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How Emily Oster Became One of the Most Respected - and Reviled - Voices of the Pandemic
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=47307"><span class="small">Anna North, Vox</span></a>   
Monday, 26 July 2021 08:24

North writes: "As schools finally prepare to reopen widely, the Ivy League economist and parenting expert reflects on her vastly influential, and polarizing, role."

Emily Oster. (photo: Vox)
Emily Oster. (photo: Vox)

How Emily Oster Became One of the Most Respected - and Reviled - Voices of the Pandemic

By Anna North, Vox

26 July 21

As schools finally prepare to reopen widely, the Ivy League economist and parenting expert reflects on her vastly influential, and polarizing, role.

he face of school reopenings in America isn’t a public health official. It’s not a teacher or a principal. It’s not even President Joe Biden, who made opening school buildings a core goal of his first 100 days.

Instead, it’s Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor previously best known for writing a popular pregnancy advice book.

The fact that an Ivy League economist with no authority whatsoever over public policy became the symbol of the movement to reopen schools is somewhat bizarre, including to Oster. She says she never imagined that her data would be one of the only resources the country had on Covid-19 in schools.

“We’re facing basically this existential threat to schooling for all these kids, and public health,” she remembers thinking, “and the best data that the CDC can marshal on this has been put together by a professor in her basement.”

The story of how Oster has emerged as a singular authority on schools, despite her lack of a background in education policy or pandemic response, starts with an information vacuum.

Last spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic sent much of the country into lockdown, school buildings in all 50 states closed their doors, leaving 55 million kids to learn as best they could from their bedrooms and kitchen tables and turning working parents into full-time caregivers and amateur Zoom facilitators.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of reopening schools soon became one of the biggest political minefields of the pandemic. By summer, parents were exhausted — and worried about kids falling behind. Meanwhile, many teachers were wary of going back into classrooms, especially as cases and deaths skyrocketed and front-line workers in other fields protested unsafe conditions in their workplaces.

It soon became clear that, even as President Trump angrily tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN,” there was little interest at the federal level in studying whether classrooms were actually safe. At one point, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said it simply wasn’t her department’s job to collect data on schools. (“I thought that was the whole job,” Oster says, only half-sarcastically.)

Speaking by Zoom from her parents’ home, where she’d taken her kids on a day off from school in May, Oster was circumspect and self-deprecating, at times seeming uncomfortable with her position in the middle of controversy. Yet as thousands of American schools prepare to reopen fully in-person for the first time since spring 2020, there’s no denying her impact as one of the first and most public voices to call for reopening in the first place.

Last summer, Oster looked at the federal government’s lack of leadership on schools and decided she would have to collect the data herself. So she reached out to school and district leaders around the country, asking them to send her regular updates on Covid-19 infections at their schools.

By early fall 2020, she had built a dashboard with data on schools from 47 states, serving around 200,000 students. She found very low rates of infection — 0.071 percent in students and 0.19 percent in staff as of mid-September. Those numbers convinced her that schools could reopen without triggering major outbreaks. But it seemed like all she saw in media conversations were pictures of crowded school hallways, paired with the assumption that sending children and teachers back to schools would be extremely dangerous. “The things that people were saying were not reflecting what we were seeing in the evidence,” she tells Vox.

Meanwhile, worries about kids’ isolation and learning loss were mounting. Last June, the consultancy McKinsey & Company projected that students could fall an average of seven months behind academically if in-person schooling did not fully return before 2021, with Black and Latinx students losing even more ground. And parents were burning out. Oster, who has two children, 10-year-old Penelope and 6-year-old Finn, was among them. “We set up some kind of crazy structure with outdoor recess and different random stuff,” she says, but still, “it was chaotic.”

So Oster stepped into a role that was new for her: that of advocate. Last October, she wrote an article for the Atlantic headlined “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders” that quickly became one of the most influential — and most reviled — opinion pieces in a pandemic already rife with controversy. Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited Oster’s data as evidence that schools should reopen. Pro-reopening parents hailed her as a hero. Her harshest critics, meanwhile, went so far as to accuse Oster of running a “propaganda campaign under the guise of ‘science.’”

Some epidemiologists and public health experts say Oster underestimated the risks of opening schools, especially in Black, Latinx, and other communities hit hard by the virus. Some critics also argue that, as an economist, she has no business weighing in on matters of public health. And though the debate has changed with the advent of vaccines for adults and teenagers, concerns about unvaccinated children — especially with the more-transmissible delta variant spreading — are all but sure to make schools a contentious issue this fall as well.

