Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Atlas agonistes

A group of Stanford faculty recently circulated, and then posted, an open letter objecting to my Hoover colleague Scott Atlas, who serves as a senior adviser to the Administration on health policy. 

Read the letter. Then come back for a little reading comprehension test.


Q1: What specific "falsehoods and misrepresentations" do they accuse Scott of making?

Q2: Which of the following do they claim Scott is publicly denying, contrary to scientific evidence? 

  1. Face masks, social distancing, handwashing and hygiene can help to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 
  2. Crowded indoor spaces are dangerous. 
  3. Asymptomatic people can spread covid-19
  4. Testing asymptomatic people can help to slow the spread. 
  5. Children can get Covid-19
  6. Pandemics can end via herd immunity. Vaccines work, by conferring herd immunity.
  7. Letting people get sick is better than a vaccine. 
  8. All of the above  

Q3: What specific documented evidence of statements that contravene contemporary scientific consensus do the signatories provide? 

Q4: What role in the Administration do they cite that Scott has, and misuses? 

(Note present tense. Scott is an adviser. We all get to change our minds -- even Dr. Fauci once said face masks were not worth the bother, but the signatories don't seem to feel an "ethical obligation" to play gotcha on that one. What matters is, what is Scott currently advocating in the Administration?) 


A1: None! Read carefully now 

falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas

"Fostered" does not literally mean he specifically lied or misrepresented. He just "fostered" lies and misrepresentations, whatever that means. "Fostered" can mean just "he works for Trump," and I cannot see that it means anything more here. 

But you sure are left with the feeling they accused Scott of lying and misrepresenting, don't you? 

A2: None of the above. The letter lists these boilerplate facts, but crucially does not accuse Scott of disagreeing with a single one of them. 

But by complaining about Scott's "falsehoods and misrepresentations" you sure get the feeling he must have disagreed with these, don't you? 

A3: None. Zero. 

A4: None. The letter does not mention that Scott Works for He Who Shall Not Be Named. Textually, this is a group of faculty complaining about "opinions"  and "statements," the latter undocumented.  

I responded on Friday to the letter's authors objecting in particular to the "fostered" and lack of documentation. I even offered to sign if they provided any. They have not written back. 

For a bunch of doctors, they write amazingly well. They artfully slime a colleague and leave a trail of accusation in the air without actually textually making disprovable statements. 


To her credit, our Provost responded that the signatory's use of an internal list-serv to distribute a political email is completely inappropriate. By doing so, she recognizes that this is what it is, a political email, not an "ethical obligation."

(PS, I don't always agree with Scott either, and I do not mean here to certify every public statement he has made. I have plenty of disagreements with Scott as well. In my conversations with Scott, he was a bit more enthusiastic about herd immunity than I was around mid-March. So was Boris Johnson, all of his scientific advisers, and so was the government of Sweden.  But Scott does weigh logic and evidence carefully, knows a lot of it, and if you actually communicate with him he's pretty darn responsive if you bother to email him before accusing him publicly of unethical  misconduct. 

Scott also has heard of economic and health tradeoffs and cost-benefit, which these doctors seem not to have done. Yes, he has advocated reopening business where possible to do so safely as I have. He has also  emphasized health consequences of the lockdowns, as well as the damage to children, especially low-income and minority, from school closures.

But if you as scientists disagree with Scott, document what he says, document the contrary evidence, and acknowledge the places in this fast-moving area where science is just a little bit uncertain. Persuade us the facts are wrong, don't just slime a colleague for "fostering" "opinions."  )  


As reported by the Wall Street Journal, YouTube pulled down a Hoover interview with Scott, that has been up since June. (It is one of Peter Robinson's excellent Uncommon Knowledge series, and an official Hoover product, not a personal podcast.) YouTube's new "standards" say 

 “YouTube does not allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organization (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about COVID-19.”

Wow. We may not contradict the WHO and local government. Contradicting the Administration and federal government seems to be OK, at least for a few more months. 

The public can be forgiven for wondering if Dr. Atlas’s appointment as a White House coronavirus adviser last month has made him a political target. A group of Stanford faculty published an open letter sliming their former colleague last week, and the video came down two days later. ...

If the virus nightmare has taught the world anything, it’s that no one has a monopoly over the right policy advice. That’s why a free society fosters debate

Scott was also a target of Washington Post and New York Times teardown pieces when he was appointed. 

A while ago, George Shultz despaired that really good people don't seem to want to go to Washington to serve their country anymore. Is it any wonder? 


  1. You could have titled this post Atlas Shrugged, as everything you describe takes place in that book, and your last sentence sums it up. I don't like the book, but the first half seems to be becoming reality.

  2. Primum non nocere was not part of the H Oath, nor was it "derived" from the Oath. See Smith, C. M. (2005). "Origin and Uses of Primum Non Nocere – Above All, Do No Harm!". The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 45 (4): 371–77. doi:10.1177/0091270004273680

  3. It would be nice if they had actually linked to sources for the statements they believe a preponderance of data supports. I think in general the statements are accurate, but this might have served as a nice resource.

    The letter is full of other weasel phrasing as well like "serious short-term and long-term consequences of Covid-19 are increasingly described in children and young people". This may be literally true even if there are only a de minimus number of such consequence as long as the are "increasingly described".

