An unspoken casualty of Covid-19 is the civil debate over public health policy. It effectively flatlined in 2020, and two years later it shows no signs of life. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the debate over the optimal response to Covid-19 has been mired with scandal, ad hominems, coordinated attacks from the highest levels of government, accusations of conflicts of interest, strawman arguments, censorship, and deception.
After the spring 2020 lockdowns, public health scientists split into two camps, each with their own ideas on how best to deal with the pandemic. The groups can be loosely categorized as either advocating a focused protection approach or “effective measures that suppress and control transmission,” including lockdowns. While there is a range of thought in the pro-suppression, lockdown camp, many promote the controversial “Zero-Covid” approach.
In the fall of 2020, each group distilled its ideas in online statements that allowed others to add their signatures in support, similar to petitions. The focused protection group produced the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), and the pro-restrictions group composed the John Snow Memorandum (JSM). Presently, the Great Barrington Declaration lists 925,000 signatories. The John Snow Memorandum lists 4,200.
The John Snow Memorandum was released after the Great Barrington Declaration, and one can reasonably assume its drafting was largely a response to the GBD. Following their release, both groups used media appearances and social media to communicate their ideas to the broader public. Exchanges between the group’s supporters have been fierce, occurring through warring op-eds, social media, television appearances, books, and academic articles.
Is the Great Barrington Declaration “Fringe?”
On one side of the debate, Great Barrington Declaration supporters engaged in responsible scientific commentary by focusing on running studies, academic journals, and measured editorials about their policy ideas. In contrast, John Snow Memorandum supporters leaned into a different approach, placing greater emphasis on social media, especially Twitter, to attack those who question their preferred means of dealing with pandemics.
One such strategy employed by JSM supporters is to portray the Great Barrington Declaration scientists as a “fringe minority” who hold dangerous views on how to mitigate the virus. This narrative allows mainstream media outlets and pro-lockdown politicians to dismiss the focused protection approach espoused by GBD scientists as outside the realm of serious scientific debate.
A main concern arising from this narrative that is worth considering, though, is whether the Great Barrington Declaration scientists are truly fringe figures. Because if they aren’t, John Snow Memorandum supporters have unfairly smeared them, using social media attacks rather than participating in concerted scientific discourse.
Science and Social Media Presence
A new study authored by Stanford Professor of Medicine John Ioannidis provides support for what was already apparent: The Great Barrington Declaration scientists and supporters are not “fringe.”
Ioannidis’ study, in which he used a “validated composite citation indicator that considers six citation indicators (total citations, Hirsch H-index, coauthorship-adjusted Hm-index, total citations to single-authored papers, total citations to single or first-authored papers, total citations to single, first or last-authored papers)” to determine the career impact of the scientists in question. He concludes that “the percentage of top-cited scientists is modestly higher for the GBD than for the JSM.”
So where is the disconnect? Why have the John Snow Memorandum signers been so successful in their portrayal of the Great Barrington Declaration as nothing better than oddballs? The answer, according to Ioannidis, lies in their number of Twitter followers.
Ioannidis identifies an emergent trend in science: the use of social media activism to promote research. This is measured using a new technique known as the Kardashian K-index, which provides
an impression on whether the Twitter footprint of a scientist is disproportionately high compared with the footprint of his/her citation impact. It is calculated as the ratio of Twitter followers divided by 43.3C^0.32, where C is the total citations received in one’s career.
Researchers with high K-Index values, who place social media advocacy over scientific literature presence are referred to as “Science Kardashians.” And as Ioannidis points out, “As COVID-19 has attracted tremendous social media attention, Kardashian K-indices are skyrocketing.”
Unsurprisingly, the John Snow Memorandum signers hold much higher K-Index values than the Great Barrington Declaration signers. In plain terms, their higher numbers of Twitter followers gave them greater influence in the public debate over the best strategy for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Ioanidis,
Twitter superiority may also cause, and/or reinforce superiority in news coverage. In a darker vein, it may also be responsible for some bad publicity that GBD has received, for example, as evidenced by plain Google searches online or searches in Wikipedia pages for GBD, its key signatories or even for other scientists who may espouse some GBD features, for example, skepticism regarding the risk-benefit of prolonged lockdowns.
Attack of the Science Kardashians
So how do the John Snow Memorandum supporters attack the Great Barrington Declaration scientists? They level conspiratorial allegations of conflicts of interest. They allege the Great Barrington Declaration is part of a complex scheme crafted by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch to force the reopening of the economy, setting aside any attempt to offer a meaningful argument about Covid-19.
Most of these attacks originated with 9/11 truther journalist Nafeez Ahmed, and as AIER research director Phillip Magness has shown, Ahmed’s claims were amplified on social media by John Snow Memorandum principal organizer Deepti Gurdasani and numerous other signers of the document.
Media outlets, including the Guardian and the New York Times, subsequently picked up this messaging. An op-ed published by the Washington Post typifies this approach, where current CDC Director and JSM signer Rochelle Walensky, along with Marc Lipsitch, Carlos del Rio, and Gregg Gonsalves, refer to the Great Barrington Declaration as “half-baked” and describe the focused protection approach as “letting the virus tear out of control in the population at large.”
The “Science Kardashians” behind the John Snow Memorandum evidently used their social media influence to promote attacks on the Great Barrington Declaration. These charges were picked up by major media outlets, which contributed to the Declaration’s being painted as “fringe.” Lost in all of this was the simple fact that the scientists behind the Great Barrington Declaration are at least as equally cited as those who drafted the John Snow Memorandum. At least.
Also lost was all measure of decorum, decency, and restraint. Twitter, while fun and even appropriate for many things, is not the place to debate scientific issues. And a bunch of self-important scientists should know better. Should.