technology that she’s keeping an eye on. And this is more about the design of one of the potential coronavirus vaccines. So as you know, there are teams of researchers all around the world looking for a vaccine. And one of them is being developed at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
And one of the interesting things about their vaccine is it’s not given through a shot. It’s given as a patch.

Delaney Hall:
It’s this little patch that looks like a translucent square.

Roman Mars:
So how does that work? I can’t even imagine it.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So you place it on your skin, kind of like a Band-Aid. And then over the course of a few days, it delivers the vaccine to your body through these tiny little needles.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
So there’s a number of reasons why this is a really interesting technology. First of all, a lot of people don’t like shots. Second of all, there’s some arguments that the skin is actually a better tissue for vaccine absorption than intramuscular injection.

Delaney Hall:
But then there’s this other reason, which is more about the psychology of vaccines.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
Think about what it would mean if you went to the doctor’s office and instead of giving your child shots, they gave you like four patches and said, okay, over the next two weeks, we’ll do them in this sequence and then you can see if there’s an adverse reaction to one of them. You’re sort of more in control as a parent. And even if it’s the same delivery of the same vaccines, that totally changes your relationship to the entire process.

Roman Mars:
Well, that is really interesting. I remember when my kids were born, there was a movement among people who were in favor of vaccination but felt maybe the MMR was too much vaccination at once. And it wouldn’t it be great if they gave them one at a time, for example?

Delaney Hall:
Right.

Roman Mars:
And so this seems to like this ability to give you control and to sort of test and watch your child because your child is not like every other child. It’s just “your child” and so they have a specific reaction to everything that you can watch for. I can see why that would psychologically help people out who were having a problem.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. And you know, as a parent, I can understand the appeal, too. And I think Dr. Hausman is hoping that this might be the vaccine that actually gets developed and licensed because she wants to study that reaction. She wants to study how the mechanism of delivery might change people’s attitudes about the vaccine.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
And what’s interesting is that ultimately what she’s seen in this moment displays a lot of the same dynamics we’ve seen over and over again in history, which is that even when there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are good for public health, and we’re getting a very real illustration of that right now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone just gets on board.

Roman Mars:
And so, I guess in order to have effective public health measures, whether or not you agree or disagree, you just have to grapple with that. You have to figure out how to reach people.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. She said this super interesting thing towards the end of our conversation.

Dr. Bernice Hausman:
Science-based medicine is a tremendous advantage that we have in the modern world. The fact that they could sequence the genome of the coronavirus so quickly, the fact that they’re talking about a vaccine within 18 months to two years is phenomenal, right? All of that is based on advancements in medicine. But the experience of the pandemic, the social disruption that it has caused, the difficulties of discrimination and unequal treatment that the pandemic has uncovered. We already knew it. But now we know it even more. All of that is the realm of the social world. And all of that is much more difficult in some ways to handle.

Delaney Hall:
So in other words, science is the easy part. You know, and people are hard.

Roman Mars:
Coming up, experimenting with our city streets now that vehicular traffic is down and pedestrians are everywhere.

——————————————

[BREAK]

Emmett FitzGerald:
So our city of Oakland made its way into the national news recently for a policy initiative that I think our urbanist fans will probably appreciate — they banned cars.

Roman Mars:
That’s right. I mean, they banned cars in a lot of streets. It was really remarkable.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t all cars and it was all streets, but the measure came in response to crowding concerns that they were seeing at local parks and around Lake Merritt, downtown. We’re all cooped up in our houses and in the streets are the one place where we can go for a walk or a run. But with everyone doing that, it’s creating problems.

Ryan Russo:
People were sort of encountering each other on the sidewalk and making a decision up ahead, having this little dance. Who’s going to walk out onto the street? Who’s gonna cross over to the other street?

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Ryan Russo, director of the Oakland Department of Transportation.

Ryan Russo:
Someone going for a run saying, “Okay, you don’t want me to go down to the lake where I normally run, so I’ll run in the neighborhood. But I don’t want to breathe heavy on people on the sidewalk, so I’m going to do that in a street, too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I don’t know about you, Roman, but I’ve been going on a lot of runs these days, wearing a mask. And I’ve just decided that the safest way is just to go right down the middle of the road. Most sidewalks are less than six feet across. So there’s just not enough room to safely share one with another pedestrian. And so the city of Oakland decided with that in mind, just to close a whole bunch of streets to cars to give people more room.

