Pandemics are beaten by communities, not individuals

https://www.gocomics.com/claybennett

We win by changing the statistics, not through an iron-clad personal defense.


Here’s what frustrates me most about the US struggle against Covid-19: the widespread attitude that rejects any partial solution, and instead demands a rock-solid personal guarantee. “If I do this and this and this, I’ll be OK.” And if that kind of assurance isn’t possible, then what’s the point?

Masks can’t offer that guarantee, unless you’re willing to walk around in a full hazmat suit. Distancing won’t do it unless you become a complete hermit. Vaccines allow breakthrough cases. Even the just-announced Merck treatment pill isn’t a complete cure: It claims to cut your risk of hospitalization in half, not eliminate it completely.

So what’s the point? No matter what I do, I’ll either catch the virus or I won’t. I’ll live or I’ll die.

The flip side of this binary attitude is a deep gullibility about snake-oil “cures”: I’m not worried about Covid, because I’ll just take hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin. Or maybe I’ll prevent it by gargling iodine or something. Some guy on YouTube claims that always works.

Or maybe I’ll deny the problem completely: There is no virus. The panics at ICUs in states with low vaccination rates are all staged by “crisis actors”. Really, it’s all about government forcing us to wear masks and get shots. If they can do that, the global dictatorship is at hand.

All of this makes me despair about my former profession. I used to be a mathematician. Apparently we’ve done a really bad job teaching people how to think statistically.

You see, fundamentally an epidemic is a numbers game.


Maybe you’ve seen TV episodes where a deadly disease gets loose until a heroic scientist intuits a miracle cure: Some chemical everybody has in the garage or under the sink turns out to be a perfect antidote to whatever-it-is. You swallow a teaspoon of baking soda or something, and you’ll be fine.

The reason TV writers go for a that kind of scenario is that they need to wrap things up by the end of the hour. But it’s hardly ever how things actually work.

Maybe you’ve noticed that there’s an outbreak of Ebola in Africa every few years. One spilled over into the US briefly during the Obama administration, but they happen every now and then. The latest one was in Guinea, and it was declared over in June.

There’s still no reliable cure for Ebola. [1] And there wasn’t a vaccine until 2019. But they beat back the outbreaks — including the 2014-2016 outbreak that made it to the US — anyway. Plagues of all sorts get controlled somehow, usually without a cure.

It’s a numbers game.


So let’s talk about numbers.

During a surge in new cases, you’ll hear a lot about exponential growth, where the number of new infections doubles every so-many days: I get sick. I infect two other people. Each of them infects two other people, and so on. Before long, the ICUs are full and bodies are stacking up in the morgues.

Fortunately, though, the same dynamics can also get you exponential decay, where the number of new cases gets cut in half every so-many days.

The difference between the two scenarios can be subtle. If every 10 infected people give the virus to 11 more, you’re on an exponential growth path. But if they only give it to 9, you’re in exponential decay. [2]

That’s how a community can beat a virus without a rock-solid method of prevention or cure. So sure, masks and distancing don’t guarantee you won’t pick up an infection. Vaccination doesn’t guarantee you’ll shake it off, or even that you won’t pass it on. But if those tactics just change the odds a little bit — get those 11 new infections down to 9 — the community will beat the pandemic rather than lose to it.

That’s how we win.


Now we run into the second problem: It isn’t just that people don’t understand how to think statistically, often they don’t want to. We don’t like to think of ourselves as drops in a statistical ocean, because we are individuals. [3] The evil of modern society was summed up more than half a century ago in “Secret Agent Man“:

They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Conservative rhetoric in particular is tuned for me-thinking rather than we-thinking. [4] But pandemics are fundamentally statistical — they’re waves that pass through an ocean — and we beat them by acting for the common good, even if we can’t get an individual guarantee.

It’s not that you aren’t an individual, but the individualism/collectivism thing is kind of like wave/particle duality in physics. You are an individual, while simultaneously being a drop in the ocean. Whether your individuality or your membership in the community is more important depends on what question is being asked.

Pandemics are ocean-level challenges: You can’t create one by yourself, and you can’t solve one either.


We also have a bias towards all-or-nothing thinking about risk. Instinctively, we don’t want to manage risk, we want to nuke it. [5] We want to tell ourselves “Bad things can’t happen because I’m doing this” rather than “I’ve shifted the odds in my favor.”

While that kind of thinking is natural, it’s also something to be overcome, because it either incapacitates us or pushes us into denial. Every time I get into my car I risk dying in a traffic accident. I could just refuse to go anywhere, or I could deny the risk via some kind of magical thinking about my exceptional driving ability or the power of my St. Christopher medal.

Instead, I do what I can to turn the odds in my favor: I wear a seat belt. I drive carefully, and avoid getting on the highway when I’m tired or influenced by drugs.

Probably you do something similar. We know how to manage risk. We just need to do it. And if enough of us do it well enough, exponential growth turns into exponential decay.



[1] The FDA approved its first Ebola treatment in 2020. In the trial, only 33% of the people who got the drug died, compared to 51% in the control group. That’s what success looks like.

[2] I know that 11/10 isn’t 2 and 9/10 isn’t 1/2. But the weird thing about exponentials is that all the curves you get from exponents over 1 look one way, and all the curves from exponents under 1 look another way. All that changes is the scale on the time axis. In other words, the value of “so-many” in “every so-many days” changes.

[3] Except for that one guy in Life of Brian.

[4] Perversely, though, it’s often the do-your-own-research crowd that is most influenced by group-think.

Today, being pro- or anti-vaccine has become essential to many people’s social identity during the pandemic. William Bernstein, a neurologist and author of The Delusions of Crowds, pointed me to the “moral foundations” theory, which attempts to understand what motivates the decision-making of people on the right and left ends of the political spectrum.

That theory holds that, within the American right, the concepts of loyalty and betrayal are more influential to their worldview than on the American left. Staying true to your group is a powerful pull for conservatives.

“For these folks, facts mean nothing; membership and identity, everything,” Bernstein said over email. “Groupishness, in-/out-group differentiation … is much stronger on the right.”

That’s why not-getting-vaccinated or not-wearing-a-mask can become such a point of principle that people will lose their jobs or even get violent rather than comply: It’s not just the inconvenience or the relatively minor risk; it’s betraying the group they feel loyal to.

[5] The scholarly name for this is “zero-risk bias“. If you ask people what they’d be willing to pay to eliminate some low-probability high-impact risk (like toxic waste contamination in their neighborhood or a radiation leak in a nearby nuclear power plant), you’ll get one number. But if you ask what they’d be willing to pay to cut that risk in half, you’ll get a number close to zero.

People don’t want risks to shrink. They want them to go away.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been a week of good news and bad news. The government didn’t shut down, but the debt ceiling is still hanging overhead, threatening a self-inflicted disaster in about two weeks. Neither infrastructure bill passed by the deadline that had been set for it, but the deadlines got extended and negotiations continue. The 700,000th American died of Covid, but a promising new treatment got announced.

There is a certain amount of water in your glass. How do you feel about it?

The featured post this week is something I’ve been meaning to say for a while. My background in mathematics for once has some relevance to a major issue: Whether we beat the pandemic or not balances on the knife-edge difference between exponential growth and exponential decay. If every 10 infected people infect 11 more, we have exponential growth. If they infect 9, exponential decay. Once you grasp that, you see the importance of tactics that change the odds — like masks and vaccines — even if they don’t guarantee your individual well-being.

That post is called “Pandemics Are Beaten By Communities, Not Individuals”. It should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

As for the weekly summary, the focus this week is on Congress, and we’re still in the situation I outlined last week: We all desperately want to know what’s going to happen, but we just don’t. For what little it’s worth, I remain optimistic. At least the government didn’t shut down.

Elsewhere: the Covid numbers continue to turn around. The vaccine mandates are working. Alex Jones is going to have to pay the Sandy Hook parents. And I enjoyed the new book about the Alamo. The summary should be out around noon.

Burdens and Duties

For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I’d offer this perspective: No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters — particularly when the President will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost.

– Senator Mitt Romney (1-6-2021)

This week’s featured post is “The Big Lie Refuses to Die“.

This week everybody was talking about the $3.5 trillion question

https://www.ajc.com/opinion/mike-luckovich-blog/924-mike-luckovich-tricky/UGKGYTXTUBFENOQKQMQ4HW6ZTI/

I’ve been resisting writing about the Democrats’ intra-party negotiations over the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that is supposed to supplement the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August.

While the issue is definitely important enough to deserve attention, the root of my resistance is that nobody really knows anything, and yet there is massive amounts of speculation about what might be happening. Maybe Joe Manchin is torpedoing the whole Biden agenda. Or maybe progressives are. Or maybe one side or the other is about to cave in. Maybe Biden is a legislative wizard who has it all under control, or maybe he’s an addled senior citizen in over his head.

It’s all speculation.

