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How the coronavirus split science in two

Just in time for a global pandemic, cancel culture came for science. 

As the deadly coronavirus ravaged the world, debate over its origins was declared off limits. Experts questioning the methods used to fight it were dismissed as corporate shills, or even fired. Social media companies took down legitimate discussion about public health measures. Researchers, accustomed to carrying out their debates in journals and conferences, found their ideas and their reputations battered about on Twitter. 

In a different era, all ideas to confront the mysterious, constantly changing virus might have been on the table. Instead, the scientific mainstream sought to apply the hard-won lessons from battles against Big Tobacco and Big Oil to the debate over public health. 

The effect, according to some experts, has been a stifling of the scientific debate that risks impeding — rather than facilitating — progress, and the extension of the polarized political climate into the realm of public health. 

“One of the things I haven’t liked is people kind of shouting at each other over face masks or airborne particles; or whether immunity wanes, or doesn’t; or whether we should vaccinate children,” said Fiona Fox, director of the U.K.-based Science Media Centre, which helps connect journalists to credible experts. 

“Why are you shouting at each other?” she said. “We don’t know. We can’t know.” 

The clampdown was mostly well-intentioned — a reaction to how an overemphasis on scientific uncertainty slowed the fight against cancer-causing cigarettes, delayed action on climate change and undermined efforts to vaccinate children against easily preventable diseases like measles.

But unlike those issues, which have decades of research backing up the scientific consensus, there’s still much we don’t know about the virus that emerged two years ago. And yet, despite this uncertainty — indeed often because of this uncertainty — some studies, theories and policy prescriptions were deemed too dangerous to discuss. 

When it came to “overtly political questions” like the need for lockdowns or the theory that the virus was leaked from a lab in China, “a lot of scientists did want to retreat from all that,” Fox said. 

The Science Media Centre has run over 200 briefings for reporters on COVID-19, but there’s never been one about the lab leak debate. “Scientists are just reluctant to engage because of the backlash they’re getting,” Fox said. 

‘New merchants of doubt’

To see how politics can turn a proposed cure into a poisonous squabble, look no further than the Great Barrington Declaration.

Published in October 2020, the declaration was a call against broad, public lockdowns by a trio of respected infectious disease experts. Instead, they argued, only the old and the sick should isolate.

The venue and timing — a think tank linked to the right-wing Koch brothers, just weeks before the U.S. presidential election — set off so many alarm bells that it was hard to hear the actual argument. 

Some of the underlying rationales for their proposal sounded like they came from the political left: Poor people lose jobs in a lockdown, or get exposed at their “essential” posts, while those with white-collar roles can easily telework and order UberEats. Disruptions to schools and other health programs, like childhood vaccination, will also disproportionately affect the poor.

But the authors quickly found themselves compared to climate denialists.

Put online just weeks ahead of the U.S. election, the declaration played into a raging political debate. Then Democratic candidate Joe Biden had recently said that if (and only if) scientists called for it, he would “shut [the country] down.” U.S. President Donald Trump, who knowingly downplayed the severity of the virus, warned that Biden would kill the economy and trample freedoms.

Unsurprisingly, Trump loved the declaration; he even invited the authors to the White House. However, critics of the proposal were quick to cast the experts as pawns of big money manipulators who put the economy before human lives.

While the authors held posts at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford Universities, they opted to write their declaration at a conference of the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank with a history of publishing climate-skeptic research. Detractors also noted that one of the authors had financial ties with a billionaire donor to the British Tory party. 

Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, one of the co-authors, said American politics wasn’t part of his motivation, and that he’s received no compensation for the AIER conference or money from the Kochs.

Nonetheless, a September letter in the BMJ — a medical journal — urged fighting back against the “new merchants of doubt,” a reference to a 2010 book about how fossil fuel companies and tobacco firms supported contrarian scientists and think tanks to hide the risks of climate change and cigarettes. The letter recommended methods like “public inoculation” to warn the regular people in advance that they might be misled by vested interests.

The well-established authors of the Great Barrington Declaration wanted to create space for discussion; they knew they could weather the blowback without risk to their posts. Others haven’t been so fortunate. In Belgium, Sam Brokken, a lecturer in health sciences, is still looking for a new job eight months after his ouster from appointment at PXL University of Applied Sciences in the Flemish town of Hasselt.

Brokken, who has studied Zika and dengue fever outbreaks, was also skeptical of lockdowns. In the summer of 2020, he had argued in an open letter in a Belgian medical newspaper that only those most vulnerable to COVID-19 — the elderly, the immunocompromised — should isolate. More than 1,400 other scientists signed his call for a so-called “reverse lockdown.”

