Viewpoint: Calling Great Barrington Declaration endorsers ‘COVID deniers’ itself denies there are better strategies than lockdowns to contain the pandemic

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We may not know for quite a while whether the three academics who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration are right or wrong; but it is very clear at the moment that the scientists and interest groups shouting them down, using ad hominem attacks and labels and trying to suppress debate on this issue are clearly in the wrong.

Herd mentality

The scientific method was not designed for the immediacy of social media and the speed at which factions (tribes) can emotionally manipulate evidence. As a collection of story-telling tools, the Internet favours anecdotes over evidence, allowing discussions to melt quickly into ad hominem attacks. These attacks, however, are wielded now not by cranks and activists, but more by “people of science” who herd themselves together into mobs marching under some (politicised) consensus banner.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic exposes this weakness as scientists are still struggling to learn about the virus and the best means to manage it, but populations fed information via social media tools are too impatient and unforgiving while political opportunists have other (often more urgent) agenda. So while science learns, the scientific community burns.

Those who are most irrational (and insulting) are the scientists who prefer to huddle under the façade of a consensus. These are usually the ones who scream “denier” to anybody not falling in line with their community (ie, the self-proclaimed academic mob). “XYZ-Denier” is the new witch-hunt dollar holler in a world prone to react rather than read.

There have been many attacks on these three academics by regulatory scientific advisers from Anthony Fauci to Martin McKee. One such scientific witch-hunt example was a rather unhinged article on “COVID-19 Deniers” by David Gorski, a surgical oncologist, professor of surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and a surgical oncologist who also writes a popular science blog, Science-Based Medicine.

She’s a witch, burn her!

Gorski’s latest is a tirade against the Great Barrington Declaration.

[Editor’s note: Read the GLP Gorski piece – Viewpoint: Great Barrington Declaration arguing for herd immunity ‘takes page from denialist propaganda playbook]

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Reading through the manufactured outrage, Gorski did not really get into the details of the position of the three epidemiologists who authored the declaration, choosing rather to label and insult them citing: “patterns in the strategies and technique used by those denying science to promote their pseudoscience or quackery”.

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That these three academics (Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, far left, Dr. Sunetra Gupta and Dr. Martin Kulldorff/Credit: Taled Brown) come from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford must have enraged Gorski more since he resorted to an ad populum fallacy, ridiculing the people who were supporting their position rather than taking on the issue. The only credit he allowed the three scientists is the half insult that their position is “a little different” in that it isn’t completely like creationists, climate deniers, pro-tobacco lobbyists and anti-vaxxers because we have not yet reached a clear consensus on COVID-19 to use to categorically refute them. Sweet.

In this, the Great Barrington Declaration is only a little different, but at its heart it’s the same technique from the same old playbook, with that “little difference” being that COVID-19 is a new disease and the scientific consensus regarding it isn’t as solid as the consensus is in the case of, for example, evolution, climate science, and vaccines.

– David Gorski

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Dr. David Gorski

Whenever I see consensus-huggers, alarm bells go off. Allow me to generalise along the same fallacious route as the good doctor. Anyone who accuses others of being a “denier” is hiding behind the veil of a perceived consensus.

Using the word “scientific” in front of the word “consensus” reveals a naïve understanding of how scientists work. Going back to Popper, the scientific method is meant to challenge all assumptions and confront any idea of a consensus (something craved by politicians). I expressed my views on this elsewhere – people using consensus numbers are not respecting the scientific method. They lay claim to “the science” while cheapening it with politics.

I am really disappointed when I see politics enter in and obliterate open scientific discussion on such an important issue. Gorski cites how the Great Barrington Declaration states it is important to invest more in protecting the vulnerable and applying strict risk reduction measures in nursing homes (good, but this is common sense, basic risk management and something I have been calling for since March). But then Gorski dismisses it with a sentence like this: “On the surface, this sounds oh-so-reasonable. However, saying that we should aim for “herd immunity” is a common trope of COVID-19 deniers.”

First of all, ignoring the gratuitous COVID-19 deniers slur, who says we “aim for herd immunity”? Herd immunity is what is needed in order to allow societies to live with viruses. The issue here is not about intention but about the means: whether herd immunity is attained via a vaccine or through sufficient virus transmission (“how wide of a herd is wide enough” is also an issue).

The Great Barrington Declaration is not aiming for a cull on the elderly nor “eugenics”; it is not calling for irresponsible behaviour or chicken-pox-style COVID parties – this is bad journalism from someone who should be able to read and control his bias.

