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Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend 

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The thrust of Let a hundred flowers bloom was that the world’s response to COVID-19 should not have been exempted from the normal processes of policy formation and development, which in a democracy have informed debate at their core. By exempting pandemic policy from critique, governments were attempting to ensure that the correct response was undertaken, but in fact increased the likelihood of falling into serious error.

Governments felt that in a public health emergency there was no time to explore policy alternatives, and it was essential to take a disciplined approach to defeat the enemy (i.e. the virus). It was necessary for governments to control information given out to the population from the centre and to suppress ‘unreliable’ sources of information that might promulgate ‘incorrect’ information, and thereby cause the deaths of people who were led astray from the true path. 

Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, notoriously declared ‘we will continue to be your single source of truth.’ She advised the New Zealand people to listen to the Director General of Health and the Ministry of Health and ‘dismiss anything else.’ 

There should be no scenarios in which governments and government agencies are the single source of truth. No organisation, no individual and no groups of individuals can be infallible. She is now headed to Harvard University to expound on disinformation with and to the best and brightest. 

Therefore, we need to go through a divergent phase of policy development in the first instance, in which all the relevant diverse sources of knowledge and diverse voices are consulted. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ but ‘the wisdom of crowds’ must be distinguished from ‘the groupthink of herds.’ 

The prices of companies on the stock market are thought to reflect the combined knowledge of all traders and therefore the true market price. But stock prices go through cycles of boom and bust, in which true underlying prices are distorted for a time by the famous ‘animal spirits,’ and rise exponentially before falling, much like the pandemic curve indeed.

The need to bring diverse perspectives to bear on common problems is why we have parliaments and congresses instead of dictatorships. There is widespread disillusionment with parliaments, but they exemplify Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.’ Deliberative decision-making in which all voices are heard is an essential safeguard which can lead to sound policy formation if deployed carefully, avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink, and it is superior to all other forms of decision-making that have been tried.

Governments must choose a path forward, they must make strategic choices, but they should do so with full knowledge of the policy options, and they should never attempt to prevent other options from being discussed. But this is what happened in the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was driven by a simplistic view of science in which the scientific community supposedly formed a ‘scientific consensus’ about the best ways to handle the pandemic, based on universal measures aimed at the entire population. But the Great Barrington Declaration advocated an alternative strategy of ‘focused protection’ instead, and was originally signed by 46 distinguished experts, including a Nobel Prize winner. It has subsequently been signed by over 16,000 medical and public health scientists, and nearly 50,000 medical practitioners. Whatever you may think about the Great Barrington Declaration, these simple facts demonstrate that there was no consensus.

When activists refer to ‘the scientific consensus,’ what they mean is ‘the establishment consensus’ – the consensus of sages and worthies of the type referred to by Jacinda Ardern and referred to in ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom.’ These agency heads, advisory panels, and ministries of health are naturally predisposed to accept their own advice and ignore contrarian voices. Yet contrarian voices remind us of ‘inconvenient facts,’ data that conflicts with the establishment view. It is through the dialogue between diverse voices that we work closer to the truth. ‘The authorities’ must be held accountable, even in a pandemic.

The key point about the establishment consensus is that it is always entirely devoid of individual insight. In order to qualify to be a sage or a worthy and to sit on government advisory panels or be an agency head, you have to show your capacity to toe the line at all times and never say anything remotely controversial. This was expressed so well by George Bernard Shaw: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

The pandemic response has been dominated by the reasonable ones who trim to the wind and accept the current framework whatever it is.

In early 2020, an establishment consensus formed within weeks around the grand strategy (which, remember, was neither grand nor strategic) of suppressing the spread of the pandemic through lockdowns until vaccination could end it. At that stage, there were no vaccines in existence and there was literally zero evidence that lockdowns could ‘stop the spread,’ but alternative strategies were never considered. Since then, the establishment has had greater success in suppressing debate than in suppressing spread of the virus. 

Maryanne Demasi, who has a fatal tendency to think for herself that has got her into trouble in the past, has written about this ‘consensus by censorship’ in a Substack article: ‘It is not difficult to reach a scientific consensus when you squelch dissenting voices.’ Scientists such as Norman Fenton and Martin Neill, with hundreds of publications to their name, have been unable to get papers published if they raise any questions about papers with favourable findings on COVID-19 vaccines. They have written about their experiences with the Lancet here. Eyal Shahar has given three examples here.

This is unacceptable. COVID-19 vaccines, like any other therapeutic product, should be subject to rigorous ongoing analysis for safety, and strategies must be adapted where necessary in the light of emerging knowledge. Again, there can be no exemptions from this.

