For Pete's Sake, Stop Taking Vitamin D Supplements!

Way back in 2014, I wrote a column about vitamin D supplements, explaining that they don’t work. I added vitamin D to my previous list, the Top 5 Vitamins That You Should Not Take, to create a list of 6 useless vitamin supplements.

Together, these two columns had well over 1,000,000 views. And yet it seems the message didn’t get through. Well, now a massive new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that I was right all along: taking vitamin D pills isn't good for you. Let’s review the findings, shall we?

In 2014, I wrote about two studies, both published in The Lancet. The first paper, a massive review of 462 other studies, concluded that taking supplemental vitamin D did not help to prevent heart disease, weight gain, mood disorders, multiple sclerosis, and metabolic disorders, all of which had been linked to lower vitamin D. Nope, they said: it appears that low levels of vitamin D are a result of bad health, not the cause.

Ah, you might be thinking, but vitamin D is mostly about bone health, right? Well, the second study that I wrote about in 2014 looked precisely at that question. That paper concluded that vitamin D supplements do not improve bone density, and they do not reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

In other words, vitamin D supplements are a complete waste of money.

Nonetheless, people keep taking vitamin D, and doctors in the U.S. continue to recommend it (based on published guidelines that urgently need revision), on a very large scale.

So now we’ve spent millions of dollars on a huge new trial, which followed nearly 26,000 men and women for more than 5 years, to see if vitamin D supplements would do anything to prevent bone fractures. (And by “we” I mean U.S. taxpayers, who funded this study through grants from the National Institutes of Health.)

The result: people who took vitamin D had exactly the same risk of bone fractures as those who didn’t. It didn’t matter how much vitamin D they took, nor did it help if they also took supplemental calcium at 1200 mg per day. And it didn’t help people who had relatively low levels of vitamin D either. Taking vitamin D supplements just didn’t make any difference to anyone.

So we should stop taking vitamin D–but there’s more. In an editorial accompanying the new study, Steven Cummings and Clifford Rosen point out that “More than 10 million serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D tests are performed annually in the United States.” These tests add costs to our already exorbitant health care system, and they don’t provide patients with any benefit.

Cummings and Rosen put it bluntly: “providers should stop screening for 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels or recommending vitamin D supplements, and people should stop taking vitamin D supplements to prevent major diseases or extend life.” Or as my Hopkins Eliseo Guallar, Lawrence Appel, and Edgar Miller wrote back in 2013, “Enough is enough: stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements.”

At the top of this article I mentioned that my list of useless vitamin supplements has 6 vitamins on it, so here they are:

  1. Vitamin C
  2. Vitamin A and beta carotene
  3. Vitamin E
  4. Vitamin B6
  5. Multi-vitamins
  6. Vitamin D

If you want to know the science behind the other 5, take a look at my column on The Top Five Vitamins You Should Not Take.

Finally, I should point out that although routine supplementation is worthless and megadoses of vitamins can be harmful, if you think you have a vitamin deficiency, consult with your doctor. Serious vitamin deficiencies might be the result of other health problems that your doctor can help you address, and treatments for specific conditions or diseases may include vitamins.

Journal publisher retracted a study claiming poison oak could cure itching. Well done.

None of these plants will cure itching. 
Today I want to tell a positive story, where a science journal did the right thing.

I’ve written a lot over the years about bad science. A particular gripe of mine is when bogus scientific results, sometimes fraudulent, sometimes just sloppy, manage to sneak into the peer-reviewed scientific literature. This happens all too often, especially as the number of papers published each year has grown. These bad papers are then used by fraudsters and charlatans (and sometimes by innocent people who just don’t have the expertise to understand) to “prove” an unscientific claim.

Fortunately, a growing number of journals–the better ones, in general–are showing more concern than in the past, and taking actions (sometimes) to retract papers, even over the objections of the authors.

Before I get to the good news, a reminder about the most notorious scientific paper in recent memory: Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study in The Lancet, published in 1998, which claimed to find a link between vaccines and autism. The Lancet, to its everlasting shame, failed to retract the article until 2010, despite an avalanche of evidence that began appearing in 2002. Ten of the original 13 authors even published their own “Retraction of an Interpretation” in 2004, but The Lancet still refused to retract unless all the authors agreed. Wakefield, who was already leading the anti-vaccine movement and is now adored by anti-vaxxers, refused.

