Derek Thompson Profile picture
Writer at @TheAtlantic. Host of podcast CRAZY/GENIUS. Author of book HIT MAKERS. Talker on NPR's @hereandnow and @CBSNews. derek[at]theatlantic[dot]com
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1 Apr
So, I wrote about Alex Berenson.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
Berenson says lot of confused and concern-trolly things about vaccines. Via email, I asked him to lay out his case for vaccine skepticism.

He replied.

Then I shared his claims with scientists.

They called his theories “absolutely stupid,” “simple fear-mongering,” and “bogus.”
Berenson's claims about the immune system show either a total misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation of normal immune-system behavior.
Read 10 tweets
29 Mar
I wrote about how mRNA technology could change the world

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

Here are 5 favorite details from the piece
1. How the failures of HIV-vaccine efforts ironically accelerated the development of the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and J&J vaccines.

When HIV-vax researchers realized that established methods weren't working, they pushed into wacky areas like … synthetic mRNA.
2. How BioNTech, Pfizer's partner, plans to use what it learned from the COVID vaccines to accelerate its efforts to design individualized cancer therapies by targeting the proteins associated with specific tumors
Read 7 tweets
26 Mar
Before my Florida piece, I spoke to many people who were astonished by the mask-wearing diff between northeast metros and Florida.

After it published, I've heard from a lot of FL ppl who say their communities take masks and distancing v seriously despite the governor's approach.
At least 2 lessons here.

1. Florida is a big place.

2. One answer to the Florida mystery—how did it have only avg mortality in an "open"ish economy with so many old people?—is that the public, and seniors in particular, used masks and distancing far more than DeSantis insisted.
Florida is being held up, by some, as proof that masks and distancing don't work, or are dramatically overrated.

One reason I think that's wrong is their impression of Florida's mask/distancing protocols is a caricature of the state's actual behavior.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
Read 4 tweets
24 Mar
I talked to Princeton sociologist @patrick_sharkey about America's crime surge.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

It's not just the mass shootings. 2020 had the most gun deaths of any year in US history and was, on a per capita basis, the most violent year of this century. Why?
If you have a deep need for single-cause answers to complicated questions, definitely don't read this story, or any other story, about why crime rises and falls. There are things we know for sure about this surge of violence—and then there's a tug-of-war over interpretation
So, what we know. Violent crime surged by its highest rate in many decades to its highest level in many decades. Fatal shootings rose more than 40% in several cities, including

Madison: 60%
Sacramento: 51%
Milwaukee: 47%
Atlanta: 46%
New York: 44%
Minneapolis: 43%
Boston: 41%
Read 7 tweets
23 Mar
Everybody is wrong about Florida

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
1. Liberals and a lot of public health experts were wrong:

They predicted COVID would specially ravage FL, given its YOLO policies and elderly population. But the state is still officially reporting fewer deaths-per-million than the national average and nearby states.
2. Conservatives are wrong:

There is a lot of chest-beating about how the Florida economy is kicking ass. But as far as I can tell, its economic performance is—kind of like its pandemic performance—much more *average* than the national narrative would make you think.
Read 6 tweets
17 Mar
Shutting down half the economy and losing half a million lives anyway is totally unacceptable.

If we're gonna have 1 pandemic per decade—as we have this century—the U.S. must develop "institutional memory" to ensure this horror show never happens again.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
I asked experts what they considered the "original sin" of our COVID response.

To my surprise, there was strong unison: Our testing fiasco was the early failure that made every other failure worse and every hard decision harder.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
With more and faster tests, the U.S. would have benefited, at least a little, in almost every thinkable capacity: We would have had greater and faster epidemiological knowledge, less stringent lockdowns, a more open economy, and fewer overall deaths.
Read 4 tweets
15 Mar
Seeing lots of people RT this and similarly gloomy analysis about how the US won't spend money in the pandemic. It's just wrong.

