Debunking “Teachers Should Do Their Jobs”

The Atlantic ran an opinion piece by a nurse arguing that teachers who have expressed doubts about returning to school in the coming weeks are deserters who are shirking their duty and threatening to bring about the collapse of American society.

No, really.

As if this piece of garbage article deserves any attention at all, I am going to fisk it – to examine each problematic claim, one by one, to expose the flaws in the piece. Because why not.

I’m going to ignore the introduction, so let’s skip ahead to the big W.

We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way.

Wrong. Here in Georgia, the government has managed to control the outbreak – 206 active cases right now, about 6 new cases per day, and only 17 deaths in the entire country for the entire pandemic.  The government just announced that in-person classes would resume on September 15th, but only if the epidemic situation allowed it. They also announced that there would be plans for school safety, but they did not specify what those plans would be except in a very general way. In some other countries that had controlled the pandemic, like Hong Kong and Israel schools were reopened but then had to be closed again. So, in these countries – countries that controlled our outbreaks – there is uncertainty.

In the US, there is no such uncertainty.  If schools are opened at any point in the next month, people will die.  Teachers will die.  Family members of students and staff will die.  Despite a low mortality rate, even some children will die.  The US is in the midst of a completely uncontrolled pandemic, worse now than it has ever been, and opening schools will kill people.  Of that, you can be dead certain.

Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses. What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July.

Two problems here. The first: Supporting “campaigns” but not “safety strikes” is a non-starter. Any teacher who follows education news in the US knows that striking is the only way teachers can ever get any leverage for needed changes.  Without strikes, the government – which you’ve already admitted has completely mismanaged the virus – will just open schools without adequate safety measures.  Oh, look, they’ve already started doing just that.  Here’s a picture of a high school in the state of Georgia that opened yesterday:
A high school hallway in the other Georgia. Crowded, and nary a mask in sight.Notice anything? No masks, no social distancing. And just for fun, here’s a picture of a graph of that Georgia’s daily new coronavirus cases:

And that brings us to the second problem.  There have been literally thousands of new cases every day for a month in Georgia-the-state, including a spike of almost 5000 cases just twelve days ago.  You can’t just hand-wave this away by saying “any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut”.  They won’t.  They haven’t.  Hence the talk of strikes.  The entire US is experiencing a spike in cases.

And to be even more precise – it’s not a “spike” in cases that we should be worried about.  Localities that are on a high plateau also should not open.  In fact I would argue that schools should not open until objective, numerical benchmarks are met with regard to a combination of indicators, which might include community transmission rate, test-and-trace capacity, positive test rate, and/or the overall reproduction rate of the virus in the community over a specified time period.  It’s important to be precise about this because otherwise people will say “a nurse said in the Atlantic that a city can open as long as it’s not having a spike in cases”, but that’s not what the CDC says and even the CDC’s recommendations are, in my humble opinion, inadequate.

These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing.

As we saw: no, they’re not.  Instead, they’re fine-tuning their infection and quarantine protocols.  Schools in at least four states have already opened and then had to close or quarantine students and teachers because students tested positive, sometimes on the literal first day of school.  In Indiana, one school shut down after a staff member tested positive, while another enacted its infection protocol on the first day after a student tested positive.  That’s not “fine-tuning social-distancing measures” – that’s a revolving door for students and teachers brought about by woefully inadequate measures to prevent transmission in schools in communities where schools should not be opening yet in the first place.

Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

The evidence on mask-wearing is as follows:  There is solid evidence that mask-wearing protects other people, but the evidence that mask wearing protects the user is mixed, and the authors of the first paper point out that the primary public policy purpose of recommending mask usage is to improve “source control” – that is, to stop people from transmitting coronavirus to others.  Cloth masks are also somewhat less effective than surgical masks, which are somewhat less effective than N95s, but fitting N95s is difficult enough that the general public won’t get much benefit using them over surgical masks.  The effect of risk compensation is unknown, but the likely truth is that being in a crowded place without a mask is more dangerous than being in a crowded place with a mask which is in turn more dangerous than just avoiding crowded places altogether – so if wearing a mask causes you to feel safe and go into more crowded places your net risk may increase.

Therefore it is not ridiculous to believe that wearing a mask only protects other people.  Surgical masks were originally developed to protect patients, not surgeons and, as I said above, this remains the primary function of masks in a pandemic from a public health perspective.  It makes sense for public health officials to communicate this and thus it makes sense for this to be the public’s takeaway from public health communication.

The author calls social distancing a basic, effective health measure – and it is – but when teachers suggest that we ought not return to school, that is precisely what we are advocating.  What do you think social distancing is?  It’s not just standing six feet apart – but even if it were, even that extremely basic measure can’t be accomplished in a school without drastically reducing the number of students in each classroom and building; districts which do not have plans to reduce student attendance somehow are not planning for social distancing.  In other words, teachers actually are being asked to work without precautions: without social distancing, without better ventilation, sometimes even without students having to wear masks.

Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time.

Correct.  Which is why we should have had specific, actionable plans in place months ago for a safe reopening of schools or for a resumption of distance learning should it remain necessary.  This pretense that we could get back to normal in September fooled approximately zero teachers, and rather than telling us what kinds of units and lessons we should plan to deliver in the absence of a normal semester, we’ve been told that we are going to lose what little funding we have if we don’t go back to full in-person instruction at the height of the pandemic.  So yes, we have been thinking about how we can best support children and their families.  Unfortunately, the answer is not “by preparing a form letter to be sent to parents in the event of a student or teacher death” nor is it allowing children and families to think that they and their loved ones will be safe if they come back to school.

It turns out that the best way that we can support children and families is by using our education, status, and position in society to advocate for a reasonable, safe, data-driven approach to reopening schools, and for mitigation measures when we can’t reopen schools.  We need to make sure that our students have access to computers and the internet, to reading materials, to healthy food, and to safe places to study.  Teachers can’t do that ourselves, so, again, the best we can do is advocacy.  Which is why we’re advocating that we delay in-person reopening.

Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.

Education is essential to the functioning of our society.  Homeschooled students get education without schools.  If the author were concerned with education, she might consider ways to deliver education safely when in-person, indoor classes are not feasible.  But it’s telling that the author said “schools” because what “schools” provide is not education – teachers provide that – but a place to keep kids while parents work.

So now we’ve reached the core of the author’s point.  Parents need to go back to work, so students need to go back to school, so teachers need to show up and babysit.  The author later says:

What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

“Life as we know it” – that’s what this is about.  The author thinks that we can go back to the pre-coronavirus version of normal – which we probably never will – and furthermore that we can do it yesterday, if we just stop whining and get down to it.