But it was Brokken’s views on vaccines that cemented his orientation as an outsider. In February 2021, he went on television to argue that only those over 60 should get the coronavirus shot. For younger people, who have a lower risk of severe disease, the personal benefit is low, he argued — a stance that was then and remains deeply at odds with the broader scientific consensus. 

He also argued that the benefit to society from vaccinating younger adults is also limited, because there’s no guarantee that the vaccines will prevent someone from passing on the coronavirus. That’s turned out to be all too true: While vaccination reduces transmission, it doesn’t eliminate spread, and the highly infectious Delta variant is pushing even highly vaccinated populations back toward isolation. 

After his appearance, Brokken was slammed as an anti-vaxxer in the Belgian press and by fellow academics. One prominent professor said he shouldn’t have been given an equal platform with more serious scientists. Six weeks later, he was fired. In a statement, the board of PXL University said his ouster had “no connection” to his television appearance, which was authorized in advance. But they didn’t rule out that his other statements played a role.

Brokken, 46, said his higher education job prospects are slim. “Off the record, they say to me, ‘We think you have a good perspective on the situation. We would like to hire you,’” he said. “But officially, they just don’t dare at the moment.” He moved to India last month.

Social media takedowns

With so much of the debate taking place online, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have been dragged in as moderators — and in doing so they have inadvertently begun declaring winners and losers in live scientific debates.

Having accepted responsibility to keep dangerous content off their platforms, tech companies began by taking down anti-vax posts before turning to tackling other kinds of potential misinformation about the pandemic.

But because the scientific consensus isn’t firm — indeed, it can sometimes switch from one side to the other — they don’t always get it right.

Facebook, for example, banned posts claiming that the coronavirus was man-made, only to reverse the policy in May 2021. 

YouTube has been especially aggressive about pulling down speech that questions various coronavirus prevention measures. For instance, the company took down a March 2020 interview with John Ioannidis — a Stanford physician long known for skewering bad science — in which he questioned the quality of the data about COVID-19 death rates and called for more targeted responses to the pandemic.

In April of this year, YouTube blocked a video of a panel discussion, hosted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, with the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration and former Trump coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas. The scientists talked about why they don’t recommend masking for kids.

There wasn’t a clear consensus on the idea at the time, at least for younger children. U.S. officials recommended their use in kids over two, and the World Health Organization said they should start at 12. But YouTube said the video — posted by a local TV news station — violated its policy on coronavirus misinformation, contradicting the “consensus of local and global health authorities on the efficacy of masks” to prevent the disease’s spread.

“You know, I may be right, I may be wrong, but DeSantis is showing what his advisers are telling him to the public,” said Bhattacharya, who was part of the Republican governor’s panel. “That’s good government, as far as I’m concerned.”

Live debates

To be sure, science has never been insulated from politics and pushback. Scientists have been punished for contravening conventional wisdom since at least the time of Galileo.

And for every Ignaz Semmelweis — the 19th-century physician who was sidelined from his post at a Vienna hospital for his insistence that fewer people die in the hospital if doctors wash their hands — there are countless cranks and incompetent scientists with a “Galileo complex” whose contrarian positions don’t stand up to objective scrutiny.

But science isn’t just the accumulation of ideas — it’s the product of arguments and counterarguments. Pick a scientific fact and you’ll likely also find a lively debate about it. 

There are the brilliant doctors whose ideas are so forceful that the field has to stand up and pay attention: Peter Duesberg’s thesis that the HIV virus isn’t actually what causes AIDS, for example — even if the idea is ultimately cast aside. There are dangerous ideas that won a veneer of credibility: Andrew Wakefield’s now-discredited claims that the measles vaccine causes autism were published in the Lancet, the gold standard of medical journals, in 1998. Its retraction 12 years later hasn’t diminished its influence among anti-vaxxers.

Even today, there are still live fights about life-or-death matters, like whether mammograms starting in middle age save more women from breast cancer — or if they just expose them to overdiagnosis and risky treatments for benign tumors that otherwise would go undetected.

With the ongoing pandemic, there’s an additional tension: Public health instructions work best when they are clear and caveat-free, but our knowledge of the coronavirus is rapidly evolving and there is still much we don’t know. The conventional wisdom has already seen some big flip-flops — remember when we were supposed to disinfect our groceries and eschew masks?

Or take the theory that the coronavirus was an accidental leak from a Chinese research laboratory. In February 2020, amid rising anti-Asian violence and anti-Chinese rhetoric from Trump, two dozen public health scientists from nine countries condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” in an open letter in the Lancet. They were intervening, they wrote, “in solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China.”

A year later, after Joe Biden’s White House publicly entertained the hypothesis, China is facing new criticism for stonewalling investigators trying to understand what happened. The available evidence still suggests the virus emerged from the wild, but the idea of a possible lab leak is no longer taboo.

In recent months, public debates over relatively narrow issues like rates of vaccine-induced heart inflammation in minors and the efficacy of masks have devolved into personal attacks and absolutism.

