Friday Quick Items

About that mask study; about the lab leak theory; and the volume of social media; and about the length of nonfiction books.

NY Times, Zeynep Tufekci, 10 Mar 2023: Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work

And why that recent meta-study misled some commentators.


Vox, Kelsey Piper, 10 Mar 2023: The Covid mask wars have left us unprepared for the next pandemic, subtitled “The fallout from a misinterpreted review on mask science only underscores the need for better protections.”


Washington Post, Robert Wright, 9 Mar 2023: Opinion | Skeptical of the lab leak theory? Here’s why you should take it seriously.

Robert Wright! (Author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and others.)

The idea that the covid-19 virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — and, in most versions of the story, had been genetically engineered there — got much of its initial impetus from not-very-reality-based Trumpists, such as the famously inventive Stephen K. Bannon. And the hypothesis fit suspiciously well into their long-standing agenda of demonizing China. Peter Navarro, who served as an adviser to President Donald Trump, went so far as to suggest that the Chinese had developed covid as a bioweapon.

It’s academic, in a sense; wherever the virus came from there are policy issues yet unaddressed.

And that’s the point: Whatever the truth about covid’s origins, the fact that a lab leak could have happened in Wuhan illuminates a regulatory challenge that is international in nature. Meeting that challenge would be hard in any event, but it’s made harder by the fact that the United States and China have been sliding into a Cold War. One thing that will make it even more difficult is if debate over that challenge is left to Cold War enthusiasts who are also global governance skeptics.


Big Think, John Inazu, undated (~ 5 March): How America lost its mind — and how to get rationality back, subtitled “Washington University professor John Inazu tells us how we can make peace inside a raging culture war.”

Some writers trying to understand conspiracy theories, and the extreme ones of recent years like QAnon, claim there have always been conspiracy theories, some quite outlandish. But why why do they seem to prevelant now? This short piece, and interview, seems plausible to me:

The more likely answer is that the “volume” of information we encounter has increased, thanks to technology. For example, while we used to have limited access to the news through the newspaper and nightly broadcasts, we can now receive constant updates on social media, email, and news apps.

As he says in the interview (IIRC) when he was growing up, you got the news once in the morning, from the paper, and once in the evening, from the TV news. Now you get your news all days however often you want, and usually by seeking out sources that confirm your opinions.


NY Times, By the Book, 5 Mar 2023: Ari Shapiro Reads Cookbooks for Comfort and Pleasure, subtitled: “‘They demand nothing of the reader,’ says the host of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered,’ whose new book is ‘The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening.’ ‘And every page has the promise of a happy ending.’

What struck me was this bit:

I probably shouldn’t make a blanket statement like this, but here goes: I think a fair number of the nonfiction books published today would be just as good or better if they were the length of a long magazine article. To be honest, I even feel this way about some of the book interviews that I do on NPR. The topic may be interesting, but not for 300 pages.

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