Statistician Nate Silver is facing a backlash on social media for comparing school closures due to COVID with the decision to go to war in Iraq.
The founder of website FiveThirtyEight was commenting on the policy by some school districts to have students return to remote learning because of soaring Omicron infections and staffing shortages.
MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan tweeted it was “insane” for Silver to compare “school closures to protect kids and teachers from a deadly virus, to a war of choice that killed 100s of 1000s of innocent men, women, & children. Ladies and gents, we may have the worst take of 2022 already.”
The criticism of Silver followed a Twitter thread in which Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, said there was a “lot of liberal pundit handwringing to the effect of ‘we can close schools now that we know of the great harms to kid’s mental health.'”
She said: “Is anyone pushing closures that aren’t solely prompted by staff shortages due to their own infections?”
In a follow-up message, Jeffery wrote that “pundits seem to be fighting the last war. Excepting SFUSD,” referring to the San Francisco Unified School District, whose officials want schools to stay open. She said that “even SFUSD isn’t headed toward indefinite closures.”
Silver responded to Jeffery’s tweet, writing: “Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?”
Jeffery then addressed Silver directly, tweeting: “You think this was a policy decision… equivalent to the deaths of 460,000 people and the destabilizing of an entire region And…do you think parents and educators have not been reflecting?”
Silver replied: “Yeah, I think depriving tens of millions of school children of an in-person education for a year or longer is absolutely on that magnitude. No question.”
Journalist James Fallows tweeted in the thread that while “school closures were a mistake,” the decision was made in “conditions of genuine fluid uncertainty. Nothing about Iraq decision is comparable.”
Silver responded by tweeting “sometimes, large mistakes are made under conditions of uncertainty, even by good, well-meaning people,” and later appeared to clarify he was criticizing a decision whose consequences were not fully known.
“The evidence points toward this being a really bad decision. And it’s a high-stakes, tantamount-to-going-to-war decision,” Silver said.
Making a moral equivalence between the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 with school closures sparked further criticism. “Words fail,” tweeted journalist Aaron Rupar.
TV critic Roxana Hadadi tweeted: “I finally saw the Nate Silver tweet, which is so grotesque that it’s time for bed.”
“There’s no comparison between the immediate consequences of school closures, serious though they’ve been, and the immediate consequences of the Iraq War,” tweeted author James Surowiecki.
Journalist Edward Ongweso Jr. was more direct, tweeting: “One involves depriving children of school. The other involves a barbarous invasion that KILLED children, STARVED children, IRRADIATED children, MAIMED children, what a stupid f**king take.”
Imani Gandy, journalist and podcast host, tweeted: “Imagine how little value you have to place on the lives of Iraqi people to compare American kids having to learn on zoom to Iraqi kids LITERALLY DYING. Nate Silver should never EVER be taken seriously again. That tweet is sociopathic.”
Newsweek has contacted FiveThirtyEight for comment.
Even though some of the country’s largest school districts have reopened this week, the return to the classroom for students at thousands of K-12 schools has been disrupted by the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus strain.
Chicago Public Schools canceled classes after the teachers’ union voted to switch to remote learning.
Some districts have delayed the end of the holiday break or shifted to remote instruction, such as Atlanta Public Schools, which is holding virtual classes for the first week in January.
President Joe Biden has said that schools should stay physically open despite the wave of coronavirus cases driven largely by the Omicron variant. Biden said on Tuesday: “We know that our kids can be safe when in school.”