Like pet cats, there are some articles you choose, while others choose you. This is one of the examples of an article that was foisted on me, specifically by Editor-Nick, who thought it was that Emily Oster’s Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty was the kind of thing I’d usually talk about, and noted that it was weird that I hadn’t yet.
I like your analysis.
For me, it is simple: I'm happy to forgive pretty much any mistake as soon as the person who made the mistake acknowledges his or her error and explains how he or she will try to avoid a similar error in the future.
I’d like to put forward a different interpretation of the rhetorical move Oster is setting up. This post is absolutely correct in that Oster is really discussing intra-left amnesty while throwing some anti-right red meat around. But I didn’t read that as her goal.
I play the role of the diplomat all the time in life, and one of the most successful and reliable arguments looks like this:
Your Teammate: [outgroup] is terrible! They want [bad thing] and believe [bad stuff]!
You: I agree, that stuff is terrible! If they just believed [steel-man view of outgroup] maybe that would be ok, but instead they’re just evil!
Teammate: yeah, [steel-man view] is at least somewhat reasonable, I could at least respectfully disagree with someone who believed that. Too bad that’s not what they believe.
You: hey, I noticed that [person closest to you on the other side] believes something much closer to [steel-man] than [bad stuff].
Teammate: I guess they’re not the worst.
You: hey, I noticed that [person closest to previous person] believes something much closer to [steel-man] than [bad stuff]...
And repeat. Sometimes that evil out-group actually exists but is small (e.g. actual, real neo-nazis vs most people who have ever been called neo-nazis), sometimes it’s nonexistent (e.g. people who completely agree with your moral framework about the world, but simply want the world to be bad).
You want to establish a reasonable policy within the space that’s familiar enough for people to judge fairly, and where all involved are within the existing circle of concern. Once you’ve done that, you expand the circle of concern. This, I think, is what Oster is doing here. Most of the commenters so far seem to be assuming that because she has set up this outgroup of crazy misinformation spreaders, that there must be a bunch of crazy misinformation spreaders she’s thinking of. Maybe that’s true! But it’s not a safe assumption.
Good job, but you wiff on something you could’ve taken Oster to task for on her own terms. To wit: she’s teaching a class on Covid and urging blanket amnesty over its attendant controversies, a blanket she somewhat slyly prefers to share more generously w/ her own ilk than others. But, if she’s studying the way the crisis was met, why doesn’t she establish a verifiable timeline for the appearance and evident spread of information - good, bad or mixed - and its subsequent influence on official policy? That would seem to be both a painstaking but absolutely necessary duty for anyone attempting to sort out the mess. Dodging or fudging it must reflect poorly on anyone urging others to forgiveness, because an inadequate account is perforce either incompetent or transparently evasive and therefore suspect. She needs to earn her stripes if she wants people to act on her advice. As an academic she should know what that requires.
I would take Oster's position a lot more seriously if the experts she references had shown so much as a shred of humility. I would be able to take her seriously if what had been said was "Look, this is a new virus that we don't know much of anything about, but we think it might be really dangerous. Here are some recommendations we think will help, so lets all do that stuff at least until we know more". Instead, what we got from very early on was "We know exactly what to do, we know it works, and if you don't do what we say you're almost literally a murderer".
Also, while it's true that at the very beginning we knew almost nothing, as the pandemic went on there were quite a few things we knew damn well that our policymakers flatly ignored. It was pretty obvious by mid-late 2020 that covid was a negligible danger to children, but in a lot of jurisdictions schools were one of the last things to go back to normal, trailing even mass gatherings. That's not explicable by good people doing their best with limited information.
Finally, I would say a lot of the more extreme reactions to covid were completely irrational even (or especially) assuming a maximum estimation of risk. I think here of the several videos that emerged of people not wearing masks in public, and bystanders getting up in their face and screaming at them. If you genuinely thought this person was endangering you by potentially spewing a highly contagious and deadly respiratory virus, you would be running away, not getting inches from their face and breathing heavily. Same with putting masks on to pass people on a trail. If this virus is so dangerous that passing somebody on a trail outdoors poses a plausible fatal threat, you shouldn't be hiking in public period.
