The Death and Resurrection of Science

by State Brief


After two years of draconian lockdowns, governments around the world suddenly dismantled their unprecedented campaigns against Covid-19 in silence. From one day to another, the whole thing was supposed to be forgotten. 

Looking back, it seems appropriate to abbreviate the Covid-19 pandemic as the Covid-19 panic, or to call it the pandemic of censorship and poor science.

Science and free speech were among the earliest victims of Covid-19. Millions of papers came out, most of them of very poor quality, and authorities quickly forgot that they are obliged to base their decisions on the most reliable science. Torturing your data till they confess became acceptable. And if randomised trials did not confess to what the authorities wanted, they ignored them and based their decisions on flawed observational studies instead. 

The lockdowns went counter to what we knew about respiratory viruses, that it is impossible to lock them out, and they caused a lot of collateral damage, including an increase in deaths from other causes than Covid-19. 

Sweden did not lock down and did not mandate face masks, and it seems to be the only country where the politicians had the best possible advisors and respected their advice. Sweden ended up having one of the lowest excess mortalities in the Western world. This should ring alarm bells everywhere, but what we have seen so far are pathetic defenses of grossly failed policies.

The scientists who knew the most about the relevant science were harassed if they spoke out and argued why the policies were inappropriate and harmful. They quickly learned that it was best to keep quiet. One example is Jonas Ludvigsson, who published a ground-breaking Swedish study making it clear that it is safe to keep schools open during the pandemic, for children and teachers alike. This was taboo.

We gave up our democracies almost overnight without much thought when we needed democracy more than ever. Free debate became a thing of the past; social media removed impeccable science if it went against official announcements; and the media were complacent with this new world order and often participated uncritically in the public humiliation of those who spoke out. 

George Orwell’s novel 1984 was a dire warning that humanity can lose its way and, in the end, become inhumane. A place where truth does not exist and where history and facts are changed according to the needs of those in power. In 1984, the Thought Police use fear, control, and constant surveillance to manipulate people and suppress “wrong thinking.” You end up loving those who destroyed you and your freedom. 

In 2020, all it took to mount enough fear among people to make them give up their daily life was a health crisis. We came close to the Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” and “Big Brother is Watching You” with WHO’s mantra “Test, test, test,” and if you could not provide a fresh and negative virus test, you were a pariah. We regressed to the Middle Ages where public humiliation was the norm for those who were not mainstream.

People are slowly waking up to the disaster of misinformation we have seen, ironically under the banner of fighting misinformation. For example, it is now possible to say the obvious about the origin of Covid-19, that it is extremely likely it was a lab leak in Wuhan of an artificial virus manufactured there as part of the dangerous gain-of-function experiments. 

In September 2020, Michael Head from Southampton University sent an email to Susan Mitchie, a member of a group that advises the UK government about the pandemic, which she forwarded to other group members. Four days earlier, Carl Heneghan from the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine in Oxford and other scientists had briefed Prime Minister Boris Johnson and had argued for more targeted measures to protect the vulnerable rather than having a blanket lockdown.

Head’s email was condemned by former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption who called it an example of scientists being hounded by those who could not counter their arguments. The people singled out in the email were Carl Heneghan and his co-worker Tom Jefferson, and Peter C Gøtzsche because they had all spoken out about the harms of lockdowns.

Maliciously, Head did not discuss the science but called Jefferson and Gøtzsche “anti-vaccine activists” and noted that, “There’s quite a lot to Heneghan, and I imagine I am only aware of a small amount of it.” Head opined that Heneghan’s work “is of great interest and use to the anti-vax community, which says a lot.” It doesn’t. And the issue was the harms of lockdowns. 

Framing people by calling them ”anti-vaxxers” or ”controversial” is a dangerous path to take. It can be compared to the post-war McCarthyism in the US, where many people were falsely accused of being communists. During the pandemic governments actively used these methods to frame scientists who disagreed with them and the officials in charge. Labelling people stops all rational debate. 