  4. As I read through the letter, I had the same questions you did. As you suggest, they never quoted Atlas or pointed to a specific comment that was contrary to the science these signatories are listing. As for trade offs and cost benefit, the costs of the lock downs are economic, not only today but far in the future. Per Scott Atlas, the stresses of unemployment and providing basic needs increase the incidence of suicide, alcohol or drug abuse, and stress-induced illnesses. These effects are particularly severe on the lower-income populace, as they are more likely to lose their jobs, and mortality rates are much higher for lower-income individuals. My rant continues! The CDC can halt evictions, ostensibly to halt the spread of the virus. A dangerous policy that allows for confiscation of a landlord's rental property. The second order effects affect both the property owner and the tenants paying rent. Rent control in NYC underscores this. Finally, I can hear the applause, I suspect the university "woke" will be aghast at the reduction in endowments and enrollments as a consequence of this foolishness.

  5. So we're left with a question unanswered: Why are Scott's colleagues "sliming" him? Oh, wait. Could it be that he is working for the wrong administration? No, they couldn't all be that collectively childish...or could they?

  6. Whether "first do no harm" is part of the oath, it is central to the psyche. A recognized but seldom admitted consequence of FDNH is a philosophical conservatism that easily becomes groupthink. I am of an age when vaccines for childhood diseases did not exist. We did have measles parties and chicknpox parties where we were exposed in a controlled condition and our families knew what to expect. That was our herd immunity. My kids got the vaccines for their herd immunity. Perhaps the reason that the letter is so soft in its factual support is that what was necessary to get a large group of people to sign on.

  7. Nothing like a little friction to generate heat and noise. The squeaky wheel gets the grease; the nail that stands up gets hammered down.

    Much ado about nothing, as old Will Shakespeare might have remarked. Tragedy or Farce? Take your pick. It's simply one more sign of the times we live in. Another straw for the camel's back.

  8. Scott Atlas: "Kids have nearly zero risk from COVID-19 and rarely transmit to adults" (https://twitter.com/SWAtlasHoover/status/1281011504079204352)
    Letter writers: "Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 frequently occurs from asymptomatic people, including children and young adults, to family members and others."

    Those seem pretty contradictory, unless you think "rarely" and "frequently" are synonyms.

    1. The problem is that rarely is not specific enough to be of value. Is it 1% of the time or 10%? Similarly for frequently. The use of these terms means the writer really has no data.

    2. And the "including children and young adults" just includes; it does not specify what fraction they represent of the asymptomatic that "frequently" transmit the disease. These guys are gigantic BS producers.

  9. Reasonable minds can differ as to the appropriateness of the letter. It does suffer many of the defects you point out; however, someone who actively pursues a public forum to express admittedly controversial views should not be surprised if there are people who disagree and do so in an uncomfortable manner. Dr. Atlas appears to be a fan of herd immunity, which seems to assume a couple hundred million people getting sick and a couple million deaths will not deter US citizens from going about their normal routine of crowded sports events, frequent flying and bar hopping - in fact, the more the better. Some economists seem to favor the same concept on a cost-benefit analysis. Aside from firming up his science, I suggest Dr. Atlas check his moral compass and wear a mask at his press conferences, not for himself (since infection is his goal), but at least out of respect of people around him who might want to avoid the Covid experience.

  10. The letter is moronic; has nothing to do with Mr. Scott Atlas or anybody else.

    Given the list of good things, let them ask how Sweden is doing, and why, and how that will pan out.

    Who are these people?

  11. Find an upper division biology student, they keep up with the literature and will be as well informed about covid as anyone. I am not sure what adviser is going to be better than a concerned biology students, remember, this kid wants to get back to school and finish. And remember this is all new stuff, by definition of pandemic. There is no reason an MD will be more informed than concerned biology student. Everything is published, preprint, within days.

  12. I'm just a regular member of the public, trying to wade through this mire the same as everyone else. I'm an independent voter. I would say that if Dr. Atlas is not supporting "herd immunity" at the risk of American lives in a considered trade-off of economic and other considerations, then why is the advice filtering down to the states experiencing high transmission rates currently NOT recommending mask requirements? If you want to open up the economy and schools at the higher risk to citizens, then the very least you could do to "do no harm" is to require masks at the same time.

  13. I viewed Dr. Atlas video back in June and immediately made it viral due to the clarity, common sense, and shared view with many other colleagues around the country. The Stanford response is science politicized and the You Tube ban is reminiscent of the communist propaganda Machine. The Hoover Institute and Atlas should continue to fight this appalling situation.

  14. I viewed Dr. Atlas video back in June and immediately made it viral due to the clarity, common sense, and shared view with many other colleagues around the country. The Stanford response is science politicized and the You Tube ban is reminiscent of the communist propaganda Machine. The Hoover Institute and Atlas should continue to fight this appalling situation.

  15. To me, the message was that academia, and even scientists, can lose it. There is much to be appreciate in the thought that PhD in some may represents knowing more and more about less and less. Remember that individuals are born ignorant, not stupid. It is through the processes of education that they may learn to become stupid.

  16. That's the free market game. Likewise, if I, a pawn on the financial market, published posts defending more left-wing policies, my career in this area would probably be doomed. Be welcome.

  17. FYI - the link to the letter no longer works.

  18. Thank you. This should be required reading and testing.

  19. https://drive.google.com/file/d/130OXUjdnwHmfmbiEZWK9d354QHaRi0-r/view

    Link you had didn't work.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.