Is Google Dying? Or Did the Web Grow Up?

A few weeks in the past my home had a septic-tank emergency, which is as terrible because it sounds. As unspeakable issues started to burble up from my bathe drain, I did what any smartphone-dependent individual would: I frantically Googled one thing alongside the strains of poop coming from bathe drain dangerous what to do. I used to be met with a slew of cookie-cutter web sites, most of which appeared rapidly generated and had been choked with sufficient repetitive buzzwords as to be barely readable.

Virtually all the things I discovered was unhelpful, so we did the old school factor and known as an expert. The emergency got here and went, however I stored desirous about these middling search outcomes—how they typified a zombified web wasteland. Like many, I exploit Google to reply most of the mundane questions that pop up in my day-to-day life. And but that first web page of search outcomes feels prefer it’s been surfacing fewer satisfying solutions currently. I’m not alone; the frustration has develop into a persistent meme: that Google Search, what many contemplate an indispensable instrument of recent life, is useless or dying.

For the previous few years, throughout varied boards and social-media platforms, folks have been claiming in viral posts that Google’s flagship product is damaged. Search google dying on Twitter or Reddit and you’ll see folks grousing about it going again to the mid 2010s. Lately, although, the criticisms have grown louder. In February, an engineer named Dmitri Brereton wrote a weblog publish about Google’s search-engine decay, rounding up main theories for why the product’s “results have gone to shit.”

The publish rapidly shot to the prime of tech boards similar to Hacker News and was extensively shared on Twitter and even prompted a PR response from Google’s Search liaison, Danny Sullivan, refuting one among Brereton’s claims. “You said in the post that quotes don’t give exact matches. They really do. Honest,” Sullivan wrote in a series of tweets.

Brereton’s most intriguing argument for the demise of Google Search was that savvy customers of the platform not kind instinctive key phrases into the search bar and hit enter. The finest Googlers—the ones on the lookout for actionable or area of interest data, product critiques, and attention-grabbing discussions—know a cheat code to bypass the sea of company search outcomes clogging the prime third of the display. “Most of the web has become too inauthentic to trust,” Brereton argued, due to this fact “we resort to using Google, and appending the word ‘reddit’ to the end of our queries.”

Brereton cited Google Trends knowledge that present that persons are looking the phrase reddit on Google greater than ever earlier than. Instead of scrolling via lengthy posts plagued by pop-up adverts and paragraphs of barely coherent search engine optimization chum to get to a evaluation or a recipe, intelligent searchers received vigorous threads with testimonials from actual folks debating and interacting with each other. Most who use the Reddit hack are doing so for sensible causes, but it surely’s additionally a small act of protest—a technique to stick it to the Search Engine Optimization and Online Ad Industrial Complex and to aim to entry part of the web that feels freer and extra human.

Google has constructed wildly profitable cellular working methods, mapped the world, modified how we e mail and retailer pictures, and tried, with various success, to construct vehicles that drive themselves. This story, for instance, was researched, partly, via numerous Google Search queries and a few Google Chrome searching, written in a Google Doc, and filed to my editor through Gmail. Along the manner, the firm has collected an unfathomable quantity of information on billions of individuals (regularly unbeknownst to them)—however Google’s mother or father firm, Alphabet, remains to be primarily an promoting enterprise.

In 2020, the firm made $147 billion in income off adverts alone, which is roughly 80 p.c of its whole income. Most of the tech firm’s merchandise—Maps, Gmail—are Trojan horses for a gargantuan personalized-advertising enterprise, and Search is the one which began all of it. It is the fashionable template for what the know-how critic Shoshana Zuboff termed “surveillance capitalism.” The web has grown exponentially and Google has expanded with it, serving to usher in a few of the internet’s greediest, most extractive tendencies. But scale shouldn’t be all the time a blessing for know-how merchandise.

Are we wringing our fingers over nothing, or is Google a sufferer of its personal success, rendering its flagship product—Search—much less helpful? One can’t actually overstate the manner that Google Search, when it rolled out in 1997, modified how folks used the web. Before Google got here out with its purpose to crawl the complete internet and set up the world’s data, search engines like google and yahoo had been reasonably helpful at finest. And but, in the early days, there was far more search competitors than there may be now; Yahoo, Altavista, and Lycos had been common on-line locations.

But Google’s “PageRank” rating algorithm helped crack the downside. The algorithm counted and listed the quantity and high quality of hyperlinks that pointed to a given web site. Rather than use a easy key phrase match, PageRank figured that the finest outcomes can be web sites that had been linked to by many different high-quality web sites. The algorithm labored, and the Google of the late Nineteen Nineties appeared virtually magical: You typed in what you had been on the lookout for, and what you bought again felt not simply related however intuitive. The machine understood.

Most folks don’t want a historical past lesson to know that Google has modified; they really feel it. Try trying to find a product in your smartphone and also you’ll see that what was as soon as a small teal bar that includes one “sponsored link” is now a hard-to-decipher, multi-scroll slog, crammed with paid-product carousels; a number of paid-link adverts; the dreaded, algorithmically generated “People also ask” field; one other paid carousel; a sponsored “buying guide”; and a Maps widget exhibiting shops promoting merchandise close to your location. Once you’ve scrolled via that, a number of display lengths beneath, you’ll discover the unpaid search outcomes. Like a lot of the web in 2022, it feels monetized to dying, soulless, and exhausting.

There are every kind of theories for these ever-intrusive adverts. One is that the cost-per-click charges that Google costs advertisers are down, due to competitors from Facebook and Amazon (Google is rolling out bigger commerce-search advert widgets in response this 12 months) in addition to a slowdown in paid-search-result spending. Another problem could stem from cookie-tracking modifications that Google is implementing in response to privateness legal guidelines similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

For the previous two years, Google has been planning to take away third-party cookies from its Chrome browser. And although Google Search received’t be affected by the cookie ban, the glut of search adverts may be an try to recoup a few of the cash that Google stands to lose in the modifications to Chrome. If so, that is an instance of fixing one downside whereas creating one other. But after I instructed this to Google, the firm was unequivocal, arguing that “there is no connection” between Chrome’s plans to part out assist for third-party cookies and Search adverts.

