Introducing The Incision - a Newsletter by Abdul El-Sayed
Welcome to The Incision, a brand new Substack newsletter by me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, where I try to cut deeper into the trends—social and scientific—driving this moment. I’ll be writing about politics, culture, economics, society, policy, biology, epidemiology, and medicine—and the ways those things interact and feed back onto each other to create the world we’re living in. Perhaps most importantly, I’ll be writing about what we can do to create the world we deserve.
I believe in knowledge and ideas—and I know that these things are more enjoyable and fulfilling when we explore them in a community. The original promise of social media was that platforms like Facebook and Twitter would serve as those communities. Instead of thoughtful conversation and reasoned dialogue, they’ve bred vitriol and hate. Substack offers a new forum for comment, a place where we can have conversations without the burden of an algorithm or click bait or trolling. So here I am. With The Incision, I hope together we can create a community that cuts beyond the unhelpful detritus of our public conversation to connect us to what matters.
I hope you’ll read more about The Incision and why I started this newsletter below. But if you’re receiving this email, you’re already a Free Subscriber—you’ll receive our first newsletter post tomorrow: “The Very Online Origins of our Discontent,” an essay about how social media’s very business model is driving the disinformation fueling our political unraveling—and the pandemic.
But beyond receiving our newsletter, I hope you’ll consider joining The Incision community as a Full Subscriber, unlocking access to each article's comment section, our message board, and additional content and events.
If you’re as excited about this as I am, bring your friends. It’s better together.
Why The Incision?
I trained as a physician and epidemiologist—and I have variously labored as a professor, a public servant, a politician, an author, a podcast host, and a commentator. Throughout, I have found myself constantly drawn back to the intersection between science and society. I remain in awe of the way social phenomena—the ways we think about ourselves and each other, how we treat each other, the places we live, the schools we go to, the air we breathe, the water we drink—ultimately shape the inner workings of our cells.
But I’ve never been content with simply knowing something. It’s how we wield our knowledge that gives it meaning, purpose. I went to medical school because I wanted to leverage that knowledge of cells and society to heal people. I decided not to practice clinical medicine when I came to understand that the healthcare system itself had been corrupted by the same forces that were making people sick in the first place. Since, I have worked to make that system—and so many others that shape our lives—more equitable, effective, efficient, and sustainable.
In my first professional job as a professor at Columbia University in New York, I variously researched racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes, complex systems dynamics in the social etiology of disease, neurosurgical outcomes, and global health. But I found the wall between learning and doing to be particularly thick in the ivory tower.
Leaving to rebuild a health department in Detroit, America’s poorest and largest majority-Black city, I had the privilege of lining up alongside an incredible team to do daily battle with the forces of racism, corporatism, and poverty that threatened Detroit residents’ lives and livelihoods. We won some battles. We lost many more.
I ran for Governor of Michigan in 2018 because I believed that a politics of purpose could transform the very battlefield on which we were fighting. I did not win.
But it brought me back to where I started: in awe of the way social phenomena like our politics ultimately shape the inner workings of our cells. And here’s why it matters to me now more than ever. When I ran, I believed that political power was sufficient to reshape the facts on the ground that rob millions of people of the basic means of a dignified life. Though I still believe a progressive, people-centered politics is necessary, I no longer believe it to be sufficient.
In a democracy, political power rests in the hearts and minds of The People. And as I made my way between coasts and farm towns, city halls and living rooms across Michigan, I came to appreciate that culture—the complex system that emerges of our beliefs, our values, and yes, our knowledge—dictates our politics. Shaping that culture matters.
Since my campaign, I’ve tried to shape that culture within my limited capacity. My aim has been to educate and opine on the way that the bad—and often mean-spirited—decisions we make about how to treat each other inform the bad decisions our cells make: how society shapes our health and how that, in turn shapes our society. Of course, I could not know that two years into this work, the US would be hit by the worst pandemic in over a century that seems to make my point for me every day.
Though I deeply appreciate the various platforms from which I’ve been privileged to share my thoughts on television, via podcast, or in books, I’ve found that I don’t always have the space to fully develop a line of reasoning that brings to bear the different facets of my training and experience in real time with a tighter, more intimate and committed community. We aren’t used to hearing about our health and our politics in one conversation, let alone from one person. And yet I believe that it is the fusing of these things that matters most right now. The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us lessons every day about how health is political, and about how the downstream consequences of politics shape our health every day. And yet we remain, at times, dreadfully obstinate to this fact—even as hundreds of thousands of lives are lost, and countless more livelihoods, because of it.
Worse, so much of our conversation has been corrupted by a system of communication intended to minimize nuance and maximize discord. At The Incision, we are aiming for a conversation that cuts through the noise to appreciate the nuance, and bring people—and ideas—together.
What this is. What this is not.
I am not a journalist. I do not break news. I offer a perspective—that of a public health doctor, an activist, a child of immigrants, a person of color—on the complex, ceaseless drumbeat of the news that surrounds us. I try to cut through to what matters.
I make no claims of being a dispassionate observer of the goings-on around me. Rather, what I lack in dispassion, I’ll try to make up for in passion.
Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not understanding. Understanding is not wisdom. The nature of our public conversation—atomized, monetized, and sorted on social media platforms—leaves us confusing quantity for quality.
The Incision is about cutting through the mass of data and information to find a few kernels of understanding and wisdom. I hope to bring the full measure of my skills as a scientist and my experiences in medicine, public health, public service, politics, and media to my analyses of our public affairs.
More importantly, we are doing this together. The heart of this space is the community we aim to form around ideas—and what we can do with them to build a more just society.
And at some point, you’re probably going to disagree with me. That’s great! It’s in the push-and-pull of disagreement that we come to better understand, articulate, and stress-test our own beliefs and ideas. What you can expect, however, is an elevated conversation had in good faith about issues that matter. And even if I disagree, I’ll always treat you with respect. I expect the same.
What to expect.
Full subscribers of The Incision will get:
A Deep Cut—a longer form thought piece on this issue or that—in your inbox every Tuesday at 5:00 PM. In these cuts, I’ll explore an issue in our public affairs more thoroughly, trying to grasp the relevant social, political, economic, and scientific trends informing it.
A First Cut—a shorter reaction piece—in your inbox every Thursday at 5:00 PM
Additional First Cuts from time to time
A weekly Friday interactive Q & A, townhall, or interview with leading thinkers
Access to comments and the live message board I maintain
A full subscription* to The Incision is $7/month or $70/year. Why a subscription fee, you might ask? Because it takes a whole team’s labor to bring a high-quality well-maintained space. We thought a lot about how to provide a great thought space at an affordable subscription price that will support the vision we have for this. We hope that, for the cost of a few cups of coffee each month, you’ll enjoy the opportunity to be a part of a community built around the exploration of ideas that matter.
We are also offering a 30% Student Discount for those with a .edu email address.
And for those who believe in this project and want to invest in helping us build the start-up funding we’ll need to grow our team, we are offering a Founding Membership at $270. In addition to my undying gratitude, Founding Members will receive signed copies of both of my books, Healing Politics and Medicare for All.
*If you would like to join but cannot afford the monthly fee, please email us at Incision@abdulelsayed.com and we can work with you.
If you’re getting this email, you’ve already got access to the free version of The Incision. You can expect:
A Deep Cut every Tuesday at 5:00 PM.
A First Cut in your inbox every Thursday at 5:00 PM
Again, thank you for being a part of this. I look forward to learning together.
And don’t forget to bring friends!
yours for justice,