Here’s what little we know: The bipartisan bill passed the Senate in regular order, with enough Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. In terms of policy, the Democrats in the House agree that it ought to pass. But it leaves out a large number of progressive (and Biden) priorities. (The one that is most important to me is climate change.) So progressives in the House threaten not to pass the bipartisan bill if the Senate won’t pass the larger bill. No Senate Republicans support the larger bill, so it will have to pass through reconciliation (if at all), and all 50 Democrats are needed.

Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema have objected to the size of that bill, but so far have not made a counteroffer. Democratic moderates in the House had previously gotten Speaker Pelosi to commit to a vote on the bipartisan bill today, but that vote has been postponed to Thursday.

Midnight Thursday is the end of the federal government’s fiscal year, the annual witching hour when any shit not yet dealt with reaches the fan. So the government could shut down Friday, and the country might hit its debt limit shortly thereafter. In other words: a completely self-inflicted disaster of global significance.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of that will happen. I think Democrats will get something together, and two sizeable infrastructure bills will pass, with most of what all sides want included. The government will not shut down, and the debt limit will be pushed back to set up some future apocalypse. (We can’t just get rid of it, because …)

I believe this because I don’t think any Democrat in Congress benefits from sabotaging the whole Biden agenda and setting the party up for a massive 2022 defeat. I also don’t believe any of the Democrats — Manchin and Sinema included — are the kinds of loose cannons Republican leaders sometimes have to deal with. I’m also not afraid of Republicans getting some advantage out of the debt-limit battle. In the 2022 campaign, I don’t believe anybody will remember or care that this time around it was the Democrats who pushed back the limit without Republican help. (I also don’t believe voters will punish Republicans for their irresponsibility, although they should.)

As I said previously, though, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too optimistic. But I’m heartened by the account in Peril of the passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March. Manchin also had problems with that, and negotiations went down to the wire. But he ultimately voted for it. The picture Woodward and Costa paint is that Manchin has to maintain his moderate image in West Virginia and separate himself from liberals like Bernie Sanders and AOC, but that he also doesn’t want to be the guy who causes Biden’s presidency to fail.

I’m not counting on Biden to be an LBJ-style wheeler-dealer, but I think he will keep all the Democrats calm enough to recognize that failure benefits none of them.


Josh Marshall points out a piece of journalistic malpractice: Progressives and moderates are often presented as rival-but-equivalent factions fighting for their rival-but-equivalent proposals, when actually Democrats are pretty much united except for Manchin, Sinema, and a handful of folks in the House.

What Manchin et al are having trouble swallowing isn’t Bernie Sanders’ bill. (Sanders, if you remember, wanted a $6 trillion package.) It’s President Biden’s bill.

and the Arizona election audit

That’s the subject of the featured post. Short version of the report written by Trumpist Cyber Ninjas: The ballots were counted accurately. But Biden won, so there must be something wrong with the ballots themselves.

and Haitian immigrants

The images of men on horseback chasing down dark-skinned people, and of 14,000 immigrants camped under the Del Rio Bridge in Texas have sparked intense reactions from both the pro- and anti-immigration factions.

The current wave was started by a major earthquake in August, but Haitians have been trying to enter the US for one reason or another for a long time. And one US administration after another has been trying to keep them out. Vox has a worthwhile article about the unique aspects of our Haitian immigration policies.

and Peril

The book Peril (that last week’s post “Seven Days in January” was indirectly based on) came out Tuesday, and I rushed to read it. I didn’t find any major surprises: The incidents discussed in the pre-publication articles are pretty much the way they’ve been described.

Woodward and Costa leave readers to guess who the source is for each scene. In general, if the book tells us what somebody was thinking at the time, you have to assume that person is the source for the whole incident (though possibly various other people were also consulted). If the book follows one character through a series of scenes, I assume that person is the source. (In the case of somebody like Mike Pence, I suppose it’s possible that a right-hand-man is the source. But even then, I doubt that person would talk in such detail without the approval of his former boss.) If one person seems reasonable and everyone else in the room is crazy, probably we’re hearing the account of the reasonable person. (I know I describe a lot of my experiences that way.)

General Milley is pretty obviously the source for the incidents that involve him. Senators Mike Lee and Lindsey Graham are clearly sources. Pence’s national security advisor Keith Kellogg was a source, and probably Pence himself. (Kellogg apparently roamed the White House pretty freely.) A bunch of people in the Biden campaign. And so on.

The closer you get to Trump himself, the fuzzier the sourcing gets, as if sources asked for more protection. Ivanka and Jared? Mark Meadows? Hard to say. Unless you believe that Woodward and Costa made stuff up out of nothing (and I don’t), it’s clear somebody talked.

A phone conversation that Milley had with Speaker Pelosi after January 6 occurs early in the book and got a lot of press. When you read it in the full context of the book, the striking thing isn’t that Milley and Pelosi both think Trump is crazy. The striking thing is how they talk about his instability. You could imagine people around Trump coming to the shocking insight that the President is dangerously unmoored. But this conversation is nothing like that. It’s more like: We always knew he was crazy, but we had hoped he was manageable.

As the book goes on, it’s appalling how many people had such conversations. I’m left with the impression that no one with a chance to view Trump close up was actually surprised that he would start raving about imaginary election-stealing conspiracies, or that he would try to bring down American democracy rather than give up power. They had hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but they weren’t actually surprised.

Lots of Republicans appear to have known, earlier or later in the process, that the election-fraud claims were bogus. Their silence is stunning. Even the ones who spoke up at one time or another have mostly shut up about it.

The lack of concern for the country is horrifying. Mitch McConnell had two chances to get rid of Trump through impeachment, and protected him both times. To this day, Republicans who know what he really is are going along with him.

and the pandemic

Once again, new-case numbers seem to be topping out, but the turn-around is slow. The seven-day average is 120K per day, down from a recent peak of 175K on September 13. Hospitalizations have also turned around nationally, though they’re still surging in some areas. Deaths are holding steady at just over 2000 per day.

Hospitals in Idaho and Alaska have instituted “crisis standards of care“, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re so swamped they can’t get to everybody.

Alaska this past week joined Idaho in adopting statewide crisis standards of care that provide guidance to health care providers making difficult decisions on how to allocate limited resources. Several hospitals in Montana have either activated crisis standards of care or are considering it as the state is pummeled by COVID-19.

Under the guidelines, providers can prioritize treating patients based on their chances of recovery, impacting anyone seeking emergency care, not just those with COVID-19. …

Typically, crisis standards of care involve a scoring system to determine the patient’s survivability, sometimes including their estimated “life years” and how well their organs are working.

Back in 2009, Republicans fighting ObamaCare warned about “death panels” that might decide old people weren’t worth saving. That didn’t happen then, but vaccine resistance is causing it to happen now.


Vaccine mandates are being tested this week, as deadlines are looming in New York and some other states. Thousands of health-care and nursing-home workers are pushing to the limit: New York says they have until midnight tonight to get vaccinated, or they’ll lose their jobs. If they hold out and are let go, care might suffer in some places. But if they remain unvaccinated and keep their jobs, care suffers in a different way.

you also might be interested in …

Germany’s 16-year Angela Merkel era ended yesterday with a federal election in which she was not a candidate. The Social Democrats appear to have won the most seats in the Bundestag, surpassing Merkel’s Christian Democrats. No party has a majority, though, so a coalition will have to be negotiated.

Among the minor parties, the Greens gained seats and the right-wing nationalist Alliance for Germany lost some.


More dramatic stories about infrastructure and debt-ceiling negotiations have drawn attention away from the collapse of negotiations over police reform. The House has already passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but police reform is yet another casualty of the filibuster in the Senate.


Right-wing Congresswoman Lauren Boebert used campaign funds to pay rent and utilities, a violation of the law. Will something be done? It’s not clear yet.


A former Washington Post arts editor returned to her roots in rural Illinois, and moved into what she remembers as her grandmother’s house in Kinderhook. It’s been challenging to live in Trump country, where only 23% are vaccinated.

My family might go back four generations here, but we are outsiders. We are the “them.”

and let’s close with something musical

A recent trend on YouTube is for choirs around the world to set local complaints to music. Here is the Helsinki Complaints Choir.

The Big Lie Refuses to Die

https://www.timesfreepress.com/cartoons/2021/sep/24/making-case/5074/

The Arizona audit’s re-affirmation of Biden’s victory ought to finish off Trump’s stolen-election hoax. But it hasn’t.


The Cyber-Ninjas “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona finally reported its findings, only four months later than planned. Guess what? Biden won.

“The ballots that were provided to us to count in the coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass numbers,” Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan said during the presentation. He noted that the hand recount found President Joe Biden gaining 99 votes in Maricopa County and former President Donald Trump losing 261 votes — which he called “very small discrepancies.”