That article has probably contributed indirectly to the deaths of thousands of people from vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. And given what we knew about it by 2002, The Lancet had no excuse for delaying retraction until 12 years after publication.

But I digress. Today I want to highlight an article whose retraction I called for a few years ago, one that the journal, Scientific Reports (published by Nature Publishing Group) did indeed retract, about 9 months later.

The paper I called out was a study that claimed that an extract of poison oak can be used to treat pain. If that sounds kind of ridiculous, that’s because it is. The actual paper sounded very science-y, as I pointed out in my original column. It was titled “Ultra-diluted Toxicodendron pubescens attenuates pro-inflammatory cytokines and ROS-mediated neuropathic pain in rats.”

Toxicodendron pubescens, in case you’re wondering, is poison oak. It’s not a tree and it has nothing to do with oaks–it’s a cousin of poison ivy, and both plants contain oils that can cause extreme itching and painful rashes on contact.

How on earth could poison oak be used to treat pain? Well, it can’t. The paper was actually about a homeopathic treatment. One of the core tenets of homeopathy is that “like cures like,” as long as you dilute it sufficiently. So the poison oak paper started with the premise that since poison oak causes pain and itching, you can also use it, after you dilute it, to treat pain and itching!

Homeopathy, as I’ve written before, is a highly implausible and easily disprovable set of beliefs about medicine. I use the word “belief” intentionally here, because homeopathy really has no claim to be a type of medicine, or even a hypothesis. It’s just a 200-year-old collection of beliefs that turned out, long ago, to be wrong.

If this sounds absurd, well, selling these products is a highly profitable business. For example, check out Boericke & Tafel’s Oral Ivy Liquid ($15 for a 1-ounce bottle on Amazon.com), a homeopathic product that is made from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. It claims to be “for the prevention and temporary relief of contact dermatitis associated with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac.” What’s in it? Poison oak, at very low levels. (Actually this product isn’t really diluted to homeopathic levels: the packaging says it contains 0.02g of poison oak in each drop. So it might actually cause an allergic reaction–I’d stay far away from this stuff.)

Back to the study: in the paper, the authors diluted a preparation of poison oak down to levels as low as 10-30, a common practice in homeopathy. The problem is, at that level of dilution, not even a single molecule of the original substance would remain. There’s simply no possibility that such a dilution could have any therapeutic benefit, but somehow they found an effect. Hmm.

A number of scientists wrote to the journal complaining that this result was extremely implausible, and that the experiments didn’t support the conclusions. To their credit, the journal editors took the complaints seriously and investigated. The retraction notice (read it here) pointed out another major problem as well: some of the figures were duplicates! Each figure is supposed to represent a different experiment, so duplication is a big problem, added to the fundamental implausibility of the study.

As is often the case when fraud is detected, the authors did not agree with the retraction.

When I wrote my column complaining about this study, I said the “the right thing to do would be to retract this paper, because its results are simply not valid. We'll see if that happens.” Well, about 9 months later, that’s exactly what happened.

A few years ago, I was in direct contact with the Editors-in-Chief at both Scientific Reports and PLoS ONE (about different papers than the one I’m discussing above), and they expressed genuine concern about fraudulent research, as well as a determination to do better at rooting it out. When journals do the right thing, we should applaud them. So here’s to Scientific Reports, who got it right this time.

USAID is pouring $125 million into collecting dangerous viruses in the wild. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Bushmeat market in Africa. Photo by Alexandra
Mannerings / BBC, 2014.

I just learned that the US Agency for International Development, USAID, is pouring $125 million into an effort to seek out novel viruses in remote areas of the world. This is pretty much exactly what many scientists, including me, have been warning against for years.

How did I miss this? It was announced last October, along with articles about how excited Washington State University was to lead the project, and how pleased the University of Washington was to go out and hunt down animals that were carrying dangerous new viruses.

In any case, I know about it now, and I’m joining the voices (here and here, for example) that are warning that this is a truly terrible idea.

The USAID’s announcement seems utterly oblivious to the enormous dangers posed by this program. Their own headline says they want to find viruses that could cause pandemics! The program, called DEEP VZN (”deep vision,” get it?) is funding scientists in the US and in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to venture (”deep”) into unpopulated areas of the jungle, and to find animals carrying viruses that might infect humans. They’re particularly interested in viruses that could cause the next pandemic.

