Quick hits (part I)

1) Excellent stuff from Yglesias on capitalism, China, and free speech:

That being said, it seems really clear at this point that the original premise of U.S.-Chinese economic integration got one important point backward. Rather than trade and development allowing for some spread of American liberal norms into China, it is doing the reverse, and western multinationals’ commercial interests in China are inducing them to impose Chinese speech norms on the West. And we ought to try to do something about it…

But here’s what’s worst of all: not only is the internet failing to smuggle free speech into China, Western companies’ desire to make money is smuggling unfree speech out of China.

There are no Chinese movie villains

International intrigue is a common cinematic plot device. There are lots of movies about spies and assassins and terrorists attacking the White House and all sorts of other things. One would expect that just in the ordinary course of such matters, someone would make a movie where the bad guy is an agent of the Chinese government. After all, I assume that in the real world, the U.S. and Chinese intelligence agencies tussle here and there doing whatever the boring real-world equivalent of cool movie spying is.

For a while, the general understanding about this was basically that the PRC would not let you show your movie in China if it made them mad, so film studios told the stewards of big tentpole films and franchises to not do stuff that would cut them off from the China market.

That’s kind of lame, but it also seems to fall within the scope of pretty normal business operations. But last year, Ben Smith reported that Apple’s formal guidelines for original Apple TV+ content include that you cannot portray China in a negative light:

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.”)

And Smith says that Disney+ has essentially the same policy:

So far, Apple TV+ is the only streaming studio to bluntly explain its corporate red lines to creators — though Disney, with its giant theme park business in China, shares Apple’s allergy to antagonizing China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

What’s disturbing about this is that while “you can’t sell this particular movie in China” certainly hurts that movie’s marketing prospects, it’s not like it’s impossible to make a profitable film or TV series without selling it to China. It’s one thing to say “look, we’re so invested in the James Bond franchise that we don’t want to lose any opportunities to market it.” It’s another thing entirely to say “we are categorically going to refuse to make anything that antagonizes the Chinese government.”

The implication is that Chinese pressure has stepped up. That they’re not just telling Disney that if they make a movie the PRC disapproves of then that movie won’t air in China, but that they will retaliate against Disney’s overall business interests. Of course on some level, we can’t really know what’s going on inside these companies or in their conversations with Chinese leaders. But some things that we can see are disturbing.

2) Not dead yet by any means, but what is going on now with the Republican Party (and too many Democrats who don’t seem to realize the stakes) is exactly what it looks like when democracies die.

Before leaving town for their Memorial Day recess, in fact, Senate Republicans successfully used the legislative filibuster for the first time this session to block the proposed bipartisan panel. Their stated arguments against a commission range from the implausible to the insulting; the real explanation is political cynicism in the extreme. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is so far delivering on his pledge to focus a “hundred per cent” on blocking Biden’s agenda, even claimed that an investigation was pointless because it would result in “no new fact.” John Cornyn, a close McConnell ally, from Texas, was more honest, at least, in admitting, to Politico, that the vote was all about denying Democrats “a political platform” from which to make the 2022 midterm elections a “referendum on President Trump.” For his part, Trump has been putting out the word that he plans to run for reëlection in 2024—and exulting in polls showing that a majority of Republicans continue to believe both his false claims of a fraudulent election and that nothing untoward happened on January 6th. Needless to say, these are not the signs of a healthy democracy ready to combat the autocratic tyrants of the world.

“Turns out, things are much worse than we expected,” Daniel Ziblatt, one of the “How Democracies Die” authors, told me this week. He said he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months. How could he have? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when “How Democracies Die” was published, a year into Trump’s term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so…

In contemporary Germany, he pointed out, an incitement to violence of the kind deployed by Trump and some of his backers might be enough to get a political party banned. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour into anti-democratic extremism.

This is the worrisome essence of the matter. In one alarming survey released this week, nearly thirty per cent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far “off track” that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” against their political opponents. You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that sort of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. The implications? Consider the blunt words of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, in a ruling on a case involving one of the January 6th rioters at the Capitol, issued even as it became clear that Republican senators would move to block the January 6th commission from investigating what had caused the riot:

The steady drumbeat that inspired defendant to take up arms has not faded away; six months later, the canard that the election was stolen is being repeated daily on major news outlets and from the corridors of power in state and federal government, not to mention in the near daily fulminations of the former President.

It’s worth noting that Jackson released this ruling this week, the same week that Trump issued statements calling the 2020 vote “the most corrupt Election in the history of our Country,” touting himself as “the true President,” and warning that American elections are “rigged, corrupt, and stolen.”

3) Good interview here, “Are Democrats sleepwalking toward democratic collapse?”

Sean Illing

You said we were “at a very dangerous moment in American history” back in 2018. I have to say, the situation seems worse now. Trump is gone, but over the last year or so the Republican Party has taken an explicit turn against democracy itself. So what’s your current level of concern?

David Faris

My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024. I’m deeply concerned about the direction that the Republican Party has taken, especially over the last year or so. Things were bad in 2018, but the basic problem in 2018 was that we had structural factors working against the Democrats and you had a Republican Party that was fundamentally trying to keep people from voting.

So 2020 felt like a test run. The plot to overturn the 2020 election never had a real chance of working without some external intervention like a military coup or something like that, which I never thought was particularly likely. But the institutional path that they pursued to steal the election failed because they didn’t control Congress and they didn’t control the right governorships in the right places.

So I worry complacency has set in on the Democratic side and people are lulled into thinking things are normal and fine just because Biden’s approval ratings are good.

Sean Illing

2020 was a “test run” for what, exactly?

David Faris

It was a test run for a way to overturn an election with the veneer of legality. You have to give Trump and Republicans some kind of dark credit for figuring out that this is really conceivable. I think they now know that, even though it would cause a court battle and possibly a civil war, that if they can’t win by suppressing the vote and the election is close enough, they can do this if they control enough state legislatures and the Congress.

If Democrats don’t make some changes to our election laws and if they lose some races that they really need to win in 2022 and 2024, then we’re in real trouble.

4) College are moving away from relying on standardized tests in admissions, but they may mean more reliance on essays.  Which have even more of a socio-economic bias (and really interesting to read in which ways).

5) Kind of nuts that twitter will literally ban people because it’s AI is entirely lacking a sense of humor and that twitter doesn’t seem to care to much about wrongly banning people unless they have a ton of followers.

It took a single tweet about autism for Twitter to suspend me for life. The tweet, part of my “life with #autism” series, quoted a clumsy joke from my autistic son. It contained the words “smash your head.”

The fate of those who accidentally post the wrong words on social media should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about due process and free speech.

Shortly after posting what turned out to be my last tweet about life with autism, I discovered I had been permanently suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against violent threats. I also discovered that Twitter won’t tell you what your offending tweet was. But when, stunned, I scrolled through my history, I found that one tweet—and one only—had been expunged.

It is highly unlikely that a human would mistake the quotation of a joke threat for an actual threat. But artificial intelligence has no sense of humor. And most artificial intelligence looks only for keywords and phrases, not for whether they are embedded within a quoted dialogue.

I am a computational linguist and have long known about the limitations of AI. But only after becoming a Twitter outcast did I learn the dirty secret of moderation on social media. While Twitter’s policy for reviewing tweets is ambiguous (likely purposefully so), prominent figures, like the former president, are almost certainly monitored by real humans who examine their every utterance. But regular people are more frequently relegated to AI—an AI that not only erases tweets, but indefinitely suspends entire accounts. And though Twitter claims not to ban accounts solely based on AI, my own experience and many similar anecdotes make me incredibly skeptical of that claim.

A scroll through tweets directed at @TwitterSupport, Twitter’s customer support account, shows scores of people using alternative accounts, along with their supporters, protesting that no Twitter rules were violated. Some report making joke threats like “I’ll kill you”; others have no idea what went wrong.

But this problem has flown under the radar. Most people writing about free speech and social media are focused on partisan politics, not on artificial intelligence. They appear to be unaware of, or unconcerned about, the thousands of ordinary folks who are suspended indefinitely because a clumsy and indifferent AI flagged a perfectly legitimate tweet.

6) And, back to a theme, “If American Democracy collapsed, you probably wouldn’t notice it”

Let’s warm up with a question. Why don’t powerful people just seize the reins of authority in American politics? You may think that the answer is because our system of laws says that they may not. We have a Constitution, after all, that says that presidents and members of Congress are elected. The rules say that powerful people cannot just seize power. If you want to have the authority to make laws, you have to win elections.

But that answer is wrong. What constrains the powerful is not the Constitution, nor the system of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that govern political competition. What constrains them is the practice that American politicians seek power through elections and that everyone agrees to accept that method.

That difference is subtle. It may even seem tautological—didn’t I just say that powerful people don’t seize power because they don’t? But it is essential for understanding what sustains democracy, and what undermines it. Democracy is a political regime, which O’Donnell and Schmitter define as

the ensemble of patterns, explicit or not, that determines and channels of access to principal governmental positions, the characteristics of the actors who are admitted and excluded from such access, and the resources or strategies that they can use to gain access.

Democracy is nothing other than a particular pattern of behavior that reveals how, within some community, people access positions of political authority.

Constitutions and laws, like other so-called “parchment institutions,” help to provide a structure for politics. Given that there are many ways to have elections, our Constitution generates public, common expectations about how they might be conducted (see Carey [PDF]). But laws do not constrain on their own. They constrain—and this is the essential bit—if people behave as if they are constrained by them.

Working from these two points—democracy is a pattern of behavior, and laws only constrain if people behave as if they are constrained—it follows that we would be correct to say that democracy has collapsed if the explicit or implicit patterns of behavior that govern access to political authority no longer operated. And we would not look to the passage of a law, or necessarily even the outcome of an election, to determine if democracy had collapsed.

Democracy, in fact, makes it particularly challenging to know if democracy has collapsed. That is because when democracy functions, challenges to it are usually hidden, and when they emerge in the open, they are processed through a system that presumes that challenges can be handled democratically. Political actors invoke laws and Constitutions as if they were binding constraints. Stresses that pose questions about the stability of the regime over time, therefore, are fundamentally ambiguous. They may be regime-altering, or not. And the responses to them by those who hold power may be regime-altering. Or not.

And that is why, if American democracy were to collapse, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it. Not right away, at least…

That is an unsettling conclusion, but it is an important one, because it lays out the stakes for defending democracy. Indeed, there aren’t very many differences between everyday life under most forms of authoritarianism and everyday life under democracy. For most people, in most cases, life is basically the same. And because most people, in most cases, are not motivated primarily by their politics in going about their everyday life, the functioning of national politics is not a first-order concern for them.* Democracies usually do not go out with a bang. They just cease to be.**

7) OMG I hate articles about “myths” that aren’t myths at all, or that actually a thing and they pretend its not.  The reality is that NPR should just not being producing this kind of ideological journalism, “6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority”  For starters, “Myth: Asian Americans are a single monolithic group.”  Seriously?!  Does even your average 8-year old believe this.  What a ridiculous low bar of a “myth” to debunk.  Meanwhile “myth” number 2 got dragged, rightly, all over twitter because “Myth: Asian Americans are high earning and well educated” in this case the underlying data shows, that, on average, yes.  The fact that there are large disparities within Asian-Americans (really– not a monolith?!) does not undermine this at all.

8) I loved this guest post at Zeynep’s substack about the key to the novel coronavirus being the novelty.

Novelty Means Severity

by Dylan. H. Morris, PhD

SARS-CoV-2 is new to our immune systems. That makes it very dangerous. Viruses that are new to us spread faster and are more lethal than old familiar ones.

Some scientists are tempted to chalk this up to evolution. The argument is that a virus that leaves its host alive will outcompete one that kills its host. Viruses do sometimes become less deadly as they adapt to a new host species (like us), but they also sometimes become more deadly. But whether wrong or right for a given virus, this tempting just-so story can be a distraction.

Novelty is bad regardless of virus evolution.

When a virus is new, nobody possesses acquired immune protection against it. Acquired immune protection is a different kind of adaptation: not virus evolution, but our own learned—adaptive—immunity. We build over our lifetimes as we encounter new pathogens and learn how to fend them off.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus spreads faster. Even a few immune individuals in a population can meaningfully slow the rate of virus spread, since they are less likely to become infectious and infect others. If there are enough immune individuals, the virus may not be able to spread at all. This is the logic of population immunity and herd immunity. It is important. We talk about it a lot.

If nobody has adaptive immune protection, a virus causes severe disease in more of the people it infects. This is also important. We don’t talk about it enough…

One of the first observations people made about COVID was that it was frighteningly lethal in the elderly, but by and large, children were not getting too sick. Some people were surprised. Conventional wisdom was that influenza hit children and the elderly hardest, while sparing younger adults. Why was SARS-CoV-2 different?

But we need to look a little more closely, because it’s hard to reach adulthood without having had the flu. Look at virus severity not by age but by age of first infection, and a pattern emerges: see something for the first time as a kid, and you’ll most likely be okay (but only most likely). See it for the first time as an adult, and it can be nasty. The older you get, the worse it becomes to be infected with a virus you’ve never seen.

Children encounter many viruses to which they have no prior immunity. They compensate with robust innate immune responses that allow them to handle novel infections fairly well.

Robust doesn’t equal invincible. Without widespread childhood vaccination, infectious diseases kill many children, particularly children under five. A first encounter between the immune system and a virus can end tragically, even for a child.1

As you age, you get less good at handling novel viruses. And eventually you get less good at handling any virus, novel or familiar—your immune system ages (“immunosenescence”). The flu, for example, can be very severe in the elderly. But adults, even elderly adults, usually have at least some adaptive immunity to the viruses they face.

Things can get bad if they don’t…

In an article on OC43, Anthony King writes: “If OC43 was the culprit in the 1889/90 pandemic, it has clearly lost its sting in the past 130 years”. Has it? Or do we (almost) all now see it in childhood?

The “almost” may be important. I often wonder about the strong similarity between myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)—a rare but severe chronic health condition—and many cases of Long COVID. ME/CFS is more common in adults than in children; it often takes hold in adults after a viral infection. What if it is a rare but dangerous consequence of first seeing in your 30s a virus most people first saw in childhood? Evade OC43 or another common virus as a kid, and it could give you post-viral sequelae when it finally hits you in adulthood.

And so while we don’t yet have hard data on the efficacy of the vaccines in preventing Long COVID if they fail to prevent infection, the severity-is-novelty principle makes me hopeful. The virus might get you sick, but it won’t be new to you. That could matter a lot.2

9) Thank your T-cells.  Monica Gandhi, “Relax: If you’re vaccinated, you won’t need a booster any time soon”

As coronavirus vaccines begin to steer the United States back to normalcy after a long and nerve-racking year, Americans’ optimism is mixed with anxiety about the pandemic hurdles that lay ahead. Among those worries is boosters — extra shots that might be needed to shore up immunity among the vaccinated. But emerging research is showing that vaccines and even infections by the virus actually confer long-term immunity and that most vaccinated people won’t need booster shots — at least, not any time soon.

A short primer on the immune system will help explain why. There are two major arms of the immune system: B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells, which form to attack parts of a pathogen called epitopes. Part of the reason booster shots are under discussion is that antibodies in the bloodstream produced by B cells wane over time. Your blood cannot hold high levels of antibodies to all of the infections you have seen over your lifetime or it would be as thick as paste.

But when you get an infection or vaccine, both parts of your immune system also typically make what are known as memory cells. These long-lasting cells are designed to protect you from a disease you might have encountered a long time ago. For instance, a 2008 study found memory B cells in the blood of people who had been exposed to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and were over 90 years old. Those memory B cells could produce strong neutralizing antibodies against the virus or its variants decades later. The immunity conferred by memory T cells can also last decades.

10) Edsall rounds up a variety of opinions on how the “woke” debate may (or may not) be hurting Democrats:

At one level, it is a dispute over ground rules. Can a professor quote literature or historic documents that use taboo words? What rights should be granted to a person accused of sexual harassment? Are there issues or subjects that should not be explored in an academic setting?

On another level, though, it is a conflict over practical politics. Do specific policies governing speech and sexual behavior win or lose voter support? Are there policies that attract criticism from the opposition party that will stick? Are certain policies so controversial that they divert attention from the opposition’s liabilities?

In an article in March, “Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming the G.O.P.’s New Political Strategy,” Perry Bacon Jr., formerly a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight and now a Washington Post columnist, described the ways that policies the Democratic left argued for provided political opportunities to the Republican Party:

First and perhaps most important, focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the G.O.P. to execute, because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change.

Among the reasons Republicans will continue to adopt an “anti-woke posture,” Bacon writes, is that it

gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to “incite violence and encourage overturning the election results.”

Insofar as Republicans suppress Democratic votes, Bacon continued,

or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government. The argument would be that Democrats would eliminate police departments and allow crime to surge if they have more power, so they must be stopped at all costs. Polls suggest a huge bloc of G.O.P. voters is already open to such apocalyptic rhetoric.

Bacon’s views are widely shared among Democratic Party strategists, whether or not they will say so publicly. And Bacon is hardly alone.

In a piece in New York magazine, “Is ‘Anti-Wokeness’ the New Ideology of the Republican Party?” Ed Kilgore makes the case that for Republicans

Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.

This approach is particularly attractive to conservative politicians and strategists, Kilgore continued, because

It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change.

Really not a fan of casting everything in the language of harm, so I really appreciated the pushback from Randall Kennedy:

Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture,” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.”

His list:

“Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.

At the same time, Kennedy continued, many of the people demanding the diminution of what he sees as essential freedoms have learned how to package their insistence in effective ways. They have learned, Kennedy wrote, to deploy skillfully the language of “hurt” — as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought therefore to be prohibited.”

Authorities, particularly those at educational institutions, need to become much more skeptical and tough-minded when encountering the language of “hurt.” Otherwise, they will continue to offer incentives to those who deploy the specters of bigotry, privilege and trauma to further diminish vital academic, intellectual and aesthetic freedoms.

11) Good stuff in Reason on the NHJ tenure case:

The question is who ought to decide whether particular individuals should be hired for available faculty positions. The board at UNC has apparently taken the view that it should not rubber stamp such offers but should feel free to override the determination of the faculty and administration on individual personnel decisions. Nothing good can come of this.

Members of the boards of trustees of universities have no expertise to assess the quality of an individual’s work and the potential contribution that a faculty member might make to the campus. They have no basis on which to assess whether the faculty have made a good or bad choice in a hiring or promotion decision from a scholarly perspective. What board members do have are political opinions and personal interests. If boards can block faculty hiring and promotion decisions, the inevitable result will be to shrink the range of acceptable ideas that can be expressed, taught and investigated on the university campus. Faculty hiring and promotion decisions will turn not just on peer review but also on the vagaries of political lobbying campaigns by activists. Peer review is hardly perfect, but it does not get better if a political body gets to second-guess the results…

Even so, those who seek to promote academic freedom, campus free speech, and greater intellectual diversity in academia should be seeking to expand and not to shrink the range of ideas expressed on college campuses. Free speech is not only for those with whom we agree. The principle requires tolerating those with whom we disagree. We do not improve the state of higher education by further politicizing the process of hiring and promoting faculty.

The Hannah-Jones situation is not the most egregious sin against freedom of thought in American higher education. She was still offered a five-year contract. She apparently accepted that offer. She will remain a loud voice in American political discourse, and she will be regularly feted on university campuses. Far more troubling and career-damaging decisions are made every day on university campuses across the country.

But the principle that trustees should not interfere in faculty hiring decisions was hard won and essential to establishing academic freedom in the United States. It would be all too easy for that principle to be eroded in our current polarized political environment. Setting aside that principle whenever we happen to disagree with what the faculty has done will only encourage the belief that faculty appointments should be treated as political spoils and that the scope of acceptable teaching and scholarship should be determined by politicians and mass public opinion.

