More junk forensic “science”

Nice piece by Dahlia Lithwick last week on how the “science” of hair matching is pretty much bunk and the FBI has been systematically representing it in court for decades:

The Washington Post published a story so horrifying this weekend that it would stop your breath: “The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” …

“Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” [emphasis mine] The shameful, horrifying errors were uncovered in a massive, three-year review by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project…

Chillingly, as the Post continues, “the cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death.” Of these defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.

The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, put it, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

I will take issue with that “raises questions” in the previous paragraph.  There’s not questions, we actually are quite sure that bite mark analysis is complete bunk and as much science as astrology.  Lithwick concludes:

Since prison-crowding and justice reform are widely touted as issues that unite the left and the right in this country, going back and retesting the evidence of those who may well have been wrongly imprisoned should be a national priority. So far it isn’t, perhaps because the scope of the enterprise is so daunting. Or perhaps because nobody really cares all that much about people who’ve been sitting in jail for years and years. Says Garrett: “These victims may remain unrecognized and in prison—if they still live—and the same unscientific testimony continues to be delivered without limitation. … But hey, these are just criminal cases right?”

Yep.  Lord knows how many people are rotting away in prison for fake “science” that we’ve known for years isn’t actually science, but prosecutors have been pretending (and judges have been going along) actually is for years.  You’d like to think that now that we know how bad the scope of the problem is, we can make some progress.  Alas, it seems the scope of the problem may be scaring off people from taking it on.  Until then, just more innocent people in jail.

Handwriting and forensic “science”

So, I really enjoyed watching the Jinx, and I certainly think Robert Durst likely killed all those people, but I was not entirely persuaded by the handwriting analysis that proved to be so crucial to how events ultimately unfolded.  The handwriting expert was given a target item and an item known to come from Durst and looked for similarities and found them.  I get that this is how a lot of forensic “science” works, but the problem is that it’s not actually science.  Oh, I do think it is indicative and telling.  But that’s it; nothing more.  Certainly not “scientific” evidence that would prove something beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., DNA).

Actual science (and good social science!) seeks to disconfirm hypotheses, not confirm them, as is the case in the handwriting analysis.  A genuinely scientific analysis would try and rule out everybody except Durst, leaving no conclusion but that he must be the writer.  That’s how DNA works, you are essentially ruling out billions of other people until the only reasonable conclusion is that you have the DNA of the actual subject.  And, that’s what science is about– ruling out other possible explanations until you are left with a sole reasonable one.  And, of course, why science is never truly done, because you can always find more explanations to rule out.

Anyway, I’ve written plenty about the lack of science in forensic science, but actually seeing that handwriting analysis seeking confirmation, rather than disproof, really struck me while watching the Jinx.  And this forum in the NYT about the matter and how we judge forensic science gave me a good excuse to write about it.  For me, this is the key contributor:

The National Commission on Forensic Science was formed in response to widespread concerns that forensic evidence that lacked any meaningful scientific basis was being regularly permitted in trials. The concerns were not just about the “expert” witnesses, but about the judges who, according to the National Academy of Sciences report that led to the commission’s creation, have been “utterly ineffective” in assessing the quality of research behind the evidence.

And, it wasn’t that long ago, but can never really link too often to Radley Balko’s terrific series on how much junk forensic science there is and how it gets way to much respect from judges.

Convicted by junk forensic science? Tough luck

We now know that a lot of forensic “science” that has been relied upon for years to send people to prison is no more science than is phrenology or astrology.  Okay, good, we’ve learned and we don’t use it anymore.  What almost defies comprehension though, is that when it comes to people still in prison who were convicted on the basis of this junk science, many people just prefer to pretend their convictions are valid and they don’t deserve a chance for an actual fair trial.  It’s incredibly disturbing.  It is amazing the degree to which some people insist on believing that somebody is guilty of a crime simply because they were convicted for it, despite strong evidence suggesting otherwise.  In some ways, it seems we haven’t really come all that far from throwing a “witch” in the water to see if she floats (if she sank, she wasn’t a witch, just dead).

Why bring this all up?  Just a sad, sad case of all-too-typical American injustice via Radley Balko:

In a short opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously upheld a federal district judge’s ruling against Louisiana prisoner James Koon, who in 1996 was convicted of killing an infant and sentenced to life in prison.

The medical examiner who testified against Koon was Steven Hayne, a controversial figure about whom I’ve written at length over the last eight or so years. The panel rejected Koon’s petition for a new trial based on what Koon claimed was newly discovered evidence that calls Hayne’s credibility into question.

The rejection itself was nothing new. Despite Hayne’s impossible workload (over about 20 years he performed on average 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, by his own admission), his lack of board certification, and the fact that he has on multiple occasions given testimony that other medical examiners have said ranged from implausible to malpractice, to date no court has rejected Hayne as an expert witness.While some courts have overturned a handful of convictions that were based on his testimony, they’ve only done so in the most egregious instances. Where Hayne has given plausible testimony, or even implausible-but-not-completely-nutty testimony, the courts have generally refused to intervene.

But if Hayne isn’t a credible witness, he isn’t a credible witness. If he has shown that he’s willing to say outrageous things in a few cases, has lied about his certification, and has been shown to be sloppy and unprofessional in his work, the cases in which he gave plausible but debatable testimony (and was opposed by a more competent medical examiner) should be seen just as tainted as those in which his testimony was transparently ridiculous. [emphasis mine]

As Balko explains, the whole system is simply legally unable to properly and fairly cope with situations like this:

And while the criminal justice system can’t seem to keep bad science out of its courtrooms during trial, once someone has been convicted, the same system then puts a premium on the “finality” of a guilty verdict. It’s a point Congress and past presidents have hammered home over the years by revising the federal criminal code to limit habeas appeals in federal court. In order to get relief from a federal court in post-conviction, a convicted person today not only needs overwhelming evidence of innocence, they must also show that this evidence is either new or was undiscoverable at the time of trial, and they must file their petition for within a year of the new evidence becoming available.

The problem with these laws with respect to bad scientific evidence is that science doesn’t operate on deadlines. Science is a process.

Balko’s whole piece is long and completely infuriating. Balko has example of example of heinous injustice and completely discredited forensic science upheld and even worse, actively supported by many in the legal community who are supposed to be seeking “justice.”   The amount of utter irrationality in a supposedly rational system is an affront to any meaningful conception of justice.  And we all idly stand by and let this be how our criminal justice system works.  Really, we’ve not come all that far from carrying hot iron bars or swallowing or putting your arms into boiling war.

Forensic science is neither

Okay, it is actually forensic (just couldn’t resist that title), but DNA aside, it sure isn’t science.  Bite marks, ballistics, hair analysis, fire patterns, blood spatter– you name it– it’s only pretend science.  Real science is based upon the scientific method and trying to rule out alternative hypotheses for explaining a particular set of events or phenomenon.  Forensic science is far too often based on finding evidence for a particular theory that suits prosecutors.  The depressing thing about all this is that we know how much of this is truly junk, but blithely continue to pretend otherwise.  Great article on the matter in Slate this week:

How could forensic evidence, widely seen as factual and unbiased, nearly send an innocent person to his death? The answer is profoundly disturbing—and suggests that for every Earl Washington freed, untold more are sent to their deaths. Far from an infallible science, forensics is a decades-long experiment in which undertrained lab workers jettison the scientific method in favor of speedy results that fit prosecutors’ hunches. No one knows exactly how many people have been wrongly imprisoned—or executed—due to flawed forensics. But the number, most experts agree, is horrifyingly high. The most respected scientific organization in the country has revealed how deeply, fundamentally unscientific forensics is. A complete overhaul of our evidence analysis is desperately needed. Without it, the number of falsely convicted will only keep growing.

There’s been sadly numerous cases where convictions based on junk science where later over-turned due to the real science of DNA.  Sadly, think of all the innocent people rotting in prison due to junk science because there was no DNA evidence available in there cases.  And, the use of bad science continues:

Given the flimsy foundation upon which the field of forensics is based, you might wonder why judges still allow it into the courtroom. The rather depressing answer is a combination of ignorance and laziness. In 1993, the Supreme Court announced a new test, dubbed the “Daubert standard,” to help federal judges determine what scientific evidence is reliable enough to be introduced at trial. The Daubert standard was meant to separate the judicial process from the quest for scientific truths—but it wound up frustrating judges and scientists alike. As one dissenter griped, the new test essentially turned judges into “amateur scientists,” forced to sift through competing theories to determine what is truly scientific and what is not…

Faced with this unenviable chore, most judges have simply trusted prosecutors not to introduce anything that wouldn’t roughly fit the Daubert standard. The conventional wisdom is that, if a prosecutor introduces any truly egregious pseudoscience, the defense can introduce its own expert to refute it or can undermine it through aggressive questioning. It’s a comforting idea: Presented with conflicting scientific findings, jurors will sift out the truth.

Unfortunately, it is also entirely false. American jurors today expect a constant parade of forensic evidence during trials. They also refuse to believe that this evidence might ever be faulty. Lawyers call this the CSI effect, after the popular procedural that portrays forensics as the ultimate truth in crime investigation.

The whole matter is really quite depressing.  There is so much injustice in our criminal justice system that doesn’t have to be there.  I accept human error and that people will make mistakes.  That’s life.  We don’t need to compound this with systematically bad approaches to criminal justice when there are clear ways to doing it better.

Great, great Frontline on the topic which you can watch it its entirely on-line (perfect weekend viewing!)



Forensic science is neither

Alright, it’s forensic, but I do like that phrase.  Not much real science involved, though.  The only true science in forensics is DNA and that’s because it was actually invented separately by actual scientists instead of by non-scientists trying to catch bad guys.  Anyway, I recently watched a great Frontline on the topic of just how fallible so much forensic “science” is– even the vaunted fingerprints.  And, if that’s not enough, apparently a few hundred dollars and an open-book on-line test is enough go get you “certified” forensic examiner status to help make yourself an expert witness.  Really pretty disturbing all around.  Pro Publica also has a nice companion site looking at just how easy it is to make yourself a certified forensic examiner.

On a related note, one of the not-very-real forensic sciences out there is ballistics.  Does not work nearly as well as people think.  You know what actually would?  Laser micro-stamping on shell casings.

Identifying the firearm used in a crime is one of the biggest challenges for criminal investigators. But what if a shell casing picked up at a murder scene could immediately be tracked to the gun that fired it

A technique that uses laser technology and stamps a numeric code on shell casings can do just that. But the technology, called microstamping, has been swept up in the larger national debate over gun laws and Second Amendment rights, and efforts to require gun makers to use it have stalled across the nation.

“I think it is one of these things in law enforcement that would just take us from the Stone Age to the jet age in an instant,” said Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III of theBaltimore Police Department. “I just can’t comprehend the opposition to it.”

Well, I can, sadly.  Of course, it’s the NRA.  Naturally this is the first step to just taking everybody’s guns away.  Forget about actually trying to solve more crimes.   In an interesting note, gun crimes are actually more difficult to solve:

Colin Weaver, deputy executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said microstamping was needed because the difficulty of tracing firearms made gun crimes more difficult to solve than crimes that did not involve guns. An analysis by his organization found that from 2007 to 2009 in New York State, for example, 48.5 percent of aggravated assaults involving a firearm were solved, compared with 67.6 percent of aggravated assaults that did not involve guns.

Would be great if we could change that and make it least this one aspect of CSI a lot more genuinely effective.

Forensic science is neither: discuss

Okay, it is forensic, but most of it sure doesn’t seem to be science.  Certainly not in the NC State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) Lab.

The N&O has run a fantastic series over the past week about the shameful and endemic problems at the SBI lab.  The blood spatter “expert” was basically making stuff up as he went and convicting some presumably innocent people as he went along.  The ballistics “expert” meanwhile has been drawing seemingly completely false conclusions, but testifying about them with “absolute certainty.”  The evidence is quite clear that the SBI has come to see itself as little more than a tool of the prosecution with far more interest in convictions than actual justice.  There’s plenty of evidence of “experts” changing their results and fudging their testimony to give the prosecution exactly what they want.