So there you have it: Not even vote-counters completely biased in Trump’s favor could come up with a way to claim he won in Arizona. The Cyber Ninjas hired by the Republican majority in the state senate tested the Maricopa County voting machines that were supposed to be haunted by the ghost of Hugo Chavez, looked for evidence of fake ballots shipped in from South Korea (or maybe China), and pursued every other lunatic theory of how Democrats could have stolen the state for Biden. They came up with nothing.

Biden won.

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chair Jack Sellers, a Republican, summed up:

This means the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and the results reflect the will of the voters. That should be the end of the story. Everything else is just noise.

But it’s not the end of the story, and Trump’s noise continues. The Great Steal has become dogma inside his personality cult, so inconvenient facts must be trimmed to fit.

Just asking questions. The quote from Chief Ninja Logan hints (if you listen closely) at the direction the conspiracy theory goes next: “the ballots that were provided to us” were counted properly, and show a Biden win. But what if some number of those ballots were cast illegally by people not entitled to vote? Or by legal voters who messed up in some way that should have allowed Republicans to disqualify them?

After all these months, Logan can’t point to any specific ballots that fit those descriptions. But what if? And what if those speculatively dubious ballots are all Biden votes? Then maybe Trump really should have won Arizona — and maybe Georgia and Pennsylvania as well. Maybe he should still be president, even without an insurrection.

That’s why a large chunk of the Ninjas’ report is devoted to casting doubt on “the ballots that were provided to us”, using the technique Tucker Carlson has made famous: Raise questions without doing even the simplest legwork to answer them, and then imply that there are no answers or even that powerful people don’t want you to ask.

Robert Graham of the Errata Security blog comments:

[The Cyber Ninjas] are overstretching themselves to find dirt, claiming the things they don’t understand are evidence of something bad.

Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice expressed the same idea in different words.

They’re desperately trying to suggest that what are routine procedures are suspicious, because they don’t have election administration experience or knowledge.

And precisely because the Ninjas lacked so much experience and knowledge, the “things they don’t understand” were many, and even humorous at times.

The most inflammatory allegations came from [Ben] Cotton, who claimed he discovered that thousands of files had been deleted from election department servers, and that several pieces of election equipment had been connected to the internet. 

One internet-connected device Cotton specifically named was REWEB1601, which Maricopa County’s twitter account explained very simply.

REWEB1601 (as you might gather from the naming convention) connects to the internet because it is the server for http://recorder.maricopa.gov. This is not the election system. We shouldn’t have to explain this.

And the deleted files? That wasn’t very sinister either.

CLAIM: Election management database purged

BOTTOM LINE: This is misleading. Nothing was purged. Cyber Ninjas don’t understand the business of elections. We can’t keep everything on the EMS server because it has storage limits. We have data archival procedures for our elections and @MaricopaVote archived everything related to the November election on backup drives. So everything still exists.

Oh, but what about the people voting multiple times in different counties?

Cyber Ninjas said it found thousands of voters who potentially voted twice in Arizona. The company came to this conclusion because it found 5,047 voters with the same first, middle and last name and birth year as people who voted in other counties.

“Bottom line,” the county wrote in a tweet in response, “There are more than 7 million people in Arizona and, yes, some of them share names and birth years. To identify this as a critical issue is laughable.”

Dead voters? Sometimes living people fill out a ballot, mail it, and then die before Election Day. Sometimes computer searches confuse the dead John Smith Sr. with the living John Smith Jr. of the same address, who voted. It’s not fraud. Voters who have moved? If they went to college, joined the military, or decamped to a vacation home from which they plan to return, their vote is still legal. And so on.

In short, the Cyber Ninjas found the kind of “suspicious” ballots that appear in every election everywhere. What they didn’t find was the slightest evidence of fraud.

The Romney prophesy fulfilled. When questioned, the Republican promoters of these partisan “audits” say they’re simply responding to widespread doubt about the integrity of the 2020 election, and that the point is to restore public faith in our democracy — ignoring their party’s (and often their own) role in raising those doubts in the first place by spreading lies.

The model here is the disingenuous justification Ted Cruz and ten other senators gave last January for objecting to the certification of the Electoral College vote.

A fair and credible audit — conducted expeditiously and completed well before January 20 — would dramatically improve Americans’ faith in our electoral process and would significantly enhance the legitimacy of whoever becomes our next President. We owe that to the People.

These are matters worthy of the Congress, and entrusted to us to defend. We do not take this action lightly. We are acting not to thwart the democratic process, but rather to protect it. And every one of us should act together to ensure that the election was lawfully conducted under the Constitution and to do everything we can to restore faith in our Democracy.

Mitt Romney had the right response back on January 6:

For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I’d offer this perspective: No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters — particularly when the President will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership.

The truth is that President-elect Biden won the election. President Trump lost.

This week’s events proved Romney right. After the Arizona audit report leaked, 2020 Loser Donald Trump did continue to say the election was stolen.

The leaked report conclusively shows there were enough fraudulent votes, mystery votes, and fake votes to change the outcome of the election 4 or 5 times over. There is fraud and cheating in Arizona and it must be criminally investigated!

And his allies were still not convinced of his loss. At a rally in Georgia Saturday, Trump rehearsed a litany of false claims about fraud in Arizona. And then his endorsed candidate for secretary of state said “Nobody understands the disaster of the lack of election integrity like the people of Georgia. Now is our hour to take it back.” His lieutenant governor candidate said “I can assure you if I’d been our Lieutenant Governor, we would have gotten to the bottom of this thing.”

And the crowd cheered.

Undeterred by the objective failure of the Cyber Ninjas to either find fraud or restore confidence, Trumpists continue to push the Arizona-like audits that are either proposed or already underway in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and even Texas (which Trump won, but by a margin that presages future trouble for Republicans unless they do a better job suppressing the non-white vote).

In each case, Republicans claim to be “restoring confidence” in elections by responding to “doubts” about the accuracy of the 2020 outcome — doubts that they caused themselves by spreading lies. Already, we can anticipate the ninja-like outcome: reports that find no hard evidence of any miscount or fraud, but continue to “raise questions” based on nothing.

It’s almost like sowing doubt is the intention.

The goal: destabilizing democracy. WaPo’s Greg Sargent raises that issue explicitly:

Oozing with unctuously phony piety, Republicans told us again and again and again that this audit was merely about allaying the doubts of voters who have lost confidence in our elections, a specter that Republicans have widely used to justify voting restrictions everywhere.

But, now that this audit “confirmed” Biden’s win, it is still telling us that we should doubt our outcomes, and that more voting restrictions are necessary to allay those doubts. Why, it’s almost as if that was the real point all along!

The Atlantic’s David Graham points to the damage done: Whatever the outcome of the Arizona “fraudit”, its mere existence kept the stolen-election story going for five more months. The implication that there really was something to investigate (and that maybe there still is) lives on. Millions of low-information voters are left with the vague impression that there is something inherently hinky about election returns from big cities with lots of non-white voters.

The goal was to substantiate a new consensus Republican belief that Democrats cannot win elections legitimately, and that any victory they notch must be somehow tainted. It is not a coincidence that the places where audits have focused are those, like Maricopa County, or Harris County, Texas, or Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, with high levels of minority voters, who can be disparaged—mostly implicitly, but occasionally more directly—as illegitimate participants in the polity. Trump has been the foremost proponent of the theory, but he’s been joined by eager sycophants, demagogues, and conspiracists.

As for where this is going, neo-conservative thought-leader Robert Kagan presented an ominous vision in “Our Constitutional Crisis is Already Here“, where he predicted

a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.

Kagan foresees Trump running again in 2024, being nominated, and staging a better coup next time.

Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Trump’s attempt to overrule the voters in 2020 may have failed, but not by much, and it was not thwarted by institutional safeguards.

Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate. These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but Trump has exposed the inadequacy of those protections.

Contrary to John Adams, the Republic was saved in 2020 not by laws, but by individuals. And those brave individuals are being replaced.

[T]he amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. [1]

In the end, the “forensic audit” movement isn’t about overturning 2020 any more: The deeper purpose is to “raise questions” about elections and about democracy in general, so that fewer people will be able or willing to take a principled stand against the Coup of 2024.


[1] The point of that shift is that gerrymandering insulates Republican majorities in key state legislatures from the voters. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Democratic voting majority that carried the state for Biden has also elected a Democratic governor and secretary of state. But the legislature is well fortified against the will of the People.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So yet another counting of the votes in Arizona — this one by the openly pro-Trump Cyber Ninjas — showed that Biden won. But Trump continues to claim fraud, and his GOP allies still demand similar “audits” in other other states he lost — and even in Texas, where he won by less than previous Republican candidates.

Ostensibly, the audit was going to resolve the doubts — one way or the other — about Arizona’s 2020 election. But instead, the report doubled down on the “raising questions” tactic that undermined faith in the election in the first place. It’s almost like tearing down democracy was the point all along.

