NYT Columnist David Leonhardt Should Wear A Mask If He's Gonna Talk Out His Ass
CNN screenshot. More months, now.

New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt brings us some important thoughts on science and risk and stuff today, in a column arguing that "follow the science" is a good slogan only if you're talking about vaccinations — it's "unambiguous" that COVID is "more deadly for the unvaccinated than almost any virus in decades, and the vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious illness." Good for him!

But in the attempt to suggest that "the science" isn't always quite so certain, so we need to temper expert advice with an assessment of practical realities, Leonhardt too often seems to suggest there's a basic equivalence between advocates of just ignoring the science and getting everything back to "normal," and folks who say that would be a really bad idea if we're to actually brig the pandemic under control.

(If you don't subscribe to the Times — good for you, subscribe to us instead if you can — Leonhardt reprints his major points in this Twitter thread.)


For starters, look at his lede, in which he notes that the CDC

describes medium-rare hamburgers as “undercooked” and dangerous. The agency also directs Americans to avoid raw cookie dough and not to eat more than a teaspoon or so of salt every day. And the C.D.C. tells sexually active women of childbearing age not to drink alcohol unless they are on birth control.

Well gosh, if you engage in any of these risky behaviors, he says, then you aren't following the science, which suggests that the science is pretty wild and out there.

Leonhardt's point here is that we can't go through life and avoid all risks, so it makes sense to balance expert advice with realism, and just be sensible, finding a happy medium between extreme risk-taking and living locked in a bunker:

If you want to minimize your risk of getting sick from food, you probably need to eat less tasty food than you now do. If you want to minimize your chance of dying today, you should not get inside a vehicle. If you want to minimize your children’s chance of going to an emergency room, don’t allow them to ride a bike or play sports.

Unfortunately, none of these statements provide answers about what to do. People have to weigh the risks and benefits. They let their kids play sports, but maybe not violent ones. They don’t drive in a snowstorm. They ignore the C.D.C.’s advice about medium-rare burgers and heed its warnings about medium-rare chicken.

News to me: I would prefer not to get salmonella, thanks, so I want my burgers to be fully cooked. And if it's homemade, I'm not going to be chowing down on uncooked cookie dough either, though I might sometimes throw caution to the wind and lick the beaters.

In his quest to promote a "realistic" balance between excessive caution and foolhardiness, though, Leonhardt seems intent on arguing against some nonexistent scientist straw nannies. Where are these "experts" who supposedly say nobody should ever get in a car, for instance?

The dubious equivalencies become especially clear in this paragraph where Leonhardt tries to both-sides responses to the pandemic.

Proponents of an immediate return to normalcy claim, implausibly, that masks and social distancing do nothing to reduce the spread of Covid and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t care about schoolchildren. Proponents of rigorous Covid mitigation claim, just as implausibly, that isolation and masking have no real downsides and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t care about the immunocompromised.

Let's simplify that and look at the two pairs of claims he's contrasting: The extremists on one side irrationally dismiss the value of masks and social distancing. But the extremists on the side of caution irrationally dismiss the potential harms of isolation and masking.

Hey, one of these things is not like the others! For starters, we don't know of any public health experts who are calling for "isolation" as a general strategy for preventing spread of the virus. It makes sense to quarantine people who've been infected, or unvaccinated folks who've had close exposure to the virus, sure. But we're pretty sure that, two years into the pandemic, the number of experts saying we should all stay home forever is only slightly larger than those mythical safety geeks in lab coats who supposedly want all cars to vanish.

Leonhardt keeps doing that, lumping in low-impact but effective measures like masking with more isolating measures like school closures or lockdowns. Here he goes again:

The truth is that Covid restrictions — mask mandates, extended quarantines, restrictions on gatherings, school closures during outbreaks — can both slow the virus’s spread and have harmful side effects. These restrictions can reduce serious Covid illness and death among the immunocompromised, elderly and unvaccinated. They can also lead to mental-health problems, lost learning for children, child-care hardships for lower-income families, and isolation and frustration that have fueled suicides, drug overdoses and violent crime. [Emphasis added — Dok]

Hang the fuck on here, good sir. Sure, prolonged time out of school is bad for kids: The evidence seems quite clear on that. But how the hell do you include mask mandates in the same list? Show us the evidence, for heaven's sake — because there isn't any. Nobody's experiencing mental health problems or childcare hardships because of masks. In conflating masks with lockdowns, you sound disturbingly like Ron DeSantis. You don't want that, surely?

In conclusion, we just want to say that the science is clear: David Leonhardt's column and global thermonuclear war are not good things.

[NYT / David Leonhardt on Twitter]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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