Early in the pandemic a narrow scientific ‘groupthink’ took hold, which cast those questioning draconian policies as “unethical, immoral and fringe” – but this “smokescreen is finally starting to dissipate”, the Telegraph‘s Science Editor Sarah Knapton has said.
Take scientists who supported the Great Barrington Declaration. They, not unreasonably, believed that it would be sensible to shield the most vulnerable while allowing those at very low risk to carry on their lives, thereby preventing cataclysmic damage to the economy, mental health and education.
Instead of the idea being sensibly debated, the signatories were pilloried and made to seem as if they were in the minority. A recent study by Stanford University revealed they weren’t; they just had fewer social media followers and so struggled in the face of more organised opposition.
The report neatly demonstrates the alarming reach and power of demographically unrepresentative forums like Twitter, which are easily hijacked by powerful lobbying groups.
Prof John Ioannidis, the study author and an expert in data science and the reliability of research, told the Telegraph: “Twitter is a useful means to communicate both with colleagues and with the general public. However, it should not be used for arbitrating what is scientifically correct, let alone for shaping health policy.
“Twitter can be easily usurped by agendas and narratives; it is very easily susceptible to political coloration and fads, and it is often used for smearing opponents.
“I worry about the distortion that can ensue when science is communicated in brief clips or with a mindset of how to satisfy or excite one’s followers.”
Much of the pro-lockdown narrative was controlled by a small group of scientists who effectively organised themselves into a political movement which sought to influence policy.
Independent Sage, a group of largely Left-wing academics which regularly called for tighter restrictions, was put together by the Citizens, a group founded by Carole Cadwalladr, a Guardian and Observer journalist and activist.
Many of the scientists on Independent Sage also signed the John Snow Memorandum, which branded the Great Barrington Experiment as unethical.
Many of those opposed to the new groupthink kept their heads down for fear of losing funding, Sarah writes.
Many academics and researchers were scared of losing grant funding if they raised their head above the parapet. It created a chilling effect which made it appear that most scientists believed in greater restrictions.
Even within the Government, there is now a feeling that too much attention was paid to too narrow a band of scientists, at the expense of seeing the bigger picture.
Large parts of the scientific community were completely ignored as a disproportionate amount of attention was given to virologists and epidemiologists.
One Government minister said: “We have had to have the guts to say the data can be challenged sometimes, and say that’s good data but we have to make a political decision.
“In the pandemic we got a bit close to pretending there was no tension. Public health officials who have absolutely no remit to keep the economy vibrant, they only remit is to make sure there is no infection were calling for the whole thing to be shut down
“You can see there is a legitimate voice that says, hang on, we need to get the balance right. Shutting down the local economy and sticking everyone back in boxes is not going to be good for public health.”
A further problem was the guidance from Ofcom, which warned broadcasters against discouraging “the audience from following official rules and guidance”.
Another problem which exacerbated the scientific groupthink was early guidance by Ofcom which essentially warned broadcasters against programmes or news reports featuring advice which “discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance”.
David Livermore, a professor in medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia who was one of the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration, said: “It was difficult to put across the message that a sizeable proportion of established scientists, economists and social scientists opposed the radical and untried policies being pursued in 2020/21,” he said.
“Only now, as the collateral damage to education, the economy and other healthcare becomes daily more apparent is it being accepted that lockdowns were an incredibly expensive and harmful policy, however popular they once were.”
Prof Livermore added: “I suspect that it’ll shortly be hard to find anyone who once was in favour of lockdowns.”
Let’s hope so – and that this will be reflected in the post-pandemic inquiry and planning.
Worth reading in full.