The firm additionally stated that the variety of adverts it exhibits in search outcomes “has been capped for several years, and we have not made any changes.” Google claims that, “on average over the past four years, 80 percent of searches on Google haven’t had any ads at the top of search results.” Any hunt for solutions about Google’s Search algorithms will lead you into the world of search engine optimization consultants like Marie Haynes. Haynes is a marketing consultant who has been learning Google’s algorithms obsessively since 2008. Part of her job is to maintain up with each small change made by the firm’s engineers and public communication by Google’s Search-team weblog.

Companies that may divine the whims of Google’s continuously up to date algorithms are rewarded with coveted web page actual property. Ranking excessive means extra consideration, which theoretically means more cash. When Google introduced in October 2020 that it will start rolling out “passage indexing”—a brand new manner for the firm to drag out and rank discrete passages from web sites—Haynes tried to determine how it will change what folks finally see after they question.

Rather than reverse engineer posts to sound like bot-written babble, she and her workforce try to stability sustaining a web page’s integrity whereas additionally interesting to the algorithm. And although Google offers search engine optimization insiders with frequent updates, the firm’s Search algorithms are a black field (a commerce secret that it doesn’t need to give to rivals or to spammers who will use it to govern the product), which implies that realizing what sort of data Google will privilege takes a whole lot of educated guesswork and trial and error.

Haynes agrees that adverts’ presence on Search is worse than ever and the firm’s determination to prioritize its personal merchandise and options over natural outcomes is irritating. But she argues that Google’s flagship product has truly gotten higher and far more advanced over time. That complexity, she suggests, may be why looking feels totally different proper now. “We’re in this transition phase,” she advised me, noting that the firm has made vital developments in synthetic intelligence and machine studying to decipher consumer queries.

Those technical modifications have precipitated it to maneuver away from the PageRank paradigm. But these efforts, she instructed, are of their infancy and maybe nonetheless figuring out their kinks. In May 2021, Google introduced MUM (brief for Multitask Unified Model), a natural-language-processing know-how for Search that’s 1,000 instances extra highly effective than its predecessor.

“The AI attempts to understand not just what the searcher is typing, but what the searcher is trying to get at,” Haynes advised me. “It’s trying to understand the content inside pages and inside queries, and that will change the type of result people get.” Google’s concentrate on searcher intent may imply that when folks kind in key phrases, they’re not getting as many direct phrase matches. Instead, Google is attempting to scan the question, make which means from it, and floor pages that it thinks match that which means. Despite being a bit sci-fi and creepy, the shift may really feel like a lack of company for searchers.

Search used to really feel like a instrument that you simply managed, however Google could begin to behave extra like, effectively, an individual—a concierge that has its personal concepts and processes. The problematic results of elevated AI inference over time are simple to think about (whereas I used to be writing this text, a Google researcher went viral claiming he’d been positioned on administrative depart after notifying the firm that one among its AI chatbots—powered by totally different know-how—had develop into sentient, although the firm disagrees).

Google may use such know-how to proceed to steer folks away from their meant searches and towards its personal merchandise and paid adverts with higher frequency. Or, much less deviously, it may merely gently algorithmically nudge folks in sudden instructions. Imagine all the life selections that you simply make in a given 12 months primarily based on data you course of after Googling. This implies that the stakes of Google’s AI deciphering a searcher’s intent are excessive.

But a few of Google’s lifeless outcomes are made by people. Zach Verbit is aware of what it’s prefer to serve at the pleasure of Google’s Search algorithms. After school, Verbit took a freelance-writing gig with the HOTH, a advertising firm that makes a speciality of search-engine optimization. Verbit’s “soul crushing” job at the HOTH was to jot down weblog posts that might assist purchasers’ websites rank extremely. He spent hours composing listicles with titles like “10 Things to Do When Your Air-Conditioning Stopped Working.”

Verbit wrote posts that “sounded robotic or like they were written by somebody who’d just discovered language.” He needed to write as much as 10 posts a day on topics he knew nothing about. Quickly, he began repurposing previous posts for different purchasers’ blogs. “Those posts that sound like an AI wrote them? Sometimes they’re from real people trying to jam in as many keywords as possible,” Verbit advised me.

That his rapidly researched posts appeared excessive in search outcomes left him dispirited. He stop the job after a 12 months, describing the business of search-gaming as a home of playing cards. His time in the search engine optimization mines signaled to him the decline of Google Search, arguably the easiest, simplest, and most revolutionary product of the fashionable web. “The more I did the job, the more I realized that Google Search is completely useless now,” he stated.

HOTH’s CEO, Marc Hardgrove disputed the notion that its shopper weblog posts had been “over-optimized” for search engine optimization functions and that the firm discourages jargony posts as they don’t rank as excessive. “Overusing keywords and creating un-compelling content would be detrimental to our success as an SEO company, he wrote in an email. “That’s why The HOTH does not require, or even encourage, the writers we work with to overuse keywords into their blog posts to help with optimization.”

Google is nonetheless helpful for a lot of, however the tougher query is why its outcomes really feel extra sterile than they did 5 years in the past. Haynes’s principle is that that is the results of Google attempting to crack down on misinformation and low-quality content material—particularly round consequential search matters. In 2017, the firm began speaking publicly a couple of Search initiative known as EAT, which stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.”

The firm has rolled out quite a few high quality rater pointers, which assist choose content material to find out authenticity. One such effort, titled Your Money or Your Life, applies rigorous requirements to any pages that present up when customers seek for medical or monetary data. “Take crypto,” Haynes defined. “It’s an area with a lot of fraud, so unless a site has a big presence around the web and Google gets the sense they’re known for expertise on that topic, it’ll be difficult to get them to rank.”