And damn, there’s all these naive conservatives out there who somehow manage to believe everybody arrested and in jail most surely be guilty.  I sure wish it were that way, but the more one looks, the more one sees evidence for both incompetence and plain old malfeasance systematically putting innocent people in jail.  Here’s a nice post by Yglesias about how police department routinely ignore best practices for line-ups.

Thanks to this N&O series and aggressive coverage of the false conviction of Greg Taylor by horribly shoddy SBI work and testimony (seriously, some of those SBI guys should be in jail), I’m confident that there’s going to be real changes and improvement at the SBI.  This story thus also shows why good state/local newspapers are so important.  The N&O surely lost a lot of money covering this story compared to assigning the reporters to whatever salacious story of the day that didn’t require any actual reporting.   Nothing keeps the government accountable like solid watchdog journalism.  As fewer people subscribe to papers, fewer papers can afford to undertake this form of essential journalism.  So..  keep innocent people out of jail– subscribe to your local newspaper rather than just reading it on-line.

Forensic Science is often only one of the two

I really wanted to do a nice post about the great 60 Minutes and Washington Post joint investigation that shows how hundred of people have been put in jail based on FBI science that has been completely debunked.  Alas, I haven't.  If you have not read the story, you should really take a look, though.  It's amazing that the FBI can put people in jail for decades based on “science” when they never even did meaningful tests to see if their “science” really deserved the name.  If you are more in the mood to listen than read, you can also download the 60 Minutes podcast of the story.  Either way, it is really worth your time.
This Thanksgiving, you can be thankful that you are not reading this from jail based upon a bogus, scientifically invalid conviction.  

Quick hits (Part II)

1) Krugman from a couple weeks ago on how Democrats have learned:

The good news — and it’s really, really good news — is that Democrats seem to have learned their lesson. Joe Biden may not look like the second coming of F.D.R.; Chuck Schumer, presiding over a razor-thin majority in the Senate, looks even less like a transformational figure; yet all indications are that together they’re about to push through an economic rescue plan that, unlike the Obama stimulus, truly rises to the occasion…

On the economic side, Democrats have finally stopped believing in the debt boogeyman and the confidence fairy, who will make everything better if you slash spending.

There was a time when many Democrats — including President Obama — accepted the proposition that public debt was a huge problem. They even took seriously warnings from people like Representative Paul Ryan that debt was an “existential threat.” But predictions of an imminent fiscal catastrophe kept being proved wrong, and at this point mainstream economists have become much more relaxed about debt than they were in the past.

Some Democrats also used to worry that big spending programs would hurt the economy by undermining business and investor confidence, and conversely that caution would be rewarded with higher private investment. But this doctrine has also been belied by experience; austerity doesn’t instill confidence, it just imposes pain

But if Democrats have learned a lot about economic reality since 2009, they’ve learned more about political reality.

Obama came into office sincerely believing that he could reach across the aisle, that Republicans would help him deal with the economic crisis. Despite the reality of scorched-earth opposition, he continued to seek a “grand bargain” on debt. He regarded the rise of the Tea Party as a “fever” that would break in his second term. He was, in short, deeply naïve.

Many progressives worried that President Biden, who had served in the Senate in a less polarized era, who talks a lot about unity, would repeat Obama’s mistakes. But so far he and his congressional allies seem ready to go big, even if that means doing without Republican votes.

One thing that may be encouraging Democrats, by the way, is the fact that Biden’s policies actually are unifying, if you look at public opinion rather than the actions of politicians. Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan commands overwhelming public approval — far higher than approval for Obama’s 2009 stimulus. If, as seems likely, not a single Republican in Congress votes for the plan, that’s evidence of G.O.P. extremism, not failure on Biden’s part to reach out.

Beyond that, Biden and company appear to have learned that caution coming out of the gate doesn’t store up political capital to do more things later. Instead, an administration that fails to deliver tangible benefits to voters in its first few months has squandered its advantage and won’t get a do-over. Going big on Covid relief now offers the best hope of taking on infrastructure, climate change and more later.

2) I have no idea how the hell it took two whole weeks for this interview with Michael Mina to finally find me, but it did. Chock full of goodness:

How do you see the state of things, right now? I’m having a hard time sort of juggling the bad news about strains versus the good news about vaccines and the trajectories going down. How about you?
Well, my personal feeling is we are seeing the benefits of seasonality hit, which I know some of my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with. But it’s not uncommon for coronaviruses to essentially start dropping around now. Most of the known coronaviruses have something on the order of a three-month window where they’re really infectious — when they’re really transmitting.

And that’s more or less what we were expecting would happen, or at least what I was expecting would happen, in the fall. In the summer, when a lot of people were saying, “This might not be a seasonal virus,” it was just so obvious to me that this was going to hit harder in the fall and that we needed to prepare for that. Now, I think the corollary is that there’s no reason to think that infection rates wouldn’t drop a few months later, just like all of the other coronaviruses. We don’t fully appreciate or understand why seasonality works like this, but if the trajectory stays this way and we also start to achieve some level of herd effects or herd immunity, I think the next few months could start to offer a reprieve. Ideally that will last through the summer until we get into next fall, when we’ll probably have another wave of it. The wild card, of course, being the variants…

When you say that if our goal is to reduce the mass majority of hospitalizations that we might hit that goal relatively soon, what do you mean by relatively soon?
Certainly over the coming couple of months, we’re going to see a massive number of the most vulnerable people who make up the majority of deaths become vaccinated. Then all of a sudden mortality and the real damage done by this virus go way down at the aggregate level. People will still talk about long-haulers, long COVID and children getting severe disease. But we have to recognize that, especially in younger people, these are fairly rare events, especially in kids.

And then it’s time to really reevaluate. I do think we should take the summer and do what we didn’t do last year, which was squander the summer and did nothing to prepare for the fall. I think we could take this summer and we could say, “Okay, let’s get all the pieces in place. Let’s get rapid testing ready and rolled out so that society is comfortable with it.” It doesn’t mean people have to rapid test all the time, but if you start to see an outbreak occur, then you get a text message that says, “Hey, start rapid testing again.” We can really set ourselves up as a country to be adaptive, to be able to combat an outbreak when it starts, so that we’re not always playing catch-up after it does. That could allow us to both simultaneously get back to work and get back to school with minimal risk…

I wanted to ask about the vaccines, though. When we last talked, you were worried that we had evaluated vaccine efficacy so quickly we might be overestimating how powerful the vaccines were — the immune response might wane after a few more months, you said. Are there other problems you’re seeing with our evaluation of the vaccines?
The entire evaluation process was based on symptomatic disease. The major trials didn’t even consider transmission. They didn’t even consider, do we need two doses or one, and what would it mean if we actually could get by for six months between doses, what would that mean for the globe? Does that mean we could actually vaccinate an extra billion people in a year? Well, that’s a massive, massive win for public health if we could, but we didn’t even include it in the trial. We just followed the regular playbook we’ve always used, which is to do a phase three trial, accelerated a little bit. But then the readout was purely, of people who get two doses, what was their ability to not get sick? Why did we not swab people’s noses during those trials, to allow us to ask the basic question, will these vaccines inhibit transmission? That would have massive implications for who we vaccinate first. And we still don’t know the answer.

Another issue: All of the major vaccines that we are building all present the exact same spike protein. They’re all clones of each other — no difference for the most part. Nobody ever took a step back to say, what if this virus mutates? We are vaccinating with a narrow-spectrum vaccine against one piece of the virus. If that piece mutates, it would be able to escape all of our vaccines. And all it needs to do is mutate once, somewhere in the world. And then all of our major vaccines are moot. Why was that not considered?

What would considering it have meant?
For example, the U.S. could have said, “Okay, we’re going to back two vaccines that are against the spike protein only,” and then maybe try to figure out some other vaccines, like multi-protein vaccines, multi-peptide vaccines live attenuated vaccines, killed vaccines — all different sorts of vaccines. And now we very well might find ourselves totally screwed in a few months, because we have no vaccines that will work as well as we need against a mutant that might arise still, or the ones that have already risen…

I mean, in theory, you could even go further and say, if we’re comfortable with the safety and we’re in the middle of the pandemic, and these new strains are a real threat, maybe we could even skip the phase-three trial and just roll it out to the public, then measure efficacy from there — if we’re comfortable with safety.
That’s exactly right. We have treated this all so much like it’s normal. It isn’t normal. We’ve been trying to take the same box that we’re used to working with, and just trying to speed it up instead of just saying, what could be a whole different framework for this? We’re in the middle of an emergency, it’s killing millions of people and ruining economies and societies, should we really just be satisfied with slightly speeding up the status quo?

This is my whole issue with rapid tests, too — rapid tests aren’t about just trying to increase the speed at which we do PCR testing…

What do you mean by window?
A better way to vaccinate people efficiently. You vaccinate only people who are seronegative. You give only a single dose to people who are seropositive, not two.

Because there’s evidence that people who’ve been sick benefit from one dose but don’t necessarily need a second. That would double the reach of those doses. 
There are so many things we could have done, but serology was always for tomorrow. And even today, people are saying, “Well, we’re never going to get it set up for this pandemic, so we should wait until the pandemic finishes and then we’ll invest in surveillance systems for the next pandemic.” You know what, screw that! For all we know the next pandemic could start tomorrow. We don’t know.

3) I am so here for NYT articles on inter-species lemur bonding at the Duke Lemur Center (of which I am a proud financial supporter and where I took my single coolest college class). “Mature Red-Bellied Lemur Seeks Soul Mate for Cuddles and Grooming: At the Duke Lemur Center, an innovative plan to keep the animals social late in life: pair them with lemurs of another species.”

Julio, a mongoose lemur, and Chloris, a ring-tailed lemur.

Julio, a mongoose lemur, and Chloris, a ring-tailed lemur.Credit…David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

4) Scientists are working on a universal– pancoronavirus– vaccine.  Cool!

5) Very interesting interview with the Harvard astronomer who thinks we’ve really been visited by aliens.

6) Frum, “The Founders Were Wrong About Democracy: The authors of the Constitution feared mass participation would unsettle government, but it’s the privileged minority that has proved destabilizing.”

The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate.

This system is justified today with the same arguments as when it was established a quarter millennium ago. “We’re not a democracy,” tweeted Senator Mike Lee of Utah in October. Lee explained his meaning in a second tweet that crammed Madisonian theory into fewer than 280 characters. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober.

High—very high—on the list of Madison’s concerns about pure democracy was the risk that the unpropertied majority might vote to repudiate debts. In Madison’s single most famous piece of writing, “Federalist No. 10,” he justified the complex mechanism of the Constitution as a safeguard against debt repudiation and other such “improper or wicked [projects].”

In July 2011, Madison’s fears almost came true. The United States was pushed to the verge of a debt default. But the would-be repudiators were not representatives of the poor or the urban dwellers. They were representatives of the party of the wealthy and the rural dwellers; Republicans in the House and the Senate pushed the country toward the gravest fiscal crisis in history. They refused to raise the debt ceiling until 48 hours before the Treasury Department exhausted its legal right to borrow, risking a default that would have capsized credit markets. The crisis sparked the most volatile week in American financial markets since the collapse of 2008—and moved Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time in the agency’s history.

The same Mike Lee who would later tweet his doubts about democracy was leading that attack on the country’s credit. Along with allies such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the newly elected Lee sought to force a stark choice upon the Obama administration: Either accept a balanced-budget amendment that would institutionalize permanent minority rule over the nation’s finances, or face national bankruptcy. (Under Lee’s version of such an amendment, three-fifths of both the House and the Senate would be required to approve any budget that incurred a deficit.)

After the 2016 election, the whole world would see the bad faith of the Republican professions about spending and debt in 2011. But what was sincere in 2011 was the effort to impose yet another layer of minority rule upon the finances of the United States—so urgently sincere, in fact, that the anti-Democrats in Congress were willing to repudiate the faith and credit of the United States to get their way…

In these opening weeks of a new Congress, Republican senators—who together represent 41 million fewer people than their equal number of Democratic colleagues—have praised themselves for their allegedly superior approach to legislating. Senator John Cornyn of Texas explained in a pair of tweets why 41 senators should be allowed a veto over measures desired by an American majority.

