[Editor’s note: Dr. Gorski is on vacation this week, and Dr. Howard has agreed to cover. Dr. Gorski will return to his usual slot next week.]

“They pontificate on the virus as if were a game”

A core theme of my writing is that people who spread disinformation about COVID are protected from the consequences of their words. I previously noted this distance allows them to “pontificate on the virus as if were a game, a brand-building opportunity”. In contrast, someone who works in an ICU will have more patients if they successfully discourage vaccination in young people. Of course, an ICU doctor may be wrong, and a random internet commentator may be right. Evidence matters, not credentials. But healthcare workers have skin-in-the game, and that counts for something.

Objectivists and COVID Part 2

With this in mind, let’s revisit my article about Objectivists and COVID. I’ve since discovered that some Objectivists have said some wise things. For example, Ben Bayer, a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, wrote a staunch pro-vaccine article in which he said:

The biggest sign that many vaccine refusers care too little about their own interests isn’t their attitude toward their health or the well-being of others. It’s their attitude toward the truth. It’s actually pretty dubious that many vaccine refusers think that Covid is dangerous but simply don’t care enough to protect their or their loved ones’ health against it. Many don’t want to get vaccinated because they really believe that Covid is not a serious threat compared to the risks of the vaccine in the first place. This is actually the deepest root of the moral problem.

Because of their beliefs, vaccine refusers don’t see that they’re recklessly letting their guard down against a serious threat. Because of their belief, they even mount crusades to convince others to join them.

Exactly. Disinformation has significant real-world consequences for our patients.

He also penned an homage to healthcare workers titled “If You’re a Doctor or Nurse, Don’t Feel Guilty for Quitting” in which he sympathized with burnt-out healers for the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of “belligerent” unvaccinated patients. He said to such workers:

If you can’t find a way to make the joy of solving medical problems overcome the pain of being treated with disrespect, you shouldn’t blame yourself if you want to quit. I, for one, won’t blame you if you do quit out of righteous indignation for being treated like chattel. I still hope you don’t quit: many others and I may need your help. But you don’t owe it to us.

Exactly. Disinformation has significant real-world consequences for us.

Mr. Bayer gets it. This is not a game.

Objectivists and COVID Part 3

Not everyone gets it.

In retrospect, my prior article understated the degree to which other Objectivists advanced the myth that “Covid is not a serious threat compared to the risks of the vaccine”. I previously discussed the symbiosis between the Atlas Society, which claims to value rationality, and the Brownstone Institute, which has spread copious amounts of anti-vaxx rubbish, sanctified “natural immunity“, and issued oblique threats to behead people they disagree with. This article, which was also posted at the Atlas Society sans guillotine, lamented that

Pfizer and people like Anthony Fauci are demanding 3rd and now 4th shots. Shots without end, always with the promise that the next one will achieve the goal.

It’s no surprise its author is favorably featured on the website of anti-vaccine supercrank RFK Jr.

Beyond this, the Atlas Society also amplified radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas (read this), writer Dr. Naomi Wolf (read this), and who knows which other superspreaders of anti-vaccine disinformation. These are the people the Atlas Society legitimizes and amplifies during a pandemic.

Denying reality never ends well

Clinging to my teenage hope that leaders of the Atlas Society might actually care about rationality, I shared my previous article with Dr. Stephen Hicks a philosophy professor and Senior Scholar there. “Maybe he’s unaware of who his organization is promoting? Maybe he’ll want to learn more. Maybe he’ll care and even try do something about it.

Reader, I actually believed that about him and a few other people there for some stupid reason. That’s how naïve I can be.

Dr. Hicks did disappoint, and though he did so in eminently predictable ways, his responses contain an important lesson: denying reality never ends well. Indeed, Dr. Hicks first attempted to deny reality by saying that “I (and pretty much everyone I associate with) am pro-vaccines and anti-mandates.” Even if they rushed to get vaccinated themselves, no one who is “pro-vaccine” would provide a friendly, warm forum for influential and outspoken anti-vaxxers to disseminate their disinformation.

After being presented with evidence the Atlas Society has done exactly this, Dr. Hicks rapidly pivoted to a new position that can be summarized as: Yes, we provide a friendly, warm forum for these people and that’s good. He claimed that though he is pro-vaccine, “Any intellectually honest organization *debates* complex issues”.

Apparently Dr. Hicks believes it’s a “complex issue” whether or not young people should left vulnerable to a virus that has killed thousands of them when a safe and effective vaccine exists. After all, several honored Atlas Society interviewees believe that unvaccinated young people should be exposed to the virus, and they’ve been very successful in their mission with inevitable results. Like I said, denying reality never ends well, even though it’s often not the denialists who pays the price.

Moreover, Dr. Hicks feels this “complex issue” should be decided via a debate. He thinks that anti-vaxxers and doctors who treat COVID patients should duke it out in a performance of sorts, where who is right and who is wrong is determined by who puts on the best show. Did the flu really kill more children than COVID, as scholars at the Brownstone Institute often claim? Only a debate can settle which number is really higher, 25 or 1,500. May the most polished speaker win.

Of course, Dr. Hicks completely misrepresented what the Atlas Society actually does. They don’t sponsor *debates* with anti-vaxxers. That would require them to provide a friendly, warm forum to a knowledgeable vaccine-advocate, something they’ve not done as best as I can tell. I doubt they even know any. Instead, they hand dishonest anti-vaxxers a microphone to answer softball questions from a sycophantic interviewer who selects her guests because they’ll say exactly what she wants to hear: COVID’s threat is overblown and those who try to limit it are stupid and corrupt.

That’s why she doesn’t push back when her guests say wild and wacky things.

