The Brutal Attack on Scientific Dissent
by Paul Alexander
The Covid-19 pandemic has been catastrophic and devastating for those who have succumbed to it. The important issue for us societally and globally is that the risk group is defined and we know much better in March 2021 how to target and manage a response. March 2021 is not February 2020.
Moreover, the benefits of the governmental actions – lockdowns – have been overly overstated and inflated while the harms have been devastating. Those include harms to our children, the poorer children and minority children, undiagnosed and untreated diseases, excess mortality in years to come from the lockdowns, the escalating suicide and drug overdoses from the lockdowns, the crushing domestic abuse and child abuse, sexual abuse of our children, the massive psychological harms, lost jobs and closed businesses, and the far-reaching catastrophic impact on women and poorer children.
Senior pandemic experts have written extensively on why such measures are not to be used in a pandemic and why they never advocated for these punitive actions even when they were considering epidemics and pandemics with greater lethality. They understood the ramifications and sadly, we as societies are now left to pick up the pieces but with no end in sight to these restrictive crushing, often unscientific, unsound, and illogical mandates.
Sadly, as part of the responding, governments are now faced with considering setting laws and also enhancing existing ones that would protect academic freedom and hold accountable those who threaten academic freedom by their reactions, reactions that are too often threatening and slanderous to contrarian and skeptical viewpoints of these questionable and often failed edicts and mandates. Globally we have seen a sharp rise in verbal and social media online attacks on persons who hold contrarian views on Covid-19 societal lockdown policies that have been implemented.
What are these contrarians guilty of? Their guilt stems from voicing well-founded doubts and reservations about the value and effectiveness of societal lockdowns and other governmental policies as a Covid-19 response. Their crime is that they wish to consider both the harms of the virus and the totality of the impact of the policies and mandates. A consideration of the impact of the policies in an objective manner. A much broader view than simply the basic science and lethality of the pathogen. These contrarians, some as policy experts with a medical and research scientist background, are arguing against the utility and need for policies and mandates that seem arbitrary, have been very destructive on societies, and are essentially unsound and wholly unscientific.
Moreover, if you are considered a conservative politically (whether you are or not), then you are in double jeopardy and subject to a further depth of hostility and acrimony, often by academic peers. What has become clear is that across the board, politics has invaded science and politics has been a rate limiting step in Covid-19 responding by governments, public health systems, and medical experts. Very serious far-reaching decisions are being made that are altering societal structure and function, and it is politics that is underpinning the decision-making, and not the science. What is incredible is that those who oppose and question the societal restrictions are being blamed for the failures of these policies that were broadly implemented. Not the failed policy itself, just the act of questioning it.
The invidious, vicious, malicious, and brutal career altering attacks are against those who dare to speak out and voice their often ‘expert’ opinions against Covid-19 orthodoxies, and originate from persons (often those in the research medical community) who disagree with a contrarian’s position on Covid-19 public health policies. There is a punishing terrorisation, intimidation and maligning that arises from the vicious attacks on contrarian or skeptical academics, that often results in tremendous and crushing losses to the contrarian’s personal safety, welfare, and livelihood. There is this ‘cancel culture mob mentality’ that ensues, and the threats and harassment are very troubling, even when the skeptical academic(s) lays out their view based on actual data, evidence, and science.
The attacks speak to a cognitive dissonance of sorts whereby only the current policies and views of the enabling decision-makers are to be considered. Only what they think is correct. No dissent, no debate. However, it is becoming understood now that many academics and research scientists do disagree and some disagree extensively with the government lockdown policies yet are very afraid to speak out given they know they will be derided, attacked, slandered, and smeared.
On first blush one could easily dismiss the woke culture and media mob as nutjobs and all of it as being trivial, nonsense, and illogical. However, make no mistake, they know what they are doing and who their targets are and the calamitous damage they inflict on innocent people is broad, deep, far reaching, and consequential as they pathologize dissent and marginalize unwelcomed voices in their ‘Age of Lysenkoism.’ What is even more outrageous is that those who have implemented the draconian and punitive societal restrictions that have accrued so much devastation will not even consider reassessing their policies to see how and why they failed, when alternative viewpoints are tabled. No, their approach is to use the rabid hysterical media to go on the attack, to smear, and blame the contrarians who questioned these failed policies and mandates, for the very failure of the policies and mandates that were implemented. It has gotten to a point now where the media has garnered near zero credibility and the public believes near zero in terms of what the media prints.