Oster says she doesn’t mind being criticized on the merits of her work, but she bristles at the notion that it’s not her place to talk about Covid-19 and schools.

“I find this credentialism frustrating because I think that it is an argument that people use to not bring multiple voices to a debate,” she says. “It’s absolutely true that there are a set of tools that come with epidemiology that I don’t have,” she adds. But she says she believes she has another set of tools — “thinking about risks and analyzing data and looking at evidence” — that are useful in their own right.

Plenty of people have been willing to give Oster’s data-driven approach equal weight with that of the nation’s top health experts. About 65,000 people subscribe to her newsletter, more than 82,000 follow her on Twitter, and she remains a popular commentator in the media on the pandemic and kids.

Oster’s trajectory over the last year is emblematic of the way a failure of federal leadership often left Americans rudderless, with seemingly nowhere to turn for guidance on life-or-death decisions. And now, as schools and the economy reopen and many are reevaluating their relationships to authority, data, and advice, Oster may be most relevant not for the times she’s tried to tell policymakers what to do, but for the times when she’s empowered people to make choices for themselves.

The daughter of two Yale economics professors, Oster had what she describes as a “very lovely, upper-middle-class upbringing” in New Haven. She and her two younger brothers grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of other kids, at a time in the ’80s and ’90s when childhood was perhaps less scheduled than it is today. “We spent a lot of time at the parking lot at the church down the street playing various games where you throw things at people,” she says.

But Oster’s childhood also enabled her to imagine an academic life from an early age. She was precocious, driven, maybe a little nerdy — the kind of kid who could get excited about writing a high school paper on the history of canal shipping in America. Actually, it wasn’t the canals themselves, Oster says. It was that her research showed the conventional wisdom about canals was wrong — rather than being supplanted by railroads, they’d been on the way out long before trains.

Oster’s high school paper, she jokes, “has not been peer-reviewed”; she wouldn’t swear by her canal conclusions today. But the project showed her something about research that she’s carried with her ever since: “The moment when you know something and other people don’t know it,” she says, “that’s just the best moment.”

Oster would go on to challenge conventional wisdom again and again, and on bigger stages than a high school classroom. In her academic work, she’s part of a movement in economics toward using data to study social issues, rather than merely the arcana of money and markets. While working on her PhD in economics at Harvard in her 20s, she came across research showing that pregnant people who are carriers of hepatitis B were more likely to have male children. She wondered whether that could explain the imbalance between male and female births in India, China, and elsewhere in the world — a phenomenon described as a problem of “missing women” by economist Amartya Sen and more typically ascribed to sex-selective abortion or infanticide.

Studying birth data across China, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere, she found that hepatitis B could account for a stunning 50 million of the 100 million women “missing” worldwide. The work attracted public attention, with economist Robert Barro discussing it in a BusinessWeek column, and Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt writing in Slate in 2005 that her analysis showed “economics is particularly useful for challenging a received wisdom.”

The analysis helped make Oster’s name as a rising young economist. It also happened to be wrong. Even before her final paper was published, others in the field were raising questions about her findings. And in a 2008 paper, economists Ming-Jen Lin and Ming-Ching Luoh studied data from 3 million newborns in Taiwan — a much larger sample size than the previous research Oster had seen in graduate school — and found that maternal hepatitis B had only a small effect on the probability of male births. Oster and a team of co-authors confirmed this finding and published their own study, also in 2008, refuting Oster’s previous claim: “Hepatitis B cannot explain skewed sex ratios in China,” they wrote.

The rise and fall of Oster’s work on births led some to condemn the swiftness with which it had been embraced by Levitt and other prominent economists in the first place. It was Oster’s first taste of controversy, and it wasn’t pleasant. A fledgling academic, she’d become known for her work on sex ratios. “Then to have to go back and say that you’re wrong — obviously nobody likes to do that,” she says. But the experience, she adds, also “pushed me to be more careful.”

Indeed, Oster is a cautious speaker — choosing her words meticulously, rarely showing emotion, unfailingly gracious to her critics. What other people might call an upheaval, she describes as a “difficult professional period.” In a media environment that often rewards bomb-throwers and trolls who revel in drama, she’s cast herself as more of a friendly guide to difficult topics, with even some of her most controversial writing pitched at worried parents who want answers rather than commentators who disagree with her.