What this implies, although, is that Google’s outcomes on any matter deemed delicate sufficient will probably be from established sources. Medical queries are way more prone to return WebMD or Mayo Clinic pages, as a substitute of non-public testimonials. This, Haynes stated, is very difficult for folks on the lookout for homeopathic or alternative-medicine treatments. There’s a wierd irony to all of this. For years, researchers, technologists, politicians, and journalists have agonized and cautioned towards the wildness of the web and its penchant for amplifying conspiracy theories, divisive material, and flat-out false data.

Many folks, myself included, have argued for platforms to floor high quality, authoritative data above all else, even at the expense of revenue. And it’s potential that Google has, in some sense, listened (albeit after far an excessive amount of inaction) and, perhaps, partly succeeded in exhibiting higher-quality leads to a variety of contentious classes. But as a substitute of ushering in an period of excellent data, the modifications may be behind the complainers’ sense that Google Search has stopped delivering attention-grabbing outcomes.

In principle, we crave authoritative data, however authoritative data could be dry and boring. It reads extra like a authorities kind or a textbook than a novel. The web that many individuals know and love is the reverse—it’s messy, chaotic, unpredictable. It is exhausting, endless, and all the time just a little bit harmful. It is profoundly human. But it’s price remembering what that humanity appeared like inside search outcomes. Rand Fishkin, the founding father of the software program firm SparkToro, who has been writing and desirous about search since 2004, believes that Google has gotten higher at not amplifying conspiracy theories and hate speech, however that it took the firm far too lengthy.

“I don’t know if you searched for holocaust information between 2000 and 2008, but deniers routinely showed up in the top results,” he advised me. The similar was true for Sandy Hook hoaxers—in reality, campaigns from the Sandy Hook households to combat the conspiracy theories led to a few of the search engine’s modifications. “Whenever somebody says, ‘Hey, Google doesn’t feel as human anymore,’ all I can say is that I bet they don’t want a return to that,” Fishkin stated.

Google Search may be worse now as a result of, like a lot of the web, it has matured and has been ruthlessly commercialized. In an try to keep away from regulation and be corporate-friendly, elements of it may be much less wild. But a few of what feels useless or dying about Google may be our personal nostalgia for a smaller, much less mature web. Sullivan, the Search liaison, understands this eager for the previous, however advised me that what seems like a Google change can be the search engine responding to the evolution of the internet.

“Some of that blog-style content has migrated over time to closed forums or social media. Sometimes the blog post we’re hoping to find isn’t there.” Sullivan believes that a few of the latest frustrations with Google Search truly replicate simply how good it’s develop into. “We search for things today we didn’t imagine we could search for 15 years ago and we believe we’ll find exactly what we want,” he stated. “Our expectations have continued to grow. So we demand more of the tool.” It’s an attention-grabbing, albeit handy, response.

Google has rewired us, reworking the manner that we consider, course of, entry, and even conceive of knowledge. “I can’t live without that stuff as my brain is now conditioned to remember only snippets for Google to fill in,” one Reddit consumer wrote whereas discussing Brereton’s “Google Is Dying” publish. Similarly, Google customers form Search. “The younger generation searches really differently than I do,” Haynes advised me. “They basically speak to Google like it’s a person, whereas I do keyword searching, which is old-school.” But these quirks, tics, and ranging behaviors are simply knowledge for the search large.

When youthful generations intuitively begin speaking to Google prefer it’s an individual, the instrument begins to anticipate that and begins to behave like one (that is a part of the purpose behind the rise of humanized AI voice assistants). Fishkin argues that Google Search—and plenty of of Google’s different merchandise—can be higher with some competitors and that Search’s high quality improved the most from 1998 to 2007, which he attributes to the firm’s must compete for market share. “Since then,” he stated, “Google’s biggest search innovation has been to put more Google products up front in results.”

He argues that this technique has truly led to a slew of underwhelming Google merchandise. “Are Google Flights or Google Weather or Google’s stocks widget better than competitors? No, but nobody can really compete thanks to the Search monopoly.” “Is Google Search dying?” is a frivolous query. We care about Search’s destiny on a sensible stage—it’s nonetheless a major technique to faucet into the web’s promise of limitless data on demand. But I believe we additionally care on an existential stage—as a result of Google’s first product is a placeholder to discover our hopes and fears about know-how’s place in our life.

We yearn for extra comfort, extra innovation, extra chance. But after we get it, usually we are able to solely see what we’ve misplaced in the course of. That loss is actual and deeply felt. It’s like shedding a bit of our humanity. Search, due to its utility, is much more fraught. Most folks don’t need their data mediated by bloated, monopolistic, surveilling tech firms, however additionally they don’t need to go all the manner again to a time earlier than them. What we actually need is one thing in between. The evolution of Google Search is unsettling as a result of it appears to recommend that, on the web we’ve constructed, there’s little or no room for equilibrium or compromise.

By: James Crugnale

Source: http://theatlantic.com

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Covid Year Three Will Be Better, Experts Agree, Unless Rich Countries Ignore The Pandemic Elsewhere

It was March 2020 when the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home in the U.S. When the NBA suspended its season, it seemed to give permission for other closures and stay-at-home orders, and they quickly followed. At that point, there had only been around 3,000 confirmed cases of the disease and about 60 confirmed Covid deaths.

Fast-forward two years, and the numbers are staggering. According to estimates from Johns Hopkins University, as of Wednesday there have been over 79 million confirmed Covid cases and over 960,000 deaths. Several million have been hospitalized and millions more have reported symptoms that linger for weeks or even months, with unknown consequences moving into the future.

“It’s massively higher than I thought,” says Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Particularly when in November 2020 the announcement came out that we had a vaccine that was 95% effective.”

Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said in an email that she’s also surprised that the pandemic is still going, compared to her initial expectation. “In retrospect, I think I was hopeful that it would be more self-limited, like the SARS pandemic.”

The worst of the pandemic is behind us, experts told Forbes, in part because the first two years provided valuable tools for the continued fight against both Covid and future disease epidemics. Ignoring the pandemic in lower-income countries, they say, could mean new variants making their way back to the U.S.

One lesson the experts didn’t expect to learn was how polarizing the response to the pandemic could be, especially as time went on. “I was surprised and alarmed to see how politically polarized Covid-19 responses have become, with some U.S. states (most recently Florida) promoting public health policies that directly oppose the science (and common sense),” Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego, said in an email.

The depth and intensity of political anger against public health officials was also jarring, says Castel. “To think that many public health leaders at the local, state and national level received death threats and lawsuits because of the evidence-based guidance they issued is appalling.”

“It’s tragic, because the outcomes of that were that hundreds of thousands of people died, who would not have died, if the response had been less political and more governed by the best science,” Wachter adds.

Wachter also says it’s hard to fathom the size of anti-vaccine sentiment based on what things looked like before the pandemic. “The anti-vax movement was previously pretty small and fringe,” he says. “And it was as likely to come from the left as the right—maybe even more likely to come from the left.”

The worst of the pandemic is (probably) behind us

“Years three and four will, hopefully, see a transition of Covid-19 from an emergent condition to an ongoing public health challenge with significantly less morbidity and mortality,” Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor for the Bipartisan Policy Center, says in an email. But not if it’s left to itself, he’s quick to add. “This would require easy access to prevention, testing and treatment.”

“I think the likeliest path will be a version of where we are now,” says Wachter. “With small surges that will not be overwhelming and be regional, partly related to seasonality, maybe partly related to vaccine status in different regions.”

The biggest unknown about this prediction, of course, is whether a new Covid variant emerges, which Strathdee warns is an increased risk if high-income countries choose to ignore the pandemic in the rest of the world. “If we don’t ensure that new medical advances such as vaccines and therapeutics reach the lower- and middle-income countries, new variants will emerge that threaten us all.”

Long Covid will have a potentially long impact

A potentially bigger challenge than surges of new infections in pandemic year three, says Wachter, are the still mostly unknown impacts of long Covid. If it turns out that, as some preliminary estimates suggest, as many as 10% to 20% of people experience lingering symptoms, “that’s tens of millions of people, and that’ll have an impact on the workforce and that’ll have an impact on economic performance.”

Long Covid will take a potential toll on the healthcare system as well, adds Castel. “Until we learn more about how to prevent and treat long Covid, we can anticipate a large burden on the healthcare system for the near future.”

“The high prevalence of long Covid stands to cause significant disability,” Strathdee says. “which affects both mental and physical health, including quality of life. I don’t think we’ve got a good handle yet on how big this problem may be.”

One major concern, says Wachter, is that unlike most respiratory diseases, early studies are warning that Covid may cause long-term health problems. A recent study said that people with even mild Covid showed more incidents of brain damage compared with those uninfected. Another finding: People infected with Covid have higher rates of heart attack and strokes. “If that turns out to be real, you’re talking about a new risk factor in almost 40% of the population,” he says. “A risk factor that may be as potent, as if people have high blood pressure or if they smoke. And that’s a very big deal.”

The tool kit for the next disease surge

Health experts agree that Covid-19 is likely to be around for a long time, and it’s also not going to be the last pandemic. The past two years, they say, have provided a lot of insight into what needs to be done to prepare for the next deadly disease surge.

When it comes to respiratory viruses like Covid, “We need to keep good-fitting N95 face masks, HEPA filters and good old soap and water,” says Strathdee.

“Masks should have been consistently recommended early on in the pandemic, as other countries did,” Parekh agrees. Castel concurs. “Masks are simple to use, relatively easy to obtain, and have proven to be effective in both protecting the wearer and those around them.”

Another key tool for combating future epidemics is testing, Wachter says. “We clearly made a terrible error early on in not working hard to get good tests out there more quickly,” he says. “And particularly, I think we were very late on home testing, both developing them and distributing them.”

One crucial factor that emerged to combat Covid, says Esther Krofah, executive director of FasterCures and the Center for Public Health at the Milken Institute, was research collaboration between scientists, companies and governments to produce vaccines and therapeutics quickly. That’s something she hopes doesn’t go away. “We need to ensure we build sustainable infrastructure to continue such collaboration,” she says, “and move forward efforts to change the culture in medical research to align with the urgent needs of patients.”

Experts do suggest rethinking one of the most contentious aspects of the pandemic response: school closures. “One of the real lessons learned is the negative impact of school closures on kids,” says Wachter. “And I think it will influence our response the next time.”

“Virtual schooling, while necessary intermittently, will need to be more closely considered in the future taking into account the virus’ epidemiology, risk to students and staff, and considerations for childcare/parental workforce,” says Parekh.

Hospitals need to be better prepared for future surges

Covid-19 hit hospitals extremely hard, overworking doctors and nurses to the point of burnout during pandemic surges, as intensive care units and other departments were pushed to capacity and beyond. This means that hospitals will need to work on building their surge capacity, experts say.

“Stockpiling and distributing critical medical material, deploying surge medical staff and ensuring that healthcare systems through federal grants are exercising their response plans are all critical,” Parekh says.

A major challenge for hospitals, says Wachter, will be getting extra capacity in place without breaking the bank. “Nobody’s going to be able to afford to keep a lot of excess bed capacity available, or a lot of excess nursing and doctor capacity,” he says. However, what hospitals can do is better stockpile equipment and protective clothing for healthcare workers. “The things that are not wildly expensive but you do want to have in the basement.”

