Universal pre-K– now!

Planet Money’s Greg Rosalsky sums up the latest very compelling research on the benefits of pre-K.  Added to previous research, there can only be one reasonable public policy conclusion.  Invest in pre-K and do it now.  There’s potentially huge benefits that mean materially and non-materially better lives for millions of Americans.

It is possible that at a truly national scale we wouldn’t see these benefits?  Maybe.  But at this point, the clear preponderance of the evidence is that this an absolutely great investment of public resources.  Maybe such that even Republicans can recognize this, too.  I also kind of love that the impact is not on test scores, but on all the far more subtle ways that help lead these kids to be successful and productive members of society.  Let’s make this happen.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) I meant to share this a while back– it’s so good.  Zeynep shares the insights of Whitney Robinson on meta-epistemology of epidemiology.  Basically goes through how she thinks about thinking about the pandemic, “How to reason when information is incomplete, uncertain and emotionally-fraught”

Principle 1. “Look to previous phenomena to know what questions to ask”

Principle 2. “Observed versus expected.” In other words, “Pay attention to unexpected data that has no natural constituency and to lack of data that are in high demand”…

Principle 3. “Beware of ‘sticky’ priors” 

2) Relatedly, loved this from Ellie Murray.  “I’m an epidemiologist. Here’s what I got wrong about covid.”  We should all do more of this.  For example, I put way too much stock in the potential value of therapeutics.  I have undoubtedly been more skeptical of findings that emphasize the role of children in transmission than those that suggest a small role.  Anyway, if you want to be a good thinker you should definitely be putting your own thinking under a skeptical focus. 

3) I really enjoyed Tim Harford’s The Data Detective.  In the last chapter, he talked about the power of curiousity and combating the “illusion of explanatory depth.”  I really love that idea.  Nice summary here:

If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, “Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.”

Rozenblit and Keil initially demonstrated the IOED through multi-phase studies. In a first phase, they asked participants to rate how well they understood artifacts such as a sewing machine, crossbow, or cell phone. In a second phase, they asked participants to write a detailed explanation of how each artifact works, and afterwards asked them re-rate how well they understand each one. Study after study showed that ratings of self-knowledge dropped dramatically from phase one to phase two, after participants were faced with their inability to explain how the artifact in question operates. Of course, the IOED extends well beyond artifacts, to how we think about scientific fields, mental illnesses, economic markets and virtually anything we are capable of (mis)understanding.

At present, the IOED is profoundly pervasive given that we have infinite access to information, but consume information in a largely superficial fashion. A 2014 survey found that approximately six in ten Americans read news headlines and nothing more. Major geopolitical issues from civil wars in the Middle East to the latest climate change research advances are distilled into tweets, viral videos, memes, “explainer” websites, soundbites on comedy news shows, and daily e-newsletters that get inadvertently re-routed to the spam folder. We consume knowledge widely, but not deeply.

Understanding the IOED allows us to combat political extremism. In 2013, Philip Fernbach and colleagues demonstrated that the IOED underlies people’s policy positions on issues like single-payer health care, a national flat tax, and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. As in Rozenbilt and Keil’s studies, Fernbach and colleagues first asked people to rate how well they understood these issues, and then asked them to explain how each issue works and subsequently re-rate their understanding of each issue. In addition, participants rated the extremity of their attitudes on these issues both before and after offering an explanation. Both self-reported understanding of the issue and attitude extremity dropped significantly after explaining the issue—people who strongly supported or opposed an issue became more moderate. What is more, reduced extremity also reduced willingness to donate money to a group advocating for the issue. These studies suggest the IOED is a powerful tool for cooling off heated political disagreements.

The IOED provides us much-needed humility. In any domain of knowledge, often the most ignorant are the most overconfident in their understanding of that domain. Justin Kruger and David Dunning famously showed that the lowest performers on tests of logical reasoning, grammar, and humor are most likely to overestimate their test scores. Only through gaining expertise in a topic do people recognize its complexity and calibrate their confidence accordingly. Having to explain a phenomenon forces us to confront this complexity and realize our ignorance. At a time where political polarization, income inequality, and urban-rural separation have deeply fractured us over social and economic issues, recognizing our only modest understanding of these issues is a first step to bridging these divides. 

I’m totally going to start having my students engage in this exercise of explaining things they think they understand.

4) Good stuff from PRRI on Republicans and the Big Lie.  This chart via main news source is not all the surprising, but still kind of amazing:

5) Good stuff from Zeynep on the Yankees outbreak:

So, yes, it does feel quite unusual for eight vaccinated people to test positive. That is almost certainly a cluster. Here’s what we know: it got detected after a coach, who had some mild symptoms but now no longer has any, tested positive. Then they found seven more people who tested positive, all of whom were completely asymptomatic. Here’s how the testing is done.

Everyone in the Yankees’ traveling party of 50 to 60 people is being tested three times a day using polymerase chain reaction, saliva and rapid tests. Thursday was the first day of no new positive test results since the outbreak began, Cashman said. “Maybe it’s slowing down,” he said.

For one thing, they should sequence these cases so we know if it was a variant or not, but the incident is still not a cause for worry. Here are some of the possibilities:

1-They are all positive because of a common source, likely a highly infectious individual. These people all got a bit of the virus, and the virus was able to replicate just enough to be picked up by PCR tests that are very sensitive and can pick up even very small amounts. They are testing people three times a day with PCR tests! They’ll pick up anything and everything, even the tiniest viral amount. The virus was obviously stopped in its tracks, so almost everyone is without symptoms. That sounds like a great outcome to me. 

A case of vaccine breakthrough is not the same thing as an unvaccinated or non-immune person catching COVID-19. Personally, if I had tested positive while unvaccinated, I’d be worried until it played out. Post-vaccination? For me, testing positive would be but a curiosity unworthy of my anxiety. There’s a reason that vaccine trials and real world data show so few severe cases, let alone hospitalizations or deaths. Post-vaccination, the virus would no no longer be able to surprise my immune system as a novel pathogen, and I’m not that worried whether it replicates just a bit in my nose before getting shut down.

The virus in the Yankees case might even have been a variant with some antibody evading features which gives the virus a bit more time to replicate (the mutations act like a disguise that slow down but don’t eliminate its eventual recognition) before the rest of the immune system shuts it down. None of the variants we have are in “disguises” (antibody evading mutations) that are 100% effective in hiding from the totality of the immune system, and it’s quite likely they never will get there. 

6) Really liked this, “Stop Deriding Liz Cheney: Demanding ideological purity among those who stand up to Trump is not a viable way to protect American democracy.”

Cheney deserves commendation for breaking with Trump and the GOP. The Republican Party’s refusal to accept the results of a free and fair election is an existential threat to our democracy. Defenders of liberal democracy of all political stripes should be applauding her honesty, courage, and refusal to bend the knee. 

But in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and progressive publications besides, journalists have been attacking Cheney. They say that it’s too little too late, label her a warmonger, or complain that she’s just too conservative. 

These critiques might be fair to level in a different circumstance, but raising them now as a reason not to applaud Cheney for standing up to her party is foolish. For five years, progressives asked for conservatives to come out and condemn Trump. Yet when they do, these same voices condemn conservatives within the Republican Party’s ranks for the sin of remaining conservative. It is ludicrous, if not reckless, to claim that the threat to the republic is imminent, and then rebuff potential allies who don’t come from the same ideological club…

Cheney could have gone along with Trump’s lie and stayed in Republican leadership. By fighting back, she is potentially sacrificing a powerful future in the party. Her quick rise up the party ranks shows that she is savvy enough to have had a clear shot at becoming speaker of the House. She was a State Department official and a viable future candidate for secretary of state or defense. She may have even had a chance at winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and becoming the first female president of the United States. 

Instead, she chose to be cast into the political wilderness. This might have been why she waited so long to come out against Trump. To many of us, January 6 was the climax of Trump’s attacks on democracy. For Cheney, it was a wake-up call. But she finally woke up, and now she is sacrificing a potentially great future. That is worthy of admiration and praise, not scorn.

That is not to say that any progressive should become a Cheney superfan. Nor does it mean that Democrats should start agreeing with her on policy. It only means that they should welcome her efforts to preserve our liberal democracy and admire her courage.

As much as some progressives would like to do away with conservatism, America is going to have a conservative political faction with significant influence over a major party. We cannot afford to apply an ideological purity test, especially one that bans all conservatives, in our efforts to save liberalism in America. One can object to Cheney’s views on foreign policy, or even oppose conservatism altogether, and still see Cheney as a welcome addition to the fight against illiberalism…

Defenders of liberal democracy in America, on both the left and the right, should take the same approach. The main political divide is no longer between conservatives and progressives, but between liberals and illiberals. Demanding ideological purity among our liberal allies is not a viable way to protect American democracy.

7) This. “To prevent next pandemic, scientists say we must regulate air like food and water”

8) This story is totally bonkers and it was also basically a one-day story.  Amazing what we’re willing to just accept from all the corrupt criminals in the Trump administration, “Activists and Ex-Spy Said to Have Plotted to Discredit Trump ‘Enemies’ in Government: The campaign included planned operations against President Trump’s national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster, and F.B.I. employees, according to documents and interviews.”

9) Years ago I learned just how bad drug-sniffing dogs are from a paper from one of my students.  They are so bad at it! And yet, our whole criminal justice system treats them as if they are infallible.  Some dogs will basically just indicate, “yes, drugs here” every damn time you ask them.  And the way they test these dogs is some embarrassingly bad I expect many an elementary school student could explain it:

Don’t blame Karma. The police dog simply followed his training when he helped local agencies impound vehicles that sometimes belonged to innocent motorists in Republic, Washington, an old mining town near the Canadian border.

As a drug detection dog, Karma kept his nose down and treated every suspect the same. Public records show that from the time he arrived in Republic in January 2018 until his handler took a leave of absence to campaign for public office in 2020, Karma gave an “alert” indicating the presence of drugs 100 percent of the time during roadside sniffs outside vehicles.

Whether drivers actually possessed illegal narcotics made no difference. The government gained access to every vehicle that Karma ever sniffed. He essentially created automatic probable cause for searches and seizures, undercutting constitutional guarantees of due process.

Similar patterns abound nationwide, suggesting that Karma’s career was not unusual. Lex, a drug detection dog in Illinois, alerted for narcotics 93 percent of the time during roadside sniffs, but was wrong in more than 40 percent of cases. Sella, a drug detection dog in Florida, gave false alerts 53 percent of the time. Bono, a drug detection dog in Virginia, incorrectly indicated the presence of drugs 74 percent of the time…

False alerts, which create problems for people like Farris and Said, sometimes have nothing to do with a dog’s nose. Brain scientist Federico Rossano, who studies animal communication with humans at the University of California, San Diego, says dogs have an innate sense of loyalty that can override their sense of smell.

“The tendency of producing signals even when they detect nothing comes from the desire to please the human handler,” he says.

Essentially, intelligent animals pick up subtle cues from their handlers and respond. Rossano says the communication often occurs by accident without anyone being aware.

Clever Hans, a horse celebrated in the early 1900s for his math ability, provides the most prominent example. The proud owner truly believed that Hans could solve arithmetic problems, but skeptics later proved that the horse merely was responding to facial expressions and body language from his human companion.

A 2011 study from the University of California, Davis, shows how cues can influence drug detection dogs. When human handlers believed that narcotics were hidden in test areas, their canine partners were much more likely to indicate the presence of drugs—even when no drugs actually existed.

Police participants did not like the implications. But rather than using the findings to improve their training techniques, they denounced the study and refused further cooperation.

They preferred a 2014 study from Poland, which eliminated the potential for false positives. Rather than simulating real-world conditions, researchers ensured that every test included measurable quantities of narcotics.

Participating dogs had no opportunity to sniff drug-free vehicles and communicate a lack of odor. The only correct answer was an indication for drugs. Karma could have aced such a test simply by sitting down every time. He would have looked like a prodigy, but a broken dial stuck on “alert” would have achieved the same result.

10) Speaking of bad criminal justice practices… the death penalty really needs to go.  Yes, there are some people who actually “deserve” it, but not at the cost of the fact that we just keep putting innocent people on death row.  And maybe executing some innocent people. “4 Years After an Execution, a Different Man’s DNA Is Found on the Murder Weapon
Lawyers’ request to conduct additional DNA testing before Ledell Lee was executed had been denied.”

11) Really liked this on diversity “training” at universities:

At a time when trainings are proliferating across institutions of higher learning, people could be forgiven for confusing training with education. But they are vastly different and should be seen as such especially when it comes to issues of diversity. The purpose of education, bell hooks reminds us, is critical thinking. Requiring “courage and imagination,” the “heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know — to understand how life works.” With hooks’s words in mind, here are 10 ways to tell training and education apart.

  1. Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
  2. Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
  3. Training rewards compliance, education curiosity.
  4. Training is having to say something, education having something to say.
  5. Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
  6. Training answers questions; education poses them.
  7. Training is generic; education all about context.
  8. Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
  9. Training promotes conformity, education independence.
  10. Training is performative; education is transformative.

Training has its uses. It can even save lives. (See CPR above.) But training is woefully inadequate when it comes to confronting social problems such as poverty, discrimination and racism. These are long-standing, knotty and complex issues that defy ready-made solutions. Any serious effort to address them must start with education, a process for which there are no shortcuts.

Consider these two hypothetical examples of a college trying to deal with issues of race and diversity. The first is a prototypical training module; the second takes an educational approach.

In many trainings, you likely will be told that your racial identity defines who you are — and that participants will be divided into two main racial affinity groups, white and BIPOC. You will be informed that white people are oblivious to race, while BIPOC people see everything through a racial lens. You will be advised that white folks use “white talk,” which is “task-oriented” and “intellectual,” whereas people of color use “color commentary,” which is “process-oriented” and “emotional.”

It will be explained to you that traits like precision, individualism and objectivity are hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.” “White supremacy” will be defined as an ideology that maintains “white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions of white people are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions.” In order to reveal unconscious biases, you will be made to share the racial stereotypes you hold and then catalog the racial microaggressions you have perpetrated. Finally, you will be encouraged to make a public commitment to transforming your institution into a “fully inclusive antiracist multicultural organization.”

12) OMG, I really do “know” that we just cannot build our way out of traffic.  And I’ve read many studies like this.  But even still, it’s so hard not to just want more lanes. “Asphalt, Gridlock and Common Sense: It’s clear that adding lanes to urban expressways or building new ones doesn’t reduce congestion. Sometimes it makes things worse. So why do we keep doing it?”

Sometimes in government, the best-laid strategies of policymakers and consultants are much less rational than ordinary common sense. Nearly everyone in America believes, correctly, that workers shouldn’t be yoked to their employers for health insurance, even though we can’t seem to change that. Nearly all of us can see that our zoning laws are a hodgepodge of outdated rules that ban mixed uses in neighborhoods badly in need of them. I could make a much longer list.

Other times, however, what seems the most elementary common sense turns out to be wrong. Nothing looks more obvious to most people than the idea that when a highway is choked with traffic, the solution is to expand it or build another road nearby. It looks like plain common sense, but it doesn’t work. A whole slew of examples from recent history is sufficient to prove the point.

There is, to cite one clear case, the Interstate 405 freeway in Los Angeles. In the first decade of the new century, it was such a traffic-clogged mess that people would leave social engagements hours early with the excuse that they needed a head start on the 405. So it was widened in a five-year project ending in 2014 at a cost of $1.8 billion. The benefits? Not very many. Travel times actually increased once the project was finished, although rush hours shortened slightly…

FIASCOES LIKE THESE run into the reality of “induced demand,” the phenomenon that lures more vehicles and more congestion to a highway after it is expanded than were there before. The idea goes back to the 1960s, when the economist Anthony Downs promulgated what he called “the law of peak-hour expressway congestion.” “On urban commuter roads,” Downs argued, “peak-hour congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.” Traffic planners, especially those in state highway departments, refused to believe it. They went with what they considered common sense and kept expanding and widening. They made a costly mistake.

What the numbers invariably show is that highways are vulnerable to latent demand — people who haven’t been using them start to fill them up once the capacity is expanded, especially at rush hour. Some are commuters who had been using public transportation; some are drivers who shift their trips to rush hour rather than the middle of the day; and some who hadn’t been making trips at all take to the highway. The combined result, in many cases, is more traffic than existed prior to the expansion.

But it isn’t just drivers suddenly venturing onto the highway. Expanded capacity means more development — new trucking depots and large numbers of employees who commute to work; new housing developments and shopping centers at the exits. All of this contributes to making a situation, if not greatly worse, then demonstrably no better.

13) Pretty fascinating post from Scott Alexander on prescription apps, which is pretty interesting in its own right.  In this case, the apps are for CBT-I (Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia), which I don’t need, but also find very interesting.  

14) I wish we didn’t live in a world where we so valued the lives of Americans over the lives of people in other countries.  Or that we weren’t such a damn tribal species.  But we do and we are, so arguments like this are so fantastically unrealistic that they just annoy me, “As pediatricians, we say please don’t use precious coronavirus vaccines on healthy children.” I mean, in reality, you can say this about the vast majority of resources spent on Americans, period, would have way way way more impact for good if spent in developing nations.  

15) Want to read a super-depressing assessment of the state of the world?  Here’s one from Noah Smith, “The Darkness: Illiberalism is on the march, all over the world.”

16) So, I just came across this from 6 years ago and, immodestly, was pretty happy with my results. “A Quick Puzzle to Test Your Problem Solving”

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really, really liked this from Yglesias on how young college-educated liberals are in a self-reinforcing bubble that drives the Democrats left in ways that hurt electoral competitiveness:

Twenty years ago, the gap in educational attainment and age between voters and staffers probably didn’t matter much because there was no systematic correlation between these factors and ideology.

Flash forward to 2020 and that’s not true anymore. Almost all of the work in politics — meaning not just campaigns, but congressional staff, advocacy groups, nonprofits, political media, etc. — is still being done by young college grads, but young college grads are way more left-wing than the median voter.1

This creates an important asymmetry. The natural demographic and sociological biases of conservative movement staffers tend to temper the cultural attitudes of the GOP base vote. But the natural demographic and sociological biases of progressive movement staffers, by contrast, pull them away from the median voter and toward the extremes. This can be a particular problem because of group polarization. If a group of young college graduates who start off with ideas to the left of the population median discusses something amongst themselves, they are likely to shift their views even further to the left…

I think that the clearest examples of this normally come from language and usage questions.

Carville cited the jargon term “Latinx” as his example of choice and it’s one that I’ve used myself. People then naturally question how much usage choice could really impact electoral politics, and I agree that it’s a little far-fetched. To me, the main utility of linguistic examples is they are highly visible and countable manifestations of group dynamics. If an organization has settled on “Latinx,” that is a sign that its internal culture is highly influenced by the norms of young college graduates. But I think the biggest issues are conceptual and substantive.

A contrast: talking about economics

Now to be clear, it is perfectly natural for political and policy debates to be shaped by academic work.

But here’s a useful contrast where I don’t think anyone goes in for “faculty lounge politics” — redistribution. In college, I learned of two main theoretical justifications for redistributive politics. There’s a utilitarian argument grounded in the declining marginal value of money, and there’s the Rawlsian argument about the difference principle and maximin. These are not particularly obscure ideas, and I bet a very large share of the people who work in progressive politics professionally could explain the policies they advocate for in these terms if they wanted to.

In practice, though, nobody does that. No elected official that I can think of tweets about progressive taxation as if they are trying to impress their professor. There’s an academic world and there’s a “talking in the real world” world, and though the worlds influence each other, they are separate. It’s very common for practical policymakers in the economics arena to have academic backgrounds, but one of the skills you are expected to master if you want to make that transition is the communication of ideas without making reference to declining marginal utility.

Not only does everyone understand that it would be dumb to try to communicate to the mass public in those terms, but also nobody mistakes this for saying that we shouldn’t talk about the policy issues that concerned Rawls or that motivate the utilitarian case for redistribution.

The problems with trying to practice faculty lounge politics in this area would be three-fold. One, it is simply not highly accessible to most people, especially to the persuadable or sporadic voters with who politicians are most interested in communicating. Second, the nature of academic work is that it incentivizes people to find hair-splitting realms of disagreement, whereas majoritarian politics involves assembling a big baggy coalition. You don’t want to commit yourself to a hyper-specific theoretical paradigm — you want to get a lot of people thinking you’re roughly on the right track. Last but not least, academic ideas tend to get a little extreme. You start with the observation that Bill Gates won’t miss $3,000 that could be life-changing to a single mom struggling to make the rent, and next thing you know you’re Peter Unger writing “Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence” and saying you’re a bad person if you splurge on a Mother’s Day present when that money could have done so much more good in Africa.

That’s not a critique of Unger, by the way. I try in my writing and in my personal practice to cultivate a more altruistic, more cosmopolitan view of the world, and it’s not his job to be politically palatable. But at the end of the day, you can’t take the politics out of politics…

I happened to be in Elizabeth Warren’s Senate office when she’d just described “the hard truth about our criminal justice system: It’s racist … front to back.” This brought her tons of criticism from police chiefs who felt she was insulting them and their officers. I heard a poor staffer on the phone explaining that Warren was saying the criminal justice system disproportionately punishes Black people, not that every single police officer holds bigoted sentiments against Black people.

Of course, to me, it was obvious what she meant.