How can the author – a nurse – be so deluded about reality?  Well, as we’ve already established, she is not able to speak precisely about epidemiology (remember she said to reopen unless there’s a “spike” rather than reopen according to objective benchmarks, or according to the CDC’s advice about community transmission levels) or to offer a fair characterization of the evidence on masks or the public health communication about masks.  Despite being a nurse, she does not seem to know very much about coronavirus, and that’s fine, because nurses are not infectious disease specialists, or epidemiologists, or public health policymakers.  But I’m afraid people will gloss “nurse” as “medical professional” and believe that she is writing from the standpoint of a solid, accurate, and precise understanding of how coronavirus behaves, and that is simply, demonstrably, not true.

The truth is, we cannot go back to normal.  The school openings in the US already show this.  Hundreds of teachers have already been put into quarantine due to contact with infected individuals.  Who is going to sub for those teachers?  What happens when subs run out?  What about the kids who have to be quarantined at home for a 14-day period?  Who is going to watch them?  What happens when – not if, but when – teachers die, or students’ family members die?  Do schools have enough counselors to deal with that slow-burning mental health crisis?  With the survivors’ guilt of the kids who brought coronavirus home and killed grandpa?  There is just no scenario in which this upcoming school year could ever possibly even approach “life as we know it” and anybody living on the planet Earth ought to be aware of that.  This entire article is, therefore, a shameful exercise in wishful thinking.

“I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good.

Wishful.  Thinking.  That’ll have to change?  Who’s going to change it?  I wonder, after wiping down every surface in our classrooms with disinfectant wipes, and going around to every bathroom and refilling the soap dispensers with hand soap, and doing all the other health and safety maintenance work that needs to be done that the schools aren’t hiring more people to do, when we’ll actually have time to teach.

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed.

Do I need to explain to grown adults the difference between a grocery store and a school?

Supermarkets can stand customers six feet apart.  Can make them wait outside and limit the number of people inside.  Are better-ventilated.  Can switch to a delivery-only model.  Can refuse entry to people not wearing masks.  Etc.  Schools… well, just look at this picture again:

A high school hallway in the other Georgia. Crowded, and nary a mask in sight.

I don’t mean to minimize the risk to grocery store workers.  They were often not given adequate protection, when they should have been, and that was a problem too.  And instead of demanding that companies pay their workers hazard pay, install shields at cash registers, provide PPE, and mandate masks, we just called them “heroes” and honored the ensuing “heroic” sacrifice.  And we did the same to nurses, and that was wrong as well.  We made them show up at work wearing garbage bags on their bodies and old t-shirts on their faces, and we didn’t get them hazard pay, PPE, or the other protections they deserved.  And as a result many of them died.  And now that we’ve had an opportunity to learn from what has happened to nurses, to store clerks, to bus drivers, to meat packers, to Amazon fulfillment center box fillers, and every other “essential” worker, we’re about to make the same damned mistake with teachers, when it’s long past time we should have learned our lesson.

When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.”

Again, not to minimize the threat to cashiers, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to frame this as courage.  They were putting their parents’ lives at greater risk than their own, and that suggests they were doing it out of personal necessity – that their income was more of a life-or-death priority than not bringing home coronavirus.  Courageous, sure, but it’s a sign of a deeply dysfunctional society that high school students were put in the position to make that choice in the first place.

He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”

Striking isn’t “bowing out”.  Quitting would be “bowing out”, and many teachers have quit – they’ve retired, or changed careers, or just moved to teaching English online to kids in China.  Striking is – and forgive me if this is obvious – a goal-oriented activity aimed at making one’s working conditions better.  Safer workplaces are not an uncommon demand for people who go on strike, and in fact the labor movement, aside from just striking, was once able to generate enough political power to actually get laws passed mandating safe work spaces and creating government agencies to monitor workplace safety.

Striking in order to make schools safer for students, teachers, and families is exactly the kind of example we should be setting for our students.  I’m trying not to be political here, but forgive me for saying that it is some kind of twisted neoliberal ideological nonsense to think that striking is the act of a person who doesn’t want to work.

In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.

Wait… read that again?

I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic

Huh.  Well then I guess you must have accidentally left them at your hospital, because that is literally all that teachers are asking for.

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Trump to ask Supreme Court for Immunity from Prosecution, Coronavirus

Trump Thumbs UpWashington, D.C. – Under fire from a Congressional investigation into his business dealings as a private citizen and a pandemic sweeping through senior White House staff, President Donald Trump has indicated that he plans to ask the United States Supreme Court this week for immunity from prosecution and the 2019 novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

“A sitting President cannot be the target of a subpoena or a highly infectious virus which attacks the respiratory system,” stated Trump attorney William Consovoy.  “This would set a precedent in which all future Presidents would be subject to potentially having their administrations disrupted by politically-motivated Congressional investigations or mindless clumps of RNA shaped vaguely like crowns.”  Consovoy further argued that the Supreme Court “owes it to this nation to protect the President from malicious prosecution as well as infection from zoonotic diseases.”

However, legal and medical experts are divided on the question of Presidential immunity from investigation or illness.  Douglas N. Letter, general counsel to the House of Representatives, stated that “the US Supreme Court does not have the ability to supply the President with privileges that are not written in the Constitution or vaccines that have not been developed yet.”

Political historian Eric Foner has written that previous Presidents have faced similar issues related to litigation and lung disease.  Foner noted that the Supreme Court did not give President Richard Nixon immunity from subpoena in the landmark 1974 case United States v. Nixon, prompting Nixon to resign only sixteen days after the verdict was handed down, and also did not give President William Henry Harrison immunity in 1841, prompting Harrison to die from pneumonia after only 31 days in office.

Democrats have been highly critical of Trump’s financial and hygienic practices, calling them reckless and irresponsible.  “The Trump administration needs to be transparent with the American people about Trump’s business dealings and avoid large gatherings,” stated Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.  “Trump should instruct his subordinates to follow all relevant IRS and CDC regulations.  Trump needs to release his tax returns and wash his hands before touching his face.”

Asked for his opinion on Trump’s response to an unprecedented number of court and COVID-19 cases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci hesitated, shrugged, and replied, “It is what it is.”

Posted in Politics, Satire | Leave a comment

The Easter Bump

I’m going to start off with my conclusions, then I’ll try to convince you that they’re true.

