Free Speech & the Scientific Method
“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system-ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society. (IV. 26–28)”
Science, it has been said, advances one funeral at a time. In other words, what was once heterodox only became accepted as orthodox truth when the defenders of the old paradigm died off, or could no longer maintain their position of authority in the face of clear new evidence. Yet many still consider science to be less of an evolving discovery process and more of a governing body that passes judgment on whether an idea is true or not. We saw this phenomenon throughout the pandemic, during which public health officials postured as economists — making decisions without regard for the underlying trade-offs — while castigating anyone who dared to offer their own interpretation of “The Science”™.
Dr. Jeffrey Singer — senior fellow at Cato Institute and contributor to Reason Magazine — has been my go-to guest on topics of medical science since well before the pandemic. His latest article in the May 2022 edition of Reason takes on a set of philosophical questions about the nature of scientific truth, and how we arrive at it. In it, Singer contrasts what he calls the “Priesthood” acting as gatekeepers of information, with the sole authority to decide which experts can be heard. Using examples from the pandemic, such as the silencing and smearing of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Singer points out how often the “official” narrative has been proven wrong by subsequent studies, such as those confirming that in fact lockdowns did little to slow the spread.
Now, the California Assembly is debating a bill that would threaten doctors with the loss of their license for offering any medical advice that is considered contrary to official CDC guidelines regarding vaccination. As epidemiologist and noted COVID expert Jay Bhattacharya notes , the law would essentially take away a physician’s ability to offer individualized care to their patients, who may have valid reasons (like prior immunity or other conditions) for not getting the vaccine.
It appears that politics has infected our public discourse around science. Someone call the doctor! The Doctor for Liberty, that is. Singer joined me to separate the real experts from the phony high priests of the public health establishment.
Watch, Read, or Listen:
Bob Zadek: Hello, everyone. This morning’s guest ruined my month. I was feeling content about what’s going on with COVID and then this morning’s guest sent me a link to an article about something going on in the state of California, that offers a terrible warning to the rest of the country.
We will discuss who is in charge of our health — our doctor, or an unelected representative of the government? What is coming is a greater threat to the patient — doctor relationship than any other single event in recent history.
Dr. Jeffrey Singer joined us during the COVID to help us sort out fact from fiction as we were fed information on the evening news. Jeff, welcome back to the show, although if you hear an edge in my tone, it’s because you put me into a really grouchy mood with your recent Reason article.
A Reformation in Information
Bob Zadek: We live in a country with the strongest protection of free speech of any other country on earth. Free speech is as American as a concept can be. We are the model in the world for protecting free speech — for not allowing government to censor free speech or interfere with our rights to say what is on our mind, and equally important, the rights of others to hear what we have to say.
Free speech is, in fact, two separate rights:
- The right to speak, and
- the right to hear what other people have in their mind.
Free speech has been challenged because of the advent of COVID.
Jeff, your article argues science should be a profession, not a priesthood. Why would you find it necessary to state something as obvious as science should be a profession, not a priesthood?
[00:06:39] Jeff Singer: It’s important for people to understand that not only is freedom of speech, of course, necessary to live as a human being, but also it’s necessary for scientific progress. I had an article in this month’s issue of Reason magazine called, Against Scientific Gatekeeping: Science should be a profession, not a priesthood.
Against Scientific Gatekeeping
(Illustration: Joanna Andreasson; Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci…
This has really come to a head during the COVID pandemic, but President Eisenhower in his farewell address warned that it would happen. He said that when government money starts getting involved with science, through grants, etc., we could wind up developing what he called a “scientific -technological elite.”
During the pandemic, when the public health officials — who are part of that scientific-technological elite — undertook certain policies and made certain pronouncements, anyone (even very well-trained people in the academy) who questioned at all these elite pronouncements was subject to derision and shaming.
“[Eisenhower warned] that the when government money starts getting involved with science, through grants, et cetera, we could wind up developing what he called a “scientific technological elite.”