In addition to better preparing for surges, hospitals also need to be better at identifying threats early so public health measures can be put in place, says Strathdee. “Public health departments and hospitals need to be better equipped to conduct surveillance, which includes systems for timely reporting.”

Castel encourages closer communication between hospitals and public health officials. “Hospitals are often sentinel sites and the first place that persons infected with these illnesses seek care, therefore they must have the capacity to work closely with public health to assist in the timely detection of emerging infectious diseases.”

Rebuilding trust and fighting apathy is critical

“An effective response to a pandemic requires three things: political leadership, national unity and timely resources,” says Parekh. Those first two have been hard to come by since 2020, with one expert confiding to Forbes their concern that political polarization “has significantly impaired the ability of public health authorities to enact countermeasures in the future.”

Another challenge that health experts have seen during the course of the pandemic isn’t just politics but also apathy. “On May 24, 2020, the New York Times covered its whole front page with a story headlined: ‘U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.’ It listed names of the dead, as the paper did after 9/11. In December 2020, shortly before vaccines became available, we approached 300,000 dead, though the Times did not (and still has not) run a similar story,” Krofah says. “I’m afraid we have become numb to these numbers.”

Wachter notes that if a new surge of Covid comes in the next few months, it may be hard to galvanize a public response. “Everybody is so cognitively over this,” he says. “And the idea that you would have to hunker down again? It’s going to be awfully hard to convince people to do that.”

Other experts agree that separating politics from public health is going to be essential in order to move forward in combating future epidemics. A crucial aspect of that is rebuilding trust in institutions, repaid in kind with clear communication rooted in science. But it’s also, several say, something that has to happen between people’s everyday interactions with each other.

For Castel, what’s needed is that sense of community seen early in the pandemic when “neighbors volunteered to help older, more vulnerable people get groceries, or to make masks, or to donate food to overworked medical personnel,” she says. “Without this sense of community, we would not be where we are today and I can only hope that if faced with another pandemic, that we would all come together again in a united effort to protect and support each other. “

I’m a senior editor at Forbes covering healthcare, science, and cutting edge technology. 

Source: Covid Year Three Will Be Better, Experts Agree, Unless Rich Countries Ignore The Pandemic Elsewhere

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Does “Digital Empathy” Work in Virtual Psychotherapy?

Digital empathy is “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated interactions.” A recent study suggests that clients felt their psychotherapist was more empathic and supportive in a remote setting than an in-person setting.

Another study found that virtual group therapy can be as effective as in-person group therapy. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, much of psychotherapy has moved online. Two new studies take a look at whether teletherapy and video conference therapy are helpful. Can empathy connect clients with their therapists despite the virtual divide? Has psychotherapy adapted to moving online? The results may be surprising for some.

In one study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that clients felt like their psychotherapist was significantly more empathic and supportive in the remote setting compared to in person. This is important because, depending on the type of psychotherapy, whether a client feels connected to the psychotherapist can be an essential factor in a positive outcome in treatment.

“Digital empathy” has been defined as “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications.” Further models of digital empathy have expanded the characteristics of “digital empathy”:

  • Ability to analyze and evaluate another’s internal state (empathy accuracy)
  • A sense of identity and agency (self-empathy)
  • Recognize, understand and predict other’s thoughts and emotions (cognitive empathy)
  • Feel what others feel (affective empathy)
  • Role play (imaginative empathy)
  • Be compassionate to others (empathic concern) via digital media

The study examines online therapy sessions that took place via Skype and WhatsApp video calls. About half the clients used desktops or laptop computers, with the other half using a mix of tablets or smartphones. Almost 90% of the therapists used a computer.

The research found that therapists felt like they could offer the same amount of empathy whether in person or virtually. Surprisingly, patients felt more empathetically connected to and supported by their therapist in the virtual setting, compared to in person. These findings build upon prior therapy research conducted before the pandemic, which found that empathy can indeed reach across virtual borders and be effective in virtual psychotherapy.

Another study from 2021 confirms that group psychotherapy can be done effectively virtually. In fact, some clients found remote group work even more helpful than in person, but that this is not the case for everyone.

These studies do raise the point that personal preference and self-selection may have a lot to do with how comfortable people are with virtual psychotherapy and teletherapy and positive treatment outcomes. Clients who respond well in virtual settings are likely those already at ease with video conferencing technology and are able to feel comfortable and have privacy at home.

The same goes for the therapist. Research has found that therapists who feel most comfortable and effective in offering virtual psychotherapy typically had offered it previously, even before the pandemic.

Psychotherapy has transitioned online effectively for many people, in spite of the limitations of technological issues, sound delays, and the difficulty with perceiving micro-expressions. Clients should feel empowered to assess whether virtual therapy is a good fit for their needs.

It is likely that many clients and therapists will continue to choose to stay online, given the positive results and ability for digital empathy to exist alongside the convenience of scheduling, less commute time, and being able to communicate safely without masks. The good news is that virtual psychotherapy can be offered in a way that clients feel is supportive and effective and will likely remain a mainstay platform for the delivery of psychotherapy.

Heart Problems Surge In COVID Patients Up To 12 Months After Infection

A massive analysis of health records has revealed recovered COVID-19 patients are at a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular complications in the year following an acute infection. The new findings, published in Nature Medicine, showed COVID-19 survivors were 55 percent more likely to experience a serious cardiovascular event after recovering.

“We wanted to build upon our past research on COVID’s long-term effects by taking a closer look at what’s happening in people’s hearts,” explained Ziyad Al-Aly, senior author on the new study from Washington University. “What we’re seeing isn’t good. COVID-19 can lead to serious cardiovascular complications and death. The heart does not regenerate or easily mend after heart damage. These are diseases that will affect people for a lifetime.”

The researchers looked at medical records from the US Department of Veteran Affairs, analyzing around 150,000 positive COVID-19 cases. Cardiovascular outcomes in the 12 months after acute disease were compared to two large control groups of more than five million patients.