“A practical consequence of breaking the filibuster rule is legislative whiplash. Each time a party gets a bare majority, it can jam [bills] through, only to be reversed when tides turn. The 60 vote cloture requirement (filibuster rule) requires bipartisanship and provides stability in our laws- something we should all want in a big, diverse country of 330 million people.”

But this claim by Cornyn flunks the reality test. In the real world, the filibuster is a generator of instability and unpredictability…

Through the second half of the 20th century, the United States evolved in ways that affirmed the equal right of all citizens to vote and pushed toward a more equal weighting of those votes. In this century, the United States has trended away from those ideals. The retreat from majority rule has not only weakened the American system’s fairness, it has also wobbled that system’s stability.

The path back to constitutional normality depends upon a reinvigoration of the majoritarian principle. “We’re not a democracy,” Senator Lee insists, correctly. But perhaps it’s time the United States resumed its long struggle to become one.

7) This is from 2017 super-interesting and super-relevant, “Why does drug resistance readily evolve but vaccine resistance does not?”

8) Waldman, “Insane GOP lies about Texas offer a depressing preview of coming climate debates”

But that wasn’t good enough for those in the conservative propaganda machine, which swung into action to blame everything on diabolical liberals shoving wind power down everyone’s throat. Here’s a taste of the lunacy being poured into the eyeballs of Fox’s audience:

And it’s not just Fox. The far-right Wall Street Journal editorial board penned an editorial blaming the Texas outages on renewable energy. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) acknowledged that the failures ran across all the different types of energy Texas uses, then bizarrely concluded, “Bottom line: Thank God for baseload energy made up of fossil fuels.”

It’s as if you choked on a piece of steak, and I told you, “That’s why you can’t trust all those hippies who forced you to eat kale!”

And lest anyone be tempted to engage in any mindless bothsidesism, Democrats are most certainly not responding to the events in Texas by saying it shows why we need more renewable energy. Their response is focused on what’s actually happening and whyThey’re arguing that we need to examine the weaknesses in our electrical grids — both the one in Texas and the national grid — and modernize them to make blackouts less likely in the future.

9) In a terrific essay on hockey goalkeeping (yes, a niche intellectual passion of mine), hall-of-fame goalkeeper Ken Dryden argues that, ultimately, a larger net is needed to make hockey the more beautiful, fast-flowing sport it is at its best.

So for shooters and coaches, that is the strategy. Rush the net with multiple offensive players, multiple defensive players will go with them, multiple arms, legs, and bodies will jostle in front of the goalie, and the remaining shooters, distant from the net, will fire away hoping to thread the needle, hoping the goalie doesn’t see the needle being threaded, because if he does, he’ll stop it. The situation for the shooter is much like that of a golfer whose ball has landed deep in the woods. He’s been told many times that a tree is more air than leaves and branches, but with several layers of trees in front of him, somehow his ball will hit a leaf or branch before it gets to the green. Somehow, the shooter’s shot will not make it to the net. So he will try again. Because what else can he do?

The result: This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested.

10) This is true. “Why Did We Ever Send Sick Kids to School? An overemphasis on attendance puts students’ health at risk and instills the value of working through illness. The pandemic has made it clear how dangerous that is.”

11) Somehow, I’ve never heard the term “myside bias” but this seems quite interesting:

In recent years, an upsurge of polarization has been a salient feature of political discourse in America. A small but growing body of research has examined the potential relevance of intellectual humility (IH) to political polarization. In the present investigation, we extend this work to political myside bias, testing the hypothesis that IH is associated with less bias in two community samples (N1 = 498; N2 = 477). In line with our expectations, measures of IH were negatively correlated with political myside bias across paradigms, political topics, and samples. These relations were robust to controlling for humility. We also examined ideological asymmetries in the relations between IH and political myside bias, finding that IH-bias relations were statistically equivalent in members of the political left and right. Notwithstanding important limitations and caveats, these data establish IH as one of a small handful psychological features known to predict less political myside bias.

12) Initially, this sounds very compelling, but there’s a huge methodological flaw: “Study finds cognitive bias in how medical examiners evaluate child deaths”

new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences suggests the role medical examiners play in the criminal justice system is far more subjective than commonly thought. It also suggests their analysis might be tainted by racial bias.

Medical examiners (also known as forensic pathologists) make two determinations after conducting an autopsy: the cause of death and the manner. The cause of death, though sometimes ambiguous, is usually a fairly objective finding based on tests and observations well-grounded in medicine. But determining the manner of death can be much more subjective. In most jurisdictions, there are five possibilities for manner of death: undetermined, natural causes, suicide, accident or homicide. The evidentiary gap separating an accidental death from a homicide can be significant (the body was riddled with bullets) or razor-thin (whether the victim drowned or was drowned). Yet it’s enormously consequential, because a homicide designation usually means someone will be charged with a serious crime.

The new study was led by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at University College London who specializes in cognitive perception, judgment and decision-making. (His research team also included four forensic pathologists.) There are two parts to the study. In the first, the researchers looked at 10 years of Nevada death certificates for children younger than 6 and found that medical examiners were about twice as likely to rule a Black child’s death to be a homicide as a White child. The researchers then asked 133 board-certified medical examiners to read a vignette about a 3-year-old who was taken to an emergency room with a skull fracture, brain hemorrhaging and other injuries, and later died. All the participants received the same fact pattern, with one important exception: About half were told that the child was Black and had been left in the care of the mother’s boyfriend. The others were told the child was White and had been left in the care of a grandmother…

Of the 133 medical examiners who participated in the study, 78 said they could not determine a manner of death from the information available. Among the 55 who could, 23 concluded the child’s death was an accident, and 32 determined it was a homicide.

This is already a problem. Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasn’t the case in this study.

Worse, the medical examiners who were given the fact pattern with a Black child were five times more likely to rule the death a homicide than an accident.

Holy hell what were they thinking with that?!  You leave both the white kid and the black with the grandmother or the boyfriend!  You don’t change the caregiver– talk about a confound!  Among other things, it would not surprise me at all if boyfriends were, in fact, five times more likely to cause a homicide than a grandmother!  Anyway, I suspect there really is bias (and these results are way too varied), but, do the damn study right!

13) Epidemiologist makes the case for in-person school (as always with the case, you’ve got to weight the costs of keeping kids out of school!)

Since March 2020, I have been a front-line pandemic health care provider, adviser to my hospital, and consultant to my religious congregation and a local community college — all with the aim of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Toward that goal, I have also been a volunteer member of the public health and safety advisory panel to the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts, where my family lives.

Unfortunately, our panel’s expertise — and that of national and international health groups — has been frequently dismissed by the local educators’ union in favor of their own judgments about best health practices and the safety of in-person learning. In the process, they have misinterpreted scientific guidance and transformed it into a series of litmus tests that keep our district in hybrid learning. These litmus tests are not based on science, they are grounded in anxiety, and they are a major component of the return-to-school quagmire in which we are stuck.

One sticking point, for example, has been the union’s early and continued insistence that desks remain at least 6 feet apart at all times. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space for learners in the building. Distancing is absolutely critical to Covid-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes 6 feet the “safe” distance and 5 feet “dangerous.”

In settings like school, where everyone is wearing a face covering, there really is no measurable difference in risk between being 3 feet and 6 feet apart. That is why there is no official guidance from any relevant public health body that mandates 6-foot distancing at all times. Even the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) school strategy, released February 12, doesn’t address the key problems in the existing guidance to move us forward.

The union also named a lack of asymptomatic testing for teachers as a major barrier to returning to in-person learning. To get kids back to school, we implemented such a routine testing plan, at great cost and logistical effort. We discovered that since testing began in January 2021, the positivity rate among teachers and staff has been approximately 0.15 percent — while cases were surging in the Boston metro area — and our contact tracing efforts have not identified any cases of in-building transmission.

Even so, the union continues to resist a return to full in-person learning. What’s more, the goalpost seems to have shifted again, now to universal vaccination of teachers.

All of this is frustrating, especially to me as an epidemiologist. Generally, union leaders tie their position to public health guidance from bodies like the CDC. But so far, the implementation of these recommendations by our district’s union — and by many others across the country — has been opportunistic, and their stance does not align with current guidance from the World Health Organization, CDC, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, or the Massachusetts Department of Education.

14) Ezra Klein is just killing it as an NYT columnist.  This one is soooo good.  Just read it.  “‘There’s No Natural Dignity in Work’ Punishing mothers for needing help cannot be the answer. A generous child allowance might be.”

Quick hits (part I)

1) Sure looks like our measures against Covid have killed off the flu, thanks to flu’s notably lower R0:

Why is this happening? The push to get more people vaccinated against the flu this fall to avert the feared twindemic may have had some impact, but that doesn’t explain why flu incidence plummeted last spring. The obvious explanation is simply that the things that individuals and governments have been doing to slow the spread of Covid-19 have brought the spread of influenza, a respiratory disease that is transmitted in similar,  if not identical fashion, to a screeching halt.

These measures have likely been more effective against influenza than against Covid because influenza is so much less contagious than Covid. A rough measure of contagiousness is the basic reproduction number — the number of people each person with the disease can be expected to infect if everyone behaves normally. For seasonal influenza it’s about 1.3, in flu pandemics it’s been higher than that but still below 2. For Covid-19 it’s probably somewhere between 2 and 4.

Mask-wearing, working from home, banning large gatherings and other social distancing measures — together with more people acquiring immunity by contracting Covid-19 — seem to have brought Covid’s effective reproduction number in the U.S. down to not much more than 1. (When last I checked the estimates on, Tennessee had the highest rate at 1.22 and Wyoming the lowest at 0.85.) By all appearances, that’s also pushed the effective reproduction number for the flu down well below 1.  

One lesson from this is that the oft-heard lament that U.S. and many European countries have failed in battling the pandemic is wrong. Sure, a quick glance at East Asia makes clear that the West could have done much, much better. But given how successful we’ve been at halting the flu, it seems clear that we’ve also been successful at slowing down Covid. The resurgence of the disease this fall has been bad, but it could have been much, much worse.

Another lesson is that “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” the term of art for all the things we’ve been doing to slow Covid’s spread while waiting for vaccines, ought to be a bigger part of the toolkit for battling the flu. That’s not to say we should close all the borders and restaurants every winter, but lower-cost measures such as taking hand-washing seriously, wearing a mask when you don’t feel well, working from home if you’ve been exposed and keeping sick visitors and workers away from nursing homes could save thousands of lives every year. And if a new pandemic flu strain comes along that’s as deadly as, say, the 1918 variety (which was much deadlier than Covid-19, especially for young people), costlier interventions would almost certainly be worth the price.

2) Craig Stirling on the shocking fact that tax cuts for the rich don’t actually trickle down:

Tax cuts for rich people breed inequality without providing much of a boon to anyone else, according to a study of the advanced world that could add to the case for the wealthy to bear more of the cost of the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper, by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King’s College London, found that such measures over the last 50 years only really benefited the individuals who were directly affected, and did little to promote jobs or growth.

“Policy makers shouldn’t worry that raising taxes on the rich to fund the financial costs of the pandemic will harm their economies,” Hope said in an interview.

That will be comforting news to U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, whose hopes of repairing the country’s virus-battered public finances may rest on his ability to increase taxes, possibly on capital gains — a levy that might disproportionately impact higher-earning individuals.

It would also suggest the economy could weather a one-off 5% tax on wealth suggested for Britain last week by the Wealth Tax Commission, which would affect about 8 million residents.

The authors applied an analysis amalgamating a range of levies on income, capital and assets in 18 OECD countries, including the U.S. and U.K., over the past half century.

Their findings published Wednesday counter arguments, often made in the U.S., that policies which appear to disproportionately aid richer individuals eventually feed through to the rest of the economy. The timespan of the paper ends in 2015, but Hope says such an analysis would also apply to President Donald Trump’s tax cut enacted in 2017.