What could go wrong? Oh nothing, says USAID and the scientists who are happily taking the $125 million in funding. They’ll be super careful! So we should all be pleased with how the government is preparing for the next pandemic.

Uh, no. As I wrote last year:

It’s also time to ask, very critically, whether anyone should be venturing out into remote areas to collect animals that are infected with possible pandemic-causing microbes, and bringing those animals [or just the viruses] back to densely populated areas. Rather than preventing pandemics, these activities are more likely to cause them.

The only tiny nod to risk in the USAID announcement is that they will “safely discover and understand new viruses from animals at high risk locations” (emphasis mine). They make no mention of how they will guarantee this is safe–because they simply can’t guarantee any such thing. 

Oh wait, isn’t this how some people think the Covid-19 pandemic started? Because humans were collecting bats from remote caves? Oh, but perhaps that was different, because some of those bats were being collected for food, and the people collecting them weren’t careful enough.

Never mind that the debate about whether Covid-19 was caused by a lab leak has never been fully resolved. And never mind that the debate itself has made it clear that lab leaks happen all too often, and that it’s clearly possible that a lab leak could cause a pandemic.

(For more on the risks of lab leaks, see my previous articles, from March 2022, June 2021, October 2021, or January 2015 (when the threat was from influenza), or this New Yorker story from 2021.)

The details of DEEP VZN are even more alarming: they plan to collect over 800,000 samples from animals in the wild, and they hope (!) to discover 8,000 to 12,000 new viruses, any one of which might have the potential to start a worldwide pandemic. They’ll focus especially on coronaviruses (the family that includes the Covid-19 virus), Ebola-like viruses, and a group called paramyxoviruses.

Great, so maybe they’ll cause a novel Ebola outbreak too. I’m feeling very comforted now!

I have to note here that USAID, the funder for DEEP VZN, also funded EcoHealth Alliance to collect coronaviruses from bats in China, and EcoHealth partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in that project. As I and many others have written over the past two years, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a possible source, through a hypothesized lab leak, of the Covid-19 pandemic. We may never know if WIV was involved, because China shut down all access to the lab early in the pandemic.

But it seems USAID didn’t learn any lessons at all from the many publicly expressed concerns about whether it was wise to go into caves in remote areas of China and collect coronaviruses from bats. On the contrary: with DEEP VZN, they are doubling down.

Why do USAID and the scientists at Washington State and UW think this is a good idea? Well, here the story is very familiar. They are making the same pie-in-the-sky claims we’ve been hearing for years: “The hope is that this improved understanding will lead to prevention of future pandemics,” said a UW scientist in their press release. Or “to make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, we need to be ready” according to a Washington State scientist.

I and others have pointed out the flaws in these claim before, but it’s worth re-stating a few of them:

  1. First, there’s not a shred of evidence that collecting these viruses will help prevent a pandemic, and we now have evidence providing the opposite. Scientists have been collecting coronaviruses since the first SARS outbreak, in 2003, and that work didn’t prevent the Covid-19 pandemic, even though both outbreaks were caused by coronaviruses.
  2. Second, the act of going into remote areas and looking for viruses is highly likely to bring deadly new viruses back into human cities, creating opportunities for a lab leak that could easily cause a new pandemic. And despite some protests to the contrary, lab leaks can and do happen, even from the most secure facilities.
  3. Third, having viruses in labs, even if they’re secure, will do little to help anyone design vaccines against future pandemic viruses. As expert virologists have pointed out, we simply can’t predict what viruses will cause the next pandemic: there are far too many of them, among other reasons.

There’s one more threat I have to mention. DEEP VZN proudly proclaims that it’s going to make all of its data public, including the genome sequences of the viruses that it collects. This strategy blithely ignores the fact that it’s now possible for hostile actors to use these sequences to create deadly new bioweapons. An MIT engineer estimates that some 30,000 people around the world already have this capability. Even if that is a bit alarmist (and I tend to think it is), it’s not so far-fetched to believe that generating all of these sequences greatly increases the risk that someone will create a rogue virus.