While she may enjoy challenging the conventional wisdom, she doesn’t enjoy fighting about it. When you become more of a public figure, as she has in the last year, “People yell at you,” she says, sounding more rueful and uncomfortable than resentful. “I always feel really bad about that stuff.”

Despite the “missing women” episode, Oster’s work as an economist has generally won praise. In 2007, before she walked back her findings on hepatitis, the New York Times named her as one of 13 young scholars who represented “the future of economics.” (Jesse Shapiro, whom she married in 2006 and who is also now an economics professor at Brown, was on the list, too.) She presented her research on HIV prevention — her findings suggested that anti-poverty programs, not just safer sex practices, were critical — to President Obama’s Commission on AIDS. “She’s a wonderful data scientist,” David Colander, an economist who studies the evolution of the profession over time, told Vox.

Her real transformation into a public figure, however, started in 2010, when she became pregnant with her daughter Penelope. Used to analyzing reams of data and coming to her own conclusions, she quickly became frustrated with the prescriptive dictates of American prenatal care. When it came to prenatal testing, for example, she wanted to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of different procedures in her particular case. Instead, she says she was told, “We do one of these things for people who are over 35 and one of these things for people who are under 35.”

She wasn’t angry, exactly — “Anger is the wrong word,” she says, with characteristic precision — but the experience did make her want to write a book for other pregnant people, giving them the data she felt she’d been denied.

The result was Expecting Better, which was published in 2013 and quickly became a bible for educated, middle- and upper-class pregnant readers. Poor research, disregard for women’s health, and moralistic ideas about mothers-to-be as perfect vessels for their future kids had made pregnancy for many in America confusing and demoralizing. It’s not clear what’s safe, and the advice, from pregnancy websites to the CDC, often seems to be to just avoid everything: lunch meat, soft cheese, exercise, being sedentary, anxiety, anti-anxiety medication, coffee, and certainly alcohol.

But when Oster dug into the data, she says she found no research showing that light drinking harms a developing fetus, especially in the second and third trimesters. She “drank the occasional glass of wine in the first trimester,” she wrote in Expecting Better, and “I probably would have had more if it hadn’t taken me the whole three months to finish this literature review.”

Expecting Better, which has sold more than 100,000 copies, sparked immediate backlash from public health experts, especially around alcohol. “The conventional pregnancy wisdom is right — do NOT drink while pregnant,” Susan Astley, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at the University of Washington wrote when the book came out. But it also established Oster as a new kind of authority for pregnant people, helping them make their own choices armed with data.

For many readers, Oster’s data-driven but non-didactic approach, treating parents-to-be as smart adults capable of understanding numbers and weighing pros and cons, was a powerful antidote to a culture that seemed to revel in telling moms what to do. “Anything that goes on in a family or with children, people look to the mother,” questioning everything from what she feeds her kids to whether she works outside the home, Bethany L. Johnson, co-author of the book You’re Doing It Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, told Vox. Oster, by contrast, was saying, “You can make this decision, and you can come to a different conclusion as someone else, and that does not make you a bad parent,” Johnson says.

Expecting Better built a devoted fan base, and Oster published a sequel, Cribsheet, devoted to the infant and toddler years, in 2019. That book became an instant New York Times bestseller, and helped cement her popularity among an audience that she now describes as largely made up of coastal-dwelling, college-educated people who like numbers and are “probably fairly anxious.”

Though she continued her academic work, she was increasingly seen publicly as a parenting expert (“She’s on the cover of Parenting Today; she’s not on the cover of The Economist,” Johnson notes). In February 2020, Oster started a newsletter called ParentData, where she figured she’d write about mundane parenting questions like how much to worry about sugar in kids’ diets — “I was going to write about juice,” she says.

It was the month the first Covid-19 death was reported in the United States. By mid-March, ParentData was pretty much all Covid, all the time. At first, readers wanted to know things like whether they should stop trying to conceive because of the pandemic, and what all the additional screen time would do to their kids’ developing brains. But as spring wore on, it became clear that children were falling into a confusing gray area where Covid-19 was concerned. They seemed much less likely to become seriously ill or die from the disease than adults — a conclusion that holds true today — and some evidence suggested they were also less likely to get or spread the virus.

But testing, especially for young children, was lacking, and no one was really sure whether schools and day cares would be safe — or whether they’d be hotbeds for Covid-19, the way they are for colds and other seasonal illnesses that leave kids with months of runny noses in more typical times. Parents, perhaps even more than others in American society last year, were left without answers.

