Saturday , October 31 2020

Altas agonistes

A group of Stanford faculty recently circulated, and then posted, an open letter objecting to my Hoover colleague Scott Atlas, who serves as a senior adviser to the Administration on health policy. Read the letter. Then come back for a little reading comprehension test.****Q1: What specific "falsehoods and misrepresentations" do they accuse Scott of making?Q2: Which ...

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A group of Stanford faculty recently circulated, and then posted, an open letter objecting to my Hoover colleague Scott Atlas, who serves as a senior adviser to the Administration on health policy. 

Read the letter. Then come back for a little reading comprehension test.


Q1: What specific "falsehoods and misrepresentations" do they accuse Scott of making?

Q2: Which of the following do they claim Scott is publicly denying, contrary to scientific evidence? 

  1. Face masks, social distancing, handwashing and hygiene can help to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 
  2. Crowded indoor spaces are dangerous. 
  3. Asymptomatic people can spread covid-19
  4. Testing asymptomatic people can help to slow the spread. 
  5. Children can get Covid-19
  6. Pandemics can end via herd immunity. Vaccines work, by conferring herd immunity.
  7. Letting people get sick is better than a vaccine. 
  8. All of the above  

Q3: What specific documented evidence of statements that contravene contemporary scientific consensus do the signatories provide? 

Q4: What role in the Administration do they cite that Scott has, and misuses? 

(Note present tense. Scott is an adviser. We all get to change our minds -- even Dr. Fauci once said face masks were not worth the bother, but the signatories don't seem to feel an "ethical obligation" to play gotcha on that one. What matters is, what is Scott currently advocating in the Administration?) 


A1: None! Read carefully now 

falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas

"Fostered" does not literally mean he specifically lied or misrepresented. He just "fostered" lies and misrepresentations, whatever that means. "Fostered" can mean just "he works for Trump," and I cannot see that it means anything more here. 

But you sure are left with the feeling they accused Scott of lying and misrepresenting, don't you? 

A2: None of the above. The letter lists these boilerplate facts, but crucially does not accuse Scott of disagreeing with a single one of them. 

But by complaining about Scott's "falsehoods and misrepresentations" you sure get the feeling he must have disagreed with these, don't you? 

A3: None. Zero. 

A4: None. The letter does not mention that Scott Works for He Who Shall Not Be Named. Textually, this is a group of faculty complaining about "opinions"  and "statements," the latter undocumented.  

I responded on Friday to the letter's authors objecting in particular to the "fostered" and lack of documentation. I even offered to sign if they provided any. They have not written back. 

For a bunch of doctors, they write amazingly well. They artfully slime a colleague and leave a trail of accusation in the air without actually textually making disprovable statements. 


To her credit, our Provost responded that the signatory's use of an internal list-serv to distribute a political email is completely inappropriate. By doing so, she recognizes that this is what it is, a political email, not an "ethical obligation."

(PS, I don't always agree with Scott either, and I do not mean here to certify every public statement he has made. I have plenty of disagreements with Scott as well. In my conversations with Scott, he was a bit more enthusiastic about herd immunity than I was around mid-March. So was Boris Johnson, all of his scientific advisers, and so was the government of Sweden.  But Scott does weigh logic and evidence carefully, knows a lot of it, and if you actually communicate with him he's pretty darn responsive if you bother to email him before accusing him publicly of unethical  misconduct. 

Scott also has heard of economic and health tradeoffs and cost-benefit, which these doctors seem not to have done. Yes, he has advocated reopening business where possible to do so safely as I have. He has also  emphasized health consequences of the lockdowns, as well as the damage to children, especially low-income and minority, from school closures.

But if you as scientists disagree with Scott, document what he says, document the contrary evidence, and acknowledge the places in this fast-moving area where science is just a little bit uncertain. Persuade us the facts are wrong, don't just slime a colleague for "fostering" "opinions."  )  


As reported by the Wall Street Journal, YouTube pulled down a Hoover interview with Scott, that has been up since June. (It is one of Peter Robinson's excellent Uncommon Knowledge series, and an official Hoover product, not a personal podcast.) YouTube's new "standards" say 

 “YouTube does not allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organization (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about COVID-19.”

Wow. We may not contradict the WHO and local government. Contradicting the Administration and federal government seems to be OK, at least for a few more months. 

The public can be forgiven for wondering if Dr. Atlas’s appointment as a White House coronavirus adviser last month has made him a political target. A group of Stanford faculty published an open letter sliming their former colleague last week, and the video came down two days later. ...

If the virus nightmare has taught the world anything, it’s that no one has a monopoly over the right policy advice. That’s why a free society fosters debate

Scott was also a target of Washington Post and New York Times teardown pieces when he was appointed. 

A while ago, George Shultz despaired that really good people don't seem to want to go to Washington to serve their country anymore. Is it any wonder? 

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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