3) I finally get HBO Max for my Roku, and, apparently, Wonder Woman to thank.  Also, so much damn good content today, but, alas, for the simpler times of cable television and that was it:

To be fair, though, the issue of not having every streaming service on every device wasn’t a HBO-Max-and-Roku-specific problem. It’s more like one particular beachhead in the ongoing streaming wars. A couple years ago, the worry was that every media company would start its own streaming service and everyone would get nickel-and-dimed paying for monthly subscription fees. In the last 13 months, with the launch of Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and Peacock, that’s pretty much come to pass. But those launches were also accompanied by an ever growing prevalence of connected TVs and streaming devices, from Fire TV sticks to Chromecasts. Because each gadget and each platform has its own set of partners, it might not even be possible to have one single configuration that provides all the vitamins and minerals any one person needs to satisfy their media diet. (Peacock had similar issues with Amazon and Roku when it launched over the summer.) So we’re left improvising and compromising. Oh, and that doesn’t even factor in any one person’s gaming consoles of choice, which is a whole other nightmare.

4) My favorite thing about Brian Beutler is how he relentlessly calls out the bad faith (read the thread).

5) Amazing and heartbreaking story of a Mexican woman single-handedly seeking justice against her daughter’s kidnappers and killers.  I feel like the fact that we border a disastrously murderous, near failed state is something we should care about more.  A lot more, for example, than the Middle East.  

6) So, once Yglesias offered the educator rate for his substack, I ponied up and subscribed.  And, so far, it’s totally worth it.  Loved this piece, for example on Trump’s gains with Latino voters.  Especially this portion on the misguidedness of identitarian politics:

There’s a kind of tedious debate that goes on endlessly in progressive circles between, on the one hand, those who urge us to “listen to Black women!” or otherwise defer to the lived experience of people in marginalized groups, and on the other, people like Matt Bruenig and Jonathan Chait who denounce what’s known academically as standpoint epistemology and what Bruenig has popularized among anti-woke leftists as identitarian deference. Here, the critics pound the table in favor of objective truth, while the proponents insist on the situated nature of knowledge.

I think a smarter critique and ultimately a better path forward comes from the Georgetown philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò who calls on us to pay more attention to who is actually being deferred to (emphasis added):

I think it’s less about the core ideas and more about the prevailing norms that convert them into practice. The call to “listen to the most affected” or “centre the most marginalized” is ubiquitous in many academic and activist circles. But it’s never sat well with me. In my experience, when people say they need to “listen to the most affected”, it isn’t because they intend to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people. Instead, it has more often meant handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories associated with these ills – regardless of what they actually do or do not know, or what they have or have not personally experienced. In the case of my conversation with Helen, my racial category tied me more “authentically” to an experience that neither of us had had. She was called to defer to me by the rules of the game as we understood it. Even where stakes are high – where potential researchers are discussing how to understand a social phenomenon, where activists are deciding what to target – these rules often prevail.

But the piece is more complicated than the simple observation that the members of marginalized groups that we are exhorted to listen to are often a relatively elite sub-set of the groups. You should really read the whole thing (it’s not long) but I’ll just excerpt one more paragraph that I think is relevant:

Deference epistemology marks itself as a solution to an epistemic and political problem. But not only does it fail to solve these problems, it adds new ones. One might think questions of justice ought to be primarily concerned with fixing disparities around health care, working conditions, and basic material and interpersonal security. Yet conversations about justice have come to be shaped by people who have ever more specific practical advice about fixing the distribution of attention and conversational power. Deference practices that serve attention-focused campaigns (e.g. we’ve read too many white men, let’s now read some people of colour) can fail on their own highly questionable terms: attention to spokespeople from marginalized groups could, for example, direct attention away from the need to change the social system that marginalizes them.

Political “work” is overwhelmingly done by college graduates, most of them younger than the median voter. That’s true on formal political campaigns, but also inside activist and policy organizations and the foundations that fund them. Nobody would be so foolhardy as to believe that listening to the young whiter staffers at a progressive nonprofit constitutes listening to white people in a sense that would help you appeal to the marginal white voter.

But a lot of progressive spaces have, as Táíwò suggests, adopted norms that essential do this with young, college-educated non-white staffers.

And this happens even though young, left-wing, college-educated Black, Latin, and Asian people are as aware as anyone else — if not much more so! — that their older, more working-class relatives do not, in fact, share the values and language of young activists or junior faculty. But not only do progressives fail to “center” the perspectives of working-class people of color, efforts to note their cross-pressured political views are often actively stigmatized.

So let’s be clear about this. You can see in Pew data that Black people are less likely than white ones to say that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” And in the GSS they are more likely to say that it is “wrong for same-sex adults to have sexual relations.” This is not about blaming anybody for anything. But it is factually true that anti-LGBT views are more prevalent among African-Americans. And since anti-LGBT white people are very likely to just be Republicans, this is particularly true when you’re looking at the dynamics inside something like a Democratic Party primary. If you can’t acknowledge this as a factual matter, then you are going to struggle to do politics effectively and end up with the kind of trends Democrats saw in 2020.

At the end of the day, all the stuff progressives point to in order to paint Trump as racist is not wrong. And in electoral terms, that’s exactly the problem. It’s very easy to imagine taking the exact same policy views, pairing them with a less offensive person, and doing way better than Trump. To stop that from happening, Democrats need to pay closer attention to the actual views of the non-white population and not just “listen to” the idiosyncratic subset that does progressive politics professionally.

7) Also, learned a new term (new to me that is).  Identitarian deference.  

8) Zeynep’s got a substack now, too.  All free, so far, at least.  Good stuff on the case for prioritizing vaccinations almost exclusively by age:

But this simple fact is also true: the severity and death track one key variable more than anything else, and it’s age. The impact of age is not only huge, it’s exponential. As I wrote in my piece:

The risk profile of this disease is strikingly exponential: The risk of death for those ages 65 to 69 is a staggering two and a half times that of those just a decade younger. Those just a few years older, ages 75 to 79, face six times the risk of death compared with that same age group (ages 55 to 59). The steepness of this age curve really matters, because it means that protecting the most vulnerable groups with a highly efficacious vaccine will both quickly change our experience of the pandemic and relieve the strain on our hospitals.

It varies a little by country, but the numbers, everywhere, are staggering. In nearly all countries, almost all the deaths are from older people. In the United States, about 90% of the deaths are from people 55 and older. In Canada, it was about 95% of deaths from those above 65. In Italy, about 85 percent were 70 and older. And the gradations within those age groups are steep as well—hence the word, exponential. Unsurprisingly, severe disease and hospitalizations also track age.

When vaccinating under conditions of shortage, there are inescapable trade-offs. Obviously, vaccinating those most at risk is crucial. Transmission is always a consideration, so vaccinating people who either have a lot of contacts or have a lot of vulnerable contacts, is important. Often, as in this case, those groups do not overlap. There are also questions of equity: why should people who can work from home get the same priority as essential workers who have to work in person, and who take much higher risks? Shouldn’t those who have taken the most risk get priority?

In the end, though, we want to minimize human suffering and death. Overall, there seems to be a consensus that healthcare workers are going to be vaccinated first, along with long-term care residents, where a great majority of deaths have occurred. After that, the next question is whether to first vaccinate older people, starting with the oldest and working one’s way down the age range, or to start with essential workers, which are estimated around 80 million in this country.

It looks like the United States may first vaccinate essential workers—a category that will get defined somewhat subjectively, and according to the political power of these groups. A preliminary committee has already recommended vaccinating 80+ essential workers before vaccinating those 65 and older, and those with other conditions that put them at risk.The CDC will likely adopt this recommendation when they take up this issue on Sunday. After that, it will be up to each state to determine how they do this. Here’s what it may look like, with 85 million people being vaccinated ahead of those 65 and older.

But I’m already hearing that, for example, in Utah, a 30-year-old teacher may be vaccinated long before someone over 70 or even 80—even though the latter are at so much great risk if infected. In fact, it looks like teachers, police and food and agriculture workers will all precede adults over 65 and people with high-risk medical conditions.The predictable lobbying blitz has begun.

That is not what other countries rolling out the same vaccine are doing. For comparison, here’s the UK-wide vaccination prioritization, which sensibly ranks by risk, which corresponds to age.

9) Obviously William Barr is awful and odious.  But it is honestly difficult to know what exactly to make of his last couple months and his resignation.  David Rohde’s take is my favorite so far:

Former Justice Departments officials and legal experts were unequivocal in their assessment of Barr’s legacy. They credited him for breaking with Trump in the prelude to and aftermath of the election. But they predicted that he would go down in history as one of the country’s most destructive Attorneys General. “The few times Barr put the nation ahead of the President will not atone for the many times he chose the opposite. He leaves a wounded department,” Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University School of Law, told me. “His tenure as Attorney General will be akin to the plague years at the Justice Department,” David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, said. “I think his tenure has been an indefensible and disgraceful betrayal of long-established norms,” Donald Ayer, a former Deputy Attorney General, noted. (The senior law-enforcement official was more magnanimous, calling Barr’s legacy a “mixed bag.”) A spokesperson for Barr did not respond to a request for comment…

Barr deserves credit for refusing to go along with Trump’s post-election de-facto coup attempt. But he also exacerbated the explosion of “alternative facts” in the Trump era. At a time when division and confusion regarding basic facts were already rampant among Americans, Barr used his position as a fact-finder to increase discord, not ease it. He decried the special-counsel probe and other investigations of Trump as politically motivated inquisitions. Whatever his intentions, his legacy will be that he then unleashed those same demons. Barr has extended the cycle of politically motivated investigations that increasingly plague American politics.

10) People getting rich (or in my case, a few extra dollars) with how dumb the Trump lovers are in the betting markets.  

11) Interesting case here “”A Black Student’s Mother Complained About ‘Fences.’ He Was Expelled. A dispute about the reading of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in an English class escalated at the mostly white Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C.”  I recently saw Fences for the first time last year.  It was really good.  I appreciate the mother’s particular concerns, but, ummm, play about a Black family by a Black playwright was added to the curriculum for very good reasons.  

12) If you can all avoid it and you want the restaurant you are ordering from to thrive, you should avoid the third-party apps:

Under pressure to pay rent and retain workers, some restaurants turned more of their attention to delivery, particularly from app-based companies like DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub. Few restaurants that hadn’t done delivery in the past had the time or money to create their own delivery service, which typically brings in less money than dining rooms, where customers are more apt to order more profitable items like appetizers, desserts or a second round of drinks.

These restaurants have quickly found that the apps, with their high fees and strong-arm tactics, may be a temporary lifeline, but not a savior. Fees of 30 percent or higher per order cut eateries’ razor-thin margins to the bone. And a stimulus package that would bolster the industry has stalled in Congress, even as states and municipalities enact new limits on both indoor and outdoor dining.

Restaurants are entering a critical stage as a new coronavirus surge takes hold and outdoor dining becomes less appealing during the colder months. Lawmakers can help by extending federal grants to independent restaurants that will help them close the gap in lost sales and cover payroll and other expenses. But legislators also should consider caps on the fees the apps can charge, particularly amid the pandemic, as places like New York City, San Francisco, New Jersey and Washington State have done, or risk seeing additional restaurant casualties. Officials in Colorado and Santa Clara County in California are considering similar fee limits, though app firms are pushing back by imposing $1.50 to $2 per-order charges on customers in some cities.

13) Jesse Wegman on majority rule:

First, and most fundamental: Majority rule is the only rule that treats all people as political equals. “That’s actually enormously important,” said Richard Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan law school. Any other rule inevitably treats certain votes as worth more than others. Sometimes that’s what we want, as when we require criminal juries to be unanimous in voting to convict. In that case, “there is one error that we prefer to the other error,” Mr. Primus said. “We want to make false convictions very difficult, much more rare than false acquittals.”

But in an election for the president, he said, there is no “morally relevant criterion” for departing from majority rule. Voters in one part of the country are no wiser or more worthy than voters in another. And yet the votes of those in certain states always matter more. “What could possibly justify that?” Mr. Primus asked.

