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How Stanford Failed the Academic Freedom Test

For America’s new clerisy, scientific debate is a danger to be suppressed

by
Jay Bhattacharya
January 11, 2023
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Stanford ‘created an environment in which slander, threats, and abuse aimed at lockdown critics could flourish’Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Stanford ‘created an environment in which slander, threats, and abuse aimed at lockdown critics could flourish’Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We live in an age when a high public health bureaucrat can, without irony, announce to the world that if you criticize him, you are not simply criticizing a man. You are criticizing “the science” itself. The irony in this idea of “science” as a set of sacred doctrines and beliefs is that the Age of Enlightenment, which gave us our modern definitions of scientific methodology, was a reaction against a religious clerisy that claimed for itself the sole ability to distinguish truth from untruth. The COVID-19 pandemic has apparently brought us full circle, with a public health clerisy having replaced the religious one as the singular source of unassailable truth.

The analogy goes further, unfortunately. The same priests of public health that have the authority to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy also cast out heretics, just like the medieval Catholic Church did. Top universities, like Stanford, where I have been both student and professor since 1986, are supposed to protect against such orthodoxies, creating a safe space for scientists to think and to test their ideas. Sadly, Stanford has failed in this crucial aspect of its mission, as I can attest from personal experience.

I should note here that my Stanford roots go way back. I earned two degrees in economics there in 1990. In the ’90s, I earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. in economics. I’ve been a fully tenured professor at Stanford’s world-renowned medical school for nearly 15 years, happily teaching and researching many topics, including infectious disease epidemiology and health policy. If you had asked me in March 2020 whether Stanford had an academic freedom problem in medicine or the sciences, I would have scoffed at the idea. Stanford’s motto (in German) is “the winds of freedom blow,” and I would have told you at the time that Stanford lives up to that motto. I was naive then, but not now.

Academic freedom matters most in the edge cases when a faculty member or student is pursuing an idea that others at the university find inconvenient or objectionable. If Stanford cannot protect academic freedom in these cases, it cannot protect academic freedom at all.

To justify this depressing claim, I would like to relate the story of my experience during the pandemic regarding a prominent policy proposal I co-authored called the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). I could relate many additional incidents that illustrate Stanford’s stunning failure to protect academic freedom, but this one suffices to make my point.

On Oct. 4, 2020, along with two other eminent epidemiologists, Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, I wrote the GBD. The declaration is a one-page document that proposed a very different way to manage the COVID-19 pandemic than had been used up to that date. The lockdown-focused strategy that much of the world followed mimicked the approach that Chinese authorities adopted in January 2020. The extended lockdowns—by which I mean public policies designed to keep people physically separate from one another to avoid spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus—were a sharp deviation from Western management of previous respiratory virus pandemics. The old pandemic plans prioritized minimizing disruption to normal social functioning, protecting vulnerable groups, and rapidly developing treatments and vaccines.

The same priests of public health that have the authority to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy also cast out heretics, just like the medieval Catholic Church did.

Even by October 2020, it was clear that the Chinese-inspired lockdowns had done tremendous harm to the physical and psychological well-being of vast populations, especially children, the poor, and the working class. Closed schools consigned a generation of children worldwide to live shorter, less healthy lives. In July 2020, the Centers for Disease Control released an estimate that 1 in 4 young adults in the United States had seriously considered suicide during the previous month. The U.N. estimated that an additional 130 million people would be thrown into dire food insecurity—starvation—by the economic dislocation caused by the lockdowns. The primary beneficiaries of the lockdown—if there were in fact any beneficiaries of these drastic anti-social measures—were among a narrow class of well-off people who could work from home via Zoom without risk of losing their jobs.

It was amply clear by October 2020 that the lockdown policy adopted by many Western governments, with the exception of a few holdouts like Sweden, had failed to stop the spread of COVID. It was in fact too late to adopt a policy goal of eradicating the virus. We did not have the technological means to achieve this goal, then or now. By the fall of 2020, it was abundantly clear that COVID-19 was here to stay and that many future waves would occur.

Governments had imposed lockdowns on the premise that there was nearly unanimous scientific consensus in support of them. Yet an extraordinary policy like a lockdown requires, or should require, an extraordinary scientific justification. Only near unanimity among scientists, backed by solid empirical data, suffices.

Like Gupta and Kulldorf, I knew that such unanimity did not exist. Many scientists worldwide had contacted us to tell us about their qualms with the lockdowns—their destructiveness and the poor evidence of their effectiveness. Many epidemiologists and health policy scholars favored an alternative approach, though many were scared to say so. It seemed clear to the three of us that as the next inevitable wave appeared, there was a risk that the lockdowns might return, and that scientific evidence against such steps would be ignored and smothered, at tremendous social cost.