Head’s derogatory email was mentioned in a newspaper article where Heneghan said: “I have never been ‘anti’ anything. I have worked tirelessly during this pandemic and the previous pandemic to reduce uncertainties and ask questions that might help improve healthcare decision making. This matters a lot to me which is why we have just carried out a review on the impact of lockdown on vital childhood vaccines.” Jefferson added that their review showed the catastrophic effect the Covid restrictions have had on the mass implementation of important childhood vaccines like those for MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella).

Gøtzsche noted that to label him as an “anti-vaccine activist” took him back to medieval times: “In science you need open debate to further scientific understanding. During the Covid-19 epidemic the debate has many times been the opposite, with only one truth, like a religious dogma…We acknowledge many of our vaccines have been of great benefit and saved millions of lives and I certainly hope the Covid-19 vaccine will save millions of lives as well. People in this pandemic have been furthering their own agenda in all ways, and this involves below the belt punches…they show that academically they have lost the argument.”

The anti-vaxxer label is so popular that it is sprinkled on everyone who dares to write critically about anything. Even psychiatrist Michael P. Hengartner was called an anti-vaxxer when he pointed out that the average treatment effect of depression pills is poor and of questionable clinical significance.

In April 2021, Twitter and Facebook representatives were brought before the UK parliament to explain their firms’ censorship of discussion around Covid. Two particularly pertinent cases were raised: A tweet by Martin Kulldorff and a statement on Facebook by Heneghan.

Someone wrote to Kulldorff on 16 March 2021 that it seems to be a religious mantra now that everyone MUST be vaccinated. Kulldorff replied, “No. Thinking that everyone must be vaccinated is as scientifically flawed as thinking that nobody should. Covid vaccines are important for older high-risk people, and their caretakers. Those with prior natural infection do not need it. Nor children.” 

Kulldorff’s tweet was measured, informative, and in accordance with good science, but it was labelled “misleading” by Twitter, and tweeters were rendered unable to interact with it and were instructed that “health officials recommend a vaccine for most people.” This was absurd to say, as Kulldorff had not contradicted it.

Some people called Heneghan “anti-science” for daring to convey the results of the randomised trials of face masks. He and Jefferson had noted that there was a troubling lack of robust evidence that they worked and that, despite being a subject of global importance, there had been a total lack of interest from governments in pursuing evidence-based medicine in this area. They also noted that the only studies that had shown face masks to be effective at stopping airborne diseases had been observational, which are prone to bias.

Heneghan posted a link on Facebook to an article he had written about the Danish trial of face masks for preventing Covid-19 that did not find an effect, and Facebook immediately labelled the article “False information. Checked by independent fact-checkers.” As Heneghan noted, there was nothing in his article that was “false.”

Kulldorff, Heneghan, and Jefferson are dissenting scientists who hold positions at esteemed institutions. So, on what basis could Twitter and Facebook declare their arguments void? The answers provided to the British parliamentarians were chilling. Someone put up a link to a video in a tweet with the appropriate handle @BigBrotherWatch:

Parliamentarian: “Who in your organisation would have been cited…and been qualified…that a professor of medicine was wrong?”

Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy at Twitter: “Well, it is not Twitter saying he is wrong or misleading, it is the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and health authorities around the world, and with that tweet you are referring to, my understanding is that it said, if you have had Covid-19 before, you have natural immunity and you don’t need the vaccine. That’s different to what the CDC and other health authorities around the world have said, which is that vaccines are effective in most people. What we want to do is that, when people see that tweet, to really quickly direct them to authoritative sources of information like the CDC or the NHS [the UK’s National Health Service] or the Department of Health, so they can see what the official guidance is and make up their own mind.”

Parliamentarian: “On these issues, some of these highly controversial, really, current issues around public health, you think there is a danger in having debate amongst acknowledged experts, and that it is far better that everybody just sees the official public health position, even though that of course in time may change.”

Minshall: “I think that’s a good question…because you are right, on the one hand, the information environment and what’s accurate with regard to the pandemic is evolving with the government providing different and sometimes competing advice…”

Minshall essentially said that anything that contradicts official guidance from public health authorities is deemed misleading by Twitter. She made the mistake that philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his book The Art of Always Being Right called “Appeal to authority rather than reason,” which is the antithesis of science.