So I’ll examine that in the featured post “The Big Lie Refuses to Die”, which should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will discuss the increasingly clear picture of Trump’s coup attempt, the Haitian refugees at the border, the agonizingly slow turn-around of the pandemic’s Delta surge, Germany’s election, and a few other things. Look for it around noon.

Faith and Credit

At a time when American families, communities, and businesses are still suffering from the effects of the ongoing global pandemic, it would be particularly irresponsible to put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.

– Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen,
urging Congress to raise the debt ceiling before October

This week’s featured post is “Seven Days in January“.

This week everybody was talking about General Milley

He’s the subject of the featured post.

and the California recall election

https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/california-dreaming/

It was not close. With 84% of the expected vote counted (a lot is still in the mail, I imagine), only 37% voted to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, and 63% voted not to recall him. That’s similar to the margin Joe Biden had over Donald Trump in California in 2020 (63%-34%), and Newsom’s original margin in 2018 (62%-38%).

The original theory of the recall was that anti-Newsom Republicans would be motivated to vote, while Newsom-supporting Democrats would be apathetic. Republicans also hoped for a popular rejection of Newsom’s aggressive approach to fighting Covid (vaccine mandates for state employees and health-care workers). Neither of these ideas panned out. In particular, exit polls showed 47% saying Newsom’s coronavirus policies were “about right”, with another 18% saying “not strict enough”.

Bizarrely, both Trump and leading GOP replacement candidate Larry Elder claimed that the results were fraudulent before there were any results. The day before the election, Elder’s web site said

statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.

as if the recall’s failure — and its vote-patterns — had already been known before any votes were counted. Former state GOP chair Ron Nehring called the statement “grossly irresponsible” and speculated that Elder’s claim may have discouraged Republicans from voting. (Why vote if the election has already been decided by fraud?)


The election threw a spotlight on California’s strange recall process, which can allow a replacement candidate to squeak into office with a tiny slice of the vote. For example, if we count all the No votes on recall as votes for Newsom, then Newsom has 6.8 million votes counted, while top replacement vote-getter Elder has only 2.8 million. It is not hard to construct a scenario in which a sitting governor has the support of 49% of the electorate, but gets replaced by someone with 25% support or less.

BTW, Elder’s total is being reported as 47%, but that’s only 47% of the people who voted for a replacement candidate. His 2.8 million votes is only 26% of the 10.6 million ballots cast.

The recall is an extreme example of the GOP’s nationwide election strategy: Rather than look for a 2022 candidate moderate enough to compete for a majority of votes in a California governor’s race, Republicans opted to manipulate a process that could allow an extreme conservative to gain power without a majority.


CNN correspondent Josh Campbell:

It was interesting how many California voters I spoke with at the polls said the Texas abortion ban motivated them to come out and vote against the recall of their governor.

Democrats are also counting on the abortion issue to work in their favor in Virginia, which has a gubernatorial election in November.

and the pandemic

Nationwide, the surge seems to be turning around, but the more specific story is that it’s shifting. The current wave started in the Ozark region of Missouri/Arkansas, moved south to the Gulf coast, and now has shifted northeast into the Appalachian region. The most dangerous part of the country right now is Kentucky/Tennessee/West Virginia, where new cases per 100K people are in the vicinity of 100, compared to 45 nationwide.

As a Northeasterner, I worry that the surge is still coming my way: The next likely destination for the wave is central Pennsylvania, where vaccination rates are still below 30% in some counties.

New-infection numbers are also high in rural counties in the mountain West and in Alaska, though their populations are too small to have much influence on the national totals.

Death totals, which tend to lag behind infections, continue to rise nationwide. That average is now over 2000 deaths per day. The peak death totals were around 3300 per day in mid-January, when hardly anyone was vaccinated yet. When you consider how many people are vaccinated now (54% of the total population, including 83% of the most vulnerable over-65 age group), and how effectively the vaccines have prevented death (New Hampshire reported this week that only 24 of its 413 deaths since January 20 have been fully vaccinated people.), it is scary to imagine how many deaths we’d be having if the Delta variant had hit before we had vaccines.


Previously, the Biden administration had been proposing that all recipients of the Pfizer Covid vaccine (like me) get a third booster shot at some point. Friday, a CDC advisory panel endorsed that idea only for people over 65 (me in another month) and those at special risk.

“It’s likely beneficial, in my opinion, for the elderly, and may eventually be indicated for the general population. I just don’t think we’re there yet in terms of the data,” said Dr. Ofer Levy, a vaccine and infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Boosters for the other vaccines are under consideration, but the data hasn’t been analyzed yet.


A poll by Fox News (of all people) shows the public getting behind anti-Covid measures like vaccine and mask mandates in ever-increasing numbers.

and a dress

Sometimes I agree with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and sometimes I don’t, but I am consistently in awe of her political talent. If you’re looking for traditional skills, she can give a speech or grill a witness with the best of them. But she can also tweet and troll and manipulate public attention in all the 21st-century ways.

The dress she wore to the Met Gala (an annual high-priced fund-raiser for the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) was one of the great political stunts. Ordinarily, the Met Gala is a contest in which celebrities dress up to compete for a fairly small amount of attention. (I don’t remember what anybody wore to previous Met Galas. Do you?) AOC didn’t just win that contest this year, she blew past the usual bounds of the event, so that people who ordinarily pay no attention to the Gala are talking about her. And she connected that attention to a popular political slogan: Tax the Rich.

You might be thinking: OMG, she walked into conservative criticism for hypocrisy. (I mean, what’s a socialist doing at a $35,000-a-ticket event anyway?) If so, you don’t understand the current political culture: In order to really command attention, you need to bait your enemies into attacking you in over-the-top ways that force your allies to defend you. That back-and-forth seizes center stage in a way that an unimpeachable statement never could. Trump pioneered the technique in 2016, and so reduced Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to playing minor roles in his drama. Marjorie Taylor Greene has learned from the master, catapulting herself from obscurity to national prominence.

Among Democrats, only AOC seems to understand how this works. The Tucker Carlsons and Laura Ingrahams can’t get her out of their heads, so she can never be out of the spotlight for long.

BTW, she has good answers to the various questions that have been raised: Like other New York political leaders, she was invited to the gala and did not pay $35K to get in. The dress was borrowed from the designer, a woman of color, who also got significant positive attention from AOC’s stunt.

Finally, given all the attention paid to what women in politics wear, I appreciated seeing AOC turn that attention to her advantage. All those people who were going to stare at her butt anyway could stare at “Tax the Rich”.


An aside: Remember back in 2008 how Republicans went on and on about how hot Sarah Palin was?

and here’s a concept more people should know about

Disney Princess theology. This comes from Erna Kim Hackett’s essay “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”.

White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.

For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

I am reminded of something a religious educator at my church once told me: Lots of articles tell you what you should do if your kid is being bullied at school. But hardly any articles address the possibility that your kid is the bully.

You can see a lot of Disney Princess thinking in the way some Christian churches have responded to Covid: Everything is a plot to oppress them, because they are the center of the Universe. Shutting churches wasn’t a byproduct of a reasonable effort to limit crowds, shutting churches was the point! If the government can send people door-to-door to promote vaccines, it can send them door-to-door to confiscate Bibles!

Why should American Christians imagine that anybody wants to confiscate their Bibles? (I have literally never heard anybody propose confiscating Bibles. Even the atheist equivalent of “locker room talk” doesn’t go there.) Because telling the story that way makes them the damsels in distress, when actually they are the villains preventing America from beating this virus.

The Christian anti-vaxxers aren’t the faithful Israelites, they’re the Israelites who complained about manna.

and the Durham investigation finally produced an indictment

Thursday Special Counsel John Durham indicted Michael Sussman, a cybersecurity attorney for the Perkins Coie law firm. The indictment revolves around internet traffic that appeared to imply some back-channel between the 2016 Trump campaign and Putin-connected Alfa Bank. Sussman told the FBI about the traffic and its possible implications, which never panned out. (The Mueller Report, for example, doesn’t mention Alfa Bank.)

During his meeting with the FBI, the indictment says, Sussman claimed not to be representing a client, but simply providing the information as a good citizen concerned about national security. But Perkins Coie represented the Clinton campaign, and Sussman had billed time spent investigating Trump’s Russia connection. The indictment says Sussman lied to the FBI, and was in fact representing Clinton at the time, in an attempt to get the FBI investigating Trump. Sussman has pleaded not guilty; he denies that he said he was not working for a client, and claims he was actually representing a different client at the FBI meeting.

Major editorial pages split on how significant this indictment is. The Wall Street Journal says Durham has “cracked the Russia case” and “delivered on RussiaGate“. The Washington Post disagrees:

This, to put it mildly, is not the confirmation of some broad 2016 deep-state conspiracy against Mr. Trump that the former president apparently desired.

After all, Trump often said Durham’s counter-investigation of the Trump/Russia investigation would uncover “the greatest political crimes in the history of our country” and lead to indictments of Obama and Biden, not to mention high-level co-conspirators like James Comey. There’s no sign of any of that in this indictment.

