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Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom – Always!

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In May 1956, Mao-Tse-Tung declared: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ 

Freethinkers took him at his word and came out into the open debating diverse ideas about the future of the country, but in the very next year he unleashed an ‘anti-rightist campaign’ and suppressed all independent expression of ideas not under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

The CCP has held to the command-and-control model ever since, with variable results. In 1958, Mao launched a forced march towards development known as the Great Leap Forward. This is estimated to have led to 30 million people dying of starvation as the population forfeited much of their actual real-world produce to the state, based on fictional production figures and targets.

In 1966, Mao had another genius idea, launching the Cultural Revolution, which caused another two million deaths, and turned the population and family members against each other.

Mao did not invent the hundred flowers maxim, which (according to that infallible authority ChatGPT) dates back to the philosopher Xunxi and the Warring States Period in which many competing schools of thought emerged, including Taoism and Confucianism. 

The hundred flowers dictum is both an eloquent expression of the liberal ideal, and (in the case of Mao) a stark warning of the consequences of abandoning it. Allowing ‘the authorities’ unchecked power to impose their will on a country and relieving them from any pressure to consider alternative options is likely to lead to disaster. This is true of all autocratic regimes; it is not just a left-wing phenomenon. One fascist leader, Hitler, made the decisions that precipitated the Second World War, which led to total deaths estimated to range between 70 and 85 million people.

Autocratic leaders led the world over the cliff in the 20th century. But this could not happen in a functioning democracy, could it? 

The extent to which democratic governments follow the will of the people is debatable, but their advantage over autocratic governments should be their superior self-correcting capability. If government policies turn out badly, alternative governments are ready to discredit them to win power themselves, until they in turn fall out of favor with the public and are replaced. If a government will not make a U-turn, replace it with another government that will.

Unfortunately, this self-correcting capability has not been very evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why not?

The dominant narrative or grand strategy from the outset has been:

  1. This is a once-in-100 years pandemic
  2. Extreme measures are necessary to defeat an extreme threat
  3. It will not be enough to deploy measures to mitigate the pandemic; we have to suppress it, according to the modeling
  4. In the first phase we will suppress it by reducing total mobility in the population by 75 percent, as an interim measure until a vaccine is developed
  5. Once a vaccine is developed, we need to ‘vaccinate the world’ in order to prevent transmission and prevent excess mortality
  6. This will ‘end the pandemic.’

These imperatives turned out to be all wrong:

  1. Infection fatality rates were not exceptional for the population under 70, as calculated by Ioannidis (a)
  2. Countries deploying extreme measures did no better than countries deploying moderate measures, again according to Ioannidis (b)
  3. The modeling projections were wrong, and in any case did not show that suppression produced better outcomes than mitigation (Ioannidis c)
  4. Reducing total mobility affected infection rates for only a few weeks, and the effect on excess mortality was minor (Kephart)
  5. The vaccines provided (in Anthony Fauci’s words) only ‘incomplete and short-lived protection’ – they did not prevent the spread of the virus, and excess mortality continued after they were deployed
  6. The grand strategy did not end the pandemic.

If the normal principles of liberal democracy were prevailing, the complete failure of the grand strategy to achieve the proclaimed objectives should lead to a rethink.

But on the contrary, the dominant narrative still reigns supreme, particularly in the mainstream media. Why is this so?

The main answer is that debate about strategic options has itself been suppressed. The underlying model has been that this is an emergency, and we don’t have the luxury of debating options in an emergency. We are engaged in a war against a virus, and in wartime we don’t hold debates about military strategies. In combating a pandemic, we should ‘follow the science,’ which is supposedly settled. 

But governments were not just following self-evident science and were in fact ruled by particular groups of scientists who interpreted scientific findings in a contestable way. For more than two years governments did whatever they were told by their advisors, and then conveyed orders to the population. The decision-making structure was based on command and control from the center, exactly as with Mao. 

More specifically, the agency heads made their recommendations to government based on the advice of SAGE committees of medical experts, such as the WHO advisory group on immunization or the UK SAGE.

All the countermeasures advisors recommended were based on a one-size-fits-all model:

  • Restrict the mobility of the whole population 
  • Everyone has to wear masks
  • Everyone has to get vaccinated
  • Everyone should toe the line and not get in the way.

There was no discussion of an alternative model in which individuals would consult their health and medical advisors and take calculated action differentiated according to their level of risk, similar to the dominant model in regulation.

Governments were never told that serious scientists with decades of experience in epidemiology were advocating a more risk-differentiated approach.

To understand how this came about we have to consider the nature of the Sages and agency heads who get appointed to these positions. No one ever got appointed to be an agency head, in particular, because of their ability for probing, independent thinking. 

On the contrary, agency heads need to steer right down the center of the road and give no reason for anyone to suspect that their views on any matter might be unorthodox, or as Sir Humphrey Appleby would say, ‘unsound.’ They invariably cleave to the dominant conventional thinking of the day, and make sure they don’t open themselves up to criticism for being out of line with it. They will not take a stand on a point of principle if it exposes them to threatening criticism.