Sweden has said enough and has now responded by taking leadership in protecting academic freedom by seeking to amend its Higher Education Act, and this is long overdue. “To strengthen academic freedom, the Swedish government has proposed a new amendment that points out that education and research must be protected to enable people to freely discover, research, and share knowledge.” The reality is that this crisis of contrarian positions has all come about due to the devastating and crushing harms that accrue societally due to the Covid-19 inspired societal lockdowns, business closures, school closures, and mask mandates.
For example, academics and scientists such as Dr. Scott Atlas and authors of the Great Barrington Declaration who are routinely attacked have called for a more ‘balanced’ approach to Covid-19 responding; that is, age-risk targeted, with a focused strong protection of the vulnerable (an unprecedented focus on the elderly, frail, infirmed, higher-risk persons) across the society (employing very detailed real-time monitoring, intensive testing, proactive public warnings and advisements/messages, engaging in the highest standards of hygiene, sanitation, and social distancing especially when interacting with high-risk persons), with younger lower-risk persons simultaneously being allowed to live their lives reasonably normal and by taking sensible precautions. To reduce risk to the greatest extent feasible. This approach as a vaccine(s) is rolled out (and while hospitals are adequately prepared), will help get closer to population level ‘herd’ immunity as the lower risk populations live normal day-to-day lives and are allowed to become exposed naturally and harmlessly to the SARS-CoV-2 virus (you let them be exposed naturally, and do not prevent them, nor do you deliberately cause exposure), given the that evidence is clear that they are at substantially low risk of severe illness or death if infected.
Some contrarians have also called for the use of potentially life-saving early treatment for higher-risk Covid-19 positive patients (elderly), before SARS-CoV-2 infected patients/residents have worsened in their private homes or nursing homes during the later stages of the disease sequela. The core argument is that the person is at much greater risk of hospitalization and death as the virus replicates and time goes by while they are in a ‘wait-and-see’ mode outside of the hospital setting. Thus, why not use existing safe, cheap, available, regulatory approved, and effective therapeutics (repurposed) that have been used successfully for years? If these drugs can save lives, why allow the patient to ‘sicken in place’ and likely die? These early treatment contrarians have come up against the entrenched medical establishment who would have none of it, rather preferring to engage in what is known as ‘therapeutic nihilism.’
In this regard for example, when experts and academics who speak out by calling for the balanced approach to Covid-19 responding and for the catastrophic harms of the lockdown policies to be factored into the decision-making by government bureaucrats and by adopting an age-risk targeted approach, they are denounced and pilloried by the general media, social media, and alarmingly, by their own academic peers. Yet how is this approach not reasonable and sensible? Protect the vulnerable (that would be the aged) and keep the economy/society open in order to not inflict even more damage and harm on people.
There appears to be this personal vendetta, vindictiveness, and scorn heaped upon alternative viewpoints, regardless of whether the alternative view may actually be more optimal. Tobin explains the intolerance to opposing viewpoints by stating that “All it usually takes is an accusation, a circulated letter, or a demonstration of some sort, and the woke usually get their way […] most university administrators obey the cancel mob and punish whoever has been deemed to have stepped out of line.” There must be absolute conformity and if there is none, then there is rancorous intimidation and one is disparaged with impunity.
Who are these victims of this incessant drive to silence contrarians, to silence experts who raise concerns about the draconian and unscientific lockdowns and school closures? Who offered alternatives to the devastation visited upon societies by the needless governmental unsound edicts? Who advocates for early treatment to save lives? What are the crimes these heretics have committed? Perhaps no one misbeliever, no heretic or apostate has taken as much relentless online and media abuse and savagery as Dr. Scott Atlas (Robert Wesson Senior Fellow at Hoover Institute, Stanford University, and advisor to President Trump on the coronavirus Task Force).
Three Stanford faculty (Pizzo, Spiegel, and Mello) published an article in JAMA alluding to Atlas “threatening the nation’s health” by his policy positions which focused on a very strong protection of the frail and high-risk populations, a gearing up of the hospitals to respond, and a safe and sensible reopen of schools and society using careful necessary precautions. The JAMA article read more like a hit piece on Atlas and was fraught with inaccuracies as to his positions and clearly sought to mischaracterize his statements, saying Atlas had:
disputed the need for masks; argued that many public health orders aimed at increasing social distancing could be forgone without ill effects; maintained that allowing the virus to spread naturally will not result in more deaths than other strategies; stated that young people are not harmed by the virus and cannot spread the disease; reportedly pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue guidance (later reversed) stating that asymptomatic individuals need not be tested; and made unsupported claims about the immunity conferred by surviving infection.