But Warren, who was literally a professor for most of her career before becoming a politician, ended up with an electoral coalition that was overwhelmingly tilted to highly educated people. I think it’s probably also not coincidental that Massachusetts is the most educated state in the union. If the population demographics of Massachusetts were typical of the United States, then a strategy of recruiting a lot of unusually charismatic professors to run for office would make a lot of sense. But it’s actually an extreme outlier state, and what works there isn’t going to work at large unless you are very deliberate about it.

Yet I think one feature of the BA bubble is that it actually makes it somewhat hard to identify and address weaknesses.

Warren’s problem was clearly an across-the-board lack of appeal to less-educated people. The campaign conceptualized this as a weakness with African Americans that they tried to address with a successful campaign to court Black activists. But these activists, much younger and better educated than the Black primary electorate, turned out to have no sway with the voters she was seeking. I heard a lot that her real problem was sexism, but the fact is she did better with college-educated men than with non-college women.

Of course, as I learned in my women’s studies class at college, just because a view is widely held by women doesn’t mean it’s not in some sense sexist or about gender. But again, I think the faculty lounge insight that views of Warren have something to do with ideas about gender roles mostly just served to obscure the kind of basic point that non-college Democrats — white, Black, men, women, everyone — weren’t on board, and it would be wise to try to address that.

2) And let’s follow that up with Chait, “Elizabeth Warren’s Book Shows She Has No Idea Why Her Campaign Failed”

But sexism alone has a hard time explaining why Warren took the lead in national polls of primary voters before collapsing in the fall of 2019. Surely, the reason many of the voters who were prepared to nominate her changed their mind is not that they learned her gender.

Warren’s account ignores the possibility that her campaign simply misjudged the electorate, both within the party and outside it. As a result, she positioned herself too far left, which not only cost her support among Democrats, but created well-founded concerns — even among Democrats who liked her ideas — about her ability to beat Trump. (I was one of those voters. My initial enthusiasm for her candidacy gave way to dismay at her apparent lack of political savvy.) Perhaps she would have lost no matter what she did, but her strategic choices seem to have hurt her chances in ways she does not acknowledge.

At the outset of her campaign, Warren staked her ground closer to the ideological center of the party. She labeled herself “capitalist to my bones,” pledged to avoid any tax increases on the middle class, and emphasized her interest in reforming the most dangerous and antisocial corporate behavior. This was in keeping with Warren’s identity as a former Republican who had been inspired to join public life in response to egregious abuses of the financial system.

Yet the competition with Sanders pulled her farther and farther left. Not only did she join other candidates in endorsing highly unpopular proposals like completely decriminalizing border enforcement and providing subsidized health insurance to undocumented immigrants, but she continued to load new program after new program onto her platform.

The biggest trouble came in her decision to junk her health-care plan. Warren initially promised to bring about universal health insurance by building on Obamacare. In 2019, she decided to join Sanders by endorsing Medicare for All. Bringing 150 million people currently covered by employer health insurance onto government rolls, increasing the federal budget by more than half, would make it impossible for her to keep her promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

Warren does briefly describe a damaging debate in which other candidates piled on the questionable math assumptions undergirding her plans. She doesn’t consider that her own decision to abandon her original health-care plan put her in a position where those questions were so easy to ask and so difficult to answer.

In February 2020, at a moment Biden’s campaign was bottoming out, Perry Bacon astutely noted that the balance of power within the Democratic primary was held by voters with “somewhat liberal” views. Warren’s campaign, though, has spent a year sprinting away from those voters, as if the party was actually torn between social democracy and democratic socialism.

Warren shares her obvious pride at her refusal to accept large donations, which steered her toward a mass donor base that eventually raised well over $100 million. This strategy, Warren argues, freed her from having to cater to the views of wealthy funders. She fails to consider the possibility that the need to constantly excite her small donor base with a constant string of new progressive announcements may have entrapped her in a different way.

The most painfully oblivious sections are when Warren describes her efforts to woo Black and Latino activists, whose endorsements she equates with wooing those communities as a whole. After one speech about racism, she exults, “the Washington Post said it was the speech Black activists had been waiting for.” The release of her cutting-edge progressive criminal-justice plan “got a good reception” from an activist, whose approving tweet she quotes with satisfaction. Her endorsement by “Black Womxn For” is a moment of triumph in the narrative.

Despite the extensive detail of her hard work to win over activists, she shows no measures of broader Black sentiment. In February 2020, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon detailed how Warren’s success with Black and Latino political activists had yielded barely any support among actual Black and Latino voters. Warren’s strategy, noted Herndon, revealed “the limits of using the language of progressive activists to speak to a Black community that is more ideologically diverse.”

That disconnect became even more starkly evident the following November when Trump made shocking gains with conservative-leaning Black and Latino voters. That result produced a searching examination of the disconnect between the increasingly left-wing cadre of young, college-educated activists on the left and its voters, especially the party’s disproportionately Black and brown moderate wing.

3) This is definitely not great, “‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation: Social and psychological forces are combining to make the sharing and believing of misinformation an endemic problem with no easy solution.”

There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.

4) For the truly polling minded of you, this report from Data for Progress is an absolute must-read.

In the week before the 2020 general election, Data for Progress conducted polling in 15 states with best-in-class accuracy. As we analyze our performance we’ve drawn three important conclusions:

  • Partisan Nonresponse and Activist Overrepresentation: Conservative white voters are opting out of polling, while liberal voters are disproportionately opting in, creating an underlying bias in our respondent pools. We also have evidence that liberal partisan activists are systematically overrepresented in our surveys.

  • Geographic Heterogeneity in Respondents: There are substantial differences between urban and rural white voters in terms of likelihood of voting Biden in 2020 or switching from Trump to Biden. Respondents living in zip codes which display the most firm Trump support are less likely to respond to polls — even when you control for their partisanship and other demographics.

  • Geographic Heterogeneity in Electoral Performance: Biden overperformed House Democratic candidates in heavily white suburban and urban counties, and underperformed them in rural counties that were majority non-white.

5) And here’s the NYT version:

After the 2016 election, when pollsters underestimated Donald Trump’s support in many key states, post-mortem reports indicated that firms had often failed to account for the differences between white voters with and without college degrees.

“Weighting” data by education — that is, making sure that a survey had the right level of representation across education levels, particularly within racial groups — was cemented as standard operating procedure.

But the Data for Progress team has found that this may not be enough. Its report showed significant, consistent differences within education groups that had an effect on whom they reached. Not all white conservative voters with college degrees will vote similarly — and not all of them will be equally likely to respond to a survey.

A particularly big factor was where people lived: The team found that a respondent’s social environment — who their neighbors are — may matter more than their educational level.

In particular, Fischer said: “There are substantial differences among white conservatives that we aren’t picking up on. A college-educated white Republican in a rural, consistently Trump-supporting ZIP code is different from one in an urban or Biden-supporting ZIP code.”

“We’re hearing from more of the Biden-supporting ZIP codes, and less of the non-Biden-supporting ones,” he added. “And because of that, we can’t just weight by education and expect that to be solved.”

6) Okay, something positive, “Dare we hope? Here’s my cautious case for climate optimism”

The organization Carbon Tracker, whose reports are usually somber reading, just put out a report so stunning the word encouraging is hardly adequate. In sum, current technology could produce a hundred times as much electricity from solar and wind as current global demand; prices on solar continue to drop rapidly and dramatically; and the land required to produce all this energy would take less than is currently given over to fossil fuels. It is a vision of a completely different planet, because if you change how we produce energy you change our geopolitics – for the better – and clean our air and renew our future. The report concludes: “The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” Those barriers seemed insurmountable at the end of the last millennium.

7) I gotta say, at this point in the pandemic I agree with the school systems taking a less rigorous approach towards school quarantines.  

8) Good (and depressing/disturbing) summary from 538, “Advantage, GOP: Why Democrats have to win large majorities in order to govern while Republicans don’t need majorities at all” This is going into a syllabus or two:

For a variety of reasons — some long-standing, some intentional, others newer or incidental — the political institutions that make up the field of American politics are

Take the Senate. Republicans currently hold half of the seats in that chamber even though they represent just 43 percent of the U.S. And it’s not just the Senate — the Electoral College, the House of Representatives and state legislatures are all tilted in favor of the GOP. As a result, it’s possible for Republicans to wield levers of government without winning a plurality of the vote. More than possible, in fact — it’s already happened, over and over and over again. 

Minority rule has always been possible in the U.S., as we saw during the Jim Crow era, when white people manipulated elections and obstructed Congress in order to suppress the rights of a Black majority in many Southern states. The founders purposely designed many of our federal institutions to only indirectly reflect the will of the people — in political science lingo, they made them “counter-majoritarian.”

And for most of our nation’s history those minority protections helped both parties in roughly equal measure. In other words, to revisit our tennis game analogy, the two players regularly switched sides of the court, but now, that isn’t the case. 

Instead, according to political scientist Rob Mickey and author of “Paths Out of Dixie,” a book about enduring antidemocratic rule in Southern states, our institutions are now being “weaponized and used … by a coherent set of actors with a coherent set of interests and preferences” — the modern GOP. Increasingly seeing the appeal of minority rule as demographic change shrinks the voting power of their heavily white coalition, Republican leaders are using their institutional leg up to try and take steps — like enacting voting restrictions, but also attempting to undermine the results of popular elections — that entrench their advantage even more solidly. And because these institutions interact to shape the game, its rules and its arbiters, they reinforce one another in an antidemocratic feedback loop. In this way, institutions that have long kept our democracy balanced are now threatening to unravel it.

It may seem dramatic to suggest that Republicans are overriding democracy to win power when Democrats currently control all three elected legs of the federal government: the presidency, Senate and House. But in order to secure them, Democrats had to go above and beyond winning a simple majority of votes, like a tennis player having to ace all of her serves on a particularly windy day.

By now, Democrats’ disadvantage in the Electoral College is well-documented. President Joe Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, yet he won Wisconsin — the state that gave him his decisive 270th electoral vote1 — by only 0.6 points. In other words, Biden needed to beat former President Donald Trump nationally by more than 3.8 points2 in order to win the White House outright. (However, Trump wouldn’t have won outright unless Biden had won the popular vote by fewer than 3.2 points, thus losing Pennsylvania as well.3 The Electoral College’s Republican bias in 2020 thus averaged out to 3.5 points — but either way, it’s the most out of sync the Electoral College has been with the popular vote since 1948.)

9) Loved this bit of social science research.  I need to figure out how to incorporate this into my own research, “The Salience of Children Increases Adult Prosocial Values”

Organizations often put children front and center in campaigns to elicit interest and support for prosocial causes. Such initiatives raise a key theoretical and applied question that has yet to be addressed directly: Does the salience of children increase prosocial motivation and behavior in adults? We present findings aggregated across eight experiments involving 2,054 adult participants: Prosocial values became more important after completing tasks that made children salient compared to tasks that made adults (or a mundane event) salient or compared to a no-task baseline. An additional field study showed that adults were more likely to donate money to a child-unrelated cause when children were more salient on a shopping street. The findings suggest broad, reliable interconnections between human mental representations of children and prosocial motives, as the child salience effect was not moderated by participants’ gender, age, attitudes, or contact with children.

10) I really hate calling things violence that aren’t actually violence.  Thus, I really liked this in Persuasion, “Silence Isn’t Violence: There’s a better way to stand up for justice than to punish those who aren’t quick to condemn.”

“Silence is violence,” goes the slogan. But what is the right response when someone says something so offensive that it deserves to be condemned? And what is the right response to someone who fails to condemn, but they or others wish they had?

In a well-reported episode from March, Sandra Sellers, a Georgetown Law professor, was fired after comments she made to a colleague over Zoom about Black students’ performance in her class went viral. The colleague, David Batson, lost his job as well: He left because, as he wrote in his resignation letter, he “missed the chance to respond in a more direct manner to address the inappropriate content of those remarks.”

“This experience has provided me, and I hope others, an invaluable opportunity to reconsider what actions should be taken when we encounter insensitive remarks,” Batson wrote.

If this is now the standard, I wonder who among us will be capable of living up to it, and what the cost will be.

Self-censorship, in the academy and elsewhere, is a legitimately worrisome phenomenon. People fear punishment for saying the wrong thing. But this new wrinkle—the impulse to compel speech, and the resulting fear of being punished for not speaking up—is just as worrisome.


There are plenty of reasons why someone might fail to condemn offensive remarks in the moment. One is “tonic immobility,” the feeling of being frozen in stressful situations. It’s cousin to the more familiar “fight-or-flight” stress responses that are triggered in the amygdala, one of the oldest parts of our brain. The freeze response is another involuntary defense mechanism we’ve inherited from our evolutionary past.

The problem is that the lesson professors and other professionals will take away from the Georgetown Law episode is that the freeze response can end one’s career. The episode also teaches that there’s nothing to be gained by taking the time to think through a response or quietly correct a colleague: Better to pull the pin out of the hand grenade.

But in order to be ready to condemn, we’d have to walk through the day ready for confrontation—anticipating that at any moment we will have good reason to condemn. That is no way to live. Yet increasingly, readiness to condemn seems to be what people expect of themselves and others. As we demand that people have ripostes at the ready, it means we’re entering conversations armed, our words sharpened, weaponized. Like jacked-up warriors, we’re almost disappointed if we don’t encounter something worthy of condemnation.

Of course, there are circumstances when the failure to condemn is itself a legitimate target for condemnation. The former president’s failures to condemn white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 spring to mind. He had time and a cadre of advisers to help him think through what he might say. As a person with tremendous political power and cultural influence whose words might have prevented violence, he had a moral duty to condemn.

But in our daily conversations as ordinary citizens, we can afford a more forgiving standard. In fact, we need a more forgiving standard if we are to rebuild the social trust that has been in such sharp decline.

11) It’s getting hot in here, “NOAA unveils new U.S. climate ‘normals’ that are warmer than ever”

12) Fair take from Drum on Fox, “Rupert Murdoch Has Destroyed the Country, Part 753”

It is natural that Democrats trust the government more when a Democrat is president while Republicans trust government more when a Republican is president. However, a new study confirms something we’ve seen before: Republicans are far more partisan than Democrats. Here’s the basic chart, helpfully colorized by me:

This partisan difference among Republicans became even larger starting in the Bush era:

This is yet another demonstration of the malignant effect of Fox News. Before 2000, Republicans were somewhat more partisan than Democrats in their trust of government. After 2000 they went absolutely bonkers. This is what Rupert Murdoch has done to us.

13) I liked this from Yglesias on vaccinations, “We should get people vaccinated against Covid-19: The case for a serious, whole-of-government effort”

Make the vaccine mandatory

There’s obviously not going to be a national rule that everyone has to get a Covid vaccine.

But the maps of states that require an MMR or DTaP vaccine for kids to go to school are really boring because all 50 states require it.

This is a state rather than a federal issue. But we now have a vaccine authorized for use in kids as young as 12, and Pfizer is talking about getting authorization for kids as young as two by September. Biden’s Education Department can encourage states to add the Covid vaccine to their requirement list, and can also just flip to straightforwardly agreeing with Republicans about school openings, emphasizing that if teachers are worried about Covid, they should get vaccinated.

Over 100 colleges are already requiring Covid vaccinations, and university administrators tend to be the kind of people who care what Democratic Party presidents say, and Biden should encourage more to do that.

Biden can also clarify that while employers need to accommodate people with bona fide religious or medical reasons to avoid vaccination, requiring vaccination as a condition of employment is allowed. My guess is most employers won’t do that, but it’s common for healthcare facilities to require staff to get flu shots, and it would be reasonable to do the same for Covid shots.

Covid-19 was the leading cause of death among police officers last year, yet vaccination rates among police officers are very low.

“I hate to sound like I don’t care, but I really don’t,” one union rep told The Washington Post.

Well, I care whether cops die on the job and I also care whether they spread illness among the public. The International Association of Police Chiefs says it’s legal for departments to mandate vaccination, and blue states and cities should go forward with that. If the officers that are so brain-poisoned by right-wing politics that they won’t take a vaccine choose to resign, that’s not the worst thing either.

Last but by no means least, the military requires all kinds of vaccinations but has not yet made the Covid vaccine mandatory. I think that was a damaging decision. Vaccine refusal rates in the military appear to be high, and I’m honestly not surprised. Military officers order soldiers to take vaccines all the time. And they also order soldiers to do dangerous things all the time. Given the nature of the military setting, failure to mandate the vaccine signals some kind of profound lack of confidence. And I worry it could emanate out from the service members to their friends and family on the civilian side. If we want people vaccinated, we should require vaccination where plausible.

Substance over process

Now what people say about all this is the military “can’t” mandate a vaccine that’s only available under Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA. I’ve also heard that some public colleges and universities are worried about litigation here, though others say that’s nonsense. Certainly it’s not stopping Rutgers.

Be that as it may, I am not an attorney, so don’t take legal advice from me.

To me, the key thing is that Biden needs to set a substantive goal and then bend the process to that end. If we want people to take the vaccine, then either make exceptions to the rules that require full authorization or else get the full authorization done. It’s a bit absurd that we don’t have a nominee to run the FDA while we’re in the middle of a huge global public health crisis, but this issue is frankly too big to be left up to process-focused career civil servants. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and neither is Biden.

But at a certain point, Biden needs to decide whether he trusts the scientific and medical advice he is being given. From everything I understand, the vaccines are safe and effective and people should be encouraged to take them. Biden also appears to have been told that and believes that it is true. It’s not his job as President of the United States to make the regulatory agencies believe as if they believe themselves on this subject…

Vaccinate America’s kids

The New York Times article about likely FDA approval of vaccinating teenagers contained this nugget that I thought was revelatory:

“I do think we need to have a national and global conversation about the ethics of our vaccinating kids, who are low risk for serious complications from the virus, when there aren’t enough vaccines in the world to protect high-risk adults from dying,” said Jennifer B. Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Now Joe Biden is a politician. And he’s a pretty good one. He didn’t get where he is by telling mothers to deprioritize their children’s health in order to help foreigners. That’s not going to be the policy of his administration, nor would it be the policy of any administration.

He has to be aware, though, that many well-credentialed public health experts think that’s immoral. But those experts are conversely aware, of course, that “no American teens can get vaccinated until we’ve hit every person in the developing world over 50” is not a rule that will fly in the basic American political context. The experts will look at me ranting and raving about how the only CDC guidance about summer camps should be vaccinate the older kids and the staff and they’ll say “well, it wouldn’t actually be the worst thing in the world if a lot of Republicans decided not to vaccinate their children.”

To some extent they’re right — you wouldn’t want to waste shots by mandating them for middle school and high school students next fall when we could be shipping that medicine to Indonesia. The problem is then those same people are going to point to the existence of continued Covid infections and millions of unvaccinated children as the reason various mandates and warnings need to stay in place.

It’s going to take real leadership to say, no, we are not going to do that. We are taking Covid seriously and our strategy to beat it is to vaccinate, and we are going to vaccinate everyone. Give Covax all the money in the world. Global vaccination should absolutely be the Biden administration’s number two priority — but that means pursuing it primarily by trying to boost vaccine production. The number one priority has to be pulling every lever possible to vaccinate as many Americans as possible.

14) Why am I so pro-vaccine?

15) OMG I love this experiment.  The twitter thread provides very nice details.  And I love that the person who I first saw re-tweeting it accurately summed up that this is why we see all the (misguided) beach shaming.

 

Quick hits (part I)

1) Bernstein:

You want to know something really depressing? Now is the time when Republicans have the least to fear from former President Donald Trump. There’s more than a year to go until the 2022 midterm elections, and at least 10 months until the primaries for those elections. Trump left office at one of his low points in popularity. Sure, most Republican voters still like him — as most Republicans like most Republican politicians (other than congressional leaders, who are almost always unpopular).

Not only that, but Trump’s electoral defeat is still fairly recent news. If there was ever a time to move away from him, it’s now.

That, of course, is not what’s happening. Just in the last few days, angry Utah Republicans hooted at Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to remove Trump from office after his impeachment trials. Over in the House of Representatives, Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming is apparently in danger (again) of losing her leadership post because she insists on accurately saying that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. And believing — or at least pretending to believe — Trump’s fantastic lies about nonexistent voting fraud is increasingly the central belief Republican elected officials must share

My guess is that this has little to do with Trump. Republican complaints about fictional election fraud were central to their legislative agenda in state after state well before Trump’s 2016 campaign. It’s true that the specifics of that agenda have shifted somewhat in response to Trump’s whining. What that shows more than anything, however, is that attempts to hijack elections may only be the secondary motive for these laws; the primary reason for them is for Republican elected officials to convince their strongest supporters that they are doing their best to repress Democrats and various Democratic groups. 

That’s why fictional election fraud is such a good issue for many Republicans right now. Opposing Biden and the Democratic legislative agenda, after all, would tend to unite the party. But a united Republican Party is the last thing that Republican radicals want. They need enemies; they need apostates they can label “Republicans in name only” to prove that they are the true conservatives. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s continuing lies are so obviously an attack on the Constitution, the rule of law and the American republic that Republicans such as Romney and Cheney refused to go along. For the radicals, that’s exactly the kind of opportunity they rarely fail to exploit.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that any of this will seriously damage Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Elections tend to ride on what voters think about incumbents, not challengers. There is a slim possibility that the party will split and make itself unelectable. And there’s a somewhat greater chance that it will wind up throwing away a handful of elections by nominating candidates who run well behind what a generic candidate would do, as it’s done repeatedly over the last decade. For the most part, however, the out-party’s actions don’t have much to do with its electoral success.