12) This is so true, “Americans, It’s Time to Get Comfortable With Platonic Touch.”  I remember that being a big issue when I went off to college and no longer got daily hugs from my mom and dad.  My two youngest kids, especially, really just love snuggling up, so I sure get plenty these days, but, as a society, we should do better.

The isolation of the pandemic has highlighted how much we need — and miss — the many forms of nonsexual contact that once permeated daily life. Returning to normal offers not just a chance to resume hugs and handshakes, but also to ask if we should engage in more forms of touch with our friends and colleagues.

As I learned from 17 months of travel abroad before the pandemic, America has a narrow approach to touch. (I’d witnessed the difference on previous travel abroad, but a trip of this duration allowed me to also experience the difference firsthand.) As adults, our opportunities to touch each other are generally limited to a handshake when we meet someone for the first time, a quick hug greeting of a friend, and all the forms of touch two people in a romantic relationship exchange.

In other countries, touch is far freer. I interviewed Christian singles around the world, talking to more than 300 people in nearly 40 countries — all but a handful in person. In several of those places, I saw public touch between same-sex pairs that has almost no corollary in the United States.

13) Good stuff from Zeynep on the media and the lab leak:

Essentially, in early 2020, Trump and Senator Tom Cotton weighed in on the issue, after which it exploded in the fever swamps, with undeniable racism at play, advocating increasingly weird and unlikely scenarios. All that made it kind of became harder to talk about the topic at all.

At the same time, a small but vocal group of scientists, some of whom had fairly active profiles on social media, provided a lot of content, quotes and viewpoints to the media,  generally making themselves very accessible but with a particular point of view on this question. They also wrote strongly-worded opinion pieces for a few high-profile scientific outlets, essentially dismissing a version of what’s getting called the “lab leak” hypothesis—which is fine, as is their right.

By itself, there isn’t anything wrong with what I just outlined. That small vocal group of critics were not even entirely wrong, in my view, and they are certainly entitled to their opinions and to being loud about them.

But the response to that reality from traditional journalism/media is where things went awry.

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we… don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Next came the scolding “fact-checks,” painting all discussion of the lab leak as a possibility in any version as mere racism or just a conspiracy theory, suggesting that any attempt to have a sane conversation about a really important topic was, at best, aiding and abetting racists if not outright racist. Of course, these knee-jerk dismissals just makes the problem worse, because when the mainstream media ignores vital, debatable topics, the ones left speaking about the issue most vocally become the racists in the fever swamps.

In any case, just looking at the names on that letter itself would make it obvious to someone who was familiar with the field why it was such a big deal, but it seemed not to get the media attention it would get in that context, probably because most the signatories, while leaders in the filed, are not on social media much, if at all and not that active — and there are many others in this and related fields who aren’t involved openly at all, but would maybe talk to reporters if contacted. However, media keeps quoting the same few very accessible people, to the detriment of the story.

Plus, the coverage has been weird in terms of logical analysis and causal inference. Once something does happen in the real world, we cannot go directly from considering the abstract odds of it happening before to understanding what actually happened after it already happened. It’s one thing to understand how pandemics happen, in general and in the past. It’s an entirely different process to try to answer the question as how did this one happen…

I believe that working to answer key questions that otherwise would be monopolized by racists is core to practicing antiracism. I also believe that equating criticism of the Chinese government with racism against Chinese people is, to put it bluntly, is, indeed, racist. The government is not the people, and like all authoritarian countries, China has great many dissidents.Some dissidents we know of, and there are many others who cannot speak out freely, including some who risked everything to warn us about the pandemic early on and were punished by their government. We should honor and highlight their work, not bury them by acting like criticizing a government — any government, to be honest, but especially unelected, authoritarian ones — means we’re somehow being racist against a billion of people who just happen to live there, or people of that descent. These people are not puppets of a singular government, and criticizing a government is not racism; rather, it’s often a requirement of antiracism.

14) For a while, I was pretty annoyed that we were not going to get a vaccine mandate for NC State.  But, pretty soon I realized this is just politics and our university system is under control of the Republican legislature.  Here’s the sad reality, “For Colleges, Vaccine Mandates Often Depend on Which Party Is in Power: Hoping for a return to normal, more than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.”

15) There’s good arguments for banning ransomware payments.  And there’s good arguments against banning ransomware payments.  And this Post article nicely rounds them up.  That said, I’m not sure there are not good arguments for failing to step up investment and policies that make life much tougher for the ransomware malefactors.

16) This was good from Linda Greenhouse, “The Free Ride May Soon Be Over for Anti-Abortion Politicians”

Do I think the court will use this case to permit states to ban abortion entirely? No, not directly and not this soon; there’s no need for the new majority, handpicked for that very purpose, to go that far this fast. The question the court has agreed to answer, as framed by the state’s petition, “Whether all previability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional,” suggests but doesn’t require an all-or-nothing response.

However, as President Biden might say, here’s the deal: Viability has been the essential firewall protecting the right to abortion. As the law of abortion currently stands, states can require onerous waiting periods, misleading “informed consent” scripts, needless ultrasound exams — anything to make abortion as burdensome, expensive and stigmatizing as possible. But what a state can’t do at the end of the day is actually prevent a woman with the resources and will to get to one of the diminishing number of providers (the clinic that sued to block the Mississippi law is the only one in that state) from terminating her pregnancy.

Once the viability firewall is breached, it’s hard to see what limiting principle the new majority might invoke even if so inclined. Ninety percent of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. What’s the difference between 15 weeks and 13, or 11, or 10? Mississippi offers as a limiting principle the claim that at 15 weeks a fetus is “likely capable of conscious pain perception.” But as a compilation of peer-reviewed medical articles published in 2015 by FactCheck.org concluded, scientific evidence is lacking even for the more common assertion that fetuses are capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks…

If there is any good news to salvage from the court’s announcement this week, it is this: the free ride that anti-abortion politicians have enjoyed may be coming to a crashing end.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

17) I cannot remember the last time I watched a Friends episode.  And I don’t even remember if I was still watching at the end of their run.  But I quite enjoyed the Friends Reunion special on HBO.  Truly some excellent writing and gifted comic actors on that show.

Quick hits

Sorry, just this one not-all-that-long edition:

1) Bernstein on what we really need to make the House better:

In particular, increasing number of House districts enough to make representation happen on a normal human scale would produce an unwieldy legislative chamber of thousands of representatives. The likely results: either chaos, or a highly centralized body in which individual representatives had little or no importance. Neither of these would be good for healthy, meaningful representation. The more plausible reforms, on the other hand, would add relatively small numbers of representatives, and it wouldn’t take long before population growth brought their districts back to about the same size they are now.

In other words, in a nation soon to reach 350 million people, there’s no realistic way for the national legislature to have districts that allow most people to know their representatives.

Rather than increasing the size of the House, the best way to increase personal connections between members and constituents would be to throw money at the problem.

Congressional staff budgets haven’t come close to keeping up with the size of congressional districts over the last 30 years. Over that same period, the demise of local media has made low-cost communication with the district a lot harder, and perhaps impossible. Once upon a time, members gave interviews to local TV and radio stations that everyone in the district could watch and listen to, and were quoted on national and local issues in local newspapers that constituents could subscribe to. All of that, of course, is either gone or diminished. There are lots of reasons that the incumbency advantage in House elections has just about disappeared, but it certainly can’t help that there’s a lot less local media for incumbents to dominate.

So instead of, say, quadrupling the size of the House, how about quadrupling (or more!) each member’s budget? Yes, a lot of that money would be wasted or spend on frivolous things, but so what? Constituents might not have any better chance of knowing their representative personally, but they would have a better chance of visiting a district office, knowing a district staffer (or even a Washington-based one), and perhaps “knowing” their representative on social media. Of course, with a bigger personal staff, members might also increase their personal capacity for doing legislative work without relying on the party leadership. That would be good, too.

In the 1970s, a reasonable objection to adding resources to individual members of the House would have been that it might make them invulnerable to electoral defeat. Today, House elections are nationalized, and so individual members are hostage to the fate of their parties. Whether restoring a bit of incumbency advantage would be a little good or a little bad, it certainly wouldn’t be decisive.

2) Yglesias: on standardized testing and racial equality:

Most critiques of SATs are wrong

People offer a lot of casual criticisms of the SAT that are false or misleading, such as noting that kids with richer parents have higher SAT scores and thus inferring that the test is easily gamed by high-income parents.

It’s true that there is a modest positive correlation between parental income and SAT scores, but you see a similar positive correlation with pretty much anything related to school or child development. Parceling out exactly why it is that the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives do better at school-related stuff than the children of waitresses and cashiers and cab drivers is probably really hard. But broadly speaking, people who do well in school and have high standardized test scores end up earning more money than those who don’t. They then have children who are genetically related to them, and they raise those children in households where the adults are able to constantly model the behaviors of a good-at-school person. There would be something profoundly weird about a world in which the children of good-at-school people were not, on average, better at school than the children of bad-at-school people.

What’s not the case is that rich parents are bestowing huge gains to their kids via the mechanism of extensive test prep. Slate’s Daniel Engber did a good roundup of this in 2019 — the benefits of test prep are modest, maybe between 10 and 30 points out of 1600. There’s a Wall Street Journal article making the same point.

Note that this is not the same as saying that practicing for the tests isn’t helpful! You will absolutely do better on a test if you are familiar with the kind of questions you are going to be asked than if you show up to it cold. But what that means is that taking a little time to prepare is going to help you, not that vast sums of money are going to dramatically boost your score. From the WSJ article:

Laurence Bunin, a College Board senior vice president, says the board’s own research shows limited benefit from test-prep courses. He says familiarity with the SAT tends to provide the biggest short-term gains for students. He recommends free and low-cost College Board materials, including a $20 study guide.

This kind of practice can make a huge difference!

3) Leonhardt on wages:

The chief executive of Domino’s Pizza has complained that the company can’t hire enough drivers. Lyft and Uber claim to have a similar problem. A McDonald’s franchise in Florida offered $50 to anybody willing to show up for an interview. And some fast-food outlets have hung signs in their windows saying, “No one wants to work anymore.”

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through.

Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality.

Let’s start with some basic economics. The U.S. is a capitalist country, and one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution.

The company or person providing the item raises its price. Doing so causes other providers to see an opportunity for profit and enter the market, increasing supply. To take a hypothetical example, a shortage of baguettes in a town will lead to higher prices, which will in turn cause more local bakeries to begin making their own baguettes (and also cause some families to choose other forms of starch). Suddenly, the baguette shortage is no more…

Human labor is not the same thing as a baguette, but the fundamental idea is similar: In a market economy, both labor and baguettes are products with fluctuating prices.

When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more…

If anything, wages today are historically low. They have been growing slowly for decades for every income group other than the affluent. As a share of gross domestic product, worker compensation is lower than at any point in the second half of the 20th century. Two main causes are corporate consolidation and shrinking labor unions, which together have given employers more workplace power and employees less of it…

Corporate profits, on the other hand, have been rising rapidly and now make up a larger share of G.D.P. than in previous decades. As a result, most companies can afford to respond to a growing economy by raising wages and continuing to make profits, albeit perhaps not the unusually generous profits they have been enjoying…

That so many are complaining about the situation is not a sign that something is wrong with the American economy. It is a sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy that many believe anything else is unnatural.

4) Terrific interview with Michael Mina on the Yankees outbreak and his latest ideas on testing:

It seems like you don’t think these are “breakthrough” infections and also that you’re not surprised to see them.
The Yankees are testing themselves frequently. When that happens, especially if you’re doing PCR tests, you’re going to find exposures and infections.

Even in people who’ve been vaccinated?
Yes. I’ve always said that it is very unlikely that these vaccines will create fully sterilizing immunity. Sterilizing immunity is the kind of immunity where, if you get exposed and the virus lands in your respiratory tract, it will be neutralized (or killed) immediately. It will not have a chance to replicate. On the other hand, you can have very highly protective vaccines that are not fully sterilizing — vaccines that prevent you from illness, especially severe illness, but may still allow the virus to grow.

And a PCR test would catch those kinds of infections?
This is a technology that can catch just ten molecules of virus. But this is a virus that when it is contagious, there are billions of molecules. So we have to be very careful about how we interpret PCR results. Just because the virus can grow a bit — and be detected on a PCR test — does not mean we are stuck in the woods as far as herd immunity goes. A vaccine that doesn’t create sterilizing immunity can still greatly limit virus growth, perhaps enough to massively limit transmission. This is likely the case with the mRNA vaccines at least, given the large reductions in cases among kids in hospitals as a result of the adults getting vaccinated. Clearly transmission declined significantly enough to elicit some level of herd effects on the kids.

But it probably won’t decline to zero.
As I have been saying since last summer, we should expect reinfections following infection or vaccination. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. The real question is do those reinfections matter — or more to the point — do the reinfections have negative consequences?

Do we not have to worry about infections of that size?
In my opinion, if they’re not infections that are causing disease, they should be viewed very differently from a breakthrough case, which is a term that should absolutely be reserved for a case that’s causing disease…

In other words treating infection as much more of a spectrum, when throughout the pandemic we’ve treated it much more as a binary matter. 
Right. The way we’ve been using PCR thus far is the equivalent of saying that you either are completely immune to a disease, or you’re completely vulnerable. But we all know that you can get a little bit sick or you can get a lot sick, and that those are two really different things.

That had its own cost throughout the pandemic, of course, but it’s also meant we’ve sort of poorly educated the public about how to navigate the post-pandemic, as this episode with the Yankees shows.
That’s exactly right. Binarizing all of these results, and continuing to put everything in black and white — that has been immensely destructive. One of my core philosophies in public health is we absolutely need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic.

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve generally considered the public to be the problem. But this is public health. The public isn’t the problem – that’s on the virus – instead, the public is the solution. As we are seeing with vaccines, the public is the solution and unless we want to vaccinate people based on some forceful military state requirements (which we do not and I hope never would) then we must see the public as the solution, always.

So we need to bring the public along. You need to keep them up to speed. You need to keep them informed. If you don’t have the public buy-in for everything you’re doing, you will never defeat a pandemic. What we’ve done instead, by assuming that the public was unable to deal with this kind of information and this kind of nuance, we have done immeasurable damage.

We’ve made the same mistake with herd immunity — treating it as some threshold before which there’s still great danger and after which there is none, rather than a gradual lessening of risk as more people gain immunity through infection or vaccination.
It’s crazy. Why we continue to treat everything as black and white from testing to disease to herd immunity is … I can’t really figure out why. Maybe it’s just a basic human thing, but I think it’s something our CDC and our FDA and our policymakers should’ve done a much better job educating about. The burden really falls on them.

5) Quite entertaining science journalism, “The Body’s Most Embarrassing Organ Is an Evolutionary Marvel: And yet we have very little idea where anuses come from.”

The appearance of the anus was momentous in animal evolution, turning a one-hole digestive sac into an open-ended tunnel. Creatures with an anus could physically segregate the acts of eating and defecating, reducing the risk of sullying a snack with scat; they no longer had to finish processing one meal before ingesting another, allowing their tubelike body to harvest more energy and balloon in size. Nowadays, anuses take many forms. Several animals, such as the sea cucumber, have morphed their out-hole into a Swiss Army knife of versatility; others thought that gastrointestinal back doors were so nice, they sprouted them at least twice. “There’s been a lot of evolutionary freedom to play around with that part of the body plan,” Armita Manafzadeh, a vertebrate morphology expert at Brown University, told me.

But anuses are also shrouded in scientific intrigue, and a fair bit of squabbling. Researchers still hotly debate how and when exactly the anus first arose, and the number of times the orifice was acquired or lost across different species. To tap into our origins, we’ll need to take a squarer look at our ends.

 

In the beginning, there was nothing. The back ends of our animal ancestors that swam the seas hundreds of millions of years ago were blank, relegating the entry and exit of all foodstuffs to a single, multipurpose hole. Evolutionary echoes of these life-forms still exist in corals, sea anemone, jellyfish, and a legion of marine worms whose digestive tract takes the form of a loose sac. These animals are serially monogamous with their meals, taking food in one glob at a time, then expelling the scraps through the same hole. (Contrary to what you might have read, not everyone poops.) These creatures’ guts operate much like parking lots, subject to strict vacancy quotas that restrict the flow of traffic.

The emergence of a back door transformed those parking lots into highways—the linear “through-guts” that dominate body plans today. Suddenly, animals had the luxury of downing multiple meals without needing to fuss with disposal in between; digestive tracts lengthened and regionalized, partitioning into chambers that could extract different nutrients and host their own communities of microbes. The compartmentalization made it easier for animals to get more out of their meals, Andreas Hejnol, a developmental biologist at the University of Bergen, in Norway, told me. With the lengthening and uncorking of the end of the gut, he said, many creatures grew into longer and larger body forms, and started to move in new ways. (It would take several more eons for true buttocksthe fleshy, fatty accoutrements that flank the anuses of some animals, such as humans—to evolve. Some researchers I talked with are comfortable using butt to mean any anal or anus-adjacent structure; others are purists, and consider the term strict shorthand for buttocks and buttocks alone.)

6) Really enjoyed Robinson Meyer on the new F150 electric:

4. An electric vehicle is, at a mechanical level, a giant battery on wheels. Ford is pitching this not only as a technical necessity but as a feature: They want you to plug stuff into the car. “Let’s say you’re at a tailgate or at work. You can set up a cement mixer, a band, or lights and draw only half the power the truck is capable of producing at a time,” Linda Zhang, the chief engineer on the Lightning, told me. Like all electric vehicles, the F-150 replaces the hefty internal-combustion engine with a much smaller electric motor, and like many EVs therefore has a storage compartment under its front hood: a “frunk.” Except the F-150 has a “power frunk”—the most marvelous three-syllable phrase American marketing has produced since “half-priced apps”—meaning that it both opens to the touch of a button and has multiple plugs for appliances.

The Lightning can store so much power that, in a blackout, it can supply a house’s normal power usage for three days, according to Ford. If the house conserves power, it can keep the lights on for more than a week, Zhang said. Talking about this feature, Ford employees and Farley himself have referenced the Texas blackouts. The Lightning is a technology of resilience, of climate adaptation.

5. Chemically speaking, decarbonization—the move away from carbon-based fossil fuels—is a shift to less dense forms of energy. Gasoline, for its many flaws, contains an enormous amount of potential energy in a very small amount of mass. Transitioning away from it means, in practical terms, that electric vehicles will be much heavier than gasoline-powered vehicles. The F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, about the same as the gargantuan Hummer H2 of the mid-2000s. The battery alone is 1,800 pounds.

These are hefty, dangerous vehicles. Ford has said that it will send software updates to its EVs over the air, and that it will soon transmit its new autonomous-driving feature, BlueCruise, to its EV fleet. But the tonnage of the Lightning, specifically, means that it must especially prioritize advanced safety features, sensors, and auto-braking. Otherwise pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller and lighter vehicles will die.

7) Zeynep on ransomware:

The dynamics of digital insecurity, ransomware, and related threats are eerily similar to the global public health dynamics before the pandemic. Battlestar Galactica helps explain one key similarity: Networked systems are vulnerable. The premise of the series is that the battleship Galactica, and only Galactica, survived an attack by the Cylons (humanoid robots) on the human fleet simply because it was old and had just been decommissioned in the process of being turned into a museum. Being older, it had never been networked into the system. The “shutdown” command sent by the attackers never reached it, and it was thus spared…

In pandemic terms, Galactica was an island that no one could travel to.

Our software infrastructure is not built with security in mind. That’s partly because a lot of it depends on older layers, and also because there has been little incentive to prioritize security. More operating systems could have been built from the start with features such as “sandboxing,” in which a program can play only in a defined, walled-off area called a “sandbox” that is unreachable by anything else. If that program is malicious, it can do damage only in its sandbox. (This is analogous to the idea of “air gapping,” in which crucial parts of a network are unplugged from a network’s infrastructure.)

