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On Emily Oster's Covid Feelings Amnesty
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.
He’s not wrong. Even if you disregard the low-hanging fruit of noticing the near-perfect “pandamnesty” portmanteau opportunities, it’s still a wonderland for guys like me. It’s an article written in (seemingly) intentionally indistinct language; it heavily relies on emotion to make Oster’s point without considering any possible downsides.
Oster herself is also incredibly well-liked; she wrote a series of very popular books on data-driven child-bearing and has a lot of well-earned respect thereby. Like all people who desperately need to be liked, I am slightly and unreasonably jealous of all this, and instinctively resent her for it. This is the kind of personal flaw I’m aware of and try to control, but I can’t pretend that some deeply elemental level of my psyche wants to take her down a notch.
The article itself falls into a hard-to-criticize category of superficially good-feeling calls for good feelings, as well. Oster makes general call for a sort of blame-amnesty; she acknowledges that some mistakes were made by various parties in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but asks that we forget about them for the sake of progress. At first glance, this seems like the kind of thing you should go along with. As a people of multiple available glances, we can do a bit better.
The article starts out like this:
In April 2020, with nothing else to do, my family took an enormous number of hikes. We all wore cloth masks that I had made myself. We had a family hand signal, which the person in the front would use if someone was approaching on the trail and we needed to put on our masks. Once, when another child got too close to my then-4-year-old son on a bridge, he yelled at her “SOCIAL DISTANCING!”
These precautions were totally misguided. In April 2020, no one got the coronavirus from passing someone else hiking. Outdoor transmission was vanishingly rare. Our cloth masks made out of old bandanas wouldn’t have done anything, anyway. But the thing is: We didn’t know.
This refrain that they didn’t know - that in fact nobody knew very much at the onset of the pandemic - is both true and offered as a blanket justification for everything that any side of any political or social aisle did to anyone else. In her telling, it’s a panacea, curing all ills and excusing all behavior.
To be very clear: Oster has a point here. At the beginning of the pandemic, nobody knew what to expect, inclusive of the public health establishment. While I’m not a fan of public health’s omnipresent “Something must be done; this is something, so we must do this” approach to all things or their deification of maxed-out precautionary principle adherence, this was potentially a very big deal; some precaution was in order.
Oster’s take is that at least some of the precautions and initial decisions made would end up being wrong, and that nobody should be held accountable to an unachievable 100% accuracy standard. She explains how counterproductive she sees this to be:
The people who got it right, for whatever reason, may want to gloat. Those who got it wrong, for whatever reason, may feel defensive and retrench into a position that doesn’t accord with the facts. All of this gloating and defensiveness continues to gobble up a lot of social energy and to drive the culture wars, especially on the internet. These discussions are heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive. In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck. And, similarly, getting something wrong wasn’t a moral failing. Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.
And, yes, she should use more paragraph breaks. But more than that, she’s right on some elements here, as well. People do tend to entrench after pushback. They might do so counterproductively. But for Oster to get the progress-towards-better she wants, it’s necessary to think about every incentive created, just as it’s necessary to apply the amnesty evenly to all sides. Oster does not want to do either.
Some people really, really did not want to wear masks. They were very clear about it.
During the pandemic, the weight of the world fell on them. They were selfish Karens; they were murderers and killers. They were yelled at in public. Laws were passed to force them to do so. Endless TikTok videos were made mocking them.
The logic behind this was not unsound: if masks significantly slowed the spread of COVID, and an individual’s refusal to wear a mask made it significantly more likely that someone else would die, not wearing the mask would be a lot like drunk driving - something we’d rightfully push back on, and something we’d vilify people for doing.
Ditto closing churches. Yes, to some people they are more important than the risk of death, but you can see coming down really hard on it at the societal level as reasonable, should it really put a lot of lives outside of the voluntary attendees at risk.
Ditto vaccine mandates.
Ditto closed schools.
Ditto lost jobs and a wrecked economy.
Ditto, I guess, dying old, alone, and scared, separated from your family, confused and isolated in a bed in an unfamiliar room.
I often say that it’s actually important if the things we say are true; that it matters. I’m not assessing each of those claims above in the sense that I’m here to say “masks for-sure worked” or “masks were always security theater”. But I am saying that it matters which of those statements is true.
Imagine an old man who was separated from his wife, who subsequently died alone. Now imagine a scenario where he finds out that this was unnecessary - that what we now know indicates it wasn’t necessary. You’d imagine he’d be pretty peeved about this, and have an interest in making sure it didn’t happen to other people.
Imagine someone who didn’t want to wear a mask, who really didn’t like it, who found out it was arbitrary theater that was never revisited once we knew more. You’d imagine they’d be pretty pissed about being forced to wear the mask, or else dealing with endless vilification if they didn’t. They probably wouldn’t want that to happen again, right?
Now imagine you are a government that rushed ahead with mask mandates and various kinds of isolation. Imagine you’ve now found out that in the direct context of COVID-19, these things were wrong to do; they had the known downsides but not the promised upsides. But you feel justified in having told people they absolutely had to do this, because who at that time knew? And you knew they wouldn’t listen if you expressed uncertainty, so you don’t feel bad about saying you were certain this was needed back then; it was the only way to accomplish your aims.