The real damage continues to be to the party’s capacity to govern when it does win. And, even more seriously, to the party’s commitment to core democratic beliefs and procedures. Depressing, indeed — and scary.

2) Yeah, so this… “Experts: CDC’s Summer-Camp Rules Are ‘Cruel’ and ‘Irrational’”

With all this good news related to the pandemic in the U.S. and the relaxing of a number of controls, the CDC’s newly released guidance for summer camps is notable for its rigidity and strictness: Masks must be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old. The exceptions are for eating and swimming. (The guidance helpfully notes that if a person is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, no mask need be worn.) Campers must remain three feet apart from each other at all times including, again, outdoors. Six feet of distance must be maintained during meals and between campers and staff. If you need to sneeze and you don’t have a tissue, do it into your mask. (Children presumably are expected to carry a cache of spares.) Campers and staff should be cohorted, and any interaction with a person outside the cohort must be conducted at a distance of six feet. Art supplies, toys, books, and games are not to be shared…

For much of last summer, when COVID-19 rates were on par with where they are now — before half the adult population was vaccinated and millions of children had acquired immunity naturally — many camps had far fewer restrictions and there was no corresponding wave of related outbreaks.

The combination of masking and social distancing of children outdoors, said Dimitri Christakis, an epidemiologist and the editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, the leading journal for pediatric medicine, “is unfairly draconian.” We should let kids be close and play, he said. And with rapid testing twice a week on a rolling basis, a relatively easy program to conduct, he added, we should be able to forgo masks. Even without testing, Christakis said that sports like soccer should be able to be done without masks. And that “keeping children masked for activities like baseball and tennis is ridiculous.”

Mark Gorelik, a pediatric immunologist at Columbia University and an expert on MIS-C, the rare COVID-19-related inflammatory syndrome, said, “We know that the risk of outdoor infection is very low. We know risks of children becoming seriously ill or even ill at all is vanishingly small. And most of the vulnerable population is already vaccinated. I am supportive of effective measures to restrain the spread of illness. However, the CDC’s recommendations cross the line into excess and are, frankly, senseless. Children cannot be running around outside in 90-degree weather wearing a mask. Period.”

An infectious-disease scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci’s agency, spoke with me about the CDC guidance on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “With staff and parents vaccinated, there is no reason to continue incredibly strict mitigation efforts or put severe limitations on activities,” they said. “Charitably,” the scientist, who has an expertise in respiratory viruses, continued, “masking kids at camp outdoors is simply virtue signaling. Requiring kids to continuously wear masks at camps, even while outside playing in the heat, when it provides little additional protection is unfair and cruel to our children. Considering that children are at incredibly low risk for developing severe illness, the minimal benefits of mask wearing do not outweigh the substantial costs of discouraging children to be active and their overall health.

3) We’re doing some survey experiments with some cool PSA’s we made.  Check out this one.  At the end of the survey there’s an option for open-ended feedback.  This one was just amazing:

In case you’re wondering.  I’m not getting the vaccine any time soon because I’m pissed off about the government lockdowns and the blatant lying by the CDC, and Fauci, about the actual research studies that prompted the state mandated lockdowns.  Refusing to get the vaccine is the only thing that I have control over in this whole unconstitutional situation.  So even though I compleley trust the vaccines, and I believe that they work remarkably well, and that refusing to get the vaccine is not in my best interest nor in the best interest of society as a whole, I am still going to say no.  I’ll get the vaccine when I’m done being pissed off.

4) Speaking of vaccines, I’m so tired of the media trying to scare people about variants for clicks when the reality is more like this, “Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine is Highly Effective Against Variants, Studies Find: Two studies showed the vaccine to be more than 95 percent effective at protecting against severe disease or death from the variants first identified in South Africa and the U.K.”

5) Given the current reality, I’d be disappointed if my or my kid’s university was doing on-line only graduation.  NC State is doing multiple outdoor graduations.  I am disappointed, though, that the PS ceremony where we get to see our graduates and meet their families is not happening.  

6) The lost Franklin expedition of 1845 is fascinating.  I’ve not watched AMC’s The Terror, but read Dan Simmon’s novel upon which it’s based.  Now there’s this, “His Ship Vanished in the Arctic 176 Years Ago. DNA Has Offered a Clue.: For the first time, researchers have identified the remains of a sailor from the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

7) I gotta say, I’m not impressed by the prison abolition movement.  There’s so much we need to do a lot better, but I think there’s pretty solid models in Europe rather than a utopian vision of prison abolition:

The book, which débuted on the Times best-seller list, offers an entry point into the world of abolitionist politics, beginning with an essay titled “So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist.” It contains several basic but profound observations: “Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized.” If there is a mismatch between punishment and crime, and crime and harm, then what is the intent of the criminal-justice system and the police it employs? Kaba refers to the “criminal punishment system” to emphasize that justice in the United States means a promise of retribution much more than an effort to understand why an infraction has occurred. She writes, “If we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.” When we spoke, Kaba told me, “I am looking to abolish what I consider to be death-making institutions, which are policing, imprisonment, sentencing, and surveillance. And what I want is to basically build up another world that is rooted in collective wellness, safety, and investment in the things that would actually bring those things about.” …

Our current criminal-justice system is rooted in the assumption that millions of people require policing, surveillance, containment, prison. It is a dark view of humanity. By contrast, Kaba and others in this emergent movement fervently believe in the capacity of people to change in changed conditions. That is the optimism at the heart of the abolitionist project. As Kaba insists in her book, “The reason I’m struggling through all of this is because I’m a deeply, profoundly hopeful person. Because I know that human beings, with all of our foibles and all the things that are failing, have the capacity to do amazingly beautiful things, too. That gives me the hope to feel like we will, when necessary, do what we need to do.” Abolition is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even the guiding lights of the movement are embedded in campaigns for short-term reforms that make a difference in daily life. For Kaba, that has meant raising funds for mutual aid during the pandemic and campaigning for reparations in Chicago. For Gilmore, it has meant working with incarcerated people and their families to challenge the building of prisons across California. For Angela Davis, it has meant lending her voice to movements for civil and human rights, from Ferguson to Palestine. The point is to work in solidarity with others toward the world as they wish for it to be. “Hope is a discipline,” Kaba writes. “We must practice it daily.”

8) Looks like MDMA (aka Ecstasy) can be remarkably effective as part of a treatment regime for PTSD.  It’s a shame to think of the human suffering we could have been alleviating without such a moralistic and binary approach to so many potentially beneficial drugs:

In an important step toward medical approval, MDMA, the illegal drug popularly known as Ecstasy or Molly, was shown to bring relief to those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder when paired with talk therapy.

Of the 90 people who took part in the new study, which is expected to be published later this month in Nature Medicine, those who received MDMA during therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms compared with those who received therapy and an inactive placebo. Two months after treatment, 67 percent of participants in the MDMA group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with 32 percent in the placebo group.

MDMA produced no serious adverse side effects. Some participants temporarily experienced mild symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite.

“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” said Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”

Mental health experts say that this research — the first Phase 3 trial conducted on psychedelic-assisted therapy — could pave the way for further studies on MDMA’s potential to help address other difficult-to-treat mental health conditions, including substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, eating disordersdepressionend-of-life anxiety and social anxiety in autistic adults.

And, mental health researchers say, these studies could also encourage additional research on other banned psychedelics, including psilocybin, LSD and mescaline.

“This is a wonderful, fruitful time for discovery, because people are suddenly willing to consider these substances as therapeutics again, which hasn’t happened in 50 years,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of the new study.

9) The latest on Neanderthals

Estatuas cave in northern Spain was a hive of activity 105,000 years ago. Artifacts show its Neanderthal inhabitants hafted stone tools, butchered red deer, and may have made fires. They also shed, bled, and excreted subtler clues onto the cave floor: their own DNA. “You can imagine them sitting in the cave making tools, butchering animals. Maybe they cut themselves or their babies pooped,” says population geneticist Benjamin Vernot, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), whose perspective may have been colored by his own baby’s cries during a Zoom call. “All that DNA accumulates in the dirt floors.”

He and MPI-EVA geneticist Matthias Meyer report today in Science that dirt from Estatuas has yielded molecular treasure: the first nuclear DNA from an ancient human to be gleaned from sediments. Earlier studies reported shorter, more abundant human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from cave floors, but nuclear DNA, previously available only from bones and teeth, can be far more informative. “Now, it seems that it is possible to extract nuclear DNA from dirt, and we have a lot of dirt in archaeological sites,” says archaeologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University.

“This is a beautiful paper,” agrees population geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute. The sequences reveal the genetic identity and sex of ancient cave dwellers and show that one group of Neanderthals replaced another in the Spanish cave about 100,000 years ago, perhaps after a climate cooling. “They can see a shift in Neanderthal populations at the very same site, which is quite nice,” Skoglund says.

In what Skoglund calls “an amazing technical demonstration,” they developed new genetic probes to fish out hominin DNA, allowing them to ignore the abundant sequences from plants, animals, and bacteria. Then, they used statistical methods to home in on DNA unique to Neanderthals and compare it with reference genomes from Neanderthals in a phylogenetic tree.

All three sites yielded Neanderthal nuclear and mtDNA, with the biggest surprise coming from the small amount of nuclear DNA from multiple Neanderthals in Estatuas cave. Nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal male in the deepest layer, dating to about 113,000 years ago, linked him to early Neanderthals who lived about 120,000 years ago in Denisova cave and in caves in Belgium and Germany.

But two female Neanderthals who lived in Estatuas cave later, about 100,000 years ago, had nuclear DNA more closely matching that of later, “classic” Neanderthals, including those who lived less than 70,000 years ago at Vindija cave in Croatia and 60,000 to 80,000 years ago at Chagyrskaya cave, says co-author and paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid.

At the same time, the more plentiful mtDNA from Estatuas cave shows declining diversity. Neanderthals in the cave 113,000 years ago had at least three types of mtDNA. But the cave’s Neanderthals 80,000 and 107,000 years ago had only one type. Existing ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones and teeth had also pointed to a falloff in genetic diversity over the same period.

Arsuaga suggests Neanderthals thrived and diversified during the warm, moist interglacial period that started 130,000 years ago. But about 110,000 years ago, temperatures in Europe dipped suddenly as a new glacial period set in. Soon after, all but one lineage of Neanderthals disappeared. Members of the surviving lineage repopulated Europe during later, relatively warm spells, with some taking shelter in Estatuas cave.

10) The Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebasitan Aho had the team’s first hat trick of the season this week.  I was disappointed to learn that the team makes no effort to return the hats to the fans (some teams do).  

11) John Swartzwelder wrote a ton of iconic Simpsons episodes (and way more episodes than any other writer), but is known for being extraordinary private and reclusive.  Thus, a real treat to read this new interview with him.  

12) I’m entirely open to the scientific possibility that we don’t actually need to vaccinate all our kids to keep them safe and Covid well-contained (I like that formulation better than “herd immunity”).  But, the sociological/psychological reality is that there’s too many parents (and teachers) who won’t be able to relax and behave normally till all the kids are vaccinated— so let’s do it. “Do Kids Really Need to Be Vaccinated for Covid? Yes. No. Maybe.: Many experts argue that Covid-19 cannot be curbed without vaccinating children. But others aren’t so sure.”

13) I was shocked to see an ad for Dr Pepper Zero the other day.  As those who know me in real-life know, I absolutely swear by my Diet Dr Pepper (or DDP as we refer to it in the Greene household).  Fortunately, it’s not being replaced and we’ll have a Diet Coke/Coke Zero kind of thing going on here.  Also, I am curious about it.  

14) I remember being really intrigued by David Buss’ work on sex and evolutionary psychology a long time ago (in fact, I even used to discuss it in my Gender & Politics class).  I imagine it is less welcome than ever on the left.  Here’s a pretty interesting summary from his new book:

Professor David M. Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, states in the introduction of his fascinating new book that it “uncovers the hidden roots of sexual conflict.” Though the book focuses on male misbehavior, it also contains a broad and fascinating overview of mating psychology.

Sex, as defined by biologists, is indicated by the size of our gametes. Males have smaller gametes (sperm) and females have larger gametes (eggs). Broadly speaking, women and men had conflicting interests in the ancestral environment. Women were more vulnerable than men. And women took on far more risk when having sex, including pregnancy, which was perilous in an environment without modern technology. In addition to the physical costs, in the final stages of pregnancy, women must also obtain extra calories. According to Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women in their final trimester require an additional 200 calories per day, or 18,000 calories more in total than they otherwise would have required. This surplus was not easy to obtain for our ancestors. Men, in contrast, did not face the same level of sexual risk.

These differences in reproductive biology have given rise to differences in sexual psychology that are comparable to sex differences in height, weight, and upper-body muscle mass. However, Buss is careful to note, such differences always carry the qualifier “on average.” Some women are taller than some men—but on average men are taller. Likewise, some women prefer to have more sex partners than some men—but on average men prefer more. These evolved differences are a key source of conflict.

One goal of the book is to highlight situations in which sexual conflict is diminished or amplified to prevent victimization and reduce harm.

Because of the increased risk women carry, they tend to be choosier about their partners. In contrast, men are less discerning. Studies of online dating, for example, find that most men find most women to be at least somewhat attractive. In contrast, women, on average, view 80 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. Another study found that on the dating app Tinder, men “liked” more than 60 percent of the female profiles they viewed, while women “liked” only 4.5 percent of male profiles.

The book provides a simple figure to understand the ongoing conflict between men and women.

Men are constantly trying to manipulate women into moving closer to their preferred optimum, and women are likewise relentlessly influencing men to inch closer toward theirs. Buss writes, “If women and men could agree in advance on a compromised middle-ground solution that was perfect for neither but acceptable for both … they could avoid many of these costs.”

Because sexual risks are higher and sexual mistakes are more dangerous for women, they prefer to wait longer to evaluate a potential partner for suitability. For men, sexual mistakes are viewed differently. Research indicates that when asked to reflect on their sexual history, women are more likely to regret having had sex with someone, while men are more likely to regret having missed out on sexual opportunities. 

Even in the most egalitarian countries, men prefer more sexual partners compared to women. In Norway, researchers asked people how many sex partners they would prefer over the next 30 years. On average, women preferred five, men preferred 25. Even the desire to kiss before intercourse differs between the sexes. About 53 percent of men report that they would have sex without kissing, while only 14.6 percent of women would have sex without kissing. These different preferences can give rise to sexual conflict.

15) Pretty interesting stuff from Gallup on proof of vaccination status:

Americans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities Based on COVID-19 Attitudes
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Vaccination status  
Have been/Will be vaccinated 74 71 59 56 52
Will not get vaccinated 8 7 6 6 5
Worry about getting COVID-19  
Very/Somewhat worried 77 72 66 59 55
Not too/Not at all worried 49 48 36 37 34
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021
Partisans’ Preferences for Proof of Vaccination to Participate in Activities
% Who favor businesses requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to do each over the next several months
  Travel by airplane Go to events
with large crowds
Go to your worksite
to do your job*
Stay in a hotel Dine in
at a restaurant
  % % % % %
Party identification  
Democrat 85 82 69 66 62
Independent 47 47 38 35 30
Republican 28 25 16 22 19
*Among those employed full or part time.
GALLUP PANEL, APRIL 19-25, 2021

16) There’s a 9 inch(!) moth in Australia.

The giant wood moth was discovered by a construction worker at the Mount Cotton State School.

Credit…Mount Cotton State School

17) This is terrific.  “‘I seek a kind person’: the Guardian ad that saved my Jewish father from the Nazis: In 1938, there was a surge of classified ads in this newspaper as parents – including my grandparents – scrambled to get their children out of the Reich. What became of the families?”

18) David Frum argues that China is actually a paper dragon and not nearly as scary as we think.

Undergirding these examples and dozens more like them is Beckley’s clarifying theoretical insight: Repression is expensive.

The lines that plot the comparative GDP of the United States and China distort the real balance of power between the two societies, Beckley argues, because China must devote such a large share of its resources to basic subsistence needs to avert the overthrow of the state.

Beckley dramatizes this point with historical context. The concept of GDP did not exist in the 19th century, but economists have retrospectively reconstructed those figures backward into time. They have found that in the 1800s, the Chinese empire had a GDP much larger than that of Great Britain. The Chinese army of 800,000 men also enormously exceeded Britain’s troop numbers. Yet when the two states clashed in the two Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1842 and again in 1858, China was crushingly defeated. Why?

A great part of the answer, then as now, was the cost of repression.

Nineteenth-century China faced an average of 25 local uprisings a year. Most of its troops had to be deployed to suppress rebellions and control banditry, leaving few available for war-fighting.

The next part of the answer is that mass is not power.

Although China’s resources were enormous in the aggregate, most were consumed by the basics of subsistence. In the 19th-century, Britain produced only half as much as China, but it did so with one-thirteenth the population—making more wealth available for more purposes.

A final piece of the answer is that technological copycats face huge disadvantages against technological innovators. They will always lag behind the more creative rival, not only in the factory, but on the battlefield. “Repeatedly during the Opium Wars … Chinese armies of thousands were routed in minutes by a few hundred, or even a few dozen, British troops,” Beckley notes.

19) Looks like I was wrong on this and I truly believe that when you opine on stuff it’s important to admit when you are wrong (and even better to grapple with why you were).  For now, here’s Drum: “Update: The J&J Vaccine Pause Probably Had No Effect on Vaccine Hesitancy”

20) Always read Ash Jha: “We may not reach herd immunity. That’s okay.”

After an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign over the past four months, vaccine demand has begun to soften, leading to hand-wringing in some quarters about whether the United States will achieve herd immunity or whether we will be living with the coronavirus months and years from now.

The answer is, it’s not that simple. And just as important, it may not matter that much.

Herd immunity is not a clear line. The virus will not be eradicated the moment we administer the shot that gets us to herd immunity. The term describes the inflection point at which each infection results in less than one additional infection and outbreaks sputter out. You can think of it like a wildfire surrounded by firebreaks, where the blaze ultimately burns out without additional interventions.

It’s not hard to see how it came to be viewed as the pandemic finish line, but that line has shifted. Estimates of herd immunity have been adjusted upward from the 60 percent to 70 percent that we expected last year, to 80 percent more recently, largely because of new variants that are more contagious. The threshold is determined by factors beyond vaccination, including immunity due to prior infections, seasonal effects such as humidity and time spent indoors, who is immune and who isn’t, and broader behavioral factors such as whether people are engaging in any public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
 
Real-world evidence from Israel and the United Kingdom suggests that even without hitting the herd immunity threshold, vaccination can drive infections way down. Why? Because immunity in a population is not like an on-off switch. As populations begin to build up immunity, infection spread begins to slow. If people practice even modest levels of public health measures such as mask-wearing indoors or avoiding large crowds, it may be enough to drive infection numbers down substantially. To stretch the fire metaphor, even if you don’t have the flames surrounded on all sides, a little bit of a drizzle combined with some firebreaks may be enough to keep it from burning out of control…

The coronavirus pandemic marks the clearest dividing line in most of our lives. But while the pandemic had a clear beginning, the ending will be much more gradual. As vaccination rates slow, we will require a resource-intensive ground game to reach more and more unvaccinated people and push us toward herd immunity. It is indeed possible that we may not reach that elusive threshold, or we might get there for a period only to have waning immunity, new variants or changes in behavior drop us below that threshold. But with infection numbers low and modest mitigation efforts in place, we will see small outbreaks that will affect the unvaccinated and burn out quickly. The terrifying surges of the past year will be behind us. And the things we value most in our lives — time with family and friends, social gatherings with colleagues, entertainment and sports — things we have missed so much, will be possible and safe.

This pandemic will end when the risk it poses, and the strategies necessary to mitigate that risk, fade into the background and become part of normal life. To get there, we should focus less on the herd immunity threshold, vaccinate more people and get on with our lives. As the old saying goes, pandemics end with a whimper, not with a bang. This one, too, will end. With a whimper.

21) This was very interesting, but I think in some ways misguided, “The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles: A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Some might not be very green” Yes, there’s absolutely local, significant environmental costs to mining all that lithium.  But on a global cost/benefit scale the benefits are so much greater.  Of course we should minimize the harm we do from mining lithium, but, let’s keep this in big picture perspective.

22) I’ve been following the whole global efforts and patents controversy at some remove so I’m a little cautious, but Alex Tabarrok seems pretty right based on what I do know:

For the last year and a half I have been shouting from the rooftops, “invest in capacity, build more factories, shore up the supply lines, spend billions to save trillions.” Fortunately, some boffins in the Biden administration have found a better way, “the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic.”
Waive IP protections. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that???

Patents are not the problem. All of the vaccine manufacturers are trying to increase supply as quickly as possible. Billions of doses are being produced–more than ever before in the history of the world. Licenses are widely available. AstraZeneca have licensed their vaccine for production with manufactures around the world, including in India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, China and South Africa. J&J’s vaccine has been licensed for production by multiple firms in the United States as well as with firms in Spain, South Africa and France. Sputnik has been licensed for production by firms in India, China, South Korea, Brazil and pending EMA approval with firms in Germany and France. Sinopharm has been licensed in the UAE, Egypt and Bangladesh. Novavax has licensed its vaccine for production in South Korea, India, and Japan and it is desperate to find other licensees but technology transfer isn’t easy and there are limited supplies of raw materials:

Virtually overnight, [Novavax] set up a network of outside manufacturers more ambitious than one outside executive said he’s ever seen, but they struggled at times to transfer their technology there amid pandemic travel restrictions. They were kicked out of one factory by the same government that’s bankrolled their effort. Competing with larger competitors, they’ve found themselves short on raw materials as diverse as Chilean tree bark and bioreactor bags. They signed a deal with India’s Serum Institute to produce many of their COVAX doses but now face the realistic chance that even when Serum gets to full capacity — and they are behind — India’s government, dealing with the world’s worst active outbreak, won’t let the shots leave the country.

