Issue 05: How to lose weight and prevent death by asteroid

Words by Sam Bowman
15th September 2021

A new all-encompassing issue on diet pills, asteroids, the housing theory of everything, progressive reasons to have more kids, and more.

Newsletter

In the latest issue of Works In Progress, we’ve brought together some of the best thinkers from across the internet to investigate a wide range of topics – from the future of weight loss, to what YouTube chefs can teach us about technological progress, why housing shortages make us fatter, and whether the risk of an asteroid hitting the Earth means there’s no point in worrying about any of this in the first place. You’ll find it all here.

We had the brilliant illustrator Kade Byrand sketch a city skyline as the cover for this issue of Works in Progress. Byrand is currently based in Providence, Rhode Island and has a particular interest in urbanism and Liberalism. You can find more of his work here.

Our lead article, The housing theory of everything, written by our editors Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman, and joined by John Myers, argues that housing shortages aren’t just a problem because they cost us money. They have hidden costs too: they make us live in the wrong places, in smaller homes, needing cars to get around. These distortions mean we get less innovation, we have fewer kids, and that our cities sprawl, leading to faster climate change. Solving expensive housing, it says, won’t just mean more money in our pockets: it could reinvigorate Western civilization itself.

When the future looks bleak, bringing more children into it can feel like an act of selfishness or worse. Covid reduced birth rates that were already low and falling in most developed countries, and the culture and politics of the emerging gerontocracy don’t look good. Jeremy Driver argues that a pro-baby mindset ought to be at the core of an optimistic progressivism in his piece Natalism for progressives, and that society should focus on giving people the resources and support they need to have the families they want.

In The future of weight loss, neuroscientist and author of The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat, Stephan J. Guyenet explores the potential of a miracle cure for fatness. Canvassing experts in the fields of obesity and eating behaviour, Guyenet describes the history of diet pills, from high explosives used in World War One to the pill designed to cause a “reverse munchies”, and offers a tantalising discussion of one compound that may help make us leaner by working in surprising ways.

Neil Hacker sketches out a new kind of market mechanism to support the development of fringe new technologies: Buyers of first resort, which create a market for products and technologies that cannot survive on their own merits at first, but that given time, could lead to important improvements in how we live. NASA once acted as a buyer of first resort to support the development of crucial advancements in rocketry, and today a similar method could help us to develop the technology we need to tackle climate change effectively.

But we can’t feel or touch all technological improvements that matter. In Better eats, our editor Nick Whitaker describes how progress in home kitchens shifted from devices like the dishwasher and microwave to intangible improvements in recipe books, techniques for cooking in the home, and video distribution that allowed elusive skills to be taught to anyone who wanted. This, Whitaker argues, could be a microcosm for the rest of the economy too, where advancements in intangible capital have been less visible than their tangible equivalents, but are no less important.

Illustration by Kade Byrand for Works in Progress.

The crisis in experimental psychology, which has led some to question other fields like behavioural economics, points to a deeper problem with how science is regarded by the public, argues Sarah Perry in How trust undermines science. Hype around counterintuitive results in psychology and other fields has undermined people’s willingness to challenge improbable and, ultimately, false results, undermining the skeptical mechanism that makes science work in the first place.

Finally, Tom Chivers asks if any of this matters at all, if we might all die tomorrow after an asteroid hits the planet. The chances of a harmful, if not apocalyptic, asteroid strike are low, but not zero. But there are things we can do to prevent one if we see one coming, he reports in his article Asteroid spotting. Unlike some other threats to the existence of humanity, we may have the asteroid threat as close to being under control as we ever will.

New on the blog:

If we value the humanities, why do we not make better arguments on their behalf? An anonymous writer, John Uskglass, rebuts a few of the most common arguments for the humanities for the blog, and encourages us to make more rigorous ones.

When COVID first struck, it quickly became taboo to speculate about a lab leak origin. Now the tides have changed, but our author, an anonymous biologist, argues that we have overcorrected from the undue taboo and become much too credulous about lab leak arguments.

Even more

Outside of Works In Progress, Saloni wrote about the nature of depression and what makes the condition so complicated for Our World in Data, and for the New Statesman on what the evidence says about waning vaccine efficacy. Sam co-authored papers on the UK’s proposals to regulate the internet and on the risk of “killer acquisitions”, and wrote for the Financial Times about the effect of mergers on competition in tech.

Here are some more things we’ve enjoyed from around the web:

That’s all for this time,

– Sam, Ben, Nick, and Saloni