1. There does appear to have been a small increase in coronavirus spread in Georgia that coincides with the timing of Georgian Easter.  However, it’s important not to read too much into this.

2. If there is an Easter bump, it probably can’t be blamed on the Georgian Orthodox Church – in fact I think it’s more likely that private family gatherings caused the bump as opposed to Easter masses – although I think the rhetoric of the Church towards the virus and the example the Church set were both harmful.

3. The Georgian government’s measures around Easter time probably prevented a much larger Easter bump.  However, the government has not done a good job at communicating its strategy or rationale or decision-making process regarding the Easter situation.

Let’s take these conclusions one by one.

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1. There does appear to have been a small increase in coronavirus spread in Georgia that coincides with the timing of Georgian Easter.  However it’s important not to read too much into this.

Here’s a graph of coronavirus cases in Georgia from civil.ge (sorry I’ve cut off the y axis, but the graph starts back in February and we don’t need the whole thing).  The green line is total confirmed cases, and the blue line is total confirmed active cases.

The black box is the plateau that we appeared to be on before the Easter bump – a period when the number of daily recoveries approximately equaled the number of daily new infections.  The red box is the period that I am arguing represents an Easter bump – when daily new infections exceeds daily recoveries.  To be exact: April 19th was Georgian Easter.  From April 19th to 24th, the total number of active cases went up by only 3.  From April 24th to May 3rd (that is, five to fourteen days after Easter) that number went up by 52.

So what it looks like is that the suppression measures taken by the Georgian government were working, and the number of active cases was leveling off, and then something happened and the number of active cases took off again.  However, it’s notable that we were specifically looking for an “Easter bump” because of the massive controversy here in Georgia over the dispute between Church and State and this could be random statistical noise, or an increase in testing, or some other event that no one noticed.  While the “Easter bump” is noticeable, it’s also well within the bounds of other increases in infection numbers that don’t have any obvious cause.  We have to be careful not to let our biases and preconceptions influence our perception of the data too much.

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2. If there is an Easter bump, it probably can’t be blamed on the Georgian Orthodox Church – in fact I think it’s more likely that private family gatherings caused the bump as opposed to Easter masses – although I think the rhetoric of the Church towards the virus and the example the Church set were both harmful.

My main argument here is that the plateau (in the black box) where it looked like coronavirus active infections might be peaking occurred between six and thirteen days after Palm Sunday.  Remember that the controversy over churches refusing to close really came to a head when the churches insisted on holding their Palm Sunday masses in person – that was essentially a preview of Easter.  Palm Sunday mass was held, there was much hand-wringing (including headlines about an alter boy who got infected), and then… nothing.  Now, Easter is bigger than Palm Sunday in a normal year, but that’s because Easter gets even very casual Christians to come to church.  Those casual Christians might be more included to stay home and watch the Easter mass on TV – whereas the Christians who go to Palm Sunday mass are more devout and might be less likely to stay home on Easter.  So it’s at least reasonable to compare the results of Palm Sunday and Easter masses.  And since Palm Sunday mass seems to have had no effect at all, it’s reasonable to guess that Easter mass may have had little or no effect as well.

Easter is not just a time for gathering in churches – it’s also a time for gathering in families.  People travel to their family homes in the countryside and have big family dinners and catch up with cousins and neighbors and whatnot, and then on Monday they visit the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried and pay their respects.  You can tell people to wear a mask and stand six feet apart at a church, but can you tell them that at a family dinner or at a cemetery?

I don’t want to let the Church off the hook, here.  Their refusal to cooperate with the Georgian government undoubtedly undermined containment efforts.  Their claims that God would protect Georgia from coronavirus and that the faithful could not get infected from attending services were irresponsible.  If they had set an example and told people to stay home – like their counterparts in other Orthodox countries – many people would have listened and many fewer risks would have been taken.  However, the evidence I have in front of me is not consistent with the scenario of widespread infection due to attending masses.

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3. The Georgian government’s measures around Easter time probably prevented a much larger Easter bump.  However, the government has not done a good job at communicating its strategy or rationale or decision-making process regarding the Easter situation.

Here is a photo from Tomas Pueyo’s essay “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance“.  You may have seen the essay.  This table stood out for me:

The takeaway of this table is that if your goal is to eliminate the virus from the population, you don’t have to take every measure available to stop the virus from spreading.  You only have to take enough measures to keep the transmission rate below 1 – in other words, to make sure that each infected person, on average, infects less than one other person.  Keep in mind that elimination is not the only goal – we also want to minimize suffering and death – and that the numbers on this chart are made up for the purposes of illustrating an example, rather than based on empirical data about the impact of various measures on infection rates.  In other words, don’t rely on this chart for creating real world policy or trying to predict real outcomes.

However, what’s important is the concept that this chart demonstrates: that measures taken to reduce transmission rates add up, and can be traded off against each other.  So if you can’t ban large gatherings, perhaps you can implement travel restrictions instead and get about the same amount of benefit.  This, in fact, is exactly what the Georgian government did.  Again, it’s worth mentioning that banning religious gatherings *and* restricting travel might have prevented the Easter bump entirely, or at least reduced it.  However, the travel restrictions and other draconian measures around Easter time at least kept the Easter bump small enough that it’s well within the range of other transmission bumps that don’t have an obvious explanation – in other words, it’s small enough that we might have mistaken it for random noise if we didn’t know that these transmissions occurred during the most restrictive stage of Georgia’s lockdown period.

So the Georgian government was smart to compensate for extra transmissions around Easter by placing additional travel and work restrictions on the populace – however, the fact that I have not seen *anyone* recognize this suggests that the government isn’t doing a good job of justifying its decisions to the public.  Instead, I’ve heard that the restrictions were designed to prevent people from getting to church without actually closing the churches down.  I’ve also seen complaints that allowing congregations to congregate means that the Georgian government is implicitly acknowledging that no social distancing measures are necessary and that therefore coronavirus has been overhyped in order to seize control over the whole society or subdue the population during the run-up to the next election so people can’t protest Georgian Dream.

Governments need all the credibility they can get when they’re asking people to endure economic and social hardship in order to protect society at large from a deadly threat.  The government won’t get compliance with these restrictions if it isn’t transparent enough to reassure the people that it is on their side.  And yet throughout the entire confrontation with the Church, the Georgian government has been evasive and incoherent in a way that has diminished the people’s trust in their intentions and motivations.  This was an unforced error in an otherwise exemplary pandemic response.