Many ways to evaluate a nation's response to COVID. But by fiscal impact—spending and tax cuts—U.S. relief is among the biggest in the world.
Here's the IMF global analysis.

imf.org/en/Topics/imf-…

Different countries use a variety of spending, tax,and loan program. But the U.S. fiscal response was the 2nd highest in the world in January—larger than any European country—before counting then entire Biden relief bill.
There is an unhelpfully doom-pilled approach to Twitter, where the game isn't to figure out true stuff, but rather to sign on with one's most pessimistic and disappointed opinion about the world, irrespective of accuracy, then collect some commiseration tokens and peace.
Read 4 tweets
7 Mar
i think it would help the discourse to have a more sophisticated theory of—and maybe a word for—instances when perceived cancellations create publicity and riches for the cancelled party
We have a Streisand Effect: efforts to remove information often ironically publicize that information

It needs a Cancel Culture Corollary: the perception of unfair cancellation often leads to more subscriptions, or purchases
what I need is a PhD student in Internet sociology to write the following dissertation asap: "Cancel Culture or Can-Sell Culture? On the Merchandization and Mendacity of Cultural Stigma in 21st Century America"

Read 4 tweets
17 Feb
I really appreciate the early responses to this article

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

I think two somewhat related issues deserve amplification:

1) The surprisingly global decline of COVID cases
2) The possibility that these explainers are still staring into the fog of pandemic
The COVID retreat looks pretty global. Cases are falling in the U.S., and they're falling in Canada, and the UK. They're falling in Europe, and they're falling in Africa. They're even falling in .... South Africa.
I think that the 4 variables I analyzed—partial immunity, seasonality, behavior, and vaccination—together explain a great deal of why cases have declined in the U.S. so suddenly and why hospitalizations are likely to keep going down.

But clearly this is a global mystery.
Read 4 tweets
13 Feb
To vaccinate America by this summer, we don't face one challenge but rather 4 bottlenecks:

1. regulatory approval
2. vaccine supply
3. shot distribution/eligibility
4. demand for vaccines

This is my proposal to solve all four bottlenecks.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
1. Approve the AstraZeneca vaccine

@PeterHotez: “If we don’t accelerate the pace of vaccinations, we’re looking at an apocalypse ... The first out-of-the-box thing I’d do right now is release the AstraZeneca vaccine."
2. Test "First Doses First"

@ashishkjha: “I am really anxious about the next two months ... The best argument against FDF is that it goes off script from what the clinical trials suggest. But one way to solve the data shortage is to get more data.”
Read 5 tweets
8 Feb
One theme that's emerged from my reporting and writing recently across cash welfare, public health communication, and vaccine eligibility is that I don't think we have enough of an appreciation for the virtue of SIMPLICITY in public policy.
In economics, I think the last ten years have really taken a sledgehammer to the idea that, eg, complex nudges are always best for changing public behavior. The Obama WH learned you don't get credit for policies that are designed to be sneakily invisible.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
But the benefits of simplicity aren't just for "audiences" or "the public."

As @kjhealy argues, overcomplicated nuance can gum up our understanding of our own minds, our own theories, and our ability to communicate them to others. IOW: "Fuck nuance."

kieranhealy.org/files/papers/f…
Read 5 tweets
8 Feb
I wrote about Hygiene Theater and the challenge of navigating the fog of pandemic science.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

“Follow the science” is practically a cliche now. But who do you trust when scientific research is saying two completely different things at once?
In the last six months, it’s become near-consensus that surface-transmission of COVID-19 is very rare and that our efforts should be focused on masks, distancing, and ventilation.

But there are still new studies claiming to show that the virus survives for ONE MONTH on surfaces
The scariest fomite studies use too much virus and set ideal conditions for its survival. It's like wanting to prove you can grow mangoes in Vermont, so you build a $1b greenhouse in Burlington to produce one edible mango and say "Hey, mangoes grow in Vermont! Science says!"
Read 5 tweets
6 Feb
It looks like new hospitalizations have declined so quickly that it's opened up a huge disconnect with deaths.

Hospitalizations are down to late-November levels while deaths are still at mid-January levels.
Cross forces here:

1. Deaths lag hospitalizations by a few weeks, typically, which suggests we should see deaths start to really decline quickly.

2. New variants could push up cases/hospitalizations just as deaths plunge.
FWIW, any effect of the new variants on daily-case decline isn't face-smackingly obvious from glancing at the national 7-day average (which I forbid you from taking me to say that the new variants aren't a problem, bc they are)
Read 4 tweets
1 Feb
At first, I thought remote work was a chaotic forced experiment that would snap back to normal after vaccines.

I've changed my mind. In fact, I think most ppl are underrating how likely things have changed for good & how broad the implications could be.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
You don’t need 90% remote (or even 20%) for things to get weird.