To try to fill the void, Oster devoted several newsletter entries to Covid-19 and child care, including a post offering one of her trademarks: a framework for making decisions (in this case, frame the question, mitigate risk, evaluate risk, evaluate benefits, decide). She also did some informal data collection on day cares, finding low rates of reported coronavirus cases among day care students and staff (though she acknowledged that her data might miss asymptomatic cases among kids).

This was a far cry from juice. The decisions Oster was now talking about could have life-or-death consequences, not just for her readers but for their communities and even the nation, since one person’s decisions around Covid-19 risk can determine whether they spread it to others.

Looking back at the newsletter, “if I had sort of known what it would turn into, I would have been terrified,” Oster says. But at the time, her transition into an authority on kids and Covid happened the same way the pandemic came to dominate American life: bit by bit, then all at once. And by spring, “Everything else was also so scary that it was hard to separate newsletter-related anxiety from just the general anxiety,” she says.

A major source of that general anxiety — for Oster and nearly every other parent in the country — was schools. Oster was already more optimistic about school safety than some, encouraged by the low incidence of severe Covid-19 in children and by data on school reopenings in Europe. But in the US, she says, “It just seemed like there was no data.”

So in August, she launched the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard, which collected information from schools in 47 states. Schools and districts that opted into the project sent the dashboard their Covid-19 case numbers, as well as information on masks, distancing, and other mitigation strategies. The dashboard represented a small fraction of the more than 55 million students in America, as NPR reported at the time, but as schools in some parts of the country began to reopen, Oster hoped it would be enough to draw some conclusions about safety.

By October, she felt she had her answer: As she wrote in that widely read story in the Atlantic, “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.”

Oster didn’t tell districts to throw caution to the wind and open regardless of community spread — in one November interview, she suggested that cities should consider keeping restrictions on restaurants and other venues in place to limit community spread and make schools safer.

But Oster became one of the most high-profile proponents of the view that schools could reopen safely during the pandemic, and that communities had an obligation to try, to protect children from the learning losses and psychological stress that could come from prolonged remote school. “We do not want to be cavalier or put people at risk,” she wrote in the Atlantic. “But by not opening, we are putting people at risk, too.”

Her claim quickly sparked backlash, from epidemiologists who disagreed with her findings, from teachers concerned for their safety, and from ordinary people who feared she was endangering the whole country by advocating for school reopening. “For someone who is known for writing a lot of controversial things, I am oddly thin-skinned when people criticize me,” she wrote in her newsletter at the time. “Instagram is rough.”

One of the most common concerns was that Oster was making her conclusion on the safety of schools “on the basis of really faulty data,” Dominique Heinke, an epidemiologist in North Carolina who has been vocal on Covid and kids, tells Vox.

The schools in the dashboard weren’t a random sample of the American population — principals and district leaders were able to opt in, and those with the money and resources to enforce better mitigation procedures might have been more likely to do so. For example, in 27 states, including Florida, New York, and Mississippi, Oster’s data did not include any urban non-charter public schools, at least as of last October. (Oster says her team has since added such schools in several of those states.)

Moreover, Heinke and others were concerned that cases in children were chronically underreported due to a lack of asymptomatic testing — because kids were less likely to show symptoms, they feared, their infections might be missed, leading them to spread the virus to adults who are more vulnerable to serious illness.

The call to reopen schools also sparked concerns about equity. “If we have high community transmission outside of school walls, we would expect the same thing to happen inside school walls,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and the science communication lead for the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by the Atlantic, says. “And that was happening at a disproportionate rate in Black and brown communities.”

Schools serving a high percentage of Black students and other students of color are also more likely to be in disrepair, with problems like windows that don’t open or sinks that don’t work, making even basic Covid-19 mitigation practices difficult. Some families of color also saw benefits to online school, with Black parents in particular reporting that remote schooling provided a refuge from systemic racism.

“It got too myopic to look at schools as generally safe places, because they don’t exist in vacuums,” Rivera says. “They exist as part of our community.”

In much of her previous work, Oster had spoken to a specific audience — highly educated, relatively affluent, typically white parents — as they hashed out highly personal decisions on questions like whether they’d drink coffee while pregnant.

But when she became an advocate for reopening schools during a deadly pandemic, she was speaking to (and potentially for) a much broader group, including people who didn’t necessarily have the same interests, concerns, or risk profile as the well-heeled readers of her books or newsletter.

