In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything old is new again. I know I keep saying that. I know that it probably sometimes grates on my readers. I even know that to some people, repeating this mantra might even come across as lecturing and an exercise in moral superiority. You can believe me or not, but that isn’t the intent. My intent in describing how narratives promoted by COVID-19 minimizers, quacks, and antivaxxers are not new is not to denigrate anyone. (Well, with a handful of exceptions.) Rather, it’s educational. If you know that certain narratives about COVID-19 and the responses to the pandemic (e.g., that the disease isn’t dangerous “to most people,” that “natural immunity” is preferable to vaccine-induced immunity, that vaccines kill, and that there should be a “Nuremberg 2.0” in order to hold them—public health doctors and vaccine advocates—”accountable” somehow for their “crimes“), it’s easier to recognized old antivaccine and disease minimizing narratives being repurposed for a new pathogen. The idea is to provide at least one of the tools necessary “prebunk” a lot of the nonsense coming from these people. This brings me to the concept of “amnesty.”
Historically, in antivax parlance, “amnesty” is always one-sided, in which public health officials, pediatricians, and vaccine scientists “admit” their error and join the winning side. Let me quote, for example, Kent Heckenlively:
It’s one thing to be on the losing side of a fight.
It’s another to know you’re losing.
The white majority in South Africa knew they were losing to Nelson Mandela’s call for justice and they took actions which averted a catastrophe. Even though the British ended up fighting a war with us, there were voices in England who thought that the whole affair was utter madness. Eventually, their views prevailed. Hell, even some Nazis could see where Hitler was leading them after D-Day and tried to change things by blowing him up.
One notes, of course, that the actions taken in South Africa were basically to capitulate, and that after the end of apartheid the government instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the human rights abuses under apartheid. The key point of this narrative is that perpetrators could request amnesty from punishment if they admitted their wrongdoing. Let’s just say that an op-ed gave me very serious COVID-19 contrarian “truth and reconciliation” vibes as I read it, reminding me of antivax “truth and reconciliation” narratives before the pandemic.The problem, of course, is that here, as years ago in antivaxland, the admission of wrongdoing and error expected by the ones calling for it is entirely one-sided and clashes with the more commonly stated demand for retribution falsely portrayed as “justice.”
I’m referring, of course, to an article in The Atlantic a couple of days ago by “unapologetically data-driven economist” Brown University economist and COVID-19 “contrarian” Emily Oster entitled Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty, with a subtitle We need to forgive one another for what we did and said when we were in the dark about COVID. Let’s just say that the idea didn’t go over well among public health advocates, for example:
Before I discuss her “amnesty” narrative, one important thing for you to know about Emily Oster is that nearly her entire shtick about COVID-19 has been to minimize the danger of coronavirus transmission in schools, going back to very early in the pandemic. Indeed, as early as April 2020, she was penning op-eds doing just that, for example an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled Opening schools might be safer than you think, in which she argued that the benefits of in-person instruction were high enough to outweigh what she considered the relatively low risk of coronavirus transmission in schools, arguing that the data suggested that schools “might be one of the least risky kinds of institutions to reopen.” In another op-ed in The Atlantic entitled Schools Aren’t Superspreaders, in which she dismissively described fears of school transmission as “overblown” based on a grossly inadequate subset of her dataset.
Let’s just say that there are reasons that she is not infrequently described in less than flattering terms—deservedly so, I would argued—by a number of academics:
Oster’s influence on the discourse around COVID in schools is difficult to overstate. She has been quoted in hundreds of articles about school pandemic precautions and interviewed as a guest on dozens of news shows. Officials from both parties have used her work as justification for lifting public health measures. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited her study while announcing an executive order banning school mask mandates, while CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy referenced Oster’s research in anticipation of relaxing classroom social distancing guidelines. Oster also co-authored an influential school reopening guidance document that was released in early 2021.