If USAID wants to help prevent the next pandemic, there are far, far better ways to spend $125 million of taxpayer money. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use the money to reduce the consumption of “bushmeat” in countries where this is still practiced. This could be done in many ways, such as training people in better farming methods, or even just providing food directly.
  2. Put a halt to the use of wild animals for ineffective “traditional” medicines, which don’t cure anything and which are one of the main incentives for hunting exotic animals. This would have the additional benefit of saving a number of animal species from extinction.
  3. Use the money to develop faster ways to produce and deliver vaccines, so we don’t have to wait months or years from the time a pathogen starts spreading until we have a vaccine.

Look, I know that some scientists are very excited about going out and finding new viruses, and some of them truly believe this will help prevent future pandemics. But they’ve been saying this for years, and the evidence is now overwhelming that this is a pipe dream. Sending humans out into the wild to gather viruses that would otherwise never make their way into population centers is just a terribly dangerous plan.

Or let’s put this another way: if you discovered that a research facility in your home town were working with hundreds of deadly viruses, would you have any concerns? Any at all? I know I would.

An amazingly effective new hair loss treatment for alopecia areata


Today I’m writing with a bit of good news. A new treatment for hair loss seems to work miracles, at least for some patients. But for starters, let me be clear that this treatment doesn’t work for ordinary, age-related hair loss, where people (men especially) gradually lose the hair on their heads. It only treats alopecia areata, a far less common but much more damaging condition.

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that causes dramatic and devastating hair loss. It’s nothing like normal age-related hair loss. In severe cases of alopecia areata, people can lose all their hair, often very rapidly, even their eyebrows and eyelashes. Sometimes they even lose the hairs in their nose and ears, which can lead to sinus infections and hearing problems. In milder cases, people develop bald spots on their scalp, and for some people the hair will grow back. In other cases, though, hair loss is permanent.

Alopecia affects about 300,000 Americans, and in addition to the physical symptoms, it often causes severe emotional distress. As a doctor explained to the New York Times this week, it “robs a person of their identity.”

The good news is that just a few days ago, the FDA approved the first-ever systemic treatment for alopecia areata, one that is genuinely effective, even if it doesn’t work for all patients. The new drug, called Olumiant, was developed by Eli Lilly and approved 4 years ago for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Its use for alopecia is an unexpected benefit.

The best way to illustrate the success this new drug is to look at a photo of one of the patients from the clinical trials, which were published on May 5 by an international group of doctors and scientists in the New England Journal Medicine. Below is one of the patients after 36 weeks of treatment:

The NEJM article included photos of 6 patients, all of them just as dramatic as this one. Over the course of eight or nine months of treatment, many of the patients had virtually all their hair grow back.

How does the new drug work? In patients with alopecia areata, their immune system attacks their own hair follicles, for reasons that aren’t fully understood. It may be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Olumiant (also called baricitinib) blocks the action of a protein called Janus kinase (JAK), which is one of the genes involved in the disease. This apparently allows the follicles to heal, and hair just starts growing again. As far back as 2014, a different JAK inhibitor was reported to induce dramatic hair re-growth in an alopecia areata patient, a young man who had lost all the hair on his body. That report and others like it were the motivation for conducting the just-reported clinical trials.

An important caveat is that not all patients responded equally well. Both studies had a low-dose and high-dose option, and the higher dose clearly worked better, with 36% of patients in one study and 39% in the other study experience dramatic re-growth of hair during an 8-month period. Most side effects were mild, but the studies will continue to monitor patients for longer-term side effects.

Even if it only works for some patients, this is clearly a dramatic breakthrough for alopecia areata. One downside is cost: as with many drugs in the U.S., Olumiant is really expensive. The NY Times reports that the cost is currently $2500 per month, which means an 8-month course of treatment will cost $20,000. Thanks to the FDA’s approval, insurance will probably cover it, but no drug should cost that much.

In March of 2017, Nature starting adding a strange note to every single paper. Why?

Back in March of 2017, this strange note first appeared at the end of a paper in the journal Nature:

I looked over the paper, and it didn’t have any maps in it. None of the authors had unusual affiliations, just the normal university departments. Why the disclaimer?

Before answering this question, let’s dig a bit deeper. This notice first started appearing in mid-March of 2017 (in this issue of Nature), when it was attached to every single research paper in that issue. I cannot find any papers prior to that with the “Publisher’s note.”

