BMJ Publishes Belated Attack on the Great Barrington Declaration, but It Doesn’t Hit the Target

The Great Barrington Declaration, which advocates a focused protection strategy for dealing with COVID-19, was published in October last year – before many countries around the world imposed their winter lockdowns.   

Recently, The BMJ Opinion – a journalistic offshoot of the well-known medical journal – published a very belated hit piece against the authors. As you might expect, it’s light on scientific arguments and heavy on tactics like ad hominem, guilt by association and appeals to authority.

The authors, David Gorski and Gavin Yamey, really don’t mince words. For example, they describe the Declaration (which has been signed by hundreds of scientists and healthcare professionals) as a “well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests”.

Not exactly a respectful way to talk about your colleagues. But it’s hardly the first time the Declaration’s critics have sunk to this level. Just last month, Jay Bhattacharya became the subject of a censorious petition which claimed that he “sows mistrust of policies designed to protect the public health”.

Gorski and Yamey begin their article by criticising the Declaration’s authors for collaborating with the American Institute for Economic Research, which they claim is a “libertarian, climate-denialist, free market think tank”.

I’m not sure why this is a ‘gotcha’. Lockdown is about as un-libertarian a policy as you could imagine, so it’s not really surprising that a libertarian think tank would oppose it. And in any case, the Declaration’s website clearly states that the document was “was written and signed at the American Institute for Economic Research”.

Martin Kulldorff has since clarified that the AIER president and board did not know about the Declaration until after it was published. But even if they had done, so what? As Kulldorff notes, universities like Duke and Stanford have received money from the Koch brothers. Should we therefore completely disregard what their academics have to say?

Gorski and Yamey’s next move is to cite social media censorship of lockdown sceptics as evidence that their arguments constitute ‘misinformation’. (Incidentally, that term – which basically means ‘information that’s missing from the mainstream narrative’ – appears no fewer than six times in the article.)  

However, this argument relies on circular logic: ‘Something was censored on social media? Therefore, it’s misinformation. How do we know? Well, misinformation is what social media companies censor.’ In reality, of course, the fact that something was censored is no indication whatsoever that it’s factually incorrect.

The authors then allege that when Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan met Boris Johnson in September of last year, they were successful in “persuading him to delay” a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, which could have forestalled the second wave of infections.

As historian Phil Magness has already noted, this argument is deficient on two counts. It’s not clear that Gupta and Heneghan did persuade the Prime Minister to shelve the ‘circuit breaker’ idea. But even if they did, there’s no reason to believe that policy would’ve prevented a large number of deaths.

Finally, Gorski and Yamey compare lockdown sceptics to ‘climate science deniers’, insofar as both groups “argue that evidence-based public health measures do not work”. They call for experts to push back against the Great Barrington Declaration by highlighting “scientific consensus”, citing the John Snow Memorandum.

Of course, the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum is just another public statement signed by scientists and health professionals. If it constitutes “scientific consensus”, then so does the Great Barrington Declaration. I’m only aware of one attempt to gauge overall expert opinion on focused protection: the survey by Daniele Fanelli.

He asked scientists who’d published at least one relevant paper, “In light of current evidence, to what extent do you support a ‘focused protection’ policy against COVID-19, like that proposed in the Great Barrington Declaration?” Of those who responded, more than 50% said “partially”, “mostly” or “fully”.  

Regardless of the exact number of experts who support focused protection, claiming there is a “scientific consensus” against it is simply false. Long before the Declaration itself was published, many scientists had proposed some version of precision shielding. In fact, this was basically the U.K.’s plan until the middle of March, 2020.

On March 5th, Chris Whitty told the Health and Social Care Committee that we are “very keen” to “minimise economic and social disruption”, and mentioned that “one of the best things we can do” is “isolate older people from the virus”.

Another prominent scientist who has argued in favour of focused protection is Sir David Spiegelhalter. In an article published on May 29th, he and George Davey Smith said that we ought to “stratify shielding according to risk” because lockdown is “seriously damaging many aspects of people’s lives”.

They noted that this would require “a shift away from the notion that we are all seriously threatened by the disease, which has led to levels of personal fear being strikingly mismatched to objective risk of death”.

Among the ad hominems, appeals to authority and repeated uses of ‘misinformation’, finding a scientific argument in Gorski and Yamey’s article is not easy. And given that the content’s almost a year out of date, I’m not sure why the authors felt the need to publish it.

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