Adding security after the fact to a digital system that wasn’t built for it is very hard. And we are also surrounded by “technical debt,” programs that work but were written quickly, sometimes decades ago, and were never meant to scale to the degree that they have. We don’t mess with these rickety layers, because it would be very expensive and difficult, and could cause everything else to crumble. That means there is a lot of duct tape in our code, holding various programs and their constituent parts together, and many parts of it are doing things they weren’t designed for.

Our global network isn’t built for digital security. As I wrote in 2018, the early internet was intended to connect people who already trusted one another, such as academic researchers and military networks. It never had the robust security that today’s global network needs. As the internet went from a few thousand users to more than 3 billion, attempts to strengthen security were stymied because of cost, shortsightedness, and competing interests.

8) My favorite sports analytics discovery (thanks, BB!) of recent vintage is hockey writer JFresh.  I really enjoyed this look at how hockey is about the most luck-dependent of sports and we really need to keep this in mind.  So much regression to the mean both ways.  

9) It also led be to this Vox video” Why it’s so much harder to predict winners in hockey than basketball” that I just absolutely loved (and put in a request for the book it’s based upon).

10) Good stuff from Mark Blumenthal, “How far might incentives nudge the hesitant toward getting COVID-19 vaccines?”

As the rate of new COVID–19 vaccinations has slowed, health officials have grown more creative in efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get their shot. In Ohio, the offer of a chance to win $1 million helped boost new vaccinations to their highest rate in three weeks.

New YouGov polling – conducted prior to the announcement of the Ohio lottery – shows that while such efforts may do little to dissuade the most hardcore of vaccine resistant Americans, the various nudges and incentives being offered in some areas have the potential to motivate many Americans still on-the-fence about getting vaccinated.

The most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, for example, asked unvaccinated Americans whether a series of incentives would make them more likely to get vaccinated. Not surprisingly, the various enticements were most attractive to those already planning to get vaccinated (11% of adults overall), especially the prospect of getting easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants (would make 63% of this group more likely to get a shot), receiving $100 in exchange (62%), or the option to be vaccinated “at my doctor’s office” (58%). Nearly all (91%) who say they are planning to get vaccinated respond favorably to at least one of eight potential incentives tested…

In short, these results confirm survey results elsewhere, such as those of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which finds the unvaccinated “have a range of questions and concerns about the vaccine that require different strategies to address.” 

It may take a broad range of approaches and incentives, but if 90% of those still planning to be vaccinated and 40% of those who say they are unsure can be prodded to get at least one vaccine dose – targets consistent with the results above – it would mean a vaccination rate above 70% of the adult population, the goal recently set by President Biden for July 4.

11) I’ve got Amanda Ripley’s new book on conflict on my coffee table and cannot wait to read it.  I really loved this whole interview with Yascha Mounk.  So many good tidbits in here:

Mounk: I’m struck often, in our political discourse, by the ways in which many of my friends and acquaintances—people who are broadly on the, quote, unquote, same side—want to have a view of the other side that’s as negative as possible. Actually, they seem comforted when the other side does something horrible, because it allows them to hate them without any reservations or without any nuance. Then when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome. 

Ripley: At this level of conflict, emotion is driving the train. I admit to that myself. I remember, early on in Trump’s tenure, he did something—I can’t remember what it was, something about China. I remember having this sudden thought that, actually, that was not a bad idea—but not even wanting to have the thought in my head, let alone verbalize it. Then I realized I felt like if I gave him an inch, he’d take a mile—as if we were in a relationship. It’s a trick of the brain, as if he and I were in conversation, which we’re not. So, it’s a fear. It’s a lack of trust. It’s easier, in a way, to keep things binary: bad, good. There’s really cool research that haunts me to this day by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, where they asked liberals and conservatives if they would reframe an argument for something in words that [would get] conservatives behind it. Interestingly, they found that 20% of liberals would not reframe their arguments to persuade conservatives, even if it would work better to get what they want. That’s high conflict: when any concession, no matter how small, feels too threatening to contemplate, even when it would be in their interest.

Mounk: I find it to be true that when you say, “Hey, these arguments really are not persuasive and popular to a lot of people,” there’s a particularly strong reaction against that among some readers and on social media, where they’re saying, “Look, this is a question of justice, how dare you talk about it in these kinds of terms.” It’s like you’re desecrating the sacredness of your cause by thinking about how you might put it in a way that’ll actually attract support. Of course, we live in a democracy, and that means you have to think about majorities, and that can sometimes be a slightly dirty business. But if you actually cared about the cause, you would be willing to reframe your argument in the ways that makes it most likely for your cause to happen—whereas I think it’s an indication that you care more about being on the good side when you become reluctant to do that. […] To what extent do you think we can apply everything you say about high conflict to the current situation in the United States?

Ripley: I think 100%. That’s why I wrote the book. What I found is, if you come at [conflict] head on, you lose a lot of people. Many people are stridently locked in on one side or another. But if you come at it sideways, with an analogy, people will make the connection. When you’re in high conflict, it feels unique to you, your country and your pathology. You just can’t believe that this is a universal human condition that has anything to do with divorce court. But I’ll tell you what, there is no daylight between divorce court and Congress at this point. There is nothing different about it. 

12) Really good stuff from Derek Thompson on why Texas was okay despite removing its mask mandate super-early:

In early march, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little? …

A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.”…

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

And, I gotta say, this following part super-resonated with me (for obvious reasons, once you read it):

If governor mandates don’t change behavior, and state shutdowns don’t change behavior, and CDC guidance doesn’t change behavior (so far), then where do our beliefs about this virus come from? Who shapes the way we think, feel, and act in response to complex and consequential things like a global pandemic?

I’ll first answer for myself: Skeptical of some official narratives from the Trump administration to the CDC, I’ve become my own private investigator on all things COVID-related. (It helps that I’m paid to be one.) I track what public-health officials say about the pandemic, but I don’t wait with bated breath for their pronouncements. Months before the CDC acknowledged that surface transmission of the coronavirus is vanishingly rare, I wrote that surface transmission is vanishingly rare. Weeks before the CDC acknowledged that outdoor mask mandates make no sense, I wrote that outdoor mask mandates make no sense. I’m not bragging; I’m … well, all right, I’m bragging a little.

But my private-detective work isn’t so special. At at time when citizens don’t trust their government and when information is abundant, anybody can, like me, become their own sleuth on all things COVID-related, piece together their own theory about what this virus is and how it spreads, and come up with their individual risk level. Many remote workers, hunched behind their laptops for 16 months, have had the opportunity to steep themselves in modern epidemiology.

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 I)

1) One of the better takes on the ransomware that’s made getting gas a nightmare in NC.  Just because I happened to be out running errands Monday evening and was low I serendipitously filled up as the craziness started Tuesday morning here.  Now, I regularly drive by mostly empty stations with a few stations having lines of dozens of cars.  Do better America!

2) Ummm, I definitely stick with my less intelligent, but friendlier/happier dog.  But, interesting, “Grumpy Dogs Outperform the Friendlies on Some Learning Tests
Dogs that would not be the first choice of many pet owners do better than some of the more agreeable fellows when they have to learn from a stranger.”

3) This, especially when it comes to summer camps this summer, “I Tell My Patients Not to Mask Their Kids Outside: For most young people, the social and emotional benefits of taking masks off outdoors greatly outweigh the personal and public-health advantages of keeping them on.”

4) There’s some really, really bad diversity training that really is out there based on absolutely nonsense, racist ideas like hard work and punctuality are “white supremacy” virtues.  As Yglesias points out, nobody really bothers to defend it (nor did they when he posted this), and, yet, it keeps getting propagated because nobody wants to speak against it and risk being labeled racist or “fragile” white person:

So I want to talk instead about one specific document, not because I think it’s the most important document in the world, but because I don’t really see anyone who I read and respect talking about it even though I’ve seen it arise multiple times in real life.

I’m talking about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun, which I first heard of this year from the leader of a progressive nonprofit group whose mission I strongly support. He told me that some people on the staff had started wielding this document in internal disputes and it was causing big headaches. Once I had that on my radar, I heard about it from a couple of other nonprofit workers. And I saw it come up at the Parent Teacher Association for my kid’s school.

It’s an excerpt from a longer book called Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups that was developed as a tool for Okun’s consulting and training gigs.

But today, even though it’s not what I would call a particularly intellectually influential work in highbrow circles — even ones that are very “woke” or left-wing — it does seem to be incredibly widely circulated. You see it everywhere from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to the Sierra Club of Wisconsin to an organization of West Coast Quakers.

Which is to say it’s sloshing around quite broadly in progressive circles even though I’ve never heard a major writer, scholar, or political leader praise or recommend it. And to put it bluntly, it’s really dumb. In my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if it’s not a psyop devised by some modern-day version of COINTELPRO to try to destroy progressive politics in the United States by making it impossible to run effective organizations. Even if not, I think the document is worth discussing on its own terms because it is broadly influential enough that if everyone actually agrees with me that it’s bad, we should stop citing it and object when other people do. And alternatively, if there are people who think it’s good, it would be nice to hear them say so, and then we could have a specific argument about that. But while I don’t think this document is exactly typical, I do think it’s emblematic of some broader, unfortunate cultural trends…

The craziest thing about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” is that it has literally nothing to do with race.

Some of the things she condemns are genuinely bad. For example, it is true that some people have “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.” That is in fact not true and not a productive way to live your life, conduct political work, or run an organization of any size.

Mostly, though, she’s against things like “either/or thinking” and “perfectionism” where it’s pretty clearly a case in which you just don’t want to take things too far. I am the very opposite of a perfectionist, and in my old blogging days, I was infamous for my typos. Today I am still like that, but thanks to the help of Marc and Claire, I try to keep dumb mistakes out of Slow Boring since this is, after all, my job, and thousands of subscribers have kindly agreed to pay for it. But I still frequently find myself encountering people who are too perfectionist-oriented, and there are absolutely people who are too hung up on dichotomous thinking and false binaries. But there are also people who are too sloppy or too indecisive.

But big picture, none of this has anything to do with race or white supremacy!

And I don’t mean that in, like, “it’s not racist unless you’re wearing a Klan hood and burning a cross in my lawn.” I mean, nothing. If you don’t know any non-white people who sometimes strike you as excessively rigid in their thinking or seem like too much of perfectionists then you need to get out more. But then Okun herself concedes that there’s no necessary relationship between manifesting white supremacy culture and being white yourself, nor even the ethnic composition of the group…

Okay, but really who cares?

I think enough attention has been paid to the view that Cancel Culture Is A Totalitarian Menace Threatening Our Freedoms that a lot of people have trouble hearing any other kind of criticism, and it leads them to immediately retreat into whataboutism and minimization.

So for the record, I wholeheartedly agree — I do not think a bunch of folks running around telling the world that asking for written memos and focusing on measurable results is racist are going to take over the United States and extinguish human liberty. Frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do anything at all other than run a bunch of basically useless trainings and disrupt the internal functioning of progressive organizations. My concern is less that Woke Conservation Biologists are going to oppress us and more that they aren’t going to do conservation biology very well.

But this can still be very harmful.

If you tell teachers and principals that having a sense of urgency about teaching kids to read is a form of white supremacy, then that is going to hurt kids’ learning. And if young people entering the progressive nonprofit sector believe that any effort to construct disciplined, hierarchical organizations is a form of white supremacy, then they are not going to accomplish anything.

I would also say that the political faction that tends to pride itself on ideas like “taking the science seriously” and “trusting the experts” should ask itself how a white physical education major from Oberlin got to be such a guru on this subject…

But that not only has a range of first-order harms, but it also creates a situation where you then find yourself turning around later and wondering why nobody trusts the experts anymore. Some of the reason is that they’re under assault by bad-faith operators who derive personal benefits from discrediting the concept of neutral expertise. But some of it is that the participants in these institutions can’t be consistently bothered to uphold those values and ask really basic questions of the influential practitioners who happen to be aligned with the right politics.

5) Using drugs to cheat in sports is bad.  They way international athletics organizations horribly treat their athletes based on questionable drug test is… worse?  I mean, your career ruined for eating a steak?!

The American Olympic long jumper Jarrion Lawson, the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, 200 meters and long jump at the same N.C.A.A. championships, had a similar experience. After he ate a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas in 2018, he also tested positive for a metabolite of trenbolone.

His agent, Paul Doyle, tracked down the restaurant’s beef supplier, which said it collected beef from farms that, like many farms across America, treated cows with trenbolone to make them grow. Because Mr. Lawson could not recover an exact sample of the beef he’d eaten before the test, he was exonerated in part through old text messages about what he wanted to have for lunch that day and a receipt the restaurant had retained. But he lost 19 months of competition to a provisional suspension while he fought the charge.

“Had he ordered the chicken bowl instead of the beef bowl, he would have saved himself $2 million and his reputation,” said Mr. Doyle, referring to losses from sponsor contracts, competition earnings and legal fees. “It’s very frustrating. Sometimes it seems like they’re taking the approach of ‘Let’s try and ban as many athletes as we can.’”

6) For a variety of reasons, the NHL is gone from a minor interest to me to being my favorite sport by a long shot.  They kind of suck on player safety (Tom Wilson!), though I appreciate the improvements from the constant fighting that really turned me off long ago, but, damn do they get it on air quality.  Kind of amazing that a sports league understands this so much better than major public health agencies.  I loved reading this about upcoming Hurricanes playoff games:

PNC Arena can normally seat 18,680 for hockey. Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said Friday the team was still discussing with the NHL how many fans the team would initially be allowed to host, but that NHL ventilation standards would still limit PNC to about 10,000-12,000 fans until the team can bring in additional HVAC and dehumidifying equipment.

7) No, I’m never going to love wasps, but I can appreciate the important environmental roles they play, “Wasps have a bad rap. This summer, let’s learn to love them”

8) Love, love, love this headline, “Pandora ditching mined diamonds for lab-grown ones: The move by the world’s biggest jeweler reflects consumer demand for sustainability and ethical sourcing.”  I mean, diamonds are absurdly over-rated as gemstones (I mean, a good emerald, ruby, or sapphire over a diamond any day!!), but even worse their environmental and human impact, so, yes, more of this!

9) This was interesting and definitely a move in the right direction, “Is This the End of the Leotard?The German gymnastics team’s full-body uniforms are a bold statement against sexualization and wedgies.”  Also, I had no idea the wedgies were such a big thing.  Athletes should be comfortable, damnit.

10) Good stuff from Noah Smith, “Why politically guided science is bad: Research should not be an effort to reach one’s desired conclusions.”

The other day, a paper was published in the American Economic Review about incarceration’s effect on children. It caused quite a stir, because it concluded that kids can sometimes benefit in certain ways from having their parents locked up:

Every year, millions of Americans experience the incarceration of a family member. Using 30 years of administrative data from Ohio and exploiting differing incarceration propensities of randomly assigned judges, this paper provides the first quasi-experimental estimates of the effects of parental and sibling incarceration in the US. Parental incarceration has beneficial effects on some important outcomes for children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult neighborhood quality. While estimates on academic performance and teen parenthood are imprecise, we reject large positive or negative effects. Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.

There was a torrent of negative reactions to the paper. That’s understandable. You have to be pretty ghoulish to actually like incarceration, and finding out that it can have some beneficial effects for the very children and siblings of the people who get locked up would place us on the horns of a dilemma. Uncomfortably, this is not the first paper to find some sort of effect like this. Here’s another from 2020, which uses a similar methodology but looks at education instead.

Some defended the paper, but very many people were upset about it. Negative reactions from various academics on Twitter ranged from “yikes” to barf emojis to allegations that its publication represented a breach of ethics. Defenders responded that these negative reactions were merely cases of people encountering inconvenient facts.

Those facts — and we do not yet know if they’re facts — would certainly be inconvenient, if you don’t like mass incarceration (and I definitely do not like it!). The U.S. prison system is a human rights nightmare; it would be disgusting to think that casting more people into the maw of that nightmare could be good for their children and siblings. And on top of that, these papers imply that family is sometimes a bad thing — that parents can be such toxic people that throwing them into a dungeon actually makes life better for their kids! That disturbing idea cuts against our deep-seated family values.

Nevertheless, I think calls for the suppression of findings like this are wrong. (And saying that papers like this should not be published, or should have to clear greater-than-usual hurdles for publication, is definitely a call for suppression.) In fact, this reaction is part of what I see as a growing movement in recent years to make scientific inquiry more governed by political ideology. And I think that’s a very bad idea. Scientists can’t ever be fully free of biases, but being less political and more devoted to seeking the facts is a worthy goal that should not be abandoned…

One worry that’s commonly brought up in these debates is that if bad people get a hold of these research results, they will do bad things with it…

In other words, maybe people like John Pfaff know how to use this research to craft better alternatives to modern-day incarceration or subtly tweak sentencing policy, but Ben Shapiro will see it and start screaming “SEEEE? MASS INCARCERATION IS GOOOOOOOD!!!” to his twelve bazillion followers. And then where will we be?

In fact, you can make a similar argument for almost any piece of research, especially for scientific discoveries. The same technology that can cure disease might be used to create bioweapons. The same chemistry discoveries that can create useful new materials can be used to blow people up. And so on.

It’s reasonable for scientists (including social scientists) to be concerned about the evil uses to which their discoveries might be put. But to suppress or modify those discoveries is akin to the Noble Lie — it’s an expression of a belief that you, the researcher, can predict the uses to which society will put your discoveries, and can thus control social outcomes by deciding whether to report what you’ve found.

11) Sorry if I’ve already mentioned Julia Galef and her new book on Scout Mindset, but this is a great interview and I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

Dylan Matthews

Walk me through what you mean by “scout mindset.” What does it mean to have it? How do you know if you have it?

Julia Galef

It’s my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.

By default, a lot of the time we humans are in what I call “soldier mindset,” in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.

I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to “shore up” our beliefs, “support them” and “buttress them” as if they’re fortresses. We try to “shoot down” opposing arguments and we try to “poke holes” in the other side.

I call this “soldier mindset,” and “scout mindset” is an alternative to that. It’s a different way of thinking about what to believe or thinking about what’s true.

12) As a top-notch linguist and someone decidedly anti-woke, John McWhorter is always especially interesting on the N-word:

Some will despise that I am calling the new take on the word pious. But 25 years ago we all knew exactly those things about the word’s heritage, and felt modern and enlightened to, with sensible moderation, utter the word in reference rather than gesture. Under normal conditions, the etiquette would have stayed at that point. The only thing that makes that take on the word now seem backwards is a sense of outright “cover-your-mouth” taboo: i.e. religion. This performative refusal to distinguish, this embrace of the mythic, shows a take on the N-word analogous to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

In my experience, a common idea is that if we allow the word to be used in reference, there is a slippery slope from there to whites feeling comfortable hurling the slur as well. There are two problems with this point. One: for decades civilized people could use the word in reference, and yet there was no sign of the epithet coming back into style. Today’s crusaders can’t claim to be holding off some rising tide. Second: what is the sociohistorical parallel? At what point in human history has a slur been proscribed, but then returned to general usage because it was considered okay to refer to the word as opposed to use it? That many people can just imagine this happening with the N-word is not an argument, especially since it’s hard not to notice that this hypothetical scenario fits so cozily into their professionally Manichaean take on race…

We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word n—– [McWhorter used the full word, but you sure won’t catch me doing that] but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves…

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

13) I haven’t actually read all of this, but everybody sure does love it, “‘I’d Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This’ The plan to kill Osama bin Laden—from the spycraft to the assault to its bizarre political backdrop—as told by the people in the room.”

14) I’m not sure that the correct response from the CDC from being overly-cautious is to now be overly aggressive.  My take is that universal public indoor masking should be expected until all adults who want to be fully vaccinated have had the chance to be fully vaccinated, and, realistically, we’re talking about some time in June for that.  As, usual, I think Zeynep is right, “Maybe We Need Masks Indoors Just a Bit Longer”

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say it did not believe that fully vaccinated people needed to wear masks or distance indoors or out, with a few exceptions, like when using public transportation.