I agree with most of what you've written here, and yet, I still come down on Oster's side. Mostly, because I don't see an alternative to what would effectively be an amnesty? There's not going to be a truth an reconciliation committee. No one will be held to account. There will be no reckoning. The best we can do is to decide not to get fooled again and then move on with our lives.
The US, along with the rest of the developed world, has a bureaucracy problem. At the same time, we also have a know-nothing populism problem. Both of these groups avoid accountability by leaning into their fight with the other and convincing people to support them lest the other side win. But you can't beat bureaucracy with populism and you can't beat populism with bureaucracy. It will always be a stalemate.
The only way to beat bureaucracy is to make it irrelevant to your life. The only answer to the stalemate is to work on improving resiliency at the level of individuals and households and communities. And the best way to do that is to avoid the culture war all together.
Re: footnote 1
I’m interested to know if your overall evaluation of the essay would change if Oster had used a more specific example of misinformation effects rather than the weak “Trump said something stupid” example.
In my circles, there were a number of episodes of that looked to me to have actual effects. Three that stick out in my mind were the “Plandemic” video about Judy Mikovits, allegations that ivermectin was being actively withheld/suppressed despite being a wonder drug, and allegations that the vaccines cause infertility (in some more exotic variants, there was the additional detail that the Gates foundation intended to use this for depopulation).
All of these episodes contained some sort of truth/reason for a good faith person to be concerned and want more evidence, but in each case the specific packaging it was delivered in was designed to generate attention for some self-serving establishment outsiders who often viewed themselves as martyrs.
My friends and relatives, who in general I perceived as acting in good faith, passed much of this along “just to be safe”, and internalized at least some of it. The cumulative effect of this was that I knew one person taking ivermectin as a off-label COVID prevention while refusing the vaccine, and many instances of refusing the vaccine out of fear and actively discouraging others to take it. I support the right for those choices to be made, but surely we can agree that these were non-optimal health choices. I believe at least some of that blame can be placed on the bad-faith actions of the originators of the misinformation.
While Oster is probably using misinformation in the way you allege, I think there is a case to be made for there actually having been bad-faith actors who do not merit any of this “pandemic decision amnesty”.
For context, I live in a midsized blue city within a deep-red state and nearly all of my relatives are proudly right-wing.
Great article. I'm a huge fan of Oster and highly recommend her parenting books. But when I read Oster's piece I was mostly confused. Is she only talking about March/April 2020? Because the "public health" community was spreading misinformation long after it was obvious they were wrong.
I will give amnesty to Cuomo for building field hospitals and having prisoners make hand sanitizer in March 2020. At the time it seemed reasonable. But anyone who supported lockdowns, closing beaches, or school closures after April 2020, or mask mandates post-vaccines, is someone with no ability to reason and shouldn't be given power ever again.
Oster is one those middling Covid hysterics who is guilty more of ommission than commission.
The "middling" are the crowd who concedes "mistakes were made." But the mistakes are of the "B" misdemanor category.
Oster recognizes 1) that outdoor mask wearing was ineffective and 2) keeping children out of the classroom may not have been a good thing.
However she excuses these misdemeanors due to the "unceretainty" early on of her experts (aka "high priests) whom she bows down to. Thus amnesty is proposed without consequences and we're told to simply "move on."
Oster wasn't one of those zealots who cursed on the street for not wearing your mask. She is always polite.
Her sins of "omsssion" chiefly have to do with failing to recognize the campaign of persecution against all those advocating freedom of medical choice which included firing people for not being vaccinated, barrring them from concerts without producing a vax passport and turning them away from retail establishments if they were unmasked. Notice she mentions nothing of this in her mea culpa.
These are of course a few of the egregious "felonies" Oster ignnores.
But Oster is still guilty of plenty of sins of commission. First she makes it clear that medical freedom people cannot be given amnesty becausee ALL of them are purveyors of misinformation (hence guilty of "felonies" in her eyes).
What's worse, in a quiet and devastating way she explains that the minimal "mistakes" of her fellow Covid hysterics have led to a situation where there is a downturn in vaccination rates. Her solution: mandates.
In other words, listen to the "experts." For Oster mandates are a good thing.
Oster reprrersents the utter cluelessness of the cult follower. She remains a fanatic in sheep's clothing, deluding herself she's saving the worlrd, while ironically championing the mRNA gene-altering "vaccine," responsible for killing millions.
