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The 12 most-read Future Perfect pieces of 2021

Interestingly, they all dealt with one of three themes: Covid-19, giving people “free money,” or animals.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

At the end of every year, the Future Perfect team takes stock of the articles that you, our audience, read the most. It’s a good way to understand what you found most helpful in our coverage.

A few subjects stood out — the dozen most-read pieces in 2021 all dealt with one of three themes: Covid-19, giving people “free money,” or animals. The first is unsurprising, but the other two highlight interesting trends. The idea of a guaranteed income has gained serious momentum this year, with several new pilot programs launching in the US. And surveys show Americans are increasingly concerned about the welfare of animals raised to feed them.

With that in mind, per our annual tradition, allow me to recap the 12 most-read Future Perfect pieces of 2021.

1) Once you and your friends are vaccinated, can you travel and quit social distancing?” by Sigal Samuel

I wrote this in January, when many people were thinking in binary terms about vaccines — “life before I get the shot” and “life after I get the shot.” I cautioned that change would be more gradual and a lot would depend on how well the vaccines reduce infection and transmission, which could fluctuate with the emergence of new variants. That held up pretty well, given the emergence of delta and, even more so, omicron.

2) “The growing evidence that the Covid-19 vaccines can reduce transmission, explained,” by Kelsey Piper

This March piece clearly stated that the vaccines do reduce transmission, at a time when many health experts and journalists were being very cautious about saying that — to the point that they risked making people wonder whether it was worth getting vaccinated at all. More broadly, the piece offered a useful lesson in how we should and shouldn’t talk about uncertainty.

3) “A no-beef diet is great — but only if you don’t replace it with chicken,” by Kelsey Piper

This May piece explored a tricky conundrum: Switching from beef to chicken is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions from your diet, but it comes with a massive increase in animal suffering. How can we avoid swapping one moral disaster for another?

4) “Here’s how Covid-19 ranks among the worst plagues in history,” by Kelsey Piper

How does Covid-19 stack up against the Black Death, say, or the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic? This January piece put our current pandemic in its historical context and reminded us that, although we haven’t entirely triumphed over disease, things used to be much worse.

5) “How a cheap antidepressant emerged as a promising Covid-19 treatment,” by Kelsey Piper

A large study found that Covid-19 patients given fluvoxamine, an antidepressant that the FDA has already deemed safe, were 31 percent less likely to end up hospitalized (assuming they got the pill within a few days after testing positive). When Kelsey wrote up the study in August, this was a larger effect than any that had previously been found for an outpatient Covid-19 treatment, so it was heartening news (although fluvoxamine still isn’t widely prescribed for Covid-19 patients).

6) “Mitt Romney has a plan to give parents up to $15,000 a year,” by Dylan Matthews

When Romney proposed the Family Security Act, Dylan explained in February that although it wasn’t a perfect plan, it would do a lot to chip away at poverty in the US. It also boasted a benefit over Joe Biden’s proposed child tax credit expansion: It had the makings of a permanent measure, whereas the Biden proposal was a one-year measure. Romney recently pushed his bill again as a potential foundation for a bipartisan compromise amid Democrats’ recent failure to pass an extension of the child tax credit.

7) “Should we be more careful outdoors as Covid-19 variants spread?” by Sigal Samuel

In February, the spread of more contagious variants led some readers to ask whether they should be more careful, not just indoors, but outdoors too. This piece of service journalism was reassuring on that question, with virologist Müge Çevik saying there are “many things to worry about — outdoor brief contact is not one of them.”

8) “How chickens took over America’s dinner plates, in one chart,” by Kelsey Piper

Americans now eat twice as much chicken as they did in the 1970s. In February, Kelsey explained why, and noted that the shift can actually show plant-based meat producers how to get a bigger share of the market: drop prices like chicken companies did, and sell consumers on the health and environmental benefits of going plant-based.

9) “Two confusing questions about Covid-19 boosters, answered,” by Kelsey Piper

This November piece made the case for getting a booster even if you’re relatively young and healthy, and explained something many of us needed to understand: Your booster is very likely not directly coming at the expense of others who still need initial vaccination. Vaccine orders are fulfilled in the order they were placed — skipping your dose won’t change that.

10) “The child tax credit is blowing up on TikTok. That should tell lawmakers something.” by Dylan Matthews

When the child tax credit, greatly expanded under Biden’s American Rescue Plan, started hitting households, parents were so delighted that they made viral memes about the payments. In July, Dylan argued that this vocal base of beneficiaries could advocate for the policy, which should become permanent given its huge impact on child poverty.

11) “7 questions about Covid-19 booster shots, answered,” by Sigal Samuel

This summer, readers asked me everything from “What are the odds that we’ll get a variant-tailored annual booster?” to “Can I get infinite boosters? Is more always better?” I explained how scientists come up with answers to these questions.

12) “When a California city gave people a guaranteed income, they worked more, not less,” by Sigal Samuel

Stockton’s experiment in giving out free money — $500 a month to 125 people for two years — has started to show results, and they’re encouraging: People who received the cash managed to secure full-time jobs at more than twice the rate of people in a control group. These results, which I reported on in March, help counter myths about the unconditional cash programs that have emerged as a powerful tool in the fight against poverty.

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