But despite its prominence, Oster’s work on COVID in schools has attracted little scrutiny—even though it has been funded since last summer by organizations that, without exception, have explicit commitments to opposing teacher’s unions, supporting charter schools, and expanding corporate freedom. In addition to grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. The Thiel grant awarded to Oster was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family.
Basically, Oster was known before the pandemic for writing about “data-driven parenting”; so it was a natural pivot to start discussing the effect of COVID-19 on education. Also, unsurprisingly, her positions have mostly aligned with those who have attacked nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in public health to mitigate the spread and harm from COVID-19 as excessive and ineffective. It was also true before the pandemic that these same sorts of groups liked Oster, probably for these reasons in the context of her prior books:
The unifying theme across all three books is that conventional parenting advice—from experts in medicine, public health, education, and child development—is often wrong, and is based on irrational and overly cautious decisionmaking processes. In each book, she encourages readers to apply the analytical tools of economics to the multitude of choices that arise during pregnancy and parenting. Oster typically criticizes the quality of a few peer-reviewed studies that justify conventional advice, then offers her own recommendations on a range of topics—from eating deli meats in pregnancy (all are acceptable, other than turkey) to whether to send children to public schools (charters are often better in urban areas).
If it’s not already obvious, Oster’s readership skews female, white, affluent, and liberal. Some in this audience might be surprised that her books, which to a casual reader appear chipper and apolitical, have been roundly embraced by right-wing think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute. (Oster was even invited to speak about Cribsheet at Cato’s Washington headquarters in 2019.) Why might a book about parenting appeal to the Cato Institute? One answer is that Oster’s books popularize what Elizabeth Popp Berman calls an “economic style of reasoning,” which emphasizes individualism, market-based choice, and efficiency, while deprioritizing concerns related to injustice or collective well-being. Since the dawn of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, the economic style of reasoning has been an important ideological tool in the effort to expand corporate power; its propagation is the raison d’être of groups like the Cato and Manhattan Institutes.
In the context of Oster’s past, her call for “amnesty” tracks, although I can’t help but point out that her appeal to “moderation” and “forgiveness” did not exactly go down well with COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, antimaskers, and antivaxxers either:
Also amusingly, antivaxxers didn’t like this idea either, for example:
Not so amusing were the calls for violence:
Meanwhile, over at Fox News:
The flacks at the Great Barrington Declaration propaganda outlet the Brownstone Institute are apoplectic, too!
I’ve written a lot about antivaxxers wanting a “Nuremberg 2.0” in order to “hold them accountable,” even up to the point of references to the gallows and guillotine, but there was another narrative among antivaxxers who wanted to seem “reasonable,” and Oster’s narrative reminds me a lot of that. First, though, let’s see what she says. In the middle of her op-ed, she does note that misinformation during the pandemic is a bad thing:
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. Misinformation was, and remains, a huge problem. But most errors were made by people who were working in earnest for the good of society.
Got it, Prof. Oster! Bleach man bad! And I even agree! Hey, I made fun of Donald Trump for this too! However, in the context of Oster’s pandemic pronouncements, I can’t help but view this as a common and rather obvious strategy to deflect criticism of your views as extreme or out of the mainstream by attacking those promoting misinformation more bizarre and indefensible than yours, or, as I like to call it, claiming the mantle of “reasonableness” by attacking cranks.
One can’t help but interpret Oster’s characterization of people claiming that COVID-19 wasn’t dangerous to children (like her) as just “working in earnest for the good of society”—shall we say?—less than charitably. Maybe they were, but they continued, even as it became apparent that COVID-19 was at least as dangerous to children as measles, for which we do vaccinate. Basically, measles used to kill around 500 children a year before the measles vaccine, and we thought that bad enough to recommend vaccination of children over one year of age. COVID-19 has thus far killed children in similar numbers that are the same order of magnitude over the last couple of years, but suddenly to her that’s not enough to justify recommending routine vaccination of children because “COVID-19 isn’t dangerous to children“? Does Oster not realize the disconnect and how much she sounds as though she’s invoking what I like to call the Brady Bunch gambit, in which antivaxxers used to downplay the dangerousness of measles by pointing to an old Brady Bunch episode in which the kids all getting measles was played for laughs?