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In the end, neither Church nor State is coming out of the Easter season looking totally, er, immaculate – but then again, it could have been a heck of a lot worse.  Honestly I’m more concerned about the government deciding to start lifting restrictions in the absence of a clear peak and subsequent drop in transmission rates.  It would be a shame if the extreme nature of the Easter lockdown – and the small size of the Easter bump – caused lockdown fatigue and an early release on restrictions, which would inevitably lead to a much larger surge in infections.  Coronavirus isn’t over, and we need to stay the course.

 

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | Leave a comment

Forecasting Coronavirus

I made a series of predictions about coronavirus in mid-March. I didn’t post them anywhere because I was going to do it but then stress and laziness happened. However, I want to publicly talk about them now. Publicly making and evaluating predictions is a way to improve my ability to make predictions and my understanding of how the world works.

It is also interesting to see how my perspective changes based on new information. Registering predictions gives me a clearer picture of how my thinking worked six weeks ago than trying to look back in retrospect. For example, six weeks ago I had less faith in the competence of the Georgian government than I do now, so many of my predictions look overly pessimistic to me – but of course, the *reason* I now have more faith in the Georgian government is because of the way they have been handling coronavirus over the last six weeks. Comparing predictions with reality helps me sort of “factor out” these changes in perspective and see them with greater clarity.

Anyway, here goes – predictions from March 15th:

1. a. The coronavirus peak will not arrive before May 1st – 99%
b. The Georgian government will maintain social distancing policies, including school closures and the recommendation to work from home, until May 1st – 80%
c. School closures will continue until June 1st – 60%
d. Schools will remain closed through the end of the school year – 50%

Today it was announced that schools will indeed remain closed through the end of the school year. In retrospect it looks like I was underconfident about this, but again, I wasn’t sure how seriously the Georgian government would take this.

Interestingly, it is at least possible that we actually have hit the “coronavirus peak” in Georgia, given that the number of infected (active infections) was at 307 three days ago, then dropped to 302, then back to 307, and is at 305 today. However, it is clear to me in retrospect that I was assuming that the “peak” would occur when coronavirus had run through enough people to start approaching herd immunity, rather than when a particular government had embarked upon an 18-month-long total lockdown. Given that Georgia is loosening restrictions starting next week, and that we’re expecting at least some kind of Easter surge, I predict 307 won’t be the peak number of infections (confidence: 90%).  Looking at the global data, we’re nowhere near the peak – the number of active cases is still steadily increasing.

2. a. The coronavirus peak will arrive between May 1st and June 1st – 30%
b. The coronavirus peak will arrive between June 1st and July 1st – 30%
c. No coronavirus peak (it is not seasonal, or southern hemisphere cases spike in a way that requires continued countermeasures in northern countries) – 39%

Well, this one is hard to evaluate, since it isn’t even May 1st yet, let alone July 1st. However, it now looks like enough countries have done enough suppression that the peak – by which I mean the peak number of active cases (total cases – deaths – recoveries) – will be delayed significantly.  It looks like the world is outperforming my expectations, which is comforting.  It’s also clear that I was basing these predictions, perhaps too heavily, on the 1918 Spanish flu, which had a clear double peak, with a dip in the summer, and which did not incur the kind of suppression measures that we are now seeing.  It’s also clear that I wasn’t thinking clearly enough about the meaning of “peak” – obviously there will be *some* peak; it’s not like the number of active cases will hit a plateau and then never decline again.

I am still fundamentally uncertain about whether and to what extent corona will be seasonal and how that will effect overall global numbers, given the rates of infection in tropical regions and the population of the world that does not live in a climate zone with a clear summer coming up.  It’s also the case that the US is nowhere near having the pandemic under control – in fact, as of now they have about a third of the world’s confirmed cases, and they’re already talking about reopening – so I could definitely see a sustained increase in corona cases in the US overwhelming any decrease in cases in the rest of the world for the next several months, if not longer.

3. If coronavirus peaks by summer (60%), then :
a. Coronavirus will have a second peak in fall – 90%
b. Starting in September – 50%
c. Starting in October – 30%
d. Starting in November – 10%

This one is even farther out, and again, these are mostly 1918-inspired guesses.  Nothing much to say here.  My goal was to try to figure out what would be going on with my school next year – would we reopen in September?  If so, how long would we stay open?  That led to these:

4. Therefore:
a. Social distancing/school closures by October 1st – 45%
b. by November 1st – 70%
c. by December 1st – 80%

If anything, I am now even more confident that some kind of social distancing will be in place during the next school year, including school closures/remote learning going on at least for part of the next school year.  I’ve looked at New Zealand’s guidelines for opening schools – reduced hours, subject teachers teaching remotely, isolating students into small groups with no contact between groups – and… let’s just say I don’t envision them working in Georgia.  Futhermore, the Georgian government has stated that it will be urging remote work and social distancing whenever possible for at least the next year.

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With all that said, I’m making updated and revised predictions here:

1. a. A global coronavirus peak (in active cases) will not arrive before May 1st – 99.99%
b. The Georgian government will maintain social distancing policies, including school closures and the recommendation to work from home, until May 1st – 99.9%
c. School closures will continue until June 1st – 99.9%
d. Schools will remain closed through the end of the school year – 99.8%

2. a. A global coronavirus peak will arrive between May 1st and June 1st – 5%
b. A global coronavirus peak will arrive between June 1st and July 1st – 10%
c. Global coronavirus active infections will not have any peak before July 1st – 85%

3. If there is a global coronavirus peak by August 31th, then:
a. Coronavirus will have at least one more peak between September 1st and November 30th – 90%
b. Starting in September – 50%
c. Starting in October – 30%
d. Starting in November – 10%

4. z. Schools in Georgia will operate through distance learning from the beginning of the next school year – 45%
a. If schools open, they will switch back to distance learning by October 1st – 55%
b. by November 1st – 75%
c. by December 1st – 85%

5. a. Georgian borders are still closed by July 1st – 90%
b. by October 1st – 70%
c. by January 1st – 55%

I will try to revisit these numbers every few months, and work on calibrating my confidence levels appropriately.  I’ll also give myself a formal score once all of these dates pass and I can see how my March predictions and April predictions each hold up.

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Science Journalists

I used to complain a lot about science journalism when I lived in the US. Now unfortunately it’s time to complain again.

Journalistic coverage of coronavirus in the US has undoubtedly killed people.

