Fact-check abolition

July 21, 2020

Today’s media has endless energy to fact-check Donald Trump (including fact-checking opinions, predictions, and literally true but arguably misleading statements), and the Atlantic is no exception. But it’s different when it comes to their own pages.

Two weeks ago the Atlantic ran an article in favor of “police abolition.” Central to the piece was a harrowing anecdote: when the author was 12 years old, she witnessed a police officer shoot a child at a local community center and faced no consequences for it.

Well, the Federalist did what the Atlantic would not; they fact-checked the piece, and found that nothing like it every happened. It’s impressive work; the community center wasn’t named in the piece, so they had to deduce it from hints in the piece, which was made more difficult by various minor errors (e.g., the age of the author, and which highway was nearby). They narrowed it down to two candidates. Interviews and a public record search found no evidence that any such incident had ever taken place.

The Atlantic refused to comment, but belated looked at the piece and has now admitted that the incident was not as described. The shooter was a security guard, not a police officer; the victim was an adult, not a child; and the guard was prosecuted for the incident. (They have not corrected their description of the 18-year-old victim as a “boy.”)

The Atlantic has edited the piece, adding an end note noting the correction. They don’t seem to have noticed that the correction eviscerates the piece. The author’s thesis is that we should abolish the police, and replace them with something else. (Exactly what we should replace them with, they never quite say.) Well here you have what they say they want: the law enforced by a city employee who is not police. The non-police officer didn’t have the professionalism of a police officer, and shot his (adult) cousin in a quarrel. The non-police officer apparently didn’t face consequences from his non-police department, and only faced consequences when the actual police became involved.

The author is unrepentant, cheekily tweeting:

I was not 12. I was 13. The shooter was a uniformed private guard with a badge and gun. When we say abolish the police, that includes private police, too. thank you for reading <3.

(Her tweets are now protected. I got the text of the tweet from the Federalist.)

That is just silly. People are not going to go unprotected. If you abolish the police, you will get more private police. You cannot disclaim the predictable consequences of your policies.

In the room where it didn’t happen

July 17, 2020

Danny Ayalon, formerly deputy foreign minister in Israel, tells the story of the day, exactly 20 years ago, when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat everything. He offered East Jerusalem and three-quarters of the Old City, holding back only the Jewish Quarter and the Wailing Wall. But:

Everyone in the room stared at Arafat, who didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t envisioned or prepared for such a scenario. Finally he spoke: “I am sorry but I cannot accept this offer. There was never a Jewish Temple, so I cannot accept any Israeli presence. Not even underground.”

There was no way Arafat was making peace under any circumstances.

The Smithsonian on “whiteness”

July 15, 2020

At first glance, I seriously thought this was white nationalist propaganda, claiming that all the best ideas and attitudes are white:


Alas, it’s from a critique of “whiteness” by the Smithsonian Institution! According to it, the ideas and attitudes that are exclusively white include: individualism, self-reliance, the nuclear family, science, objectivity, rational thinking, classical antiquity, the work ethic, Christianity, respect for authority, planning for the future, delayed gratification, showing up on time, viewing time as precious, steak, English common law, the notion that justice should consider intent, trying to solve problems, making decisions, democracy, using correct grammar, and politeness.

No. Good ideas and attitudes do not belong to any specific race, no matter what the racists on the right or the left might say.

(Via Byron York.)

Everything is great as long as the cities burn

July 10, 2020

When the George Floyd demonstrations began, there was a lot of justified concern that they would act as super-spreader events and set back the progress we have made against covid. (One couldn’t help but notice that the same people who been highly critical of public gatherings just days before were fine with gatherings in what they deemed to be a good cause.) This paper argues that, against all expectation, the demonstrations actually slowed the spread of covid.

The paper has met with some skepticism, but the methodology seems reasonable to me. I think it’s very plausible. However, its results are widely misunderstood, and to some degree it is the authors’ fault.

The paper explicitly acknowledges that they did not even attempt to look at whether covid spread at the demonstrations. Instead, the paper looks at cell-phone data to determine whether, on balance, the public overall congregated more during them. (ASIDE: The paper also looks a little at growth in covid cases, and that part is less convincing.) They found that the general public was so scared of the violence at these riots that they stayed home, and that effect outweighed the effect of the demonstrations themselves.

This makes sense. As large as the riots were, the vast majority of people did not participate, so even a modest negative effect among the majority could outweigh the riots themselves.

This is being spun as a defense of the demonstrations. Partly, that is the fault of the authors who asserted in their conclusion that “public speech and public health did not trade off against each other in this case.” This is a bizarre take.

Yes, public speech and public health may have coexisted, but the price of their coexistence was burning cities, many deaths, immeasurable property damage, and countless ruined lives. This is not a positive result.

The paper compounds the problem by failing to look at the key question: what happened when the riots settled down but the protests continued? At that point we would expect the negative effect to fade and the positive effect to dominate. Alas, the paper does not look at that question, so we don’t have the cell-phone data, but we can look at public data on covid spread.

According to the notes I took at the time, there was relative peace in the cities starting June 2. We expect a week’s incubation time between exposure and symptoms, so we would expect to see a surge in covid cases starting June 9. And, if we look at the data, that is exactly what we see.

To summarize, the burning of our cities masked the anticipated effect of the demonstrations on covid, but the anticipated rise happened as soon as the demonstrations became peaceful.

(Via Daily Wire.)

Divergent charts

July 10, 2020

I think this chart is really interesting:

chart of covid cases versus deaths

(Credit for the chart.)

You can see that at the start of the epidemic, deaths were lagging behind cases by 6 days. But now it’s been a month-and-a-half since the two curves diverged. Cases have been soaring for about a month, while deaths have continued their steady decline.

The rejoinder is often “wait two weeks and deaths will rise.” But the chart shows that we’ve already waited more than four weeks, and, if the early pattern prevailed, we should have seen a surge in deaths in only about one.

Some say that the rise in cases is merely more testing. I don’t think that explains it (although it might be part of it) since the percentage of tests that were positive started rising at about the same time. My theory is that the people getting sick are younger (and thus less vulnerable) than the ones who were getting sick before.

In any case, I think the chart shows convincingly that although the rise in cases is surely troubling, we can temper our alarm.

UPDATE: The day after I posted this, the death rate started to rise, which obviously is bad. Nevertheless, the point still remains that deaths are not mirroring cases.