An underlying implication is that whatever position the Sages and agency heads take is the objectively correct position because they are preeminent experts in the field, and anyone who contradicts them must be wrong. Again, this is similar to the CCP spokesmen, who patiently explain that the views of foreign governments about, for example China’s claims to the whole of the South China Sea, are ‘incorrect’ as the Chinese government’s position is self-evidently correct. There can be no other position considered.

Whereas political parties in democratic systems have different policies on a subset of policy areas, this does not apply with those major issues of the day where groups of scientists are advocates for a dominant view, such as pandemic policy and climate change. Indeed, they have gone beyond being advocates to become activists, demanding that governments follow the line.

In these areas there is effectively a carve-out from the normal principles of liberal democracy, based on a narrow view of scientific knowledge as unquestionable – but this is scientism, not science.

We can gain an idea of the caliber of thinking that the Sages brought to bear on pandemic policy with an article from The Conversation, that starts from the valid and interesting observation that Iceland and New Zealand experienced relatively low mortality over the pandemic period, despite pursuing different strategies. They rightly observe: “Iceland’s success at keeping COVID cases and deaths relatively low without the use of stringent restrictions led to the question of whether New Zealand could have achieved similar results without border closure and lockdowns.”

In answering this question, they pivot to arguing first that New Zealand could not have achieved similar results to Iceland without substantially increasing testing. How would that have reduced infections, let alone mortality? They don’t explain or justify this. Fenton and Neill point out that:

Contact tracing has traditionally only been successfully used for diseases with low prevalence: meaning diseases where there is only a small number of cases in the community at any given time; and low contagiousness: meaning diseases that are not easily transmitted between individuals. Examples of diseases where contact tracing has been applied include: tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Ebola and sexually transmitted diseases, and on review, many of these examples report uncertain or indeterminate efficacy for contact tracing. With a rapidly increasing global population, international airline travel, megacities and mass transit, such traditional contact tracing alone is unlikely to contain even a minimally contagious disease.

Second, these Sages argue that if New Zealand had delayed its lockdown, ‘the first pandemic wave would have been larger and taken longer to control.’ This is clearly a hypothetical and unfalsifiable proposition.

Neither of these arguments addresses the key issue of whether the NZ Government needed to go further than the Icelandic Government and employ lockdowns in pursuit of elimination. How can this satisfy the legal doctrine of necessity and the accepted public health obligation to use the least restrictive measure to achieve a given objective? The authors have faith in elimination, at least for periods of time, and stubbornly refuse to consider other strategies, even in the face of clear evidence that it does not achieve superior results.

This is worrying, because it reveals a complete incapacity for strategic and clear thinking on the part of our Sages, who seem incapable of revising their position contrary to the principle commonly attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind.’ Here, we are in the realm of unchanging scientific opinion, not rigorous and progressive analysis of empirical observations.

Eminent persons groups operate at lofty heights that are even further removed from the facts.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) convened a panel of worthies to oversee a comprehensive review of ‘experiences gained and lessons learned’ from the pandemic. The most critical issue that the panel should have considered was this one of overreach – where should the governments stop along the strategic path from mitigation to elimination? Was it necessary to deploy the most extreme measures of social control ever seen, attempting to confine the entire population to their homes for months at a time?

But in their report, the worthies simply assumed that harsh measures were necessary:

Countries have varied significantly in their application of public health measures to keep the spread of the virus in check. Some have sought to contain the epidemic aggressively and drive towards elimination; some have aimed at virus suppression; and some have aimed just to mitigate the worst impacts.

Countries with the ambition to aggressively contain and stop the spread whenever and wherever it occurs have shown that this is possible. Given what is known already, all countries should apply public health measures consistently and at the scale the epidemiological situation requires. Vaccination alone will not end this pandemic. It must be combined with testing, contact-tracing, isolation, quarantine, masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and effective communication with the public.

What do they mean by ‘given what is known already’ when there is only weak or insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of all these measures, and no evidence that aggressive deployment is more effective than moderate or differentiated implementation? 

They plotted the perceived pandemic preparedness of countries against COVID-19 death rates, failing to notice that the countries fall into dispersed geographic groupings, with the better-prepared high-income countries distributed along the entire mortality axis from low (Japan) to high (USA). 

But they did notice that there was no correlation whatsoever between perceived preparedness and outcomes: ‘What all these measures have in common was that their ranking of countries did not predict the relative performance of countries in the COVID-19 response.’ 

They conclude:

‘The failure of these metrics to be predictive demonstrates the need for a fundamental reassessment which better aligns preparedness measurement with operational capacities in real-world stress situations, including the points at which coordination structures and decision-making may fail.’ 

What does this mean? Essentially, they are saying that although the evidence indicates that pandemic preparedness did nothing to bring about better outcomes, the answer is – better pandemic preparedness, using all the same strategies that failed this time, but somehow, they will be better ‘aligned’ next time.