The most egregious case I’ve found is that CNN reported on March 14th that asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus might be a problem – adding that this contradicted a March 1st statement by a Trump official that asymptomatic spread was not important – while the BBC reported on the threat of asymptomatic transmission on *January 26th*. Coronavirus spread unchecked in the US for *7 weeks* because Americans were told that they only had to watch out for people with symptoms, *7 weeks* after people in the rest of the world knew that was not true.

Now – what was the confidence level of the BBC’s reporting? What was the quality of BBC’s data vs. CNN’s data? Well, we don’t really know, because science journalism was so completely god-damned derelict that they never deigned to even try to find out such information.

Now we’re seeing the same thing with masks. Someone in the US woke up, looked around the world, and noticed that mask-wearing countries were beating the crap out of America’s anemic coronavirus response. Masks aren’t exactly new, and they were used by the public in Asian countries to combat the last 2 coronavirus epidemics, so this shouldn’t actually be news to anyone, but the CDC just this week issued new guidelines suggesting that community use of face masks could help save lives. Of course you can still find news articles containing the US government’s previous advice that people not wear masks (I guess science journalists don’t do corrections or retractions?) – complete with condescending tone implying that someone would have to be a complete idiot to even consider the idea! And yes, of course, everyone is “doing their best” and this crisis is hard for all of us, but let’s be clear on the math: “masks slow community transmission” + “slowing community transmission saves lives” = “admonishing the public not to buy or use masks killed people”. (Note that this is different from saying “instead of buying masks and going out, skip the mask and stay home” – this is good advice both for risk management and for dealing with a sudden mask shortage for healthcare workers; but regardless of mask availability concerns, the public should be correctly informed about the effectiveness of masks. Also note that the evidence on masks is limited and uncertain, but the best evidence we have – much of which is, admittedly, weak and/or circumstantial – says that masks help to slow community transmission.)

Apologists will say that all the data are new and officials are responding to the best science available at the time. Both of these claims are false. Again, when there’s a 7-week lag or more between what people in other countries know and what people in the US know, it’s not that the US is using the “best available data”. It’s that the people running the US are idiotic narcissistic solipsists who think that other countries aren’t real. The job of the press should be to correct the record and inform the public, not to credulously repeat the claims of the most obviously bewildered political and scientific leaders the world has ever seen.

What should journalists – and journalists who cover science, in particular – be doing differently?

Here’s a grab bag, in no particular order:

1. Never report the results of a study in isolation. The point of journalism is to provide contextual information about new events, not to provide free PR for publishers and study authors. Here’s what I almost never see in articles that report studies: was the article reporting the study peer-reviewed? How reliable is the journal that published the study? How do these study results compare with previous studies? How can the differences be explained – were there different sample sizes, different methods, differences in demographics of the subjects of the study, etc.? Do the authors have any notable biases? How confident should we be in the results of the new study, based on what we knew previously and on the strength of this new study (aka Bayesian reasoning)? What do we still not know? You don’t necessarily need to do every one of these steps for every single study – the amount of context needed to understand the study is a judgment call, but if your judgment as a reporter says “none” then you suck and you should quit your job before you get anyone else killed.

2. Don’t trust the government. Government officials have been known to be wrong, and some might even even (*gasp, grasps for pearls*) lie to the press from time to time. When a government official makes a scientific claim, you need to treat that claim skeptically. Attempt to verify or disprove it. Rate how confident a member of the public should be about the claim. It was a government official who said on March 1st that asymptomatic transmission would not be a problem – and, again, journalists could easily have accessed data from five weeks earlier contradicting that claim, and then evaluated the conflicting claims as a public service. Instead they reported it and got people killed.

3. Read international news. Maybe before you do an article, do a quick Google search to see if someone else has covered this topic and what they had to say. Pay close attention to sources from countries with at least one functional news organization.

4. Talk to more than one expert. I know the journalistic standard is something like “if you have a source you have a story” but while that might be a responsible standard for reporting who won the forty-third annual pie-eating contest at the county fair, when it comes to life-or-death matters like how to stay safe from a global pandemic, you might want to consider soliciting – and weighing – a variety of views and perspectives.

5. Pay attention to precise distinctions and learn how to interpret scientific language. “There is limited evidence for the effectiveness of masks” is not the same as “you shouldn’t wear masks because they certainly do nothing.” If you hear the first statement from scientists but report the second statement to the public, you have misled the public, either inadvertently or deliberately. Similarly, “does not recommend” and “recommends against” have different meanings. It’s a fact that the CDC doesn’t recommend listening to Nirvana. However, if you report that fact using that phrasing, people will read it and think that listening to Nirvana is bad for your health, rather than that the CDC has no official opinion about whether you should listen to Nirvana. Your job as a journalist is to not to report facts, it is to report facts in a way that facilitates their correct interpretation by the general public. All of the news outlets that just printed “The CDC does not recommend that members of the general public wear masks” were deceiving the public by presenting an out-of-context fact in a way that suggested an incorrect interpretation..

6. Maintain skepticism and admit uncertainty. Science is an uncertain and imperfect process. Studies that seem good can fail to replicate. Experts can be biased or mistaken. New techniques are constantly revising our understanding. Scientists are careful to use their language to express the inherent uncertainty of the process, and you should be too. I’m not talking about evolution or global warming here – when there is an overwhelming scientific consensus, you should obviously report high levels of certainty. But what I’m talking about is that when a study says “there seems to be some correlation between coffee and cancer” you report “NEW STUDY PROVES COFFEE CAUSES CANCER” and when another study finds flaws in the methodology of the first study you report “SCIENTISTS DEBUNK COFFEE CANCER MYTH”. When you veer from one false certainty to the next, it confuses the public and saps their faith in science, which means that when scientists actually are certain of something – like evolution or global warming – they have trouble distinguishing it from claims of the “coffee causes cancer” type. What you should be reporting instead is “no one knows whether or to what extent coffee increases cancer risks, but this is what the evidence says and these are the limitations of that evidence”. I know, that’s not a great headline, but your duty as a science journalist is not to get clicks. Context also helps here – if there is one study that links coffee to cancer but 20 studies that find no link, and you only ever report on the one study, you’re once again prioritizing clickbait over journalistic responsibility. This is again directly applicable to the mask issue – when journalists veer from “don’t wear masks, you idiots” to “actually everyone should wear masks, here’s how to make one out of a t-shirt” it not only confuses and deceives the public, it actively depletes the ability of the actual experts to communicate accurate information to the public and have people act on that information.