In 2015, just ~10% of U.S. retail was e-commerce, by some measures. But that was enough for online shopping to have a massive effect on retail overall. Could be the same for remote work.
What was holding back remote work for most of this century wasn’t technology. It was culture. Telecommuting had a telephone problem.

i.e.: "How do I adopt this communications tech if I’m not confident that most people around me know how to use it?"
Read 7 tweets
28 Jan
This week, the CDC finally called for children to return to classrooms as soon as possible, saying it didn't have enough data in September to make the same judgment.

But September was 100 days ago. A cascade of research has been published in the last few months. Let's review:
By September, researchers like Michael Osterholm were reversing earlier hypotheses that schools would likely fuel outbreaks.

A national dashboard of school cases compiled by @ProfEmilyOster showed that "schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19"
More recently, a Norway study traced ~200 children ages 5 to 13 with COVID, finding no cases of secondary spread.

eurosurveillance.org/content/10.280…

A Duke study of 35 NC school districts with in-person teaching found no cases of child-to-adult spread in schools.

cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspecti…
Read 7 tweets
12 Jan
The very emotional discussion right now about whether Twitter has the right to de-platform Trump should widen the lens and see that the list of corporations that essentially came to the same conclusion include such famous wokesters such as (checks notes) the PGA and Deutsche Bank
A debate about big tech's power and the rights of posters is overdue in DC, and tech firms identifying ideologies for cancellation is a dangerous path. But let's be clear about what's happening here: a widespread private sector blackout of an insurrectionist conspiracy-monger.
I'm sorry, as much as I care about freedom of speech and commerce, I just cannot bring myself to shed tears that Trump might struggle to build an MLM empire off of "you can still help me stop the steal by buying these frozen meats"
Read 6 tweets
11 Jan
Completely fascinating essay by @AlvaroDeMenard on expertise in the 21st century.
1. There is something ... interesting ... about the fact that evidence of expert infallibility is falling (recall: "masks don't work") at the same time that demand for infallible expertise is rising ("social media platforms should just delete everything that isn't true").
2. The Internet creates a kind of magic-eye theory of reality—you can find The Real Truth if you just look hard enough!—at the same time that real expertise is getting harder and harder to come by, because of rising knowledge burdens in science.
Read 4 tweets
10 Jan
Something Arlie Hochschild told me that I can't shake this week is the ways modern politics has become hyper-fluent in the language of suffering.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…

Once you see it—all politics (and esp. Trumpism) as the Suffering Olympics—it’s impossible to unsee.
Here’s Hawley, days after fist-pumping an insurrection attempt that killed several people. Basically: Biden criticized me in a speech that also mentioned Goebbels in a different context, so don’t forget who’s really suffering this week (hint: it’s me)

fox4kc.com/news/hawley-sp…
Here’s Rep. Madison Cawthorn, days after speaking at a rally that killed a bunch of people and broke a zillion laws, reminding us who’s really had a rough week: the president’s metaphorical tongue

Read 9 tweets
6 Jan
“So far, [Georgia] counties that have fully reported are on average three points more Democratic than the presidential election results in those counties.“ - @gelliottmorris newsletter
Read 4 tweets
27 Jul 20
I wrote about “Hygiene Theater”—how restaurants, gyms, and subways have wasted millions of dollars on fancy cleaning plans to defeat a mostly airborne plague and made Americans more confused and unsafe in the process.

theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
What is hygiene theater?

It's restaurants bragging about power-scrubbing tables ... before inviting patrons inside to share stale indoor air.

It's the NYC subway shutting down its service at night to spend $100 million on antimicrobial blasting during a budget shortfall.
COVID-19 is overwhelmingly more likely to spread via large droplets (coughs) and aerosolized droplets (saliva spray from talkers) than from surfaces.

That means: wear masks, keep distance, go outdoors.

Surfaces ("fomites") are often a distraction.

thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/…
Read 5 tweets
26 Jul 20
Mask wearing is a lot more popular than you think.

huffpost.com/entry/face-mas…

Percent saying people should wear masks in public:

All Americans: 70%
Democrats: 92%*
GOP: 68%**
______

* GOP thinks only 71% of Dems support
** Democrats think only 30% of GOP supports Image
Upshots:

1. For a sharply polarized country, mask wearing is surprisingly popular.
2. There is a 24-point partisan gap in mask wearing.
3. Both sides underestimate the other party's position on masks.
4. Democrats' underestimation of GOP mask preferences is particularly large.
Anticipating the inevitable comments: Yes, this is a poll, not an ethnography.

A poll isn't going to tell you how many ppl are actually wearing masks properly. It's possible both parties are overstating their IRL mask behavior, but I don't know who's overstating it more.
Read 4 tweets