This is not just an abstract numerical concern. When people’s votes are treated as unequal, it’s a short jump to treating people as unequal. Put another way, it’s not enough to say that we’re all equal before the law; we also must be able to have an equal say in the choice of the representatives who make and enforce the laws.

There is a second reason majority rule is critical: It bestows legitimacy on the system. A representative government only works when its citizens see the electoral process as fair. When that legitimacy is absent, when people perceive — often accurately — that their vote doesn’t matter, they will eventually reject the system.

“If we’re going to rule ourselves, we’re going to be ruled by majorities,” said Astra Taylor, an author and democracy activist. “There’s a stability in that idea. There’s a sense of the people deciding for themselves and buying in. That stability is incredibly valuable. The alternative is one in which we’re being ruled by something which is outside of us, whether a dictator or a technocracy or an algorithm.”

Finally,majority rule ensures electoral accountability. As the economist Amartya Sen put it, democracies don’t have famines. A government that doesn’t have to earn the support of a majority of its citizens, or at least a plurality, is not truly accountable to them, and has no incentive to represent their interests or provide for their needs. This opens the door to neglect, corruption and abuse of power. (Talk to the millions of Californians ignored by President Trump during wildfire season.) “If someone has to run for re-election, they have to put attention into running things well,” Mr. Amar said. “If they don’t, they will lose elections.”

14) Beethoven was born 250 years ago.  Talk about standing the test of time.  For my money, his symphonies are the single greatest musical accomplishment.  And here’s, “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Beethoven

15) Always read Eric Foner, “We Are Not Done With Abolition: The framers of the 13th Amendment did not intend to establish an empire of prison labor.”

16) Also, seriously, people are always giving the NYT such a hard time, but deeply-reported essays like this on two teenagers of very different social classes dealing with the poisonous air are just amazing.  If you only read a few NYT stories a month, make this one of them.

17) And if you want to learn more about air pollution (you should), this is a great article on PM 2.5, the key particulate matter we worry about for human health.  I had never heard of Undark before (why not?), but seems like great science journalism.

18) It’s long past time for the face masks we rely upon to have clear standards for filtration efficiency.  Looks like it may finally be coming.  

19) This is really interesting– all the news websites with more than 100,000 digital subscribers.  I subscribe to 5 of the 24.  

20) Great stuff on Raphael Warnock’s ads, dogs, and racial stereotypes from Michael Tesler:

These ads have been praised as cutehumorous and clever. And the two spots have gone viral, generating almost nine million views while Warnock’s dogoriented tweets accumulated over half a million likes on Twitter in November. The campaign has even profited off the pooch by selling “Puppies for Warnock” merchandise.

But some close observers of race and politics have noted that there is much more here than just an adorable electoral campaign. These ads, they argue, are carefully crafted attempts to neutralize racial stereotypes that work against Warnock in his bid to become Georgia’s first African American senator.

Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford professor and FiveThirtyEight contributor, tweeted, “This ad is doing a lot. It’s obv[iously] cute, but it is also meant to deracialize Warnock with this cute ‘white people friendly’ doggy.” Fordham University political scientist and MSNBC contributor Christina Greer similarly tweeted, “This ad will be taught in Race Politics classes for years to come…it is doing A LOT of silent heavy lifting.” And The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie concurred, tweeting in response to Greer’s comments, “Yep. The setting, Warnock’s outfit, even the dog breed all are sending a specific message.”

But why is Warnock’s pet beagle viewed as a “white people doggy”? And could his choice of pet have an effect on his electoral strategy?

Well, for starters, there’s a large racial divide in dog ownership. A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of white Americans owned a dog compared to only 20 percent of African Americans. And the way pet ownership is portrayed in popular culture further exacerbates that divide in the minds of the public. In their classic study of media and race in the 1990s, “Black Image in the White Mind,” Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki found no prime-time commercials containing African American pet owners. “According to the world of TV advertising,” Entman and Rojecki surmised, “Whites are the ones who occupy the realm of ideal humanity, of human warmth and connection, as symbolized occasionally by their love for their pets.” That is one reason Warnock’s ads are so effective: They directly push back against this stereotype, showing an affectionate Black dog owner who explicitly says he loves puppies.

Yet, as the tweets above suggest, the breed of Warnock’s dog is also doing a lot of work to counteract negative racial stereotypes of dog ownership. Take what my University of California Irvine colleague Mary McThomas and I’ve found in our research on dog ownership: When we asked people which dog breeds they thought white and Black people were more likely to own, the majority guessed that Black people owned rottweilers and pit bulls while white people owned golden retrievers, collies, Labradors and Dalmatians.

21) Bill Gates loved David Epstein’s Range.  So did I.  You should read it.  

22) In his occasional newsletter, Epstein relies on his brother’s experience to take a look at the joke that is so much forensic science.  In this case, how the ways in which forensic science methods are validated are basically junk.  And, of course, we lock people up with this all the time:

We want to highlight one final study that Dror and Scurich cite in their paper. This study included 2,178 comparisons in which shell cartridge casings were not produced by the firearm in question. Forensic experts accurately assessed 1,421 of those and made 22 false-positive identifications. The remaining 735 responses were “inconclusive.” How big a factor should those inconclusives be when we think about the results of this study? (And since the Range Report promotes opportunities to use simple calculation for B.S. detection, think about this one for a minute before reading on.)

Those inconclusives are a really big deal. In this case, the study counted “inconclusive” as a correct answer, and so reported a 1 percent error rate in identifying different-source cartridges. (That is, 22/2,178.) Had the study left the inconclusive responses out, the reported error rate wouldn’t be much different: 22/(2,178 – 735), or 1.5 percent. But let’s say instead that “inconclusive” was counted as an error. Then the calculation is (735 + 22)/2,178, or a 35 percent error rate. So how accurate were those experts in identifying non-matches? Their error rate was somewhere between 1 percent and 35 percent, depending on how you deal with inconclusives. How accurate would they have been if they hadn’t been allowed to choose inconclusive at all? We have no idea—and that’s a huge problem. Ultimately, these tests are constructed so that forensic examiners can choose the questions on which they will be scored. In this example, one in five examiners answered “inconclusive” for every single comparison, giving them perfect scores. Again, if only the tests you took in school had worked that way.

23) Apparently, just a few decades behind the science, the US Army has figured out that sufficient sleep is important for optimum human performance (which you’d think matters when you’re fighting a war).  

24) What science can tell you about how to choose a gift.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) Using the IAT (or any tool to reveal “implicit bias”) to determine whether people have to much racial bias to be cops is a truly horrible idea.  The damn inventors of IAT say it shouldn’t be used for this.

2) Allowing guns at polling places is such a facially absurd idea.  Except for activist Republican judges.  “Chekhov’s Gun Is in Our Politics Now. Act III Will Not End Well.: This is already out of control. Once you accept the presence of firearms at the polls, you accept the possibility that they will be brandished, and the possibility that they will be used.”

3) You might have heard of this absurd, crazy, fabulously anti-democratic lawsuit to throw out 100,000 votes in Texas.  The fact that the Texas GOP even made this argument tells you all you really need to know about them.  Not to mention, the utter lack of comment from other Republicans on this.  Rick Hasen explains why, as a matter of law, the suit is preposterous.  Presumably, even the hack-y judge they got, won’t be this much of a hack (and if he is, no way, higher judges will be).

3) And also in Republican authoritarianism right here in NC, “March to Alamance polls ends with police using pepper-spray on protesters, children.”

Where’s the condemnation from Republicans?  If so, they are awfully quiet.

4) Good take from Drum on the media and Hunter Biden:

This assumes, of course, that the mainstream media has ignored the Hunter Biden story. But have they? The Trumpies take the view that allegations of any kind, no matter how dubious, should be aired uncritically. Most news outlets, however, take the traditional view that allegations should be confirmed before they’re splashed on the front page. Today, Ken Dilanian and Tom Winter of NBC News explain that they’ve spent the past two weeks trying to report out the story and have been unable to:

The lack of major new revelations is perhaps the biggest reason the story has not gotten traction, but not the only one. Among others: Most mainstream news organizations, including NBC News, have not been granted access to the documents. NBC News asked by email, text, phone call and certified mail, and was ultimately denied.

After examining text messages provided by Bobulinski, the [Wall Street Journal] reported that “the venture — set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign — never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records…show no role for Joe Biden.”…An NBC News correspondent asked Bobulinski for an interview and for copies of documents in his possession, but he declined.

….An NBC News correspondent sent a letter two weeks ago to Giuliani, seeking copies of the materials. His lawyer, Robert Costello, granted the correspondent the opportunity to review some Hunter Biden emails and other materials in person. The materials included copies of Hunter Biden identification documents that appeared to be genuine. But without taking possession of the copies, it was not possible to conduct the sort of forensic analysis that might help authenticate the emails and documents.

It was Giuliani who ultimately told NBC News he would not be providing a copy of the hard drive. NBC News responded by asking if, instead of a full copy of the hard drive, he could just provide copies of the full set of emails. Giuliani did not agree to that proposal. NBC News then declined an offer of copies of a small group of emails.

….James Rosen, a reporter for the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest operator of local television stations, reported this week that a Justice Department official told him the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden and his associates last year focused on allegations of money-laundering — and that the probe remains active….NBC News has not confirmed any such investigation.

There is every reason imaginable to be suspicious of the Hunter Biden story. Rudy Giuliani is, to put it mildy, an unreliable source. The story about Hunter’s laptop being left in a repair shop is so fishy it stinks. The unwillingness to provide a full set of documents to reporters is an obvious tell that something is amiss. And even if it turns out that all the emails and other documents are legitimate, they still don’t implicate Joe Biden. They merely show what we already knew: that Hunter Biden would occasionally trade on his name in his business dealings.

Four years ago, the press went wild with the news that a cache of emails from Hillary Clinton had been located. That’s it. They had no idea whether the emails were new (they weren’t) or whether they contained anything interesting (they didn’t). There wasn’t even an allegation involved in this story, merely the existence of something that everyone already knew existed (emails between Clinton and Huma Abedin).

5) Some very noteworthy PS here, “Fatalities from COVID-19 are reducing Americans’ support for Republicans at every level of federal office”

Between early March and 1 August 2020, COVID-19 took the lives of more than 150,000 Americans. Here, we examine the political consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic using granular data on COVID-19 fatalities and the attitudes of the American public. We find that COVID-19 has led to substantial damage for President Trump and other Republican candidates. States and local areas with higher levels of COVID-19 fatalities are less likely to support President Trump and Republican candidates for House and Senate. Our results show that President Trump and other Republican candidates would benefit electorally from a reduction in COVID-19 fatalities. This implies that a greater emphasis on social distancing, masks, and other mitigation strategies would benefit the president and his allies.

6) Very cool NYT interactive feature, “Masks Work. Really. We’ll Show You How.”

But also makes the point of something I seriously don’t get.  The graphics show how meltblown polypropylene in an N95 is clearly superior to fabric, in large part thanks to its electrostatic charge, which attracts tiny particles.  So, it filters better without being any harder to breathe, thanks to the nature of those fibers and the charge.  Given that this very same material is now abundantly available in surgical masks (basically, the biggest difference with N95 is the lack of an airtight fit), I don’t get why we are still telling people to wear cloth masks.  I’ve been wearing surgical since I could get some in June.

7) The Atlantic story about wealthy, status-obsessed parents using niche sports to get their kids into elite schools was something else.  Turns out, the Atlantic actually employed a known fabulist to write the story.  Big mistake.  A lot of the essential truths of the story remain, but as the editors note explains, it’s also full of lies.  Wow.  Good work from Erik Wemple on the story.