It’s difficult for officials to issue rules as conditions evolve and uncertainty continues. So I hesitate to question the agency’s approach. But it’s not clear whether it was responding to scientific evidence or public clamor to lift state and local mandates, which the C.D.C. said could remain in place.

It might have been better to have kept up indoor mask mandates to help suppress the virus for maybe as little as a few more weeks.

The C.D.C. could have set metrics to measure such progress, saying that guidelines would be maintained until the number of cases or the number vaccinations reached a certain level, determined by epidemiologists…

Telling everyone to wear masks indoors has a sociological effect. Grocery stores and workplaces cannot enforce mask wearing by vaccination status. We do not have vaccine passports in the U.S., and I do not see how we could. Places can either say “wear a mask regardless” or just accept that people who don’t want to wear one will not…

Even if the only people not protected by the vaccines were those hesitant to use them or who had false beliefs about them, public health principles would not allow us to say that any threat to their health is their problem, at least not while the virus is still spreading at substantive levels. Infectious diseases create risks for others.

There are those who are not yet vaccinated because they haven’t managed to navigate the process, or have started late, or are concerned because of bad experiences with the medical establishment. The immunocompromised remain vulnerable. Even if the unvaccinated were all conspiracy theorists and dead-end anti-vaxxers, we would need to take virus levels into account before discounting the risks even to them.

Plus, Covid-19 can still terribly burden our health resources, especially in those areas that still have many unvaccinated adults.

The C.D.C. guidelines are essentially implying that the risk that the vaccinated will transmit the virus to others, including their unvaccinated children, is so vanishingly low that it is not worth worrying about. But if that’s their position, they should state it clearly and explain it, not just say that “fully vaccinated people have a reduced risk of transmitting” the virus.

And is the expectation that the unvaccinated will all simply go with the guidance and stay masked? That does not fit with what we’ve observed in this country over the past year, especially with the ongoing polarization over these questions.

 

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 I)

1) Good stuff from Yglesias on Housing policy as a case study in how liberals make arguments to each other versus what is the best way to actually accomplish the goals of liberal arguments.  

What’s interesting about the housing case is that we just recently had a really good collaboration between Vox and Data for Progress (written up by Jerusalem Demsas) on the question of whether a race-forward framing of the housing issue is a good idea. The answer was: No, land use reform is more popular if you describe it as an economic growth initiative than as a racial justice initiative.

This is not a very surprising result if you take a second to think about it. Most voters like to hear that politicians care about people like them and their problems, and most voters are white. Meanwhile, non-white people benefit from economic growth. The presumption of Kahlenberg’s framing is that the audience is fully bought-in on the need to prioritize racial justice, and just needs to be told how to do that. But this, to me, is the central paradox of contemporary liberalism, which simultaneously holds that racism pervades American society and also that a good way to do politics is to constantly frame things in racial terms…

Aside from land use, the other big cause I’ve been very involved with is trying to get more political focus on expansionary monetary policy and full employment. In his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance,” Ady Barkan very generously credits me with inspiring him to launch Fed Up, the first activist campaign focused on these issues. The articles that he says got him wanting to do this don’t say much of anything about race, but he explains that centering race was critical to securing momentum for his project in the progressive non-profit world:

I had laid out a good argument for why the Fed should pursue full employment, but I still needed to tell a comprehensible story about how the Fed should do that and how we could plausibly get the Fed to do it. Over my first months at CPD, Amy and I talked through those questions, and quite soon she had identified the crucial element that was missing from my analysis and my proposal: race.

And later.

So my framing would matter. A campaign pitch about the Federal Reserve and creative expansionary monetary policy would be met by glazed-over eyes and silence. A campaign about jobs and wages would be met by nodding heads and smiles. But a campaign about combatting racial and economic equality by delivering full employment to all communities? That might actually get some people excited.

Barkan’s frankness about this was really helpful and enlightening to me because the monetary policy campaign has been very successful but also very deliberately focused on elite persuasion. The basic question was how could a white activist convince a group of funders to give him money to convince a group of highly educated monetary policy officials to care more about working-class people and the answer was … talk a lot about race.

But that’s not the advice you would give someone trying to win a US Senate seat in Iowa…

Here at Slow Boring, everything ultimately comes back to Max Weber and politics as a vocation.

And what I would really like is for funders to think harder about these issues and try to adopt more of an ethic of responsibility and less of an ethic of moral conviction. What does that mean? Well in the ethics of conviction what matters are your feelings and intentions. Your job on this view is to wage the righteous struggle, and a struggle against white supremacy sounds a lot more righteous than a struggle against inefficient regulation.

But to use the social justice jargon of our time, intentions aren’t what matters. And relatively privileged people ought to be self-reflective about our privileges. If there are urgent problems, your obligation is to act like a responsible person and actually try to make them better. Does turning zoning reform into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make it more or less likely to happen? And in particular, does setting up your grantmaking in such a way that any progressive cause’s advocates are strongly incentivized to turn it into a highly polarized issue of racial conflict make those causes more or less likely to prevail?

If the answer is “less likely,” then you have to not do it. That does not mean that you can’t address issues of race and racism. An issue that’s gotten attention in recent years is that a lack of racial diversity in clinical trials is compromising the quality of the health care that non-white patients receive. There is very strong evidence of racial bias in police stops. These are racial issues and they deserve to be addressed.

At the end of the day, though, there’s a big difference between saying “I want to fund various kinds of work, including some work on issues where race-neutral solutions won’t work” and saying “I want to create financial incentives for everyone to frame their race-neutral policy ideas as racial justice initiatives.” These days there is a lot of the latter happening and a lot of people are responding to it. If you’re in a position to make those kinds of decisions, you have to ask yourself whether that’s actually helping anyone.

2) The shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant the day of the Chauvin really blew up.  But 48 hours later, when it was clear she was basically shot while just about to stab an unarmed person, it’s largely dropped away.  This is not a good case to make arguments about racist policing and police reform.  I like Drum’s take:

Just as the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case was coming down on Tuesday, another high-profile police shooting of a Black person was taking place in Columbus, Ohio. But this case resolved very differently than the Chauvin case. Police had been called to a house where a fight was taking place and body cam video of the incident was released almost immediately. Here’s what it showed:

The girl wearing black, identified as 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, has a knife out and is obviously about to stab the girl wearing pink. A police officer on the scene shot Bryant four times before she could do any harm.

By American standards this was a righteous shooting. The police officer did the right thing and will certainly not be in any trouble over it.

But looking at this a little more broadly suggests that maybe American standards aren’t very good. Police are trained to react to situations like this with direct firepower, and you can make an argument that this is the right thing to do. But was it? Would rushing the two girls have been adequate? A warning shot? A taser? In countries like Norway and the UK it would have been handled differently simply because cops in those countries don’t routinely carry guns.

Shooting Bryant was, in some sense, the lowest-risk response. It was 100% guaranteed to save the girl in pink from any injury whatsoever. But would a different response have been better, even if it ran some small risk of the girl in pink suffering some (probably non-fatal) injury?

I think so.

3) Good stuff from Susan Glasser, “Many Republicans are acting like the Capitol insurrection never happened, and much of Washington is fine with it.”

Next Wednesday, President Joe Biden is set to deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress, on the eve of his hundredth day in office. Outside the Capitol, newly erected fences and a heavy National Guard presence attest to the lingering scars of our own January 6th. But January 6th denialism has taken hold in Trump and many of his supporters—even some inside Congress. They now claim the horrific events of that day were merely a peaceful protest, and they continue to refuse to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s win. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been unable to reach a deal with Republicans to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol.

And never mind the old bipartisan ritual of applauding the President, no matter which Party he comes from; a number of Republican members of Congress told Punchbowl News that they won’t even bother to show up for the President’s speech. “No,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a former member of the House Republican leadership. “No,” said Representative Nancy Mace, a highly regarded Republican freshman from South Carolina. “I am not,” said Representative Greg Pence, the brother of Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence. Just hours after rioters sought to stop the Vice-President from banging down the gavel on the Trump Presidency, Greg Pence was one of the hundred and forty-seven Republicans who voted against certifying the election results—a total so large that it represents not some small lunatic fringe but the vast majority of the House Republican Conference.

Three months later, no price has been paid by the Republicans who took that vote. In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, this outcome was not entirely clear. Some Republican politicians initially disavowed Trump and seemed to believe that his hold on the Party would dissipate—Nikki Haley, I’m thinking of you—but have since proved eager to run away from their own words. Many companies even announced that they would suspend political donations to those who had voted against certifying the election results, suggesting there might actually be consequences. Instead, the inevitable walk-back has already started.

In recent days, as new campaign-finance reports have come in, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (crew) has found numerous examples of corporate political-action committees resuming contributions to Republicans who voted to overturn the election results. They include the pacs run by A.T. & T., the American Bankers Association, JetBlue, and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Toyota’s pac has given at least forty-eight thousand dollars to thirty-one Republican members who voted against certification, according to Noah Bookbinder, the president of crew, who told me it was the largest amount that his group has found so far—a “full-on embrace of not caring that members of Congress encouraged an insurrection.”

This is hardly surprising. Washington is a calculating place, and these companies have calculated, accurately, where the vast majority of Republican officials in Congress still stand. Papering over a scandal, assuming that the public is not paying enough attention to care about a few donations which really matter only to the politicians who receive them—that’s what this town is all about. “There was an opportunity for the Republican Party to differentiate itself from Donald Trump and his anti-democratic actions and tendencies, to say he’s gone too far,” Bookbinder told me. “They didn’t do that.”

4) Damn, I loved this from Katherine Wu, “Show Your Immune System Some Love: Antibodies are great and all, but macrophages, B cells, and helper T cells deserve some attention too.”  You know I am all about showing the T-cells some love:

If the immune system ran its own version of The Bachelor, antibodies would, hands down, get this season’s final rose.

These Y-shaped molecules have acquired some star-caliber celebrity in the past year, due in no small part to COVID-19. For months, their potentially protective powers have made headlines around the globe; we test for them with abandon, and anxiously await the results. Many people have come to equate antibodies, perhaps not entirely accurately, with near imperviousness to the coronavirus and its effects. Antibodies are, in many ways, the heartthrobs of the immune system—and some 15 months deep into immunological infatuation, the world is still swooning hard.

Don’t get me wrong: Antibodies have served me well, and thanks to my recent dalliance with the Pfizer vaccine, the anti-coronavirus variety will be receiving an extra dose of my admiration for a good while yet. I am, above all else, eager for the rest of the global population to nab the safeguards they offer, ideally for keeps.

But antibodies are simply not the only immune-system singles worthy of our love. A multitude of cells and molecules are crucial to building a protective immune response against this virus and many others. It’s time we took a break from antibodies, and embarked on a brief Rumspringa with the rest of the body’s great defenders…

T cells play a far more subtle game. Their career choices range from demolishing virus-killed cells to corralling and coordinating other immune cells. As several researchers have pointed out, T cells might be some of the most underappreciated cells in the war against COVID-19, especially when it comes to vaccines. Some evidence even suggests that, in the absence of decent antibodies, T cells can clean up the coronavirus mostly on their own.

Then there are the helpers—the benign Jekyll to the killers’ bellicose Hyde. Helper Ts are some of the most loyal partners you’ll find in the immune system, nurturing almost to a fault and versatile to boot. They coax B cells into maturing into antibody factories. They cheer killers along their murderous paths. They even goad innate immune cells into becoming the most ferocious fighters (and feeders) they can be. Effectively, helpers are “badass multitaskers that coordinate every level of immunity,” Marion Pepper, an immunologist at the University of Washington, told me. They’re about as supportive as they come—as long as you don’t mind being micromanaged from time to time.

5) As a parent who has let all his kids play with nerf guns and water guns, the idea of an NYT advice columnist saying even water pistols desensitize gun violence, all I can say is… give me a break.  

6) Great stuff from Brian Beutler in this week’s newsletter:

I’ll admit to mostly sidestepping the question of whether the Waters and Biden statements were appropriate; I have mixed feelings about them, and only one read-it-in-10-minutes-or-less email to write. (Unless….subscribe to my Substack, The Watersgate Investigation.) The norm that elected officials, particularly the president, shouldn’t opine on the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants before juries do is a strong one. The fact that Trump trampled it heedlessly was awful and corrosive. At the same time, Waters’s prerogatives in her dual-hatted roles as congresswoman and civil-rights activists are in tension here; as are Biden’s obligations to uphold the rights of the accused, respect separation of powers, and play social peacemaker. It’s a thorny debate, but it’s playing out all on its own, in good faith, without Republican input, on the broad left. 

Tabling the censure resolution, as Democrats did, was a way of saying Republicans should be excluded from that debate, and rightly so—but not because Republicans have their own “mess” to clean up. They’re unwelcome because they don’t see themselves as bound by the principles they’re pretending to be mad that Waters violated. Republicans love interfering in judicial processes to help their allies and punish their enemies; they love inciting violence against their political opposition. Donald Trump did these things with abandon and they cheered it for years; after he lost, they forged ahead in his image, most recently in the form of legislation offering their supporters immunity from civil liability for running over Black Lives Matter protesters with their cars

This isn’t the hypocrisy of a politician who preaches conservative family values by day then hits the Appalachian Trail at night. It’s shit-eating revelry in the fascistic notion that they and only they are allowed to violate the rules. They may use and abuse power all they want while their opponents must never run afoul of norms of decorum or fair play. The catch is that they understand it would be politically untenable to assert or attempt to justify this double standard explicitly. They get around that impediment by resorting to deception, to trying to convince the wider public that they view principles other than raw self-interest as sacrosanct. They preen about higher values they do not hold, knowing that neither the press nor the opposition party is likely to stipulate to the plain truth: That they are liars, keen on sanctioning their enemies for behavior that they revel in by feigning offense. 

7) Interesting, “What Facebook Did for Chauvin’s Trial Should Happen All the Time: If the social-media giant can discourage hate speech and incitements to violence on a special occasion, it can do so all the time.”

On Monday, Facebook vowed that its staff was “working around the clock” to identify and restrict posts that could lead to unrest or violence after a verdict was announced in the murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In a blog post, the company promised to remove “content that praises, celebrates or mocks” the death of George Floyd. Most of the company’s statement amounted to pinky-swearing to really, really enforce its existing community standards, which have long prohibited bullying, hate speech, and incitements to violence.

8) Linda Greenhouse on guns and the Supreme Court:

Once again, the country is awash in gun violence. And once again, the justices have to decide whether to inject the Supreme Court into the middle of the gun debate. Will the first of those two sentences inform the second?

That’s really the question now, it seems to me. There is little doubt that the necessary four votes exist to add a Second Amendment case to the docket for decision, and there are plenty of candidates to choose from. One case under active consideration challenges New York State’s restriction on carrying a concealed gun outside the home. The justices have taken it up at their private conference twice this month and are scheduled to do so again on Friday.

case from New Jersey raising the same challenge to a similar constraint was filed at the court on April 2. There are other Second Amendment cases in the pipeline, propelled toward the court in the expectation that Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s arrival has finally tipped the balance toward action on the gun rights agenda…

Thirteen years post-Heller, the decision itself has become more of a symbol and talking point than a legal opinion that people actually take the trouble to read.

If they did, they would see Heller as the limited decision that it was. Yes, it took the unprecedented step of interpreting the Second Amendment as conferring an individual right to own a gun, but the court applied that new right to the unusual circumstance of a District of Columbia law that prohibited private gun ownership. Only the District and Chicago had such a strict law. The court held only that individuals have a constitutional right to own a gun and to keep it at home for self-defense. For the vast majority of people in the country, Heller changed nothing as a practical matter; it constitutionalized a right that gun owners already enjoyed under state and local laws.

Whether the Second Amendment also protects a right to walk down the street, or onto a college campus, or into a supermarket, a warehouse, a State Capitol, or a 12-year-old’s birthday party carrying a gun are questions that Heller did not answer. The current court can answer those questions in the affirmative if it so chooses. It has the votes. We will soon see whether it has the discipline and common sense to stay its hand.

9) Richard Hasen, “Republicans Aren’t Done Messing With Elections: Not content with limiting voting rights, they are threatening the integrity of vote counting itself.”

A new, more dangerous front has opened in the voting wars, and it’s going to be much harder to counteract than the now-familiar fight over voting rules. At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count. The danger of manipulated election results looms.

We already know the contours of the battle over voter suppression. The public has been inundated with stories about Georgia’s new voting law, from Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta to criticism of new restrictions that prevent giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. With lawsuits already filed against restrictive aspects of that law and with American companies and elite law firms lined up against Republican state efforts to make it harder to register and vote, there’s at least a fighting chance that the worst of these measures will be defeated or weakened.

The new threat of election subversion is even more concerning. These efforts target both personnel and policy; it is not clear if they are coordinated. They nonetheless represent a huge threat to American democracy itself.

Some of these efforts involve removing from power those who stood up to President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board. This seems aimed clearly at Georgia’s current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, punishing him for rejecting Mr. Trump’s entreaties to “find” 11,780 votes to flip Joe Biden’s lead in the state.

Even those who have not been stripped of power have been censured by Republican Party organizations, including not just Mr. Raffensperger and Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, but also Barbara Cegavske, the Republican secretary of state of Nevada who ran a fair election and rejected spurious arguments that the election was stolen. The message that these actions send to politicians is that if you want a future in state Republican politics, you had better be willing to manipulate election results or lie about election fraud.

Republican state legislatures have also passed or are considering laws aimed at stripping Democratic counties of the power to run fair elections. The new Georgia law gives the legislature the power to handpick an election official who could vote on the state election board for a temporary takeover of up to four county election boards during the crucial period of administering an election and counting votes. That provision appears to be aimed at Democratic counties like Fulton County that have increased voter access. A new Iowa law threatens criminal penalties against local election officials who enact emergency election rules and bars them from sending voters unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

10) Loved this, “Can We Learn to Live With Germs Again? The health of our bodies and microbiomes may depend on society’s return to lifestyles that expose us to bacteria, despite the risks.”

In January, a global consortium of health researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which they raise the alarm about the microbial fallout that may follow in the pandemic’s wake. “We’re starting to realize that there’s collateral damage when we get rid of good microbes, and that has major consequences for our health,” says B. Brett Finlay, first author of the PNAS paper and a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia.

Almost everything we know about the microbiome is uncertain, including how our activities and environments influence its makeup. But Dr. Finlay and others argue that our collective health may depend on our willingness to holster our sanitizers and cleansers, moderate our use of bacteria-slaying drugs, and resume old habits that nourish our microbial communities. In other words, we’re going to have to live with germs again…

The world and just about everything in it, including people, are awash in microbes. Bacteria blanket our surfaces, suffuse the air we breathe and saturate certain areas of our bodies, especially the gut. While some microbes and other microscopic particles are a threat to us, a vast majority are benign. And there’s mounting evidence that our health relies on our early and ongoing interactions with them.

Dr. Graham Rook, an emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London, likens the immune system to a computer. He says that the microbes we encounter in daily life — on other people and in our spaces — are the data that the immune system relies on to program and regulate its operations.

Deprived of these exposures, especially at the start of life, the immune system is prone to malfunction. The result can be allergies, asthma, autoimmune disorders, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic medical conditions.

The “hygiene hypothesis,” introduced in 1989 by the epidemiologist David Strachan, first made the case that bodies deprived of contact with microbes could be at risk for health problems. The hygiene hypothesis has evolved over time, and experts continue to debate many of its finer points. But it’s now clear that exposure to “good” bacteria is necessary for a person’s health, and that living in too-sterile environments may threaten us in ways scientists are only just beginning to grasp.

Before the pandemic, there was growing recognition among both doctors and the public that aspects of modern life may be upsetting our balance of healthy microbes, perhaps especially in our guts, and hurting our health as a result. This idea is not so much controversial as simply too new to be fully appreciated; roughly 95 percent of the published microbiome scholarship has come in just the last decade, and two-thirds of it only in the last five years. But already, research has revealed that, apart from training the immune system, our bacteria produce molecules that affect the workings of our every cell and organ.