There are issues to discuss about how far to let the virus spread naturally (to avoid overloading healthcare systems, exposing those with unknown vulnerabilities), how much to manage the spread, where risk reduction measures and resources are best used… if a vaccine is not imminent, then the question of reaching herd immunity is simply a matter of “how fast”. To attack scientists who want to see more resources directed to the protection of the elderly and less for the healthy, young populations, and then to catcall them as “COVID-19 deniers” is just, well, ridiculous.

Denierism

This extensive use of the “D” word within the scientific community has to stop. It is abusive, political and shows an irresponsible aversion toward discourse and engagement. The three epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford are clearly not COVID-19 deniers like those on the streets shouting “hoax” while ripping people’s facemasks off and Gorski clearly knows this. He is merely playing this card because he thinks this insult will hurt enough to make them go away. What a disgrace.

If you’re not with us, you’re against us… and anyone against us (the consensus) is handed the exclusionary slur: “-denier” (to be applied following words like “science-“, “climate change-” or “COVID-19-“). This is an overused rhetorical practice that should be given a name so allow me to adapt a word (borrowed from earlier Christian faith debates) into the Monger Lexicon: denierism.

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Denierism is the unreasonable use of the suffix “-denier” to try to end discussions without having to address difficult arguments. It is usually applied against one who is challenging some perceived consensus. This person is considered a threat, excluded from the tribe and any further discourse via the use of a hurtful “-denier” charge – a verbal excommunication slur implying they are irrationally refusing to accept the said truth.

A “denier” differs from a “sceptic” who is lauded as rightfully challenging a perceived consensus that goes against the interests or beliefs of the tribe.

Confused yet? Me too, but there is a logic in there somewhere and it lays within a closed herd mentality.

In the rest of his article, Gorski simply melts down into an embarrassing denieristic tirade comparing the three epidemiologists to a wide range of irrational science deniers (evolution, 9/11, vaccines and, of course, climate change). He found it necessary to supply endless screenshots showing how some Declaration signatures were fictitious (jokes played no doubt by those from his tribe) and citing sources that are more conspiracy-theory laden than any QAnon and Trump tricks combined. How is this in any possible way “science-based”?

Did you know the building where these academics met in Great Barrington had received funding from the Koch Brothers? Therefore, these epidemiologists are climate deniers too.

OK, time to unfollow Gorski and his denieristic tribe – they’re adding nothing positive to this scientific discussion.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Is there a scientific basis to ban gene drive technology that can rid us of virus-carrying rodents and mosquitoes?

I’m proud to be a “COVID-19 Denier”

[I] did indeed sign the Great Barrington Declaration for many reasons:

  • I am offended that farmers protect their livestock better than Western societies treat their elderly, the generation that fought to secure our freedom in World War II. We knew in January the elderly were high risk and yet even in May, government authorities from Croatia to Sweden to the UK to Belgium were still unable to provide adequate risk reduction measures for their nursing homes.
  • Our authorities need to manage this crisis through a risk-based approach and give up the hazard-based precautionary impulse to shut, ban or prevent anything that may require basic risk management skills.
  • The lockdowns unfairly punish the poor. Middle-class Western populations easily shifted to working from home and maybe had to deal with having their kids around (but they stayed mostly in their gardens). Those less fortunate paid a much bigger price (often with their lives) for a virus that the more wealthy travelling classes brought into their communities. Don’t even get me started at how this affects the less affluent in developing countries where most of the vulnerable earn a meagre living on the streets. My hypocrite gauge turns red when people like Gorski question whether the lockdowns caused any economic pain.
  • Twenty years of precaution as the only Western health policy tool has created a Docilian population demanding zero-risk and expecting to be kept safe. They are not safe and expecting them to stay indoors, wash their hands and hope the virus passes further weakens resilience. We should be empowering people, trusting them to manage exposures and do what’s needed to protect themselves.
  • Without a vaccine, lockdowns prolong the process to reach a reasonable level of herd immunity, forcing the vulnerable to shelter in place much longer and leave businesses, livelihoods and economies more likely to be shattered beyond repair.
  • Concentrating all resources on wide lockdowns puts strains on other public services from policing to general healthcare. With numbers in decline, the UK government had to urge parents to keep to their children’s vaccination schedule. Preventative cancer tests are down in many countries including Belgium. This year I had three appointments with my cardiologist changed.
  • The scientific advice most governments get is badly imbalanced (often, like the UK SAGE body, centred more around mathematicians than immunologists). Sadly, in most European countries, the summer pause was wasted and the public has little trust or patience left for their pronouncements. Simply put, populations won’t listen to regulators they don’t trust so at least try to protect the vulnerable.
  • Before COVID-19, 25% of students faced mental health issues. I have been forced to witness a depression demolition in my student body. I am supposed to provide our next generation with inspiration and the best I can do is offer them a sympathetic ear. What our leaders have done to the young is almost as sickening as what they didn’t do for the elderly. While I am at high risk myself to this coronavirus, it would be immoral and indefensible for me to promote a lockdown policy that might lead to half a dozen of the young people in my lecture hall committing suicide so that I can enjoy maybe ten more good years.
  • The coming economic collapse horrifies me. The breakdown of supply chains, crop failures, locusts and likely widespread famines horrify me. The increase in domestic violence due to lockdown measures imposed by the comfortable classes horrifies me. The irrational and awful ad hominen attacks on free thinkers by smug, affluent piss artists in the sci-comm world horrify me.