But worse than that, the Digital Age has changed everything. I’ve sometimes likened the Digital Age to how Gutenberg’s printing press changed everything. Up until medieval European times, basically only the Priesthood had access to what was supposedly said in the Greek language scriptures. When the printing press allowed for what was written in the street and in the scriptures to be written in a vernacular language, then everybody else was able to read the same material. Different people formulated opinions about it and came to different conclusions, and that’s of course what lead to the Reformation.
It’s the same thing right now with the advent of the Digital Age. Anybody who’s interested can get access to the same specialized information that the people have in the academy — the professional scientists. Many of the people who have access to the information may not be credentialed in, say, epidemiology or even in the life sciences, but they could have a lot of expertise in, say, mathematics and statistical analysis — numbers crunching — or they could just be very smart people who are looking over these numbers, these studies and reports, reading on their own, and asking very intelligent questions that maybe no one else thought to ask.
“Challenge [the Priesthood] and you’ll risk being completely derided and dismissed.”
Or, they can come up with crackpot ideas as well. But the fact is that the establishment has, for all intents and purposes, dismissed all of these people from the peanut gallery and even members of their own class — the scientific-technological elite — who don’t agree with the narrative being promulgated by the dominant members. These are mostly government scientists or scientists who depend on government grants. Challenge them and you’ll risk being completely derided and dismissed.
The Curious Case of Hydroxychloroquine
Dr. Singer: I’ll give you examples of pluses and minuses. So during the early days of the COVID pandemic there were some physicians, and some actual microbiologists and epidemiologists, who thought Hydroxychloroquine might be effective in treating the COVID virus based on the known mechanism of action. A lot of pretty smart people thought at first that it deserved investigation. But because Donald Trump said, “Oh, this looks like a game changer,” that immediately injected politics into it.
After that, no one suggests that hydroxychloroquine could possibly be used to treat COVID, because Donald Trump said it could be a game-changer.
It turns out that no double randomized controlled trials have shown that Hydroxychloroquine has any effect in the treatment of COVID — I’m not saying it does — but I am criticizing the immediate reaction.
20% of all drugs that are prescribed by healthcare practitioners are prescribed what they call “off-label,” meaning that the FDA approved the drug for the treatment of condition X, but clinicians can use it for whatever they think it works to treat — the FDA doesn’t dictate that. It turns out that 20% of the time when patients are prescribed a drug by a healthcare practitioner, that drug is being prescribed for an off-label use, and sometimes years later it turns out that just through empirical experience and sharing of experience among clinicians, the FDA updates its labeling and makes it “on-label.” That was the case with aspirin. Aspirin was being prescribed for years, for example, for stroke prevention and cardiac health, and it wasn’t until 2014, believe it or not, that the FDA updated its labeling on aspirin.
So sometimes the people out there working in the fields are right, and sometimes they’re wrong. In fact, the majority of the time you hit a dead end. Nevertheless, up until recently, we had an environment that encouraged heterodoxy and encouraged suggestions and investigation.
Other examples: the drug Thalidomide everybody’s heard of was developed for morning sickness, and it turned out that it caused these horrific birth defects. It was never approved by the FDA in the U.S. Nevertheless, later on, some researchers found that it was effective for treating leprosy and for multiple myeloma. How? Just by investigating and using things off-label based upon their knowledge of the drug. They weren’t shut down.
Lithium was originally developed to treat bladder stones, but later it was found to be very effective to treat bipolar disorder. Then there was this now-famous gastroenterologist, who was a resident at the time in the 1970s, Dr. Berry, who had reason to believe that a bacteria might be causing most cases of ulcer disease, not acid and stress based upon his findings on slides, taken from biopsies of people of ulcers. Within about 10 years, he did randomized controlled trials that actually persuaded the medical profession that, indeed, the majority of cases probably are caused by a bacterium that you can treat with an antibiotic very simply without antacid drugs.
Up until recently, we had a culture in the sciences that welcomed heterodoxy — that encouraged questions and that was welcoming to the idea of,
“Let’s see if that idea works.” Only recently, and particularly during the pandemic, our culture has changed. If you don’t follow the orthodoxy, then you’re a kook — you’re fringe, you’re wacko. You should be condemned.