Censorship with appeal to authorities is poison for our democracies. Furthermore, official advice has often been proven wrong. One of the worst examples of this is the CDC whose information about influenza vaccinations is seriously misleading. For example, even though there is no valid evidence to support the hypothesis that vaccinating healthcare workers protects patients from influenza, a CDC review that included flawed observational studies in long-term care patients found that vaccination reduced mortality by 29% in the patients. However, influenza has been estimated to contribute to less than 10% of all winter deaths among persons aged 65 years and older. Thus, even if the vaccine had been 100% effective in preventing influenza deaths, the reduction in total deaths should have been less than 10%. The CDC seemed to have deliberately ignored the existing Cochrane review about influenza vaccination for healthcare workers, which reported a very poor effect of the vaccine. 

It has never been shown in randomised trials that influenza vaccines reduce mortality, and the benefit is so poor that many doctors who know about the evidence do not get vaccinated. But if they shared their views to the public on social media, they would immediately be censored. 

The randomised trials of face masks to prevent transmission of respiratory viruses including SARS-CoV-2 have not found any effect. A large trial in Bangladesh appeared to have shown a small effect, but the 1% difference in the number of people with reported Covid-like illnesses could easily have been caused by physical distancing, which was practiced by 5% more villagers in the face mask group than in the control group.

An argument for mandating face masks is that they cannot do harm. This is not correct. Facial expressions are important for social interactions. When kids can’t see each other’s smiles or learn critically important social and verbal skills, this can be harmful, especially for children who are experiencing trauma in their lives. And recently, an 11-month-old baby died after being forced to wear a mask at a Taiwan daycare. The baby’s mask became soaked with his tears and mucus from crying, inhibiting his ability to breathe. 

Official inquiries about what happened during the pandemic are about saving face. As an example, the official UK Covid-19 inquiry is a Yes, Minister farce. The Inquiry’s starting position is that lockdowns and face masks were necessary and effective, and they are eager to dismiss the evidence that tells us otherwise.

In contrast, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pointed to a peer-reviewed report about the first lockdown that found that “for every permutation of lives saved and GDP lost, the costs of lockdown exceed the benefits.”

The UK inquiry uncritically accepted substandard research and substandard advisors while bullying Heneghan using provocative language to suggest he didn’t have expertise in this area. Earlier, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Dame Angela McLean, called Heneghan a “fuckwit” on a WhatsApp chat during a government meeting for his dissenting views on lockdowns. This farce is slated to run until 2026 and is reported to be one of the largest public inquiries in UK history.

Even though the UK inquiry is deeply shocking, it is no different to the “head in the sand” attitude that prevails everywhere. The Minister is always right, just like in Orwell’s novel 1984. In Italy, for example, the inquiry will establish if the government’s policies agreed with the WHO’s advice. 

All knowledgeable people need to speak up now. Why? Because those who hold power don’t seem to have learned anything from their mistakes and will likely make the same mistakes the next time a pandemic haunts the globe. They will again lock down and mandate whole populations to look like bank robbers, which is ridiculous. 

History will judge those who were responsible. They knew what they were doing when they intentionally stopped the free debate in the scientific community, which even became a crime. In September 2020, Zoe Lee Buhler, a pregnant woman, was arrested in her home and handcuffed in front of her two small children while in pyjamas over a Facebook post. Her crime was that she had arranged and promoted an upcoming event about freedom and human rights as a protest against the lockdown in Victoria. When Buhler insisted that she wasn’t breaking any laws, the police told her that she was, and she was charged with incitement.

We must fight with everything we have against governments that behave in a dictatorial manner, against the evidence, using substandard experts, “for our own good,” as they say. The best way forward is to learn as much as possible about the methods governments used to suppress and distort the science. The Great Barrington Declaration, which has received almost a million signatures, was an important milestone. We need to establish an international cooperation of scientists at the highest level who will stand together and never again accept to be silenced when the next pandemic hits us.

[This article was coauthored with documentary filmmaker Janus Bang]


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