On reading very closely, the writers provided no evidence to support their article claims. How could an esteemed academic institution like Stanford University engage in a campaign against Dr. Atlas? While the aim is not to repudiate such a fine institution and the aim is not to allocate a lot of blame to Stanford as an institution, we are left to ask, how could an esteemed academic institution like Stanford University not strongly repudiate their extremist faculty members who engage in a campaign against Dr. Atlas and other contrarian faculty?
For example, the JAMA writers claimed that Atlas called for allowing younger persons to be exposed to the virus deliberately so as to promote herd immunity. Yet Atlas has stated that this is not nor has ever been his position, his position being a double and triple down protection of the elderly (high-risk persons with underlying medical conditions, frail, infirmed) and in doing this, the isolation of the entire population becomes senseless and essentially worthless. This is because the vast majority of people and younger persons have very little risk of having severe illness or death once infected. The data is clear on this. The focus has to be on safeguarding the most vulnerable. The fact is that the vast majority of infected people will recover and become immune. This approach as mentioned earlier, along with vaccinations, would work to arrive at population-level ‘herd’ immunity.
It is quite easy to see that Atlas meant you do not stop younger healthy people from being infected by societal constraints, yet you do not deliberately infect them. Which sensible person would mean this and moreover, how would these JAMA writers not understand what Dr. Atlas is saying, which essentially is calling for exposure ‘naturally’ and ‘harmlessly’ as part of normal day-to-day living? Yet they cherry-pick, mischaracterize and cause a vicious onslaught on the person’s good name. Stated another way, when there is socialization among low-risk groups, this is an opportunity for developing widespread immunity and eradicating the threat. In another mischaracterization of his statements in their JAMA piece, they assert that Atlas questioned the use of masks and social distancing. Yet his positions have been that a mask is not needed if you are alone, which is a sensible contention, and that masks are needed if you cannot adequately socially distance.
Yet one must ask the question, what did Dr. Atlas do? Yes, he argued against treating Covid-19 ‘at all costs’ for the harms far outweighed the benefits of the societal restrictions and a more balanced ‘age-risk targeted approach’ was optimal. Is he a villain for this? Is there villainy in his heart or on his part because he questioned and raised well-founded concerns and doubts about the effectiveness of the lockdowns? Or school closures? Or mask mandates? If his positions and analysis are informative and could save lives, do they not bear being considered and at the least given serious debate? Or was all of this really because he worked with the Trump administration?
Why should someone be treated so disastrously simply because they were connected to the Trump administration, their words mischaracterized and leaked to the media in a manner to distort and smear? How could an esteemed academic institution like Stanford University engage in a campaign against Dr. Atlas due to his work with the administration when if you paid attention, his policy positions called for the balancing of the benefits and harms in mitigation measures given the crushing harms that could have and did accrue due to the lockdowns and school closures? He was actually being prophetic, almost a Covid whisperer, and issued urgent warnings that to this day remain largely unheeded.
There was also a further media attack on Atlas in early 2021 as well as others such as Richard Epstein and Victor Davis Hanson as a means to delegitimize them for their various positions on Covid-19 issues, again by Stanford’s own faculty. Focusing on Atlas, these attackers seeking to malign his name and character continued baseless straw-man arguments and gross distortions of his statements and policy positions. These Stanford academics were using derogatory claims and no evidence to support their writing, trying desperately to delegitimize Atlas and destroy his name and career. Similarly, 105 Stanford medical and health-policy faculty members published a punishing letter claiming Atlas engaged in “deliberate misrepresentations of the ‘established science’ surrounding Covid-19 that ‘will lead to immense avoidable harm.’” Brazenly, in claiming that he misrepresented scientific facts, as if signalling that they were not even obliged to, these 105 letter writers failed to cite any publications of statements by Dr. Atlas that could support and underpin their attacks and claims.
A very recent veiled attack on Atlas that merits mention in a bit more detail comes from Noah Carl when he wrote “Atlas arguably has overstated the case against social distancing.” Such statements by Carl are factually incorrect and are meant to mislead and are very duplicitous when you examine the actual record and statements by Atlas. Atlas’s positions has always been that we cannot treat Covid at all costs for it “is severely restricting other medical care and instilling fear in the public, creating a massive health disaster, separate from a potential world poverty crisis with almost incalculable consequences.”
Dr. Atlas’s focus has always been i) protect the high-risk group with an unprecedented focus – with highly detailed, real-time monitoring; prioritized, intensive testing of nursing home staff and residents; proactive warnings to the highest-risk elderly in regions of increasing infection activity; massive extra resources, including point-of-care testing in all nursing homes, personal protective equipment, infection control training, and rapid mobilization of CDC strike teams for surge testing as needed; an adoption of the highest standards of hygiene and distancing ii) a careful monitoring of hospitals and ICUs in all counties and states with precision to prevent overcrowding – and rapidly increase capacity in those few hospitals needing personnel, beds, PPE and other supplies, if required and iii) leveraging resources to guide businesses, transportation, and schools to safely reopen and remain open, understanding harms of extending the lockdown are severe.
