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Pundit Accountability

todayJanuary 10, 2022

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Jennifer Nuzzo is a health expert who has become nationally prominent during the pandemic. She is the leading epidemiologist for Johns Hopkins University’s much-cited data collection on Covid-19 testing. She is active on Twitter and quoted frequently in the media. She can explain complex ideas in clear terms, and she has often been prophetic about Covid.

Nonetheless, she took to Twitter last May to criticize herself. She had expected Texas’ ending of its mask mandate to lead to a surge in cases, and it had not:

Nuzzo’s small exercise in self accountability highlighted the inherent unpredictability of this virus. (Masks do reduce its spread, but the effect can be too modest to be visible across an entire community or state.) Her tweet made a larger point, too: People with a public platform should be willing to admit when they’re wrong.

There is no shame in being wrong at times. Everybody is, including knowledgeable experts. The world is a messy, uncertain place. The only way to be right all the time is to be silent or say nothing interesting.

The problem isn’t that people make mistakes; it’s that so few are willing to admit it.

Many experts instead post aggrandizing praise of themselves on social media. They claim that each new development — be it on Covid, the economy, politics or foreign affairs — justifies what they’ve been saying all along. They don’t grapple with the weak points in their arguments and hope nobody notices their past incorrect predictions.

We journalists commit the same sins. More than a decade ago, in an effort to do better, David Weigel of Slate (and now of The Washington Post) introduced a concept he called “pundit accountability.” It describes articles in which journalists highlight their own mistakes — and not small factual errors, which often get corrected, but errors of analysis, which don’t.

Today’s newsletter is my annual attempt at pundit accountability. Below, I’ll link to other writers who have written similar articles in recent weeks.

Looking back on the past year of Morning newsletters made me feel proud of our coverage, especially on Covid, and I’m grateful to the many readers who have come to rely on the newsletter. But that’s enough self-aggrandizement. As Nuzzo would say, accountability time.

I, too, underestimated the unpredictability of the virus.

Before the Delta variant emerged, infections among vaccinated people — known as breakthrough infections — were rare. I assumed that the pattern would probably continue throughout 2021. If it had, huge new waves of infection, like the current one, would have been impossible.

Instead, Delta led to an increase in breakthrough infections, and Omicron has led to a larger increase. Symptoms are usually mild, but they can lead to bad outcomes for a small share of vaccinated people whose health is already vulnerable, like the elderly. The surge of breakthrough infections means Covid often still dominates everyday life.

I have since tried to absorb the lesson of Covid’s uncertainty and have emphasized it in more recent newsletters. As Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota — who has long emphasized Covid’s unavoidable unknowns — has said, “We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do.”

I was too skeptical of the early signs of waning vaccine immunity and the importance of boosters.

Toward the end of the summer, some researchers began pointing to data suggesting that the power of vaccines waned after about six months. Other researchers doubted that case, saying that the data was unclear — and that pharmaceutical companies had an obvious incentive to promote waning immunity and boosters. But the case for boosters now seems clear.

Amid uncertain evidence, I try to avoid automatically assuming the worst. Often, that’s the right approach. (A lot of early Covid alarmism — about the virus’s effect on children, the contagiousness of Delta and the severity of Omicron, for instance — has proved to be misplaced.) Sometimes, though, the ominous signs are the ones worth heeding.

Another lesson: The quality of Covid data in the U.S. is poor, often clouding early judgments. It can make sense to look to Israel, where the data is better. Experts there quickly recognized that waning immunity was real.

Inflation has been higher and more enduring than I expected.

This is the piece of 2021 analysis that bothers me most in retrospect, because I did recognize a big underlying cause of inflation. On several occasions, I argued that Congress’s stimulus packages seemed wasteful: The government was sending checks to the vast majority of American households even though most people’s finances were doing just fine.

A more targeted approach — delivering more help to the unemployed and to people struggling with child care and less help to everyone else — seemed better matched to the pandemic’s economic effects. Yet Congress, with bipartisan support, kept sending out tens of millions of checks.

The checks arrived when many families were also spending less on services, like travel and restaurant meals. As a result, their spending on physical goods spiked, contributing to shortages and the highest inflation since 1982.

I was lulled into complacency because inflation had not been a problem for decades. The people who had been warning about inflation, like Wall Street economists and many conservatives, had been proven wrong, repeatedly. The economy had been too weak to spark inflation for the first two decades of the 21st century — until things changed.

“I think it’s really important for the media and for other institutions like the C.D.C. to build trust by being honest about when they got things wrong,” Derek Thompson of The Atlantic said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Thompson’s own mea culpa: underestimating breakthrough infections.

My colleague Shira Ovide asked tech experts to describe their misplaced forecasts, including over-optimism about self-driving cars.

Matthew Yglesias of Substack listed all the 2021 predictions he got wrong, including whether a Supreme Court justice would retire.

Damon Linker of The Week underestimated the seriousness of Jan. 6 and said he didn’t praise Liz Cheney enough.

Donald Trump’s coup attempt has reached its next stage, Maureen Dowd writes.

To protect democracy, Democrats must organize locally, Ezra Klein argues.

Eat Well Challenge: Own your cravings.

Quiz time: The average score on our latest news quiz was 9.1. Can you beat it?

Advice from Wirecutter: (Re)consider wired earbuds.

Lives Lived: To millions of Americans, Dwayne Hickman will always be Dobie Gillis, the lovelorn teenager he played on a revered sitcom. Hickman died at 87.

Bike trails to inspire carbon-conscious travelers. A Black district that is once again distinguishing itself as a cultural center. And a lush archipelago that resists overtourism.

These three are among our 52 Places for 2022, an annual Times feature on great travel destinations. This year’s list highlights places where positive change is happening, whether environmental or cultural, and travelers can be part of it.

But worthy doesn’t mean tedious. The vistas of Iberá Park in Argentina are stunning, even if you don’t know that the park’s grasslands are crucial to saving the strange-tailed tyrant birds. And the braised artichokes and Burgundy snails served at EDWINS in Cleveland are as much about gastronomy as they are about teaching former prisoners a new trade. See all 52 Places. — Natasha Frost, a Briefings writer

The pangrams from Friday’s Spelling Bee were conductor and nonconductor. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Audibly (five letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. The word “newsletterer” appeared for the first time in The Times in — where else? — a newsletter.

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todayJanuary 10, 2022