Ever since then, Nature has put this notice on every paper in all of their journals. For example, the current issue has a paper on mapping sound on the planet Mars, by an international team of astronomers and physicists. It does contain maps, but they don’t describe any features on Earth. Nonetheless, it has the disclaimer at the end about “jurisdictional claims in published maps.”

A map showing Taiwan as a country

(Nature has done it to me too, for example in this 2018 paper led by a former Ph.D. student of mine. I didn’t yet know about the weird disclaimer when that paper appeared, and I didn’t catch it until later.)

It’s not just Nature, but apparently all of the many journals published by the Nature Publishing Group, which today number in excess of 100 publications. I looked at a few randomly chosen papers in Nature Biotechnology and Cancer Gene Therapy, as a test, and they all have exactly the same Publisher’s Note.

None of these papers, I should add, have any maps in them. I couldn’t find anything odd about the institutional affiliations either.

Nature is one of the oldest and most-respected journals in all of science, dating back to 1869. Just a few years ago, in 2015, Nature’s publishing group merged with Springer, the second-largest for-profit scientific publisher in the world, and they changed their name to Springer Nature. We’ll see why this is relevant in a minute.

I should also mention that the papers appearing in these journals, especially Nature itself, are rigorously peer-reviewed. Any map that appears undergoes the same peer review. The reviewers also see all the authors’ institutional affiliations. Normally, the publisher has no say over any of this content: if it passes peer review, it’s published.

So what happened? Springer Nature, it seems, added this note because of pressure from the Chinese government. The Chinese government doesn’t want any maps to show Taiwan, and it doesn’t want any affiliations from scientists in Taiwan unless they show (incorrectly) that Taiwan is part of China.

I admit that I’m speculating, but we have very clear evidence that SpringerNature has succumbed to Chinese demands on related matters. In late 2017, the New York Times reported that Springer was “bowing to pressure from the Chinese government to block access to hundreds of articles on its Chinese website.” According to the Times, Springer removed articles on topics that the Chinese objected to, including Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, and Chinese politics. A Springer spokesperson at the time admitted that they’d removed many articles, but said they did it “to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors.” Their argument was that it was better to get at least some of their journals to Chinese scientists, even if others were censored.

More recently, in late 2020 a doctor from Taiwan was told that she needed to add “China” to her national affiliation or else her paper would be rejected from another journal, Eye and Vision, published by Springer Nature. Springer stated at the time that it does not require authors to change their country of origin, but that Eye and Vision was co-published by a Chinese university, and therefore operated under different editorial rules. I looked up this doctor’s affiliation in other journals, and saw that it was listed as “National Taiwan University College of Medicine, Taipei, Taiwan.”

So apparently Springer Nature doesn’t have a problem with modifying its publishing practices to accommodate the demands of the Chinese Communist Party. However, what they’ve done in this case–with their Publisher’s note–is to add a statement to the text of every single paper published by their journals, the vast majority of which have nothing whatsoever to do with China.

Finally, I should add that no other journal publisher adds a Publisher’s Note like this to scientists’ papers. So any claim by Springer Nature that they need to do so is, frankly, nonsense. They don’t. They appear to have added the notice to appease the Chinese government, and it’s not the first time they have done so.

I don’t expect scientists to stop publishing in Nature or any of the 100-plus Nature journals. However, I hope that others can speak up and let Nature’s editors know that they won’t accept having this disclaimer added to their papers. I certainly will.

Oh, and one last thing: for all scientists funded by NIH, every paper must be deposited in the public archive PubMedCentral, where all of the content is free and unrestricted. PMC doesn’t include this bizarre publisher’s note! So I highly recommend that everyone use the PMC link, rather than the link to the Nature website, when you share your papers with others.

UPDATE: An editor at Springer Nature responded to this article (to the Forbes version, which has identical content), writing to me that the Publisher’s note was not introduced in response to pressure from China or from any other government. He explained “that there are many territorial disputes all around the world and we do not believe that it is our place as a publisher to adjudicate these disputes. [...] We add the disclaimer to try to explain this position to our readers, some of whom do, from time to time, petition us to revise the works of our authors to conform to one or another political position on a given territorial claim.”