For example, and to evidence of how misguided the attack and smear by Carl was, in The Hill, Atlas wrote “[…] let’s finally focus on protection for the most vulnerable — that means nursing home patients, who are already living under controlled access. This would include strictly regulating all who enter and care for nursing home members by requiring testing and protective masks for all who interact with these highly vulnerable people. No Covid-19-positive patient can resume residence until definitively cleared by testing. We should issue rational guidelines advising the highest standards of hygiene and sanitation and appropriate social distancing while interacting with elderly friends and family members at risk, including those with diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions.”
Now where in this written piece by Dr. Atlas (all of Dr. Atlas’s statements essentially surround what is stated above) is there an indication that he does not agree with social distancing or misrepresents the case for social distancing or has a position that is threatening or harmful to the public? It is clear from our reading of his statements, whether you take them verbatim or infer meanings, that Dr. Atlas advocates for strong mitigation measures, that include extra enhanced sanitization, social distancing, masks as needed, limitations on group gatherings, testing and an acute focus in high-risk groups, and other increased protections so as to limit the spread and damage from the coronavirus.
Similarly, an early contrarian being Nobel Prize winner Dr. Michael Levitt, who was a critic of societal lockdowns, became disinvited from his appearance and keynote talk at a biosystems conference. Dr. Levitt was advised that there are “too many calls by other speakers threatening to quit if you were there. They all complained about your Covid claims.” Dr. Levitt has shared the experience via Twitter claiming a “New Dark Age Cometh.”
Another example of the irrational woke cancel culture mob attacking an academic expert comes via the recent announcement by Swedish scientist Dr. Jonas F Ludvigsson that he was quitting his work on Covid-19 due to an onslaught of threats from people who disagreed with his research findings. The reaction has been venomous due to his publication in the NEJM that there were zero deaths from Covid-19 in Swedish children during the examination period, and relatively few children in Sweden became ill during the first wave of the pandemic (of 1.95 million Swedish children under 16 years of age).
Dr. Kulvinder Gill, who is an Ontario pediatric doctor (co-founder of the advocacy group Concerned Ontario Doctors), also received the wrath of the media, the social media, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Canada (as well as the Ontario Medical Association) for questioning the effectiveness of prolonged lockdowns (para there was “absolutely no medical or scientific reason for this prolonged, harmful and illogical lockdown”) and discussing the merits of T-cell immunity and early treatment for higher-risk patients using established antivirals that had a safe and effective track record. It is not difficult to appreciate the spectre of racism, discrimination, and bullying levied upon Dr. Gill, who has now taken legal action for the extensive and vile defamations by the media and academic and medical colleagues.
Let us also consider the sordid attacks on the epidemiologists and scientists who co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration (leads being Dr. Sunetra Gupta, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, and Dr. Martin Kulldorff) which sought to address the serious concerns surrounding Covid-19 lockdown policies (disastrous physical and mental health impacts) by outlining an approach that was more of a ‘Focused Protection.’ The declaration states as its core thesis that “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice…” Dr. Gupta has remarked that the attacks on her have been very vicious with people calling her evil and Dr Rupert Beale who is a group lead at the Francis Crick Institute stated with regards to the Declaration that “What everyone really thinks is, ‘this is all f***ing stupid.’” Toby Young at The Spectator wrote “So why haven’t you heard of it (Great Barrington Declaration)? The short answer is there’s been a well-orchestrated attempt to suppress and discredit it.”
Very similar attacks on the reputation of academics and experts comes via a highly credentialed group of clinicians and scientists seeking to advocate for the use of early outpatient therapy (sequenced and combined anti-virals, corticosteroids, and antiplatelets/antithrombotics) in high-risk Covid virus positive patients who are symptomatic. This approach seeks to stop the viral replication and progression of disease sequelae before the patient/resident worsens and the risk of hospitalization and death escalates. The smears and attacks on the reputation of such highly skilled physicians seeking to minimize Covid-19 hospitalization and death took a turn for the worse when at a Senate hearing (chaired by Senator Ron Johnson) on Covid-19 outpatient treatment, Dr. Harvey Risch (Yale Professor and clinician), Dr. Peter McCullough (Baylor University and clinician), and Dr. George Fareed (clinician and Professor), along with Senator Johnson, were referred to as the ‘snake-oil salesmen of the Senate.’