The Great Scientific Pissing Contest

There was nothing in the Great Barrington Declaration that I disagreed with – it was well-articulated common sense that anyone involved in health risk management could clearly understand. One thing I didn’t think was necessary was making the document open to signatures, not only because it opened the Declaration up to cranks and immature opponents. It reminded me of the time of REACH in Brussels where opposing lobbying groups put out letters or impact assessments and they counted the signatures thinking that would change the facts. Science is not democratic, you can’t vote out evidence or facts.

And sure enough the precautionistas came out with a document of their own to challenge the Great Barrington Declaration called the John Snow Memorandum. Science will now be decided by whose consulting firm can garner more signatures. Welcome to science in the Age of Stupid.

The John Snow Memorandum was written to refute the position of the Great Barrington Declaration. But this reactionary document broadly misrepresented the Declaration suggesting they were proposing “allowing a large uncontrolled outbreak” and that vulnerable populations were too large to feasibly be protected.

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I’m really not sure why the John Snow Memorandum authors felt it was unethical and unfeasible to lock down certain populations (but that it was OK to lock down entire populations). [I have a] second home in Manila where those over 60 years of age are required to shelter in place. This is largely followed in a country where the Titos and Titas are respected and supported.

The most ridiculous claim in the Memorandum is that the lockdown policy will work – just look at Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand. I live in Belgium and while it would be a dream to have hygiene and cultural practices like the Japanese, that won’t happen anytime soon. Nor do we have the centralised control and military precision of a Communist government (we just got a new government after only 500 days of negotiations … again). And finally, Belgium is surrounded by large mobile populations that drive its economy – we are not a remote island that can easily lock down and keep exporting agricultural products. To cite these three “success stories” doesn’t convince me to trust these consensus-mongers.

So this scientific pissing contest is confusing and, well, not helpful to building public trust in scientific advice (which I fear will collapse far below the UK decline in pubic trust in regulatory science post-BSE). One of the problems is that the public thinks all scientists are the same (even after 12 seasons of the Big Bang Theory). In this case of duelling declarations, epidemiologists have triggered virologists and biologists. When I worked in the research centre of a Belgian chemical-pharmaceutical company, I used to watch the open animosity between chemists and biologists (although both were equally detested by the chemical engineers who had to clean up after them).

It would be nice though if these different branches of science could be more polite in their disagreements. But then politics enters (with an extra ad hominem sauce).

Who is John Snow?

Why was the rebuttal of the epidemiologist proposal called the John Snow Memorandum? Who is John Snow? He didn’t sign the article.

During a cholera outbreak in London in the 1850s, John Snow identified the source as the Broad Street well pump. Against the prevailing belief that cholera was an airborne infection, removing the pump handle put an end to the outbreak. Importantly, many activists claim John Snow to be the father of the precautionary principle. The Memorandum website even has a pump as its icon.

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John Snow. Credit: Med Page Today

In other words, the John Snow Memorandum rebuttal of the Great Barrington Declaration is just another hazard-based precautionary attack on a risk-based approach – in this case on how to manage the COVID-19 coronavirus. There is uncertainty and for them, the only way to manage uncertainty is to stop all activity and remove all exposures … regardless the consequences.

Now I know why these scientists are so aggressive and intolerant. Now I know why it was so easy to recognise the stronger argument from the risk management perspective. Now I know why there won’t be a fair, open discussion on the facts and evidence.

How much longer will we allow these precautionistas to rule the policy process with fear and emotion? How much will societies have to lose before these arrogant zealots themselves start to wake up?

David Zaruk has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2000, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society questions to the use of the Precautionary Principle. Follow him on Twitter @zaruk

This article was originally posted at Risk-Monger and has been reposted here with permission.

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