Reading the indictment itself, I can’t decide whether Durham’s case is weak or he is just a bad writer. The indictment paints a picture of Sussman working with a tech-company executive and various others to research cyber-connections between Trump and Russia. It is clear that the people involved were doing opposition research against Trump. Some worked for the Clinton campaign, while others were acting out of partisan sentiment, without any professional interest. What’s missing is anything sinister: The researchers do not appear to have invented the Alfa Bank data, for example. The larger importance of what they did is also iffy: They gave the FBI a lead that didn’t go anywhere.

From Trump’s point of view, the ultimate goal of the Durham investigation was to show that the Trump/Russia investigation was a hoax from the beginning. This indictment does not do that.

What’s more, nothing Durham turns up could possibly do that, because Trump did in fact collude with Russia. His campaign manager (Paul Manafort) was passing confidential campaign information to a Russian agent. Manafort himself was a longtime contractor for Putin-connected oligarchs, to the tune of many millions of dollars. Roger Stone was involved somehow in WikiLeaks’ release of the Russian-hacked Clinton campaign emails. Don Jr. met with Russians to solicit Russian “dirt” on Clinton.

And the reason we don’t know more about these Trump/Russian channels is that Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation of them, not the least by signalling to Manafort and Stone that they could count on pardons, which they ultimately received.

and you also might be interested in …

The demonstration in support of the January 6 insurrectionists fizzled Saturday. CNN’s Ana Navarro-Cárdenas quipped: “More people showed up to my last garage sale.”


Russia had parliamentary elections Friday to Sunday, and Putin’s United Russia Party appears to have won. The opposition to Putin operated under severe constraints, with many opposition leaders in jail, the media effectively under control of the government, and numerous fake candidates running to split the anti-Putin vote.

The opposition compiled a list of the most viable challengers in every district, but of course the government did its best to prevent distribution. The saddest and most reprehensible part of this story is that Apple and Google gave in to Putin and removed an opposition app from their app stores.


The Emmys were announced last night.


We might be headed towards another debt ceiling crisis. Democrats don’t want to push a debt-ceiling increase through on their own, and Mitch McConnell is refusing to cooperate. Something has to happen before the end of October.

As I’ve said many times, having a debt ceiling separate from the ordinary appropriation process is ridiculous. If Congress approves a budget with a deficit, the Treasury should automatically be authorized to borrow the money to cover it. Allowing Congress the option to vote for a deficit but refuse to authorize borrowing, is like installing a big self-destruct button on the government.


America’s top gymnasts testified to the Senate about the FBI’s handling of their sexual abuse complaints against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar was eventually removed and went to prison, but only after a long delay, during which he continued sexually abusing female gymnasts.


General Kenneth McKenzie of the US Central Command admitted that a drone strike strike in Kabul on August 29 was a mistake, and that the ten people killed were not terrorists. It is a sadly appropriate ending to the US intervention in Afghanistan, given how many such mistakes we have made in the last 20 years.

A difficult but worthwhile read is “The Other Afghan Women” by The New Yorker’s Anand Gopal.

[T]he U.S. did not attempt to settle … divides and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one mired in endless conflict, the other prosperous and hopeful. It is the hopeful Afghanistan that’s now under threat.

Gopal introduces us to the Afghanistan of the countryside, rather than the cities.


Ohio Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, one of the ten Republican congresspeople to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, will not run for re-election.

His district, OH-16, is a convoluted construction southwest of Cleveland. It is reliably Republican, having been represented by a Democrat only two years out of the last 70. Trump got 56% of the vote there in both 2016 and 2020. Gonzalez himself got 63% of the vote in 2020.

I wish one of these Trump-resisting Republicans would stand and fight for his or her vision of the Party. Every time a Jeff Flake or a Bob Corker surrenders without resistance, Trump’s aura of invincibility within the Republican Party gets stronger. Every time somebody refuses to fight, it feeds the narrative that you can’t fight.

Words I never thought I’d write: Hang in there, Liz Cheney.


Every few days brings a new story of some anti-vax activist dying of Covid. I don’t think it’s healthy to focus on them or take too much satisfaction from them. But it’s useful to keep one in your back pocket in case you find yourself in a social-media argument with someone who thinks all the statistics are fake.

The web site sorryantivaxxer.com is a long series of such stories. I find it very creepy, and I would not advise hanging out there for long.


This week’s stereotype validation: Three Texas women attacked the hostess at a New York City restaurant when she asked to see proof of vaccination before letting them enter, as the current NYC rules require. They’ve been charged with misdemeanor assault.


In honor of the late comedian Norm MacDonald, who died Tuesday, here’s the moth joke, and the story behind it.

and let’s close with something adventurous

The Instagram page “On Adventure With Dad” chronicles the activities of a Photoshop wizard and his two small children. If you’re not on Instagram, the portfolio is here.

Seven Days in January

https://www.startribune.com/sack-cartoon-trump-sees-the-results/600097972/

Did General Milley take steps to prevent a coup or to participate in one?


On paper, the American chain of command is simple: The Constitution makes the President commander-in-chief. Typically, he exercises that authority through a civilian Secretary of Defense and a hierarchy of generals, but nothing about that is necessary. On paper, the President can give orders to any soldier.

That authority over the entire military is summed up by an LBJ anecdote: As he was preparing to leave a military base, President Johnson walked toward the wrong helicopter until a young officer stopped him, saying “Your helicopter is over there, sir.” Johnson is supposed to have replied, “Son, they’re all my helicopters.”

At any level of the American military, though, there is an exception for illegal orders. If a superior tells you to execute prisoners, for example, you can say no. But you can well imagine that the bigger the gap in authority, the harder that “no” would be. Could a private or a green lieutenant really say no to a president?

And that brings us to the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. According to accounts from CNN and The Washington Post of the still-unpublished book Peril by Bob Woodward and Roberta Costa, Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley did two questionable things in the late days of the Trump administration. [1]

  • Milley made two phone calls (October 30, 2020 and January 8, 2021) to his Chinese counterpart to say that America was not planning an attack on China.
  • He instructed military officers not to execute any attack orders from the White House without consulting him.

Critics have a made a big deal about the China calls, but this appears to be fairly normal behavior in crisis situations. American military officers frequently cultivate personal relationships with their counterparts in other countries, and use those connections to smooth over possible misunderstandings. Politico reports:

A defense official familiar with the calls said … the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.

The people also said that Milley did not go rogue in placing the call, as the book suggests. In fact, Milley asked permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the call, said one former senior defense official, who was in the room for the meeting. Milley also briefed the secretary’s office after the call, the former official said.

But the second revelation raises more serious issues.

Woodward and Costa write that after January 6, Milley ‘felt no absolute certainty that the military could control or trust Trump and believed it was his job as the senior military officer to think the unthinkable and take any and all necessary precautions.’Milley called it the ‘absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility,’ the authors write.

Milley’s fear, I surmise, was that Trump would skip over the top military leadership and directly order some junior officer to take extreme (and possibly illegal) military action, which could be either a wag-the-dog foreign attack or a coup at home.

This apparently did not happen. But it was not an unreasonable scenario to plan for, especially given what was going on in the Justice Department, where Trump was going over the head of the Attorney General to push investigations and public statements in support of his stolen-election lie.

What Milley did, though, raises questions about civilian control of the military. Might the generals, at some point, simply refuse to obey presidential orders they disagreed with? And if those orders are illegal, or arise from “serious mental decline” (as the book says Milley believed about Trump), should they?

On paper, responsibility to protect the country from an insane or mentally incapacitated president lies with the vice president and the cabinet, who can remove the president via the 25th Amendment. No military officer plays any role in that process.

But what if they’re not doing their job? If you’re the person getting the crazy orders, does that responsibility fall to you, no matter what the Constitution says?

These questions point to a grey area in our system: If you believe that the train of constitutional government has already jumped its rails (say, because the president is planning or executing a coup), at what point do you take (or prepare to take) extra-constitutional actions yourself?

I don’t have a good answer to that question.

Republicans like Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have called for Milley to be fired, while President Biden has expressed confidence in him.

I have trouble taking Hawley seriously, given his own treasonous inclinations. But I give more weight the critique of retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, who Trump fired (along with his brother) in retribution for Vindman’s testimony at Trump’s first impeachment. He also believes that Milley should resign or be fired.

In recent years, too many leaders have succumbed to situational ethics, and the public has looked the other way when people considered those leaders part of their faction. Doing the wrong thing, even for the right reasons, must have consequences. Many people in the Trump administration — including me — resigned or were fired exactly because they did the right things in the right way. Milley may have done the wrong thing for the right reasons. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not deserve greater consideration for doing the wrong thing — he deserves greater scrutiny. As my friend and former Pentagon official John Gans tweeted: “You can break norms for a greater good, but that often comes with a price. Paying it is the only way to ensure the norms survive for the next time.”

