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Sensemaker, 16 October 2020

Friday 16 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • In simultaneous but separate TV town halls, Trump wouldn’t disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory and Biden wouldn’t rule out packing the US Supreme Court (more below).
  • Convoys of Turkish nationalists blocked streets in Istanbul’s Armenian district as the death toll from fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh rose above 300.
  • Russia pulled out of talks with Austria and the Netherlands over responsibility for the shooting down of flight MH17.

Covid and trust. Can European governments walk and chew gum at the same time? Can they fight the virus and at the same time make a proper study of why their efforts to stop its spread are failing?

The question matters because confirmed case numbers for the continent as a whole have been rising at more than 100,000 a day for the past week. Europe now accounts for a third of all new infections. The Czech Republic and Slovakia, which handled the first wave with minimal spread, are drowning under the second. Germany recorded more than 5,000 new cases on Wednesday – more than on any day since the spring. Italy recorded 7,332 – a record for the pandemic.

How to respond? Britain and France (9,908 and 12,535 cases per million respectively) offer an interesting comparison:

  • The UK government this week introduced a three-tiered system of restrictions as an alternative to another national lockdown, and immediately found itself bargaining with mayors and local authorities over the balance between the health of people and the health of the economy. Boris Johnson’s position on a public inquiry is: “at the appropriate time.”
  • In France, Emmanuel Macron declared a curfew for up to six weeks for Paris and eight other cities and at the same time police searched the homes of the former prime minister and current health minister as part of a court-ordered investigation of the government’s generally poor handling of the crisis. The current PM, Jean Castex, is also being investigated.

It’s hard to imagine police searching the home of Matt Hancock, the UK’s health secretary, or sitting down to question Johnson on his Covid strategy. It’s not hard to see in Johnson’s sliding approval numbers a collapse of trust in his government. France, like the UK, failed to create an effective test and trace system over the summer and its restaurateurs are confused and angry about new rules on when they can open. But the French broadly back the “state of health emergency” Macron has declared.

The lesson may be that you build trust by accepting scrutiny, and lose it at your peril. Starting next month, Tortoise is holding its own inquiry into the UK government’s Covid response, because someone has to.

In the app today… In the final installment of our file on Happy the elephant and animal rights, Sharon Redrobe of Twycross Zoo makes the case for treating animals as animals, but better. Sign up for our lunchtime Sensemaker Live ThinkIn on America and the world, with Anne Applebaum, Greg Swenson, Ian Buruma and Julian Borger; and for our members’ open house on Monday.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The price of failure
Yesterday we brought you a story of well-remunerated consultants being paid £10 million by the UK government to work on test and trace. Today the FT looks more closely at the £10 billion-worth of no-bid contracts handed out in all by the same government in the rush to cope with Covid. It focuses on one for £280,000 for “leadership support”, awarded with no competition to the former CEO of a bankrupt outsourcing firm. Debbie White’s smart move after stepping away from the remnants of that firm seems to have been to take an unpaid role at the Department for Health and Social Care helping to set up a network of testing centres. Right place, right time, may be putting it too charitably.

New things technology, science, engineering

Drone wars
China is testing suicide drones, a swarm of munitions which loiter in the air before attacking a target, according to a video published yesterday in the Times. Drone swarms, although still in their infancy, are seen by many armed forces across the world as the future of warfare, or, as we put it earlier this year, as the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Including by Britain: the MOD’s recent Integrated Operating Report stated that armed forces will be “increasingly vulnerable to swarms of self-coordinating smart munitions perhaps arriving at hypersonic speeds or ballistically from space”. And in a speech last week Tony Radakin, the head of the Royal Navy, declared that he was “confident enough to swap ships for drones”. War is hell. It’s also changing.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Wild about carbon
A study in Nature says restoring – or rewilding – 15 per cent of land that humans have degraded could remove from the atmosphere nearly a third of all the excess carbon emitted since the start of the industrial revolution, and boost biodiversity. This recalls the controversial paper on the carbon sequestration potential of planting a trillion trees, led by Thomas Crowther, who we interviewed at the start of this year, and whose critics said he exaggerated that potential and neglected biodiversity. What the studies have in common is a planetary-scale approach to mapping land available for carbon storage, multiplying hectares by tonnes of CO2 equivalent and producing enormous numbers (in this case 299 gigatonnes of CO2e). Both are great exercises in conception. Just add enlightened world government.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Ebola breakthrough
Six years after a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people, and more than four decades after the virus was first discovered, the US Food and Drug Administration has finally approved the world’s first treatment for the disease. The drug, Inmazeb, is produced by Regeneron, whose experimental antibody cocktail formed part of Trump’s recent treatment for the coronavirus. It’s good news for the Democratic Republic of Congo, currently in the midst of its eleventh Ebola outbreak. It could also be good news for the fight against Covid-19. The PALM trial in which the drug was tested was the first major attempt to conduct a rigorous, safe, clinical trial while dealing with an active epidemic. It succeeded. And the drug itself uses the same monoclonal antibody technology as the treatment given to Trump for Covid-19. If Bill Gates is hopeful for the prospect of monoclonal antibodies, we should be too.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

“You ain’t Black”
Joe Biden apologised for those words after uttering them earlier in his campaign as part of a riff on whether he or Trump had done more to earn the Black vote. (“If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”) In last night’s town hall in Pennsylvania he was given a chance to apologise again. He didn’t take it. Instead he invoked the memory of “my buddy John Lewis”, the civil rights leader who died this year, and pledged to focus on helping Black people accumulate wealth should he become president.