In fairness, I’ll mention that there was indeed considerable legitimate scientific uncertainty in the early months of the pandemic about a variety of issues, including about what kind of masks are most effective and when they are not needed and what the risk of transmission by fomites was. (Does anyone remember the video of the guy washing down vegetables with bleach?) However, answers to these questions evolved fairly rapidly to something closer to a consensus.
Now let’s look at her rationale for calling for “amnesty” (whatever that means):
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.
On the surface, this appears oh-so-reasonable. Of course, it’s not a moral failing to have gotten something wrong in science! However, it’s hard to take Oster seriously given that she had prefaced this particular pronouncement with:
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 latest figures on learning loss are alarming. But in spring and summer 2020, we had only glimmers of information. Reasonable people—people who cared about children and teachers—advocated on both sides of the reopening debate.Quoth Oster, “Unlike bleach man, you public health advocates had good motives, but you were just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!” Never mind that it isn’t nearly that clear.
Does this come across at all to you as…gloating? It sure does to me.
Worse, Oster’s proclamations are nowhere near a “consensus,” much less a “universal” consensus that schools were closed for too long and that the health risks of in-school spread were relatively low. It is not unreasonable to worry about the costs to students’ mental well-being and school achievement due to virtual learning and lack of in-person instruction. Even those most in favor of temporarily closing schools and closing them longer were concerned about these issues and tried to balance them against the risk of facilitating COVID-19 spread by reopening schools. However, Oster has routinely come down on the side of misrepresenting the risks of in-school spread as being negligible based on poor quality evidence, even as other evidence contradicts hers, with other studies indicating that lack of mitigations in schools resulted in more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths. Remember, this is an economist who set up a “data dashboard” about COVID-19 transmission in schools that has been widely criticized even as she has used it to make ironclad conclusions:
She also, as economists seem all too wont to do, seems to like to generate studies to demonstrate preconceived conclusion that supports her ideology:
And there was more, specifically about an independent review that demonstrated how dodgy Oster’s study was:
However, those independent researchers also found that even the slightest change to an arbitrary threshold used to define whether a school was fully remote on a particular week did indeed change the study results—to show a benefit of greater distancing. It is also noteworthy that the study was accepted and published in the prestigious journal Clinical Infectious Diseases within 15 days of submission—much shorter than the typical peer review timeline, raising questions about whether it was appropriately scrutinized prior to publication. In contrast, the results of the independent review were not made public until nearly a full year after the study came out. By this time, true to pattern, the study had already influenced policy so profoundly that the correction was no longer relevant to important questions about school operations during the pandemic.
One parent who tried to participate in one of the studies being done by Oster noted the problems with her methods:
Early in the pandemic she began to track the rate of COVID-19 spread in a small sample of schools, and has used this data to push for the reopening of schools. There were a whole slew of problems with her survey though, starting with it being self-reported because the schools that were most eager to participate would most likely be the ones to take the pandemic more seriously. How do I know there were problems with the survey? Well, I originally tried to participate in the survey because I wanted Abrome to contribute to anything that could help us better understand the threat of Covid-19 to educational settings and to the general public.
When I signed up to participate in the survey I was disappointed by the very narrow options that were available to describe our approach to bringing Learners (“students”) and Facilitators (“teachers) together outdoors (“at school”) during the pandemic. I emailed them to let them know the limitations of the survey and never received a response. I did, however, receive endless follow up emails asking me to complete the bi-weekly survey.
What I did not know at the time was that the survey was strictly a reopen school propaganda campaign under the guise of “science.” She would use the data collected to push her reopen schools argument, as opposed to using the data to help inform her whether or not schools should be reopened.