That do-it-and-face-the-consequences path reminds me of my analysis of the ticking-bomb scenario. Remember? The Bush administration believed CIA agents should be able to torture terrorism suspects, because doing so might save lives if the suspect knew about a ticking bomb. The law, I wrote at the time, should never authorize torture in advance. In the unlikely event that an American official found himself in a ticking-bomb situation, and was certain that torturing a suspect would save many lives, the right move would be to break the law, and then confess and trust the mercy of a jury. Do it if you think you must, but don’t hide from the consequences. An official who isn’t willing to risk a jury disagreeing shouldn’t be torturing anybody.

Similarly, I think Milley should have made a full public confession as soon as the crisis had passed. (After Biden’s inauguration, say.) In a roundabout way, he has done this by talking to Woodward and Costa. [2] He will be appearing before Senate Armed Services Committee a week from tomorrow, where I suspect he will be asked a lot of questions related to the Peril revelations.

However, I think Republicans should approach this hearing carefully. At some point a Democrat might ask, “What specific behavior did you witness personally that convinced you that President Trump had undergone ‘serious mental decline’ after his defeat in the November elections?” Whatever else the hearing might uncover, the answer to that question is likely to be the headline.


[1] When you think about this story, you need to bear in mind how far we are from the root facts: The general public can’t even see the book until tomorrow. CNN and the WaPo are summarizing what Woodward and Costa report that various newsmakers told them. Even if you trust everybody involved, it’s still third-hand information.

[2] I am assuming the quotes attributed to Milley come from direct interviews.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s another week where many stories require more than a paragraph or two of attention: General Milley’s fears of what Trump might do in his final days in office, and the precautions he took; the California recall election; AOC’s dress; the Durham investigation’s first indictment; and whether or not the Covid surge is turning. Additionally, there’s the fizzling of Saturday’s demonstration in support of the January 6 terrorists, another anti-Trump Republican retiring, and a few other noteworthy things.

For that reason, there’s no featured post this week. I’ll put out a weekly summary around 11, and nothing else until next Monday.

In addition, the summary will include a brief introduction to the concept of “Disney Princess theology”, and close with a link to the Instagram page of a Dad who likes to appear to be endangering his kids.

Real Liberty

The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the State subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination … But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. … Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.

– Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan,
Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905)

This week’s featured post is “On Doing Your Own Research“.

This week everybody was talking about Biden’s vaccine “mandate”

Which is not even actually a mandate; a company that isn’t a government contractor can avoid penalties by instituting weekly testing for its unvaccinated workers. Anyway, here’s what President Biden announced in his speech Thursday.

  • Federal employees and contractors have to get vaccinated to keep their jobs and contracts. “If you want to do business with the federal government, vaccinate your workforce.”
  • Workers at health-care facilities have to get vaccinated if the facilities receive government funds (i.e., Medicare or Medicaid). “If you’re seeking care at a health-care facility, you should be able to know that the people treating you are vaccinated.”
  • Even companies that don’t do business with the federal government (if they have more than 100 employees) have to mandate vaccines for their workers. Workers can claim a religious or health exemption, but if they do, they have to be tested for Covid weekly.

In all, about 100 million Americans will be affected by the order. If we assume that they’re typical of the total American adult population (about 75% vaccinated already), that would mean that 25 million unvaccinated Americans are now facing the options of (1) get vaccinated (and maybe save your own life); (2) get tested every week; or (3) look for a job at a smaller company.


https://www.ajc.com/opinion/mike-luckovich-blog/909-mike-luckovich-sorry-youre-out/NIGBRKZP7VCCFHJBFP3H7PYAFM/

Republicans, who in general have fought any effort to control the virus, were quick to denounce Biden’s move.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, for example, said the mandate was “tyranny” and “unconstitutional”. He charged that Biden was only doing it to distract attention from Afghanistan. (Because why else would an American president respond to a plague that had killed 677,000 Americans and was adding to that total at the rate of 3K every two days?)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey called it “dictatorial” and predicted “This will never stand up in court.” South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was one of several GOP governors pledging to challenge the rule in court. When asked about these threatened lawsuits, Biden said, “Have at it.


Assuming that the Supreme Court will uphold the laws and long-established precedents — always a dangerous assumption with this highly political court — Biden is on pretty firm ground.

The authority for the mandate comes from the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (which was signed by that flaming liberal Richard Nixon). OSHA has never been used to mandate a vaccine before, but gives the government broad powers to enforce workplace safety.

As to whether individuals have an inherent right to refuse vaccination, that was decided back in 1905, when Massachusetts (among other states) mandated a smallpox vaccine. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan (the greatest justice you’ve probably never heard of; among other claims to fame, he was the lone dissenter in both Plessy v Ferguson and in the Civil Rights Cases that opened the door for Jim Crow) reasoned that a community’s power to protect itself against an epidemic would violate an individual’s 14th Amendment rights only if it went “far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public”.

In order to prevail, then, a challenge would have to argue on fairly narrow grounds. Either:

  • Individuals have more extensive rights to resist a federal mandate than a state mandate.
  • OSHA’s sweeping grant of power to regulate workplace safety has an invisible vaccine exception.
  • Increasing vaccinations does not increase workplace safety, and is not a reasonable measure to protect the public from Covid.
  • OSHA itself is unconstitutional.

CNN reports that corporate America is actually pretty pleased with this government interference: Companies want a vaccinated workforce, but don’t want to appear heavy-handed. So they’re happy to demand vaccination and blame Biden for it. That’s why groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, who are knee-jerk opponents of all other government regulation, are on board.


This Texas Dad creatively lampoons the masks-violate-my-freedom crowd by stripping down during a school board meeting. Who’s free now?


With characteristic cruelty, anti-maskers laugh at a teen as he talks about his grandmother dying of Covid.


Last week I was uncertain whether the new-case numbers were peaking, or if Ida had disrupted the statistics. This week confirms the peak. New cases are down 7% over the last two weeks, though deaths (which usually run two weeks behind new cases) are still increasing. New cases are averaging 145K per day in the US, and deaths are averaging 1648 per day. The total American death total since the start of the pandemic is up to 677,988.

I continue to be amazed at the reactions of people who resist vaccines and masking and anything else that might mitigate the spread. 677K Americans are dead, with three thousand more every two days. You’d think that kind of impact would justify a little inconvenience. But no.

and the 20th anniversary of 9-11

https://www.startribune.com/sack-cartoon-a-country-united/600095946/

The anniversary was Saturday. I noticed two main trends in the commentary. First, acknowledging again the human impact: the losses people suffered on that day, the long-term suffering of people exposed to whatever got into the air, and the heroism of people who tried to help others at great risk to themselves.

The second major trend was to take a step back and recognize just how badly we screwed up our national response. After 9-11, the public was united in a way it hadn’t been since World War II. The country wanted to do something, and even people who believed that George W. Bush hadn’t legitimately been elected the previous November recognized that he was the only leader available to rally behind. For the next year or two, President Bush could have done just about anything he wanted, if he could claim it had some reasonable connection to 9-11.

What he did, largely under the influence of Vice President Cheney, was to start two wars that were unwinnable because they lacked reasonable goals. American military power could topple the the Taliban and Saddam governments fairly quickly, but Bush and Cheney had no clear notion of how to replace them, or what they wanted out of the new governments.

Many of the prisoners from those wars wound up in a lawless zone in Guantanamo, where they were tortured in violation of both our treaty agreements and longstanding American values. Once introduced, torture spread to other US facilities. In addition, the US government claimed enormous new powers to spy on its own citizens, and even to whisk them into military brigs indefinitely by declaring them “enemy combatants”. Internationally, America claimed the right to launch attacks on the soil of any country where we believed terrorists were hiding.

Subsequent administrations could have reversed these policies, but didn’t (unless forced to by the Supreme Court). They could have leveled with the American people about how little we were accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but didn’t.

The mainstream media was largely complicit in these efforts, and remains complicit today — as we saw recently when it savaged President Biden for ending the Afghan War. Twenty years of wasting money and misusing power never aroused a fraction of the ire that was unleashed when a president reversed that foolish course.

And while our troops are no longer fighting in Afghanistan, and President Biden claims the combat mission of our remaining 2500 troops in Iraq will end this year, the internal spying powers remain, and 39 prisoners are still at Guantanamo. The Biden administration may have tightened up control over drone strikes, but, like all post-911 administrations, it claims the right to attack anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.


Every surviving president but Carter appeared at ceremonies to mark 9-11. Biden, Obama, and Clinton were all in New York, and Biden and Bush were at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Carter’s absence is understandable. He’s 96 and has a variety of health problems. Also, his presidency ended two decades before 9-11, so he neither caused nor responded to it.