8) Good stuff from Harry Enten.  Sure, there will be some modest state-to-state variation, but I expect this election will ultimately be well-explained by uniform vote swing:

For now though, Biden is leading in the national polls by about 10 points. That’s 8 points better than Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by in 2016.
And remember, Biden’s lead is also significantly wider than where the final national polls put Clinton’s lead in 2016. Those national polls had Clinton up 3 to 4 points in the national popular vote, which turned out to be quite accurate.
Now take a look at the current average of polls in the states Trump won by 10 points or less in 2016. At the same time (in parentheses), we’ll examine what we’d expect those averages to be by applying an 8 point uniform swing from the 2016 results. A uniform swing is simply shifting all the results a certain amount (e.g. 8 points in Biden’s direction). We’re shifting these states 8 points because Biden’s winning nationally by 10 points, and Clinton won nationally by 2 points.
  • Michigan: Biden +8 points (Biden +8 points)
  • Wisconsin: Biden +8 points (Biden +7 points)
  • Pennsylvania: Biden +7 points (Biden +7 points)
  • Arizona: Biden +4 points (Biden +5 points)
  • Florida: Biden +4 points (Biden +7 points)
  • North Carolina: Biden +3 points (Biden +4 points)
  • Georgia: Biden +2 points (Biden +3 points)
  • Iowa: Biden +1 point (Trump up 1 point)
  • Ohio: Tied (Tied)
  • Texas: Trump +2 points (Trump +1 point)
What should be quite apparent is the state polls look almost identical to what you’d expect given a uniform shift of 8 points across states. The average difference is just a point. Moreover, there is no bias with Biden doing 8 points better than Clinton did in the average of state polls, as you’d expect with the national polls where they are.

9) This is good, “Four reasons Biden has a better shot than Clinton did in 2016 — and 2 reasons there’s still uncertainty.
A summary”


Quick hits (part I)

1) I don’t know just how much stock we should put in the particular cost/benefit figures here, but I do think it is truly important that we take more seriously the very real costs of not having kids in in-person school:

Summary: We estimate that each month of school closures in response to the COVID pandemic cost current students between $12,000 and $15,000 in future earnings due to lower educational quality. We also estimate total value-of-life, medical, and productivity costs per infection at $38,315 for September 2020. Using these costs, we calculate the cost-benefit threshold to keeping schools closed for October at over 0.355 new expected infections in the community per student kept out of school.

2) When it comes to court testimony, I think we are finally recognizing hand-writing analysis as psuedo-science.  So, should we really be throwing out ballots based on signature matching?  “Signed, Sealed, Delivered—Then Discarded: Signature matching—which one expert described as “witchcraft”—could lead to thousands of legitimate ballots being thrown out.”

Even in normal election cycles, signature-matching requirements result in many ballots being rejected. Hundreds of thousands of such ballots were disqualified this way in 2016—almost all, presumably, cast by voters who had done everything right. Rejections disproportionately hit certain demographic groups, including elderly voters, young voters, and voters of color, that are expected to heavily favor Vice President Joe Biden this fall. As voting by mail surges across the country, many elections, including the presidential race, could hinge on a process that one expert recently described to me as “witchcraft.” …

Your mileage may vary, but these materials didn’t give me a great deal of confidence in the system. It’s not that election officials aren’t trying—the presentations are earnest and straightforward—but they offer fairly minimal training to the people who will decide whether someone’s vote for president gets to count. Professional forensic document examiners are typically trained for two to three years, but even the most robust training systems for election officials are more like eight hours. Some of the judgment calls depicted in the materials are obvious mismatches, but others are much fuzzier…

Regardless of the overall rejection rates, it’s a safe bet whose ballots will be rejected most: those of the youngest voters, the oldest voters, disabled voters, and voters of color. The first three of these are relatively easily explained. As schools phase handwriting instruction out of their curriculum, young people no longer learn cursive. They are less likely to have consistent, well-practiced signatures, and as a result, are less likely to have two signatures from different occasions match. Over time, their handwriting matures too. Freda Levenson, the legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, told me about a voter who had registered with a girlish signature when she was in high school. By the time she tried casting an absentee ballot in her 30s, “she in effect had to forge her own signature to make it match.” Similarly, older voters’ handwriting is sometimes in decline. Voters who suffer from illnesses such as stroke may lose the ability to sign the way they once did. But why so many voters of color see their ballots rejected is not well understood.

3) This ended up way more in the weeds than I wanted, but the big picture is certainly encouraging, “Geothermal energy is poised for a big breakout”

4) Nice Op-Ed, “What Fans of ‘Herd Immunity’ Don’t Tell You: A proposal to let people with low risk of infection live without constraint could lead to a million or more preventable deaths.”

No matter their politics, people nearly always listen to those who say what they want to hear.

Hence, it is no surprise that the White House and several governors are now paying close attention to the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a proposal written by a group of well-credentialed scientists who want to shift Covid-19 policy toward achieving herd immunity — the point at which enough people have become immune to the virus that its spread becomes unlikely.

They would do this by allowing “those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally.” This, they say, will allow people “to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

These academics are clearly a distinct minority. Most of their public health colleagues have condemned their proposal as unworkable and unethical — even as amounting to “mass murder,” as William Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor who now heads a global health foundation, put it to CNN last week.

But who is right?

The signers of the declaration do have a point. Restrictions designed to limit deaths cause real harm, including, but by no means limited to, stress on the economy, increases in domestic violence and drug abuse, declines in tests that screen for cancer and on and on. Those living alone suffer real pain from isolation, and the young have every reason to feel bitter over the loss of substantive education and what should have been memories of a high school prom or the bonding friendships that form in a college dorm at 2 a.m. or on an athletic team or in some other endeavor.

So the idea of returning to something akin to normal — releasing everyone from a kind of jail — is attractive, even seductive. It becomes less seductive when one examines three enormously important omissions in the declaration.

First, it makes no mention of harm to infected people in low-risk groups, yet many people recover very slowly. More serious, a significant number, including those with no symptoms, suffer damage to their heart and lungs. One recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage. We have no idea whether this damage will cut years from their lives or affect their quality of life.

Second, it says little about how to protect the vulnerable. One can keep a child from visiting a grandparent in another city easily enough, but what happens when the child and grandparent live in the same household? And how do you protect a 25-year-old diabetic, or cancer survivor, or obese person, or anyone else with a comorbidity who needs to go to work every day? Upon closer examination, the “focused protection” that the declaration urges devolves into a kind of three-card monte; one can’t pin it down.

Third, the declaration omits mention of how many people the policy would kill. It’s a lot.

5) The current Covid surge is really widespread and really not good:

The United States is sleepwalking into what could become the largest coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic so far. In the past week alone, as voters prepare to go to the ballot box, about one in every 1,000 Americans has tested positive for the virus, and about two in every 100,000 Americans have died of it. Today, the United States reported 73,103 new cases, the third-highest single-day total since the pandemic began, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.

6) On the new CDC Guidelines.  Better, but, “Six Feet Is Not Enough and 15 Minutes Is Too Long: The coronavirus ignores this outdated social distancing measure”

Kimberly Prather, PhD, director of the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, had this to say about the new CDC definition:

“Given the growing evidence on the importance of aerosol transmission, close contact (and tracing) should be expanded to include anyone in the same room breathing/sharing the air… not just within six feet.”…

But wait, there’s more math to the equation, as Corsi outlines in his blog. The amount of virus a person emits, measured as “respiratory minute volume,” is affected greatly by activity.

“If someone is doing aerobic exercise in a gym or dancing, their respiratory minute volume can be as high as 10 to 15 times what it would be at rest,” Corsi says. Likewise, the amount of virus another person inhales can vary greatly by their own activity and breathing level. And both emission and inhalation are tremendously affected by mask-wearing and other physical circumstances.

Are you sharing the same indoor air without a mask? That’s a close contact.

7) Great stuff from John Sides, “What Pessimistic Takes on Americans’ Willingness to Fight Covid-19 Get Wrong.”

It is worth emphasizing the high level of Republican support for closing businesses. One theory of why the United States has struggled to fight the pandemic, recently proposed by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, is that Trump had to confront the “folk-libertarianism” of the Republican Party—a “reflexive individualism disconnected from the common good” that is “deeply American.” But at that moment, there was little evidence of such sentiments. Even Republicans were not opposed to restrictions intended to fight the virus.
Figure 2. Partisans who follow politics are the most polarized on local Covid-19 policy. Percent who support closing businesses. Data source: YouGov; graph by John Sides.

But that changed after Trump and others began criticizing state and local restrictions. Trump famously targeted states with Democratic governors, tweeting, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in late April. This led to a sharp drop in support for closing businesses—one most visible among politically attentive Republicans, whose support dropped 40 points in less than three months. Support among Democrats barely declined.

This same pattern of partisan division has played out in many other policy areas,3 including the wearing of masks. And, as the political scientist Cindy Kam and I showed in a recent report, partisan divisions on canceling large gatherings are also largest among those paying the most attention to politics.

At the same time, as the graph above shows, Republican opposition for closing businesses has largely plateaued. In fact, as of mid-September, about half of Republicans disagree with the president and favor the restrictions he wants to “liberate” blue-state voters from.

8) This deserve a post of it’s own.  But I’ve been so damn busy.  Ezra makes the case, “The fight is for democracy”

Republicans against democracy

“We’re not a democracy,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) tweeted during the vice presidential debate. As the backlash mounted, Lee poured cement around his position. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

Rank democracy. There is no subtext in this election, only text; no dog whistles, only foghorns. Lee, a former Supreme Court clerk and one of the GOP’s brighter intellectual lights, is stating his party’s position simply: Democracy is the enemy, the specter stalking Republican power.

A party that wins power even as it fails to win over voters will quickly turn against democracy itself. And when that happens, it will use the power it has to make it yet easier to win power without winning voters. And so the Republican Party is. A full accounting of the GOP’s recent assays against democracy would require a book, but a few examples:

  • In North Carolina in 2016 and Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, Republican legislatures responded to electoral defeat by using lame-duck legislative sessions to entrench their own power and strip incoming Democratic governors and officeholders of key powers and privileges.
  • Republicans at the state level have consistently pushed policies — from voter ID laws to voter roll purges to shutting down polling locations in low-income communities — that disproportionately disenfranchise low-income minorities and Democrats more broadly.
  • The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has handed down decision after decision undermining voting rights — including gutting the Voting Rights Act — while permitting money to flood politics. And it’s not just the Supreme Court that holds sway here. A recent study tracked 309 votes by judges in 175 election-related decisions and found that “Republican appointees interpreted the law in a way that impeded ballot access 80 percent of the time, versus 37 percent for Democratic ones.”
  • The Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census, with the explicit intention of scaring off Hispanic respondents so the population counts would give Republicans a bigger electoral advantage. The Supreme Court narrowly rejected their machinations, but only because they had been so obvious about the political aims motivating the change.
  • A number of conservative pundits and Republican politicians — including Mike Lee — have called for repealing the 17th Amendment, which allows for the direct election of US senators. The alternative would be state legislatures choosing senators, which would maximize the GOP’s geographic advantages.
  • In 2020, Republicans, including the Trump campaign, filed lawsuits to prevent states from making it easier for Americans to vote, and have their vote counted, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. When groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have tried to get judges to change or invalidate existing laws that make it difficult for Americans to vote and have their vote counted during the pandemic, Republicans — including the Trump campaign — have actively fought against them.

All of these efforts continue, with examples piling up even as I write these words. On Monday, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 over a request by Pennsylvania’s Republicans to overturn a court ruling allowing election officials to count ballots received for up to three days after Election Day, due to restrictions and delays imposed by the coronavirus.

9) Hell, yeah, this is true and we need to talk about it more, “Let’s not mince words. The Trump administration kidnapped children.”

THE TRUMP administration’s immorality, cruelty and bureaucratic malpractice in tearing migrant toddlers, tweens and teens away from their parents in 2017 and 2018 were the work of many co-conspirators, most of them faithfully carrying out the wishes of the president himself. A draft report by the Justice Department’s inspector general has made that clear. Perhaps even more shocking is that policy’s present-day legacy: More than 500 children who, having been wrenched from their families by U.S. government officials with no plan or mechanism ever to reunite them, remain separated.