The Great Barrington Declaration & Its Discontents
Bob Zadek [14:27]: You observed that there is an elite who speaks from the Mount — comes down with the tablets and tells us all what is going on.
Now, the word elite would suggest that they must be the best, but they’re not the best. There has not been some competitive exam and the highest scoring medical professional gets to set policy. The elite means part of the political establishment. So Dr. Fauci, and Rochelle Walensky — all those people who became the font of knowledge insofar as those who watched mainstream media were concerned — they didn’t earn that through skill. They earned that through the political process. Dr. Fauci made a decision to use his skill and work for the government. That’s an employment decision he made. So now we have the government, which is by no means the smartest, just happens to become the elite. When other healthcare professionals had a different point of view, they had a different point of view than the political medical establishment. That’s the only thing that made it different.
Nobody believes for a moment that these people who became the face of the elite are that way because they’re the smartest — they’re that way because of their employment.
Jeff Singer [17:10]: That’s exactly Eisenhower’s point in his farewell address. He worried that when government money gets intertwined with science, we could create this special class of people — a scientific-technological elite class of people.
If you’re a researcher in an academic medical school or a scientific researcher and you depend on grant money from, say, the National Institutes of Health, and what you want to research may go against the conventional wisdom of the people giving out the grant money, that may make you less inclined to go against the conventional wisdom because you don’t want to jeopardize the money flow. It also influences what studies get the grant money. For example, if you’re going to do a study that will reinforce the prevailing narrative, then you’re more likely to get a grant. Then, if you get a study that challenges the consensus among the scientific-technological elite, it might actually shake people’s confidence in it. That influences the culture and the Zeitgeist.
For example, in the early days of the pandemic, we didn’t know much about this virus. For all we knew it could have been as deadly as Ebola, and we didn’t know how quickly it spread. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the very early responses of maybe overreacting, but by the summer of 2020 we knew a lot more. We knew who was most vulnerable, amd who was spared.
A group of epidemiologists — a professor at Stanford medical school MD/PhD, Professor Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at the time at Harvard Medical School and MD/PhD, Martin Kulldorff, and a professor of epidemiology at Oxford
University’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine, Sunetra Gupta — met in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and authored a statement that was signed by thousands of medical scientists across the world, including a recent Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, that basically said that now that we knew more about the virus, we should focus our efforts on protecting the most vulnerable, which tend to be people with certain immunodeficiencies, like elderly people in nursing homes.
They said it seems to be relatively harmless for the young. For the very young, in fact, it’s more like a cold, and we have to take that into consideration. The trade-offs involved in public health policy are not just about controlling a virus — they involve a lot of other things. It involves mental health, it involves the socioeconomic determinants of health, etc., so when considering the trade-offs, we should focus our protection on the people who are most at risk, and allow the least vulnerable to resume as normal a life as possible.
In fact, the least vulnerable among us will eventually get the virus because the virus cannot be stopped, but they’ll contribute to the pool of the population that will have a degree of immunity, and they will have not paid a big price for it, and in the long run when enough people have immunity, that will have contributed to the end of the threat.
The Coordinated Attack on Scientists
Jeff Singer: Now we know from Freedom of Information Act requests — and I get into this in my article in Reason — they were just attacked viciously, mainly not by the scientific literature, but by the mainstream media, like The Nation magazine, Atlantic Monthly, or WIRED. They weren’t attacked on the science. We now know that when this document was released, Francis Collins — who was at that time was the director at NIH — emailed a couple of other members of the task force, advising the presidency on COVID and said, “We have to do a rapid take down of these scientists who are questioning our policy. What is being done?”
The response came back to it: “We’ve already got people about to write stuff,” which of course was written in the lay press. So interestingly, these fringe scientists, like I said, were epidemiologists at distinguished institutions.
Opinion | How Fauci and Collins Shut Down Covid Debate
In public, Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins urge Americans to "follow the science." In private, the two sainted…
For the record, Dr. Fauci is not an epidemiologist — neither is Dr. Collins.
I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Bhattacharya — one of the authors from Stanford — speak about it last week. He said that The Great Barrington Declaration as it became called wasn’t something they had to devise de novo. This was the consensus among epidemiologists right up until COVID-19 hit. The idea of lockdowns as instituted in China and then became like the model for the rest of the world was considered some sort of crazy idea.
