On November 13, 2020, Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs posted a YouTube lecture conducted by Dr. Genevieve Briand, JHU’s MS in Applied Economics Assistant Program Director. The talk was titled Covid-19 Deaths: A Look at US Data and a full summary produced by AIER can be found here.
The general idea of the lecture was that Covid-19 deaths as reported by the CDC may be misleading due to a number of accounting aberrations in the data. One of the most notable discrepancies Briand points out is the reclassification of death by other diseases, such as heart disease, as Covid-19 deaths simply because at the time of death the individuals also had Covid. She also makes claims suggesting that overall deaths in 2020 have not substantially increased from past years. Although I am sympathetic to the research, this article should not be construed to be an explicit endorsement of the findings.
The video stood without any protest for almost two weeks and JHU’s student newspaper even ran an article about the research on November 22nd. AIER soon came across the research and found it to be worthy of public attention and discussion. On November 26, AIER published a summary that cited the student newspaper article and the YouTube video. Almost within hours of AIER’s publication, the student newspaper article which stood for over four days was taken down. The next day it was replaced by the following note attempting to discredit the research with a pdf link to the original article.
On Twitter, the following statement was issued
This of course is a ridiculous explanation and highly inappropriate and drew much-needed criticism in the comment section. Before I proceed I believe it must first be noted that the JHU News-Letter is a student-run publication independent of the university. Although what they did was wrong, I do not believe it is appropriate to attack student-run organizations or hold them to the same level of standards as we would for other organizations. I hope to use this article to talk about censorship and gatekeeping more generally, and not shame a specific organization.
I was recently a college student, and I can attest that professional standards pertaining to academic freedom and general conduct were certainly skills we are all still learning. What is more concerning is that Dr. Briand’s YouTube lecture was delisted after going from around only a few hundred views to over 20,000 after the article was retracted. I am going to assume the YouTube Channel is run by the university. Such an action is not only a blatant attack on the work of a hard-working faculty member, but it’s also a plain violation of academic freedom. This is all representative of not only sloppy professional standards but the worrying politicization of science during a time where such behavior is dangerous.
The Importance of Academic Freedom
We do not have free speech simply to talk about the weather; we have it so we can talk about very controversial things. Things like the abolition of slavery, a women’s right to vote, a gay person’s right to equality, a black person’s right to sit in the same space as a white person. These were once all extremely controversial and offensive topics that were only brought to fruition through the protection and use of free speech.
Academic freedom is no different. We do not uphold standards of rigorous inquiry and free expression in the American academy, the most respected academic institution in the world, to all agree with one another. We uphold such standards precisely so we can disagree and through the marketplace of ideas our intellectual enrichment is made possible. We come up with the latest inventions, theories, models, and literature because we are free to think and say whatever we want. Whether it was the Red Scare in the 20th century that targeted leftist professors or attacks on right-leaning professors in the 21st century and everybody in between, academic freedom is a constant battle. That is because human beings are naturally power-hungry individuals who wish to silence those they disagree with and control the intellectual narrative to fit their own agendas.
The practical implications behind JHU’s (JHU used to describe the student newspaper as well as the advanced academic program’s YouTube channel) censorship cannot be worse. First and foremost, the YouTube video and the retracted article have now been viewed exponentially more times following the night of the 26th. Censorship in this case has backfired tremendously, as it usually does. The best course of action should have been to let the content stand and allow it to be subject to public scrutiny. An even better response would be to publish another rigorous academic piece in opposition. We would all be more educated as a result and JHU would set an example for the world in forwarding productive discussions about serious topics. However, the current actions taken by JHU make it seem like Dr. Briand’s work is something the establishment doesn’t want people to see.
The rationale given to support the retraction of the article was also poorly formed. One of the reasons given was to fight misinformation. The problem is that just because you don’t agree with the use of the information doesn’t mean you should censor it. When information is put out to the world, all sorts of people will see it; some of those people you may disagree with. Sometimes you might be the one who’s wrong.
Another issue that was brought up was Dr. Briand’s position as an economist and not a public health expert. This is a clear logical error because an appeal to authority does not lend any merit to one’s argument. Dr. Briand’s work was on data provided by the CDC to which she notes that there are statistical anomalies that should raise some questions. It wasn’t neuroscience. If there are issues with her interpretation of data then we should have that debate, not censor her work. However this appeal to authority tactic is one used all throughout society on all sides of an argument. We would be better served if we stopped dismissing one another based on arbitrary titles and just listened to good arguments. If Dr. Fauci told you to jump off a bridge to stop Covid-19 but AIER economist Phil Magness told you his research shows that the policy of jumping off a bridge is rooted in no evidence, are you going to attack Phil for being an economist? For those who want to play this game, there are two reports written by actual scientists that generally support Briand’s thesis. They can be found here and here. I do not endorse the findings. I am simply providing them as more examples of similar work done by scientists.
Setting aside the technical debate behind the research, JHU seems to forget, as we all do, that virtually all research has potential issues with it. However, the main problem is that such scrutiny seems to be one-sided in the age of Covid-19. Many of the epidemiological models used to predict the effects of Covid-19 were wildly incorrect, highly inflammatory, and more than likely led to terrible policy decisions that have wrecked the lives of countless people. Where are the retractions and pointed scrutiny on that kind of research? Again, I am not asking for everyone to embrace Dr. Briand’s research. I just think that we should have some decent standards of professional conduct when it comes to ideas we disagree with.
The main problem with all of this goes far beyond Dr. Briand’s research. This is all representative of an unproductive orthodoxy that exists around Covid-19. An orthodoxy that has a set view on how to think and how to respond to the virus. When the Great Barrington Declaration was released, a document signed by tens of thousands of medical professionals and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens calling for the end of lockdowns, it was met with extreme vitriol. Some attacks were welcome scientific scrutiny but many others were the type of pointless slander usually reserved for the peanut gallery of politics. Oxford professor Dr. Sunetra Gupta, one the main signatories of the Declaration, writes about the types of attacks she received in an article here.
Dr. Briand’s research regarding the statistical anomalies in the CDC’s data is a worthy and important discussion. Although it is important to trust our institutions and support the dissemination of good information, mistakes are made all the time. Dr. Briand seems to have picked up on a number of interesting data points that should be investigated. If she’s wrong in part then we can move on, resolve the discrepancies, and are now better equipped to fight the virus. If she’s right then we would also be more equipped to fight the virus, having better information that will allow us to support the general welfare of society. Censoring her work does neither of this. If anything, it is simply giving in to the toxic politicization that has surrounded Covid-19 and missing an opportunity to provide leadership in a world that seems to have lost its way.