I want to be very clear that I’m not making the case for either side here about what actually happened. I’m not within the confines of this piece trying to convince you that mask mandates were or weren’t necessary. But I am saying that the government in the examples above is going to do the exact same thing it does in the hypothetical again and again if Oster gets what she wants, because Oster’s proposal makes it costless for them to do so.
Oster’s proposal, boiled down, is “In any place that someone can credibly express uncertainty about whether or not their recommendations were right, anything they did might be unfortunate, but they can’t and shouldn’t be blamed for it.”.
She’s agnostic on the confidence in which the recommendations were made; she does not consider whether or not things that were uncertain were presented as proven truths. She does not consider the idea that coercive policy should be justified by a known reality as opposed to a guess or a desire to do something-anything-at-all.
In doing so, she completely discounts the interests of those in the hypothetical who were lied to or forced to have worse lives and who would not like the same thing to happen again. Within her request, they aren’t allowed to do a single thing to prevent it from happening again; all the benefit that comes from Oster’s request is concentrated on a particular set of folks, and it’s not them.
It’s at this point I should throw this quote into the mix:
I have been reflecting on this lack of knowledge thanks to a class I’m co-teaching at Brown University on COVID. We’ve spent several lectures reliving the first year of the pandemic, discussing the many important choices we had to make under conditions of tremendous uncertainty.
Some of these choices turned out better than others. To take an example close to my own work, there is an emerging (if not universal) consensus that schools in the U.S. were closed for too long: The health risks of in-school spread were relatively low, whereas the costs to students’ well-being and educational progress were high.
The bolded word here (look close, you’ll find it) is mine. When Oster thinks of herself, she thinks of herself as academic/public health class - she’s in the decision-making class, guiding others, making decisions for them that they will then have to live by. To this class - the we to which she belongs - she gives full clemency: there was no possible way they could have known.
Having a We implies a non-we, an outsider group. And Oster, talking as a public health-aligned person to a left-of-center audience who would have been super, duper into COVID-as-a-hobby, defines them as follows:
Obviously some people intended to mislead and made wildly irresponsible claims. Remember when the public-health community had to spend a lot of time and resources urging Americans not to inject themselves with bleach? That was bad.
I don’t want to pretend like injecting yourself with bleach is good; I think you probably shouldn’t do that. But we should note she’s bringing up this thing that probably never happened, a sort of clearly-implausible fever dream substantiated by the kind of trash data that accompanies virtually every survey - what Scott Alexander calls the lizardman constant, and what adheres to the 4-5% of crazy answers he predicts random survey-givers to provide.
Yes, she should have Googled that before pushing the idea that the public health community “had to” spend a lot of time and resources fighting a practice that probably never existed1. But what’s more important isn’t that she used a crappy factoid as a crowbar, but what she wanted to use the crowbar to access:
Misinformation was, and remains, a huge problem. But most errors were made by people who were working in earnest for the good of society.
A play in .1 acts2:
Emily: Stuff we made up and foisted on others, often at great cost to them, should be forgiven; we were acting from uncertainty. The only way to move forward is to grant anyone who did this broad clemency.
RC: What about people in your outgroup? Like people to whom it seemed that masks were BS, or who didn’t want schools closed, or who thought there was a possibility that COVID was lab-leaked or stuff like that? Same clemency? I know you were an early supporter of school reopenings, but what about people who opposed other forms of overreach for similar reasons?
Emily: Listen, I understand what you are saying. But I’m pitching this to a group of left-aligned readers, and they are going to want some out-group blood. I’m not sure I don’t want some outgroup blood. At the very least, I’m not going to risk my in-group clemency to protect non-members. Sorry.
RC: It seems as if you might have to, right? Since we have to take you at your word that 100% of your in-group’s mistakes were from perfect, gold-star good faith, it seems like that opens up for anyone to make the same good faith claims and get the same grace.
Emily: I actually have a thing for that! See, our mistakes are good-faith errors that should be assumed to be understandable necessities of our search for good outcomes. The outgroup’s errors are misinformation, which is a super-convenient pre-existing term for “statements that in any way substantially disagree with government-approved public health policy”.
It’s coded right-wing, so I’m able to say “When we are wrong, it’s good-faith errors that should be forgiven; when your enemies are wrong, it’s misinformation meant to hurt people and make them poison themselves.”. And they will drink it up.
RC: Did they really make people drink bleach?
Emily: It doesn’t matter. If they didn’t, just add it to the good-faith-error pile.
There’s versions of this where Oster’s article is the right article to have written - where all things misinformation were willful attempts to hurt people; where government-requested social media censorship was right for social media companies to grant, where no public health officials got high on their own supply, etc.
It might be true, as Oster’s-argument-but-not-Oster-herself heavily implies, that there’s no need for amnesty at all - that instead, no wrongs were ever done; just good people working for the good of all with no ill-will or bias playing in at all.