He said, “Really all we did was just restate what had been the conventional wisdom up until January, 2020, so it didn’t take a lot of deep research. We just restated what we were all taught to believe right up until then.”
The Rise of Hypercredentialism
Jeff Singer: The scientific technological elite oftentimes attacks critics by resorting to credentials. “You’re not an epidemiologist” or, “You’re not a physician — who are you to say this?!?”
Now, credentials are important because it’s a way of screening.
If you’re telling me stuff about medicine, and I see you have a medical degree, that credential gives me some information that you probably know something about what you’re talking about. So it’s useful, but a credential doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good, and people without the credentials aren’t necessarily ignorant. It’s a useful kind of screen, but you know the famous joke:
What do you call a person who graduates in the bottom of his medical school class?… Doctor.
You had people attacking, for example, PhDs in economics at Brown University who were looking at statistics and crunching numbers as part of their daily work, and they didn’t agree with the methodolgy of some of these epidemiologic reports, saying, “I don’t think he made adjustments for co-variables.” They were immediately shouted down as, “You’re an economist. You’re not an epidemiologist. Shut up!”
Bob Zadek [24:51]: They were shouted down not on the merits, but because they were offering a point of view that was inconsistent with the “official” point of view. The government behaved as if anybody who was challenging what they were saying was an existential threat to the country.
There was a profound, negative reaction by the government, “Shut up. We do not care about your point of view, and we do not respond on the merit.”
Government was able to say “shut up,” not because they won the argument intellectually, but because their employer carried guns
Jeff Singer [26:19]: The scientific technological elite or, “the Priesthood,” has to get used to the idea that the Digital Age is the real game changer, and accommodate a world in which people have access to the same information and statistics as them.
Some of the people with opinions are going to be wrong, and some are going to be right. Some of them are going to raise questions that sometimes only a person who’s not in the middle of the problem and is looking at the, at it from the outside would come up with a question like that.
“Some of the people with opinions are going to be wrong.”
It can be valuable. It’s not going to change and the solution is for the scientific profession to get more tolerant. A little tolerance goes a long way. This doesn’t mean you have to respect and entertain every single hypothesis coming from the peanut gallery. We don’t have to spend time considering that the earth is flat, for example. But if you entertain suggestions and comments from people outside of the orthodoxy, then when you reject some, they won’t be taken as being just dismissive.
California: First in the Nation in Doing Bad Things
Bob Zadek [28:08]: Your article made me think of the lesson from a Nobel prize-winning economist, James Buchanan, with his discussion of public choice. Government lies to us all the time. It’s not that government is per se mean-spirited but the humans who are collectively “government” are driven by the same human frailties, and drives as other segments of society. They want raises, promotions, more power, and want to be respected. They want their kids to be proud of them, but sometimes you make mistakes.
Government has the power to suppress speech that other segments don’t have, so if we just say government doesn’t get the benefits of any presumption, it is a point of view of a human being who made a personal decision to have the government be his or her employer. All we know about Dr. Fauci or Rochelle Walensky is that they made an employment decision to work for the government. Do not give government any presumption that we are not willing to give to everybody else. That’s an important lesson. Government simply carries guns. They’re not smarter.
Now, take us to what’s going on in California, where government invites itself into your consulting room with your patient, monitors what you say, and is ready to yank your license if you don’t tow the line.
California is in many ways the first to do bad things, and then other states say, “I never thought of that. Let’s try it.” Tell us about the legislation that is being actively considered.
Jeff Singer [31:25]: I read about this post on Bari Weiss’s Substack site by Professor Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford. I’m going to quote California Assembly Bill 2098, which was authored by assemblymen Evan Lowe, and is currently making its way through the California legislature:
“Physicians who deviate from an authorized set of beliefs would do so at risk to their medical license.” It’s motivated by the idea that “practicing doctors are spreading misinformation about the risks of COVID, its treatment, and the vaccine.” It declares that physicians and surgeons who “disseminate or promote misinformation, or disinformation related to COVID — including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment, and its development, safety and effectiveness of COVID 19 vaccines — shall be subject to disciplinary action, which could result in the loss of the doctor’s medical license.” So in other
Bob Zadek: Translate that, Jeff. You have a license to practice medicine, without which you are breaking the law. What does it tell you as a practicing physician? What are physicians who read that saying to themselves about how they inform their patients?