“The microbes we carry in our gut could affect the function of the brain, the spinal cord, the joints or things far from where those microbes live,” says Dr. Eran Elinav, another of the PNAS paper’s authors and a principal investigator at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

There’s some conjecture that the imbalance or loss of good microbes may heighten a person’s susceptibility to infection — including, perhaps, to the coronavirus. Late last year, researchers based in Hong Kong observed a link between certain microbiome characteristics and severe Covid-19. Experts have hypothesized that unwell gut microbiomes may partly explain why older adults and adults with conditions such as obesity or Type 2 diabetes seem to be at greater risk of serious Covid-19 illness. There’s even some speculation that microbiome factors play a part in so-called long Covid — the brain fog, fatigue and other persistent symptoms that afflict many in the aftermath of the infection.

“There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest the microbiome has an influential role in our response to viral infections,” says Brent Williams, an assistant professor in the department of clinical pathology and cell biology at Columbia University. This raises intriguing questions about how the microbiome might influence disease outcomes for Covid, he says, “or how it might be altered by Covid, and whether those alterations persist.”

Love the human body as ecosystem rather than organism analogy– I use that one all the time.

11) Interesting! “Vietnam defied the experts and sealed its border to keep Covid-19 out. It worked.: How the country has kept coronavirus deaths to just 35, and grew its economy in 2020.”

12) People really need to stop using flushable wipes that aren’t actually flushable.  “A nasty pandemic problem: More flushed wipes are clogging pipes, sending sewage into homes.”  Actually, even better, I really don’t understand why government cannot come up with enforceable standards for flushable wipes that actually are flushable.  What we have know is disgusting and expensive.  

13) “Normal” temperature is about to get warmer.

As soon as the 2021 New Year’s celebrations were over, the calls and questions started coming in from weather watchers: When will NOAA release the new U.S. Climate Normals? The Normals are 30-year averages of key climate observations made at weather stations and corrected for bad or missing values and station changes over time. From the daily weather report to seasonal forecasts, the Normals are the basis for judging how temperature, rainfall, and other climate conditions compare to what’s normal for a given location in today’s climate.

For the past decade, the Normals have been based on weather observations from 1981 to 2010. In early May, climate experts at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information will be releasing an updated collection—hourly, daily, monthly, and annual Normals for thousands of U.S. locations, states, regions—based on the weather experienced from 1991 to 2020.

But what about global warming?

Alongside the questions about when the new Normals will be released (first week of May), we’ve gotten a lot of questions about the Normals and global warming. Is global warming affecting the Normals? (Yes). Are the Normals adjusted to “subtract out” global warming? (No.)  So the new normal reflects our changing climate? (Yes). Then how do we keep track of what used to be normal? (Different analyses.)

The last update of the Normals took place in 2011, when the baseline shifted from 1971-2000 to 1981-2010. Among the highlights of the rollout was the creation of a map showing how climate-related planting zones across the contiguous United States had shifted northward in latitude and upward in elevation. It was a clear signal that normal overnight low temperatures across the country were warmer than they used to be.  

Changes in US plant zones between 1971-2000 Normals and 1981-2010 Normals

14) Possibly the biggest vaccine news this year.  “‘Game-changing’ malaria vaccine is 77% effective at stopping infection”

15) This Zeynep Tufekci analysis (older, but recently re-shared) on why the final Game of Thrones season is so bad is just fantastic.  Such a great way of thinking about storytelling.  But only read it if you’ve watched all the show or are confident you never will. 

16) Great stuff from Ron Brownstein, “The racist “replacement theory” that more in GOP are pushing has it exactly backwards. The real risk to older Whites is that immigrants won’t replace them in the workforce & tax base.”

Quick hits (part I)

1) Ariel Edwards-Levy, “More And More Americans Say They’ll Get Vaccinated — But It’s Still Unclear Just How Many Will”

Five different pollsters asked Americans how willing they are to get vaccinated in December, and again in March, while giving people some option to say they were undecided or in the middle. And the topline takeaway is that the share who’d gotten vaccinated or definitively intended to rose by an average of 23 percentage points.1

Meanwhile, the average share who expressed little intention of getting vaccinated dipped a relatively modest 5 points,2while the undecided share fell an average of 18 points.3 If a politician or issue saw a similar rise over that period of time, it’d be reported — defensibly — as a shocking surge of support.

The shift isn’t entirely unexpected, though. For most of last year, the question of getting vaccinated was wholly hypothetical, as vaccines were still under development and their eventual efficacy remained unknown. Many Americans also worried about a vaccine rushed out under political pressure. But in December, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, marking the start of the nation’s vaccination campaign. Now, over one-quarter of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine and most know at least one person who’s been vaccinated, making the question of whether to get vaccinated increasingly tangible.

It’s a mistake to think of the public as divided between a faction of enthusiastic vaccine advocates and a smaller bloc of equally adamant anti-vaccination crusaders. Polling last winter found many Americans who were undecided but potentially swayable, and in the months since, that group has increasingly made up their minds in favor of the vaccine, from an average of 40 percent to 58 percent, as the chart above shows. The share of vaccine refusers, meanwhile, has slightly decreased. 

2) Drum on “reasonable Republicans” (there aren’t any in national politics!) and the Georgia voting law:

Second, the detailed voting stuff isn’t the biggest problem with the Georgia law. The biggest problems are the provisions that (1) remove authority from the Secretary of State and give it to a politico appointed by the legislature, and (2) allow the legislature to take control of local election boards that are “underperforming.”

The first provision is plainly nothing more than revenge against Brad Raffensperger, who refused to knuckle under to Donald Trump’s desire to “find” a few thousand additional votes in 2020. It’s pretty obvious that Georgia Republicans never want that to happen again and are planning to appoint a chairman of the State Election Board who will slavishly do whatever Republicans want him to do.

The second provision is designed to allow the legislature to take over Democratic election boards in urban areas if they feel like it. Republicans have a long, long history of insisting that urban areas with large Black and Hispanic populations are rife with fraud, and this is just the latest continuation of that fabrication. There’s no evidence for it, but it appeals to the GOP’s white constituency so it’s useful to keep it going. It’s disgraceful.

In the end, the question is this: Do “reasonable” Republicans agree that our current election laws—which are already insanely partisan—should become even more partisan? This is pure Trumpism, which they claim to oppose. So why defend it when someone is so clearly following Trump’s lead? Instead, why not support something that makes voting less partisan? Shouldn’t that be a goal that everyone aims for?

3) Brian Beutler on Obama vs Biden and, my favorite thing that is so often overlooked in life and political analysis… context

Obama was a candidate for president and a senator when the last huge crisis hit, and as such had direct responsibilities over the federal response to it. He signed off on the bill that gave rise to the TARP program, which the Bush administration hashed out with congressional leadership, then entered a historically smooth transition of power, which ended at the trough of a deep recession. The actions he took that he owned free and clear, particularly the recovery act, became knotted up in the much messier politics of bank bailouts and homeownership amid a tidal wave of foreclosures. He indulged a lot of nonsense about transcending partisanship that got him mired in a mostly useless pursuit of GOP votes, but in 2009 most congressional Democrats were at least as misguided. The prevailing wisdom at the time held that presidents were standard-bearers for unwieldy parties, whose individual members had appropriate license to differentiate themselves, in conforming to the politics of their states and districts. The thought of doing whatever was necessary to circumvent filibusters and pass clean, big, partisan bills was alien to the whole party at the time, and it left progressive critics endlessly frustrated. Republicans exploited that frustration, but they did so having been thoroughly wiped out in two consecutive elections, allowing them to elevate new figureheads and feign a religion of austerity the same day George W. Bush skipped town.

There are things Obama did within that context that wore poorly over time, but the context was real. 

Biden’s presidency looks nothing like this. Donald Trump wrecked the country many long, hard months before the election, then presided over a violent and uncooperative transition. Biden campaigned on many of the same platitudes to bipartisanship that Obama took to heart, but has governed with a fool-me-once sense of realism about them. More importantly, congressional Democrats from all wings of the party seem to be similarly snakebit by the experience of 2009-2020. Luckily for them, Obama cleared out a lot of the underbrush that might’ve mired them in the thicket of state building. A combination of path dependency and coalitional pressures drove Obama to prioritize health-care and financial-regulatory reform over other issues, which meant achieving partisan consensus over complex policy regimes where both winners and losers were sympathetic characters. He left Democrats the seedbed of a health-coverage guarantee, and they’ve fought vigorously over what to plant in it, but the hellish work of creating the taxes and mandates and marketplaces that laid the foundation for the thing is done. We’re closer to the end of history of the liberal state now, which means Biden has the easier task of directing resources at popular things that already exist, while Republicans struggle to articulate any core belief other than that they and people who look like them should be in charge.

Obama won his presidential primary at a time when the sharpest divisions in the party were over questions of war and peace. He thus became identified as a representative of the progressive wing, but he was actually pretty moderate, and that scrambled expectations about what uniting the party required. Biden embraced his centrist identity during the 2020 primary, then used his lifetime of legislative experience and the urgent demands of the coronavirus pandemic to bring the left in closer. Also: Barack Obama was a black man named Barack Hussein Obama; Joe Biden is an old white guy whose middle name is technically “Robinette” but we don’t talk about that for some reason. 

4) Derek Chauvin undoubtedly needs to be held to account and severely punished for killing George Floyd.  But I’m not convinced that Chauvin might not have done the same thing to a white person.  McWhorter with a really good post, “Is Derek Chauvin a racist murderer of just a murderer?”

In my experience, however, the idea that to be black is to live under threat from state-sponsored racist murder by the cops runs so deep, is held so fiercely, and elicits such unreachable contempt when denied, that more than a few are simply impervious to hearing anything else.

It doesn’t help to note that there is indeed evidence that cops are racist in other ways, such as in deciding who to pull over on drug searches. To propose that this racism does not lead to casual murder is to depart from qualification for interaction with polite society. I learned when I started writing about race 20 years ago that the cops are the reason so many think of racism as the foundational experience of blackness in America. The issue does not lend itself to statistics, what-ifs, and standing at a distance, and it won’t for a long time.

I consider just allowing that history proceeds in messy ways. I am thinking about this recently as I finish War and Peace (unfortunately in Pevear and Volkhonsky’s utterly execrable translation – another hoax our republic lives under is that they are master translators, but I’ll leave that aside for now!).  [Steve– what do I know about translations, but I loved their version of Anna Karenina!]

Tolstoy muses on the difference between how humans process history and how it really happens. Say Chauvin gets what he deserves, and it is part of a gradual reform of the cops’ getting away with the murder of just people, as opposed to black people. If it took a misperception of cop murders as racist to make that happen, then maybe that’s how making an omelette requires cracking some eggs.

We may leave it to the historians of the future to see that the idea that people like Floyd died because of their skin color doesn’t hold up, but that it was the catalyst for something more important than whether we people down here on the ground were processing things with complete accuracy.

* * *

But I know – in the meantime I just look like I am in some kind of denial. Of course George Floyd died because he was black. Because, well, Chauvin looks like such a cold-hearted son of a bitch; just look at him. Because, well, look at the video … (but look also at the Timpa video). Because, well … because under our current sociopolitical assumptions, our paramount ethical job is to identify racism’s role in society, and think of black people’s essence as suffering under its degradations. To stray from this is to Not Do the Work.

I get it. But to me, the tragedy of George Floyd may be redeemed by pointing us past a problem with the cops’ murdering too many human beings. If what puts the wind beneath our society’s wings on that point is thinking of the cops as blithely dedicated to shattering black bodies, then I may just have to go along for the ride.

5) From what I’ve seen, I’m not entirely convinced by this, “The Vaccine Line Is an Illusion: People are stretching the truth to get the vaccine faster, but experts say I shouldn’t. Here’s why.”  Virtually everybody I know who has stretched the truth has gotten their vaccine in an outlying area where there were plenty of appointments, not exactly taking away slots from people who qualified but just couldn’t get an appointment.  

6) Would’ve missed the “failure of the elites” interview in Vox if not for DJC:

Sean Illing

I’m starting to hate the phrase “post-truth” because it implies there was some period in which we lived in truth or in which truth was predominant. But that’s misleading. The difference is that elite gatekeeping institutions can’t place borders on the public conversation and that means they’ve lost the ability to determine what passes as truth, so now we’re in the Wild West.

Martin Gurri

That’s a very good way to put it. I would say, though, that there was a shining moment when we all had truth. They are correct about that. If truth is really a function of authority, and if in the 20th century these institutions really had authority, then we did have something like truth. But if we had the information back then that we have today, if we had all the noise that we have today, nothing would’ve seemed quite as true because we would’ve lacked faith in the institutions that tried to tell us.

Sean Illing

What does it mean for our society if an “official narrative” isn’t possible? Because that’s where we’re at, right? Millions of people will never believe any story or account that comes from the government or a mainstream institution.

Martin Gurri

As long as our institutions remain as they are, nothing much will change. What that means is more of the same — more instability, more turbulence, more conspiracy theories, more distrust of authorities. But there’s no iron law of history that says we have to keep these institutions the way they are. Many of our institutions were built around the turn of the 20th century. They weren’t that egalitarian or democratic. They were like great, big pyramids.

But we can take our constitutional framework and reconfigure it. We’ve done it once already, and we could do it again with the digital realm in mind, understanding the distance we once had between those in power and ordinary citizens is gone forever. It’s just gone. So we need people in power who are comfortable in proximity to the public, which many of our elites are not.

7) I honestly have such fond memories of figuring out, along with my teenage friends, inventive ways to use South Carolina fireworks on Brood X cicadas in their Northern Virginia appearance two cycles ago in 1987.  It really is just an amazing feature of nature to see so damn many bugs— I’m sorry my kids won’t see it.  

8) I’ve been very intrigued by the potential benefits of vaccination mix-and-match, that is, heterologous prime-boost , since I learned about it on twitter.  Nice to see a full Carl Zimmer NYT story on it:

Mixing vaccines might do more than just help overcome supply bottlenecks. Some researchers suspect that a pair of different vaccines might work better than two doses of the same one.

“I think we’re on the cusp of some interesting data,” said Adam Wheatley, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The concept of mixing vaccines — sometimes called a heterologous prime-boost — is not new to our pandemic era. For decades, researchers have investigated the approach, hoping to find potent combinations against a range of viruses, such as influenza, H.I.V. and Ebola.

But scientists had little to show for all that research. It was easy enough to demonstrate that two vaccines may work well together in a mouse. But running full-blown clinical trials on a combination of vaccines is a tall order.

“For a single company to develop two parallel arms of a vaccine is twice the work and twice the cost,” Dr. Wheatley said…

Dr. Jakob Cramer, the head of clinical development at CEPI, a vaccine development organization, said that vaccines using viral vectors were not the only kind that might benefit from mixing. In fact, certain combinations might provoke a different, more effective immune response than a single type of vaccine. “Immunologically, there are several arguments in favor of exploring heterologous priming,” Dr. Kramer said.

Another kind of Covid-19 vaccine being tested contains the actual spike protein, rather than genetic instructions for it. Some of the vaccines contain the entire protein; others contain just a fragment of it. Currently, there are 29 protein-based vaccines for Covid-19 in clinical trials, although none have been authorized yet.

Dr. Wheatley and his colleagues have been testing protein-based vaccines in mice. They injected the full spike protein into the animals as a first dose. For the second dose, they injected only the tip of the spike, a region known as the receptor-binding domain, or R.B.D.

Dr. Wheatley and his colleagues found that the mixture worked better than two doses of the spike or of the R.B.D.

The researchers suspect that the first dose produces a broad range of antibodies that can stick to spots along the length of the spike protein, and that the second dose delivers a big supply of particularly potent antibodies to the tip of the spike. Together, the assortment of antibodies does a better job of stopping the coronavirus.

“You’re able to basically take that initial immunity that was elicited to that spike vaccine, and then really focus it down onto that R.B.D.,” Dr. Wheatley said.

Other combinations of vaccines may bring benefits of their own. Some vaccines, especially protein-based ones, do a good job of generating antibodies. Others, such as viral vectors, are better at training immune cells. A viral vector followed by a protein boost might offer the best of both worlds.

Hmmm.  If not that it would mess up my J&J trial participation, I’d be awfully tempted.

9) Really enjoyed this from Ezra, “Are We Much Too Timid in the Way We Fight Covid-19?”  Yes!!!  Sorry, I get the “we should go with what we tested in the trial,” I do, but sometimes our broader body of knowledge just cannot be ignored and we should do things like spread out doses to vaccinate more people more quickly and almost surely save lives in the process.  I’m unpersuaded by the “if we don’t exactly follow the trials, this will ruin confidence and people will die!” takes.  

But as best as I can tell, Tabarrok has repeatedly been proved right, and ideas that sounded radical when he first argued for them command broader support now. What I’ve come to think of as the Tabarrok agenda has come closest to being adopted in Britain, which delayed second doses, approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite its data issues, is pushing at-home testing and permitted human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to the coronavirus to speed the testing of treatments. And for now it’s working: Britain has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population than the rest of Europe and the United States have and is seeing lower daily case rates and deaths.

Many of these policies could still help America and the world — particularly with the more contagious, and more lethal, B.1.1.7 variant spreading. Just this week, Atul Gawande, who served on President Biden’s Coronavirus Task Force, endorsed delaying second doses in order to accelerate initial vaccinations and slow the rise in cases. But there’s no evidence that the F.D.A., the Biden administration or global health authorities are any closer to doing so. At this point, it’s worth asking why.

At the core of this debate sit two questions: How much information do regulators need to act? And how should regulators balance the harms of action against the harms of inaction? The F.D.A.’s critics feel the agency demands too much information before it moves and is too comfortable with the costs of not making decisions, even in an emergency. “Not doing something is a choice,” said Emily Oster, a health economist at Brown. “It’s not a safe harbor.”

Daniel Carpenter is a professor of government at Harvard and an expert on the F.D.A., and he thinks its critics underestimate the costs of a mistake. “Effective therapies depend upon credible regulation,” he told me. Mass vaccination campaigns work only if the masses take the vaccines. “In this way, it’s a deeply social technology, and so the credibility is everything.”

To Carpenter, the F.D.A.’s critics miss the consequences of regulators losing public trust. President Donald Trump publicly pressured the agency to authorize unproven drugs, like hydroxychloroquine, that proved useless and tweeted that the “deep state” in the agency was trying to delay a vaccine to hurt him politically. Stephen Hahn, then the F.D.A. commissioner, joined Trump at a briefing to tout an emergency-use authorization for convalescent plasma — and Hahn then had to apologize, and fire two staff members, after misstating the evidence. It looked to many as though the F.D.A.’s process was collapsing under Trump’s attacks…

The same tensions have held up efforts to alter vaccine dosing in ways that would increase supply. There’s good evidence that the first doses of Pfizer and Moderna provide significant protection, and so delaying second doses — as Britain is doing — could allow us to vaccinate more of the population and get to herd immunity faster. There’s also research suggesting that half-doses, or some other fraction, might be plenty to trigger an immune response.

Biden said he will “follow the science,” but that often means following the existing evidence, which is not the same thing. It’s wrong to assume that the dosing protocols that pharmaceutical companies proposed in their rush for authorization are optimal for society’s goals. “They wanted to get this going as soon as possible, so they didn’t explore other doses, and it’s very likely they overdosed the vaccine,” Topol said. There is, of course, a risk in attempting a dosing protocol that didn’t go through Phase 3 trials; perhaps immunity will fade faster, for instance. But holding to the current dosing schedules means a slower vaccination program and more deaths…

In all of this, the same issue recurs: What should regulators do when there’s an idea that might work to save a large number of lives and appears to be safe in early testing but there isn’t time to run large studies? “People say things like, ‘You shouldn’t cut corners,’” Tabarrok told me. “But that’s stupid. Of course you should cut corners when you need to get somewhere fast. Ambulances go through red lights!”