Oster’s words were also especially polarizing because they came out at a time when school was, if possible, an even more contentious subject than in the summer. Last fall, most of the country’s largest school districts were still remote, and women were dropping out of the workforce in record numbers, often because of the demands of pandemic child care and schooling. Meanwhile, a surge in infections was underway, and communities around the country had lost teachers — and children — to Covid-19. As fall turned to winter, conflicts between teachers’ unions and pro-reopening parents’ groups grew ever more heated — in January, one Chicago teacher began teaching outside in the snow to protest his district’s plan to reopen classrooms.

In this environment, Oster became perhaps the most visible avatar of one of the country’s bitterest debates. In addition to being cited by the CDC, Oster also consulted with the state of Rhode Island on Covid-19 safety. She’s been credited with helping influence that state to reopen its schools last fall, though she says the credit is due to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo — the governor’s team “just decided in June, ‘We’ll be open in September,’ and they just didn’t waver.”

Meanwhile, she also became a focal point for those who were skeptical of reopenings. For example, when the American Prospect in October published a feature story titled “Why Reopening Schools Has Become the Most Fraught Debate of the Pandemic,” much of it centered on criticisms of Oster’s work.

On the one hand, Oster can’t have been truly surprised that her work on Covid-19 became influential. After all, she had written several op-eds for major outlets on reopening schools. She willingly took on the role of an advocate on the issue because, in her words, her findings “needed to be out there and needed to be something people discussed.”

But in some ways, her prominence was the product of the country’s fragmented and leaderless response to the pandemic. “There shouldn’t have been a need for it,” Heinke says. “No private person, at a university or not, should have had to take this on.”

But private people did. Physicians and public health scholars like Ashish Jha and Leana Wen became household names, making TV appearances and writing op-eds on masks, distancing, and other realities of pandemic life. Epidemiologist Julia Marcus became a well-known proponent of a harm-reduction approach, arguing that giving people ways to socialize more safely, even if it wasn’t completely safe, would lead to better control of the virus. And Oster wasn’t the only one without a medical science background: Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist, became one of the most trusted voices on the behavior of the virus, with widely read articles on masks, superspreaders, and more.

In a time when many Americans no longer trusted CDC guidelines, many were getting their guidance instead from tweets and media articles by their expert of choice. This could be a positive thing, when the experts in question were advocating necessary changes to a broad audience — New York Times media columnist Ben Smith called Tufekci’s March piece on masks “among the most influential The Times has published” and argued that it “certainly saved lives.”

But the incentives for media stories and tweets are different than for scientific papers or CDC guidance documents, something that’s become clear in Oster’s case. This March, she published perhaps her most controversial piece yet, an Atlantic story headlined “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma.”

The core argument was a fairly prosaic one that had been made innumerable times: that children are at relatively low risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19. But what made the piece clicky — and polarizing — was that Oster framed the risk as a comparison: Even without vaccines, kids had about the same risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19 as vaccinated older adults, a group that had already begun socializing again.

The story offered a simple way of thinking about kids and social life at a time when newly or nearly vaccinated parents were trying to figure out how and whether they could reenter society (in the absence, again, of clear guidance from the CDC). It said that parents could “go ahead and plan on barbecues and even vacations” with their unvaccinated kids, and that playdates and camps were likely to be relatively low-risk as well.

The story quickly went viral. It also inspired perhaps even more intense backlash than her October piece on schools.

“This is a horrible horrible garbage take,” epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding (himself a subject of significant controversy) tweeted at the time. “I can’t believe @TheAtlantic published this garbage.”

Others were more measured but no less horrified. “Kids are definitely not ‘like your vaccinated grandparent,’” tweeted Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. “Emily Oster’s analysis has annoyed me throughout the pandemic, but this one takes the cake,” sociologist Sarah Bowen wrote. “NOT ONCE in this article does she consider the possibility that unvaccinated kids could spread infections to the (hotel, restaurant, theme park) workers who make these vacations possible.”

Many experts were worried that Oster’s words would convince people they didn’t need to get their children vaccinated, or confuse people about the very concept of vaccination at a critical time when the shots were (as they are today) the world’s best hope of ending the pandemic.

“Vaccination is a very specific term that means a very specific thing,” Rivera says. “Not being precise with terms like that is really, really dangerous.”