*****

Now, if you happen to be a journalist, after reading that diatribe you might be wondering who the hell I am to be telling you how to cover science news. Good question. If only you could take that critical thinking and apply it to doing your actual job, you might actually be able to do some good in the world.

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Family Purity Day is Violence

(I wrote this in an expat discussion forum. Reposting here for permalink status.)

The WHO defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”

I think it is incontrovertible that violence is being done to Georgia’s LGBTQ population. For example, in the cancelling of this year’s IDAHOTB demonstration, we can clearly see that threatened physical force, in concert with past actual physical force, has intimidated Georgia’s LGBTQ rights advocates to the point where they have been functionally deprived of their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly. We have seen LGBTQ Georgians beaten, chased from the public square, and even killed.

The question is, who is participating in this violence? It is easy to blame the men who throw the stones (or swing the stools). But what about those who lead them – physically and spiritually? If Ilia II calls gays “diseased” and says they have no right to protest, and black-robed priests lead a march of thousands to lynch a small group of at most a few dozen demonstrators, injuring 28, and then Ilia later condemns the violence, what are we to believe? Does anyone really have any doubt about what his role was in the violence?

In commemorating that date as Family Purity Day, the Church is doing additional harm to Georgia’s queer community and individuals. It is a clear and transparent move to deprive Georgia’s LGBTQ movement of its international connections and to ensure a ready group of demonstrators each year to once again drive this movement underground. It also clearly communicates that LGBTQ individuals have no role in the family – that they are “impure.” If this is not psychological violence, I don’t know what is.

How can any honest person fail to see the harm done to Georgia’s LGBTQ population by the celebration of Family Purity Day? The psychological harm. The removal of human rights. The threat – the highly credible threat – of physical harm to anyone who dares to show up and ask society to stop bullying, ostracizing, beating, and ultimately murdering LGBTQ human beings?

Any defense at all of Family Purity Day is not just a defense of that violence – it is a continuation of that violence. It is a message to LGBTQ Georgians that their voices and their lives do not matter, that the injured and dead Georgians who just wanted to live their lives like anyone else deserve to be erased from history.

People will call me names, will say I am full of hatred, will equate writing this post with the murder of human beings – those are silencing tactics, and they are hurtful. They are ways of discrediting and disregarding the voices of oppressed minorities. They have been used against every group ever to advocate for civil rights. Do not be fooled.

If you are against violence, you are against Family Purity Day. If you are not against Family Purity Day, you are not against violence. And you are entitled to your opinion, but be aware that expressing the opinion that Family Purity Day is anything other than an ongoing persecution of an extremely vulnerable Georgian minority is hurtful, and people will get hurt by it. Some will post vomit emojis, some will walk away and say nothing, and some will write multiple 600-word essays in response. But the inescapable fact is that if you support this travesty in any way you are causing real pain to real people.

Posted in Civics, Politics, Sex and Gender | 1 Comment

Dead Links and the Dirty Ground

As part of my Blogging Renaissance* I decided to update my blogroll.  Hoo boy.  The link rot is real.

Apparently I haven’t actually gone through and removed dead links from my sidebar since sometime in 2012.  That makes sense, since my son was born at the end of 2012, and my life became somewhat busier accordingly.  Of course the real nail in the coffin of this blog was going from teaching in Georgian public schools to private schools with an International Baccalaureate curriculum.  I’ve promised to talk a little bit about what that’s like – and believe me, I have *many opinions* about the IB that I’d like to share – but that’s for another time and post.  Suffice it to say that IB schools come with an… enhanced workload.

So my link pruning process is simple.  I go through all my links and check if they still link to anything.  If they don’t I delete them – a few former Georgia bloggers have deleted their blogs entirely, so those links aren’t really worth keeping (I suppose I could try searching them in the Internet Archive, but maybe it’s better to just let some things go).  If the link is still alive, I review the content and make sure it’s still in the right category. For example, if it’s a blog that hasn’t had a post since 2012 (there were a surprising number of these), I move the link from “Georgia Blogs” to “Inactive Georgia Blogs”.  If it’s an active blog, but the person no longer writes about Georgia, the link goes to “Former Georgia Blogs”.

That process has taken me on a fun little trip down memory lane.  I stalked caught up with some old friends.  I read some stories about people’s flights out of the country at end of the 2011-2012 school year (that was the last year that TLG was trying to be huge; for the next year they downsized 75% of their teachers, which probably accounts for the surprising number of blogs that cut off abruptly in 2012).   I thought about some of the friends I’ve made who have come and gone.  It’s bittersweet.

But the whole process got me thinking about how the English-speaking Georgia-focused internet has changed since I came here.  When I was researching Georgia in summer 2010, I found maybe three blogs about Georgia, none of which were still active.  Then TLG brought hundreds of foreigners in, and maybe ten percent of us blogged, which really resulted in a sort of Georgia blog explosion, so by 2012 my Georgia blogroll alone was like 40 entries long.  But then something else happened.  Georgian Wanderers took off, Georgia started getting more press coverage in travel sections of newspapers throughout the Western world, and the government’s efforts to transition from Russian to English as Georgia’s second language started to bear some serious fruit.  TripAdvisor and Google Maps set up shop in Georgia.  Suddenly you didn’t need to wade through some random blogger’s personal anecdotes to find the information you wanted.  Georgia became more legible.

In a way this mirrors the process of the transition between Georgia as a country with three fast food restaurants – all of them McDonald’s – to a country with a fairly well-developed market in Western amenities, including a selection of fast food restaurants, shopping malls, foreign clothing brands, etc.  It’s very obvious how much the country has changed every time I take a ride down Chavchavadze in Tbilisi and think back to the first time I saw it, seven years ago.  For people who left in 2012 and came back after 2015 or so, the change can be jarring.

I personally really like the direction that Georgia is heading.  I like being able to find information quickly on the internet.  I like Google Maps.  I like Wendy’s.  I especially like the plethora of non-smoking restaurants and the burgeoning craft beer scene in Tbilisi, which I promise to talk about more in my Hamburger Revolution post.  But recognizing the difference between Georgia 2017 and Georgia 2012 means I have to recognize that this blog has a new purpose.  I can no longer reasonably expect to be one of the few reasonably comprehensive sources of information about the country available in English.  There is less value in “this is what it’s like in Georgia” style posts, partially because there are now so many of them and partially because “what it’s like in Georgia” is less relevant to expats than it used to be, given the large number of Western-style accommodations and resources.