But where it fails on any point - where the same logic that says that only Republican gatherings can spread COVID is untrue - this kind of logic begins to seem suspect to people, and this:
We have to put these fights aside and declare a pandemic amnesty. We can leave out the willful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge.
Begins to look a lot like a sort of one-sided amnesty, one where it’s OK to demand forgiveness from others while not actually providing any forgiveness to others. And it begins to look a lot like something that would incentivize people to do work from the same exact playbook next pandemic - after all, it was decided there would be no costs for errors in the last one.
But for anyone who, say, wants mask mandates actually examined, or who wants people to have some level of certainty of the effectiveness of school closures or social distancing determined before they become law-of-the-land moral imperatives, this looks worse. For anyone who wants to avoid being socially and legally bludgeoned for non-compliance until after there’s some evidence that what they are being asked to do is necessary, this doesn’t appeal in the same way.
I’m not against forgiveness here, or in general. But I am a little against slitting my own throat - I’d like to know that I’m not establishing a standard that lets Oster and Co. acquire infinitely reusable get-out-of-trouble-free cards to use working against my interests while I get nothing in return.
To put it another way: I’ll forgive, but I’ll still hold the other side accountable as their wrongs become clear - at the very least until it’s clear that they might have considered they’ve done anything wrong at all.
Discord member Galo objected to this framing of what Oster was saying, and I’m going to be both fair (I think) by printing his objection and unfair (I know) by using my bully pulpit to explain why I can’t go along with it.
Galo points out that this is specifically a reference to the “Trump told people to inject bleach” scandal, which was a point in history in which it was argued that Trump had insinuated or outright said that people should inject bleach into themselves. In that context, he says, she’s talking about Trump specifically as a bad-faith actor, and that he should not be forgiven. Or something close to that; I’m doing my best to condense a long Discord conversation.
Note that the story had legs; this is from a year after the story initially broke.
I can’t go along with this for several reasons:
Trump never said to inject bleach
He just didn’t, or realistically anything like it. Here’s the quote:
"A question that probably some of you are thinking of if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposedly we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. (To Bryan) And I think you said you’re going to test that, too. Sounds interesting, right?
And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me. So, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute. That’s pretty powerful."
Note that said quote comes from reliably-left Politifact here, and even they say it was taken out of context.
Now, note that this quote doesn’t make Trump look good - “Why can’t I drink bleach to cure the flu” is not the question of a knowledgable, relatively sciency type of guy that you’d feel comfortable having as a pandemic response leader in most cases. But if Trump was just dumb and wrong and working off his gut, he’d be subject to Emily’s amnesty; she’s both asking for and giving permission to keep hating him so, so much.
Oster widens the field.
This one is pretty simple. If that’s a Trump sin, she can say he did it and say “not Trump, though”. But she can’t easily do this, and she wants to get more than this out of it. So she says “you know, misinformation people LIKE the bleach thing”. But if she had examples for this, presumably she would have used them; instead she used a verifiably false story.
The thing about using misinformation as a phrase is that it’s a pretty specific linguistic tool; it specifically describes people on the right who disagree with government agency claims or who notice people on the left doing bad things in general. Nobody uses it for figures on the left; nobody uses it for people at the CDC or FDA. It’s a political word for “guys who you disagree with that we all agree are evil and deserve what they get”.
Again, fine if it exists and you are describing a true thing. I’m sure there are people who actually intentionally deceive - it’s actually something I talk about a lot. But notably Oster herself can’t think of any, or else she wouldn’t have to rely on a easily Googled lie.
Even the Bailey fails here
I think a person could argue that Oster might be wrong about the “someone claimed you should drink bleach” bit, but right about the fact that people would hear it a certain way anyhow, forcing to respond to the heard-claim and waste resources doing that.
The opposing claim is something like “no, you just made this up because you will believe literally anything negative about your political enemies” or similar. It’s not hard to parse between the two, because we can check to see if Trump fans (who are not known for their trust of the public health establishment) drank bleach in any significant numbers.
The part where they apparently didn’t make Oster’s case hard - she can’t retreat to the bailey without claiming she and her buddies got near100% compliance from a public-health skeptical cohort of millions. Since this is less possible/plausible than a bunch of shit the misinformation-saying side calls misinformation (like lab leaks, or Hunter Biden laptops) this leaves her in an awkward spot.
I think the strongest general argument you can get going here is Trump is a dick and I don’t like him, which I actually find pretty reasonable. But to to do that with this evidence, you have to move into a “hating a guy justifies all sorts of bad shit” stance that Oster’s amnesty ask can go for while still seeming like a gentle peacemaker-thing.
I think I felt the strongest bit that Galo brought up related to this was that the general Trump Ethos was bad for public health efforts in other ways - like ivermectin and vaccine avoidance, etc. - and that this should carry her point anyway. I distrust this but did not research it enough to refute it, because this is the longest footnote ever written already. Do with it what you will.
Just to be completely clear, this is a device; I’ve never spoken to Oster.