Plastic bags are a bigger bottleneck than patents. The US embargo on vaccine supplies to India was precisely that the Biden administration used the DPA to prioritize things like bioreactor bags and filters to US suppliers and that meant that India’s Serum Institute was having trouble getting its production lines ready for Novavax. CureVac, another potential mRNA vaccine, is also finding it difficult to find supplies due to US restrictions (which means supplies are short everywhere). As Derek Lowe said:

Abolishing patents will not provide more shaker bags or more Chilean tree bark, nor provide more of the key filtration materials needed for production. These processes have a lot of potential choke points and rate-limiting steps in them, and there is no wand that will wave that complexity away.

Technology transfer has been difficult for AstraZeneca–which is one reason they have had production difficulties–and their vaccine uses relatively well understood technology. The mRNA technology is new and has never before been used to produce at scale. Pfizer and Moderna had to build factories and distribution systems from scratch. There are no mRNA factories idling on the sidelines. If there were, Moderna or Pfizer would be happy to license since they are producing in their own factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week (monopolies restrict supply, remember?). Why do you think China hasn’t yet produced an mRNA vaccine? Hint: it isn’t fear about violating IP. Moreover, even Moderna and Pfizer don’t yet fully understand their production technology, they are learning by doing every single day. Moderna has said that they won’t enforce their patents during the pandemic but no one has stepped up to produce because no one else can.

The US trade representative’s announcement is virtue signaling to the anti-market left and will do little to nothing to increase supply.

What can we do to increase supply? Sorry, there is no quick and cheap solution. We must spend. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed spent on the order of $15 billion. If we want more, we need to spend more and on similar scale. The Biden administration paid $269 million to Merck to retool its factories to make the J&J vaccine. That was a good start. We could also offer Pfizer and Moderna say $100 a dose to produce in excess of their current production and maybe with those resources there is more they could do. South Africa and India and every other country in the world should offer the same (India hasn’t even approved the Pfizer vaccine and they are complaining about IP!??) We should ease up on the DPA and invest more in the supply chain–let’s get CureVac and the Serum Institute what they need. We should work like hell to find a substitute for Chilean tree bark. See my piece in Science co-authored with Michael Kremer et. al. for more ideas. (Note also that these ideas are better at dealing with current supply constraints and they also increase the incentive to produce future vaccines, unlike shortsighted patent abrogation.)

Bottom line is that producing more takes real resources not waving magic patent wands.

Quick hits (part II)

1) One of my more idiosyncratic academic interests is the 19th century American political parties.  So, of course I loved seeing “What can Never Trump learn from the nineteenth century’s Free Soilers?”

The annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the Wilmot Proviso all served to deepen the rifts in the Democratic Party. Antislavery Northern and master-race Southern Democrats found themselves increasingly at odds with one another, feuding over the direction of the party as well as the nation. Building off their Jacksonian ideology, Democrats who opposed the so-called “peculiar institution” saw their fight against slavery as a continuation of their battle against entrenched power and corrupt elites. Others, like William Leggett, viewed it as the natural outgrowth of their egalitarian ethos. In time, they understood their fight against the “money power” of banks and corporations to be the same as the battle against the “slave power,” viewing both as threats to American liberty. For these Democrats, opposing slavery was the only logical conclusion to the democratic revolution Jackson had launched. Walt Whitman called these men members of “the Undaunted Democracy.”

With the nomination of Lewis Cass for the 1848 election on the Democratic ticket, a supporter of popular sovereignty, antislavery Jacksonians expressed their protest in the formation of the Free-Soil Party. In a powerfully symbolic gesture towards antislavery unionism, the Free Soilers nominated Andrew Jackson’s former Vice President, Martin Van Buren, and Charles Francis Adams, the son of the man Jackson had defeated. Their platform boiled down to the slogan, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men!”

Despite their antislavery stance, however, the Free-Soil Party stopped well short of the complete abolition of slavery. Despite their heady goals of halting the spread of slavery, with such little political infrastructure, numerous organisational weaknesses, and intense internal divisions, the Free-Soil Party did not win a single state, though a few did win election to the House of Representatives.

Diehard Free Soilers were soon marginalised and spent years in the political wilderness, out of power and with almost no influence. To make matters worse, many of these Democrats returned home following the failure of Van Buren’s presidential bid. The antislavery wing of the Democratic Party continued to quarrel with one another, so much so that Francis Blair lamented, “It is unfortunate that we should be splitting our fragment of a party into smaller fragments by making new strife among our leading men.” Despite Preston King’s best efforts at the 1854 New York Democratic convention to convert the party into a free-soil party, the Southern pull of the party proved too strong. Realising there was no room from in the party of Jackson, men like King bolted, finding their way into the newly formed explicitly antislavery Republican Party.

As Jonathan H. Earle in his masterwork on the antislavery Democrats notes, “The Jacksonian element within the Republican party was by no means a majority, or even a dominant voice. But the genius of the early Republicans lay in their ability to attract various Free-Soil Democrats, Liberty men, and Whigs under a single antislavery banner.” Soon, savage critics of the Jacksonians like the radical Whig Thaddeus Stevens found themselves in the same party. Though at odds on numerous policy debates and in matters of best governance, former rivals shared the common goal of putting slavery on the course for ultimate destruction from the United States. Combining their efforts and forgetting past feuds, antislavery Democrats were able to bolster the Republican coalition that won Abraham Lincoln the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln’s victory was the result of an antislavery amalgamation.

With Trump’s defeat in 2020, the question is whether or not Never Trumpers will formally join the Democratic Party, or try and reform the Republican Party, or embrace an exile from party politics. All three have risks and rewards. Naturally, appeals to conservative voters will not score points for Biden with the online left and party progressives. Likewise, if Never Trump Republicans like The Atlantic’s David Frum, CNN’s S.E. Cupp, and The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell do formally join the Democratic Party, it will likely be greeted by Trumpsters as confirmation of their ‘fake’ conservative credentials. There is also the possibility that Never Trumpers will lose their identity in becoming Democrats. Free Soil Democrats faced similar questions and the lessons they offer are complex though poignant.

2) This is really great from John McWhorter, “How the N-Word Became Unsayable” [McWhorter actually uses the word, but I’m not going to because I sure don’t need people searching my blog and finding it, even if just quoting a NYT column]

In 1934, Allen Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, laid out the history of the word that, then, had “the deepest stigma of any in the language.” In the entire article, in line with the strength of the taboo he was referring to, he never actually wrote the word itself. The obscenity to which he referred, “fuck,” though not used in polite company (or, typically, in this newspaper), is no longer verboten. These days, there are two other words that an American writer would treat as Mr. Read did. One is “cunt,” and the other is “[n-word].” The latter, though, has become more than a slur. It has become taboo.

Just writing the word here, I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not.

 “[n-word]” began as a neutral descriptor, although it was quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people. Its evolution from slur to unspeakable obscenity was part of a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups. It is also part of a larger cultural shift: Time was that it was body parts and what they do that Americans were taught not to mention by name — do you actually do much resting in a restroom?

That kind of concern has been transferred from the sexual and scatological to the sociological, and changes in the use of the word “[n-word]” tell part of that story. What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people. (I should also note that I am concerned here with “[n-word]” as a slur rather than its adoption, as “nigga,” as a term of affection by Black people, like “buddy.”)…

Rather, the modern American uses “the N-word.” This tradition settled in after the O.J. Simpson trial, in which it was famously revealed that Detective Mark Fuhrman had frequently used “[n-word]” in the past. Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor, refused to utter the actual word, and with the high profile of the case and in his seeming to deliberately salute Mr. Read’s take, by designating “[n-word]” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Mr. Darden in his way heralded a new era.

That was in 1995, and in the fall of that year I did a radio interview on the word, in which the guests and I were free to use it when referring to it, with nary a bleep. That had been normal until then but would not be for much longer, such that the interview is now a period piece.

It’s safe to say that the transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective or something a prosecutor said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.

This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “[n-word]” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

3) I’ve been hearing for a while about the super-high lumber prices.  Finally, I know why.  Pretty fascinating.  

Since 2018, a one-two punch of environmental harms worsened by climate change has devastated the lumber industry in Canada, the largest lumber exporter to the United States. A catastrophic and multi-decade outbreak of bark-eating beetles, followed by a series of historic wildfire seasons, have led to lasting economic damage in British Columbia, a crucial lumber-providing province. Americans have, in effect, made a mad dash for lumber at the exact moment Canada is least able to supply it.

Climate change, which has long threatened to overturn dependable facts about the world, is now starting to make itself known in commodities markets, the exchanges that keep staple goods flowing to companies and their customers. For years, scientists and agricultural forecasters have warned that climate change could result in devastating failures among luxury goods, such as fine chocolate and wine. Others have speculated about several grain-producing regions slipping into a simultaneous drought, a phenomenon dubbed “multiple breadbasket failures.” But for now, a climate-change-induced shortage is showing up more subtly, dampening supply during a historic demand crunch.

“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”…

This has produced a surge in home construction—and with it, a need for Canadian softwood lumber. Among builders, the preferred “species” of wood for framing homes is called Canadian SPF, or Canadian spruce-pine-fir, Jalbert said. As its hyphenated name gives away, SPF is not a single species of tree, but a catchall industry name for conifers grown in the northern boreal forest. If you’re in a relatively new American home or low-rise building right now—or if you can see one out the window—there’s a good chance it’s made of SPF imported from Canada, specifically British Columbia or Alberta.

Canadian SPF is grown in orderly tracts of forest that span much of Canada’s northern belt. Starting in 1999, an outbreak of bark-eating mountain pine beetles has ravaged conifer forests across the American and Canadian West. It has been especially bad in British Columbia, which exports about half of its lumber to the U.S.

“The mountain pine beetle has been a force of nature in this current epidemic,” Cooke said. The beetle has devoured 18 million hectares of forest in British Columbia alone, killing 60 percent of its merchantable pine. The outbreak has been accelerated by “weather associated with climate change,” Cooke said. A series of unusually warm winters has failed to kill the usual number of mountain pine beetles, allowing populations to swell to unprecedented size. Nor have two decades of unusually dry and drought-riddensummers helped. When trees are drought-stressed, they’re less able to mount a defense to the beetle, and they succumb more quickly.

Across North America, the woodland affected by the beetle—a tract stretching from Montana to Saskatchewan—totals 27 million hectares, an area more than three-quarters the size of Germany.

The outbreak has required quick thinking from regulators and lumber companies. In the early years, British Columbia “went into salvage mode,” Cooke said. Loggers followed the path of the beetle, felling dead trees as quickly as they could. If collected in the first year or two after dying, beetle-blighted timber is essentially as high-quality as freshly felled trees. “But the longer it stands dead, the less useful it is,” Cooke said. “You can use it for pallets and pellets, but not that nice construction-grade timber.” At the same time, loggers cleared around the affected forest, hoping to cut off the outbreak’s expansion.

This approach worked for more than a decade. As the outbreak expanded, the province maintained its lumber production. But trees take a long time to grow in the harsh climes of British Columbia. With its bountiful sunlight and warm, wet weather, Florida can grow a pine to merchantable size in 15 years, but “in 15 years, a tree is not much taller than me here,” Cooke said. Canadian forests take 40 to 60 years to reach maturity. Looking ahead, British Columbia foresaw a production gap, a decades-long span when it would have no trees to harvest. That shortfall was predicted to begin about now.

4) Kate Winslet is terrific in Mare of Easttown, but, damnit, I expect HBO to spare me the melodramatic twists worthy of General Hospital or Dallas.  Alas.

5) I did not realize kids and berries was some weird instagram thing.  Apparently, some people are starting to notice that berries are expensive.

Why would we who can afford it—but not really—put ourselves through this? As year-round strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries have become absolutely ubiquitous on kid-food Instagram—that pleasing Technicolor world of carefully arranged fruit rainbows and nicely packed PlanetBox Rovers—some parents are beginning to push back on the fruits’ dominance. “Can I complain about the overuse of fresh berries in baby/kid food media?” wrote a commenter on a post by Amy Palanjian, whose account is @yummytoddlerfood. “They’re in most meals that I see on Instagram, and in my neck of the woods they’re very expensive most of the year and don’t last long.”…

The prices that middle-class parents moan about, others have recently pointed out on the social network where berries are king, put fresh berries totally out of reach for others. Dalina Soto, whose Instagram account is @your.latina.nutritionist, recently described going to the supermarket with her child, who “LOVES berries,” and grabbing a mixed 2-pound container of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. At the checkout counter, she realized that it was $18.25. “I can afford this but WTF,” she wrote. “I just heard my mom’s voice in my head: ‘Tu ta loca, pon eso pa’tra!’ [‘You’re crazy, put that back!’]” She got a 2-pound container of blueberries instead for $7.99—still, she wrote, “more than what a worker at that store probably makes” in an hour.

I’m long on record as saying the biggest difference in my lifestyle if I were super-rich is that I’d simply eat all the raspberries I wanted regardless of cost.  I think I could easily eat $8-10/day and that’s just not justifiable.  Relatedly, it’s strawberry season in NC and in-season, local strawberries are so much better than what typically survives the journey to the Food Lion or Harris Teeter. 

6) Speaking of kids, I don’t recall how I came across this 13 year old New Yorker article about EB White and Stuart Little, but I loved it as that is one of my very favorite kids’ books.

7) This is full of colorful goodness in Wired, “How Pixar Uses Hyper-Colors to Hack Your Brain: The animation studio’s artists are masters at tweaking light and color to trigger deep emotional responses. Coming soon: effects you’ll only see inside your head.”

8) We don’t notice what’s not happening, but excellent point from Fareed Zakaria, “Ten years later, Islamist terrorism isn’t the threat it used to be”

9) A really under-appreciated point– the U.S. actually kicked ass in our economic response to Covidcompared to a bunch of other modern democracies.

When my editors asked me to write a story for our Pandemic Playbook series on the country that I thought “got Covid-19 right” economically, I immediately looked abroad. I spent a few weeks researching and writing about Japan, which has kept unemployment low and spent big to fight the economic downturn.

But as I was working on my Japan article, the US adopted Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion behemoth of a bill. With that step coming after the two Trump relief bills, the US just about matched Japan’s spending to fight the downturn. And as I looked into the details, it became impossible to deny that the US spent the money better…

No country handled the economic shock of Covid-19 perfectly. Every country, the US included, made mistakes, sometimes grave mistakes. But a detailed comparison suggests that the US had the strongest economic response to the pandemic, in terms of providing income to its citizens during lockdown and ensuring a strong, rapid recovery as the economy began to reopen.

“The US will come out of this economically better than any country that was similarly affected by the virus,” Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard and former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, says.

10) We have to do criminal justice so much better.  Far too many headlines like this.  Not just an innocent mistake– a lazy mistake.  “KARE 11 Investigates: Innocent MN family held at gunpoint in SWAT no-knock warrant raid: Mother and child terrorized in bungled no-knock warrant raid. A KARE 11 investigation reveals Minneapolis police failed basic checks and hit the wrong address.”

11) OMG this makes me so mad.  If neo-Nazis started calling it the Hitler High Five should people stop giving each other high fives?  Like, “look at those high-fiving after a white guy scored a goal– must be a white power high five.”  I just don’t get the desire to live in the world where every action is given the worst possible interpretation and people let right-wing neo-nazis and trolls redefine ordinary hand gestures! “No, ‘Jeopardy!’ Champ Kelly Donohue Didn’t Make the ‘White Power’ Hand Gesture”

12) Relatedly, I loved this.  I have not watched “Nomadland” but did notice that it was a work about “nomads” in the American West, created by a Chinese woman.  Sounds great if that’s your type of movie.  Alas, a lot of people might have been complaining about a white American making a movie about Chinese people.  Look for the universals in the human experience, damn it!  Great artists do that, regardless of their own demography.  

On Sunday, Chloé Zhao won an Oscar for best director for her film Nomadland, becoming the first Asian woman to win the award. Zhao’s win is rightfully being celebrated by women and communities of color everywhere.

Zhao, 39, was raised in China and educated in London and New York. Nomadland is her third successive film that focuses on life in the American West. On the surface, Zhao has little in common with her protagonists, who include a pair of Native American siblings struggling with life on a reservation, a rodeo cowboy recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and, most recently in Nomadland, a 50-something teacher who adopts a nomadic lifestyle after losing her job. But this did not stop her from daring to tell their stories. In fact, the very thing that makes Zhao such an interesting filmmaker is the steady hand she brings to films whose protagonists experience a world wholly unlike her own. 

Zhao’s success has come at a time when critics are questioning the legitimacy of filmmakers telling stories as community outsiders. Last year, the filmmaker Lulu Wang publicly criticized Ron Howard’s decision to direct a film about the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. “As a classically-trained pianist born in China, I believe it’s impossible to tell Lang Lang’s story without an intimate understanding of Chinese culture and the impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists and intellectuals and the effects of Western imperialism,” Wang tweeted.  

Wang alludes to a movement that prioritizes stories whose creative leadership is “deeply tied to those communities” they aim to depict. Proponents of this perspective claim that, for too long, stories have been told by outsiders, which harms the communities portrayed. This can be true, and advocates are right to ensure that some films are chronicled by those with lived experience. But if this belief is the new paradigm for who can tell whose stories, will it not also work to prevent Zhao, a Chinese woman, from portraying the lives of those in the American West? Given the praise for Zhao, one is left wondering what actual standards are being applied.

Zhao says that her directing method allows her to more accurately portray lives so different from her own. She blends the real and the fictional by casting nonprofessional actors, incorporating their real-life stories into her scripts, and encouraging on-screen improvisation. “By staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside,” she says.

In Howard’s case, Lang Lang, whose story is at the center of the film, co-wrote the source material and is helping to produce the project. Even this, however, was not enough to shield the film from Wang’s experience-based criticism. Staying close to the truth, whether scripted or unscripted, does not seem to be a defense to the condemnation of “outsider” storytelling.

Elevating the work of non-white filmmakers is a worthy goal because viewpoint diversity allows great art to flourish. But in the uncritical embrace of Zhao’s filmmaking, those pushing the “lived-experience” norm have created a double standard. If they really mean that white filmmakers should not be allowed to tell the stories of non-whites, they should say so clearly and present a coherent argument for it. Otherwise, the prevailing standard will lead to the exclusion of great works like Zhao’s. 

13) One of those epidemiological studies I really enjoyed digging into:

In-person schooling has proved contentious and difficult to study throughout the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Data from a massive online survey in the United States indicates an increased risk of COVID-19-related outcomes among respondents living with a child attending school in-person. School-based mitigation measures are associated with significant reductions in risk, particularly daily symptoms screens, teacher masking, and closure of extra-curricular activities. A positive association between in-person schooling and COVID-19 outcomes persists at low levels of mitigation, but when seven or more mitigation measures are reported, a significant relationship is no longer observed. Among teachers, working outside the home was associated with an increase in COVID-19-related outcomes, but this association is similar to other occupations (e.g., healthcare, office work). While in-person schooling is associated with household COVID-19 risk, this risk can likely be controlled with properly implemented school-based mitigation measures.

14) Back before streaming lots of TV shows paid for only short-term rights for the music they used.  Not great for many shows that rely heavily on music.  Dawson’s Creek even lost its theme song!

15) Prepare for a major expansion of how the Supreme Court interprets the 2nd Amendment.  Also, to be fair, if we stipulate that the 2nd Amendment is an individual right (I don’t agree with that decision, but that’s’ where we are), I think there’s a very reasonable case to be made that NY’s law is, in fact, too strict.  

16) I am so with Ezra on this, “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat”

It’s these next paragraphs where I fear I might lose you. It’s easier to argue for human welfare than animal welfare. I spent most of my life not just as a meat eater, but as an enthusiastic one. I posted my burgers on Instagram and I sought out the perfect roast chicken. Even now, I don’t believe it’s necessarily immoral to eat meat. What I believe is immoral is the way we treat animals in most factory farms. And the scale of that suffering melts the mind.

A reasonable estimate is that about 70 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year, a vast majority of them chickens. My colleague Nick Kristof has written eloquently about the plight of Costco’s rotisserie chickens, but the horrors do not end there. I’ve spoken with farmers who lie awake with guilt over the way they treat their animals, but they are so buried in debt to the agricultural conglomerates that they see no way out for themselves.

We treat too many animals like inputs, and their suffering as a mere byproduct. Cheap meat isn’t really cheap. It’s just the animal that paid the cost, living in conditions so gruesome I fear describing them. But suffice it to say: If we could produce the meat we want without the suffering we now inflict, it would be one of the great achievements of our age.

My reason for optimism is technological: There have been remarkable strides made in plant-based meat — witness the success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — and milks. And the next step is cultivated meat, which is meat grown directly from animal cells. This isn’t science fiction: There’s now a restaurant in Singapore where you can eat lab-grown chicken made by Eat Just. Unsurprisingly, it tastes like chicken, because that’s what it is.