We wrote the GBD to tell the public that there was no scientific unanimity about the lockdown. Instead, the GBD proposed a focused strategy to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations. There is more than a thousandfold difference in mortality risk from COVID-19 infection between the old and the young, with healthy children at negligible risk of dying. The humane thing is to devote resources and ingenuity to protect the most vulnerable. The GBD and its accompanying FAQ provided many suggestions about how to do that and invited local public health communities, which know best the varied local living circumstances of the vulnerable, to devise local solutions. At the same time, the GBD advocated lifting lockdowns and opening schools to alleviate harms to children. We put the GBD on the internet, and invited other members of the public to sign it.

The GBD was published on Oct, 4, 2020. Almost immediately, tens of thousands of scientists, epidemiologists, and physicians signed the document, including many from top universities. Simultaneously, people started sending us translations of the GBD—ultimately into 40 languages—and to date, nearly a million people have signed from almost every country on Earth.

The plan received the attention of the American press, at first curious and fair, but soon thereafter hostile and tendentious. I started getting calls from reporters, including outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post, asking me why I wanted to “let the virus rip” through the population, even though that was the very opposite of what we were proposing, and questioning my credentials and motives.

It was at first quite perplexing to be the target of what turned out to be a well-organized, government-sponsored campaign of smears and suppression of scientific argument and evidence. I had taken no money for writing the declaration. Yet press outlets somehow turned Gupta, Kulldorf, and me into tools of a nefarious plot to destroy the world by spreading “disinformation” that would cause mass death. I started receiving death threats and racist hate mail.

About a year later, after historian Phil Magness made a FOIA request, I learned a part of the story of how the U.S. government-sponsored propaganda campaign against the GBD came into being. Four days after we wrote the GBD, Francis Collins, the geneticist and lab scientist who was then the head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, wrote an email to Anthony Fauci, the immunologist and lab scientist who headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases until the end of 2022. In the email, Collins called Martin, Sunetra, and me “fringe epidemiologists” and called for a devastating public takedown. The attacks on the three of us, aided by the cooperation of supposedly private social media platforms like Twitter, were launched shortly after Collins sent that email.

But this is not an article about the ethics of social media companies whose profits depend to a large extent on the friendliness of government regulators and whose employees may see themselves as partisan political activists. This is a critique of our best universities, which are supposed to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge—yet which turn out to be no different than government propagandists and private corporations in their self-seeking, amoral behavior.

Collins and Fauci sit atop tens of billions of dollars that the NIH uses to fund the work of nearly every biomedical scientist of note in the United States. Stanford University receives hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from the NIH, without which researchers would not have the resources to conduct many worthwhile experiments and studies. NIH funding also confers prestige and status within the scientific community. At Stanford, it is very difficult for a biomedical researcher in her department to earn tenure without landing a major NIH grant. The attack by Collins and Fauci sent a clear signal to other scientists that the GBD was a heretical document.

Among Stanford faculty, the reaction to GBD was mixed. Some members, including Nobel Prize winner Michael Levitt, signed on enthusiastically. I received encouragement from many others throughout the university. Junior medical school faculty wrote telling me they secretly supported the GBD but were reticent to sign officially for fear of reprisal from their department heads and Stanford administrators. Others were hostile. One faculty member and former friend wrote that he was defriending me on Facebook, perhaps the mildest form of retaliation I received during the pandemic.

There is a distinction in philosophy between negative and positive rights. A negative right is a constraint placed on the authorities not to take action that would violate that right. For example, the First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting a law limiting the free exercise of religion or speech. A positive right entails an obligation on authorities to actively promote some desirable state of the world, for instance, the right to protection in the face of dire threats to bodily harm.

The same distinction pertains to academic freedom at a university. Stanford did not fire me or break my tenure for writing the GBD. Therefore, it met the bare minimum standard of negative academic freedom. But Stanford failed to meet the higher standard of positive academic freedom, which would have required it to promote an environment where faculty members engage with each other respectfully despite fierce disagreement.

The most egregious violation of academic freedom was an implicit decision by the university to deplatform me. Though I have given dozens of talks in seminars at Stanford over the past decades, in December 2020, my department chair blocked an attempt to organize a seminar where I would publicly present the ideas of the GBD. Stanford’s former president, John Hennessey, tried to set up a discussion between me and others on COVID policy, but he was unable to, owing to the absence of support from the university.

I never received an invitation from the medical school to present a “Grand Rounds,” a high-profile presentation by a faculty member on a topic of importance to the entire medical school. Instead, Grand Rounds and other seminars and webinars at Stanford univocally promoted positions which it is now obvious were devastatingly wrong, but which no one on campus was allowed to debate or challenge. Around the world in 2020 and early 2021, the GBD was a central topic of discussion—but not officially at Stanford.