One problem is no one, on either side of this debate, really knows what will and won’t destroy public trust. Britain, which has been one of the most flexible in its approach to vaccines, has less vaccine hesitancy than Germany or the United States. But is that because of regulatory decisions, policy decisions, population characteristics, history, political leadership or some other factor? Scientists and politicians are jointly managing public psychology, and they’re just guessing. If a faster, looser F.D.A. would lose public trust, that’s a good reason not to have a faster, looser F.D.A. But that’s a possibility, not a fact.

10) Damn this excerpt from John Boehner’s new memoir is really, really good.

Besides the homegrown “talent” at Fox, with their choice of guests they were making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars. One of the first prototypes out of their laboratory was a woman named Michele Bachmann.

There was no way she was going to get on Ways and Means, the most prestigious committee in Congress, and jump ahead of everyone else in line. Not while I was Speaker. In earlier days, a member of Congress in her position wouldn’t even have dared ask for something like this. Sam Rayburn would have laughed her out of the city.

So I told her no—diplomatically, of course. But as she kept on talking, it dawned on me. This wasn’t a request of the Speaker of the House. This was a demand.

Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact. “Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,” she said, “and Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.”

I wasn’t the one with the power, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now.

She was right, of course.

11) One thing I find really interesting, but don’t quite understand, is that viruses don’t just readily evolve to defeat vaccines in the same way that bacteria so readily evolve to defeat antibiotics.  But, that fact is pretty clear.  Not that viruses cannot “escape” vaccines, but it is clearly more difficult and rare than antibiotic resistance.  But so many people just want to default to the antibiotic model.  So, this, “Concerns about SARS-CoV-2 evolution should not hold back efforts to expand vaccination”

When vaccines are in limited supply, expanding the number of people who receive some vaccine, such as by halving doses or increasing the interval between doses, can reduce disease and mortality compared with concentrating available vaccine doses in a subset of the population. A corollary of such dose-sparing strategies is that the vaccinated individuals may have less protective immunity. Concerns have been raised that expanding the fraction of the population with partial immunity to SARS-CoV-2 could increase selection for vaccine-escape variants, ultimately undermining vaccine effectiveness. We argue that, although this is possible, preliminary evidence instead suggests such strategies should slow the rate of viral escape from vaccine or naturally induced immunity. As long as vaccination provides some protection against escape variants, the corresponding reduction in prevalence and incidence should reduce the rate at which new variants are generated and the speed of adaptation. Because there is little evidence of efficient immune selection of SARS-CoV-2 during typical infections, these population-level effects are likely to dominate vaccine-induced evolution.

12) Our over-criminalization of drugs is just a massive, massive policy failure that has destroyed so many lives.  But, that does not mean we want our teenagers taking them, “Teenage Brains May Be Especially Vulnerable to Marijuana and Other Drugs: Teenagers are more likely to get hooked on marijuana, stimulants and other recreational drugs than college-aged or older adults.”

13) I don’t quite understand the policy failure behind our internet prices, but it clearly is a policy failure:

Internet Costs Amongst OECD Countries

14) I thought Larry Brilliant was too negative in parts of this interview, but, lots of interesting takes:

If you have half the population vaccinated, can we still have an incredibly destructive spike?

Of course. We’re all customers for the virus. There’s no wall that will keep the virus out. Think about the pandemic in year three or four. There will still be billions of people unvaccinated. Billions of people will harbor billions of viruses. Each one will be replicating. A certain percentage will mutate. A certain percent will become variants of those variants—some will be of high concern, and a percentage will be fucking nightmarish.

See, that “incredibly destructive” and “nightmarish” just doesn’t comport with my broader reading.  But, like I said, lots of good stuff:

Well, I’m listening to you, Larry, and I’m thinking I might never see a Broadway show again. And if I go to a baseball game in five years, I’ll be wearing a mask.

That’s an overreaction. I’m saying that, because it’s a probability that we will never reach herd immunity, there will be places in the world and in the animal population that could produce variants that could continually reinfect us. Let’s plan for it and put aside enough vaccine, and enough money, so that we can find outbreaks quickly, respond to them just in time with the right vaccine, and keep outbreaks contained. I’m very optimistic about that. In the Cares Act, there’s money to pay people to be vaccinated, to be isolated, to give them food and to give them shelter. I think you’ll be able to go to a Broadway show. And I think baseball will happen again, not so much because people are vaccinated, although that’s critically important. Point-of-care diagnostics is also part of that. A year from now there will be $5, five-minute, at-home spit tests that are 100 percent accurate, and you can do one in the morning before you brush your teeth…

And we will be able to deliver specialized versions of the vaccine optimized to fight specific strains?

Our ability to do viral sequencing at low cost, speed, and scale is as astounding as our ability to deliver a brand-new-technology vaccine in a year. It’s the public health equivalent of personalized medicine, and we could do that. We have the just-in-time vaccine manufacturing now, and we have the just-in-time vaccine delivery. Now we need a just-in-time way to find the cases of tomorrow. We have to vaccinate where the virus will go. Also, let’s get a vaccine that works faster. And by the way, give it to me in a nasal spray. Because we’re Americans and we’re shitty at public health, we have to do things in a frictionless way.

15) Thoughtful stuff from Alex Tabarrok on new research showing that misdemeanor prosecutions lead to more crime:

Misdemeanor Prosecution (NBER) (ungated) is a new, blockbuster paper by Agan, Doleac and Harvey (ADH). Misdemeanor crimes are lesser crimes than felonies and typically carry a potential jail term of less than one year. Examples of  misdemeanors include petty theft/shoplifting, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, reckless driving, indecent exposure, and various drug crimes such as possession. Eighty percent of all criminal justice cases, some 13 million cases a year, are misdemeanors. ADH look at what happens to subsequent criminal behavior when misdemeanor cases are prosecuted versus non-prosecuted. Of course, the prosecuted differ from the non-prosecuted so we need to find situations where for random reasons comparable people are prosecuted and non-prosecuted. Not surprisingly some Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) are more lenient than others when it comes to prosecuting misdemeanors. ADH use the random assignment of ADAs to a case to tease out the impact of prosecution–essentially finding two similar individuals one of whom got lucky and was assigned a lenient ADA and the other of whom got unlucky and was assigned a less lenient ADA.

We leverage the as-if random assignment of nonviolent misdemeanor cases to Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) who decide whether a case should move forward with prosecution in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.These ADAs vary in the average leniency of their prosecution decisions. We find that,for the marginal defendant, nonprosecution of a nonviolent misdemeanor offense leads to large reductions in the likelihood of a new criminal complaint over the next two years.These local average treatment effects are largest for first-time defendants, suggesting that averting initial entry into the criminal justice system has the greatest benefits.

… We find that the marginal nonprosecuted misdemeanor defendant is 33 percentage points less likely to be issued a new criminal complaint within two years post-arraignment (58% less than the mean for complier” defendants who are prosecuted; p 0.01). We find that nonprosecution reduces the likelihood of a new misdemeanor complaint by 24 percentage points (60%; p 0.01), and reduces the likelihood of a new felony complaint by 8 percentage points (47%; not significant). Nonprosecution reduces the number of subsequent criminal complaints by 2.1 complaints (69%; p .01); the number of subsequent misdemeanor complaints by 1.2 complaints (67%; p .01), and the number of subsequent felony complaints by 0.7 complaints (75%; p .05). We see significant reductions in subsequent criminal complaints for violent, disorderly conduct/theft, and motor vehicle offenses.

Did you get that? On a wide variety of margins, prosecution leads to more subsequent criminal behavior. How can this be? [emphases mine]

We consider possible causal mechanisms that could be generating our findings. Cases that are not prosecuted by definition are closed on the day of arraignment. By contrast, the average time to disposition for prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample is 185 days. This time spent in the criminal justice system may disrupt defendants’ work and family lives. Cases that are not prosecuted also by definition do not result in convictions, but 26% of prosecuted nonviolent misdemeanor cases in our sample result in a conviction. Criminal records of misdemeanor convictions may decrease defendants’ labor market prospects and increase their likelihoods of future prosecution and criminal record acquisition, conditional on future arrest. Finally, cases that are not prosecuted are at much lower risk of resulting in a criminal record of the complaint in the statewide criminal records system. We find that nonprosecution reduces the probability that a defendant will receive a criminal record of that nonviolent misdemeanor complaint by 55 percentage points (56%, p .01). Criminal records of misdemeanor arrests may also damage defendants’ labor market prospects and increase their likelihoods of future prosecution and criminal record acquisition, conditional on future arrest. All three of these mechanisms may be contributing to the large reductions in subsequent criminal justice involvement following nonprosecution…

The policy study is a short-term study so we don’t know what happens if the rule is changed permanently but nevertheless this is good evidence that punishment can be criminogenic. I am uncomfortable, however, with thinking about non-prosecution as the choice variable, even on the margin. Crime should be punished. Becker wasn’t wrong about that. We need to ask more deeply, what is it about prosecution that increases subsequent criminal behavior? Could we do better by speeding up trials (a constitutional right that is often ignored!)–i.e. short, sharp punishment such as community service on the weekend? Is it time to to think about punishments that don’t require time off work? What about more diversion to programs that do not result in a criminal record? More generally, people accused and convicted of crimes ought to find help and acceptance in re-assimilating to civilized society. It’s crazy–not just wrong but counter-productive–that we make it difficult for people with a criminal record to get a job and access various medical and housing benefits.

The authors are too sophisticated to advocate for non-prosecution as a policy but it fits with the “defund the police,” and “end cash bail” movements. I worry, however, that after the tremendous gains of the 1990s we will let the pendulum swing back too far. A lot of what counts as cutting-edge crime policy today is simply the mood affiliation of a group of people who have no recollection of crime in the 1970s and 1980s. The great forgetting. It’s welcome news that we might be on the wrong side of the punishment Laffer curve and so can reduce punishment and crime at the same time. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the low levels of crime in the last two decades are a permanent features of the American landscape. We could lose it all in a mistaken fit of moralistic naivete.

16) Jamelle Bouie, “The G.O.P. Has Some Voters It Likes and Some It Doesn’t: This is what happens when a political party turns against democracy.”

Looming in the background of this “reform” is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s conflict with Donald Trump, who pressured him to subvert the election and deliver Trump a victory. What won Raffensperger praise and admiration from Democrats and mainstream observers has apparently doomed his prospects within the Republican Party, where “stop the steal” is dogma and Trump is still the rightful president to many. It is not even clear that Raffensperger will hold office after his term ends in 2023; he must fight off a primary challenge next year from Representative Jody Hice of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, an outspoken defender of Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.

 
In other words, Republicans are using the former president’s failed attempt to overturn the election as a guide to how you would change the system to make it possible. In Georgia, as we’ve seen, that means stripping power from an unreliable partisan and giving it, in effect, to the party itself. In Pennsylvania, where a state Supreme Court with a Democratic majority unanimously rejected a Republican lawsuit claiming that universal mail-in balloting was unconstitutional, it means working to end statewide election of justices, essentially gerrymandering the court. In Nebraska, which Republicans won, it means changing the way the state distributes its electoral votes, from a district-based system in which Democrats have a chance to win one potentially critical vote, as Joe Biden and Barack Obama did, to winner-take-all…
 
This fact pattern underscores a larger truth: The Republican Party is driving the nation’s democratic decline. A recent paper by Jacob M. Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington, makes this plain. Using a new measure of state-level democratic performance in the United States from 2000 to 2018, Grumbach finds that Republican control of state government “consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period.” The nationalization of American politics and the coordination of parties across states means that “state governments controlled by the same party behave similarly when they take power.” Republican-controlled governments in states as different as Alabama and Wisconsin have “taken similar actions with respect to democratic institutions.”

17) N&O on the local edition of this madness, “The GOP’s feverish hunt for NC election fraud uncovers a shocking result – clean elections”

The Republican Party’s hysteria about alleged voter fraud was on full display in North Carolina last week.

It was as baseless as ever, but this time it had the added dimensions of wasted tax dollars and the browbeating of an elections official who has served the state and democracy well.

The first display was the outcome of a voter fraud investigation led by Robert Higdon when he was U.S attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon, a President Trump appointee, went hunting for the GOP’s great white whale of voter fraud and returned years later with a basket of minnows. He resigned in February after President Joe Biden asked Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to step down as part of the switch in administrations.

The probe, which focused on voting by noncitizens, became public just before the 2018 election. It was easy to notice. The U.S. Attorney’s Office served subpoenas on the State Board of Elections, county election boards and the Department of Motor Vehicles, effectively seeking records on every registered voter in the state.

The State Board of Elections – then controlled by Republican appointees, no less – objected to the vast and invasive request. State attorneys representing the board told the court in a 2019 filing that, “The all-encompassing, ‘dragnet’ nature of the subpoenas would impose extraordinary burdens on the state and county boards.” Cost of compliance, they said, would mean producing more than 15 million documents and cost the state millions of dollars…

In response, the subpoenas were narrowed to records relating to more than 700 voters the State Board of Elections had flagged earlier as potential noncitizen voters. The court struggle went back and forth between the state and the U.S. attorney.

In the end, little was uncovered, and most of the wrongful voting was done inadvertently by immigrants who didn’t know they were barred from voting. The news report on the probe’s findings, written jointly by The News & Observer’s Tyler Dukes and WRAL’s Travis Fain, said the effort initiated by the U.S. Attorney “resulted in a range of charges related to immigration, registration and election rules against about 70 people. More than 40 of them were accused of casting ballots illegally.”

That’s out of more than 4.7 million votes cast in 2016.

Pat Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, gave the proper epitaph for the years-long hunt for North Carolina’s share of what former President Trump had said were “millions” of votes cast by illegal immigrants in 2016. Gannon said Friday, “There is no evidence whatsoever of any type of widespread election fraud in North Carolina.”

18) Good chance you haven’t heard of Alex Berenson, but, damn is this guy one grade A quality conservative grifter.  So successfully played his “former NYT reporter” credential into being a Fox/right-wing blusterer, but he’s just so full of BS.  Derek Thompson takes down his Covid misinformation campaign.

19) Nice Guardian feature on how the Ever Given was ultimately freed.  The key?  Seagoing tugs far more powerful than the regular canal tugs.  

Quick hits (part II)

Short– sorry.  

1) Leonhardt on partisan biases (both parties!) in perceptions of Covid

More than one-third of Republican voters, for example, said that people without Covid symptoms could not spread the virus. Similar shares said that Covid was killing fewer people than either the seasonal flu or vehicle crashes. All of those beliefs are wrong, and badly so. Asymptomatic spread is a major source of transmission, and Covid has killed about 15 times more Americans than either the flu or vehicle crashes do in a typical year.

Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to exaggerate the severity of Covid. When asked how often Covid patients had to be hospitalized, a very large share of Democratic voters said that at least 20 percent did. The actual hospitalization rate is about 1 percent…

Democrats are also more likely to exaggerate Covid’s toll on young people and to believe that children account for a meaningful share of deaths. In reality, Americans under 18 account for only 0.04 percent of Covid deaths.

It’s true that some of these misperceptions reflect the fact that most people are not epidemiologists and that estimating medical statistics is difficult. Still, the errors do have a connection to real-world behavior, Rothwell told me.

Republicans’ underestimation of Covid risks helps explain their resistance to wearing a mask — even though doing so could save their own life or that of a family member. And Democrats’ overestimation of risks explains why so many have accepted school closures — despite the damage being done to children, in lost learning, lost social connections and, in the case of poorer children, missed meals.

The states with the highest share of closed schools are all blue states: California, Oregon, Maryland, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada, Massachusetts and New Jersey. “I think in many ways it’s based on the fact that these voters are misinformed about the risks to young people and they’re misinformed about the risks generally,” Rothwell said.

2) Michael Grunwald, “The GOP’s Political Nightmare: Running Against a Recovery”

3) This is interesting, “How Media Coverage of Congress Limits Policymaking”

Matt Grossmann: How media coverage of Congress limits policymaking, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Advocates and legislators often want to generate media attention for their preferred legislation, but that doesn’t mean the media coverage helps pass bills in Congress. Instead, congressional media coverage may turn off the public, with stories of conflict-ridden sausage making, and disrupt internal consensus-building. This week, I talked to Mary Layton Atkinson, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, about her Chicago book, Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking. She finds that media coverage focuses on legislation with partisan conflict, and emphasizes process over policy substance. That tells voters that Congress is dysfunctional and full of extremists. I also talked to John Lovett of Wake Forest University, about his new Michigan book, The Politics of Herding Cats: When Congressional Leaders Fail. He finds that media coverage leads to more intervention by backbench legislators, creating a spiral of increasing salience that makes it harder for leadership to pass bills. Both books are multifaceted. Atkinson finds that congressional reporting is overwhelmingly about process and that negatively affects public views.

4) Okay, maybe this sounds esoteric, but it’s really important.  Jesse Singal has written measured, fair, articles about transgender people that don’t necessarily support their ideology (he has written about the fact that a good number of transgender people actually de-transition, but he is fair and nuanced, and in no meaningful way “anti-trans”) and he has been mercilessly slandered, “The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters”

On the issue of gender, a particularly interesting case study centres on Jesse Singal, a mild-mannered and amiable (I’ve met him) New York-based journalistbook author, and podcaster whom Quillette readers may remember from his 2019 appearance on our own show. As early as 2016, well before the culture war over trans rights reached its crescendo, Singal authored a ground-breaking New York magazine exposé on the cynical takedown of eminent Toronto psychologist Dr. Kenneth Zucker (who was subsequently paid more than half a million dollars by his former employer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as part of a legal settlement relating to its part in that smear campaign). Two years later, Singal wrote an impeccably researched cover story for the Atlantic titled “When Children Say They’re Trans”—one of the most widely discussed features in the magazine’s recent history. In these articles, and on social media, Singal has dealt with the issue of gender dysphoria with care and sensitivity, documenting the challenges faced by those experiencing the condition. And while he is the furthest thing from an actual transphobe, he acknowledges the plain fact that some children who present as trans later “desist” to an identity that accords with their biological sex.

As anyone who follows this issue closely can guess, Singal’s measured approach doesn’t always sit well with progressive activist and journalistic subcultures, wherein the approved view is that any child’s expression of trans identity must summarily be “affirmed” by parents, educators, and therapists. Within these circles, Singal himself has written, “desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as ‘the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids’… But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming.”

We know from experienced psychotherapists in this area that children can present as trans for all sorts of reasons, sometimes related to trauma, sexual anxieties, or comorbid mental-health conditions. In some cases, the dysphoria is permanent, but in other cases, it isn’t (which is why the analogy with sexual orientation is misleading). Certainly, the idea that desistance is some kind of transphobic “myth” has now itself been shown to be a myth: In late 2020, British jurists upheld desister Keira Bell’s claim that the country’s Gender Identity Development Service had improperly rushed her through a medical reassignment process, at age 16, without proper safeguards. At the age of 23, Bell now is recovering from the after-effects of these treatments—including a needless double mastectomy—and confronts a lifetime of possible medical complications.

As we wrote in a recent Quillette editorial about Bell, it won’t just be doctors and politicians whose actions will be judged in relation to the excesses surrounding the transition of young people, but also those many journalists who’ve chosen to prioritize political fashion over journalistic integrity. Singal stands out as one of the few honourable exceptions. Indeed, Bell’s case is exactly the sort of tragedy that he’s consistently warned about over the past five years. To a certain kind of ideologue, such prescience is unforgiveable.

Atlantic and New York skew editorially toward the progressive camp. And every word of Singal’s articles in these publications was combed over rigorously by fact checkers. Yet from reading the social-media abuse directed at Singal, one might think these were self-published transphobic rants. A blistering attack on Singal published by an author who self-describes as an “agendered asexual radical feminist transwoman in a poly relationship,” for instance, went on for an astounding 12,000-plus words, accusing Singal of everything from being “harmful to trans kids” to peddling “bigoted nonsense.” Google Singal’s name and you will find dozens of screeds of this nature.