Even with these impediments, some papers slip through the net, such as the rigorous analysis of the primary clinical trial evidence by Joseph Fraiman, Peter Doshi et al: Serious adverse events of special interest following mRNA COVID-19 vaccination in randomized trials in adults.’ But many papers with adverse findings about the vaccine are blocked at the pre-print stage, such as the paper on COVID vaccination and age-stratified all-cause mortality risk by Pantazatos and Seligmann, which concluded that the data suggests ‘the risks of COVID vaccines and boosters outweigh the benefits in children, young adults and older adults with low occupational risk or previous coronavirus exposure.’ 

Pantazatos described his experience with the medical journals here. This demonstrates that the most effective tactic to dispose of contrarian research is not to refute it, but to suppress it and then ignore it. Indeed, establishment researchers have ignored the whole issue and have not addressed the effect of COVID-19 vaccines on all-cause mortality at all. This is extraordinary, as the entire goal of the pandemic response is supposed to be to reduce mortality. But two years after the commencement of mass vaccination, researchers have not conducted controlled studies of its effect on overall mortality, even retrospectively. This is incomprehensible. Are they afraid of what they might find?

Demasi’s blog came under attack from the ultra-orthodox David Gorski, who wrote in response: ‘Antivaxxers attack scientific consensus as a “manufactured construct.”’ The title is a big giveaway – since when was ‘antivaxxer’ a scientific term? His blog merely throws mud at Demasi, without engaging with her arguments about pandemic policy, let alone engaging with the analysis in the pre-print she wrote with Peter Gøtzsche: ‘Serious harms of the COVID-19 vaccines: a systematic review.’ 

Gorski has nothing to contribute on the subject. The nearest thing he has to an argument is that individual studies do not necessarily invalidate a scientific consensus. But Gøtzsche and Demasi’s paper is based on a meta review of 18 systematic reviews, 14 randomised trials and 34 other studies with a control group. It has been open for review on the pre-print site and I am not aware of any substantive objections to the information and analysis therein.

Words like ‘anti-vaxxer,’ ‘anti-science,’ and ‘cranks’ are thought-stoppers – rhetorical devices designed to signal to the orthodox that their cherished convictions are safe, and they don’t need to understand the arguments and evidence put forward by dissidents because they think they are by definition disreputable people out to mislead. Resorting to these methods and ad hominem attacks is in fact anti-intellectual,

The fake consensus has indeed been ‘manufactured.’ The scientific debate on COVID-19 was closed from the outset, particularly at the level of opinion, whereas a hallmark of true scientific consensus is openness. 

Consider, as a case study, the great debate between the advocates of the ‘big bang’ theory of the origins of the universe and the ‘steady state’ theory, the history of which is related in this account by the American Institute of Physics. The steady state theory (in which the universe is expanding at a steady rate with matter being continuously created to fill the space created as stars and galaxies move apart) was advocated by Fred Hoyle, one of the most eminent physicists of his generation, over more than 20 years, until the weight of empirical observations by radio astronomy brought about its demise. The debate was ended in the traditional way, whereby the predictions of the steady state theory were falsified.

The grand strategy of COVID-19 pandemic responses, which was supposed to end the pandemic and end excess deaths, has been contradicted by empirical observations. The pandemic did not end, almost everyone became infected, excess deaths have continued and there is no hard evidence especially from randomised controlled trials that the vaccines can prevent or reduce all-cause mortality. In Australia, the bulk of our excess deaths have come during the mass vaccination period. 

And yet, the orthodox continue to have faith in the strategy and continue to ignore and suppress alternative strategies, believing that the science has been settled, when it seems to be decidedly unsettled.

This leads to the war against ‘disinformation and misinformation,’ which is in fact a war against contrarian viewpoints. Government has colluded with establishment scientists and social media companies to systematically censor alternative observations and strategies. 

The straw-man arguments usually deployed to justify this highlight irrational ideas such as rumours that the vaccines contain microchips, etc. But they completely ignore the issues raised by serious scientists such as Doshi, Fenton, and Gøtzsche. The orthodox hold that sceptics are science denialists, whereas the reverse is true: the establishment denies the diversity of findings in the scientific literature. 

The market in ideas should be the freest of all markets, as there is much to be gained and little to be lost by engaging with all ideas that derive from evidence-based analysis. By contrast, pandemic policy has been characterised by a kind of intellectual protectionism, in which orthodox ideas are privileged.

The fake consensus has been used as the basis for academic studies of ‘disinformation.’ There is no precise conceptual basis for the concept of disinformation, which is assumed to be ‘false or misleading information.’ Who determines what is false? This is usually defined derivatively as any information that goes contrary to the established narrative.

The self-appointed Aspen Commission in its final report on ‘information disorder,’ referred to some of these issues, by asking for example ‘who gets to determine mis-and disinformation?’ and acknowledging that ‘there are concomitant risks of silencing good-faith dissent’ – and then proceeded to ignore them. Without defining it, a key recommendation was: ’Establish a comprehensive strategic approach to countering disinformation and the spread of misinformation including a centralised national response strategy’ (p30).