But so far, most of these advances, most of these investments, are through private dollars, with the findings locked up in patents, by companies competing with one another for market share. We’re going to need to move faster than that. “If we leave this endeavor to the tender mercies of the market there will be vanishingly few products to choose from and it’ll take a very long time,” Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, told me.

This is where policymakers can, and should, come in. At its heart, the American Jobs Plan is a climate bill. But there isn’t a dollar for alternative proteins, despite animal agriculture’s huge contributions to both climate and pandemic risk. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a failure of policy design. Luckily, it’s easily fixed.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Big fan of Noah Smith and big fan of Julia Galef (pretty sure I’ll read her new book) so I enjoyed the former interviewing the latter.  I also feel like I’m already pretty good at this Scout mindset thing.  I sure love knowing stuff and being right, but, generally, I take being wrong as an opportunity to learn new things:

N.S.: So I hear you have a new book! It’s called “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t”. I’m going to read it, but why don’t you give me a preview of what it’s about!

J.G.: I do! It’s about, unsurprisingly, the scout mindset — which is my term for the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. In other words, trying to be intellectually honest, objective, and curious about what’s actually true.

The central metaphor in the book is that we are often in soldier mindset, my term for the motivation to defend your own beliefs against arguments and evidence that might threaten them. Scout mindset is an alternative way of thinking. A scout’s goal is not to attack or defend, but to go out and form an accurate map of what’s really there.

So in the book, I discuss why soldier mindset is so often our default and make the case for why we’d be better off shifting towards the scout instead. And I share some tips for how to do that, which I illustrate with lots of real examples of people demonstrating scout mindset, in science, politics, sports, entrepreneurship, activism, and lots of everyday contexts as well…

N.S.: Yeah. It strikes me that what you’re describing here is really a scientific method. It’s not quite the same as the classic version we learn in grade school, which is really suited to the natural sciences and to lab experiments. Instead, what you’re describing is the new scientific method that we’re working out for dealing with empirical sciences — things like economics and sociology where you can’t necessarily put things in a lab and discover universal laws of nature. As empirical research has come to dominate many disciplines, we’re discovering all new ways to fool ourselves — p-hackingspecification search, overfitting, and so on. The analytical tools you’re describing are some of the methods we’re developing to guard against that.

But what’s even more interesting to me is that you’re proposing we take these same methods and use them in our own lives, outside of science. Which is not to say that we should treat our lives like research, but rather that many of the same analytical approaches that help us avoid research mistakes can also help us avoid mistakes in our lives. Would you say that’s an accurate characterization?

And if that’s accurate, could you give my readers a little preview? What are one or two life situations where the mental tools of the Scout Mindset lead to better decision-making?

J.G.: Yeah, that’s an apt comparison. The reckoning that’s been happening in the empirical sciences in the last 10-15 years is really about how to make the process of science more scout-like, even if individual scientists — who are, after all, human beings — will always be part soldier.

The one thing I’d change in your otherwise-excellent description is that “analytical approaches” aren’t that central to what I’m proposing in the book. In our everyday lives, I see more promise in solutions that focus on increasing self-awareness, or changing how you feel about being wrong. Or changing the community you’re embedded in, so that you’re surrounded by people who value scout mindset more than soldier mindset.

I’ll give a couple examples. In my section on self-awareness, I describe some thought experiments that can help you look at an issue with clearer eyes. One is the conformity test: When you find yourself agreeing with someone else’s opinion (or with a group consensus), imagine that they told you, “Actually, I don’t believe that after all. I was just playing devil’s advocate.” Would your own opinion shift too? Or would you still hold the opinion independently of them?

I also talk a lot about ways to make yourself more open to considering inconvenient truths. For example, when I’m in an argument and I start to suspect I might be wrong, it’s very tempting to dismiss that thought and instead reach for ways to defend myself. I find it easier to resist that urge when I remind myself of some “silver lining” of being wrong. For example, sometimes I remind myself, “If I concede this point, that gives me more credibility in general, because I’ve shown that I’m willing to concede points. So it’s like I’m investing in my future ability to be convincing.” That doesn’t make the prospect of being wrong *appealing*, per se, but it does make it tolerable enough that I’m willing to face it.  

2) Loved this from Yglesias yesterday:

Johnson & Johnson and the Experts

On Wednesday morning, the U.S. government announced a “pause” in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine based on six cases of serious blood clots detected out of seven million doses allocated. The math on that does not make sense on its face, and lots of people said so immediately, only to be shouted down by a new round of complaints about “amateur epidemiologists” and “men with charts.”

If you delve into it in a little more detail, the regulators are not making the crazy decision of banning a life-saving vaccine based on a one-in-a-million chance of developing a serious blood clot. Instead, the issue seems to be that the risks are more severe for younger women. Again, I don’t think it makes any sense to bar a 57-year-old man from taking an effective vaccine against a deadly illness on the grounds that it causes serious blood clots in younger women. But all day Wednesday we did the “experts vs. Nate Silver” discourse. Then on Thursday, the Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health says he agrees there’s no reason for a blanket ban.

I find it frustrating that this same dialogue goes round and round so often.

But my view is always that if you catch me going to war with trained scientists about the actual subject of their scientific expertise, then by all means give me hell. But the question of whether the “abundance of caution” framework makes sense is fundamentally not a scientific question at all.

A couple of months ago there was widespread concern in the public health community that the slightly lower efficacy rating of the J&J shot would lead to people deliberately trying to avoid it in favor of an mRNA shot. There was lots of propagandizing against vaccine shopping. Did we really need to leap all the way from “it is forbidden to express a preference for an mRNA shot” to “it is forbidden to take a J&J shot?” Does the CDC employ experts in the value of human freedom? The whole issue here is not medical science, but rather bioethicists having some peculiar ideas about when consent matters and how to do cost-benefit analysis.

3) I follow a ton of epidemiologists on twitter.  Zoe McLaren is one I stopped following (I forget why– one too many things that just seem off and I drop you from my crowded feed).  Nonetheless, as part of a “scout mindset” I tried to give her a fair reading here, but I think she’s wrong:

But what critics are missing is that making the difficult decision to pause Johnson & Johnson vaccination while evaluating safety concerns may, counter-intuitively, help the US defeat Covid-19. This incident should inspire confidence in Americans that the FDA takes all safety concerns, no matter how rare or unlikely, seriously. Increased trust in the system would enable the FDA to be a more effective regulatory body and help get the pandemic under control—even if it comes at the expense of confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. What’s more, any potential fallout from the pause can be mitigated in several ways that will also have positive ripple effects in fighting the pandemic and improving public health overall.

It’s important to remember the FDA’s broader purpose. The agency is entrusted with regulating medical, cosmetic, and food products, the use or consumption of which, for the most part, cannot be undone. If the FDA has to reverse an authorization or approval, the fallout could be large—both in terms of the FDA’s reputation and the impact on American consumers. In order to feel confident enough to get vaccinated in the first place, most people would need to be quite sure that the authorization or approval decision wouldn’t be reversed in the future. Even the occasional reversal could make people much more skittish about getting vaccinated at all. It therefore makes sense for the FDA to act in an abundance of caution and take measures, even seemingly extreme ones such as delaying a decision, to avoid having to do that. In light of these considerations, the FDA decision to pause Johnson & Johnson while it conducts a review of the data is justifiable.

An effective FDA relies heavily on trust, which is hard to regain if it’s lost. Few Americans have the time or expertise to evaluate the scientific data on vaccine safety and effectiveness themselves. Being transparently and predictably cautious makes it easier for the public to interpret FDA decisions and feel confident in them, which, in turn, boosts take-up of authorized and approved vaccines. Pausing Johnson & Johnson vaccinations while the data is reviewed, despite the potential repercussions from canceled vaccination appointments, sends a clear message that the FDA is taking all safety concerns seriously. An evaluation could have been done quietly or without pausing vaccinations, but transparency even in, or especially in, the face of bad news inspires confidence in the system.

As you know, my take is that we could have maintained plenty of confidence in the FDA knowing it was on top of this without an actual pause which I think may end up doing far more broad damage, independent of actual side effect concerns, that McLaren lets on.  

4) Also in Wired, I’m like Adam Rogers’ take “Pausing the J&J Vaccine Was Easy. Unpausing Will Be Hard: Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine was supposed to be the uncomplicated one. But even with new data, getting people to trust it again will be tricky.”

But it’s also a real problem in the making. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was supposed to be the cheap-and-easy one, useful for the most at-risk populations and the ones hardest to reach in the US. It’s also an alternative to more expensive, two-dose mRNA vaccines for the rest of the world, where vaccination rates lag far behind those in the US. Losing it would be a blow to the fight against the pandemic.

Worse, if people are already hesitant to get vaccinated, the FDA and CDC saying one vaccine might give people strokes probably won’t help get more sleeves rolled up—even if the regulators come around later and say that it’s fine, or worth the risk, or only dangerous in certain subpopulations. “Public confidence in this vaccine will take a hit no matter what. I think it was a necessary step to take, given the information we knew and the fact that the treatment required is atypical,” says Jason Schwartz, a health policy professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “There’s going to be a lot of work to do to restore enthusiasm for this vaccine.”

5) This!  “It’s About Time for Us to Stop Wearing Masks Outside.”  My take: at this point, this is clearly an excess of caution (and you know how I feel about that) in most circumstances.  

6) That Lil Nas X knows what he’s doing, “How Lil Nas X Flipped Conservatives’ Culture-War Playbook: Never mind “owning the libs.” The meme rapper pushed one button and the right did his publicity for him.” 

The video pushes sacrilegious buttons by depicting the aforementioned sexual encounter with Satan, which, if it sounds a little old-fashioned as a cultural provocation,was followed by the announcement of a bootlegged, custom line of Nikes that included real human blood. (Unsurprisingly, Nike swiftly sued to prevent their release.) Among rap fans, and especially Nas “stans,” as artists’ die-hard, cult-like supporters are called, it made a decent-size splash, its outre visuals and loopy premise generating the expected hype for the artist’s forthcoming full-length debut. But in conservative media, ever-eager to talk about something besides the pandemic and Matt Gaetz, it was like touching a match to dry leaves.

Since the video’s release and the sneaker announcement, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has published no fewer than nine (!) articles about the video and sneaker controversy, and Christian journalist Raymond Arroyo teamed up with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham to condemn the video on her weeknight program (“Rapper embraces Satan just in time for Holy Week,” the chyron read). The sneakersearned an official slapdown from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, who sent her 400,000 followers a tweet that helpfully included the product shots

If you think it’s not a deliberate, savvy manipulation of the online culture, think again: As Brian Feldman reported for New York in 2019 as “Old Town Road” climbed the charts, for years as a teenager Nas operated a popular Twitter account that reposted and repurposed viral content, as well as advocating on the behalf of his favorite rapper and pop star, Nicki Minaj. Nas isn’t just a “digital native,” he’s a social media native, and clearly understands on a deep level the cultural and algorithmic incentives that drive things to virality. He understands all too well that in 2021, there may be no quicker way to pump oxygen into a brand than to let partisan politics do it for you.

7) Really not a big fan that some people are inherently more worthy of being listened to due to their race, gender, sexuality, etc.  David Bernstein in Persuasion, “Who Decides What’s Racist?: The problem with “standpoint epistemology.”

The problem is that the second—sometimes referred to as “standpoint epistemology”—contends that only minorities have standing to articulate a view on race and racism. In her book What Does It Mean to Be White?, Robin DiAngelo puts it this way: “Sometimes I am asked, ‘But what if the person of color is wrong and what they think is racism isn’t racism at all?’ To this I say that people of color are much more qualified than we are to make this determination. My not being able to see racism is unrelated to its reality.” Anyone who proffers an alternative perspective can be accused of “privilege.” In addition to being stifling and punitive, this demand for adherence will almost certainly make it more difficult to overcome the racial divide.

Proponents of this view assert the primacy of “lived experience”—the reality felt by a marginalized community or individual. Given America’s history of racism, we do have a special obligation to listen closely when marginalized people talk about their experience: The victims of racism will indeed have insights that others cannot possibly glean on their own. It was through listening to people of color, for example, that I learned about the scourge of mass incarceration, which led me to spend years advocating for criminal justice reform.

But I cannot agree that, in making space for marginalized voices, everyone else should defer to whatever ideological claims members of a minority group attach to their definition of racism. In today’s ideological environment, it tends to go like this: Defer to my lived experience; my lived experience reveals that critical race theory is true; you, too, must abide by critical race theory.

What’s wrong with this demand for deference? First, insisting that large swaths of people keep quiet is not a sustainable moral undertaking. Calling on those deemed privileged to mute themselves permanently on issues of race and racism only engenders resentment. After hearing a marginalized person’s perspective, there must be room in the conversation for those outside the marginalized community to disagree with that viewpoint about the nature of racism.

There’s a difference between listening to someone’s experience and tying oneself to their entire worldview. Challenging someone’s viewpoint should not be taken as invalidating their feelings. You can empathize with a person’s struggle and hear their concerns without automatically deferring to their perspective…

Second, oppressed people, like all people, are sometimes wrong. Some impart earth-shattering truths. Others spread lies and become victimizers themselves. Lived experience, while important, is just one data point in understanding social reality. Being oppressed doesn’t give anyone a monopoly on wisdom, even about oppression. Indeed, our experience can bias our insight. As a Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism, I can surely describe what it’s like to be taunted and demeaned, but I also recognize that because of that experience I’m more, not less, susceptible to overstating the threat I face in society.

Third, marginalized communities are diverse. There is no single authoritative position among marginalized people on racism. Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, has traced the vast diversity of the Black community since the time of slavery. “The spectrum of thought amongst African Americans is and has always been much broader and multifarious than commonly perceived,” he writes. “Neglect of that fact has led to a homogenization that has tended to submerge African American individuality.”

Today, Black people are no less diverse in their political views than they’ve been through the ages. Who alone speaks for a marginalized people? I, for one, will listen to anyone willing to talk with me. None, in my eyes at least, represents the definitive perspective, and it’s not my job to pick spokespeople.

Fourth, oppressed people around the world hold claims that directly contradict those of other oppressed people.

But what do I know anyway, I’m just a cis-gendered white man.

8) I really feel like takes like this are just over-cautious when we are talking about a world of vaccinated adults, “You’re Vaccinated. Your Kids Are Not. What Now?”

But what if you want to travel with your unvaccinated children? That’s a trickier question, but experts say that it can be done safely, as long as you take certain precautions.

“It’s not out of the question to go on a family vacation over the summer,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Before planning your trip, check state and local health departments to see if there are any travel restrictions for where you live, and for anywhere along your route or where you’ll be staying. If you have a child with certain medical conditions that may increase their risk for complications from Covid-19, you may want to talk through your travel plans with their pediatrician first.

Unvaccinated kids should get a Covid-19 test one to three days before the trip, and three to five days upon return. They should also self-quarantine for seven days after the trip (even if their test result is negative).

Ummm, yeah, not having my kids quarantine when we get back from the beach or visiting their vaccinated grandparents.

9) John McWhorter thinks Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Tolstoy are over-rated (and makes a strong case with lots of examples).  Led me back to James Woods‘ enthusiastic take from way back when.  I remember loving their translation of Anna Karenina.  Who knows, maybe I would’ve loved another more.  

10) First successful trachea transplant– amazing and fascinating stuff.  Medical science for the win.  

11) Good stuff from Yglesias on ridding ourselves of lead pipes:

I’ve written about the not-really-infrastructure part of Biden’s Jobs Plan and also about the transportation element. But I’m inclined to think that the best and most important parts of the Biden program are the ones that fall into neither of those buckets — infrastructure construction projects that aren’t about transportation.

High on this list is a proposed $111 billion injection of funds into projects designed to address the needs of municipal water systems. The most concrete chunk of that is an ambitious $45 billion investment in eliminating lead pipes. But there’s also a mix of grants and loans to address other water systems and clean water needs, including a $10 billion program to address something called PFAS.

The case for an infusion of funds into this area strikes me as very compelling. These are goods the public cannot buy on its own and that local officials struggle to get the necessary financing for. And on lead in particular, the evidence of large benefits not just to the people directly impacted but to the public at large seems really strong…

I did a Twitter Spaces with Karl Smith last week and he suggested that the real question of what is and isn’t infrastructure is what kind of economic return you can expect from it. The interstate highway system, he said, raised productivity and GDP a lot. That’s what infrastructure is all about.

I’d say that lead removal easily meets that test. You’ve probably heard of the link between lead and crime. But what’s interesting is that the mechanism is the link between lead and general cognitive ability, both in terms of IQ and self-control. That’s what makes lead removal especially valuable. You’re moving millions of people into at least slightly better cognitive functioning, and that actually helps everyone in society. Garrett Jones has a whole book — “Hive Mind” — about this, showing that while being a little bit smarter than someone else is only a little bit valuable, living in a whole society of smarter people is extremely valuable. And as much as digging up tons of old pipes and replacing them is a pain in the ass, it’s also completely doable. Really good preschools seem to have cognitive benefits, but it’s not clear that anyone actually knows how to create really good preschools for millions of children all across the country. But we really do know how to replace lead pipes.

It’s just a question of time and money. And we should do it. Frankly, my only concern with this initiative is that I’d like to see at least as many resources dedicated to starting to figure out what we can do about the lead soil problem, too.

12) Arthur Brooks, “The Best Friends Can Do Nothing for You: If your social life is leaving you unfulfilled, you might have too many deal friends, and not enough real friends.”

Decades of research have shown that it is almost impossible to be happy without friends. Friendship accounts for almost 60 percent of the difference in happiness between individuals, no matter how introverted or extroverted they are. Many studies have shown that one of the great markers for well-being at midlife and beyond is whether you can rattle off the names of a few close friends. You don’t need to have dozens of friends to be happy, and, in fact, people tend to get more selective about their friends as they age. But the number needs to be more than zero, and more than just your spouse or partner.

All the more reason, then, to take honest stock of your friendships. Aristotle offers some advice on doing so in his Nicomachean Ethics. According to the philosopher, friendships exist along a kind of ladder. At the bottom rung—where emotional bonds are weakest and the happiness benefits are lowest—are friendships based on utility to each other in work or social life. These are colleagues, partners to a transaction, or simply those who can do each other favors. Higher up are friendships based on pleasure—something you like and admire about the other person, such as their intelligence or sense of humor. At the highest level are friendships of virtue, or what Aristotle called “perfect friendship.” These friendships are pursued for their own sake, and not instrumental to anything else. Aristotle would say they are “complete”—pursued for their own sake and fully realized in the present.

These levels are not mutually exclusive; you can carpool to work with a friend who has the unfailing honesty you strive to emulate. But the point is to classify friendships by their principal function.

You might not be able to put it into words, but you probably know how these “perfect” friendships feel. They often feature a shared love for something outside either of you, whether that thing be transcendental (like religion) or just fun (like baseball), but they don’t depend on work, or money, or ambition. These are the intimate friendships that bring us deep satisfaction.

In contrast to these real friendships, deal friendships—those at the lowest level on Aristotle’s ladder—are less satisfying. They feel incomplete because they don’t involve the whole self. If the relationship is necessary to the performance of a job, it might require us to maintain a professional demeanor. We can’t afford to risk these connections through confrontation, difficult conversations, or intimacy.

What’s cool is that I know that a number of you reading this, even if we don’t talk enough, are real friends.

13) Believe it or not, I’m with the nutty pro-Trump teacher here.  So long as the teacher leaves her nutty political views outside the classroom and isn’t breaking any laws in support of them (maybe she came close, but no evidence she entered the Capitol) then… freedom:

Word got around when Kristine Hostetter was spotted at a public mask-burning at the San Clemente pier, and when she appeared in a video sitting onstage as her husband spoke at a QAnon convention. People talked when she angrily accosted a family wearing masks near a local surfing spot, her granddaughter in tow.

Even in San Clemente, a well-heeled redoubt of Southern California conservatism, Ms. Hostetter stood out for her vehement embrace of both the rebellion against Covid-19 restrictions and the stolen-election lies pushed by former President Donald J. Trump. This was, after all, a teacher so beloved that each summer parents jockeyed to get their children into her fourth-grade class.

But it was not until Ms. Hostetter’s husband posted a video of her marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 that her politics collided with an opposite force gaining momentum in San Clemente: a growing number of left-leaning parents and students who, in the wake of the civil-rights protests set off by the police killing of George Floyd, decided they would no longer countenance the right-wing tilt of their neighbors and the racism they said was commonplace.

That there was no evidence that Ms. Hostetter had displayed any overt racism was beside the point — to them, her pro-Trump views seemed self-evidently laced with white supremacy. So she became their cause.

 

“If the district starts disciplinary action based on people’s beliefs/politics, what’s next? Religious discrimination?” it warned.

Each petition attracted thousands of signatures, and San Clemente has spent the months since embroiled in the divisive politics of post-Trump America, wrestling with uncomfortable questions about the limits of free speech and whether Ms. Hostetter and those who share her views should be written off as conspiracy theorists and racists who have no place in public life, not to mention shaping young minds in a classroom.

It has not been a polite debate. Neighbors have taken to monitoring one another’s social media posts; some have infiltrated private Facebook groups to figure out who is with them and who is not — and they have the screenshots to prove it.

