Category Archives: pandemic

“Just teach the facts”

Apparently, at public meetings about social studies curricula, some people are saying: “Just teach facts.” Insofar as this call is coming from people incensed about Critical Race Theory in our k-12 schools, the irony is hard to ignore. CRT is very rarely, if ever, taught, and some of the ideas being attributed to it are factual. Yet I think there is also something else going on. Across many issues and in many political subcultures, it’s common to demand facts instead of opinions, as if the facts are all on our side and the other side is the opinionated one. I have encountered liberals who make versions of this argument, whether about COVID-19 or about history and politics.

In their 2002 book Stealth Democracy, John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that about 70% of Americans are drawn to the idea that gives their book its title. These people basically see disagreement as a sign of corruption. It should not be necessary to disagree about matters of political or moral importance. People who express contrasting opinions must have bad motives or be sadly misguided. Since disagreement is rife, it would be “better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts.”

In a great 2010 paper, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey showed that fewer people probably held the stealth democracy position than Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had found, and Americans were more tolerant of disagreement. However, Neblo and colleagues didn’t find zero support for stealth democracy, and I think it pops up fairly often.

It may reflect frustration about opinions that one strongly dislikes: Why can’t those misguided people just acknowledge the facts? But it may also reflect a deeper problem.

In an era when science (as popularly defined) has enormous prestige and purports to distinguish facts sharply from values, people don’t know what to make of value-laden disagreements. Justin McBrayer found this sign hanging in his son’s second-grade classroom:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

McBrayer attributes this distinction to the Common Core. I think the text of the Common Core is actually a bit subtler, and the sign reflects a widespread view. In any case, the distinction is untenable.

First of all, we must select which facts to investigate. We could teach George Washington’s achievements or slavery in colonial America–or neither, or both–but the facts themselves can’t tell us which of those things to study.

Second, the information we possess always reflects other people’s interests and concerns. American historians, for example, study marginalized and oppressed people more than they did a half century ago. This shift reflects ethical principles. Historians do not, and cannot, pursue all facts indiscriminately. You might dispute their emphasis, but then you’re arguing for different values, not rejecting their facts.

Third, it is very hard to identify a fact that is free of value-judgments or a value-judgment that does not encompass empirical beliefs about the way the world works.

Fourth, many of the most important facts about history are the opinions people held. Lincoln’s response to secession was his opinion, but attributing a position to him is either correct or incorrect. You cannot teach history without teaching–and spending a lot of your time teaching–opinions.

Perhaps most importantly, not all values are just opinions that people happen to hold. Valuing chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream is subjective, in this sense. Believing that genocide is evil is not. It isn’t a fact “that can be tested or proven,” but it also isn’t just something I happen to feel. It is something we are all obliged to feel.

Education inevitably involves choices about what to teach and how to talk about and interpret information. It inevitably conveys values and causes students to make judgments–whether as intended or in reaction to what the school wants them to think. Education is better when it helps students to develop political and intellectual virtues. But adults disagree about virtues, and our disagreements reflect our freedom, our diversity, and our nature as finite, embodied, fallible creatures. Therefore, disagreement about what and how to teach is inevitable, permanent, and a sign that free people care about the future. “Just teach the facts” is a call to stop this debate, when what we need is more and better.

See also: first year college students and moral relativism;  science, democracy, and civic lifeis science republican (with a little r)?some thoughts on natural lawis all truth scientific truth?; etc.

public opinion has moved against mandatory vaccination

Using Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel, the Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement surveyed representative samples of Americans in 2020 and 2021. Among many other questions, we asked whether authorities should be able to mandate vaccination. Most respondents said no both times. Support declined from 42.6% to 34.5% from 2020-2021. Biden supporters were more favorable than non-voters, who were more favorable than Trump supporters. However, both Biden and Trump voters moved against mandatory vaccinations. Possibly, Trump supporters have become less likely to favor vaccination mandates now that the federal government is led by a Democrat, but that wouldn’t explain the decline among Biden supporters.

I report these results without a strong value-judgment. I think I would support mandates (with appropriate exemptions), but that's just an opinion. I don't have expertise or fixed views.

Some caveats: In 2020, we asked about vaccinations in general. In 2021, we asked about the COVID-19 vaccines. In 2020, we asked whether people would vote in the next November election--and if so, for whom. In 2021, we asked whether and how they did vote in the prior election. Too few people admitted they didn't vote; our turnout estimate is inflated by over-reporting.

See also: Despite Similar Levels of Vaccine Hesitancy, White People More Likely to Be Vaccinated Than Black People.

explore equity and inequity in the USA

On the Tufts Equity Research website is a user-friendly tool that allows anyone to explore data from our May 2021 national survey. The tool requires no specialized background or vocabulary to use. You can just select pairs of variables and see the results.

For instance, I looked at the proportion of Americans who report that other people act afraid of them because of their identity. The graphic shows the result for the whole population. The rate has doubled since last year, and I suspect that’s because we have feared each other during this year of pandemic and political conflict.

One can also look at differences by demographic category. For instance, 33% of Black Americans–versus 15% of whites–believe that they are feared because of their identity.

You can explore hundreds of other combinations on the site.

debating politics in a pandemic

A few months ago, I published Levine, P. (2020). Theorizing Democracy in a PandemicDemocratic Theory7(2), 134-142, with the following abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about the future of democracy and civil society. Some recent predictions seem to use the suffering to score points in ongoing political arguments. As a better example of how to describe the future during a crisis, I cite the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. King does not merely predict: he calls for action, joins the action, and makes himself responsible for its success or failure. With these cautions about prediction in mind, I venture two that may guide immediate responses. First, communities may erect or strengthen unjustifiable barriers to outsiders, because boundaries enhance collective action. Second, although the pandemic may not directly change civic behavior, an economic recession will bankrupt some organizations through which people engage.

Today, Faculti released the video of an interview with me based on this article. In the interview, I also mention Levine P. (2021) Why protect civil liberties during a pandemic?J Public Health Policy. 42(1):154-159. `

By the way, I think my second prediction (or worry) proved too pessimistic, at least in the USA, mainly because of the federal aid packages.

the future of working from home

Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth (2021) examined the effects of the pandemic on employees of a “large Asian IT services company,” for which they have extraordinarily detailed data. As shown in the graphs, employees worked more hours and produced less during the pandemic. Staff also received less mentoring. Those who had children at home were the worst affected. The major reason appears to be an increase in the amount of time spent on coordinating activities. Productivity worsened as the months passed–there is little evidence that the firm solved its coordination problems.

Results from one organization may not generalize. A school, a house-cleaning service, or a physical production facility might see very different results. Even a different IT company (or a similar company in a different national and cultural context) might experience the pandemic differently. However, one would think that an IT services company would be especially good at managing remote work–not only because of its employees’ skills and technical capacity, but also because its products were already virtual before COVID-19.

If–like me–you are worried about the effects of remote work on life in cities, on restaurants and other small businesses, and on workers’ solidarity, then this paper offers some good news. Apparently, it is not easy to manage remote work. It is still helpful to bring workers together into one physical location. Maybe regular routines will return in 2021-22.

I wondered to what extent the findings applied to me. I’ve certainly spent more hours working during the pandemic than ever before. I don’t actually think I spent more time coordinating activities, e.g., scheduling. I manage my own calendar, travel, etc., but I feel increasingly efficient at that–thanks, in part, to a good scheduling app.

To some extent, for me, the past year simply continued a longer-term trend of increasing work-hours, which is very common. In addition, many programs, organizations, projects, employees, and students experienced crises related to the pandemic and the economy, Trump and the election, or racism, and those issues have demanded attention.

Finally, working from home removed any need to move around, whether from one room to another on campus or from one city or country to another. As a result, I could schedule meetings back-to-back all day, when previously I would have had to build in transit time. Arguably, I was more “productive” as a result–that depends on whether those meetings did any good. But I felt less able to reflect on things, to mull things over. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always done most of my mulling-over while walking. I blogged less this year than at any time since I started to blog in 2003, and that’s partly because I often felt I hadn’t had any time to think and had nothing new to say. Again, whether that change reflects a decline in my “productivity” depends on whether the content would have had any value–maybe the world was spared some extra bytes.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate through this whole period, and one great advantage is my ability to do my job basically as well as usual. I’ve watched many other people struggle to achieve their goals and maintain their vocations. I think my courses went well online, I completed a book, and I participated in many collaborative projects. I certainly did not feel isolated–in fact, as an introvert, I felt continuously challenged by the number of consecutive hours talking with other people on Zoom. But perhaps what I have missed most is time spent alone, moving through urban space.

Source: Gibbs, Mengel & Siemroth (2021), Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals,” BFI Working Paper, May 06, 2021