When I find myself thinking about pandemic amnesty, I don’t really consider people like Emily Oster or Anthony Fauci at all. I don’t have a personal relationship with them so I can’t really forgive them. (Nor was I angry in the first place.)
But I do think about the damage done to my social relationships: the friends and roommates who tried to pressure me to be more cautious than I wanted, or to accept more risk than I wanted, and the ways those conflicts spun out into broken friendships and isolation. Those relationships need healing.
And in those cases, I do think amnesty is prudent: we were all thrust into suddenly having to make sense of ambiguous public health research. Some people did genuinely take it too far in either direction but we were also in the middle of a very stressful and novel situation, and so I can’t blame them for that either. Certainly I behaved very weirdly throughout much of 2020.
In the interpersonal case, I don’t think amnesty carries as much risk as it does for public figures. I’m not sure the layperson’s behavior then is generalizable even to future pandemics, nor does it need to be relevant to our my continued relationships with them today.
Her use of the Trump Bleach story is *itself* misinformation.
As for the concept of an amnesty here? Only if everyone who was on the side that "just didn't know, but just happened to get everything wrong and be authoritarian cunts about it at the same time" all get fired and forbidden from ever being in charge of anything ever again. They have demonstrated that they are not fit to steer the ship of state. "Not getting keelhauled" after wrecking a pier with a ship is one thing, but "Getting to keep the job of Harbor Pilot" is another entirely.
I hate that I mostly agree with this.
On the one hand, I think we're bordering on false equivalence here. Right-wing sources regularly made claims with reckless disregard for whether they were true or not (Trump may not have said "inject yourself with bleach" but he did say "hmm, I wonder if injecting a hypothetical person with bleach might help" which is a hell of a hair to split). Meanwhile the public health infrastructure took maximally strong positions on complex issues with ambiguous evidence. They did this not out of malice, but because they think about public health crises and how to fix them all day, and they don't think about supply-side shortages and threats to personal freedom and how to fix those all day.
I don't know if that matters though. I still have acquaintances in my extremely left-leaning circle who refuse to go to large gatherings or go maskless in public buildings, and who complain about things like re-opened schools. The public health infrastructure might not have had reckless disregard for any individual truth (i.e., "There's conflicting evidence but in the interest of caution we should require masking"). But the overall impact is reckless disregard for the concept of tolerable risk. The public health apparatus in the U.S. essentially spent two years completely rewiring a generation's ability to understand that preventing death is not the main goal of life.
I'm impugning motive, which I know is dangerous. I'm saying Trump and Co said awful stuff because they didn't care about helping people and the public health apparatus' intentions were basically pure. I honestly believe that, but also understand that I'm playing a dangerous game, likely to lead to mental errors.
But at the end of the day it doesn't matter. If people screwed up as badly as they seem to have, they need to be held to account.
Are masks just theater with no actual effect on germ transmission? I didn't get that memo. When next I have surgery, should I suggest the medical team throw out the masks? Not being snarky, just not following the logic here.
I meant to come to this a week ago, but then the week happened. As Ian Malcolm is fond of saying, "Life, uh, uh, finds a way," and will intercede. Scott's response reminded me of this post, and that's on my list for tomorrow. Hope you've been well in any case.
I read this much the same way, but from the opposite direction. That there would be no public reckoning, like what Oster is implying in her article, for people that willfully disregarded what was broadly considered prudent at the time, or for those who demanded we open while our fellow countrymen were breathing their last.
Until my uncle rises from the grave, there sure as shit will be a reckoning, even if I'm the only one making that a reality.
I would imagine Oster has been getting shit from every angle with her article. With writing like that, it's hard to not pull in enemies. In deference to that, I'm through and not railing against her article further.
I forget your stance on typos and it's nearly midnight here, so here's one while I have enough brainpower to note one and not enough to dive deeper: "But to to do that".
When is the last time policy makers and bureaucrats have faced anything but amnesty for their job-related mistakes or malice?
this was a sharp and excellent piece...thanks!
(but we all know how this will end, just like the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis ended: everyone inside the elite club will walk away scot-free ready for their next promotion and golden parachute; everyone on icky Team Dissent will end up where they started: on the wrong side of the velvet rope.)