14) More great stuff from Derek Thompson on hygiene theater:

I’ve been writing about our misplaced obsession with surface hygiene since the summer. Like many, I spent the early months of the pandemic dunking my apples and carrots in soap. That was before I read a persuasive essay in the medical journal The Lancet by Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School: “Exaggerated Risk of Transmission of COVID-19 by Fomites.” (In medical jargon, fomites are objects and surfaces that can transmit an infectious pathogen.) This opinion ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of the broader scientific community, and Goldman told me that several journals rejected his essay. But he was not alone in his quest. Writers such as my colleague Zeynep Tufekci and researchers such as Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, were also outspoken in their insistence that we needed to focus on ventilation rather than surfaces, windows rather than Windex. They were rebuffed, not only by loudmouths on Twitter and on TV, but by other scientists who clung stubbornly to an outdated view of viral spread…

Over the weekend, I caught up with Goldman to ask how it felt to be vindicated by the world’s most famous public-health organization. “On a personal level, I feel great,” he said. “But I’m kind of wondering what took them so long. There is so much inertia in the scientific establishment.”

These days, Goldman is extending his crusade against fomite fear from COVID-19 to other diseases. The old story is that if you make contact with a surface that a sick person touched, and then you touch your eyes or lips, you’ll infect yourself. While Goldman acknowledges that many diseases, especially bacterial diseases, spread easily from surfaces, he now suspects that most respiratory viruses spread primarily through the air, like SARS-CoV-2 does.

“For most respiratory viruses, the evidence for fomite transmission looks pretty weak,” Goldman said. “With the exception of RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], there are few other respiratory viruses where fomite transmission has been conclusively shown.” For example, rhinovirus, one of the most common viruses in the world and the predominant cause of the common cold, is probably overwhelmingly spread via aerosols. The same may be true of influenza. Many experiments that suggest surface transmission of respiratory viruses stack the deck by studying unrealistically large amounts of virus using unrealistically ideal (cold, dry, and dark) conditions for their survival. Based on our experience with SARS-CoV-2, these may not be trustworthy studies.

Unlike the coronavirus, hygiene theater is very much alive on surfaces across America. Transit authorities are still taking subway cars offline to power-scrub their walls. Baseball parks are banning cash to protect fans from fiat germs. Schools throughout the country still require deep cleanings that sometimes shut down classes for hours or days. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s COVID-19 posters still urge people to “clean high-touch surfaces frequently,” with no mention of ventilation, air filters, or keeping windows open. Target is still running ads on Hulu bragging about how it calls in workers at 6 a.m. to mop and scrub for several hours, for the comfort of its germophobic customers.

Alas, not even my own employer is immune to the scourge of hygiene theater. In an update on our back-to-office policies yesterday, The Atlantic instituted a “clean desk” protocol starting this summer that will require “daily neatening and sanitation of workspaces.” Anybody who works in journalism, or has ever seen a movie about journalism, knows that journalists take to daily neatening the way lions take to vegetarianism. Beyond being unnecessary, workplace-sanitation rules also carry the risk of enforcing an awkward parent-teen relationship between bosses and employees. In this business, “clean up this paragraph” is hard enough on one’s self-esteem; “… and clean your filthy desk while you’re at it” is not the sort of workplace banter that eases one’s psychological transition back to the office.

 

But hygiene theater carries with it an immense opportunity cost. Too many institutions spend scarce funds or sacrifice scarce resources to do microbial battle against fomites that don’t pose a real threat. This is especially true of cash-strapped urban-transit authorities and school districts that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on soap technology rather than their central task of transporting and teaching people.

Hygiene theater also muddles the public-health message. If you tell people, “This disease is on surfaces, on your clothes, on your hands, on your face, and also in the air,” they will react in a scattered and scared way. But if you tell people the truth—this virus doesn’t do very well on surfaces, so you should focus on ventilation—they can protect themselves against what matters.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Good stuff from Adam Davidson on re-thinking the economy:

For decades, the minimum wage played a crucial role in lessening inequality. The period between the Depression and the late nineteen-seventies is called the Great Compression, when—for perhaps the only time in U.S. history—wages of the poor rose faster than wages of the rich. That doesn’t mean the rich weren’t, still, richer. But the growth in their wages was slower than the growth in poor people’s wages. That wasn’t solely because of minimum wage. But the idea that full-time work should provide a living wage and that the government should enforce that standard was transformative and essential.

Today the economy is increasingly moving away from a model in which workers receive hourly wages from a single employer. Someone who is selling crafts on Etsy or driving for two different ride-hailing apps, while also making deliveries for three other apps, often isn’t covered by the minimum wage. The minimum wage matters—but we need a new and stronger labor-protection system in the twenty-first century. And that focus was not addressed in the covid stimulus package, and it remains the political and economic struggle ahead. The pro Act, which passed the House this week, is legislation that does address it. It would allow gig-economy workers to more easily bargain collectively. But to move forward the bill needs the votes of at least ten Republican Senators, an unlikely prospect. Though, if Joe Manchin were so inclined, he could allow Democrats to eliminate the filibuster and pass the pro Act with fifty votes. Manchin is something like an Owen Roberts of our age, a single man whose votes may determine if American workers’ conditions fundamentally improve.

The $1.9-trillion stimulus will indeed be a massive jolt to our economy. The consensus view of economists and economic analysts in a Wall Street Journal survey this week was that the measure will increase economic growth to its highest level since 1983. This will mean real and dramatic improvement in regular people’s lives. It could bring half of impoverished children above the poverty line this year. But the impact will peter out over time. During the pandemic, it has become increasingly obvious that deepening inequality is both reinforced by and further reinforces the unequal structure of our economy. There are workers who were able to quickly adjust to and even thrive in a global pandemic, because the central thrust of our current economy and technologies are like wind at their back, allowing their ideas and labor to move—at the speed of Zoom—to precisely those places where they are most valued. Meanwhile, others are stuck in a more tangible, physical economy, in which opportunity can evaporate in a moment. As John Cassidy has noted, far out ahead are the billionaires, six hundred and fifty-one of whom have collectively gained more than a trillion dollars in wealth during the crisis.

Starting in the late eighteen-hundreds, it took two generations for America to recognize the realities of industrial work, in which a tiny group of owners could impose unacceptable conditions on entire classes of workers. It took decades to discredit the concept of “liberty” justifying conditions in which a handful of wealthy owners determine how much people work and how much they’re paid. We are now in the midst of similarly radical change. We need a new mental, public-policy, and legal framework for understanding how opportunity, compensation, and abuse are distributed.

This bill didn’t do that. But a fight like this takes time, though hopefully not generations. We need to find ways to share risks and rewards; to offer health care, retirement benefits, and more for people who don’t have a single full-time employer; to guarantee a living wage for those who don’t make an hourly one, as well as for those who do. It’s not entirely clear how that will happen. That’s why it’s a tricky problem. And it requires a rethinking of the relationship between working people, those who pay them—companies and gig customers—and government. 

2) I randomly came across this sad story on twitter a few weeks ago and now I know the details, “The Story of ‘Team Molly’ While her daughter was hospitalized, one mother built more room for our national grief.”

3) This is great from Arthur Brooks, “Changing Your Mind Can Make You Less Anxious: Humans are programmed to think we’re right at all costs. Fighting that instinct will set you free.”

When it comes to the idea that we are wrong, or that we should change our opinions, we are incredibly adept at resisting. Grant writes that we possess an astonishing array of cognitive biases telling us, You are right—disregard all evidence to the contrary. These include confirmation bias (we focus on and preferentially remember information that reinforces our beliefs); anchoring bias (we over-rely on one key piece of information—usually the first one we received); the illusion of validity (we overestimate the accuracy of our own judgments and perceptions); and many other related tendencies. These biases are like a crocodile-filled moat around the fortress of our beliefs. They turn us into hermit kings, convinced that any counterarguments that break through our walls will bring us misery.

But as Grant argues, being closed off to being proved wrong or to having our beliefs challenged has huge costs. Leaders who surround themselves with yes-men have been shown to make costly—and sometimes catastrophic—mistakes. One classic example is the Bay of Pigs debacle, in which President John F. Kennedy’s insular cabinet failed to challenge his misguided instincts. Or consider the political punditocracy that assumed Donald Trump couldn’t possibly be a serious threat to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and never revised those assumptions. If your goal is to find the truth, admitting you are wrong and changing your beliefs based on new facts makes you better off in the end. This is a primary feature of what philosophers call “epistemic humility.”

And while it might not feel easy or fun at first, epistemic humility, like all humility, has clear happiness benefits. In one 2016 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers created a humility score by asking people about their openness to advice, their honesty about their own strengths and weaknesses, and whether they tended to be excited about a friend’s accomplishments. They found that humility was negatively associated with depression and anxiety, and positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction. Furthermore, they found that humility buffers the negative impact of stressful life events.

The humility to admit when we are wrong and to change our beliefs can lead us to greater success and happiness. But with our defenses arrayed against these virtues, we need a battle plan to alter our way of thinking and acting. Here are four strategies you might want to add to your arsenal:

4) Did you hear about the sea slugs?  Wild stuff.  “Hey, So These Sea Slugs Decapitate Themselves and Grow New Bodies: Showing off their best impressions of Deadpool, the animals survived for weeks without organs, only to regrow everything and go about their business.”

Now, before we get to the question of why on Earth a sea slug would decapitate itself, let’s talk about the how, and those chloroplasts. Mitoh actually observed this behavior in several individuals from two different species of sacoglossan sea slug. This group of mollusks is famous—at least among biologists—for its “kleptoplasty,” or the way it steals its source of energy. In the algae that the animals eat, photosynthesis hums along in structures known as chloroplasts. Instead of digesting these, the sea slug actually incorporates them into its own tissues. These chloroplasts can remain photosynthetically active for months, allowing their adoptive sea slug to draw energy from the sun. The animal is very much solar powered.

So even after the sea slug’s head divorces itself from its body and digestive system, these chloroplasts may be what keeps the animal alive. “We expect that they can get energy by photosynthesis using chloroplasts incorporated into the digestive cells distributed all over the body, including the head, even when they do not have their body,” says Mitoh.

So what is it then? Generally speaking, it’s not ideal for an organism to lose its body. These sea slugs would need a very good reason to self-decapitate, and that reason may be parasites. Three of the individuals that jettisoned their bodies in Mitoh’s lab were infested with tiny parasitic crustaceans called copepods. Another 39 infected individuals lost only part of their bodies, and 13 of those ended up regenerating bodies. However, all of the 64 parasite-free sea slugs stayed intact.

It may be, then, that these animals can detect when they’ve got a particularly bad infestation of parasites and write the body off as a lost cause. This may seem … extreme, but from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. If a sea slug is overburdened by parasites, it can’t devote energy to reproduction. And living to reproduce is the reason why any animal exists. By self-decapitating, the sea slug head can survive just fine on solar power until it regrows a new digestive system. It’ll also regrow a fresh set of reproductive organs, so it can finally get back to fulfilling its purpose on this planet.

But hold up, says Terrence Gosliner, a senior curator at the California Academy of Sciences, who studies sea slugs. Scientists don’t tend to see fragmented individuals in the wild, “unless they have serious bite marks from predators,” says Gosliner. “And if it was a natural means of getting rid of parasites, you would expect to see that.” In Gosliner’s view, the body-splitting is more likely to be an adaptation that allows a sea slug to recover from predators making off with a significant amount of its body.

“To me, the most exciting part of the paper is showing there is this incredible power of regeneration that occurs in these animals,” says Gosliner. “Like most good scientific experiments, it raises almost as many questions as it answers.”

5) Very good stuff from Zack Beauchamp, “The Republican revolt against democracy, explained in 13 charts: The Trump years revealed a dark truth: The Republican Party is no longer committed to democracy. These charts tell the story.”

A chart showing overwhelming support among MAGA supporters for election fraud theories and a third term for Trump.

6) Really good stuff on how it is past time to re-think polling methodologies:

The American survey research industry is in a period of transition, with deepening challenges to phone poll response rates but also emerging technologies like SMS surveys. However, despite this changing landscape, there remains a common perception that live caller polls are still the best interview mode to produce accurate results. For example, according to FiveThirtyEight, only firms that use “exclusively live caller with cellphones” can be considered “gold-standard” pollsters.

But was it still true in 2020 that live caller only polls were more accurate than polls using other modes of research? In short, no. As the statistical analysis described below shows, mixed mode surveys with an SMS component performed best in state-level presidential polling in 2020, and live phone only polls were, in fact, among the worst. Now is the moment for the polling community to re-think the choice to privilege “legacy” methodological choices that worked well in the past, and to instead prioritize novel methodological research and innovation backed up by empirical validation.

7) This was such a damn good essay in Aeon, “The science of terrible men: The pioneers of social genetics were racists and eugenicists: should we give up on the science they founded altogether?”

But staking moral claims about political equality to empirical claims about genetic sameness is building a house on sand. The rains of new data will come down, the floods of new analyses will pour in, and the winds of new papers in Nature Genetics will blow – and then what? We shouldn’t give far-Right extremists such an easy rhetorical advantage, allowing them to claim new empirical observations as moral victories. Yes, all humans are 99.9 per cent the same, but the remaining 0.1 per cent makes a difference for many life outcomes that we care about, things that we want for ourselves and for our children.

There is a lot of confusion about this fact. Some of this confusion is undoubtedly because scientific methods to show how genetic differences matter for human lives are genuinely difficult to understand, even for experts. Some of the confusion is driven by scientists’ insistence on using confusing words such as ‘predict’ and ‘explain’ and ‘heritable’, which have very precise meanings in scientific jargon but different connotations in colloquial English. (We have good reasons for using these terms, but it’s not without costs.)

But some of the confusion is deliberately drummed up by people who are irredeemably convinced that endorsing the statement ‘people are different genetically, and these genetic differences cause their lives to turn out differently’ will commit them to a host of beliefs about human inferiority and superiority, and to a host of far-Right policy positions that they find abhorrent; and so they will fight tooth and nail, and contort themselves into all sorts of indefensible intellectual positions, in order to avoid confronting this basic reality about human life.

You might have this response. You might look at the gaping inequalities all around us, the suffering and immiseration and economic unfreedom and ‘deaths of despair’, as the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton put it, and these inequalities will feel so strikingly unfair, so unnecessary and cruel. And you have been told that it would be very, very bad if these inequalities were caused by genes, because then this would mean that, rather than being unfair and awful, the inequalities were actually right and just and natural, and that we couldn’t do anything to fix them other than some ghastly gene-editing or selective breeding programme, and your mind rebels at the sheer awfulness of that conclusion, and so shuts like a clam at the thought that I could be correct that genes have causal power for people’s lives.

But motivated reasoning about empirical realities is not the answer. Instead, we have to uncouple those realities from eugenic ideology and reclaim them: even if inequalities are caused by genes, that scientific result emphatically does not mean that those inequalities are fair or just or natural or unfixable through social policy.

Look to the example of John Rawls, one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century, who took the idea of genetically caused differences in life outcomes in his stride. Of course, in Rawls’s view, people differed in the outcome of the ‘natural lottery’. In this view, ‘these are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.’ Rather than a caste society based on accidents of birth – whether that accident is being born to wealth or being born with a certain combination of genetic variants – the just society works to the benefit of the least advantaged. Rawls’s theory of justice accords with the vision offered by another 20th-century intellectual giant, the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote in 1962 that:

genetic diversity is mankind’s most precious resource … The problem … is not how to suppress the genetic diversity, but how to utilise it in a manner both socially advantageous and in accord with the ethical principles which we hold binding…

Second, ignoring genetics props up the myth of meritocracy that has convinced the ‘winners’ in our society that they deserve to hoard massive amounts of wealth and opportunity by virtue of their superior achievements. As the American writer E B White, author of the children’s book Charlotte’s Web (1952), witheringly described in 1942: ‘the Society of Movers and Doers is a very pompous society indeed, whose members solemnly accept all the responsibility for their own eminence and success’. White continues to be right, particularly about US conservatives, who are global outliers in their lack of support for government policies to address economic inequality, and who tend to view riches as just deserts for the virtuous. The rich, in their view, are rich because they work harder and delay gratification more, not because they got lucky.

Behaviour genetics scrambles the meritocratic logic by showing how many of our achievements are as morally arbitrary as being taller. Twin research, for instance, has shown us that educational attainment is nearly as strongly tied to the luck of the draw – ie, the environmental and genetic accidents of one’s birth – as is one’s height. Drawing attention to the role of genetic luck in shaping inequality has the potential to shape whether people see that inequality as a problem, and whether they’re willing to do anything about it. Even conservatives will redistribute money to make outcomes more equal when the role of luck is made clear.

One of the reasons I am passionately liberal is because I do realize how damn lucky and undeserving I am of not just being a white man born to educated parents in America, but one who has a brain that is prone to being emotionally stable and quickly assimilating new information.  I didn’t do anything to have a brain like (which has definitely served me well) any more than I did to have red hair and be six feet tall.

8) Greg Sargent, “The GOP scam is getting worse — for Republican voters. A new study shows how.”

When every Senate Republican voted against President Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package over the weekend, it revived a question that analysts have asked about the modern GOP for decades: Why do so many conservative Americans vote against their own economic interests?

A new analysis by three leading political scientists theorizes this question in a fresh way: by comprehensively analyzing the political economy of red states, relative to that of blue ones. In so doing, they have captured some striking truths about this political moment.

Its key finding: We’re in the grip of a paradox. Even as areas that vote Republican continue falling behind blue America economically — helping widen those oft-discussed regional inequalities between cosmopolitan and outlying areas — GOP elites everywhere are growing more committed to an increasingly uniform and regressive agenda that does little to address the problem.

“Red America is falling farther behind, but the politicians who represent it at all levels have gotten more unified on an economic agenda that hurts the people who live there,” Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist who co-authored the analysis, told me.

The $1.9 trillion package includes large stimulus checks to most individuals, extended unemployment benefits, a big infusion of aid to state governments, and a new child cash allowance that could cut childhood poverty in half.

Every Senate and House Republican voted against the package. Yet this sort of ambitious agenda will help address the deepening regional inequalities that have become such an intense preoccupation in our politics…

To address resulting regional disparities, the analysis argues, these states should want expanded federal cash transfers and bigger federal spending on health care, social insurance and infrastructure. But that’s not happening:

Instead, red state politicians have increasingly embraced a national agenda that is focused on tax cuts and aggressive deregulation and hostile to federal transfers.

Why? Because GOP policy at the federal and state levels is largely set by “national business groups and organized wealthy backers.” This undercuts “the prospects for robust intergovernmental transfers, both to spur local economic development and to finance the social programs” on which poorer, nonurban voters “increasingly rely.” …

The ultimate paradox here may be this. As the analysis concludes, GOP political elites are able to continue insulating themselves from accountability for this disconnect, not just “through identity appeals rooted in racial and cultural backlash,” but also because of the bias “of the American electoral system toward nonurban areas.”

9) What is life anyway?  I’m looking forward to reading Carl Zimmer’s book on the topic.  Or, at least having my 15-year old read it and tell me about it.  

10) Alec MacGillis, “The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers”

Mental health experts struggle to identify a precedent for the challenge this pandemic is producing for many Americans. In prior pandemics where the technology was not available for remote work or remote schooling, lockdowns and social isolation were not as extreme and did not last as long as what we’ve lived through this past year. And the psychological stress that the pandemic has produced for so many Americans of all ages is unlike so many more acute crises that we might experience in life, said Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon. “There’s a difference between a stressor that makes your life unpleasant and intolerable and a stressor that takes away good things,” he said. “For a lot of people, the stressor that COVID represents is one that takes away good things. You can’t go to sporting events, you can’t see your friends, you can’t go to parties. It’s not necessarily that you’re experiencing abuse, though some may be. What’s happening is that we’re taking away high points in people’s lives that give them reward and meaning. That may have an effect over time. The initial response is not as difficult as something that’s stressful, but over time, the anhedonia, the loss of pleasure, is going to drive you down a lot more.”

Even before the coronavirus arrived, teen mental health was a cause for growing concern. Researchers and mental health professionals had come to the conclusion that, as David Brent, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor, put it to me, “One thing that’s protective against it is connection to school and family and peers. We know that participation in sports and a connection to school can have a profound protective effect.”

That social connection has been attenuated in the parts of the country that have largely shuttered school buildings and associated activities. The closures have also inhibited young people’s striving for independence, youth mental health experts say. “A key developmental task of adolescence is autonomy-building,” said Jessica Schleider, an assistant psychology professor at Stony Brook University. “That is what teens are driven to do: to grow self-esteem and a strong sense of who they are.” With school and so much else closed off to them, and daily life mostly limited to the home, “the little bit of self-directedness they had before is gone. A lot are stuck in environments they didn’t choose. The futures they had been working toward aren’t options anymore.”

As the pandemic carried through the summer, worrisome signals started appearing across the country. In addition to the CDC reporton the rising share of visits to emergency rooms by teenagers in distress, a University of Wisconsin survey of more than 3,000 high school athletes during the summer found that more than two-thirds reported high levels of anxiety and depression, 37% higher than past studies.

Canada gets it right– I think

Canada is delaying their 2nd dose of vaccines for 16 weeks and I’m all in on this:

Danuta Skowronski was poring over Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine data on a Friday night in mid-December when she had an “aha!” moment.

The epidemiology lead at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control realized she could actually “correct” the data Pfizer had submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the effectiveness of just one dose of its vaccine.

In clinical trials, Pfizer couldn’t accurately determine the efficacy of a single shot because participants had already received their second dose after three weeks, and there was no comparative one-dose study done.

Pfizer reported an efficacy of 52 per cent for one shot, compared to the more commonly cited 95 per cent after the second. 

But Skowronski, who has been working on vaccine effectiveness analyses for more than 15 years, realized the company had included in its analysis the two-week time period immediately after vaccination — before the body’s immune response typically kicks in.