In a period starting 30 days after initial infection, and up to a year later, COVID patients were 72 percent more likely to experience coronary artery disease compared to those without SARS-CoV-2 infection. They were also 52 percent more likely to have a stroke and 63 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack.

Overall, the study found COVID-19 patients experienced a 55 percent higher rate of major adverse cardiovascular events in the year following their acute disease. These adverse events included cerebrovascular disorders such as stroke, ischemic and non-ischemic heart disease, pericarditis, myocarditis, and heart failure.

Al-Aly pointed out that risks of cardiovascular events were higher in those with pre-existing heart conditions and those suffering from more severe COVID-19. However, across all cohorts the study still found COVID-19 increased one’s risk of heart problems.

“… most remarkably, people who have never had any heart problems and were considered low risk are also developing heart problems after COVID-19,” said Al-Aly. “Our data showed an increased risk of heart damage for young people and old people; males and females; Blacks, whites and all races; people with obesity and people without; people with diabetes and those without; people with prior heart disease and no prior heart disease; people with mild COVID infections and those with more severe COVID who needed to be hospitalized for it.”

Exactly why SARS-CoV-2 infection is increasing a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease is still unclear. In the new study the researchers hypothesize a number of potential mechanisms, such as lingering damage in cells from the acute viral infection to a persistent hyperactive immune response following the disease.

“These mechanistic pathways might explain the range of post-acute COVID-19 cardiovascular sequelae investigated in this report,” the researchers wrote in the study. “A deeper understanding of the biologic mechanisms will be needed to inform development of prevention and treatment strategies of the cardiovascular manifestations among people with COVID-19.”

These results add to a growing body of data highlighting the long-term effects of COVID-19. Most recently, an Australian study tracked 20,000 COVID-19 cases for up to one year following acute infection. That study found COVID-19 significantly increased a person’s risk of neurological, cardiac and vascular disease events compared to those not infected with SARS-CoV-2.

“Risk of myocarditis and pericarditis is particularly high, estimated between 18- and 21-fold higher following SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the new Australian study noted. “Elevated risk have also been shown for acute myocardial infarction (AMI) between 3- and 6-fold, ischaemic stroke at 3- to 10-fold, and venous thromboembolism at up to 8-fold. Notably, these risk estimates are higher than those imposed by other viral respiratory infections and vaccination.”

It is important to note both of these studies, and most long-term COVID-19 follow-up research, are tracking cases from 2020. These are cohorts that are primarily unvaccinated and experiencing infection from early strains of the virus.

Al-Aly does indicate it is likely vaccination will reduce the long-term cardiovascular risks associated with COVID-19. But, it will take more time to understand exactly how much protection vaccines confer in terms of these long COVID outcomes.

In the short-term, Al-Aly says it is vital governments prepare for increased pressure on health systems over the coming years due to these longer-term effects of COVID-19. He especially notes these findings underscore the importance of vaccine distribution in low-income countries as a way to try to mitigate the future impact of these post-COVID events.

“Governments and health systems around the world should be prepared to deal with the likely significant contribution of the COVID-19 pandemic to a rise in the burden of cardiovascular diseases,” said Al-Aly. “Because of the chronic nature of these conditions, they will likely have long-lasting consequences for patients and health systems, and also have broad implications on economic productivity and life expectancy.”

Source: Heart problems surge in COVID patients up to 12 months after infection

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The Push For Equity In Education Hurts Vulnerable Children The Most

America has always had an uneasy relationship with brilliance. Cultural tropes, like the mad scientist or the nerdy computer whiz, show both a respect for high accomplishment and an anxiety about how smart people fit into society.

This cultural uneasiness is most apparent in the educational realm. Schools recognized the existence of students with high academic aptitude by providing them with gifted programs and advanced classes. Outside of school hours, many sponsor honor societies or academic competitions. And the old tradition of publicly recognizing a graduating class’s valedictorian remains strong.

However, the educational industry has never let these programs shake the field’s commitment to egalitarianism. The spending on education in the United States is disproportionately directed towards struggling children. Sometimes this policy is explicit, such as earmarking billions of federal dollars annually for special education and little or nothing for advanced academics.

Other policies implicitly support struggling learners more than students who excel, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which encouraged states to reward schools that help struggling students reach basic proficiency levels. These laws, though, did not incentivize or reward schools for helping students reach high levels of academic accomplishment. As a result, the numbers of high achievers stagnated.

Equity over excellence

This truce of carving out a few advanced programs and classes from a system concentrated on educating the lowest performing students worked reasonably well for decades. However, that arrangement was shattered within the past few years in the United States as districts and states embraced “equity” initiatives with the goal of achieving equal outcomes across individuals as well as groups. The policies inevitably sacrifice bright and high achieving students to the social goals of activists.

The push to hobble high performing students in order to achieve equity can take many forms. In Oregon, the state legislature eliminated the requirement that students pass a high school exit exam to demonstrate proficiency in reading, mathematics, and writing for two years until the state can re-evaluate its graduation requirements. The reason: the testing requirement was “inequitable” because higher percentages of black and Hispanic students were failing the test.

The impetus to eliminate tests that show differing levels of academic success is also apparent in admissions tests. At the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet high school in Virginia often touted as the best high school in the country, admission is no longer based on high test performance. Instead, a new system assigns seats at the prestigious school so that each region in the school district is evenly represented, and then all students that meet basic criteria (a 3.5 middle school grade-point average) are entered into the lottery.

The result is a student body that is more racially diverse (from 73 percent Asian to 53 percent Asian, from one percent black to seven percent, and from three percent Hispanic to 25 percent Hispanic), but much less academically elite. Magnet schools in Philadelphia and Boston also revamped their admissions procedures to de-emphasize tests and to improve the admission chances for Hispanic and black students.