So desperate has this campaign of character assassination become that some critics now casually throw in flat-out lies about his personal behaviour…

As anyone who follows this issue closely can guess, Singal’s measured approach doesn’t always sit well with progressive activist and journalistic subcultures, wherein the approved view is that any child’s expression of trans identity must summarily be “affirmed” by parents, educators, and therapists. Within these circles, Singal himself has written, “desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as ‘the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids’… But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming.”

We know from experienced psychotherapists in this area that children can present as trans for all sorts of reasons, sometimes related to trauma, sexual anxieties, or comorbid mental-health conditions. In some cases, the dysphoria is permanent, but in other cases, it isn’t (which is why the analogy with sexual orientation is misleading). Certainly, the idea that desistance is some kind of transphobic “myth” has now itself been shown to be a myth: In late 2020, British jurists upheld desister Keira Bell’s claim that the country’s Gender Identity Development Service had improperly rushed her through a medical reassignment process, at age 16, without proper safeguards. At the age of 23, Bell now is recovering from the after-effects of these treatments—including a needless double mastectomy—and confronts a lifetime of possible medical complications.

As we wrote in a recent Quillette editorial about Bell, it won’t just be doctors and politicians whose actions will be judged in relation to the excesses surrounding the transition of young people, but also those many journalists who’ve chosen to prioritize political fashion over journalistic integrity. Singal stands out as one of the few honourable exceptions. Indeed, Bell’s case is exactly the sort of tragedy that he’s consistently warned about over the past five years. To a certain kind of ideologue, such prescience is unforgiveable.

Atlantic and New York skew editorially toward the progressive camp. And every word of Singal’s articles in these publications was combed over rigorously by fact checkers. Yet from reading the social-media abuse directed at Singal, one might think these were self-published transphobic rants. A blistering attack on Singal published by an author who self-describes as an “agendered asexual radical feminist transwoman in a poly relationship,” for instance, went on for an astounding 12,000-plus words, accusing Singal of everything from being “harmful to trans kids” to peddling “bigoted nonsense.” Google Singal’s name and you will find dozens of screeds of this nature.

So desperate has this campaign of character assassination become that some critics now casually throw in flat-out lies about his personal behaviour.

5) I really don’t know much about the history of modern Turkey.  But this book review/extensive summary from Scott Alexander on the history and rise of Erdowan was really fascinating.  (I hope JDW reads this and gives me his take).  

6) More of this, please, “Breaking news: Utah becomes eighth state to prohibit cages for egg-laying hens.”  Can we please just pay a modest amount more for our animal-based food and not treat the animals horribly?

7) Given my well-established penchant for endocannabinoids, no wonder I like running (and am so happy to be able to do it again five months after tearing my Achilles).  “Getting to the Bottom of the Runner’s High: For years we’ve been crediting endorphins, but it’s really about the endocannabinoids.”

8) Paul Waldman, “The pressure to reform the filibuster is already working”

Democrats in the Senate are having more serious discussion about reform of the filibuster than they’ve had in a long time. And guess what: It’s working.

First, it’s clearly having a persuasive effect on many in their own party, who are newly expressing an openness to reforming the filibuster or just getting rid of it. Once you have to really confront it, it becomes almost impossible to defend.

There are two other vivid new ways in which the pressure for reform is working: Some Republicans are expressing a real desire for bipartisanship, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is squealing like a stuck pig.

Let’s consider the bipartisanship first. Politico reports that senators from both parties are coming together to see what they might accomplish:

Its meeting this week comes as the House prepares to pass immigration bills that will further reinforce the Senate’s gridlock on that issue without some bipartisan framework to break the impasse.
“It’s something the group of 20 of us, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, will discuss tomorrow and decide whether we take this up. Or whether instead we focus on the minimum wage,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in an interview. “But there are places we can come together.”

While we don’t know whether this will produce anything, it’s happening precisely because of the threat that Democrats might eliminate the filibuster and start passing the bills their party ran on.

As long as that threat is alive, the incentives for a moderate Republican push them toward working with Democrats. If you were one of them and you knew that 60 votes would be required on anything, and because of that the majority’s agenda was dead in the water, why bother negotiating? You wouldn’t care what legislation they passed in the House.

If, on the other hand, a Senate that runs by majority rule is a real possibility, you’d want to get in on the action. If bills are going to pass with 50 votes, you can work on them with Democrats and shape them to your liking, giving those Democrats the couple of extra votes they’ll need to have a margin of comfort.

In the meantime, by working with Democrats you might convince them not to get rid of the filibuster, by helping them get a victory or two that reduces the pressure to get rid of it entirely.

But there’s one person who is terrified that bipartisanship might break out: Mitch McConnell. Which is why he issued an over-the-top warning to Democrats on Tuesday, essentially threatening to burn the Senate down if they reform the filibuster:

9) This was cool, “17 Reasons to Let the Economic Optimism Begin” Here’s the first two:

1. The ketchup might be ready to flow

In 1987, the economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Companies were making great use of rapid improvements in computing power, but the overall economy wasn’t really becoming more productive.

This analysis was right until it was wrong. Starting around the mid-1990s, technological innovations in supply chain management and factory production enabled companies to squeeze more economic output out of every hour of work and dollar of capital spending. This was an important reason for the economic boom of the late 1990s.

 

In the beginning, it may even lower productivity! In the 1980s, companies that tried out new computing technology often needed to employ new armies of programmers as well as others to maintain old, redundant systems.

But once such hurdles are cleared, the innovation can spread with dizzying speed.

It’s like the old ditty: “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle. First none will come and then a lot’ll.”

Or, in a more formal sense, the economists Erik Brynjolfsson, Daniel Rock and Chad Syverson call this the “productivity J-curve,” in which an important new general-purpose technology — they use artificial intelligence as a contemporary example — initially depresses apparent productivity, but over time unleashes much stronger growth in economic potential. It looks as if companies have been putting in a lot of work for no return, but once those returns start to flow, they come faster than once seemed imaginable.

There are several areas where innovation seems to be at just such a point, and not just artificial intelligence.

2. 2020s battery technology looks kind of like 1990s microprocessors

Remember Moore’s Law? It was the idea that the number of transistors that could be put on an integrated circuit would double every two years as manufacturing technology improved. That is the reason you may well be wearing a watch with more computer processing power than the devices that sent people into outer space in the 1960s.

Battery technology isn’t improving at quite that pace, but it’s not far behind it. The price of lithium-ion battery packs has fallen 89 percent in inflation-adjusted terms since 2010, according to BloombergNEF, and is poised for further declines. There have been similar advances in solar cells, raising the prospect of more widespread inexpensive clean energy.

10) Good stuff from Zeynep on vaccinating the world:

Perhaps we can and we should argue that the many billions of people in the world are worth vaccinating simply because they are fellow human-beings whose lives are as worthy as anyone else’s—including ours. Casting them as threats may seem like a short-term nudge, but I doubt it’s very convincing to people who do not see them as worthy. Worse, it can potentially  further the vision of a segregated world where we protect ourselves from the dangerous masses out there. A lot of such periods in history have come with casting immigration and other people over there as dangerous disease vectors

Maybe we don’t need to cast billions of people as if they were vague threats to us, or exaggerate the risk of vaccine failure because of them

How about simply this: we should vaccinate the world because every human being deserves being protected against a disease for which we have safe and efficacious vaccines. 

Maybe the hippie dippy argument is just fine. 

Quick hits (part II)

1) Really good deep dive into the manufacturing of Covid vaccines in the New Yorker.  The conclusion:

The most hopeful news is that Pfizer has cut the time it takes to make a batch of its vaccine to sixty days. As of mid-March, the company expects to deliver more than thirteen million doses a week, up from around five million last month. At a congressional hearing in February, John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer, explained that the company has begun making its own lipids, and has increased capacity at its facilities in Kansas and Wisconsin (in addition to the new production suites in Michigan). It has also doubled batch sizes, increased yields per batch, and developed faster laboratory tests.

“We’re getting better at it,” Calitri said, of the manufacturing process. “I think people don’t know how challenging it is to make billions of doses of a product that you did not have a process for nine months ago. And then to scale that up even further. There’s so much involved from an engineering perspective, from a quality perspective, from a compliance perspective, and from a safety perspective. We’re not making widgets. We’re making a product that people inject into their bodies—into healthy humans—and it has to be perfect. We need to make sure of that for every single dose. That takes engineering, it takes science, it takes time.”

2) This was a great appreciation of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” at 30 years old.  What a great album.  And it also made me realize that I need more R.E.M. in my life as my SiriusXM stations (80s, 90’s, First Wave, Lithium, Spectrum, and a few others) hardly ever play them and my Pandora stations don’t either (guess I just need to seed some in there!).  Still have great memories of seeing R.E.M. in Pittsburgh in June 1995.

3) Meant to post this from Yglesias back when Tanden was still a thing, but his conclusion is as valid as ever:

To make a long story short, there are lots of good choices here. Tanden is not like a “budget wonk” per se, so if she ends up doing something else in the White House, that’s not a tragedy. And I really do get Manchin’s politics here.

Nonetheless, I think giving into bad-faith nonsense from Senate Republicans is bad.

And we know that’s what this is — there’s no way the “I didn’t see the tweet” crowd can turn around after four years of Trump and claim to have a principled objection to the idea of a person mixing it up on Twitter. That’s just absurd.

The reason it’s bad to give into that isn’t that everything ought to be a partisan steamroller. It’s precisely because if you want to have bipartisan legislating, you need people to say things that they mean. If a Democrat puts an idea on the table and then a Republican articulates sincere objections to it, you can sit down and start to talk about addressing those objections. Alternatively, the Republicans might admit that their objections, while genuine, are simply not that strongly held. In that case, it might be possible to do a horse trade — an idea Democrats love (and Republicans are cool on) paired with an idea the GOP loves (but that Democrats are cool on).

But you can’t address bad faith objections, and you can’t horse trade if everyone is constantly turning the outrage dial up to 11 over things that they’re actually only mildly skeptical of. The way to make progress on immigration, or climate, or poverty, or whatever else is to get an honest dialogue going (probably behind closed doors), and the whole Tanden situation has been the 180° opposite of that. If Biden can round up a handful of Republican votes from people willing to admit that “don’t be a jerk on Twitter” is not a genuine line in the sand, that would be an excellent precedent.

4) I had no idea Bangladesh had made such great progress on moving its citizens out of poverty.  Good stuff from Kristoff.  The key?  Educating and empowering women!

“The most dramatic thing that happened to Bangladesh has to do with transforming the status of women, starting with the poorest women,” Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who pioneered microcredit in Bangladesh and elsewhere, told me. Yunus founded Grameen Bank, which turned women into entrepreneurs — nearly 100,000 became “telephone ladies” over four years, selling mobile phone services — in ways that helped transform them and their country.

As Bangladesh educated and empowered its girls, those educated women became pillars of Bangladesh’s economy. The nation’s garment factories have given women better opportunities, and that shirt you’re wearing right now may have been made by one of them, for Bangladesh is now the world’s largest garment exporter, after China.

Granted, factories in Bangladesh pay poorly by Western standards, have problems with abuse and sexual harassment, and pose fire risks and other safety problems; a factory collapse in 2013 killed more than 1,100 workers. But the workers themselves say that such jobs are still better than marrying at 14 and working in a rice paddy, and unions and civil society pushed for and won huge though incomplete improvements in worker safety.

Educated women also filled the ranks of nonprofits like Grameen and BRAC, another highly regarded development organization. They got children vaccinated. They promoted toilets. They taught villagers how to read. They explained contraception. They discouraged child marriage.

Bangladesh hasn’t had great political leaders. But its investments in human capital created a dynamism that we can all learn from.

The World Bank calls Bangladesh “an inspiring story of reducing poverty” — with 25 million Bangladeshis lifted from poverty over 15 years. The share of children stunted by malnutrition has fallen by about half in Bangladesh since 1991 and is now lower than in India.

5) Interesting first-person essay, “I was a well-meaning White teacher. But my harsh discipline harmed Black kids.”

6) I’ve been intrigued by the potential medical benefits of hallucinogenics (despite honestly having no desire to actually try them), but, at least as far as the benefits of micro-dosing on mental health, perhaps not much there:

In a paper published in the journal eLife, the researchers revealed their findings. After the month-long testing period, they found that all psychological outcomes had improved since the start of the experiment for those in the microdosing group, including “in the domains of well-being, mindfulness, life satisfaction, and paranoia.” However, the same was true for the placebo group—with no significant differences between the two.

“So, in a way, microdosing did increase a lot of these psychological variables,” says Balazs Szigeti, a research associate at Imperial College London Centre of Psychedelic Research and the lead author of the study. “But so did taking placebos for four weeks.”

The researchers conclude that the anecdotal benefits of microdosing can therefore be explained by the placebo effect. That’s not to say that people who claim to feel benefits from microdosing are wrong, Szigeti says—on the contrary, the study suggests that they do feel these benefits—but that these outcomes may not be the result of the pharmacological effect of the drug but instead due to their psychological expectations.

People who microdose take very small amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms)—usually around a tenth of the amount you’d take to get a full psychedelic experience. Some people claim that microdosing has mood-enhancing effects, while others claim cognitive benefits or say it makes them feel more creative or effective at work. Others microdose in an attempt to self-medicate conditions such as depression. But there is very little scientific evidence on the effects of microdosing, and it is difficult to run controlled trials (not least because of the illegal nature of these drugs in many countries.)

Placebo effect for the win!

7) This seems like one of those only in America headlines, “North Carolina sends 6-year-olds to court. Why some say it’s time for change.”  “Some”?  You think?

8) I am literally mad at David Bianculli for speaking so highly of “Behind her Eyes” and causing me to waste 5 or so hours on it.  Yes, one hell of a twist ending, but so unearned.  To compare this with “The Sixth Sense” or “Usual Suspects” is just blasphemous.

9) Oh boy did I love this one, ““Natural Is Better”: How the Appeal To Nature Fallacy Derails Public Health”

As consumers, we are faced with a virtually endless range of “natural” products. We can start our mornings with a piece of toast slathered in all-natural smooth peanut butter and wash our clothes in naturally dirt-demolishing laundry detergent, while those of us with certain habits can enjoy a natural American Spirit cigarette when the craving hits.

Without a doubt, the “natural trend” is a dominant force across consumer industries, and particularly the food sector, where over 60 percent of all new products introduced in 2019 flaunted labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and “additive-free.” This natural cornucopia is not growing out of vacuum. Rather, it is catering to our ever-growing, and irrational, preference for the natural.

Researchers believe that our persistent pro-nature bias is rooted in the belief that natural things are simply better for us. This belief has little grounding in physical reality. Indeed, people strongly prefer to drink “natural” spring water to water that has been distilled and subsequently mineralized even after researchers tell them that the two drinks are certified to be chemically identical. Natural is simply better—what can you do?

Our preference for things deemed to be natural is so illogical and systematic that researchers have given it a name—the appeal to nature fallacy. The power of this cognitive bias is so great that the average person is willing to pay a premium on foods and medicines referred to as natural. This has certainly spawned its fair share of shrewd marketing tactics aimed at unsuspecting consumers.

In our current COVID-19 predicament, the appeal to nature fallacy has an even darker side:  it makes some people believe that they do not need vaccines. Why would they, if they can protect themselves the “natural way”?

10) I still don’t get why these trials have taken so long, but we really might be looking at an effective therapeutic for Covid-19 at some point.

11) More very good stuff from Kristoff.  As somebody who’s got to pee alot, I especially loved this.  “America Is Not Made for People Who Pee”

Here’s a populist slogan for President Biden’s infrastructure plan: Pee for Free!

Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.

Greeks and Romans had public toilets more than 2,000 years ago, with people sitting on benches with holes to do their business. There were no partitions, and Romans wiped with sponges on sticks that were dipped in water and shared by all users.

I’m not endorsing that arrangement, but at least the ancient Romans operated large numbers of public latrines, which is more than can be said of the United States today.

The humorist Art Buchwald once recounted an increasingly desperate search for a toilet in Manhattan. He was turned down at an office building, a bookstore and a hotel, so he finally rushed into a bar and asked for a drink.

“What kind of drink?” the bartender replied.

“Who cares?” Buchwald answered. “Where’s the men’s room?”

America should be better than that. Japan manages what may be the world’s most civilized public toilets — ubiquitous, clean and reliably equipped with paper — and almost every industrialized country is more bladder-friendly than America. Even poorer countries like China and India manage networks of public latrines. But the United States is simply not made for people who pee.

“I go between cars or in bushes,” Max McEntire, 58, who has been homeless about 10 years, told me as he stood outside the tent where he lives here. “Sometimes at my age, if your body says pee, you’ve got to pee. If your body says poop, you can’t wait.”

Most stores and businesses are of little help, he said, because they often insist on a purchase to use the restroom — and that’s even before a pandemic closed many shops…

Cities also lose their livability, and open defecation becomes a threat to public health. Americans have painstakingly built new norms about dog owners picking up after their pets, but we’ve gone backward with human waste.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the homeless who suffer. Taxi drivers, delivery people, tourists and others are out and about all day, navigating a landscape that seems oblivious to the most basic of needs. The same is true of parents out with kids.

I’m a clean-cut middle-aged white guy, so I almost never have too much trouble finding a place, but I absolutely recognize the privilege of that and know we could and should do a helluva lot better on this score.

12) There’s a phrase I’ve been using a lot when talking about my latest research that I have mentioned to several reporters, but I really didn’t think it would make it into print.  Also, the whole article is really worth a read:

COVID has placed enormous burdens on parents like Candace and Christy. Professor Steven Greene at North Carolina State recently co-authored a study on the topic, “A Recipe for Madness,” and told me that the COVID experience “extra sucked” for parents.

13) This is good stuff (thanks to BB), “California vs. Florida: Who handled COVID-19 better?”

14) I mean, this is almost like some O Henry short-story.  13-year old’s face-saving lie leads to a murder!  “Samuel Paty: French schoolgirl admits lying about murdered teacher”

Samuel Paty was beheaded in October after showing students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The girl, whose complaints sparked an online campaign against Paty, has now admitted that she was not in the class.

Mr Paty’s killing stunned France and led to an outpouring of support at memorial ceremonies and marches around the country.

The 13-year-old girl, who has not been officially named, originally told her father that Paty had asked Muslim students to leave the classroom while he showed the cartoon during a class on free speech and blasphemy.

According to evidence given by the girl seen by French media she said: “I didn’t see the cartoons, it was a girl in my class who showed me them.”

“She lied because she felt trapped in a spiral because her classmates had asked her to be a spokesperson,” her lawyer, Mbeko Tabula, told AFP news agency.

The perpetrator, 18-year-old Abdullakh Anzorov, was shot dead by police shortly after the attack.

It then emerged that the campaign against the history and geography teacher had been based on a distorted account of what had happened in class days earlier.

As he had done in similar lessons on free speech in previous years, Paty warned students that he was about to show a depiction of Muhammad. He said anyone who thought they might be offended could close their eyes.

The girl had originally claimed the teacher had asked Muslim pupils to leave the room. When she objected she was suspended from school, she said. It now appears that the girl was suspended the day before the class was given, according to Le Parisien newspaper, because of repeated absence from school.

The girl explains in her leaked testimony that she made up the story so as not to disappoint her father. He posted two videos on social media in response to the allegations.

Speaking on French radio on Tuesday, the Paty family’s lawyer said the girl’s family knew that she had not been in class on the day in question and why she had been suspended. “So to come and say now, sorry, I believed my daughter’s lies, that’s really weak,” Virginie Le Roy told RTL radio.

15) There’s quite likely gonna be this really weird period where all the adults who want are vaccinated and none of the kids we want to be vaccinated will be.  Emily Oster:

What about Kids?