She told CBC News vaccines are never expected to protect “instantaneously,” and that there is always a “grace period” of a couple of weeks that factors into vaccine effectiveness.

“What we found was that they were underestimating the efficacy of the first dose, and rather than the efficacy being 52 per cent, it was actually 92 per cent,” she said. “For us, that was a game changer.”

The finding led the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) to change the recommended time between doses of COVID-19 vaccines from three weeks to an unprecedented four months.

Also, Skowronski was far from the only person to notice this in the data.  Heck, there was many a political scientist saying– “no, that only 50% efficacy estimate is nuts.”  

There are, of course, naysaysers:

NACI says if second doses are stretched to four months across the country starting this month, close to 80 per cent of Canadians over 16 could get at least one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine by the end of June.

But Canada’s chief science adviser, Mona Nemer, says the decision to delay doses amounted to a “population level experiment.”

“The comment from the chief science adviser was most unfortunate,” said Skowronski. “It did not reflect the careful risk-benefit analysis that went into this decision, and frankly, that is a science and an art to be able to do that.” 

But, what I really love about this Canadian approach is they are taking all available data and using a cost/benefit approach, not just some “experiment”

“The comment from the chief science adviser was most unfortunate,” said Skowronski. “It did not reflect the careful risk-benefit analysis that went into this decision, and frankly, that is a science and an art to be able to do that.” …

NACI says its decision to delay second doses is based on emerging real-world data from Quebec, B.C., Israel, the U.K. and the U.S. that showed “good effectiveness” of between 70 and 80 per cent from a single dose of the vaccines “for up to two months in some studies.” 

But it also makes clear that these studies haven’t yet collected four months of data on the long-term effectiveness of a single dose, meaning NACI is betting on the “high levels of protection” shown so far.

“It’s shown us really good vaccine effectiveness two months after receipt of the first dose and that the effectiveness isn’t decreasing over time,” Dr. Shelley Deeks, vice-chair of NACI and a lead author of the recommendations, said in an interview.

“After looking at it from all of these angles, and given that we are in a situation of limited supply, the committee came to a strong consensus that we recommend the interval to be extended to four months.” 

Also, there’s a huge piece of data that the overly cautious tend to ignore– with got decades and decades of experience with other vaccines and, of course, we should be able to use that information to help us draw reasoned conclusions:

Skowronski says once good protection is established, it doesn’t suddenly disappear or “fall off a cliff.” Instead, protection against a disease wanes gradually after a vaccination, which buys researchers time to “re-evaluate the optimal timing of the second dose.” 

She said that longer intervals between a first and a second dose of a vaccine are generally preferred because shorter intervals can interfere with the immune boost response and longer intervals are often associated with ultimately higher antibody levels. 

Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology, says the clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccines ran with the shortest time frame possible so they could get data out quickly, but previous studies on other vaccines show longer intervals are generally better.

Skowronski says it’s unclear why Pfizer went with a three-week interval for their clinical trials, but it may be because they didn’t expect to have such good protection with the first dose.

“The only reason to go with a shorter interval is if you don’t get good protection with the first dose, and a second dose administered sooner could top it up a lot,” Skowronski said. 

“That’s a scenario that we are not dealing with here. We’re getting excellent protection after the first dose, and we have a clear and present danger threat now with ongoing elevated pandemic disease risk on top of that scarcity of vaccine supply.”

I’m struggling to come up with a good analogy here, but, I feel like all the “oh, no, it can only be the 3 week interval we studied!” would kind of be like a political scientist saying “okay, here’s how to explain American politics and I’m going to use the 2020 American National Election Study, but ignore the dozens of ANES from before.”

Anyway, I get the imperative towards “we studied the 3 week interval so we’re going to use the 3 week interval” approach, but when we are looking trying to save lives during a pandemic it strikes me as overly-cautious to the point of foolhardiness to pretend that we have to ignore all that we know about vaccines and the human immune system that exist outside the Pfizer and Moderna trials.  

Quick hits (part II)

1) Yglesias, “Democrats should try harder to win elections: If Republicans are a threat to democracy, try moving to the center on culture to beat them”

Zack Beauchamp has written what I think is the best and most empirically rigorous article in the genre of “the Republican Party has become a menace to democracy.”

As readers of “Republicans’ unhinged moderation” and “Is asymmetrical polarization real?” know, I fundamentally agree with this diagnosis. In part for deep reasons rooted in demographic and sociocultural change, and in part for the shallow reason that happenstance has led Republicans to benefit from counter-majoritarian aspects of U.S. political institutions, normative support for democratic self-government has collapsed among Republican elites and the GOP base. That’s a large challenge to America going forward.

I think that most people who believe that tend to be fairly hardcore liberals with some leftist tendencies — they have a lot of ideological distance from the conservative movement, and thus are willing to be very harshly critical of it — and what I want to argue today is that tendency creates a bit of a trap. The same people who are most nominally worried about GOP descent into non-democracy are the least willing to do something about it by urging mainstream Democrats to adopt a few more conservative policy positions, while urging the party as a whole to become more welcoming to Manchin-type figures in the spirit of big tentism.

Biden won 51% of the vote, and if you’re talking about a Senate candidate in a state that Biden got at least 51% in, then you should be comfortable with your candidate adopting Biden-style positioning. But there are only 19 states like that! Democrats need to be aiming to crush Republicans by winning seats in states like Ohio and Iowa (both 45% Biden) while looking to at least occasionally pull off a flukey victory of some kind in places like Kansas and Mississippi (both 41% Biden). And that means a lot more ideological flexibility. Not because Republicans are nice guys or because the conservative movement is a benign influence on American life. But for the opposite reason — those things are really bad and need to be beaten.

More Joe Manchins can solve the Joe Manchin problem

Right now, progressives are fairly annoyed with Joe Manchin because Manchin does not agree with all of their priorities, and everything is being held hostage to his particular views.

But note that this is so troubling largely because there is only one Joe Manchin. If there were a dozen more senators who had Manchin-esque rates of agreeing with Bernie Sanders about stuff, then a ton more bills could pass as long as there was some variation among the 13 of them as to when they broke with the party. Some ideas would just be total non-starters with anyone repping a right-of-center state. But while Manchin seems to have serious doubts about a $15/hour minimum wage, it’s easy to imagine someone who represents Florida or Texas or Ohio solidly supporting it, even while having conservative views on some other topic. But you need more wins to get that variation…

If you don’t want your governing agenda perpetually held hostage to Joe Manchin (or for a majority to be out of reach if Manchin retires in 2024), then you need to win Senate races in right-of-center states like Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida that just aren’t as right-wing as West Virginia. How exactly you do that is complicated, depending on on-the-ground knowledge and local nuances, etc. But in a big picture sense, it pretty clearly involves dropping the fantasy that everything is about mobilization and turnout and acknowledging that to win in right-of-center states, you need to annoy progressives some with noteworthy moderate positions on at least some high-profile policy issues.

And by “moderate,” I don’t mean Red Rose Twitter screaming at Pete Buttigieg. I mean “somewhere between Joe Biden and Lisa Murkowski,” i.e. the Manchin Zone.

2) That said, its also clear that just appearing “moderate” is no panacea.  And frustratingly, it seems that Republicans face virtually no electoral penalty for being perpetually out-of-step with the American public.  Perry Bacon Jr, “Why Republicans Don’t Fear An Electoral Backlash For Opposing Really Popular Parts Of Biden’s Agenda”

So if an unpopular party uniformly opposes popular policies in the run-up to 2022 and 2024, is it buying itself a ticket further into the political wilderness?

Not necessarily.

There are several reasons to think that opposing popular policies won’t hurt Republicans electorally, and conversely, that implementing a popular agenda won’t necessarily boost Biden that much.

The first reason that congressional Republicans can afford to oppose popular ideas is one that you have probably read a lot about over the last several years: The GOP has several big structural advantages in America’s electoral system. Because of the Electoral College, Trump would have won the presidency with around 257,000 more votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even though he lost nationally by more than 7 million votes. The Senate gives equal weight to sparsely populated states like Wyoming and huge ones like California, so the chamber’s 50 Democratic senators effectively represent about 185 million Americans, while its 50 Republican senators represent about 143 million, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser recently calculated. Gerrymandering by Republicans, as well as the weakness of Democrats in rural areas, makes it harder for Democrats to win and keep control of the House even when most voters back Democratic House candidates. That’s what happened in 2020.

Put all that together, and congressional Republicans are somewhat insulated from the public will. In turn, the advantage for Biden and congressional Democrats of being closer to the public’s opinions is blunted.

Second, electoral politics and policy are increasingly disconnected. More and more Americans vote along party lines and are unlikely to break from their side no matter what it does. Some scholars argue that voters’ attachments to the parties are not that closely linked to the parties’ policy platforms but rather more akin to loyalty to a team or brand. And partisanship and voting are increasingly linked to racial attitudes, as opposed to policy. So GOP-leaning voters may support some Democratic policies but still vote for Republican politicians who oppose those policies.

Third, the last several midterm elections have all been defined by backlashes against the incumbent president. You could argue that there’s nothing inevitable about this, and that former President George W. Bush (Social Security reformIraq War), Obama (Obamacare in 2010 and its flawed rollout in 2014) and Trump (Obamacare repeal) all did or proposed controversial things that irritated voters. Maybe if Biden sticks to popular stuff he’ll buck the trend. But it could instead be the case that voters from the president’s party tend to be kind of fat and happy in midterms, while the opposition is inspired to turn out. So even if Biden does popular things, GOP voters could be more motivated to vote in November 2022.

3) Cathy Young with easily the best thing I’ve read on Dr Seuss.  I really like her point that, yes, the woke have gone too far on this and I also like that she takes on a CNN “news” article on this that I found absurdly credulous of the worst criticisms as if we should all just accept the arguments in “Research on Diversity in Youth Literature” at face value.

For one, the decision comes in tandem with other moves intended to demote Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) from his iconic status. On the same day, President Biden omitted any mention of Dr. Seuss from his official proclamation to mark Read Across America Day, breaking a tradition started by Barack Obama. The event, first established by the National Education Association in 1998, has always honored Dr. Seuss: His birthday was picked as its date. Now, the NEA says that Read Across America is no longer affiliated with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and at least one school district in Virginia has been instructing schools to downplay the day’s connection to Dr. Seuss because of “strong racial undertones” found in his work.

What’s more, the critique of those “racial undertones” has been often tendentious to the point of distortion. Thus, a CNN article asserts that Geisel, who was also a political cartoonist, “had a long history of publishing racist and anti-Semitic work, spanning back to the 1920s when he was a student at Dartmouth College. There, Dr. Seuss once drew Black boxers as gorillas and perpetuated Jewish stereotypes by portraying Jewish characters as financially stingy.” No mention is made of the fact that by the 1940s, the cartoonist had emerged as an outspoken foe of anti-Semitism — a stance that would later earn him the title of “honorary Jew,” bestowed by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek in 1969 — and of anti-Black racism. A 1942 cartoon skewered racial discrimination in U.S. war industries: An entrance for “Negro job-hunters” is shown leading to an impenetrable maze.

Regrettably, many of Dr. Seuss’ wartime cartoons also featured the blatant anti-Japanese racism that was a staple of U.S. war propaganda. Yet in later years, his children’s books often served as parables denouncing racial prejudice and xenophobia. Horton Hears a Who, written after a visit to Japan, famously declared, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” and was dedicated to a Japanese friend, Mitsugi Nakamura.

To erase this complicated history really does smack of “cancellation.”

No less disturbing, much of the current pushback against Dr. Seuss is based on a 2019 paper by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens that consistently interprets his work in the most negative light and peddles extreme ideological dogma. Take Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book The Sneetches, which has been widely praised for its anti-racist message: Birdlike creatures with stars on their bellies scorn and bully their plain-bellied cousins until a wily salesman brings a device that can add or remove stars, and all the sneetches change so many times they get thoroughly mixed up and decide to treat everyone equally. But Ishizuka and Stephens attack the poem as insidious because it teaches that color shouldn’t matter. Echoing Kansas State University scholar Philip Nel, they also read a sinister racist subtext into The Cat in the Hat: The magical cat supposedly resembles images from Black minstrelsy and exists only to entertain two white children.

If such takedowns can get an author moved to the “problematic” list, who and what will escape the purges? Some who support the withdrawal of the six Dr. Seuss books argue that even subtle racism must be “exorcised” from our cultural legacy, especially works intended for children. But if the exorcism targets racial codes so subtle that they are invisible or innocuous to the naked eye (a black-and-white cat wearing white gloves represents racist minstrelsy?), it could do much more harm than good, fostering both paranoia and backlash. And imagine how much art and literature will have to be junked if we ever apply the same magnifying lens to gender stereotypes…

The answer isn’t that anything goes; it’s that we can use common sense to distinguish between old texts or images that degrade or dehumanize members of a group and ones that reflect dated but non-malignant stereotyping. Among the canceled Dr. Seuss books, for instance, If I Ran the Zoo really does contain some shockingly racist iconography of Africans as thick-lipped, potbellied, half-naked savages in grass skirts. On the other hand, the supposedly racist depiction of a Chinese man in To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street involves an actual costume worn in parts of China at the time the book was published (1937), a bowl of rice, and chopsticks. (The original edition also gave the man bright yellow skin and a pigtail and referred to him as a “Chinaman,” but Dr. Seuss himself later made changes.) Mildly stereotypical? Sure, but much the same way as, say, the depiction of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and eating a bagel or a Scotsman playing bagpipes in a kilt. Many Asian-Americans have said they don’t find the picture offensive, and effectively purging the book from the Dr. Seuss canon because of it seems excessive.

Should children’s literature adapt to a more racially and ethnically diverse, more gender-equal society? Of course. But the way to do that is to add new classics, not discard old ones. Given the speed of cultural shifts today, people are right to worry about harsh and unforgiving judgments of dated attitudes. And when a writer who cheers the Dr. Seuss “cancellation” warns that “we will have to get rid of other things, too,” we are right to feel a chill.

Good stuff.  You come after the Sneetches and you’re coming for me.

4) Okay, this is kind of crazy and really interesting (I did a pretty decent skim through this paper), “Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images”

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ. A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

5) I didn’t read this article at first because I thought it was just old news about restaurants, but it makes some very important, deeper points:

Even if restaurants limit capacity, however, aerosolized virus may accumulate if ventilation is inadequate, Dr. Allen said.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s a restaurant, spin class, a gym, a choir practice — if you’re indoors with no masks, low or no ventilation, we know that’s higher risk,” he said. “Respiratory aerosols build up indoors. It’s that simple. This is a real problem for restaurants.”

Linsey Marr, an expert on aerosol transmission at Virginia Tech, said Americans could not be expected to follow all the latest science, and so many simply rely on what is open or closed as an indicator of what is safe.

That is a point that I think we as social scientists should absolutely be exploring in greater depth.  

6) Derek Thompson on a multi-faceted approach to vaccine hesitancy.  I’ve got one particular neighbor/parent of my kids’ friend, that is a great guy, but pretty much an anti-vaxxer.  I’m actually kind of curious to see if there’s anything that might make any headway with him in the type of conversation described here.  

Vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines themselves. The smallpox vaccine faced immediate skepticism in the U.K. when Edward Jenner tried to present his initial experiments to the scientific community and the public in the late 1700s. Around 1900, as authorities tried to contain smallpox, Americans formed anti-vaccination leagues and hid sick children from public-health officials. Their reasons were as manifold as those of today’s vaccine resisters, including fear of the new and unnatural and skepticism about a dubious authority. A bit of distrust was not entirely irrational.

Today’s vaccine resistance isn’t entirely irrational, either. And even if it were, it wouldn’t do any good to treat the vaccine-hesitant as if they were crazy. “As a clinician, I find it’s a mistake to simply tell people what to think,” Richterman, the Pennsylvania infectious-disease specialist, told me. “Screaming ‘Just take this!’ isn’t effective, because this isn’t about getting others to see my goals. It’s about helping them identify their own goals and how, maybe, getting a vaccine might help achieve them.”

This approach is often called “motivational interviewing.” It works like this: Instead of telling people why you think they should change, you ask them open-ended questions to help them discover their own reasons. If their motivation (e.g., “I want to be healthy”) matches your goal (e.g., “I want you to take this vaccine”), you can guide them toward a plan.

“Sometimes I flip the question and ask, ‘What would make you want to get the vaccine? What would convince you to get it?’ That way you urge them to identify the positive things,” Richterman said. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘I want to help my friend who isn’t well,’ or, ‘I want to protect my family.’ And then I latch on to that and try to build on that.” These methods don’t exactly proceed at warp speed. It can take time for people to change their mind, if they do so at all. But the approach seems to work better than any other to soften vaccine deliberation. A 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that Black Americans who expressed reluctance toward the COVID-19 vaccine “were willing to consider” receiving it when trusted health-care providers reflected their concerns and emphasized the safety of the shot.

7) I really don’t love that Cosmic Crisp apples are all over store shelves this year?  Why not?  Because they are overpriced and really not all that special.  They are just new.  With this arms race of new, proprietary varieties I can hardly even ever find my beloved Braeburn anymore, which is, without a doubt, superior in taste to every single one of the new varieties excepting Crimson Crisp (which had a great run at Lidl last year, but no sign of it this year).  Anyway, an article on how the biggest thing the Cosmic Crisp has going for it is that it’s new(!)

8) Good stuff from David Hopkins, “Of Course Biden Is Running for Re-Election”

The idea of the self-declared single-term president has had a romantic appeal to editorial-page writers (and few others) since well before Biden became the oldest person in history elected to the job. Like many other ideas with romantic appeal, it is disconnected from political reality. Declaring oneself a lame duck from the early days of an administration is not an effective strategy for a president to build or maintain influence, both inside and outside the party. The perception that you might be there awhile is a much better way to attract talented subordinates, pursue ambitious goals, and pressure members of Congress for support, and the inability to seek re-election is one reason why modern presidents’ second terms tend to be less focused and successful than their first.
 
The main point made by the Post article—that Biden is at heart a loyal party man—also applies to the re-election question. Unless an unforeseen governing disaster occurs, Democratic leaders will perceive that they are far better off with Biden running again, and presumably benefiting from the electoral advantage that incumbents normally hold, than with the risk of a damaging internal fight over the 2024 nomination. Even if Kamala Harris were able to quickly consolidate support within the party as Biden’s heir apparent, she would still stand in the general election as both a less tested national figure and as a liberal woman of color seeking the presidency in a highly polarized era.
 
Leading Democrats who have their president’s ear are thus very likely to encourage his intention to seek a second term—and to be terrified that a premature Biden retirement would only further increase the chances of a Trump comeback in 2024. Even if Biden were to have doubts about his ability to serve a full eight years, a successful re-election and subsequent mid-term handoff to Harris, setting her up as an incumbent in her own right before she had to face the voters, would be a much more desirable solution according to prevailing Democratic calculations. And Biden has already shown that he’s the kind of president who cares a lot about what other people in his party think.
 
Yes, health considerations or other events may alter these plans. It’s certainly possible that Joe Biden will not still be running for a second term when we get to 2024. But right now? Of course he’s running. He’s already started.

9) Racism is bad.  Standing up to racism is good.  Going way overboard in the latter and painting everything possible as racism is bad– English Premier League edition:

Edinson Cavani was ecstatic. Manchester United’s star Uruguayan striker had scored two cinematic goals in a dramatic, come-from-behind 3-2 win against Southampton in England’s Premier League. His friend from back home Pablo Fernández sent congratulations on Instagram, to which Cavani answered, using Fernández’s lifelong nickname: “Gracias negrito.”

There, his troubles began. Some in the British media seized upon Cavani’s reply of last November as racially offensive, so the player hurriedly apologized, and took down the Instagram post. But it was too late. The English Football Association—while finding “no intent on the part of the player to be discriminatory or offensive in any way”—still fined him £100,000 (around $135,000), and suspended him for three games.

To us Latin Americans, the story was just short of incomprehensible. “Negrito”—the diminutive of the word for “black”—sounds aggressive in English. But, as Uruguay’s National Academy of Letters noted, in Spanish it’s not offensive; it’s a term of endearment. It’s not even particularly racialized: Plenty of white people are nicknamed negrito, including, as it happens, Cavani’s friend. (His hair is black.)

“Unfortunately,” a statement from the Uruguayan Players’ Union read, “through its sanction, the English Football Association expresses absolute ignorance and disdain for a multicultural vision of the world.” The South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL, also expressed its support for Cavani. One Uruguayan winery began marketing a new “Gracias Negrito” vintage.

It’s easy to see this as the latest case of Context Collapse—the inevitable misunderstanding that arises on social media when content produced for one audience reaches a separate audience primed to take offense. But it goes farther than that. The Cavani case shows how America’s racial debates are being globalized via the export of a radical form of antiracist ideology that sees appeals to context or cross-cultural understanding as excuse-making for bigots…

In Spanish-language media, there was near universal astonishment at the sanction Cavani received. “Unfair” and “disproportionate” were the words that came up most often. Try as I might, I could not find one antiracism organization unequivocally and officially supporting the punishment.

However, some activists in the region did think the fine and the three-match ban were justified. Sandra Chagas, an Afro-Uruguayan antiracism activist, supported it—but only when I pressed her to take a stand. “It has racist connotations with reminiscences of slavery,” she told me by phone. His punishment “is like a ticket for parking your vehicle in the wrong place: It doesn’t matter that you did it with good intentions or without knowing that it was banned.”

