November 4, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta, one of the principal signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, is a renaissance woman. Besides being a leading epidemiologist, she is an acclaimed novelist and translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

Like all good literature, her novels in English and Bengali provide insights into the human condition. Yet, the vicious reaction to her role in creating the Declaration stunned Gupta. Of course, she writes, “I expected debate and disagreement about our ideas… But I was utterly unprepared for the onslaught of insults, personal criticism, intimidation and threats that met our proposal.”

Gupta explains her politics are left wing. She is motivated to mitigate “enormous damage” especially to the “working class and younger members of society.” For daring to question the Covid-19 medical orthodoxy, she has received “vitriol and hostility, not just from members of the public online but from journalists and academics.” 

Insults, such as “fringe” and “dangerous,” stated as conclusions, are used to stifle debate. Gupta counters,

“But ‘fringe’ is a ridiculous word, implying that only mainstream science matters. If that were the case, science would stagnate. And dismissing us as ‘dangerous’ is equally unhelpful, not least because it is an inflammatory, emotional term charged with implications of irresponsibility. When it is hurled around by people with influence, it becomes toxic.”

Gupta cautions, “To shut down the discussion with abuse and smears — that is truly dangerous.”

Abusing Innovators

Perhaps the most famous case of abuse hurled at a medical innovator is that of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss.

In mid-19th century Vienna, women about to give birth were assigned to a maternity clinic in Austria’s General Hospital. The clinic to which one was assigned was a matter of life and death. Physicians operated the First Clinic; midwives staffed the Second Clinic. 

In their book Meltdown, Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik explain that death was often the result of being assigned to the First Clinic: “The symptoms were always the same: terrible fever, shivers, and abdominal pain that was mild at first but soon became excruciating. The babies often died, too. The cause was childbed fever, a dreaded disease of the time.”

Women were desperate to avoid the First Clinic. Priests made the rounds daily in the First Clinic to administer last rites. At the same time, childbed fever among patients of the Second Clinic was much less likely. Mothers went home happily to start new families. 

Amid rampant childbed fever, Ignaz Semmelweis was “a twenty-eight-year-old medical school graduate from Hungary and the clinic’s recently appointed chief resident.” Semmelweis took the bells of the priests as a call to action. Clearfield and Tilcsik quote Semmelweis: “This bell was a painful exhortation to me to search for this unknown cause.” Human suffering moved Ignaz Semmelweis to look beyond existing paradigms, as it moves Sunetra Gupta today. 

As chief resident, Semmelweis reported to Professor Johann Klein. Clearfield and Tilcsik explain, “Most of Semmelweis’s contemporaries, including his domineering boss, Professor Johann Klein, thought that childbed fever was the result of a kind of noxious atmosphere that hung over the city.” To Semmelweis, that explanation was absurd since both clinics were subject to the same atmosphere. Yet, the differences in results were staggering: “In the Second Clinic, sixty women died from childbed fever in an average year. In the First Clinic, six hundred to eight hundred mothers died.”

Astonishingly, “Even women who delivered on the street contracted the disease much less often than did the women who gave birth in the First Clinic. It was safer to give birth in an alleyway than in the hospital.”

Yet, the doctors in the First Clinic stuck to their “noxious air” paradigm. Semmelweis alone spoke out. He wrote, “The remedy does not lie in concealment. This misfortune should not persist forever, for the truth must be made known to all concerned.”

Semmelweis’s challenge was to “convince a complacent old guard, one that resented younger physicians” that they were “so wrong about something so important.”

Semmelweis didn’t develop a germ theory, yet he noticed doctors had a “cadaverous smell” as they came straight from the autopsy room to deliver babies, often without washing their hands. Semmelweiss saw that he and his colleagues were the problem; his simple solution was at hand. In his ward, he required hand washing in soap and water followed by a chlorinated solution. Mortality rates in his obstetrical clinic plummeted from approximately 18% in 1847 to around 1% in the following year. 

If you think Semmelweis’s results spoke for themselves, you would be wrong. His ideas were not embraced. Like Gupta and the other signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, he was treated with scorn and attacked by his fellow physicians. 

According to an account by Jeanne Achterberg, in her book Woman As Healer, colleagues of Semmelweiss “simply refused to believe that their own hands were the vehicle for disease.” Instead, Achterberg writes, “they attributed it to a spontaneous phenomenon arising from the ‘combustible’ nature of the parturient woman.” His contemporaries treated Semmelweiss as a heretic. 