Trump took heat for not attending, and for marking 9-11 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, where he was a guest commentator for a boxing match. He did, however, address by video a Day of Prayer event on the National Mall organized by the Let Us Worship organization. Trump never tried to be the president of all the people, so it’s not surprising that he acts as ex-president only for crowds of his supporters.

https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-and-son-to-do-boxing-commentary-for-holyfield-belfort-fight-2021-9

In The Guardian, Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes examines where the $5 trillion spent on Afghanistan and Iraq went: mostly to military contractors.


Ross Douthat owns up to being part of a misguided post-911 consensus, and now sees the War on Terror as a 20-year distraction from our real foreign-policy challenge: the rise of China.


Kurt Andersen notes that the 20th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was not a big deal.


Paul Krugman recalls how willing Republicans were to exploit 9-11 to push an unrelated political agenda (“Nothing is more important in a time of war than cutting taxes,” said Tom DeLay), and how this foreshadowed the party-over-country trend that has characterized the GOP ever since.

https://robrogers.com/2021/09/10/twenty-years-later/

and the Texas abortion law

After a week of speculation about how the Biden administration would respond to the law, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a lawsuit. (The text of the suit is here.) The approach AG Garland chose was to sue the State of Texas in federal court, seeking “an order preliminarily and permanently enjoining the State of Texas, including its officers, employees, and agents, including private parties who would bring suit under the law, from implementing or enforcing S.B. 8.”

Because SB8 specifically does what Supreme Court precedents say laws cannot do (substantially burden a woman’s right to choose an abortion before a fetus is viable), the suit says SB8 is “in open defiance of the Constitution”.

The United States therefore may sue a State to vindicate the rights of individuals when a state infringes on rights protected by the Constitution. … The United States has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot evade its obligations under the Constitution and deprive individuals of their constitutional rights by adopting a statutory scheme designed specifically to evade traditional mechanisms of federal judicial review.

The suit notes that while Texas executive-branch officials may not be involved in enforcing the law, Texas judges are.

while Texas has gone to unprecedented lengths to cloak its attack on constitutionally protected rights behind a nominally private cause of action, it nonetheless has compelled its judicial branch to serve an enforcer’s role.

And when private individuals file suit to enforce the law, they also become agents of the state “and thus are bound by the Constitution”. (One indication of their state-actor status is that the people who sue under SB8 can collect a payment even though they have not personally suffered damages. Clearly they are not suing in their private capacity.)

The suit also notes an impact on the federal government: Whenever a government program requires it to cover someone’s health care, the government might wind up paying for an abortion — and thus itself being liable for damages under SB8. (Job Corps, Refugee Resettlement, Bureau of Prisons, Office of Personnel Management, Medicaid, and Department of Defense are examples.)


AP reports that yesterday Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett “spoke at length about her desire for others to see the Supreme Court as nonpartisan”.

Maybe she should worry first about what she is, and then worry about how she appears.


Texas Governor Abbott was asked about forcing women to have their rapists’ babies, and he responded in ways that make it clear he doesn’t take the problem seriously: First, he claimed the law gives women “six weeks” to get an abortion, when most women will not know they are pregnant by then, and most pregnancy tests are unreliable until after a missed period. And then he went to Fantasyland:

Rape is a crime and Texas will work tirelessly that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.

So: Nothing to worry about, because there aren’t going to be any more rapes in Texas. Sadly, though, Texas had nearly 15,000 reported rapes in 2019 (the most recent numbers I could find), and some unknown number of unreported rapes. Abbott did not reveal his magic plan to eliminate rape, or explain why he has not implemented it during the six years he has been governor. And what will he do when accused rapist Donald Trump comes back to the state?

And so Abbott joins the long list of Republican politicians who have said stupid and/or heartless things about rape.

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/personal-foul/

and Lee’s statue

A giant Robert E. Lee statue came down in Richmond Wednesday, provoking all kinds of discussion of Lee’s place in history.

Probably no American historical figure has been as thoroughly mythologized as Lee, who in Southern hindsight became the great saint of the Lost Cause. The glorification of Lee was so extreme that in 1996 a biography was titled Lee, Considered because it claimed that the Southern general had never been realistically evaluated by historians. So “considered”, not “reconsidered”.

The two main points of contention are (1) Lee’s relationship to slavery, and (2) how good a general he really was. The first was discussed by Gillian Brockwell in the Washington Post. As for the second, Lee, Considered makes a convincing case that Lee was a brilliant tactician, but not much of a strategist.

As Rhett Butler explained in Gone With the Wind, the South went into the war over-matched in manufacturing capacity and potential manpower. So there were basically only two ways the South could have defeated the North:

  • A “bloody nose” strategy, where a quick Southern strike would convince the North that it didn’t really want to pursue this war.
  • A Fabian strategy that would avoid pitched battles, drag out the war, and frustrate the North’s desire for a decisive victory until its electorate lost patience.

But no matter how clever its generals were from battle to battle, the South couldn’t possibly win the kind of war Lee got them into: a multi-year war of attrition. Bad strategy. The strategy by which Grant ultimately defeated Lee was to stop worrying about his own casualties and focus instead on inflicting as many as possible. Grant understood that he could replenish his forces, but Lee couldn’t.

How the South ultimately did win (in 1877) was through an endless terrorist campaign, not a second try at Gettysburg.


Connecting this note with the 9-11 retrospective: If Americans understood our own history, we would never have tried to remake Afghanistan. Even after the victories of Sherman and Grant, and a decade of military occupation, the North was never able to remake the South in its own image. Like the Taliban, the White supremacist aristocracy reestablished itself as soon as the Union troops left.

and you also might be interested in …

Tuesday is election day for the California recall. Polls on recalling Newsom were tight a month ago, but Keep now has a wide lead over Remove. Consequently, Republicans are already preparing to accuse Governor Gavin Newsom of fraud, because no elections they lose can possibly be legit.

Someday I want to hear their theory on how Newsom managed to coordinate this election fraud with all the polling operations.

https://www.ajc.com/opinion/mike-luckovich-blog/910-mike-luckovich-if-i-lose-its-rigged/CJ72ANXM55FWXN5A3KROJCED4U/

Nate Silver does a quick analysis of the decline in President Biden’s approval rating. It corresponds to two events: the Afghanistan withdrawal and the rise in Delta variant cases. Like Nate, I think the Afghan situation will either fade from public attention or look better in hindsight. If this Covid wave is also peaking, Biden might bounce back, though Nate isn’t sold on that as a likelihood.


The negotiations over the Democrats’ reconciliation infrastructure package is getting serious, with Bernie Sanders on one side and Joe Manchin on the other.


James Fallows describes efforts to rethink college rating systems. The traditional US News approach measures inputs: how accomplished students are when they enter college. It would be better to measure what students gain while they’re there.


In line with this week’s historical themes, an actual historian debunks the Molon Labe slogan favored by gun-rights extremists. After all, according to the story, the Persians did come and take the Spartan weapons, after killing the Spartan king and all his warriors. Persian casualties were likely larger, but Thermopylae was merely “a speed bump under the wheels of the Persian war machine”, which went on to burn Athens before losing the naval battle of Salamis.

Probably, though, the whole Thermopylae myth was Greek propaganda intended to spin a disastrous defeat as a moral victory. (The Alamo myth serves a similar purpose.) It persists today for a different reason:

[The pro-gun] right-wing fringe favors Molon Labe, and by extension the larger toxic myth of Spartan badassery, primarily because it dovetails with other ideas they favor—namely, the advancement of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim causes. … In the film version, a hunky 36-year-old Gerard Butler (the real Leonidas was 60 at the time of this battle) led a tiny, beleaguered force composed entirely of musclebound white men to defend the gates of Europe against a brown-skinned tide of decadent foreigners. This wildly false take on Thermopylae, and by extension Sparta, has become a constant reference point for right-wing fringe groups in slogan after poster after stump speech.

and let’s close with something wild

Back in 2015, Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam started the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Last year’s winner was “Terry the Turtle flipping the bird“.

This year’s finalists are now posted. The whole gallery is worth a look, but my favorite is this undersea choir.

On Doing Your Own Research

It’s easy to laugh at the conspiracy theorists. But our expert classes aren’t entitled to blind trust.


One common mantra among anti-vaxxers, Q-Anoners, ivermectin advocates, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes is that people need to “do their own research”. Don’t be a sheep who believes whatever the CDC or the New York Times or some other variety of “expert” tells you. If something is important, you need to look into it yourself.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of pushback memes. This one takes a humorous poke at the inflated view many people have of their intellectual abilities.

While this one is a bit more intimidating:

And this one is pretty in-your-face:

I understand and mostly agree with the point these memes are trying to make: There is such a thing as expertise, and watching a YouTube video is no substitute for a lifetime of study. In fact, few ideas are so absurd that you can’t make a case for them that is good enough to sound convincing for half an hour — as I remember from reading Erich von Daniken’s “ancient astronaut” books back in the 1970s.