More than a year later, in early 2022, I asked the dean of the medical school, Lloyd Minor, why I and other prominent lockdown-skeptic members of the Stanford faculty never received an invitation to present. He told me that the experience of caring for COVID patients in March 2020 had scared some Stanford clinical faculty and that it was still too early for a dispassionate “academic” discussion on COVID policy. Had I been given the opportunity, I would have told my colleagues that the focused protection ideas contained in the GBD could have prevented many of those hospitalizations.

Stanford failed to create a work environment where these discussions could happen. And I was not the only one to suffer—Stanford deplatformed other lockdown-skeptic academics, including John Ioannidis, one of the world’s most highly cited scientists and the most prolific and influential Stanford faculty on peer-reviewed COVID-19 publications; Michael Levitt, a Nobel Prize winner who made fundamental original contributions to modeling; and Scott Atlas, a former chair of neuroradiology at Stanford, widely acknowledged health policy expert and a key adviser to former President Donald Trump on COVID policy.

Faculty at Stanford should rightly worry whether their professional work will lead to deplatforming, excommunication, and political targeting.

The university’s refusal to defend dissenting voices created an environment in which slander, threats, and abuse aimed at lockdown critics could flourish. In August 2020, when President Trump chose Dr. Atlas as a White House adviser on the pandemic, around 100 Stanford faculty members signed an open letter accusing Atlas of “falsehoods and misrepresentations,” without giving any specific examples. Instead, the faculty letter falsely implied that Atlas opposed handwashing. When Martin Kulldorff challenged the signatories to a debate on the topic, none accepted. Instead, the Stanford Faculty Senate voted to censure Atlas formally, though no one voting had his expertise in public health policy.

In August 2021, Melissa Bondy, the chair of epidemiology at Stanford, helped circulate a secret petition around the medical school asking the university president to censor me for accurate testimony that I had given to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a publicly televised policy roundtable. I testified that no randomized trials yet demonstrate the efficacy of masks on children to contain COVID. Though the secret petition did not name me specifically, it quoted me and asked the university to suppress such speech by faculty members. This petition imposed unethical pressure on faculty members—especially junior faculty members worried about tenure votes—to sign on.

When I finally read a copy of the petition, it felt like a gut punch. Was I preaching heresy? To date, no one at any level of the university leadership has expressed their support for me voicing my ideas. My efforts to engender discussion were met with silence. My colleagues John Ioannidis and Michael Levitt both report similar treatment.

The undisguised aim of this petition was to expel dissenting Stanford faculty like me from public academic life, making a mockery of the idea of academic freedom at exactly the time when we needed it the most. Ironically, if Stanford had defended my right to speak, there would have been no need for such a petition, as there would have been no confusion about the fact that my opinions were my own and not that of my colleagues.

The faculty’s excommunication motion yielded dividends in its goal of suppressing speech. An anonymous group on campus organized a campaign to intimidate me in response to a tweet by DeSantis, which included a picture of me from the policy roundtable and an (accurate) quote: “By vaccinating the old, we have protected the vulnerable.” The group glued posters all over campus with a picture of my face, the tweet from DeSantis, and a graph of COVID cases in Florida, which at the time were high. (Florida’s age-adjusted COVID mortality throughout the pandemic is lower than the average American state and on a par with California’s.) The implication was that I was a thought-criminal whose work was somehow responsible for the inevitable spread of a highly infectious respiratory virus.

On a progressive-dominated campus, these posters were clearly an incitement to violence. The group placed them on kiosks all over campus, including near a campus coffee shop that I frequent. For a few days, I feared for my physical safety. I reported this harassment to Stanford, but the university minimized my concerns, referring me to a counselor who advised me to engage with a firm that would help reduce the personal information about me available online. At that point, I decided to return to campus despite the threat—after 36 years, Stanford remains my home. But those posters stayed up for months. While I refused to be intimated, I can certainly understand those who are bullied into silence—which is, after all, the point.

Academic freedom at Stanford is clearly dying. It cannot survive if the administration fails to create an environment where good-faith discussions can occur outside of a framework of ideological rigidity and the false certainties that ideologues—and governments—wish to impose on us. Stanford missed the opportunity to sponsor COVID policy forums and it deplatformed dissenting voices. Several prominent faculty exploited this environment, engaging in actions that directly violated basic academic norms.

A precedent has now been established. Faculty at Stanford should rightly worry whether their professional work will lead to deplatforming, excommunication, and political targeting. In this environment, professors and students alike would be wise to look over their shoulders at all times, in the knowledge that the university no longer has your back. And members of the public should understand that many of those urging them to “trust the science” on complicated matters of public concern are also those working to ensure that “the science” never turns up answers that they don’t like.

This article has been amended to reflect the following:

An earlier version of this article misspelled Michael Levitt’s name. It also referred to Anthony Fauci as the head of NIAID. Fauci stepped down on December 31, 2022.

Jay Bhattacharya is a Professor of Health Policy at Stanford University.

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