Professor Klein refused to consider the evidence Semmelweis was producing. Clearfield and Tilcsik quote the medical historian Sherwin Nuland explaining the behavior of Professor Klein: 

“From the beginning, [Klein] had viewed with alarm the increasing influence of the younger physicians at the medical school. And being human, he was having difficulty facing the increasing evidence that Semmelweis had discovered something truly valuable that might save many lives, something that his own refusal to change an outmoded viewpoint had prevented him from seeing.” 

Semmelweis’s “two-year term as chief resident ended.” Renewal of his position was denied, despite his success. In Clearfield and Tilcsik’s words, “Having Semmelweis around was just too much trouble. Semmelweis was dismissed, and one of Klein’s protégés replaced him.”

Eventually, his career destroyed, Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum where he was beaten by guards and died.

Why Others Won’t Listen

The Semmelweis reflex “is a metaphor for reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.”

“Dissent makes no difference if no one listens. And listening to a dissenting voice can be as hard as speaking up,” observe Clearfield and Tilcsik.

As it was with Professor Klein in 1847 and as it is for Dr. Fauci today, those in authority especially don’t like being challenged. Clearfield explains, 

“It turns out that the effect of being challenged—of having your opinions rejected or questioned—isn’t just psychological. Research shows that there is a real, physical impact on the body. Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises. Your blood vessels narrow as if to limit the bleeding that might result from an injury in an impending fight. Your skin turns pale, and your stress level skyrockets. It’s the same reaction you would have if you were walking in the jungle and suddenly spotted a tiger. This primal fight-or-flight response makes it hard to listen. And, according to an experiment conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, things get even worse when we are in a position of authority—when we are in Professor Klein’s shoes.”

The experiment to which Clearfield and Tilcsik refer was conducted by Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner. Keltner found “that even the faintest sense of power—being in charge of something clearly inconsequential—can corrupt.” Clearfield and Tilcsik continue, 

“And it’s just one of many studies drawing the same conclusion. Research shows that when people are in a position of power, or even just have a sense of power, they are more likely to misunderstand and dismiss others’ opinions, more likely to interrupt others and speak out of turn during discussions, and less willing to accept advice—even from experts.”

Professor Keltner explains, “People with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes.” This leads to “insensitive and overly impulsive behavior,” and even well-meaning people who are not petty tyrants are subject to the corrosive impact of power. 

Is Dr. Fauci the Dr. Klein of our time? Fauci has attacked the President’s Covid-19 advisor Scott Atlas as not having “any real insight or knowledge” and for saying things that “don’t make any sense.” As for the Great Barrington Declaration, Fauci has called it “nonsense and very dangerous.” 

You might say, you understand why powerful “Professor Kleins” of our time don’t want to hear dissenting voices. Yet, criticism of the Great Barrington Declaration has also come from doctors not in positions of great power.

You might want to believe that modern science would not overlook the obvious. After all, haven’t modern scientists conquered mindset biases? Stop your wishful thinking. 

Clearfield and Tilcsik report that those who attacked Semmelweis “were smart people working in some of the world’s best hospitals and universities. They believed in science. They just thought Semmelweis’s idea missed the mark. His dissent, no matter how much evidence he marshaled, didn’t convince them.”

Clearfield and Tilcsik were writing before Covid-19, yet they warn, “The unrivaled complexity of today’s systems means that we are probably missing some risks that are just as obvious as the one Semmelweis discovered. In a few decades, people might look back and think of us the way we think of Professor Klein and his friends: How could they have been so blind?”

Clearfield and Tilcsik report research results showing that “deviation from the [dominant] group opinion is regarded by the brain as a punishment.” The study’s lead author, neuroscientist Vasily Klucharev wrote, “This is likely an automatic process in which people form their own opinion, hear the group view, and then quickly shift their opinion to make it more compliant with the group view.”

In his book Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Karl Popper wrote, “The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error.” Popper continued, “But science is one of the very few human activities — perhaps the only one — in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected.” Scientific progress, Popper explained, depends on learning from mistakes. Learning depends on open inquiry. Thoughtful, informed people know that something is terribly wrong with the Covid-19 orthodoxy. Others have “nagging suspicions.” If dissenting voices continue to be attacked by those in positions of power, there is little doubt that decades from now historians will ask, How could they have been so blind?

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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