Roman Mars:
Right. And it’s like dozens of miles of streets, right?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. So the city already has this network of what they call “bike boulevards.” And that’s about 74 miles total.

Ryan Russo:
Intend to already be low traffic volume, but connect you to things in the neighborhoods. They actually get you places. It’s not just a cul de sac. And what we are doing is selecting from those 74 miles which ones should get soft closure treatments.

Emmett FitzGerald:
“Soft closures” mean that they’re basically throwing up a temporary roadblock and a “5 mile per hour” sign. The streets are still open to people who live there, delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles. But otherwise, the street is for pedestrians and bicyclists and little kids on scooters and dads doing jump rope.

Roman Mars:
What’s interesting about this is that a lot of urbanists have wanted this for a long time, pandemic or no pandemic. They just wanted to see the streets, you know, used for other purposes other than driving.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right. Right. I mean, we’ve talked about this a lot on the show. And so I asked Ryan Russo whether this policy was part of a larger transportation vision that he had for the city.

Ryan Russo:
What we’re doing now is focused on helping Oakland at this moment. And that is number one. That said, we’re learning. We can’t help but learn from observing how that’s going. And while we’re taking quick action, we’re not doing something that’s particularly expensive or permanent. So if it’s not working, it’s quite easy to pick up the barricades and sign strapped to them and adjust what we’re doing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Is there any way that any chance that, you know, when this is all over, some of these streets might stay “slow streets?”

Ryan Russo:
I mean, I think that with the work we’re doing on Oakland’s slow streets, we’re focused on keeping people safe now. I do think it’s a great experiment. And as we hear from our communities, “Hey, that was working or that wasn’t,” we’re going to have our ear to the ground for that and we’ll respond accordingly.

Roman Mars:
That sounds like a definite maybe.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I think we got to maybe. But I wanted to talk with an urbanist about this. And so I called up Allison Arieff. She’s that editorial director for the transportation think tank “SPUR.” And she said she’s really encouraged by what’s happening in Oakland.

Allison Arieff:
I think what this has shown is, one, you can do these really fast. You know, it just put up a bunch of cones and you have a bike lane instead of having 100 committee meetings over how horrible this is going to be, and no one’s going to use them, and all the other arguments that people make. Like, just do it. And yeah, it will come to light that like, you know what, the street didn’t make the most sense, but this one’s really working. And the only way to do it is try and to just be able to throw something on the ground is great.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And she says that throughout history, moments of crisis have also been moments of experimentation inside cities, chances for cities to try things out, try to make themselves better, more livable.

Roman Mars:
Right. I mean, it took Chicago burning to the ground to totally remake the grid of Chicago. And even more akin to what’s happening now, Central Park in New York came about partially as a reaction to the cholera epidemics of the 19th century. We need more space for people to be and exist.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And even more recently, just look at the last recession, which was obviously terrible for cities, but it also gave rise to all these tactical urbanism projects in cities like San Francisco.

Allison Arieff:
That’s why we have all these parklets. And that’s why we have the proxy Shipping Container Project that used a lot that no one could afford to develop and turned it into this very public space. And that stuff has stayed around.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And, you know, some cities around the world are already planning to use this crisis as a chance to remake themselves. Milan just announced that they would use this summer to transform over 20 miles of streets into spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists. And Alison has hope that in Oakland and elsewhere in this country, maybe some of these experiments in traffic reduction might stick.

Allison Arieff:
I think people are still figuring it out. But ultimately, I think this is a huge indicator of how much more space we could give to the public. And I’m not going to say like, “oh, there will be no cars in our post-COVID future,” but hopefully, people will understand, “wow, it actually feels quite liberating to walk down the street.”

