Creeping Censorship in the Name of Public Health
While the 1950s McCarthyism period is now recalled as a low point for democracy, at the time most Americans were sympathetic to the Wisconsin Senator’s efforts to root out alleged communists from government and other walks of life. Massive fear and outright hysteria generated by the very real threat of Soviet aggression led to a disgraceful trampling of constitutional rights, in a classic example of how the ends do not justify the means. In the face of global totalitarianism, some fundamental democratic precepts such as due process could seem like relatively disposable luxuries during a national security emergency.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed an inkling of this kind of deterioration of key democratic values, again stemming from a pervasive climate of fear, now from the (also very real) threat of a viral pandemic. Having worked in public health for over four decades, the past sixteen months have been a doubly sad time. While grateful for what medical science has created, including the remarkably effective Covid-19 vaccines (the side effects of which, however, have raised some concerns), it has been heartbreaking to observe not only the devastation produced by the coronavirus but also the erosion of some democratic tenets – this time in the cause of protecting public health. While certainly the current situation and governmental actions are nowhere near as cataclysmic as McCarthyism, some of the ways this crisis has been confronted border on intellectual censorship. Perhaps only in retrospect will it be more apparent how, in the face of a murderous pandemic, basic democratic precepts like academic freedom may be disposed of when perceived necessary.
One hallmark of intolerance is rejection of nuances: either you’re a capitalist dupe or a loyal socialist comrade, a leftist loser or a patriotic American. During the pandemic, there has been an ongoing tendency to frame issues within a polarized, black-or-white fashion. Either you believe everyone must always mask up or else you're an anti-science (and Trump-supporting) fool. Either children are coronavirus super spreaders and therefore in-person schooling is dangerous, or one is accused of being a “baby killer” (as I was by hordes of Washington Post readers after my article advocating for reopening schools appeared last year). Revealingly, while the former President made various racially and otherwise disturbingly controversial comments, the one that first got him temporarily removed from Twitter and Facebook was for “falsely claiming,” in August 2020, that children are "almost immune from this disease." Although not precisely employing scientific terminology, essentially it was a factually correct assertion; even with the recent variants the vast majority of children remain free of serious health consequences from Covid-19.
But alarmingly the polarization over the pandemic has transcended name-calling and political catfights. While misinformation on the internet clearly can be dangerous, it’s also troubling that some papers by or interviews with leading scientists have been removed from YouTube and other social media platforms, allegedly for spreading “false information.” Facebook postings and Tweets merely citing data from the World Health Organization or other reputable sources regarding, for example, the actual infection-fatality rates of Covid-19 or the efficacy (and limitations) of wearing masks in certain situations have been deleted. The recent urging by government officials for social media (which President Biden last week accused of “killing people”) to more tightly control access to their platforms, although well-meaning, threatens to further dampen tolerance of free speech and open discourse.
In November, a Johns Hopkins University news publication removed an article about a senior faculty member’s research, which concluded based on CDC data that overall mortality had not significantly increased in the US. Though the University confirmed her study lacked serious scientific flaws, there was concern it was “being used to support false and dangerous inaccuracies about the impact of the pandemic.” While subsequent data later suggested some of her inferences had been incorrect, simply removing such a paper does not bode well for academic freedom. Science evolves out of sparking intellectual debate.
A June 2021 article in the scientific journal Vaccines utilized European data to conclude that in certain situations the benefits from the Covid vaccines may not significantly outweigh the risks of side effects. An ensuing uproar led to the paper being retracted by the journal, which issued an oddly vague explanation for such a rare and consequential action, determining that “serious concerns [have been] raised…regarding misinterpretation of data, leading to incorrect and distorted conclusions.” The methodological and other issues additionally cited for justifying the retraction, some of them substantive, were however the kinds of matters that clearly should have been addressed during the normal peer and editorial review processes, suggesting other considerations may have played a role in the unusual decision to retract a published paper. (In contrast, myself and several other researchers were unsuccessful in petitioning the Annals of Internal Medicine last year to at least correct an article which, based on the possibility that two or three persons in Italy may have been infected by asymptomatic carriers, was henceforth widely cited as proving that asymptomatic infections are driving the global pandemic.)
Also last month, an interview with a virologist whose past research on the mRNA technology was instrumental in the development of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines was removed from YouTube after objections surfaced regarding his questioning of some prevailing assumptions about the vaccines, including whether they should be widely implemented in low-risk populations such as previously infected persons or children. Two days after the interview was deleted, the Wikipedia summary of the mRNA vaccine history removed all specific mentions to the researcher (who, like the authors of the retracted Vaccines article, is allegedly not anti-vaccine). Whatever one thinks of his views, including some that are questionable -- and realizing that such decisions at Wikipedia (unlike Facebook and Twitter) are very decentralized -- this kind of Orwellian rewriting (out) of history of a scientist’s past accomplishments is nonetheless disconcerting.
In addition to such retractions and censures of scientific publications and information, we of course have witnessed the top-down imposition of governmental decrees for economic lockdowns, school closures, mask (and now vaccine) mandates, and so on. Not only is there little evidence that most such measures contribute significantly to population-level health – at least as many Covid-19 deaths have occurred in places like Michigan and California, that implemented severe controls, as in less restrictive states – but the autocratic manner by which such actions have often been carried out has also been criticized (including by some medical experts) for encroaching on democratic processes and liberties. Public health officials need to be reminded that the health of our democracy is also vital to protect.
Daniel Halperin, PhD is Adjunct Full Professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill and author of over 60 peer-reviewed articles on infectious diseases. In July 2020 Amazon initially refused to sell his book, Facing COVID Without Panic: 12 Common Myths and 12 Lesser Known Facts about the Pandemic, Clearly Explained by an Epidemiologist, for supposedly “not complying with established scientific evidence on Covid-19” as determined by authorities such as the CDC.