Nothing about last night’s parallel town halls cut through like NBC’s Savannah Guthrie reminding Trump he was president of the US, not “someone’s crazy uncle”. But whether Biden can persuade young Black voters he’s a genuine reformer rather than an ageing legislator complicit in the mass incarceration of young Black men could swing a swing state or two on 3 November.

opinion: chris cook

Let’s cancel exams for 2021

The starting position for the UK government when it comes to the pandemic and education has been that we should pretend, as far as possible, that nothing has changed. Hence academics continue to teach in person, even as the coronavirus races through undergraduate populations. And the madness, this summer, of trying to pretend we had held school exams – even issuing grades for them.

This week, in that vein, the government announced that A-levels and GCSE exams would go ahead in England in 2021. This is an error.

A high-stakes exam series is a dangerous thing to run during a lethal pandemic. We are talking about 16- to 18-year-olds: people who may be better placed to withstand the disease, but are eminently capable of spreading it. Besides, we want pupils and teachers to be able to self-isolate without penalty. The educational benefits would need to be strong to justify the risk from exams. I am not clear they are.

Start at the top: an exam measures an entrant’s ability to cram a certain amount of information and hit a mark scheme. The process is intended to measure a candidate’s recall of a subject on a given day.

But people outside schools use exam grades for something else. We outsiders use them to identify people who will do well in a given subject in future years. To use the jargon, we use grades for their “predictive validity”. We rely on GCSEs and A-levels to find students who will be “good at maths” or “good at history” at higher levels.

You can see this in university behaviour. Generally, the universities have fiercely resisted attempts to get involved in determining the content of these exams. But Cambridge did attack ministers about the abolition of the old AS-level because it had good predictive validity. And when exams are changedgrades are changed or new qualifications introduced, they are checked over to see how well they predict future success.

There are always issues with using exams in this way: poorer pupils need to have a greater aptitude for the same subject to get the same grades as richer ones. And while there are (imperfect) processes in place that attempt to account for this, the noise in the results this year may drown out any signal.

After all, since March, when the schools shut, there has been just over one month or so of normal-ish tuition. What pupils have received has been wildly variable.

And the crisis is not over. Schools in areas with higher prevalence will be more seriously disrupted by the virus. A child whose family or class self-isolate will, similarly, lose ground.

While we can run exams this summer that will accurately measure what each entrant knows on exam day about a domain of knowledge, we cannot run exams that will have robust validity. The top students may just have had a lucky pandemic.

Still, in a letter to the Telegraph, one group of educationalists has expressed the view that exams must go ahead. Such is their iron certainty, they also specify how many As and A*s should be awarded (there is no virus deadly enough to make a certain type of British teacher stop thinking grade inflation is the real peril).

They do call for moderation in favour of children who have suffered particularly from the pandemic. But they would repeat the error of this past summer: the information required to do this does not exist – can we identify the children sharing a laptop with siblings?

This entire scheme will not work. Whatever the grade levels we aim for, we are likely to end up with a barrel-load more grade inflation: issuing a child too low a grade is a non-trivial error, so we will probably respond by boosting grades. It is entirely possible we will end up in the same type of crisis next year as we did this year.

So how about something like this: prepare to abandon mandatory exams for the departing cohorts this year. If they must have grades, get their schools to issue them using different grades – perhaps on a pass/merit/distinction basis – so they cannot be compared with other years. Change the qualification name, perhaps.

This would help in several ways.

First, rather than trying to figure out how to robustly say who would deserve an A*, we can choose new awarding criteria that can be assessed by teachers without exams.

Second, we can be generous without worrying about grade inflation. You can’t get any inflation in a time series with one data point.

And, finally – most importantly – this process would be honest. It does not wish away our problems. If you cannot issue a grade with the same properties as in previous years, do not pretend to. We want outsiders to treat these A-levels differently, and changing the grading forces them to. For the qualification-holder, it is much easier to explain that “my A-level looks weird because it’s a pandemic A-level – you can google it,” than it is to explain an unfair low grade.

There are lots of downsides to this plan: discipline may suffer. But schools will still have control of issuing certificates. And exams may be a half-dead rubber anyway. Universities and colleges would be daft to make offers conditional on mechanically getting certain grades when no-one knows how grades will be distributed.

Without data from the A-level and GCSE, some students will start on inappropriate courses at universities and colleges. Some students will have insufficient subject knowledge to progress. We will need a bit of care about that. But all institutions will need to admit people who are not where they normally want them to be. That is why two experienced vice-chancellors have already proposed abandoning the A-level for this year – and using the extra time in the school year to help students catch up.

Robust public exams are a good thing. The GCSE, in particular, is a qualification worth preserving. But that is precisely why I would pause for this year. Nothing will do more damage to the qualification system than a second year of exam disasters.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood