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.