That is, of course, exactly what her “dashboard” and the “studies” using its data were:
The bitter struggle over COVID in schools, conducted with the rhetoric of “choice,” opened up space for an alliance between affluent white liberal parents and a right-wing propaganda infrastructure devoted to destroying unions and public schools. For instance, John Arnold, the former Enron executive behind the eponymous Arnold Ventures (which funds Oster), has used the pandemic to attack teacher’s unions and further his goal of dismantling public pension funding, much of which is allocated to unionized public school teachers. The pandemic also provided an opportunity to increase charter school usage at the expense of public school enrollment. It gave plutocrats like the Waltons yet another chance to attack teachers’ unions by painting their demands for safer working conditions as irrational. By advocating reopening in a seminar at Bellwether Education Partners (another Walton grantee) during a period when the Chicago Teachers Union was campaigning for stronger COVID rules, Oster helped the Waltons do precisely that.
Let’s get back to vaccines, though. Here’s what Cooper was referring to, an answer to a question about vaccinating children that she gave in June 2021:
Where do you land on vaccinating younger kids?
“I worry a bit that we’re going to get to a place where if you express any hesitancy around vaccinating your four-year-old, people are going to say, ‘You’re a crazy person. Why are you buying into this crazy anti-vax sentiment?’ That isn’t reasonable. It is a very, very different cost benefit analysis for vaccination of a four- year-old than it is for an 85-year-old. That doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t a good idea for both, but the way we think about the relative costs and benefits are different. I think we’re going to have to accept that vaccination rates in little kids are going to be lower than vaccination rates in adults, and that’s probably okay from the standpoint of the virus.”
I suspect that Oster didn’t realize that the claim that if you “question anything” about vaccination you’ll be tarred as a “crazy antivaxxer” is a very old antivaccine trope, one that I’ve alluded to more times than I can remember. As for that bit about the 85-year-old? I wonder if she realizes that antivaxxers have used exactly this argument to argue against the flu vaccine for children, never mind the disturbing ageism and eugenicist thinking in her response. And she wonders why public health officials have been so critical!
Basically, Oster is “declaring victory” in this debate without having actually been, you know, victorious based on data. Indeed, the very anecdote she chose to open her op-ed with was the most extreme example, in which she described going on a hike with her kids in April 2020 wearing cloth masks and encountering a man yelling, “SOCIAL DISTANCING!” at her and her child when her child got too close to his. The idea, very obviously, is to label most public health advocates as extreme and, in retrospect, mistaken about NPIs used early in the pandemic by associating them in the reader’s mind with a man yelling at a child for getting too close to his child outdoors. It’s a transparent tactic, particularly given that another example that she chooses later in her article of someone being “wrong” is the question of whether the mRNA vaccines would end up being more effective than, say, the Johnson & Johnson DNA-based vaccines or other vaccines.
This leads her to observe that everybody was wrong and everybody was right:
Given the amount of uncertainty, almost every position was taken on every topic. And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information.Declares Oster, “We can’t know anything! Everything is possible!” (I paraphrase and exaggerate, but sowing uncertainty is the message.
Guess who, in Oster’s view, had a “prescient understanding of the available information”? Sure, she doesn’t actually say who, but in context it’s pretty obvious that this is another unjustified gloat on her part. And guess who, in her view, might have turned out to be “right for the wrong reasons”? I think you can guess the answer to that one, too. What I couldn’t help but notice is that nowhere in her article does Oster admit any error whatsoever on her part. A clever propagandist would at least thought of something inconsequential that she got wrong and then make a big show of “admitting” that error in order to say, “See! I can admit when I was wrong too!” She didn’t do even that and, apparently, can’t admit even minor error.