Oster responded to the firestorm with an apology in her newsletter, writing that the analogy between unvaccinated children and vaccinated adults “is only a partial one, and it should not have been highlighted in the headline of the piece, where it lacked context and qualifiers.”

But stripping out context and qualifiers is always one of the potential hazards of writing for a popular audience — it’s a trap many economists fall into, Colander, who studies the economics field, says. “There is so much ambiguity as to what the data are saying, and when people are presenting it, they present it on one side or the other,” he says. She “has to have a point of view” and go beyond what “the pure data analysts would say.”

Colander says he thinks economists shouldn’t be making policy recommendations because there’s no way to do so without ideological bias. Instead, they should help the public understand “the right way to approach policy.”

But, “being sort of neutral,” he says, “that doesn’t sell.”

Oster acknowledges that when she writes in a mainstream publication, there’s not as much space for nuance or caveats as there would be in an academic paper. But, she says, when she writes about something controversial in a public forum, “I try to have a high bar for whether I think it is something people need to hear.” For her, publicizing her data on schools cleared that bar.

It’s also true that taking a bold position on school reopenings definitely has sold, at least in some ways. She’s better-known now than she ever has been, and not just in parenting circles.

But the publicity has come at a cost, one that’s not easy to bear for someone without a natural appetite for controversy. Being one of the “faces of school reopening has had pluses in the sense that I think that we’ve done good things for kids, but has not always been enjoyable,” she says.

After the March dust-up, she took a break from Twitter. The Covid-19 schools dashboard is still operating, but she doesn’t want to continue her role as a public advocate around schools — “or at least not in this way,” she says. Instead, she hopes some of the data she’s gathered could be used to answer questions about how much the pandemic disrupted students’ learning.

With schools set to reopen in most places in a matter of weeks, the debate around Covid-19 and kids is far from over. But with vaccinations for adults now widely available, it’s taken on a different tenor, with the CDC urging all schools to reopen fully in-person. The remaining questions now are largely about masks and other mitigation measures, as well as the needs of immunocompromised children for whom the virus may be higher risk. And while concerns about equity and decrepit school buildings remain, many prominent epidemiologists and public health experts now say what Oster has been arguing since last fall: Schools should be among the last places to shut down in any Covid-19 outbreak. Oster’s statement that schools aren’t superspreaders “was completely correct,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California San Francisco, tells Vox.

And in the months and years to come, Oster anticipates spending more time on books and her newsletter, answering parenting questions that, hopefully, will again become more mundane. That will involve less advocacy and more of the “stuff that I like the best, which is trying to help people navigate this period of their life” — the period of getting pregnant, having children, and trying to figure out how to raise them.

To that end, her new book, The Family Firm, picks up where Cribsheet left off. It’s a bit like what Colander suggests: a way to approach family decision-making, informed by economics.

“For most of the decisions that felt big, weighty, and important,” when her children were very young, Oster writes in the introduction, “there was at least some data to hang my hat on.” But as they got older, “the problems felt more specific, more unique. The data alone couldn’t help me.”

Instead, Oster lays out a framework for making choices around schools, camps, family dinners, and more: frame the question, fact-find, make a final decision, and follow up. As kids get older, she tells Vox, “there is a bigger image of what you want your life to look like, and these individual choices we make are going to shape that.” So instead of trying to use data to answer questions like whether to hold a child back in kindergarten an extra year (a relatively common practice called “redshirting” that parents employ if they feel their child needs more time to mature before starting first grade), Oster says, “I want to tell you how to make this choice in a bigger sense.”

The result may be less satisfying for parents looking for quick answers, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that quick answers aren’t always the best ones.

Indeed, Oster says she revised much of The Family Firm with the lessons of parenting in the pandemic in mind. For parents in the last 15 months, “It’s hard to ever feel like, ‘I’m definitely sure this is going to be right,’” Oster says. “And you have to make a decision anyway.”

Her solution for parents: “The way to be happy with your decision is not to know that you made the right choice, but to know that you had a good process.”

Looking back at her own process over the last year, there are some things she’d do differently — “oh my God, so many things,” she laughs. She would have written her Atlantic piece on unvaccinated children differently, she says, or perhaps she might not have written it at all.

“But I think there’s a broader lesson in that particular episode for me, which is that the platform that I’m working with is larger than it was before,” she says. And “there is a responsibility in that that was not there before.”

For now, she’s taking that responsibility by going back to what drew a lot of fans to her in the first place: giving people the numbers and letting them decide. your social media marketing partner