But, you know, things are still happening, so I’ll talk about them.  I’ll aim to do some restaurant reviews.  Like I said before I’ll do some education posts.  I’ll try to update my blogroll with modern links to the various media agencies that now cover Georgia in English.  And every once in a while I’ll try to stir up some trouble, just to keep things interesting.

So anyway.  Enjoy my new blogroll!


*i.e. my three-week-long plan to procrastinate from the pile of work I have to do this Winter Break

[video: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground – The White Stripes]
Posted in Administrative, Changes | 1 Comment

A Blogging Renaissance

First of all, Merry Christmas!  Even though the day is over here in Georgia, it’s still Christmas back in the States.  Of course in Georgia it’s just another Monday, which I realized when I got stuck in traffic trying to go to a friend’s house at 5pm.  Yeah, traffic in Tbilisi has become highly problematic.

I’ve decided to kick my blog into high gear.  Get back on the horse, as it were.  That means more posts, which means widened scope.  I’m going to resolve to do three posts per week.  Can I keep this up?  I have no idea!  But I’m going to try, because I am crazy.

I intended this blog as a travelogue.  When I left the US I planned to use Georgia as a jumping-off point and move on to teaching in Asia and then the Middle East, which apparently pays the best.  I thought I would write about a different country every year or so.  Somewhere along the way I became sort of addicted to Georgia, so I can no longer reasonably claim to be “peripatetic”, which is fine because people don’t really know what that word means anyway.  But I am still a “pedagogue”, which means “teacher”.  So I figure I can write about teaching instead of/in addition to travel, and that will probably give me a bunch of interesting topics to explore so it isn’t just me posting once every five months.

Conveniently I am doing a Master’s in Education.  That should give me plenty of interesting things to complain write about.  I am also now teaching Global Politics.  So perhaps writing about issues that pertain to Global Politics would be okay.  We’ll see!

Topics I’d like to cover in the next few posts:

  • Approaches to behavior in Georgian schools
  • Differentiation in teaching
  • Fabrika, The Tbilisi Burger Revolution, and how things have changed in seven years
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • etc.

So stay tuned! (#deadmetaphor)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Victim-Blaming in Georgia (or, stop telling women not to be “too friendly”)

Recently, a woman posted on a Georgian expat facebook community that she had been sexually harassed on three separate occasions during her brief vacation in Georgia.  Surprisingly, most of the comments were sympathetic and supportive.  Predictably, there were also a few cultural narcissists who criticized her for failing to acknowledge all of the men she met who didn’t harass her (the #NotAllMen argument) or for focusing too much on the negative aspects of what otherwise must have been a fantastic vacation (the “Mrs. Lincoln” argument, aka “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”).

But in this post I’d like to focus on the third group of responses – those which contained advice on how to avoid being sexually harassed/assaulted in Georgia.  This is problematic, for reasons I’ll explain below.  Notably, it seemed to be mostly expats dishing out this advice, although I have seen similar comments from Georgians in the past.

On the one hand, realistic advice about how to travel safely is good and helpful.  I regularly seek out such advice when I travel to a new country, and I think it is valuable for people to provide this advice.  On the other hand, when this advice is a) directed only towards women, and never men, and b) sets unreasonable expectations, like “never smile”, it really starts to smell less like advice and more like victim-blaming.

Here’s some advice I’ve seen given to women visiting Georgia on how to avoid sexual harassment/assault:

  • don’t smile
  • don’t be “too friendly”
  • don’t be “too chatty”
  • don’t drink alcohol in public
  • don’t smoke cigarettes in public
  • don’t travel alone
  • don’t sit in the front seat of a taxi
  • dress conservatively
  • buy a fake wedding ring for 5 lari and wear it every time you go out
  • have a male chaperone at all times

Sounds like a great vacation.

Note that I’m not necessarily questioning the accuracy of this advice.  Some of these things will definitely decrease (but not eliminate) a woman’s chance of being sexually harassed.  Having a male chaperone at all times is probably the most effective, but I wouldn’t even count on that.  I once had a taxi driver hit on my wife, in front of me, because he thought that she was a tour guide and I was her “guest”.

What I am questioning, however, is whether this advice is crossing the line into victim-blaming.  Men are never told any of these things, so it fails test a).  I think pretty much all of it also sets unreasonable expectations.  Who wants to go on a vacation and not smile, not meet locals, not drink, and have a male chaperone every time you go out in public?  There’s a reason why people aren’t flocking to spend their holidays in Saudi Arabia.  And as all of this advice inevitably shows up in response to a woman complaining about a case of harassment, it definitely has the air of “your harassment could have been prevented if you’d just done a few things differently”.  Which, I’d like to add, might not even be true, because as I said, none of those preventative measures are 100% effective.

This may be obvious, but it bears repeating: when a woman is sexually harassed, the problem is not with her behavior.  The problem is with the behavior of the person who harassed her.  All of the advice about how to behave to avoid sexual harassment may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it is not addressing the actual problem.

And a consequence of that is that victim-blaming tends to take energy and focus away from solving the problem of sexual harassment and the underlying dynamics of power and sexism that produce harassment.  Victim-blaming deflects the kind of criticism that is needed to effectively address the cultural and social factors that lead to harassment.  Victim-blaming perpetuates and reinforces the idea that harassment is women’s fault and that men are justified in harassing women who “step out of line” or behave in a certain way.  Victim-blaming tells men “you can harass women and no one will do anything about it and some people will even defend you”.

Viewed in that light, advice like “don’t be too friendly” is not just bad advice – it’s harmful advice.  It’s not just the fact that it’s deeply unfair to tell women not to make friends with locals when they go to another country.  It’s also the fact that it tells men that if they see a woman who is “too friendly” – whatever that means – she’s fair game for sexual harassment or assault.  It’s also the fact that it tells Georgians that they don’t need to try to change their own culture’s attitudes towards women, because the problem isn’t in their culture, it’s that some women just don’t know how to behave.

I think that Georgia has made progress in dealing with sexual harassment and assault in the seven years that I’ve been here.  The problem certainly has a lot more public recognition.  I was gratified to see that not a single comment accused the victim of lying or inventing the story (although one guy tried to imply that she may have just misconstrued normal, friendly actions as harassment), and a large proportion of the Georgians on the thread acknowledged that there is a problem.  The discourse around sexual harassment has definitely improved.

I would like to see it improve further, though, and I think that the next step is to get past this culture of victim-blaming.  I think it’s fair to warn women about the possibility and likelihood of sexual harassment in Georgia.  I don’t think it’s fair to advise women to try conform to vague, unreasonable standards like “don’t be too friendly”.