From her elevated position as a privileged woman who was so “prescient” about the pandemic based on dubious analyses, Oster then magnanimously suggests “amnesty”:
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. Los Angeles County closed its beaches in summer 2020. Ex post facto, this makes no more sense than my family’s masked hiking trips. But we need to learn from our mistakes and then let them go. We need to forgive the attacks, too. Because I thought schools should reopen and argued that kids as a group were not at high risk, I was called a “teacher killer” and a “génocidaire.” It wasn’t pleasant, but feelings were high. And I certainly don’t need to dissect and rehash that time for the rest of my days.
Again, note how Oster transparently picks the most extreme examples that she can think of to describe those whom she considers “wrong,” an obvious tactic to make you think that she isn’t being totally self-serving in wanting this “amnesty.” There’s a “tell,” though, and it’s that last bit about the nasty things Oster was called and how bad they made her feel. She wants “amnesty” in order to be able to “move on” and not be criticized any more. The problem, of course, is that amnesty and forgiveness are not warranted if you don’t admit your own errors, and Oster is definitely not admitting any error. Quite the contrary! In her narrative, she’s the brave maverick whose insights into the pandemic were “prescient” and far ahead of those of actual scientists with expertise in infectious disease, outbreaks, pandemics, and epidemiology, the vast majority of whom were far more humble in their suggestions than Oster has ever been. It’s she who’s offering you lowly public health advocates “forgiveness” and “amnesty,” if only you’ll admit that she got it right and join her to “work together” to fix problems, such as low vaccine uptake—those other vaccines given to children routinely pre pandemic, not COVID-19 vaccines, whose low uptake Oster clearly doesn’t view as a problem given that she has repeatedly questioned whether children even need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 given how “benign” a disease she considers it for children:
Many people have neglected their health care over the past several years. Notably, routine vaccination rates for children (for measles, pertussis, etc.) are way down. Rather than debating the role that messaging about COVID vaccines had in this decline, we need to put all our energy into bringing these rates back up. Pediatricians and public-health officials will need to work together on community outreach, and politicians will need to consider school mandates.
The standard saying is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But dwelling on the mistakes of history can lead to a repetitive doom loop as well. Let’s acknowledge that we made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty, and then try to work together to build back and move forward.
If you don’t know the context, this all sounds like a lovely sentiment. Why can’t we just put aside all our differences, forgive each other, and work together? Unfortunately, it all comes across rather like a scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:
Oster’s call for reconciliation sounds reasonable on the surface, in particular her call for “both sides” to admit error. The problem is that her call is markedly and transparently asymmetrical, given that the COVID-19 contrarian side has far more error and wrongdoing to admit than conventional scientists and physicians. That includes Oster, whose call for “amnesty” is of a piece with her entire career:
Oster’s books all utilize a type of cost-benefit analysis that rejects the precautionary principle. Long embraced by environmentalists, trade unionists, and public health experts, the precautionary principle comes into play in scenarios of scientific uncertainty about risks of harm; it holds that decision makers should err on the side of minimizing or eliminating a potential hazard, even if this might prove to have been an overreaction once more research becomes available. Business interest groups, in seeking to expand corporate freedoms, use and promote the exact opposite interpretation of uncertainty. For example, industry groups might argue for permitting a novel pesticide to enter the market while evidence of its carcinogenic potential is still being collected. There is a bias towards interpreting uncertain and inconclusive research findings about health risks as evidence of no risk—a glaring fallacy that serves the needs of profit.
The general tone of Oster’s books is that pregnancy and parenting advice that is based on the precautionary principle is oppressive to mothers, as it imposes needless worry and restricts their choices as individuals.
Also, “amnesty” and “reconciliation are meaningless unless they apply to both sides and the ones calling for them are willing to admit their own errors. That’s not what Oster is about, though. She’s actually selling a kinder, gentler version of Kent Heckenlively’s assertion that he will “accept your surrender.” No wonder scientists and physicians said not just “No,” but “Oh, hell, no!”