A further recommendation is: ‘Call on community, corporate, professional, and political leaders to promote new norms that create personal and professional consequences within their communities and networks for individuals who willfully violate the public trust and use their privilege to harm the public.’ In other words, pursue and persecute those who step out of line, with no consideration of whether they may be relying simply on different information, not misinformation.

  1. They go on to make helpful practical suggestions on how to implement their vaguely worded recommendation:
  • Ask professional standards bodies like medical associations to hold their members accountable when they share false health information with the public for profit.
  • Encourage advertisers to withhold advertising from platforms whose practices fail to protect their customers from harmful misinformation.
  • Spur media organizations to adopt practices that foreground fact-based information, and ensure they give readers context, including when public officials lie to the public.

All of this assumes that there is a simple distinction to be made between ‘true’ and ‘false’ information, and underlying this, a naïve trust that only the health authorities are relying on ‘fact-based information’ and contrary views are self-evidently not fact-based. But, as we have seen, Doshi, Fenton, Gøtzsche and Demasi have published contrarian papers that are heavily fact-based.

In an academic extension of the ad hominem attack, there is even research into the psychological characteristics of dissidents, which brings to mind the worst excesses of the Soviet Union. Examples provided by ChatGPT of general studies on misinformation indicated that those of us who question established narratives are apparently led astray by confirmation bias, have a ‘low cognitive ability,’ and are biased by our political views. This implies that those who support conventional positions are unbiased, smart, and are never influenced by their political orientation. These assumptions should also be tested by research, perhaps?

In relation to COVID-19, it turns out that us dissidents are also prone to ‘epistemic vices such as indifference to the truth or rigidity in [our] belief structures,’ according to Meyer et al. This was based on testing people’s willingness to believe 12 patently ridiculous statements, such as ‘Adding pepper to your meals prevents COVID-19,’ which I have never heard of before. Willingness to agree with these statements was then stretched to equate with more serious issues:

People who accept COVID-19 misinformation may be more likely to put themselves and others at risk, to strain already overburdened medical systems and infrastructures, and to spread misinformation to others. Of particular concern is the prospect that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus will be rejected by a sizeable proportion of the population because they have been taken in by misinformation about the safety or effectiveness of the vaccine.

None of these issues were tested in the research, yet it was extended beyond the findings to justify these conclusions.

In an article back in 2020 for the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, Uscinski et al asked: Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories? They summarised their findings as:

  • Using a representative survey of U.S. adults fielded March 17-19, 2020 (n=2,023), we examine the prevalence and correlates of beliefs in two conspiracy theories about COVID-19. 
  • 29% of respondents agree that the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated to damage President Trump; 31% agree that the virus was purposefully created and spread. 

These beliefs are certainly debatable and are held to be founded once again in denialism: ‘a psychological predisposition to reject expert information and accounts of major events.’ Denialism was further broken down to these: 

  • Much of the information we receive is wrong. 
  • I often disagree with conventional views about the world. 
  • Official government accounts of events cannot be trusted. 
  • Major events are not always what they seem.

Are you telling me these statements are not true?! I will have to rethink everything!

These studies all equate dissident views with ‘conspiracy theories.’ They assume that dissident views are self-evidently contrary to the scientific record, invalid and plain wrong; and they do not see any need to support this with references. They are insufferably superior and patronising, resting on immense confidence in their unfalsifiable academic findings. 

The scientific method contains many valuable tools for counteracting confirmation bias – the tendency we all have to interpret all data as favourable to our pre-existing ideas. Pandemic science has shown that these tools themselves can be misused to reinforce confirmation bias. This leads to a kind of objectivity trap – the sages become blind to their own bias because they think they are immune.

They are founded in a belief that dissidents must be fundamentally anti-social since they are ‘anti-science.’ They must be either bad actors or gullible and misled. These authors do not consider the positive attributes that could be associated with dissident beliefs: a proclivity for independent thinking and the critical thinking that is supposed to be inculcated by higher education. 

Establishments have been trying to suppress rebels and dissidents for hundreds if not thousands of years. But every society needs (non-violent) rebels to challenge beliefs that are not well-founded.

The establishment consensus on COVID-19 is built on sand and should be challenged. It arose from premature closure of the scientific debate, followed by suppression of contrarian evidence-based analysis. Dissidents include scientists, who are clearly not anti-science but are opposed to flawed science based on ‘low cognitive ability’ and confirmation bias in favour of establishment ideas. They are pushing for better science.

The most reliable policy arises from open science and open debate, not from protectionism and closed science. 

Let a hundred schools of thought contend – or we are all lost!



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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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