Zoom classes are a disaster for colleges. It's time to bring all students back into the classroom.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, in March of 2020, colleges everywhere (including Johns Hopkins University, where I teach and conduct research) shut down and sent everyone home. Within two weeks, we switched all of our classes to Zoom.

It was a remarkable pivot, and necessary at the time. But we’re now more than two years into the pandemic, and many colleges and universities are still holding classes on Zoom, or offering a Zoom option for students who want it.

This has become, to put it bluntly, a disaster for students.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy article in April that surveyed faculty all over the country. It paints a grim picture: students are reporting mental health problems in record numbers, grades are low, and attendance is even lower. Depression is widespread. College life, it seems, is not good.

Most universities returned to in-person classes this past fall, and some returned in person as early as the fall of 2020. All of them instituted systems to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks, including regular PCR testing, required quarantines for anyone who was positive, and (most important of all) required vaccinations.

These precautions generally worked: we saw very few serious outbreaks of Covid-19 on college campuses, and even fewer serious illnesses. College students, I should note, are at very low risk for serious illness, based on their age.

Unfortunately, all of these precautions sent a loud message to students: you’re in danger! Quarantine, hibernate, stay away from other people!

And now some of them don’t want to come back.

At many universities, the strategy for returning to campus has included a combination of hybrid and in-person classes. Some schools had students return and held all classes over Zoom, at least for the first semester or two. Others held smaller classes in person, and large lectures were delivered by Zoom. Many colleges (mine included) required professors to record all lectures, even if students were there in person.

These strategies continued right through the current semester. Zoom recordings were available to anyone, in part to ensure that students who caught the virus would still be able to keep up with classes.

That sounded fair enough, but it hasn’t worked out well at all. It turns out that – surprise! – 19-year-olds don’t always make the wisest decisions about how to manage their time.

For example, if you give them the choice between (A) get dressed, walk across campus, and sit in a classroom for an hour to listen to a professor’s lecture, or (B) stay in your dorm room and veg out, and (maybe) watch the Zoom recording of the lecture later–they usually choose B!

Attendance at in-person classes is shocking low, across the country. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, in one large biology class of 120 students, only 20-30 showed up in person, and only one or two watched the video. According to the Chronicle’s survey, “far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They struggle on tests.

Not only that, but students almost never watch those Zoom recordings. They think they will go back and watch the video, but the little data that we have shows that they don’t. Remember, these are 19- and 20-year olds.

Fortunately, there’s a way to fix this. Universities need to remember that we’re in the business of educating students, and we can’t just ask the students what they want and then give it to them. They need guidance on how to get educated.

We need to tell our students what to do. That means we need to stop offering them recordings that they can “catch up on later,” because they just won’t do that. Sure, they will grumble if they have to get out of bed and go to class, but what teenager doesn’t?

And here’s one of the things we need to tell them: if you’re a student, you are required to attend class, in person. But what if they are sick? Well, we’ve had ways to deal with that forever, and we simply need to return to those ways. Students can miss a class, maybe two, and get notes from others or meet one-on-one with the professor to find out what they missed. This happens occasionally, and we can manage it.

One thing I’ve realized during these pandemic classes is that no combination of homework and tests will ensure that a student has learned everything in the classes and in the readings for a course. So to those students who say “look, I did well on all the assignments and passed the final, so isn’t that enough?” I answer no, it’s not.

A college class is more than just the sum of the grades on the assignments. Being in class with other students is a critical part of the educational experience: it enables countless unplanned interactions, both social and intellectual, that make college much, much more than just watching a bunch of lectures on Zoom and doing the assignments.

And, as many of my fellow professors have pointed out, it affects us too: lecturing to a room full of young people is a far different experience from lecturing to screen, no matter how many people are on the other side of that screen. “Teaching to me is like a live performance,” one of my colleagues told me, “and the audience interaction (even non-verbal feedback) affects that.”

Of course traditional lectures aren’t the perfect way to deliver an education. I know that college classes could benefit from all sorts of innovations, such as “flipped” classrooms and more hands-on experiences. But classes as we’ve been teaching them are pretty darned good, and they’re a heckuva lot better than staring at a screen in the loneliness of a dorm room. For their own good, and for ours, we need to bring all our students back to class.