This presentation of the attacks on Covid-19 contrarian voices can go on and on. What do we have here? We have a callous situation of experts who are guilty of nothing other than stepping up to help reduce suffering of their populations and save lives in this Covid-19 emergency. People who were asked to serve for the public good and made the decision to. Make no mistake, they will not be the only ones burnt at the stake of the woke mob and this is very urgent and scandalous for very smart people with substantial contributions, and pedigree are being silenced. These high-quality selfless and generous academics and experts from the US, Canada, and the UK (and elsewhere) are being maliciously attacked in the media and it comes at great peril to their safety, their names, their characters, and careers. This has to be stopped, for the chilling effect can have a devastating impact on free speech and the sharing and exchange of needed high-level, high-quality technical thinking and expertise when it is needed most.
Perhaps Ole Petter Ottersen, who is the president of the Karolinska Institute, gives us the needed road map to deal with this shameful and disgraceful period and captures the situation best by saying
A tough debate and a diversity of opinions based on facts and evidence are necessary elements of science and public discourse, but hateful and scornful accusations and personal attacks cannot be tolerated. We already see that researchers retreat from the public debate after being threatened or harassed, and in my own institution a leading researcher just decided to give up his covid-19 research for the same reason […] the coronavirus did not come with a handbook […] In a situation with so many unknowns it is more important than ever that opinions are voiced and experts heard, even if their opinions run counter to current policies.
No example is befitting enough to show the hubris, the arrogance, the duplicity, the disrespect and disregard for other expert persons seeking to help in this crisis than when Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University informed a Senate hearing in which he was opposed to early treatment, that he had not treated a single Covid-19 patient, while using his Senate testimony to question and tacitly discredit the testimony of the early outpatient treatment advocates who had actually treated thousands of Covid-19 patients, and used the treatments successfully. Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard’s Medical School has recently commented on the present Covid-19 scientific and research environment censoring by stating, “After 300 years, the Age of Enlightenment has ended.” Sadly, he is very apropos. Perhaps Atlas and colleagues may have indeed had the last word in their response to recent attacks by Stanford by raising legitimate questions on Stanford’s dramatic decline in the rankings on free speech leaving them to ask “Does the wind of freedom still blow at Stanford? Or is it the stale breath of ideological conformism and intimidation that we detect?”
Chastising scientists and medical researchers whose thinking is against mainstream media is deplorable and it stunts a more rich and meaningful dialogue of the means to combat this pandemic. This is especially so for our young people in schools and universities. They are looking on and it is essential for students to hear and consider ideas from many sources, especially the ideas they may not agree with. This is how we learn to think critically. What do you think they must be thinking when they witness this destructive culture against contrarian viewpoints?
Science cannot advance without scientific dialogue on the merits of emerging research and treatment options. The lack of openness in fueling evidence-based conversations results in one very tragic consequence for the public – sound research that could be informative and contribute to the well-being of Americans during this pandemic is silenced. Let’s face it, the benefits of these societal restrictions have been totally exaggerated and the harms to our societies and children have been very severe (the harms to children, the undiagnosed illness that will result in excess mortality in years to come, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation in our young people, drug overdoses and suicides due to the lockdown policies, the crushing isolation due to the lockdowns, psychological harms, domestic and child abuse, sexual abuse of children, loss of jobs and businesses and the devastating impact, and the massive numbers of deaths that are coming from the lockdowns that will impact heavily on women and minorities.
The impact is particularly gut-wrenching and brutal for the impoverished among us, and especially so for our poorer children. We have not seen the real impact of this pandemic yet, but it is to come and it will be far-reaching for years and decades to come and it is the reason why pandemic experts (Henderson and Inglesby etc.) have never advocated for such draconian lockdown steps in the face of a pandemic. They understood what the catastrophic result would be. We must never forget this and we desperately need alternative voices now to get us out of this catastrophic mess our governments, their expert advisors and media medical advisors seem incapable of doing.
I end by the words of the esteemed Professor Jonathan Turley and ask Stanford to pay close attention to these words given the next move is theirs in righting this vicious onslaught: “Faculty have largely stayed silent as campaigns target these professors and teachers. While some may relish such cleansing of schools of opposing voices, many are likely intimidated by such campaigns and do not want to be the next targeted by such groups. We have often defended the free speech rights of faculty on the left who have made hateful comments about whites, males, and conservatives. Yet, there is an eerie silence when conservatives are targeted for their own views. Sweden has shown how this is a global issue but that the response outside of the United States has been markedly different.”
Published by the American Institute for Economic Research