Nazi doctors

The pushback against coronavirus science isn’t restricted to one side of the spectrum. Mainstream scientists advocating strict lockdowns or aggressive vaccination efforts have received death threats and been compared to Nazis.

“A colleague of mine had to be under police protection for promoting mask use. This is not reasonable,” said Gavin Yamey, director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University, and one of the original signatories of the John Snow Memorandum, a consensus-affirming rebuttal to the Great Barrington Declaration.

Yamey said he’s tried to engage in honest debate — even making the case for shots on a vaccine-skeptic podcast — only to be compared to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. He’s now in talks with the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, on an initiative to protect people from anti-science abuse.

In Sweden — where the government and policy establishment embraced a more laissez-faire approach — pushing back against the more libertarian consensus could be risky.

Publicly calling for stricter measures “affected my professional career quite drastically,” said Nele Brusselaers, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute. The rebukes from fellow scientists got so bad that she moved back to her native Belgium. She now spends most of her time at the University of Antwerp.

Online, even the most established of health authorities aren’t safe from falling afoul of social media companies’ efforts to police content.

In November, the Cochrane organization, a widely respected U.K.-based NGO offering clinical recommendations based on scientific studies, was shadowbanned for over two weeks by Instagram. When other users tried to tag them, a message popped up saying @cochraneorg “repeatedly” posted material that goes against “false content” guidelines.

The apparent trouble: Cochrane had poured cold water on the value of the antiparasitic medicine Ivermectin as a COVID cure, a skepticism shared by major medicines regulators. That’s driven proponents of the drug to repeatedly report the organization to Twitter and Instagram, prompting posts to be removed from the platforms, according to a Cochrane spokeswoman.

“We’re all for creating a safe and evidence-based platform but sometimes automation and artificial intelligence can get it wrong and these policies can [be] used to block the wrong people,” Cochrane lamented on Instagram.

Entrenched positions

The bare-fisted social media battles over the efficacy of health measures are a reminder that science is not immune from the political polarization happening in the rest of society.

Critics of the Great Barrington Declaration may have tried to marginalize its authors; what they actually did was make them heroes for the other camp.

Bhattacharya is approaching 90,000 followers on Twitter after just three months on the platform, and he has become a prominent (unpaid) adviser to Florida Governor DeSantis. Widely viewed as a potential heir to Trump’s political movement, DeSantis has resisted lockdowns, taken measures to block schools and cities from imposing mask mandates and barred cruise lines from requiring passengers to be vaccinated.

Though Bhattacharya used to work for the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, he said he’s not registered with a political party and would be happy to talk to anyone who will listen. But he’s increasingly tied to one side of the political spectrum, including fondly interviewing DeSantis for the conservative magazine Ricochet and drawing sympathetic coverage in right-wing U.K. tabloid newspapers.

Despite his prestigious Stanford posting, he said, “before the pandemic, I’d actually had very little success in talking to politicians.”

As new waves keep rolling in, and more evidence on the efficacy of public health measures accumulate, the gap between the sides is often getting wider. New developments are interpreted as reaffirmations of existing views.

“People have ended up with very entrenched positions that they started with maybe a year ago and haven’t really shifted, regardless of the evidence,” said Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at Oxford who signed the John Snow critique of the Great Barrington Declaration. 

“People have kind of cherry-picked the evidence to support their decisions on all sides,” she said.

Take lockdowns. As the virus surges once again, most public health experts believe it’s time to invoke early lessons: Nonpharmaceutical interventions — the earlier implemented, the better — are key not just to saving the health system but preventing mass deaths.

They point to bad predictions about the arrival of herd immunity, growing ranks of young people in hospitals and models showing that, for example, 20,000 British lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had started a week earlier. 

The Great Barrington Declaration proponents draw a different lesson from the pandemic’s resurgence. For them, it’s proof that all these measures are futile — unless we’re going to socially distance forever, it’s better to let the virus run its course while doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable.

They point to a growing list of unintended consequences of restrictions meant to prevent COVID: An estimated 228,000 deaths of kids in Southeast Asia due to cuts in health and nutrition services; school closures that set struggling kids back even further; and, in the U.S., record drug-overdose deaths.

The divisions are unlikely to disappear with time, said Vinay Prasad, an oncologist and public health scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, who’s made a career of finding holes in medicine’s conventional wisdom (and who recently drew fire for urging more discussion about the risk of vaccines).

Over the next 15 years, he predicted, “you will get two sets of literature,” one declaring lockdowns worked and should have been implemented sooner, the other declaring them disasters.

“I’m worried that science is going to rip in two,” he said. “Literally rip in half.”

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https://ift.tt/eA8V8J December 08, 2021 at 09:00PM
Sarah Wheaton

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