Roman Mars:
99 % invisible was produced this week by Emmet FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, and Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is the senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the crew is Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker, Vivian Le, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Raghu Karnad, whose piece in “The New Yorker” inspired our segment on air pollution in India.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is distributed in multiple locations around the East Bay. But in our heart will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too, but you can learn more about all the research we talked about today at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Producers Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, and Joe Rosenberg spoke with Michelle Fournet, an acoustic ecologist at Cornell; Raghu Karnad, writer for the New Yorker; Sarath Guttikunda, Director of Urban Emissions; Erin Westgate, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Florida; Bernice Hausman, Chair of the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine; Ryan Russo, Director of the Oakland Department of Transportation; Allison Arieff of SPUR.

  1. John Milton

    “A sable cloud turns forth its silver lining on the night.”

    First, thank you for the episode. I enjoyed it very much. But my neuroticism compels me…

    I understand the desire to avoid aggrandizing anything about the pandemic, but man it bugs the hell out of me that the phrase silver lining has become a virtual persona non grata in the language of the day. It’s well-intentioned, but semantically misguided, conflating the meaning of the phrase with something more akin to blessing in disguise. The key here is that claiming a silver lining entails no transmutation or elevation of the central object.

    It would be repugnant to describe covid-19 as a blessing in disguise, obviously. But it is entirely appropriate and not at all insensitive to call the oceanic silence for the whales in Glacier Bay or the relatively clean air in India’s cities a silver lining to covid-19, or more precisely to the shelter-in-place response to cover-19. That’s precisely what those things are and it does not glorify the disease to say so.

  2. Carol Edwards

    Hoping there will be a follow up story on the humpback whale study
    I enjoy this podcast so much!

  3. Joseph Gallagher

    Just after listening to this podcast, I saw this article about a leading anti-vacer in a video describing COVID-19 as a corrupt scheme / hoax being perpetrated on the world. Just as described, many are doubling down on their anti-science, conspiracy laden beliefs.
    The “Plandemic” Video Has Exploded Online — And It Is Filled With Falsehoods https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/coronavirus-plandemic-viral-harmful-fauci-mikovits
    Love 99%!!!

  4. Sean Redmond

    Surely, boredom is being obliged to do something don’t want to do or, looked at another way, having nothing to do that you want to do.

  5. April

    Anything over 300 on the air quality scale is dangerous. We’ve had 2 years in the last 4 that have had that level in Spokane WA. I have a friend that lived in Indonesia and she said 900 is like sticking your face in the smoke from a campfire.

  6. Nic

    Very interesting episode!

    However, as someone who visited Beijing in 2008 and then lived there full time from 2009 until 2018, this power-of-the-people conception of improvements in air quality is 99% false. The story gives the impression that the glimpse of blue during the Olympics led to widespread pressure from citizens and subsequent policy changes to address air pollution.

    In reality, the government continued to publicly deny air pollution readings in Beijing until the heavily polluted winter of 2013. Between the Olympics and that moment (about 4.5 years), there were no significant changes in air quality or how most people dealt with “the fog”. It’s quite possible that air pollution actually got worse due to increasing electricity consumption, non-stop construction and the ever growing appetite for cars. Until 2013, air purifiers were outrageously expensive and almost exclusively imported machines owned primarily by expats. Proper masks on polluted days were also something you pretty much only saw on expats. Expats, it should be noted, make up an incredibly small fraction of the city’s population. Based on my own experiences, I had the feeling that the overwhelming majority of Beijing citizens didn’t have a clear conception of the pollution problem.

    But after that admission by the government in the winter of 2013, all of a sudden air filters were sold out across the city and, much like the current coronavirus situation, N95 masks immediately became rare and coveted jewels. Despite the public’s awareness at that point, it was probably another 2 or 3 years after that until significant and sustained improvements in air quality came about.

    The whole thing, and I think a large number of experts on Chinese policy would agree, is more of a numbers game than a reaction to public opinion. The government supported the continuation of horrendous pollution because those tiny air particles represented cheap economic growth. When the drawbacks (health problems, decreased productivity, poor international image) started to outweigh the economic benefits, then strong measures were taken to get to the point where Beijing is today.

    India might end up being a different story after this current streak of blue skies because of obvious differences with China in terms of governance. But anyway, the story of Beijing as it was portrayed in the episode, even though it makes the episode tidier, felt quite inaccurate to me and I thought that I should offer this more nuanced version from someone who lived through it.

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