Reducing or eliminating the impact of admissions tests is not unique to high schools. Concerns about equity have also caused universities to make college admissions tests optional for applicants. College admissions tests show well-known differences in average scores, and applying the same admissions standard to all groups will inevitably admit higher scoring groups at higher rates than lower scoring groups. This mathematical reality makes admissions tests a target of equity advocates.

The test-optional movement has been underway for many years, mostly at small liberal arts colleges. Making standardized tests optional seems like a good idea to counteract the unequal admissions rates across groups. However, research shows that it does not improve the socioeconomic or racial diversity of a student body. It does, however, raise a college’s reported test score average (because low performing applicants choose not to report scores), which improves the school’s rankings. Test-optional universities also increased tuition at higher rates than universities that required test scores. None of these developments help disadvantaged students.

The test-optional movement accelerated recently during the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to growing concerns about equity. The movement to drop testing requirements reached its greatest success when the regents of the University of California system voted to make admissions tests optional for applicants—despite their own faculty making a strong recommendation against a test-optional policy.

Even this move towards lowering standards was not enough. Advocacy groups sued the University of California system, which settled the lawsuit by agreeing to ban the consideration of any test scores in the admissions process. This outcome was exactly what university president Janet Napolitano had previously proposed and what many California politicians had wanted for years. What an amazing coincidence!

Even when admissions tests remain in place, institutions often apply different admissions standards across racial groups in order to improve the diversity of the student body. A prominent example of this can be found in the lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination in Harvard admissions.

According to the plaintiff’s expert analysis of Harvard admissions data conducted by economist Peter S. Arcidiacono, an Asian student with a 25 percent chance of admission to Harvard would have their chances of admission increase to 36 percent if they were white and had the same academic qualifications. Hispanic students with the same academic qualifications have a 75 percent probability of admission. An equivalent black student would have a 95 percent chance of admission.

In other words, what is an iffy one-in-four chance of admission for an Asian student is almost a sure bet for a black student with the same admissions qualifications. Among admitted black students, 45 percent had academic qualifications in the bottom half of all applicants, while only eight percent of admitted Asian students had similar academic qualifications. The admission rate for a student with academic qualifications in the top 10 percent of all applicants is 4.25 times higher for black applicants, 2.61 times higher for Hispanic applicants, and 1.37 times higher for white applicants than for Asian applicants.

Differing admissions standards across racial groups also occurs for law schools and medical schools. Indeed, it is likely that admissions standards vary for different racial and ethnic groups at most American institutions of higher education, except for open enrollment institutions. Data for any particular university is often unavailable, though.

When differing standards are not equitable enough, one proposal to advance equity is to eliminate admissions standards completely. That is what the journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill did when eliminating the minimum GPA for admission to its programs (previously a 3.1 college GPA was required). A more revolutionary change is the proposal for the NCAA—which governs college athletics—to remove its minimum high school GPA and test scores for student athletes.

The minimum standard is a sliding scale, but for Division I universities, a 2.3 high school GPA in core subjects is a required minimum. Students with this GPA must earn an SAT score of at least 980 points. Students with lower test scores can compensate with a higher GPA in high school core classes. A student with a 3.0 high school GPA in core subjects, for example, needs to obtain an SAT score of only 720 points to play intercollegiate sports. For most college students, these standards are easily met; but for advocates of equity, even these standards are too high because a disproportionate number of African American students fail to reach them.

Back in the K-12 world, another popular strategy for achieving “equity” in education is to eliminate advanced classes and programs, such as gifted programs or accelerated classes. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio eliminated the city’s gifted program. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the standards for being labeled as “gifted” were lowered so much that 86 percent of school children qualified for the label, and the district eliminated any specialized classes for high performers.

California’s proposed K-12 math guidelines states, “… we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents …” and encourages a lockstep math sequence for all students to take the same classes through the end of 10th grade. Lest any students try to escape from a lockstep program, the guidelines explicitly discourage grade skipping individual students, even though there is absolutely no evidence showing negative effects of grade skips.

Avoiding—not solving—the problem

The problem of disproportionate representation of different racial and ethnic groups in educational programs is fundamentally caused by the achievement gap among groups. It is a mathematical fact that when groups differ in their average scores, then the percentage of group members exceeding a cutoff will be higher for groups with a higher average and lower for groups with a lower average. If all groups had equal average academic performance, then students in elite academic programs would much more resemble the demographics of the general student population.

What all these “equity” strategies have in common is that none of them achieve their equity goals by improving the academic performance of low-performing groups. Instead, “equity” almost invariably requires hiding deficiencies of low-performing groups, lowering standards, or eliminating or watering down programs that encourage excellence. These proposed policies are, at best, stopgap solutions. At worst, they hide the problem and allow it to fester.

Instead, solving the equity problem permanently would require closing the achievement gap by lifting the performance of lower-performing groups. The causes of achievement gaps among groups are hotly debated in the educational world. What is not debated is that meaningfully increasing the performance of low-performing groups will not be easy. There are some experts who have proposed policies and practices to increase achievement in low-performing groups.

School psychologist Craig Frisby, for example, has found that successful schools that teach large proportions of minority students focus on core achievement, provide strict discipline, and base policies on the science of learning—and not on trendy sociopolitical ideas.

Some projects to increase achievement of Hispanic and African American students have had promising results in increasing the number of these students who qualify for gifted programs. Another reason for optimism is that achievement gaps are narrower in the 21st century than they were in 1971, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress reading and mathematics tests. (However, achievement gap sizes have stagnated since 2012.)

Equity advocates seem unwilling to do the long, hard work of improving the academic performance of the very children they claim to be concerned about—black, Hispanic, and low-income children. Instead, the equity policies are generally a quick fix that makes the demographic makeup of an academic program more palatable while allowing the underlying problem to remain.