That is the case despite years of efforts to track down parents who were, in many cases, deported after their children were seized and placed with family sponsors in the United States. For all intents and purposes, these children were kidnapped by the U.S. government.

10) As a Political Parties scholar, I’m particularly fascinated by what may happen to the Republican Party after Trump.  This is a scary thought from Stanley Greenberg, “After Trump, the Republican Party May Become More Extreme”

Even as trump’s chances of victory appear to shrink, the GOP is still his party, one that he can rally from outside the White House. That’s why the 43 percent of voters who still think Trump is doing a good job pose such an immense challenge to the country. They—along with like-minded Republicans in Congress, the federal judiciary, and state governments—will have countless opportunities in the months ahead to thwart Democratic efforts to fight the pandemic and repair its economic damage.

Much more dangerous is a new unity and fervor among Trump’s devoted supporters, who believe it unacceptable that abortion is legal in America, according to a values survey I conducted last year for Democracy Corps. They cheer the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment and hold to an extreme individualism and hatred of government. They side with the militias and the anti-lockdown protesters who menacingly wave their assault weapons and threaten elected officials.

And above all, they are exercised by racial resentments and the idea that America will have a reckoning with its history of racial injustice. They remain inflamed by President Barack Obama and “Obamacare”—the remaining legacy of the first Black president. They believe it was created to make millions of nonwhite people dependent on the government and vote for Democrats, keeping the party in power forever. These same resentments explain Texas state leaders’ decision to allow only one drop-off box per county, a policy with no purpose beyond keeping Black and Latino citizens from voting and putting Democrats in office.

Three-quarters of those who approve of Trump believe that the difficulty Black people face in getting ahead is their “own fault,” not because of “discrimination”—not because of America’s history of systemic racism. Trump’s acolytes are encamped to block any further progress toward equality.

Unfortunately, political parties do not change course quickly. After being crushed in 1980, Democrats needed three presidential elections from 1984 to 1992 to modernize and become a sustainable national party that could carry states in the South and win back working-class suburbs in the North. Joining the fight for the presidency is what draws new voters to a party. In 1984, the reformer Gary Hart attacked the special interests who controlled the party and championed new industries over old. He had at least had a constituency to build on; he won nearly as many primary votes as the eventual nominee, the establishment favorite Walter Mondale. Hart and the third-place candidate, Jesse Jackson, together won more than half of that year’s Democratic primary electorate. The anti-Trump reformers in the GOP begin with, at best, a third of their party.

11) This chart.  Damn.

12) Love family gem-mining when we visit family in the mountains of NC.  In fact, I have big chunks of emerald and amethyst, which I “mined” myself, on my desk at work that I love to fidget with.  Apparently, some people actually make real money at these gem mines.  Also, I did not mine it myself, but I just may carry around a piece of obsidian because I love it.

13) You cannot let off the gas on Covid.  “Masks made Czech Republic the envy of Europe. Now they’ve blown it”

14) Lots of good tips here from Clearer Thinking, “12 Techniques to Accelerate Your Learning.”  I think these last ones are great for students:


10. Active recall Research shows that learning is more effective when you spend time retrieving the information to remember rather than just passively reviewing the materials (the testing effect). For example, if you were learning about space exploration, you could quiz yourself with a question like “How did the U.S. government justify the expense of going to the moon?”, and try to remember the answer (before you check whether you are right), rather than merely reviewing the material passively. Forcing yourself to try to remember actually makes the memories longer lasting.

11. Spaced repetition This method, based on the spacing effect, minimizes the time spent reviewing the learning materials while increasing long-term retention. Schedule reviews of your learning materials at increasingly longer time intervals. This means that you should review what you just learned shortly after learning it (within a day or a week at most) and space out the reviews afterward. If you noticed that you had trouble recalling the information, that would be a sign that you waited too long for the review, so schedule the next one within a shorter time interval. If you get the material right, then you can wait a longer amount of time for your next quiz. To make this easier, you can give ThoughtSaver a try, which is our own system we created for this purpose. Or use advanced flashcard software, such as Anki or Supermemo.

12. Incremental reading This learning technique involves going through new learning material and reviewing old material at the same time, using a process that helps you understand difficult concepts that are new to you. Incremental reading is credited to Piotr Woźniak and is integrated in the newest versions of Supermemo, which he created. The method as described below is closer though is inspired by Michael Nielsen’s take on incremental reading, which you may find it a bit easier to learn and apply. Suppose that you are reading a challenging set of articles on a topic that you are not familiar with, but which you are motivated to really understand. For instance, you may be trying to figure out how “deep neural networks” work.  Skim the articles once, making no attempt to fully understand them. The purpose at this stage is to identify the main ideas in the articles, notice what you already know and figure out the things that you need to learn about. As you do this, take notes using advanced note taking systems like Roam and Notion. When you encounter each important seeming concept and definition, turn them into flashcards using ThoughtSaver, Supermemo or Anki, so that you can be quizzed on the content using the methods of spaced repetition and active recall. Review these cards regularly. Make several passes through the articles this way (most likely spread over a few days or even a week), and you will notice that your flashcards you’re creating start going deeper into the topic. Once you’ve reviewed these more detailed flashcards a few times, you can now try reading the articles again, this time taking your time to try and understand them in detail. You will likely find that the concepts start to fall into place in your mind. What’s more, because of using spaced repetition, the content will likely stay in your memory much longer, and you have an easy way to brush up on the ideas any time.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Oh damn did I love this from Paul Campos on under-appreciated it is that Trump really is just plain stupid:

In my view, the single most under-appreciated fact about Trump is that he’s a genuinely stupid person. (He does possess a combination of complete shamelessness and an animal instinct for grifting, which is not at all the same thing as actual intelligence). It’s extremely difficult to grasp the depth and breath of Trump’s stupidity, and its consequences — lack of the most basic knowledge, absence of any intellectual curiosity, failure to grasp anything about his own cognitive limitations, aka Dunning-Kruger syndrome — because Trump is a very high status, putatively very wealthy white person, which means he always gets the benefit of the doubt about everything. If Trump weren’t these things, the extremely obvious fact that he’s a very stupid person — and not in comparison to, say, Elizabeth Warren, but in comparison to the average college graduate — would be far more self-evident.

In the minds of the elites and their hangers-on — that is among all respectable people — it literally cannot be the case that Trump is just an extremely stupid person, because to recognize that would delegitimate too many hierarchical systems and institutions in our culture. So he’s “crazy like a fox,” or playing the role of a heel in a reality TV show, or playing a complex game in which he pretends to be incredibly ignorant just to pwn the libs. He may look dumb but that’s just a disguise!

No, no it isn’t. He’s really an idiot. Like your racist uncle who was never smart to begin with and whose brain has now been turned to mush by time and Fox News, he’s a complete dumbass, which probably isn’t a DSM-V category, but should be.

What’s particularly interesting is the extent to which his supporters recognize this. Many of them are of course idiots as well, and don’t recognize that about themselves, so naturally they don’t recognize the, to put it delicately, cognitive limitations of their leader.

But some of them aren’t stupid by any means. They’ve decided that having a stupid person (again: not hyperbole or a metaphor or oh he’s really not stupid although he’s no rocket surgeon — he’s literally quite stupid) is a price they’re more than willing to pay to get their tax cuts and judges and ethno-nationalism etc. (See for instance this interesting argument that Mitch McConnell is fully aware of how utterly unfit Trump is to hold office, but pretends otherwise because the prime directive is always to advance McConnell’s own career).

2) OMG this is awesome, “The Uncomfortable is a collection of deliberately inconvenient
everyday objects by Athens-based architect Katerina Kamprani”

3) This “Sexism Didn’t Kill the Warren Campaign. The Warren Campaign Killed the Warren Campaign” makes a number of good points.  Although, it’s annoying that it cannot admit that sexism likely nonetheless played a role:

I live on the planet where the Democratic electorate chose a woman to be their candidate in 2016—and where that same woman won the popular vote. I suppose it’s possible that the last four years of President Donald Trump have turned Democrats more sexist than they were before, but did that just temporarily stop for the several months Warren was at the top of the polls before Democrats realized they actually don’t want a woman after all? I doubt it.

At the same time, I find it curious that while Warren’s campaign was apparently cut down by sexism and/or misogyny, when other female candidates in the race dropped out, sexism didn’t often come up. One would assume that all female candidates would be subject to the same systemic prejudice, and yet few people claim that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) have failed—or, in Gabbard’s case, will fail—because American voters hate women.

When it comes to Gabbard or Klobuchar or the men in the race, people evaluate their campaigns and generally determine it’s the candidate, not the voter, who is at fault. Gabbard isn’t losing because of sexism, she’s losing because she’s a fill-in-the-blank homophobe/cult follower/Bashar Assad apologist. Klobuchar wasn’t a victim of misogyny, she was an uninspiring candidate who abuses her staff and eats her salads with a comb if she can’t find a fork (a quality I personally find highly electable).

So why is Warren’s loss called sexist when Klobuchar’s was not? …

I live on the planet where the Democratic electorate chose a woman to be their candidate in 2016—and where that same woman won the popular vote. I suppose it’s possible that the last four years of President Donald Trump have turned Democrats more sexist than they were before, but did that just temporarily stop for the several months Warren was at the top of the polls before Democrats realized they actually don’t want a woman after all? I doubt it.

At the same time, I find it curious that while Warren’s campaign was apparently cut down by sexism and/or misogyny, when other female candidates in the race dropped out, sexism didn’t often come up. One would assume that all female candidates would be subject to the same systemic prejudice, and yet few people claim that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) have failed—or, in Gabbard’s case, will fail—because American voters hate women.

When it comes to Gabbard or Klobuchar or the men in the race, people evaluate their campaigns and generally determine it’s the candidate, not the voter, who is at fault. Gabbard isn’t losing because of sexism, she’s losing because she’s a fill-in-the-blank homophobe/cult follower/Bashar Assad apologist. Klobuchar wasn’t a victim of misogyny, she was an uninspiring candidate who abuses her staff and eats her salads with a comb if she can’t find a fork (a quality I personally find highly electable).

So why is Warren’s loss called sexist when Klobuchar’s was not?

4) Zack Beauchamp, “Elizabeth Warren’s exit interview is a warning for the dirtbag left”

5) Adam Cohen has a new book on how the Supreme Court has abandoned the poor:

Instead, 50 years ago, the Court shifted rightward. Although it has long enjoyed a reputation as the defender of society’s most disadvantaged, the Supreme Court is now considered, on many issues, an enemy of poor Americans…

The Court has not only refused to extend new rights to poor people; it has also invoked dubious readings of the Constitution to take away rights that poor people have already won from Congress and the president…

If the Supreme Court had continued on the path laid out by the Warren Court, life for the poor would be far better today. One major setback: In 1973, the Court ruled 5–4, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that states do not have to ensure that high- and low-income school districts have equal amounts of money to spend on students. If the case had come out the other way, millions of children in low-income districts nationwide would have greater educational opportunities and better life outcomes. They would be better off in another way: If the Court had held that the poor are a suspect class, or took a broader view of equal protection, they could challenge the glaringly unequal levels of welfare benefits across the country. Although benefits are not generous anywhere, in some states, like Wyoming and Mississippi, they are egregiously low, putting the poor in an untenable position.

6) These are good. “40 Comics Reveal What Animals Would Say If They Could Talk”

They Can Talk

7) Every time I teach Criminal Justice policy, one pretty much unanimous conclusion that the students come to is that we need dramatically better police training.  Nice to see conservatives recognize this in the National Review:

After a series of terrible incidents of police violence — think Botham Jean in Dallas, Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, and others — police are under a microscope. Why does it seem like some officers are on a hair trigger, ready to use deadly force with little provocation? Increasingly, critics of police point to what we call “the mindset”: people’s belief that police (despite low crime rates) think that American streets are a battlefield, that they are surrounded by potential enemies, and that every civilian encounter is a struggle to be won.