I would like my daughter to grow up in a society that rewards friendliness, rather than punishing it.  I would like my son to grow up in a society that doesn’t tell women that they need to be guarded and suspicious around him just because he is male.  We only get that society by teaching men not to harass – not by teaching women not to be friendly.

Posted in Sex and Gender | 1 Comment

Zaza Pachulia: Why Georgians Ruined NBA Voting

From 1974 until 2016, American basketball fans were able to vote for the starting lineup of the NBA’s All-Star game, so that the players in this exhibition game were actually the most popular players in the league, as determined by fan votes.

Last month, however, the NBA announced that the fan vote would be discounted by 50%, and the other 50% of the vote would be made up of superdelegates current players and select members of the basketball media.  Fans were disenfranchised in this way because last year, they screwed up the vote by almost putting Zaza Pachulia in the All-Star Game.

I don’t watch basketball and I have nothing against Zaza Pachulia, but the perplexed reaction of sports commentators tells me that he does not merit inclusion in the game.  He is not one of the league’s best or most popular players.  He will not draw the interest of fans who will spend money to buy tickets to the NBA’s All-Star Weekend.  The only reason Pachulia is punching above his weight in the NBA vote totals is that a sizeable number (but probably not a large percentage*) of Georgians – most of whom live in Georgia and many of whom do not even watch NBA games – are voting for him because they think it would be cool to have a Georgian in the All-Star Game.

So it is literally true that the NBA had to change its voting rules to disenfranchise fans because some Georgians disrupted the integrity of the process to inflate their own national egos.  And this year, they are doing it again.

Again, I don’t watch basketball, and the integrity of the NBA All-Star team vote is not particularly important to me per se.  However, I think it is interesting that Georgians seem to be completely oblivious to the ethical dimension of this situation.  Georgians are very proudly, publicly promoting Pachulia on social media and on the online English-language Georgian propaganda mill Agenda.ge.  I think they wouldn’t do this if they understood that many would consider this behavior to be unethical, boorish, and narcissistic.

An NBA fan complains about Georgians voting Pachulia

Giorgi’s response shows zero understanding of Mirza’s complaint, or of how to translate invective from Georgian to English

I think the Agenda.ge article on Pachulia demonstrates this obliviousness well.  Agenda points out that the voting rules change will make it much harder for Pachulia to make the All-Star team, but not that the voting rules change was specifically done to prevent Pachulia from making the All-Star team.  The article also implies that Pachulia was good enough to have belonged on the All-Star team last year, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one who is not Georgian seems to believe that and the NBA disbelieved it so hard that they changed the voting system to stop Pachulia from getting on the All-Star team this year.

I think this is obvious to most Americans, but let me just lay out the ethical argument, briefly.  It is unethical to participate in a fan vote if you are not a fan.  Even if you are a fan, it is unethical to vote for a player with no particular star quality to join the All-Star team.  There is an implicit understanding that non-fans should not vote, and fans should vote for the best players according to their honest judgment.  For a large group of outsiders to come in and disrupt this understanding is not fair to fans who vote in good faith, or to players who deserve to have their genuine achievements recognized appropriately (and the NBA recognizes that, which is why they have changed the voting rules).

I come from the most populous city in the United States – New York City – and we have two basketball teams which, from what I understand, are mediocre.  If New Yorkers acted like Georgians, the entire Eastern Conference All-Star team would presumably consist entirely of players from these two mediocre teams, and would itself be mediocre, and would play a mediocre All-Star game.  This is a consequence that no one wants, and so very few people are willing to deliberately vote for a mediocre All-Star lineup because of local or regional prejudice.

But New Yorkers do not act like Georgians with respect to the NBA vote.  Those of us who do not care about or watch basketball do not vote in fan votes.  Those of us who do care do not blindly vote for members of our tribe, but instead vote for the best players, so that the conference can form the best team and the league can stage the best exhibition game.  Through this process, fans are rewarded for investing their time and energy into the NBA by seeing their favorite stars in the league play an excellent game.

I’m sure that many Georgians truly believe that Pachulia deserves a spot on the All-Star team.  However, I think they believe this because of cultural narcissism and chauvinism, not because Pachulia is a star.  If Pachulia were not Georgian there is simply no way Georgians would flood the NBA vote with Pachulia votes.  But Georgians have a tendency to uncritically favor Georgian things and Georgian people (cf. Stalin) to a much greater extent than any other nationality I’ve ever encountered.

But I think that even recognizing that, many Georgians would still say that they are justified in voting Pachulia even though he has not earned the spot through merit.  There are still too many Georgians who smoke in parks in front of children, who park on sidewalks, who compulsively cut in line, who litter on public roads and in public building entrances, and who have generally not developed a sense of personal responsibility to the community – who will be very nice to you one-on-one, but will act with complete disregard for the interests of other people in the abstract.  None of those people care in the slightest what is fair to NBA fans in America – all they care about is what they can get away with.

And hey – this has gotten a ton of free press for Georgia.  It’s in the New York Times.  For narcissists, any attention is good attention.  From their perspective, there’s really no reason not to just do this every year.

******************************************

*I don’t want to imply that all Georgians, or even most Georgians, are cultural narcissists.  Really, we’re talking about a small, vocal minority – a group which is probably in the single-digits, percentage-wise.  Pachulia got about 440,000 votes in a week, which means it could be as few as 63,000 voters voting for him every day, which is less than 2% of Georgia’s population.  Also, because of how the NBA counts twitter votes, he also has some unknown number of votes that come from people inadvertently voting for him – for instance, if I complained on twitter “Zaza Pachulia does not belong in the All-Star Game #NBAVote” that would be counted as a vote for Pachulia by the NBA’s twitter-scraping algorithm.  Retweets are also counted as votes, so, for example, this prankster managed to rustle up at least 148 votes for Pachulia, some unknown number of which may have actually thought they were opposing Pachulia.

A tweet tricking people into voting Pachulia

I see what you did there

So presumably many people are innocently retweeting Zaza Pachulia votes without realizing that they are voting or really thinking much about it at all.  But there wouldn’t be so many Pachulia votes to retweet if the small-but-devoted group of Pachulia-partisans hadn’t started the whole thing in the first place.  So despite the innocence of perhaps 99% of Georgians, it is still the case that a group of Georgians has effectively subverted the NBA All-Star vote, twice, and thus ruined it for everybody else.

Posted in Civics | Tagged , , | 66 Comments