Jeff Singer: If I’m a California doctor and I said…
“The fatality rate for children under the age of 18 is close to zero, and almost every one of the fatalities involves some serious pre-existing condition like leukemia, so a strong case can be made for not getting vaccinated under the age of 12, because we don’t know there are reported cases of myocarditis, particularly in males.
I can understand not wanting to take that chance with your child when they really are not at any significant risk of dying from COVID. We already know the vaccines’ effectiveness wanes, and they don’t prevent spreading COVID. I don’t think it’s wise to require everyone under the age of 12 to be vaccinated or to enter any public place in the state of California.”
For saying that, I could have my license revoked. I’d be afraid to say that because I don’t want my career destroyed.
If there’s anything that we learned over these last three years now, it’s that medical science is not a dogma. We’re learning almost continuously. What works, what doesn’t work, what’s going on… is changing on an almost daily basis.
If you take what we know today and put it in concrete, by casting it into law, then tomorrow when our understanding changes (which didn’t mean we were wrong yesterday — we were correct, given the information we had), now we’ve got more information, so understanding changes. But now we’re stuck. It doesn’t matter that our understanding changed.
So even setting aside the rights aspects of this — the right to free speech, etc. — just from a practicality standpoint, how could you be dumb enough to freeze a moment in time’s understanding of science, and say, “This is the truth”?
Then tomorrow we say, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay, then it’s not really that.” Now we’ve got to go back to the legislature to say the truth needs to be updated. That’s crazy. By the way, that’s what we do when it comes to treating pain in this country — 36 states have laws on the books that a doctor or a healthcare practitioner can only prescribe this dose of opiodes for this length of time for this situation, etc.
They are not to exceed this amount in a given period of time — that’s based on largely on junk science, but it doesn’t matter that it’s based on junk science. It’s now legally the truth, and we’re back to the medieval way of dealing with things.
The Chilling Effect on Free Speech, and Free Hearing
Bob Zadek [36:35]: I introduced this morning’s topic by pointing out that free speech is really two rights combined into one: the right to speak and the right to hear what somebody else has to say.
You go to a physician because you have made a decision to be guided by this human being because their advice is valuable to you. You select them not because you are going to be reading from a three by five card, and have memorized what the government has told you. You didn’t hire them to be a recording. You hired them because you need their brain to heal you. You are denied access to their brain because they are not allowed to give you the advice that they have deemed appropriate. So it means there are no more doctors. There are only recordings who are playing the current dogma given to them by the licensing authority.
You have just told us that this bill, if it becomes the law, denies access under criminal penalty to the physician to what you believe to be the best information. How much more dangerous to society can one get than that? That’s why my reaction was so immediate and so depressing and so scared when I read about it.
Jeff Singer: I’m in private practice. A lot of doctors nowadays are employed by hospitals or hospital systems. They’re often told what you’re allowed to say, because remember the hospitals, particularly during the pandemic were dependent upon government emergency funding, which is also based on how many COVID patients they were taking care of, etc.
When I would run into my fellow independent clinicians in a quiet area, like the coffee room, I’d say to them, “Does this all make sense to you? I don’t understand why we’re doing XYZ,” and I commonly get a response like yeah I agree.
Then I’d run into one of the hospital physicians, or the infectious disease specialist who is employed by the hospital, and I say the same thing: “This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t comport with anything I learned when I was in medical school, why are we doing this?”
They would essentially recite to me what the CDC just put out in writing online. So it became apparent after a very short period of time. They’re not going to tell you, “Yeah, I agree.”
You’re not hearing an opinion. You are just hearing what the CDC says. It became worthless for me to ask any of the hospital-based doctors for an opinion, because I already knew the opinion.