Not every police officer has the mindset; the best don’t. One of us is a former prosecutor, the other a former police officer who has studied policing for more than 20 years. We know that “the mindset” is real and the root cause of many of these tragedies. But it isn’t inevitable. Instead, police recruits are trained in that attitude and even incentivized to maintain such attitude. Can they be untrained, or trained differently? We think they can — and believe conservatives especially ought to support efforts to reform police training.

The mindset has roots in the drug war, where politicians of all stripes encouraged the militarization of police equipment, tactics, and attitudes. It starts in the police academies. Most use a “stress” model resembling military boot camps, emphasizing drills, intense physical demands, public discipline, and immediate reaction to infractions; substantively, academy training focuses on investigation skills, weapons training, and tactics. But there is little emphasis on the profession of policing, on how to relate to the public, or on developing emotional-intelligence skills. Meanwhile, the average recruit gets less than ten hours of training in de-escalation techniques; 34 states require no training in de-escalation.

As they have proliferated, SWAT teams are increasingly used in standard, on-duty policing activities. In a 2014 analysis, the ACLU, which has done excellent statistical work on this issue, found that 79 percent of the 50,000 annual SWAT callouts were for executing a search warrant, most commonly in drug investigations; only 7 percent were for hostage, barricade, or active-shooter scenarios. At least 60 percent of those operations featured the use of no-knock entries and/or (potentially deadly) flash-bang grenades. The Pentagon’s infamous 1033 Program — which distributes cast-off military equipment such as armored personnel carriers, weaponry, and helicopters to local police — has also helped to drive this phenomenon.

Changes in weapons, tactics, and training birthed the mindset. Reforming all three could help to combat it. To start, the dispersion of cheap military weaponry to police departments must stop. Police ought to be put to the discipline of deciding whether their local situation really justifies the cost of armored personnel carriers.

Finally, we need real, sustained de-escalation training in police academies and among active officers. Departments should accept that, within reason, the onus is on the officer to defuse potentially explosive incidents, slow the pace of police–civilian encounters, and take the time to resolve encounters before they turn violent.

8) Speaking of flaws in our criminal justice system, the way in which it still allows and rewards junk science is beyond appalling.  Maybe a small victory, though.  Radley Balko:

As I’ve written here ad nauseam, judges are entrusted to be the gatekeepers of good and bad science in the courtroom. By and large, they’ve performed poorly. Judges are trained to perform legal analysis, not scientific analysis, and law and science are two very different fields. Science is forward-looking, always changing and adapting to discoveries and new empirical evidence. The law, by contrast, puts a premium on consistency and predictability. It relies on precedent, so courts look to previous courts for guidance and are often bound by prior decisions.

By and large, judges have approached their task of scientific analysis just as we might expect them to: They have tried to apply it within a legal framework. This means when assessing whether a given field of forensics is scientifically reliable, judges tend to look to what previous courts have already determined. And when confronted with a new field, they tend to err on the side of relying on our adversarial system — they let the evidence in but also let the defense call its own experts to dispute the prosecution’s witness. The problem here is that by simply admitting the evidence, the courts lend it an air of legitimacy. Once the evidence is allowed in, whether jurors find it convincing tends to come down to which witness is most persuasive. State’s witnesses are often seen as unbiased and altruistic, while jurors tend to see defense witnesses as hired guns. And the set of skills it takes to persuade a jury isn’t necessarily the same skill set of a careful and cautious scientist. Indeed, the two are often in conflict.

This is why a field such as bite-mark analysis — which has been found to be unreliable by multiple scientific bodies — has yet to be disallowed by any courtroom in the country. Every time it has been challenged, the court has upheld its validity.

9) This is good, “Like the United States, Finland has a capitalist economy. Why are Finns so much happier than us?”  Also, all those awesome Northern European “Social Democracies” are pretty much based on capitalism, not socialism.  They just do capitalism way better than us through robust use of government policy to make capitalism serve the public interest.

10) Relatedly, Ezra Klein with a good discussion of Bernie Sanders and the underpinnings of “democratic socialism.”

11) This from the new NYT media reporter is really good, “Why the Success of The New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism”

And the story of consolidation in media is a story about The Times itself.

The gulf between The Times and the rest of the industry is vast and keeps growing: The company now has more digital subscribers than The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the 250 local Gannett papers combined, according to the most recent data. And The Times employs 1,700 journalists — a huge number in an industry where total employment nationally has fallen to somewhere between 20,000 and 38,000…

Because The Times now overshadows so much of the industry, the cultural and ideological battles that used to break out between news organizations — like whether to say that President Trump lied — now play out inside The Times.

And The Times has swallowed so much of what was once called new media that the paper can read as an uneasy competition of dueling traditions: The Style section is a more polished Gawker, while the opinion pages reflect the best and worst of The Atlantic’s provocations. The magazine publishes bold arguments about race and American history, and the campaign coverage channels Politico’s scoopy aggression.

12) Good Yglesias piece on swing voters versus mobilizing the base:

Swing voters are extremely real

The notion that swing voters — voters who back one part in some elections and the other party in others — are mythical is itself a myth.

The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study conducted a large-sample poll and found that 6.7 million Trump voters said they voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2.7 million Clinton voters said they voted for Mitt Romney in 2016. In other words, about 11 percent of Trump voters say they were Obama voters four years earlier, and about 4 percent of Clinton voters say they were Romney voters four years earlier.

Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has this useful table:

A chart showing Trump, Clinton, Obama, and Romney voters, and how they intersect.Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics

By the same token, Yair Ghitza of the Democratic data firm Catalist estimates that while Democrats did make significant turnout-related gains in 2018, about 89 percent of their improvement vote margin is attributable to swing voting.

On issue after issue, the voters who a “mobilization” strategy would target are more moderate than consistent Democrats not more left-wing than them. There are plenty of inconsistent voters in America, and it’s smart to try to get them to vote for Democrats. But the inconsistent voters aren’t some secret bloc of hard-core progressives. The most ideologically committed progressives you’re going to find are the people already consistently pulling the lever for Democrats. In other words, no matter what fraction of the electorate Democrats are aiming to target, there’s no real case for becoming more ideologically rigid or adopting policy views that swing voters reject…

But on the big ideological questions, there’s no mobilization loophole that will let progressives evade the problem that some progressive ideas are unpopular. Third-party voters and drop-off voters are more progressive than D-to-R swing voters, which makes them a promising constituency to target. One reason that taking popular positions is smart politics is that it works as a mobilization strategy as well as a persuasion one…

Last but by no means least: While activists often paint a portrait of bold ideological positions firing up the party base, the available evidence suggests the opposite happens — bold ideological positions fire up the opposition partybase

Taking such positions might be a good idea anyway on the merits. Politics matters because policy matters, and a political party that never takes a righteous stand on anything is worth very much. But while centrist types can be wrong about which kinds of policy stances will be popular, there’s fairly overwhelming evidence that popular stands are better than unpopular ones — both because swing voters matter but also because taking popular positions is better from a strict mobilization standpoint.

13) Good stuff from Peter Wehner on Pete Buttigieg:

More impressive to me was the core theme of Buttigieg’s campaign, which he referred to as a “new kind of politics.” In the pre-Trump era, that may well have come across as an empty slogan; in the age of Trump, it captures an urgent national need.

During his campaign, Buttigieg spoke about what he called “rules of the road,” values that he wanted to make hallmarks of his candidacy and that included respect, responsibility, discipline, excellence, joy, and truth. This is what the Buttigieg campaign said about the latter:

Honesty is in our nature, and it is one of our greatest means of restoring faith in our democracy among everyday Americans and building a national movement rooted in trust and faith in our country and our beliefs. Internally and externally, our effort will be characterized by fidelity to the truth.

That is the kind of language and ethos that once would have appealed to Republicans, who now, under the spell of a president of corruptions without borders, have given up on virtue as a touchstone of political life. Politicians and presidents attempting to foster a climate of trust and mutual respect are snowflakes—or so many in the modern GOP and right-wing-media complex would have you think…

Here’s my hunch: Most Americans are bone-weary of Trump’s antics and aggression, his nonstop assault on reality and truth, his dishonoring of the office of the presidency, and his disordered personality. What Buttigieg understood is that the way to defeat Trump (and Trumpism) is to offer as an alternative seriousness to his unseriousness, grace to his gracelessness, equanimity to his instability.

Pete Buttigieg faced too many obstacles to win the Democratic nomination in his first national race, but his remarkable rise is an indication that he tapped into the longings of an exhausted country. Democrats, if they are wise, will nominate someone who does something similar, who shows he can calm the stormy seas rather than further roil them.

14) The federal judge in the following headline was a Bush appointee.  Barr is just the worst,  “Federal Judge Says He Needs to Review Every Mueller Report Redaction Because Barr Can’t Be Trusted”

15) I see Onion headlines most every day shared in social media, but I had not picked up on this, “How ‘The Onion’ Went Full-On Bernie Bro”

16) I keep meaning to say something about Ezra’s new book (got a couple others I want to finish first), but here’s a thoughtful review/analysis:

In Why We’re Polarized, his first book, policy, Klein’s stock-in-trade, recedes, and group psychology takes center stage. That wonk volte-face gives the book its charge. He presents polarization not as the creation of particular individuals but of interlocking systems. In fact, it is a book about two sets of systems. Concatenated personal and partisan identities confront a Madisonian constitution ill-suited to prolonged combat between two evenly matched, deeply divided parties. The results leave politically active individuals—“us”—enraged, and institutions teetering toward crisis. Klein takes up the same metaphor that journalists disillusioned with the party system adopted in the Gilded Age: a machine. But where they crusaded for reform, he concludes with caution…

Here Klein makes his most important move. Instead of highlighting one specific factor, he argues that they all feed on each other at once. Hairsplitting misses the point, which is interconnection across the polarization machine. In the words of the political scientist Lilliana Mason, “Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies.” Klein takes that insight and runs with it, telling a mega-story about mega-polarization. “The more sorted we are in our differences, the more different we grow in our preferences.” Elite and mass polarization reinforce one another. Above all, as partisanship becomes central to the identities of ever more Americans, leaping beyond policy preferences to feed on our sense of self, its corrosive, zero-sum psychological dynamics accelerate. Personal decisions—where to live, whom to marry—roll up inside these mega-identities: “polarization begets polarization; it’s a flywheel, not a switch.”

17) I’m in the, “actually, Bloomberg’s $500 million sort of worked” camp.  The counter-factual where Biden finishes poorly in Nevada, continues to lose support in South Carolina, and then sees a lot of that “moderate lane” support go to Bloomberg on Super Tuesday strikes me as utterly plausible.  No, things didn’t turn out Bloomberg’s way, but the fact that some very conceivable scenarios might have led us that way should make us rethink what money on a massive scale in primaries can buy.

18) Some interesting theories on why SARS-CoV-2 seems to hardly effect children:

But in studies with mice, his lab discovered that as animals age, their lungs take on damage that leads to structural changes that make them more susceptible to coronavirus infections. With SARS in particular, the older the mice, the sicker they got. “We know the lung environment really matters with this class of respiratory viruses,” says Perlman. “As people age, that lung environment changes. It gets pelted with pollen and pollution and the body responds with inflammation. A history of inflammation may impact how well you do with coronaviruses.”

More research is needed, but it’s a plausible explanation for Covid-19’s mild symptoms in children, says Creech. “The non-inflamed lung is a much less hospitable place for any virus to land,” he says. The next step would be to look at how children with less pristine lungs are faring in the outbreak—like kids with a history of asthma or babies who are born prematurely and lack a substance that helps keep open the tiny sacs in the lungs that exchange oxygen. If these kids experience severe Covid-19 symptoms too, then the “pristine lung” hypothesis holds up.

Another (highly speculative) possibility, says Creech, is that somehow kids may be leveraging their previous immune responses to the cold-causing coronaviruses they’re constantly being assaulted with. “Each of us is a little different in how we can modify the tips of our antibodies to latch on to foreign invaders,” says Creech. “It’s possible that recent coronavirus exposure in kids has led to the emergence of antibodies that have some cross-reactivity with the virus that causes Covid-19.” But, he stresses, so far there’s no evidence that’s what’s going on.

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