September 20, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Former Stanford professor and now White House advisor Scott Atlas has positioned himself against lockdowns and for widespread reopening of the economy, a position that is backed by high-prestige scientists around the world, including other colleagues at Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, alongside many medical practitioners. 

For that matter, before all these wicked lockdowns hit, 800 top medical professionals warned against them. But that was before politics completely poisoned the debate. Gradually, it emerged that one’s positions on lockdowns followed partisan lines, as the lives of millions were shattered, at least in the United States. Meanwhile, scientists around the world are writing open letters pleading for a return to freedom. Even socialists have come out against lockdowns. 

Some colleagues at Stanford released a stinging letter against Dr. Atlas. It included this broadside:

To prevent harm to the public’s health, we also have both a moral and an ethical responsibility to call attention to the falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas, a former Stanford Medical School colleague and current senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Many of his opinions and statements run counter to established science and, by doing so, undermine public-health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy.

What follows in the letter is a series of assertions that supposedly contradict views allegedly “fostered” by Atlas. Notice the vagueness of the term “fostered.” It can mean anything, including blaming him for whatever media misrepresentations of his opinion might be. 

For example, the letter condemns “encouraging herd immunity through unchecked community transmission,” with a heavy implication that Atlas has pushed this. It’s completely ridiculous. He and many others in his position have favored an intelligent approach that protects the vulnerable, encourages therapeutics, while otherwise allowing normal social functioning as community immunity develops. It’s nowhere the case that anyone, to my knowledge, has ever encouraged “unchecked” transmission, except perhaps Governor Cuomo who forced Covid-19 patients into nursing homes. 

The entire letter, in fact, seemed not about public health but rather political positioning, exhibit A in the politicization of science. Atlas had agreed to advise the White House: that was his crime and that is what prompted the letter, including the condescending demand that he, a highly accomplished and published scientist, should follow the science. 

Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University wrote the Stanford Daily thusly:

Dear Editor,

In an open letter, 98 Stanford faculty members accuse their Stanford colleague and White House COVID-19 advisor Scott Atlas of “falsehoods and misrepresentations,” claiming that “many of his opinions and statements run counter to established science.” Surprisingly, the alleged falsehoods are not mentioned, making scientific discourse difficult.

Among other things, the letter advocates handwashing, which Atlas obviously agrees with. So, what are the disagreements?

While anyone can get infected, there is a thousand-fold difference in mortality risk between the old and young, and the risk to children is less than from annual influenza. Using an age-targeted strategy, Atlas wants to better protect high-risk individuals, while letting children and young adults live more normal lives. This contrasts with general age-wide lockdowns that protect low-risk students and young professionals working from home, while older higher-risk working-class people generate the inevitable herd immunity.

The open letter ignores collateral damage caused by lockdowns. Being a public health policy expert, it is natural and reassuring that Atlas also consider plummeting childhood vaccinations, postponed cancer screenings, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, deteriorating mental health and more house evictions, just to name a few.

Among experts on infectious disease outbreaks, many of us have long advocated for an age-targeted strategy, and I would be delighted to debate this with any of the 98 signatories. Supporters include professor Sunetra Gupta at Oxford University, the world’s preeminent infectious disease epidemiologist. Assuming no bias against women scientists of color, I urge Stanford faculty and students to read her thoughts.

Martin Kulldorff, professor, Harvard Medical School

Notice Dr. Kulldorff’s invitation to debate any of the signers of the letter. As yet, not one signer has taken him up on the offer, which is rather strange. They claim to believe in science and yet won’t consider debating a highly credentialed and widely published scholar who has a different view from the signers of the letter. 

The original open letter, written most likely in haste and with politicized anger, was a smear. A defamation. A libel. Which is why Atlas has threatened to sue

The signers responded by invoking their freedom of speech. 

Who is right?

One could argue that all libel laws are an unjust use of force against the freedom to speak. This was Murray Rothbard’s position. He said we do not possess property rights in our reputation. As cruel and wicked as genuine defamation is – and truly many people would choose to have their car stolen than to be widely smeared on the internet – it falls into the category of sin not crime. 

There are also huge problems with enforcement. The court system is not cheap. It is expensive to sue for libel or slander, and the guilty parties don’t often have resources to pay compensation. It ends up going to mediation, where one party decides reluctantly to recant. But there is no guarantee that the recantation will be seen by the same people who saw the smear. 

What’s the point of a sheepish admission on Facebook that what one person said was a lie? This brings no justice at all. The damage is already done. 

There is an additional problem with defamation law: its very existence might lead people to have an unwarranted trust in what others say rather than holding a proper incredulity toward implausible claims – claims such as that which accuses a famous public health expert of ignoring the science. If there were no opportunity to use the law to sue someone for something they said, the public might otherwise develop a correct suspicion of all such smears. 

That said, the laws do exist. Given that, and the widespread but incorrect supposition that actual libel would not go unpunished, I see no real objection to deploying these laws in the defense of truth if the resources are available and there is some hope that regaining one’s good name is possible. 

In this case, it strikes me that Scott Atlas has a strong case that his old colleagues played fast and loose with his professional reputation for purely political reasons. If the courts get involved and decide against the signers of this document, I won’t shed too many tears for their free speech rights: after all, the upshot of their letter is to lend their professional reputations to violating everyone’s rights in the name of disease mitigation, and cover up their political motivations with the veneer of science. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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