Editor’s Commentary: Unlike the vast majority of the content posted here, the article below is not written by a conservative. It is not written by someone who is skeptical about the efficacy of Covid vaccines. On the surface, one might think the article belongs on a left-leaning outlet rather than here.
While we don’t agree with everything the author says here (“remarkably effective Covid-19 vaccines” – really?), it’s important to get the perspective of a progressive who is as dismayed as we are at the draconian means by which information and discourse are being suppressed regarding Covid-19 and its many elements. Professor Halperin does not approve of the censorship that is happening, especially in the academic and scientific circles that are supposed to embrace debate rather than quash it.
We don’t post articles by leftists often, but when they’re mostly right, it’s a great reminder that even those who oppose our worldview can see how badly it’s being distorted by the radical agendas in play. Now, let’s hear from Professor Halperin…
While McCarthyism is recalled as a low point for our democracy, most Americans in the 1950s were sympathetic to the Wisconsin Senator’s efforts to root out alleged communists from government and other walks of life. Massive fear generated by the very real threat of global Soviet aggression led to a reprehensible trampling of constitutional rights, in a classic example of how the ends do not justify the means – even if that was only widely grasped in retrospect.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed another troubling deterioration of fundamental democratic principles, again stemming from a pervasive sense of fear, this time from the (also very real) threat of a viral pandemic. Whereas McCarthyism sprung from the conservative end of the political spectrum, this time the hacking-away of our democratic values has tended to come from more progressive political and professional circles.
Having worked in public health for over four decades (and as a generally progressive person myself), the past sixteen months have been a doubly sad time for me. While proud of what the medical sciences have created, including the remarkably effective Covid-19 vaccines (the side effects of which, however, have raised some concerns), it has been heartbreaking to observe not only the devastation produced by the coronavirus but also the erosion of some democratic tenets. As the son of a Holocaust scholar, I am particularly hesitant to use the word “fascism,” and certainly the current situation is nowhere nearly as despicable as was McCarthyism. Nevertheless, I’ve become deeply concerned about how this crisis has been confronted, some of which borders on intellectual censorship.
One hallmark of intolerance is rejection of nuances: Either you’re a loyal Aryan or a sub-human traitor, a devoted Communist comrade or a capitalist dupe. During the pandemic, there has been an ongoing tendency to frame issues within a polarized, black-or-white fashion. Either you believe everyone must always mask up or else you’re an anti-science (and Trump-supporting) fool. Either children are viral super spreaders and therefore in-person schooling is dangerous, or one is accused of being a “baby killer” (as I was by hordes of Washington Post readers after my article advocating for reopening schools appeared last year). Revealingly, while the former president made various racially and otherwise disturbingly controversial comments, the first one that got him temporarily removed from Twitter and Facebook was for “falsely claiming,” in August 2020, that children are “almost immune from this disease.” (Although not exactly employing scientific terminology, it was essentially a factually correct assertion.)
But tragically the polarization over the pandemic has gone beyond name-calling and political catfights. While the danger of misinformation on the internet clearly poses a significant problem, it’s also troubling that papers by and interviews with some leading scientists have been removed from YouTube and other social media platforms, allegedly for spreading “false information.” Facebook postings and Tweets merely citing data from the World Health Organization or other reputable sources regarding, for example, the actual infection-fatality rates of Covid-19 or the efficacy (and limitations) of wearing masks in certain situations have been deleted.
In November, a Johns Hopkins University newsletter removed an article about a senior faculty member’s research, which concluded based on CDC data that overall mortality had not significantly increased in the U.S. Although the University confirmed her study lacked serious methodological flaws, concern centered on it “being used to support false and dangerous inaccuracies about the impact of the pandemic.” While subsequent data eventually suggested her conclusions were largely incorrect, simply removing such a paper does not bode well for academic freedom. Science evolves out of sparking intellectual debate.
A June 2021 article in the scientific journal Vaccines utilized European data to suggest that in some situations the benefits from the Covid vaccines may not significantly outweigh the risks of side effects. Yet it was quickly retracted by the journal, which issued an unusually vague explanation for such a rare and consequential action, determining that “serious concerns [have been] raised…regarding misinterpretation of data, leading to incorrect and distorted conclusions.” The other issues cited for justifying the retraction were ones that clearly should have been addressed during the normal peer and editorial review processes, suggesting other considerations may have played a role in their decision. (In contrast, I and other researchers were unsuccessful in petitioning the Annals of Internal Medicine last year to retract or correct an article which, based on the possibility that two or three persons in Italy may have been infected by asymptomatic carriers, was henceforth widely cited as establishing that asymptomatic infections are driving the pandemic.)
Also last month, an interview with Robert Malone, who conducted pioneering research on the mRNA technology underpinning the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, was removed from YouTube after objections surfaced regarding Dr. Malone’s questioning of some prevailing assumptions about the vaccines, such as whether they should be aggressively implemented in low-risk populations including previously infected persons or children. And two days after that interview was deleted, the Wikipedia summary of the mRNA vaccine history removed all specific mentions to Dr. Malone (who, like the authors of the retracted Vaccines article, is expressly not anti-vaccine).
In addition to such Orwellian erasures of scientific publications and other information, we of course have witnessed the top-down imposition of governmental decrees for economic lockdowns, school closures, mask (and now vaccine) mandates, and so on. Not only is there little evidence that most such measures contribute significantly to population-level health — at least as many Covid-19 deaths have occurred in places like Michigan and California, that implemented severe controls, as in less restrictive states — but the autocratic manner in which such actions have often been carried out has also been criticized (including by a minority of medical experts) for encroaching on fundamental democratic processes and liberties. Public health officials apparently need to be reminded that the health of our democracy is also vital to protect.
Daniel Halperin, PhD is Adjunct Full Professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill (whose book, Facing COVID Without Panic: 12 Common Myths and 12 Lesser Known Facts about the Pandemic, Clearly Explained by an Epidemiologist, was originally denied access to sales on Amazon after its June 2020 publication, for “not complying with established scientific evidence” on Covid-19 as determined by authorities such as the CDC).
Image and article via Real Clear Policy.
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