Medical issues are particularly tricky, because sometimes people just get well (or die) for no apparent reason. Whatever they happened to be doing at the time looks brilliant (or stupid), when in fact it might have had nothing to do with anything. That’s why scientists invented statistics and double-blind studies and so forth — so they wouldn’t be fooled by a handful of fluky cases, or by their own desire to see some pattern that isn’t really there.

All the same, I cringe when one of these memes appears on my social media feed, because I know how they’ll be received by the people they target. The experts are telling them: “Shut up, you dummy, and believe what you’re told.”

They’re going to take that message badly, and I actually don’t blame them. Because there is a real crisis of expertise in the world today, and it didn’t appear out of nowhere during the pandemic. It’s been building for a long time.

Liberal skepticism. Because the Trump administration was so hostile to expertise, we now tend to think of viewing experts skeptically as a left/right issue. But it’s not. Go back, for example, and look at liberal Chris Hayes’ 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites. Each chapter of that book covers a different area in which some trusted corps of experts failed the public that put its faith them: Intelligence experts (and the journalists who covered them) assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Bankers drove the world economy into a ditch in 2008, largely because paper that turned out to be worthless was rated AAA. The Catholic priesthood, supposedly a guardian of morality for millions of Americans, was raping children and then covering it up.

Experts, it turns out, do have training and experience. But they also have class interests. Sometimes they’re looking out for themselves rather than for the rest of us.

More recently, we have discovered that military experts have been lying to us for years about the “progress” they’d made in promoting Afghan democracy and training an Afghan army to defend that democratic government.

It’s not hard to find economists who present capitalism as the only viable option for a modern economy, or who explain why we can’t afford to take care of all the sick people, or to prevent climate change from producing some apocalyptic future.

Such people are very good at talking down to the rest of us. But ordinary folks are less and less likely to take them seriously. And that’s good, sort of. You shouldn’t believe what people say just because they have a title or a degree.

If not expertise, what? So it’s not true that if you argue with a recognized expert, you’re automatically wrong. Unfortunately, though, recent events have shown us that a reflexive distrust of all experts creates even worse problems.

  • It’s hard to estimate how many Americans have died of Covid because we haven’t been willing to follow expert advice about vaccination, masking, quarantining, and so on. Constructing such an estimate would itself require expertise I don’t have. But simply comparing our death totals to Canada’s (713 deaths per million people versus our 2034) indicates it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands.
  • Our democracy is in trouble because large numbers of Americans are unwilling to accept election results, no matter how many times they get recounted by bipartisan panels of election supervisors.
  • The growing menace of hurricanes and wildfires is the price we pay because the world (of which the US is a major part, and needs to play a leading role) refuses to act on what climate scientists have been telling us since the 1970s.

Without widespread belief in experts, the truth becomes a matter of tribalism (one side believes in fighting Covid and the other doesn’t), intimidation (Republicans who know better don’t dare tell Trump’s personality cult that he lost), or wishful thinking (nobody wants to believe we have to change our lives to cut carbon emissions).

Which one of us is Galileo? The foundational myth of modern science (Galileo saying “and yet it moves“) expresses faith in a reality beyond the power of kings and popes. People who have trained their minds to be objective can see that reality, while others are stuck either following or rebelling against authority.

The question is: Who is Galileo in the current controversies? Is it the scientific experts who have spent their lives training to see clearly in these situations? Or is it the populists, who refuse to bow to the authority of the expert class, and insist on “doing their own research”?

Simply raising that question points to a more nuanced answer than just “Shut up and believe what you’re told.”

Take me, for example. This blog arises from distrust of experts. After the Saddam’s-weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco, I started looking deeper into the stories in the headlines. Because I was living in New Hampshire at the time, it was easy to go listen to the 2004 presidential candidates. Once I did, I noticed the media’s habit of fitting a speech into a predetermined narrative, rather than reporting what a candidate was actually saying. Then I started reading major court decisions (like the Massachusetts same-sex marriage decision of 2003), and interpreting them for myself.

In short, I was doing my own research. Some guy at CNN may have spent his whole life reporting on legal issues, but I was going to read the cases for myself.

When social media became a thing, and turned into an even bigger source of misinformation than the mainstream media had ever been, I began to look on this blog as a model for individual behavior: Don’t amplify claims without some amount of checking. (For example: In this weeks’ summary — the next post after this one — I was ready to blast Trump for ignoring all observances of 9-11. But then I discovered that he appeared by video at a rally organized by one of his supporters on the National Mall. I’m not shy about criticizing Trump, but facts are facts.) Listen to criticism from commenters and thank them when they catch one of your mistakes. Change your opinions when the facts change.

But also notice the things that I don’t do: When my wife got cancer, we didn’t design her treatment program by ourselves. We made value judgments about what kinds of sacrifices we were willing to make for her treatment (a lot, as it turned out), but left the technical details to our doctors. At one point we felt that a doctor was a little too eager to get my wife into his favorite clinical trial, so we got a second opinion and ultimately changed doctors. But we didn’t ditch Western medicine and count on Chinese herbs or something. (She’s still doing fine 25 years after the original diagnosis.)

On this blog, I may not trust the New York Times and Washington Post to decide what stories are important and what they mean, but I do trust them on basic facts. If the NYT puts quotes around some words, I believe that the named person actually said those words (though I may check the context). If the WaPo publishes the text of a court decision, I believe that really is the text. And so on.

I also trust the career people in the government to report statistics accurately. The political appointees may spin those numbers in all sorts of ways, but the bureaucrats in the cubicles are doing their best.

In the 18 years I’ve been blogging, that level of trust has never burned me.

Where I come from. So the question isn’t “Do you trust anybody?” You have to; the world is just too big to figure it all out for yourself. Instead, the question is who you trust, and what you trust them to do.

My background gives me certain advantages in answering those questions, because I have a foot in both camps. Originally, I was a mathematician. I got a Ph.D. from a big-name university and published a few articles in some prestigious research journals (though not for many years now). So I understand what it means to do actual research, and to know things that only a handful of other people know. At the same time, I am not a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, an economist, a climate scientist, or a professional journalist. So just about everything I discuss in this blog is something I view from the outside.

I don’t, for example, have any inside knowledge about public health or infectious diseases or climate science. But I do know a lot about the kind of people who go into the sciences, and about the social mores of the scientific community. So when I hear about some vast conspiracy to inflate the threat of Covid or climate change, I can only shake my head. I can picture how many people would necessarily be involved in such a conspiracy, and who many of them would have to be. It’s absurd.

In universities and labs all over the world, there are people who would love to be the one to expose the “hoax” of climate change, or to discover the simple solution that means none of us have to change our lifestyle. You couldn’t shut them up by shifting research funding, you’d need physical concentration camps, and maybe gas chambers. The rumors of people vanishing into those camps would spread far enough that I would hear them.

I haven’t.

Not all experts deserve our skepticism. Similarly, one of my best friends and two of my cousins are nurses. I know the mindset of people who go into medicine. So the idea that hospitals all over the country are faking deaths by the hundreds of thousands, or that ICUs are only pretending to be jammed with patients — it’s nuts.

If you’ve ever planned a surprise party, you know that conspiracies of just a dozen or so people can be hard to manage. Now imagine conspiracies that involve tens of thousands, most of whom were once motivated by ideals completely opposite to the goals of the conspiracy.

It doesn’t happen.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well over the years: You don’t always have to follow the conventional wisdom, but when you don’t you should know why.

Lots of expert classes have earned our distrust. But some haven’t. They’re not all the same. And even the bankers and the priests have motives more specific than pure evil. If they wouldn’t benefit from some conspiracy, they’re probably not involved.

Know thyself. As you divide up the world between things you’re going to research yourself and things you’re going to trust to someone else, the most important question you need to answer is: What kind of research can you reasonably do? (Being trained to read mathematical proofs made it easy for me to read judicial opinions. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but it turned out that way.)

That’s what’s funny about the cartoon at the top: This guy thinks he credibly competes with the entire scientific community (and expects his wife to share that assessment of his abilities).

My Dad (who I think suspected from early in my life that he was raising a know-it-all) often said to me: “Everybody in the world knows something you don’t.” As I got older, I realized that the reverse is also true: Just about all of us have some experience that gives us a unique window on the world. You don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to see something most other people miss.

But at the same time, often our unique windows point in the wrong direction entirely. My window, for example, tells me very little about what Afghans are thinking right now. If I want to know, I’m going to have to trust somebody a little closer to the topic.

And if I’m going to be a source of information rather than misinformation, I’ll need to account for my biases. Tribalism, intimidation, and wishful thinking affect everybody. A factoid that matches my prior assumptions a little too closely is exactly the kind of thing I need to check before I pass it on. Puzzle pieces that fit together too easily have maybe been shaved a little; check it out.

So sure: Do your own research. But also learn your limitations, and train yourself to be a good researcher within those boundaries. Otherwise, you might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.