I want you to cast your mind back to January 2018. During one week in late January of that year, the CDC reported flu hospitalization rates of 7.3 per 100,000 for children aged 0-4 and 1.4 per 100,000 for kids 5-17. This means that of 100,000 children aged 0 to 4, 7.3 of them were hospitalized with flu complications that week.

Kids get the flu from a lot of sources. School, child care, their parents, travel, indoor trampoline parks, etc, etc. And flu can be very serious; there were almost 200 pediatric flu deaths during that 2017 – 2018 flu season. But I would venture in that time frame most of you were not making choices about your activities based on flu risk.

The peak week of the COVID-19 pandemic for hospitalization for children 0 to 4 was mid-December (data here). During this week, the hospitalization rate for this group was 2.3 per 100,000. For children 5 to 17, the peak was the first week of January, with hospitalization rate of 1.3 per 100,000. In the most recent week of reported data, the week ending February 27th, these rates were 0.3 per 100,000 for children aged 0 to 4 and 0.6 per 100,000 for children 5 to 17.

Here’s all these numbers in a graph.

Here’s all these numbers in a graph.

Bottom line here: hospitalization rates even at the peek COVID week were below that week in January 2018.

Let me add onto this another set of facts, based on the graph below (original paper here). This graph shows non-COVID death rates for children in two age groups (based on 2018 data) versus COVID-19 death risks over the period from March through October 2020.

Deaths in these age groups from any cause are really, really rare so I’m not trying to freak you out. But I am trying to convey that death rates from COVID-19 in these age groups over this period are less than a typical year of suicide, homicide or cancer. They are an order of magnitude less than car accidents. Infants are not in this chart, but the same logic flows. COVID death rates are higher in absolute numbers but lower in ratios. The SIDS death rate for infants under 1 in this comparison period is eighty times higher than the death rate for COVID-19.

The you from 2018 was not thinking about these non-COVID risks. Yes, in the back of your mind you probably worried about your kids getting the flu and had some sense of the idea that cars are dangerous. But you were planning travel and playdates and everything else in spite of these risks because they are small. And for kids, the COVID-19 risks are even smaller. This isn’t true for adults. But it is true for kids.

This doesn’t mean kids do not get COVID. They do get it (although probably at lower rates). Just like they can get flus, and colds, and other viral illnesses. But they are simply very, very unlikely to get extremely sick.

Look forward, now, to the summer. You’re vaccinated, your parents are, your brother is. Barring some surprise, COVID-19 rates are expected to be even lower than they are now. Not zero, but lower. This makes COVID-19 even less of a threat to kids. They are extremely unlikely to be infected. And if they were, they would be extremely unlikely to get very sick and they wouldn’t spread it to older people because those people are vaccinated.

What’s going to happen if your family and your brother’s family and your parents rent a beach house together with all the cousins for a weekend? Let me tell you based on personal experience. Monday after you return home one of the children in one of the families will be vomiting, and the other family will recall one of their children complaining about a stomach issue which they didn’t think to mention.

What if you fly with your kids to a vacation? They might get sick on the airplane and ruin your first two days in England complaining about their sore throat.

My point is: kids get viruses. You cannot avoid the possibility they might get sick on vacation. But the presence of COVID-19 in a world of vaccinated adults does not change the risk of this very much at all.

The challenge of this summer, I think, is going to be figuring out how we can consciously move towards normalcy despite lack of full vaccination for kids and despite the fact that COVID-19 will always be with us. It is going to require putting our minds to it. Booking that summer trip might be the first step.  [bold is mine; italics in original]

16) And my firstborn makes into quick hits by sharing with me that a cuttlefish has passed the marshmallow test!

17) Really enjoyed this essay, “The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is.”

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.

Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

For example, a map of states that didn’t expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.

Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes material harm the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites that lasts even to this day.

18) Really enjoyed this from Scott Alexander on “trapped priors” (the link is also full of cool illusions to help make the point, like this one).

Trapped priors: the basic cognitive version

Phobias are a very simple case of trapped priors. They can be more technically defined as a failure of habituation, the fancy word for “learning a previously scary thing isn’t scary anymore”. There are lots of habituation studies on rats. You ring a bell, then give the rats an electric shock. After you do this enough times, they’re scared of the bell – they run and cower as soon as they hear it. Then you switch to ringing the bell and not giving an electric shock. At the beginning, the rats are still scared of the bell. But after a while, they realize the bell can’t hurt them anymore. They adjust to treating it just like any other noise; they lose their fear – they habituate.

The same thing happens to humans. Maybe a big dog growled at you when you were really young, and for a while you were scared of dogs. But then you met lots of friendly cute puppies, you realized that most dogs aren’t scary, and you came to some reasonable conclusion like “big growly dogs are scary but cute puppies aren’t.”

Some people never manage to do this. They get cynophobia, pathological fear of dogs. In its original technical use, a phobia is an intense fear that doesn’t habituate. No matter how many times you get exposed to dogs without anything bad happening, you stay afraid. Why?

In the old days, psychologists would treat phobia by flooding patients with the phobic object. Got cynophobia? We’ll stick you in a room with a giant Rottweiler, lock the door, and by the time you come out maybe you won’t be afraid of dogs anymore. Sound barbaric? Maybe so, but more important it didn’t really work. You could spend all day in the room with the Rottweiler, the Rottweiler could fall asleep or lick your face or do something else that should have been sufficient to convince you it wasn’t scary, and by the time you got out you’d be even more afraid of dogs than when you went in.

Nowadays we’re a little more careful. If you’ve got cynophobia, we’ll start by making you look at pictures of dogs – if you’re a severe enough case, even the pictures will make you a little nervous. Once you’ve looked at a zillion pictures, gotten so habituated to looking at pictures that they don’t faze you at all, we’ll put you in a big room with a cute puppy in a cage. You don’t have to go near the puppy, you don’t have to touch the puppy, just sit in the room without freaking out. Once you’ve done that a zillion times and lost all fear, we’ll move you to something slightly doggier and scarier, than something slightly doggier and scarier than that, and so on, until you’re locked in the room with the Rottweiler.

It makes sense that once you’re exposed to dogs a million times and it goes fine and everything’s okay, you lose your fear of dogs – that’s normal habituation. But now we’re back to the original question – how come flooding doesn’t work? Forgetting the barbarism, how come we can’t just start with the Rottweiler?

The common-sense answer is that you only habituate when an experience with a dog ends up being safe and okay. But being in the room with the Rottweiler is terrifying. It’s not a safe okay experience. Even if the Rottweiler itself is perfectly nice and just sits calmly wagging its tail, your experience of being locked in the room is close to peak horror. Probably your intellect realizes that the bad experience isn’t the Rottweiler’s fault. But your lizard brain has developed a stronger association than before between dogs and unpleasant experiences. After all, you just spent time with a dog and it was a really unpleasant experience! Your fear of dogs increases.

(How does this feel from the inside? Less-self-aware patients will find their prior coloring every aspect of their interaction with the dog. Joyfully pouncing over to get a headpat gets interpreted as a vicious lunge; a whine at not being played with gets interpreted as a murderous growl, and so on. This sort of patient will leave the room saying ‘the dog came this close to attacking me, I knew all dogs were dangerous!’ More self-aware patients will say something like “I know deep down that dogs aren’t going to hurt me, I just know that whenever I’m with a dog I’m going to have a panic attack and hate it and be miserable the whole time”. Then they’ll go into the room, have a panic attack, be miserable, and the link between dogs and misery will be even more cemented in their mind.)

The more technical version of this same story is that habituation requires a perception of safety, but (like every other perception) this one depends on a combination of raw evidence and context. The raw evidence (the Rottweiler sat calmly wagging its tail) looks promising. But the context is a very strong prior that dogs are terrifying. If the prior is strong enough, it overwhelms the real experience. Result: the Rottweiler was terrifying. Any update you make on the situation will be in favor of dogs being terrifying, not against it!

This is the trapped prior. It’s trapped because it can never update, no matter what evidence you get. You can have a million good experiences with dogs in a row, and each one will just etch your fear of dogs deeper into your system. Your prior fear of dogs determines your present experience, which in turn becomes the deranged prior for future encounters.

Trapped prior: the more complicated emotional version

20) I love Facebook because I love sharing cute pics of my kids, Achilles challenges, soccer coaching, etc., and seeing similar from my friends far and wide, but I do recognize the deeply-embedded problems in the platform.  This is good, “How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation: The company’s AI algorithms gave it an insatiable habit for lies and hate speech. Now the man who built them can’t fix the problem.”

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.

“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.

“They always do just enough to be able to put the press release out. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think it’s actually translated into better policies. They’re never really dealing with the fundamental problems.”

Very quick hits

Usually I get these queued up on Friday nights, but I’ve got an early Saturday of interviewing NC State future Park Scholars all day, so, let’s get to a few at least:

1) Derek Thompson: “How to Beat the Pandemic by Summer: Averting a wave of new COVID-19 fatalities could require some dramatic, untested, and controversial strategies.”  Approve AZ.  Prioritize first doses.  Simplify eligibility.  Change the way we talk about vaccines (Leonhardt is all over this one).

2) I loved this from Chait, “Why Are Republican Small Donors So Easy to Swindle?”

Geraghty’s column lacks any operating theory as to why Republican politics in particular has attracted so many grifters. Such types have exploited two long-standing aspects of conservative thought: a tendency toward Manichaean thinking and a rejection of neutral expertise.

Every victory for the Democratic Party or incremental extension of the welfare state is a twilight struggle to safeguard the last flickering hopes for freedom from the ravages of socialism. If Medicare was enacted, warned Ronald Reagan, “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” Barack Obama’s policies would bring about “ total societal collapse and global conflagration,” predicted National Review.

These predictions are not just scare tactics. They reflect the authentic ideology of the American right, which treats liberalism as either indistinguishable from, or an unstoppably slippery slope toward, Bolshevistic central planning. But these beliefs are also very effective as scare tactics. Conservative fears that Democrats will usher in total societal collapse are good ways to scare conservatives into buying gold (an especially lucrative Obama-era conservative grift) or guns.

The right hardly has a monopoly on fearful predictions, of course. But their impact is magnified by the conservative distrust of the intellectual elite. Conservatives have spent decades training their supporters to reject the authority of bureaucrats, professors, the media, or any institution not explicitly committed to the right-wing agenda. Thus kook notions like the Laffer curve and climate-science denial have become cherished precepts of Republican Party thought. A man who claims a February snowstorm refutes climate science can chair the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and a person who says things like “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler” can become a leading Trump administration climate adviser.

3) As a lifelong resident of car-dependent American suburbia, I nonetheless really appreciated Farhad Manjoo’s take here, “There’s One Big Problem With Electric Cars: They’re still cars. Technology can’t cure America of its addiction to the automobile.”

But electric motors are merely a power source, not a panacea. From General Motors’ Super Bowl ads to President Biden’s climate-change plans, plug-in cars are now being cast as a central player in America’s response to a warming future — turning a perfectly reasonable technological hope into overblown hype.

The planet will be much better off if we switch to electric cars. But gauzy visions of the guilt-free highways of tomorrow could easily distract us from the larger and more entrenched problem with America’s transportation system.

That problem isn’t just gas-fueled cars but car-fueled lives — a view of the world in which huge private automobiles are the default method of getting around. In this way E.V.s represent a very American answer to climate change: To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel…

Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place — an entrenched culture of careless car dependency. Liberation from car culture requires a more fundamental reimagining of how we get around, with investments in walkable and bike-able roadways, smarter zoning that lets people live closer to where they work, a much greater emphasis on public transportation and above all a recognition that urban space should belong to people, not vehicles. Policy changes that reduce the amount Americans drive could lead to far greater efficiency gains than we’d get just from switching from gas to batteries.

4) This is a terrific idea… way more straightforward labeling on prescription drugs.  Like this:

5) Ryan Cooper, “The Texas blizzard nightmare is Republican governance in a nutshell”

It was all darkly amusing. But what Cruz did is emblematic of the Republican Party’s mode of governance. The reason Cruz felt comfortable leaving Texans to freeze solid on the sidewalks of Houston is the same reason the Texas power grid crumpled under the winter storm. Theirs is a party in which catering to the welfare of one’s constituents, or indeed any kind of substantive political agenda, has been supplanted by propaganda, culture war grievance, and media theatrics. Neither he nor anybody else in a leadership position in the party knows or cares about how to build a reliable power grid. They just want to get rich owning the libs.

The proximate reason the Texas grid failed was, at root, quite simple: It was not built to withstand freezing cold. As The Texas Tribune details, experts have been warning Texas politicians, power managers, and utility companies for years that the state is ill-prepared for a cold snap, as happened a decade ago. “In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state,” reports the Tribune. “A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.”

People have known for decades how to winterize electrical infrastructure — after all, there is still power in Canada and Finland. The reason those investments haven’t been made in Texas is because it would have cost a lot of money, and nobody wanted to pay for it — especially because the deregulated Texas energy grid makes it hard to pay for upgrades or extra capacity…

“Liberty,” to people like this, means that conservative elected officials never have to use their positions or authority to do anything when their constituents are suffering and dying. That, you see, is socialism.

So in a way, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference that Cruz abandoned his state to the freezing Arctic winds. It’s not like he was going to do anything to help them. At best, we’ll get some smarmy tweets now that he’s back. These days, whining is the beginning and end of Republican governance.

6) Youyang Gu and his Covid models are both awesome.  Loved this interview/profile in Bloomberg.  It really just goes to show that a smart, open-minded, flexible thinker can do great things even if they don’t have years of subject-matter expertise (so, enough with the “stay in your lane” folks).  I really enjoyed the sour grapes from one of the IMHE modelers in here as IMHE just kept getting it wrong while Gu was getting it right.  

7) The story of how we poisoned ourselves (quite knowingly) with lead in the 20th century is really quite amazing.  And there’s still huge cost/benefit to be gained by tackling lead abatement.  Yglesias makes the case:

One of the oddities of the 20th century lead disaster is that scientists were basically aware from the beginning that industry was poised to start spewing neurotoxins all over the place. This is from Beth Gardiner’s book “Choked” about air pollution:

A Yale physiologist named Yandell Henderson had tested tetraethyl lead as a potential nerve agent during World War I, and when GM asked his thoughts on putting it into gasoline [in 1921], he replied with alarm. “Widespread lead poisoning was almost certain to result,” he warned. Later he deemed it the “single greatest question in the field of public health that has ever faced the American public.”

The science was clear: Lead is a powerful neurotoxin. The threat was vividly demonstrated at a New Jersey refinery whose tetraethyl lead operation was known as “the loony gas building” because of its workers’ bizarre behavior — stumbling, memory loss, explosions of rage. After an accident, dozens collapsed, suffering seizures and hallucinations; more than 30 were hospitalized and 5 died.

The companies — writing a playbook polluters would draw on for decades — attacked the science, and paid for some of their own, to argue lead’s dangers were exaggerated. A Standard Oil executive even called tetraethyl lead “a gift of God.”

To put it a little less pejoratively, I think the big hope of humanity on lead over time has been the idea that while the very high concentrations in the loony gas building may be dangerous, surely a bit of lead isn’t so bad…

If you enjoy reading policy content on the internet, you are probably familiar with Kevin Drum’s article linking the rise and fall of violent crime in the United States to leaded gasoline. I highly recommend it, along with this follow-up, but also especially his smaller follow-up posts about residual lead in topsoil because this is the problem we have today…

There’s a significant racial disparity in lead exposure thanks to the disproportionate concentration of Black people in old southern and midwestern urban cores.

But in keeping with there being no known safe level of lead, there is also a very wide range of places with serious lead problems. It’s a huge issue in swathes of rural Maine, for example, which is why Jared Golden, the House Democrat who represents the Trumpy part of the state, is the author of a big lead abatement bill. Because of gentrification dynamics, the distribution of lead problems is also becoming considerably less racially polarized in the northeast — it’s a huge issue in many of the hip parts of Brooklyn. When D.C. tested for lead in our playgrounds, we found contamination scattered around the city.

The big common factor is the age of the built environment.

Modern structures don’t use lead paint, and modern gasoline doesn’t have lead additives. So if you’re in the suburbs of San Antonio, your house is probably pretty new. And critically, so are all the other houses in the neighborhood. There also probably just weren’t many people driving around 40 years ago. But any place that’s old is at risk for lead contamination, because even once we stopped burning leaded gasoline, the old lead didn’t vanish — it just settled into the ground. And the old lead paint continues to degrade and contaminate not just old homes but the surrounding areas. And then there’s the Flint problem, where old municipal water systems use lead pipes.

But even in a relatively low-lead area, having just one contaminated property around really isn’t okay…

Per Elise Gould’s work, the benefits of expensive lead abatement projects are high. She estimated that spending up to $11 billion on lead paint removal generates $17 to $221 billion in benefits, mostly in the form of higher lifetime earnings with commensurate higher tax revenues and lower health care expenditures.

Alright, a short version, but some good stuff there.

Remote teaching vs in-person teaching

I very much enjoyed Dan Drezner’s “Some politically incorrect thoughts about remote teaching”

That said, a year into this exercise, here is my primary takeaway from this experience: The reason for the cognitive dissonance between students and faculty is that online instruction, no matter how you slice it, is less efficient than in-person instruction. Both students and professors are working harder, and yet this greater effort does not quite yield the pedagogical benefits of being in the same classroom as students.

Readers might suspect me of being a Luddite on these matters, and they have evidentiary grounds for that suspicion. But I am not saying that online teaching is useless or a waste of time or anything remotely like that. Students who need to work full time but are highly motivated to earn a degree can profit from the online experience. On the technical side, Zoom and other platforms have handled this transition extremely well by my reckoning.

Furthermore, as I have moved down the learning curve, I suspect my teaching has probably improved. Last year I found myself exhausted from Zoom instruction. This semester the synchronous sessions have been much less taxing; perhaps my brain has adjusted to this new online environment. My assignment instructions have grown more detailed and precise.

What has not changed, however, is that teaching online cannot completely replicate the in-person experience. For all the talk about the advantages of flipped classrooms, it does not compare with the interactive give-and-take that even an in-person lecture can offer, much less an in-person seminar. Any halfway-decent professor knows how to read the room mid-lecture and adjust. That is literally impossible to do with recorded lectures, and next to impossible to do synchronously on Zoom.

Yes, yes, one-thousand times, yes!  I know my students still were learning a pretty decent amount the 2nd half of last spring and again this past Fall (and on a regular basis in my recorded, asynchronous public policy course), but it’s just not the same. 

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching in-person and NC State has done a great job through low density, universal masking, and great ventilation to make a safe environment.  It’s a little harder to have 40 students spread out over a lecture hall designed for 220 and they’re all wearing masks, but it sure beats Zoom.  This past week I had my best class session since last March and it felt so damn good.  We had an engaging, wide-ranging, widely participatory discussion/lecture on wrongful convictions in our criminal justice system in a way that I’ve never been able to approach on Zoom.  

What we’ve been able to do in a pinch with on-line teaching at the college level has actually worked really well and the students really are learning (I’ve seen my own son learn a bunch, too, in his mostly on-line classes).  But, damn, there really is just no substitute for being in person and we college should be willing to do what they can to allow it to happen safely.  

Facebook doesn’t know me that  well

Ever since I signed up for that vaccine trial, Facebook is clearly thinking “hey, this guy does medical trials!!”  It’s a huge portion of my Facebook ads, but, alas, sadly for me, they are mostly looking for people much less healthy than me.  If only I got the “have you torn your Achilles tendon?!” ad.  Anyway, the poor fit of these ads hit a new low last night.

I mean I know this is a real problem and they need to find people for studies, but, wow, how many college professors do they need to show this to to get a response?  Anyway, with all the medical research ads– and focus groups ads, too– it has been interesting to see how poorly Facebook actually seems to know me as far as advertising goes.  

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