But Alejandro Mamani, who speaks for Identidad Marrón (Brown Identity), an online collective for brown-skinned Latin Americans, rejected the sanction. He argued that we should distinguish between expressions like “negrito” that have positive connotations and expressions that use “negro” as a pejorative term, like “mercado negro” (“black market”) or “magia negra” (“black magic”).

The English Football Association has in recent years supported a zero-tolerance policy toward racism. Considering the lamentable history of aggressive racism against players and among fans, this initiative is long overdue. Racism and hooliganism plagued stadiums, most notoriously during the 1980s, with black players tormented with abuse and expected to play even as thugs in the stands threw bananas at them. Belatedly, the authorities cracked down, and English soccer stadiums are very different places today. Even so, players are still subjected to racism, especially via social media. So the Football Association is eager to support antiracist initiatives, and what could be wrong about that?

Ask Cavani. Applied without regard for social, cultural and linguistic context, antiracism efforts risk becoming a caricature of themselves, driving a wedge between people of different cultures rather than bringing them together, as soccer does so impressively around the globe, engaging people of all origins and colors in team efforts. The English Football Association, with its over-the-top sanction of Cavani, managed instead to show only mindless adherence to a brand of maximalist Anglo-American antiracism ideology that does little to combat racism itself. 

Rather than exporting its hair-trigger racial neuroses, the Anglosphere should consider whether there is something positive to import from Latin Americans in how we reckon with the vast complexity of identity rather than seeking binary opposition—and, in the best cases, how we acknowledge superficial differences with affection in a way that takes the sting out of racial terms.

10) Different, but similar, I certainly did not agree with all of Glenn Loury’s take on race, racism, and anti-racism in America, but definitely found it thought-provoking.

11) OMG do I hate when Republicans talk about the “Democrat Party.”  AP on the increasing use of the term.  As I’ve said before, on the bright side, it instantly reveals that you are not dealing with an intellectually serious person.  

12) Good NYT piece full of infographics on what vaccine efficacy numbers actually mean.

13) I think Will Wilkinson’s work on the density divide (no matter where you are, the more dense the residential patterns, the more liberal the people) is fascinating.  And now some cool new research that shows the clear selection effects of liberals disproportionately choosing to live in denser places:

My 2019 paper, “The Density Divide,” makes a case for the importance of selective migration as an explanation for the striking relationship between population density and party vote share. A good question to ask when you see a correlation between two variables is whether you’re looking at a “treatment effect” or a “selection effect.” When I began looking into explanations for this bizarrely tidy pattern, I wasn’t sure which was more likely. The first thing I did was try to find evidence for the treatment effect. I wanted to see if there’s reason to believe that living at higher population densities makes us more liberal and Democratic and that living at lower population densities makes us more conservative and Republican.

There’s plenty of evidence that disembedding from one community and re-embedding in another will tend to shift our opinions in the direction of the new community. If you know any humans, it’s pretty obvious that we’re conformist creatures worried about status and prone to adopt opinions in the vein of locally prevailing sentiment. But the harder I looked for evidence that moving to a city makes us more liberal or that moving to the country makes us more conservative, the weaker it seemed. Opting into a new community affects our opinions, for sure. But what explains why we opt out of one community and opt into another? As I dug deeper and deeper, it became clear to me that the treatment effects probably swamped the selection effects.

However, I didn’t arrive at this conclusion because there was clear, straightforward empirical evidence to this effect. It was more a matter of what C.S. Peirce called “abduction,” which amounts to hypothesis generation through well-informed hunches. I wanted to marshal as much evidence as I could for my hypothesis, but I’m not a quantitative methods guy, so I tried to be clear that my aim was to develop a theory and show that it’s worth taking seriously, but that I wasn’t claiming to have shown that it’s correct. Because I couldn’t! The right sort of studies simply weren’t available…

However, Jokela notes, there have been no studies using individual-level longitudinal data that track both migration patterns and party identification over time. So Jokela fixes that and then fits a model from the data to estimate the size of the effect on urban/rural party vote share difference. Here’s what he finds:

The current study provides direct longitudinal evidence on how political party affiliation of individuals predicts their subsequent residential mobility across urban and rural regions of the United States. Compared to those supporting Democrats, individuals supporting Republicans were less likely to move from rural areas to major cities and were more likely to move away from major cities. Simple simulation models based on the regression models indicated that, between ages 20 and 40, selective residential mobility would have widened the political divide by 6 percentage points in major cities (from 50% Democrats vs. 40% Republicans to 53% Democrats vs. 37% Republicans) and by 6 percentage points in rural areas (from 50% Democrats vs. 40% Republicans to 47% Democrats vs. 43% Republicans).

That’s the ball game in the passage I’ve emphasized in bold. If this weren’t true, the theory of the Density Divide would be falsified. But this amounts to solid, direct evidential support. The fact that Republicans are more likely to move away from major cities is a bonus, but isn’t strictly necessary, since there’s much more rural-to-city migration than city-to-rural migration. That’s what urbanization is. Over the longer-run, the really important thing is that Republican types are less likely to urbanize.

Because very few people move after the age of 40, “most of the correlation between urban–rural residence and political affiliation emerged between ages 20 and 40.”

14) Too much choice is definitely not a good thing.  Krugman, “Too Much Choice Is Hurting America: Learning from subprime, health care and electricity.”

As The Times’s Margot Sanger-Katz has documented, many people end up with heavy financial burdens because they chose the wrong health insurance plan — yet even experts have a very hard time figuring out which plan is best. Using an out-of-network health care provider can also lead to huge medical bills.

Wait, there’s more. One cause of the 2008 financial crisis was the proliferation of novel financial arrangements, like interest-only loans, that looked like good deals but exposed borrowers to huge risks.

What these stories have in common is that they’re snapshots of a country in which many of us are actually offered too many choices, in ways that can do a lot of harm.

It’s true that both Economics 101 and conservative ideology say that more choice is always a good thing. Milton Friedman’s famous and influential 1980 TV series extolling the wonders of capitalism was titled “Free to Choose.”

The spread of this ideology has turned America into a land where many aspects of life that used to be just part of the background now require potentially fateful decisions. You don’t get a company pension, you have to decide how to invest your 401(k). When you turn 65, you don’t just get put on Medicare, you also decide which of many Medicare Advantage plans to sign up for. You don’t just get power and phone service, you also have to choose from a wide variety of options.

Some, maybe even most, of this expansion of choice was good. I don’t miss the days when all home phones were owned by AT&T and customers weren’t allowed to substitute their own handsets.

But the argument that more choice is always good rests on the assumption that people have more or less unlimited capacity to do due diligence on every aspect of their lives — and the real world isn’t like that. People have children to raise, jobs to do, lives to live and limited ability to process information.

And in the real world, too much choice can be a big problem…

What I’m suggesting is that a society that turns what should be routine concerns into make-or-break decisions — a society in which you can ruin your life by choosing the wrong electric company or health insurer — imposes poverty-like cognitive burdens even on the middle class.

And it’s all unnecessary. We’re a rich country — and citizens of other rich countries don’t worry about being bankrupted by medical expenses. It wouldn’t take much to protect Americans against being scammed by mortgage lenders or losing their life savings to fluctuations in the wholesale price of electricity.

So the next time some politician tries to sell a new policy — typically deregulation — by claiming that it will increase choice, be skeptical. Having more options isn’t automatically good, and in America we probably have more choices than we should.

15) Hmmm, looks like I had a lot of racism related links to clear out this week.  Here’s Yglesias in the Post that I missed last month, “Not all ‘anti-racist’ ideas are good ones. The left isn’t being honest about this.: On some topics, progressives prefer pointing out right-wing hypocrisy to debating substance.”

The same Republicans championing free speech and deploring “cancel culture” are trying to pass laws criminalizing protests, bar classroom discussions of the New York Times’ 1619 Project on slavery and penalize people who advocate boycotts to oppose Israeli settlements. Combine that with the idea that we’ve got more important issues to deal with, from the pandemic to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and many progressives think they don’t have to engage with the argument that the left is too conformist and dogmatic on certain topics involving race. They don’t want to hear about the San Francisco Board of Education stripping Abraham Lincoln’s name from a high school, or Oregon teacher-training materials claiming that asking math students to “show their work” reinforces white supremacy.

“One of America’s major parties has turned against democracy,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp tweeted Feb. 9, after a Times reporter who had used the n-word in a discussion with students about racism was compelled to resign, “and we’re talking about . . . the Times’ staffing decisions?”

But it would be a significant mistake for mainstream progressives to duck the substance of these controversies. After all, it is progressives who in recent years have attempted to increase the stigma attached to racist speech while also expanding the scope of what’s “racist.” That double move introduces complications into discussions of racism that should invite more argumentation, not less…

The shift from dismantling monuments to the Confederacy to erasing homages to Lincoln, for example, raises important questions about how to balance the praiseworthy and lamentable aspects of political figures. (The school board noted that during Lincoln’s presidency, the military hanged 38 rebellious Native Americans in Minnesota.) But whether to cancel Lincoln is — for most people — a fairly easy case. Consider a more challenging one, involving land use restrictions in American cities. Having studied the issue, I believe that excessively strict regulations embody structural racism in housing: Such rules price low-income people, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, out of many areas. To me, it’s clear that the sensible (and progressive) course of action is to allow denser construction in the most expensive neighborhoods; increasing housing supply will have ripple effects that reduce housing prices for everyone. But I’m also aware that many people sincerely believe that allowing real estate development fuels gentrification and displacement — and that the key to racial justice is even more stringent regulations.

Nothing is gained if the different parties in this debate call each other racists or invoke the specter of “white supremacy” to discredit their opponents. The affordable-housing question requires dispassionate analysis, not the censoriousness and scolding that might be appropriate for combating expressions of traditional prejudice, such as redlining…

Meanwhile, schools, nonprofits and businesses increasingly embrace diversity training programs that, Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argues, meet public relations goals without actually accomplishing anything worthwhile — and may even make it harder for people from diverse backgrounds to work together. You don’t need to “internalize left-progressive views on inequality and identity issues” to effectively collaborate on the job, al-Gharbi points out, and people of color may themselves not embrace the left perspective. Debate over such programs should be encouraged, not deemed taboo, even if conservatives oppose them in knee-jerk fashion.

By all means, let’s dispense with the frustrating and at times hypocritical meta-debate about “free speech” (in the context of racism) and “cancel culture.” But the newly fashionable anti-racist thinking contains a mix of good ideas and bad ones — including some that are dangerously counterproductive for the people they are intended to help. Bland agreement that “racism is bad” does not suffice when racism is reconceptualized as an abstract attribute of policies and systems, as opposed to bigoted individual behaviors. Understanding complicated social phenomena is difficult. Solving social problems, almost all of which involve race, is contentious. Liberals can’t respond by ceding huge swaths of the political landscape to the hardcore right — or to whichever activist happens to have most loudly proclaimed their own anti-racism.

16) And lastly, I really like this from McWhorter, “Is it racist to expect black kids to do math for real?” (All emphases below are his)

There is a document getting around called Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, a guide put together by a group of educators. It has a black boy on the cover.

The idea is to show us how our racial reckoning of late ought change how we expose black kids to math. I suppose the counsel is also intended for kids of other types of melanin, but this is in essence a document that could be called “Math For Black Kids.”

The latest is that state-level policy makers in Oregon are especially intrigued by this document. There is all reason to suppose that its influence will spread more widely.

And this is to be resisted, as this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math. To wit – its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.

Of course the authors have it that “The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of antiracist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by visualizing the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture.” But translated, this means that math as we have always known it is racism. That’s a rich claim, and if correct, it is of earth-shattering urgency. But is it correct? Let’s see how it holds up.

Now, part of “antiracist math teaching” here is to teach about black mathematicians (the authors have this as kids “reclaiming their mathematical ancestry” – the jargon is, we must admit, beautiful) or to air facts such as that the traditional Yoruba approach to numbers (and wow, numbers in Yoruba, I note as linguist me, are indeed fierce!) use base 20. No one would object to these things, nor to the idea that we “teach students of color about the career and financial opportunities in math and STEM fields.”

But 96% of people reading this kind of thing will be thinking “Yeah, but what about the math??”

More to the point is that this entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.

Yes, the document pays lip service otherwise, claiming at one point to seek to  “teach rich, thoughtful, complex mathematics.” And rather often, the word praxis is used. But the thrust of this pamphlet is that:

1. a focus on getting the “right” answer is “perfectionism” or “either/or thinking;”

2. the idea that teachers are teachers and students are learners is wrong;

3. to think of it as a problem that the expectations you have of students are not met is racist;

4. to teach math in a linear fashion with skills taught in sequence is racist;

5. to value “procedural fluency” – i.e. knowing how to do the fractions, long division … — over “conceptual knowledge” is racist. That is, black kids are brilliant to know what math is trying to do, to know “what it’s all about,” rather than to actually do the math, just as many of us read about what physics or astrophysics accomplishes without ever intending to master the math that led to the conclusions;

6. to require students to “show their work” is racist;

7. requiring students to raise their hand before speaking “can reinforce paternalism and powerhoarding, in addition to breaking the process of thinking, learning, and communicating.”

You may wonder if this is a cartoon but no, this is real! This is actually what this document tells us, again and again. This, folks, is the “Critical Race Theory” that so many of us are resisting, not a simple program for “social justice.” To distrust this document is not to be against social justice, but against racism.

Seuss– it’s simple and complicated

If you somehow are in the dark about the Dr Seuss controversy:

But some aspects of Seuss’s work have not aged well, including his debut, which features a crude racial stereotype of an Asian man with slanted lines for eyes. “Mulberry Street” was one of six of his books that the Seuss estate said it would stop selling this week, after concluding that the egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works “are hurtful and wrong.”

The announcement seemed to drive a surge of support for Seuss classics. Dozens of his books shot to the top of Amazon’s print best-seller list; on Thursday morning, nine of the site’s top 10 best sellers were Seuss books.

The estate’s decision — which prompted breathless headlines on cable news and complaints about “cancel culture” from prominent conservatives — represents a dramatic step to update and curate Seuss’s body of work, acknowledging and rejecting some of his views while seeking to protect his brand and appeal. It also raises questions about whether and how an author’s works should be posthumously curated to reflect evolving social attitudes, and what should be preserved as part of the cultural record.

Lots of thoughts.

1) A lot of Seuss’ imagery and stereotypes are just flatly inappropriate by modern standards.  Period.  That said, they were so ordinary for mid-20th century America that nobody thought twice about publishing them in children’s books.  I’m so tired of blaming people from the past for not being as enlightened as people of today.  Judge people against the standards of their time, not ours.  And for his time, Geisel was neither racially progressive nor particularly racist.  One item I saw repeatedly on twitter was an anti-Japanese political cartoon that is highly offensive by modern standards.  It was also completely ordinary for the early 1940’s and pretty much endorsing official US Government policy.

2) Seuss’ own publisher pulled these books.  They were not remotely “cancelled” in any meaningful sense of the term.  This ain’t exactly Green Eggs & Ham and Cat in the Hat, it’s some of his more obscure works, some of which have not even been selling at all for years.  And from the firestorm on Fox et al., (where it’s all culture war all the time, apparently) you would have thought all his beloved works had been forbidden by liberals in the US Government.  I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable for a publisher to stop publishing books that no longer fit modern mores.  Especially if there’s not much demand anyway.

3) Did not love the fact that when discussing this with my students there was just a lot of “horribly racist” etc., which is really an unduly harsh judgment in light of full context.  

4) People are complicated.  Authors can publish books that really could be considered the ultimate statement in anti-racism (The Sneetches) and still publish other works that traffic in demeaning stereotypes.  There’s a problem if people just simplistically write Seuss off as “racist” and that’s that.  Read the Damn Sneetches!

Speaking of which, here I am reading the Sneetches to my daughter’s class, exactly a year ago, just before life all went to hell.

And the Zax!

Why I’m medium/long term Covid optimistic

You know the answer, right?  It’s because I’m always optimistic :-).  I’m a lot less optimistic about human behavior (I’ve had that beaten out of me by experience), but my science optimism has largely been on target (though, I admit to being truly surprised we haven’t done better with therapeutics).  The vaccines really are amazing.  Plus, definitely some luck with how amazing they are.  

There’s a really nice Stat piece here on what to expect short/medium/long term.  The reality is the answer is a lot of very informed… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (Yes, I do have a Chrome extension that allows for easy use of the shruggie emoticon I love).  

But, one area where human behavior in America has been really good is in figuring out to get lots of shots in arms.  And, even thought potential variants are far-and-away the scariest part of that Stat piece, these variants will all be highly susceptible to modified vaccines and I presume we’re smart enough to not let all of our now generally excellent vaccine logistics quickly atrophy and go to waste should we need to pivot to modified vaccines even in the Fall.  

But, one thing I have worried about some is if we might actually be stupid about how rapidly we approve modified vaccines for variants.  You’d think that would be a no-brainer for the FDA.  But, arguably, affordable, home antigen tests are a no-brainer and I’m still waiting for those.  Thus, I was very pleased to see this recent headline, “Vaccines Adapted for Variants Will Not Need Lengthy Testing, F.D.A. Says: The agency’s new guidance will speed the development of vaccines that protect against more contagious variants of the coronavirus.” 

So, yeah, some variants could make things dicey at various times.  But, we’ll have the vaccine logistics in place and we should have very rapid approval of modified vaccines.  So, sure, we may well still be caught flat-footed by future spillover pathogens, but, I think we are well-positioned such that Sars-Cov2 never causes problems remotely similar to what it’s done the past year.  

Putting my child where my mouth is (school)

Well, by the time you read this my daughter will have been back in a school building for the first time in 50 weeks or so as she attends 4th grade on a hybrid model (1 week on; 2 weeks off).  And, yes, she will be recording readings from my CO2 meter throughout the day (alas, it does not have a long-term recording feature).  Anyway, as you well know, I have been very much a believer in getting K-5/6 (I recognize that elementary age varies by region) kids back in school for some time and I’m glad my daughter (and more importantly her classmates who may really need it much more than her) will be having in-person education.  I’d prefer every day, but I’ll take what I can get.  So, very on-point to this, Monica Gandhi in the Atlantic on kids and schools and vaccines, emphasizing the point all of us kids-in-schools advocates have been saying… we need to fully consider the costs to kids of keeping them out of school as well as the health benefit to communities:

Officials across the United States had to err on the side of caution last March and shut almost everything down, including schools. Too much about the novel coronavirus was unknown. Scientists quickly came to conclusions about which mitigation procedures worked to minimize risk. When measures including masks, physical distancing, and better ventilation were put into practice, people performing essential jobs did not get sick at work. But many schools remained closed. Vaccines were then rapidly developed, and are starting to be distributed more nimbly in the U.S. At this point, the end of the pandemic is not just a glimmer in our eye, but a reality coming closer and closer for countries with a brisk vaccine rollout. But the public narrative in the United States seems to still be swirling around three depressing themes: (1) alarm about more infectious variants of the coronavirus; (2) uncertainty about whether vaccines will stop asymptomatic as well as symptomatic infection; and (3) disagreement about whether schools can safely reopen when not everyone is vaccinated. Regrettably, unwarranted pessimism about the first two issues will complicate the third—despite an emerging consensus among health experts that opening schools is paramount for student learning and mental health…

Finally, the debate over school openings—which shouldn’t be a debate at all—does not incorporate what scientists have learned about the pandemic. Despite a wealth of data from the CDC and other countries suggesting that opening schools is safe for teachers and students with mitigation procedures applied, many districts across the country, especially on the West Coast, have failed to reopen. Oregon and California have no clear path in sight for schools to return to in-person learning. The latter has maintained more stringent and prolonged lockdowns during COVID-19 than any other state in the U.S. and, like many other places, has expressed panic regarding variants. Furthermore, most states have not told their residents that life could pivot toward normalcy for the vaccinated. Oregon teachers recently indicated that they would not return to in-person instruction even after vaccination. Continued fear-based messaging and policies in certain states are likely creating needless anxiety for students, parents, and teachers.

Some parents and teachers felt strongly about keeping schools closed because everyone’s personal level of risk acceptance is different. However, as millions of Americans receive vaccines and community spread slows, we will be able to open schools while mass vaccination is under way. Overcaution and overcautious messaging kept our schools closed earlier in the pandemic, but experts and public officials need not emphasize caution when touting the incredible efficacy of the new vaccines and their ability to return life to normal. Telling people that their lives won’t change after vaccination is tantamount to telling schools to remain closed.

At this point in the pandemic, Americans know how to keep businesses and schools safe for reopening, and we have highly effective vaccines that protect against severe disease, even from variants of the virus. Children and their families have suffered enormous collateral damage from the failure to open schools. Data point after data point shows that countries with a rapid vaccine rollout are seeing the expected, but still thrilling, decline in cases and hospitalizations. Fear was warranted at the outset by the severity of infection that can occur with COVID-19, and fear dies slowly. But public-health messengers and Americans as a whole must allow remarkable scientific progress to help assuage the misery of the pandemic. At this point, the power of these vaccines is undimmed by variants, and Americans, their public officials, and especially their schools must allow this optimism to now dominate.

As any parent, I have my concerns.  And if I don’t love those CO2 numbers, some wheels are going to get really squeaky.  And, my daughter is going to have a good mask with a good fit.  But, mostly, I’m excited about her being in a classroom with her peers and her teacher. 

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