Bob Zadek [41:48]: So that means when I go to a doctor, I might as well call some government helpline because I’d be eliminating the middleman. You are denied the right to speak, and I am denied the right to hear what you have in your mind.
Social Media Silencings
Bob Zadek: Social media was banning tweets that violated the generally accepted dogma on the vaccine and on masking and the like in an effort to keep everybody calm. Points of view were denied to the public not by government, but by the social media, yet the effect on me is the same. I don’t get access to information that I want. The first thing that mythical or real totalitarian governments do is they control the information.
Once you control the information you are a long way towards ensuring and locking in your power. At least one state has decided their interests are best promoted by criminalizing the providing of information.
There’s no fraud, no deceit, no coercion. I’m just saying, “Jeff, I don’t feel well.”
And Jeff, the hypothetical physician says to himself, “My goodness, I want to tell my patient one thing, but they’re going to knock on my door. I’d better not.” How serious is that?
Jeff Singer [44:48]: Yeah, that’s “spreading disinformation.” Who gets to decide what’s disinformation?
Right now in Russia, if you say, “Russia invaded Ukraine and Ukraine didn’t provoke that invasion,” then in Russia you’re spreading disinformation. You can go to prison for 15 years. So I guess that’s disinformation. In my article I get into the whole social media component. You and I understand that private organizations have a right to decide what’s said on their platform, but it’s really interesting how a lot of the social media platforms want to be accepted as part of the establishment. Some perhaps because they fear they are going to be regulated by the government. They’re on this fool’s errand to try to please their potential regulators in hopes of maintaining independence, but for whatever reason, they’ve been also not allowing “disinformation” on social platforms.
It kind of dovetails in with the latest stories about Elon Musk wanting to purchase Twitter. It’s also interesting that much of the assault on the critics of the Priesthood regarding policy was launched on the social media platforms, not in scientific journals.
Most of the attacks and assaults on the people who were challenging or questioning the COVID policy were not in the scientific literature where scientists were saying, “Here is my scientific argument against your critique.”
Instead, they were launched on Twitter and mainly were beside the point attacks. They didn’t really attack the point that the critics were making. After my article was published, some of those very same people who were attacking, for example, the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration started attacking me, which I wear as a badge of honor. That means they paid attention to my article.
I wasn’t attacked for the points. Some of the attacks were, “How dare you suggest we are intolerant of heterodoxy. We’re all for freedom of speech. We just want this information. We just don’t want people to speak falsehoods. Of course they know what the truth is!”
For example, one doctor attacked me by saying, “You’re a surgeon, you fix bodies — stay in your lane. Don’t talk about this issue.”
I was getting attacked in the exact same way that the people I was writing about were getting attacked.
Bob Zadek: We started the show with reference to the so-called elite. Now, government is telling us collectively that we are incompetent to make decisions. Voters, citizens, patients, clients of lawyers, we are incompetent to make independent decisions with whom to trust our medical health. We pick a doctor, but we’re not competent. The doctor is incompetent. The only source of competence is the government, and we are dependent upon the government — not on ourselves, not on each other, not on the professionals we hire.
My psychology caused me to have the profound, personal reaction that I had to your piece.
End on a high note — are the physicians as a group reacting in any way to this effort in California, or are they either concerned about bad publicity or about what might happen to the licensing regime?
Jeff Singer: I wish I could give you a good answer to that question because I’d like to end on a high note, but I don’t know how many people are aware of this. I’m not sure if the California Medical Association has taken a position on this or not. Not only should the CMA oppose this, but everyone who’s concerned about the right to free speech, to hear other opinions, and also concerned about scientific progress, because shutting down discussion shuts down progress. They need to speak out against this. This is just the latest example of efforts that have been on the way for quite some time to shut down heterodoxy.
The high note is that the Digital Age makes it impossible to stop heterodoxy. You cannot prevent people from getting access to information and as you try to put roadblocks in clever people will find workarounds.
Bob Zadek: That’ll have to do, and thank heaven that Galileo wasn’t dependent upon government grants. We’d be in a much different place. Thanks so much to my dear friend Dr. Jeffrey Singer for his information.