Indeed, many of the newly popular equity policies imply that equity advocates have given up on increasing the achievement in low-performing groups. Anyone who thought that struggling students could perform as well as high-achieving groups would not try to lower or eliminate admissions standards, force students into lockstep programs, water down the curriculum, or eliminate advanced academic programs. All of these equity strategies are prime examples of what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and they are coming from a postmodern ideology that claims to protect and fight for marginalized students.

Unintended consequences

The students that are most hurt by equity policies are the ones that the activists claim to be helping. Wealthy students who have a gifted program eliminated from their school have parents who can transfer them to a private school or pay for after-school educational opportunities. However, the child from a poor family does not have this option. They are stuck in their neighborhood public school, unchallenged and ignored.

Likewise, a policy that eliminates or de-emphasizes standardized tests closes off the easiest pathway to a challenging educational program for bright students from low-income families and under-privileged backgrounds. When many selective grammar schools and the 11+ admissions examination were eliminated in the UK, the percentage of students from working-class backgrounds who attended prestigious schools decreased. In other words, eliminating the standardized test favored the wealthy and well-connected.

In the college admissions scene, eliminating admissions tests benefits the moderately talented from wealthy families because they have more resources to make their child into an attractive applicant. Students from wealthy families can afford to have an impressive list of extracurricular activities, and these parents can manipulate other components of a college admissions application, such as grade-point averages (e.g., by pressuring a teacher, or transferring a child to a school with lenient grading standards).

Even admission preferences for student-athletes often benefit the wealthy. When was the last time an elite college’s sailing, lacrosse, or water polo teams consisted of students from working-class backgrounds?

Other equity policies hurt poor students in profound ways, even if a child does not qualify for an advanced academic program. When standards are lowered in a school district, or the curriculum becomes politicized, then the basics are neglected. A school year consists of a finite amount of time, and it is impossible to teach every topic.

When politicized classes are required (as has happened with California’s new ethnic studies high school requirement), foundational knowledge must be de-emphasized. Students trapped in ideological classrooms have less instruction time to develop strong skills in the core subjects of math, reading, and science, thereby stunting their academic and employment prospects in the future.

No help from the educational establishment

Don’t expect the educational establishment to fight against equity initiatives. For example, the only American advocacy organization in gifted education, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), has committed itself to social justice orthodoxy. In June and July of 2020, NAGC released multiple statements committing itself to diversity and equity, as a response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. What George Floyd had to do with gifted programs was never explained. No matter! NAGC has recently reaffirmed that it intends on incorporating equity in all its future work.

As a result, NAGC is paralyzed when gifted programs come under attack. The organization has done nothing to respond to the proposed California math guidelines, and it did nothing to mobilize support for gifted programs in New York City. The best it could do was issue a feeble statement on the day of Mayor de Blasio’s announcement saying that NAGC was “deeply disappointed.”

Simply put, bright students cannot count on education bureaucrats to fight for their educational needs. Most people with power in the education industry are already committed to social justice causes. This is apparent, for example, at the college level. In a 2019 Pew Center poll, 73 percent of Americans were against race having any influence in college admissions decisions. Even 56 percent of voters in California last year preferred race-neutral procedures in college admissions.

Yet, college administrators consistently buck public opinion on this point and implement racial preferences (often covertly) and vigorously fight for affirmative action in the courts. Fighting an anti-Asian discrimination lawsuit to preserve its affirmative action practices has cost Harvard University over $25 million in legal expenses. K-12 controversies tend to be less prominent, but in many parts of the country, the commitment to “equity” and other leftist values is common in many school districts.

With gifted programs under attack and no professional advocates to fight for them, bright students are at the mercy of the winds of politics. A few weeks after de Blasio announced that gifted programs would be eliminated, Eric Adams was elected as New York City mayor. During the campaign, Adams had promised to reinstate gifted programs (though the details are unclear). Bright children corralled into slowly-paced math courses in California will likely not be so lucky if the proposed mathematics guidelines are implemented in their district. The progressive worldview is entrenched in Californian politics, and that seems unlikely to change.

It is too early to tell how a shift in the political winds will impact other students. In the recent Virginia elections, education was a top issue for many voters, and there seems to be a backlash against critical race theory in schools in that state and other parts of the country. However, gifted programs rarely rally the voters because they tend to serve a small percentage of students and are easily branded—sometimes correctly—as elitist. Thus, gifted programs are unlikely to be a sole source of populist sentiment.

A new 6–3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gives affirmative action opponents hope in eliminating race considerations from college admissions and the varying admissions standards for different racial groups. Until a case reaches the court, though, it is unknown whether the justices will be willing to overturn more than four decades of consistent precedent supporting affirmative action in higher education.

Lessons from history

While the focus on “equity” may be dismaying for advocates of excellence and individual merit, America has been down this path before. When the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s prioritized equity, academic standards and performance decayed. In the early 1980s, the nation’s political class—not the education establishment—led a pivot towards encouraging high achievement in America’s schools. This was most clearly seen in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which stated:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

The 1980s saw the birth of the accountability movement, higher academic standards, and massive growth of the Advanced Placement program. As happened a generation ago, the focus on equity will likely diminish as political leaders and the American people become dissatisfied with the mediocrity that results from an emphasis on equity.

Unfortunately for bright students stuck in lockstep academic programs, the change in political priorities may come too late—if it comes at all to their state or community. Implementation of newly popular equity policies will hinder the learning of many students before those policies are weakened or reversed. Perhaps one day the mad scientist trope will be replaced by the stereotype of the unchallenged gifted child, wiling away years of boredom in the classroom. At least the activists can feel good about the mediocre equity they have achieved.

Russell T. Warne

By: Russell T. Warne

Russell T. Warne is associate professor of psychology at Utah Valley University. He is the author of In the Know: Debunking 35 Myths About Human Intelligence and Statistics for the Social Sciences.

Source: The Push for Equity in Education Hurts Vulnerable Children the Most

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