One of the NZ Sages says he has written repeatedly of his frustration with governments that have now turned away from the countermeasures he thinks have been so successful. He cannot understand why governments would not continue to impose these unspecified measures on their long-suffering populations indefinitely. He ingeniously proposes that this is because of ‘COVID hegemony:’

COVID Hegemony, then, can be understood as the normalisation of widespread infection achieved by those with power through coercive persuasion, to gain our consent and even approval. Divorced from realities of widespread transmission, the media, politicians and certain experts have been pushing for a “return to normal,” to “live with COVID” and to move away from “COVID exceptionalism.”

Again, it does not seem to have occurred to him that ‘widespread infection’ with respiratory infections is normal every winter, and the consequences of this for mortality can be seen in the regular peaks visible in charts such as the one featured by the European mortality monitoring organisation EuroMOMO. Confining the entire population of our countries to their homes for months on end is not normal and has never been tried before in human history.

Apparently a ‘powerful public health campaign’ (in other words, propaganda) is the solution, although he is vague about the actual measures that might reduce infections or mortality, mentioning only how important it is ‘to reclaim the narrative around mask-wearing,’ whereas, mask-wearing has not been shown to do either, according to the probing Cochrane review. Cochrane reviews are normally thought to be definitive analyses of the evidence, but apparently not when they contradict the favoured narrative.

The common theme running through these three examples of mainstream opinion is the unwillingness to consider strategic alternatives and to relinquish favourite strategies that fail. 

It is ironic that the NZ Sage is upset at what he sees as shadowy figures manipulating the political process, echoing the critique of contrarians for the last three years, but with a reverse spin. Instead of a conspiracy to use coercive powers in a futile pursuit of elimination, this sage thinks there is now a conspiracy not to use them. It is a remarkable example of hegemony deprivation. The politicians were ruled by the Sages for over 2 years, and the Sages cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that the politicians are now more influenced by the tide of public opinion instead of elite opinion.

This demonstrates that the self-correcting capabilities of democracies have in fact been mobilised to some extent. They have implemented their U-turns at least some months earlier than China’s.

However, mainstream opinion remains in the grip of the Sages. Their hegemony continues in the media and the health agencies, even if it has weakened its grip on governments – for the moment. Even as the once-in-100-years pandemic enters its final stages, they are warning that the next one could be around the corner.

So, we need to continue to fight for a better way. The underlying problem is that diversity and quality of thinking is not valued. We need an end to hegemony of opinion altogether. And we need to resist the normalisation of ‘aggressive public health measures.’

This means there is great work to be done by those of us who are in the education sector. What are we doing to support our students to do better than the Sages and the worthies?

We need to change the underlying paradigm of knowledge itself. The ruling paradigm in many disciplines is that knowledge is accumulative. Academics accumulate new information through research, which is added to the common stock of established knowledge, like bricks being added to a wall. This knowledge is assumed to be objectively created through the academic process.

However, in many cases the decision to add any particular brick to the wall is made through the murky processes of opinion formation. We cannot assume that this process is infallible and that once the units of knowledge are added, they are necessarily reliable. Orthodox ideas are embraced more easily than radical or truly innovative ideas.

The pandemic has shown us that research outputs can be statistical artefacts, made to order for an agenda. The most blatant example of this is the claim that the vaccines are 95 percent effective, which continues to be made even though 95 percent of people in the US have been infected. Both these facts cannot be true. If this fundamental brick turns out not to be objective truth, what else can we rely on? 

Debate about the relative merits of pursuing universal elimination versus ‘focused protection’ should have raged in academia. But it did not. I am not aware of any major medical faculty holding debates on this fundamental issue. Instead, our professors seem to feel they need to protect everyone from erroneous views, much like the CCP. But in an emerging field like COVID-19, we need a period of divergent exploration of different possibilities before we enter the convergent phase and choose a path. And we should be open to changing course if the emerging facts contradict our predictions.

We need to revive the tradition of collegial debate and return to a dialectical and pluralistic model of knowledge. Only through the cut and thrust of debate about alternative options can we find the best path and avoid the errors of premature closure. Debate should be a structural feature of educational processes, particularly in higher education. Without debate, it becomes higher technical training, not education, conducted by instructors, not inspiring teachers. Professors in many fields are inclined to veer away from controversial issues, whereas one of their highest duties should be to teach their students how to engage with them on the basis of independent, evidence-based analysis.

Academics and the mainstream media need to abandon their mission of continually reinforcing conventional knowledge and acknowledge that a range of interpretations is possible on many issues. They need to explore the range of ideas that are tenable, rather than those that they see as being correct. That would be more interesting. 

No more carve-outs. 

Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend. 

Always.



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Author

  • Michael Tomlinson

    Michael Tomlinson is a Higher Education Governance and Quality Consultant. He was formerly Director of the Assurance Group at Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, where he led teams to conduct assessments of all registered providers of higher education (including all of Australia’s universities) against the Higher Education Threshold Standards. Before that, for twenty years he held senior positions in Australian universities. He has been an expert panel member for a number of offshore reviews of universities in the Asia-Pacific region. Dr Tomlinson is a Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia and of the (international) Chartered Governance Institute.

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