For example, what happened when Dr. Wolf said that thanks to Bill Gates and pharma, we were no longer free to say “the pandemic is over“? Nothing. What happened when she likened current “anti-vaccination discrimination” to the historical evils of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism? Nothing. What happened when Dr. Atlas falsely claimed the Delta variant was “less lethal” and that “high-risk people are the ones who die from the Delta variant, not anybody else“? Nothing. What happened when he said that children “die from the flu at a higher rate” than from COVID? Nothing. What happened when he fear-mongered about boosters and opposed vaccinating children by saying, “when people have a low-risk for an illness, I don’t understand the case for giving them a vaccine“? Nothing.

In the interviewer’s defense, she likely didn’t know that Dr. Atlas was both making stuff up and plagiarizing Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s cult, merely substituting COVID for measles. She may not have known that his brand of COVID denialism is exactly why healthcare workers have been attacked and why many are quitting. However, she should have known that Dr. Atlas would spread disinformation to further his goal of infecting unvaccinated young people.

Like, what else would he do?

He doesn’t hide his intentions. Early in the pandemic, he said, “Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected.” Even though effective vaccines are now available, he continues to worship at the altar of so-called “natural immunity”. To pick one example, he said:

To me, it’s unconscionable that a society uses its children as shields for adults. Children do not have a significant risk from this illness… Are we [as] a society, a civilization … going to inject our children with an experimental drug that they don’t have a significant benefit from, to shield ourselves?

Dr. Atlas believes that if he says “children do not have a significant risk from this illness” enough times that means it’s true. He can’t grasp the simple fact that some children do have a significant risk from this illness, and so we vaccinate children to protect children. Again, this is who the Atlas Society legitimizes and amplifies in the middle of a pandemic. Doctors who treat sick kids and provide accurate information are excluded from this echo chamber.

Thanks to the Atlas Society, some people now believe that more dangerous variants are “less lethal”, that 25 is more than 1,500, and that it’s a good when unvaccinated young people contract COVID. This is information pollution, and like someone blowing an air horn during a concert, it destroys our ability to debate complex issues. While debates in medicine are important and healthy, a precondition for any meaningful discussion is a shared commitment to honesty and reality. One can’t debate the optimal interval for vaccine doses with a prevaricator who denies the virus impacts young people at all.

And let’s be clear about a few obvious things regarding vaccines for young people. It doesn’t matter whether the flu or COVID is worse. It doesn’t matter that most kids will be fine, that other things kill more kids, or that old people have a much higher risk. None of these factoids is an argument against vaccinating children, though that hasn’t stopped writers at the Brownstone Institute from using them. Normal people don’t want any young person to suffer or die from a vaccine-preventable disease. Of course, young people should be vaccinated against COVID. This is not a complex issue. It is a very simple issue, and doctors with skin in the game should not “debate” very simple issues with sheltered fabulists whose deceptions have ensured their ICUs were stuffed with “low-risk” patients.

Trying to have it both ways, Dr. Hicks said it was “immoral to lie about vaccines” but also that “We need to celebrate our generation’s gadflies”. You’ll recognize that bit of sophistry as the Galileo gambit. Naturally, Dr. Hicks wasn’t saying we need to celebrate gadflies who are brilliant vaccine-scientists. The Atlas Society undermines these people.

Dr. Hicks was also much more concerned about decorum towards anti-vaccine “gadflies” than the immoral lies they spread. He was very worried that anti-vaxxers were “denied civility“, a predictable deflection technique used by those who seek to shutdown debate by focusing on manners, not substance. It’s just not nice to call someone a liar, I suppose, even when they claim 25 is larger than 1,500. In fact, we should “celebrate” such people, even when their disinformation leads to doctors getting punched in the face.

Using a meme of himself, Dr. Hicks implied that those who refute anti-vaxxers are akin to Nazi and Soviet “disinformation boards” and that not amplifying anti-vaxxers was akin to “censorship“, another predictable deflection technique. If someone feels I’m the next Goebbels because I think it’s a bad idea to “debate” the premise that 25 is larger than 1,500, then that’s a criticism I’ll have to learn to live with.

At least I’ve never called scientists I disagree with evil, corrupt, and criminal. I never said they were backpedaling and confessing “to get ahead of the indictments“. Dr. Wolf said all that and more that during her interview with the Atlas Society. Elsewhere, she claimed Dr. Fauci works for Israel, not Americans, something that could be straight out of a Nazi disinformation board actually. More recently, in an article at the Brownstone Institute of course, she revealed her fantasy “to shave people’s heads and march them through the town square.” She spoke about the need for Nuremberg Trials for America’s “quislings and collaborators,” noting that “There is a reason treason is a capital offense”.

Again, this is who the Atlas Society legitimizes and amplifies in the middle of a pandemic.

Unfortunately, Dr. Wolf’s message resonates with a lot of angry, armed people. As a result, terrified public health officials have censored themselves by quitting en masse. Dr. Fauci has needed “personal security from law enforcement at all times, including at his home”. So have his daughters. If you’re wondering about a source for such hatred towards Dr. Fauci, I suggest reading the article “Who Will Be Held Responsible for this Devastation?” on the Atlas Society webpage. It said that “The carnage” of lockdowns and vaccine mandates “is unspeakable and will last a generation or two or more” and asked “Who is left to blame?”

The most likely candidate here is Fauci himself. But I can already tell you his excuse. He never signed a single order. His fingerprints are on no legislation.

Anyone who actually cares about civility and opposes censorship knows that cranks who incite credible threats against scientists need to be exposed and marginalized, not amplified and celebrated.

Dr. Hicks further engaged in bothsideism by asking, “How do we tally the costs/benefits of mistakes and lying on both sides?” Apparently he sees little difference between Dr. Peter Hotez, who has received countless, vile threats for his vaccine-advocacy, and the anti-vaxxers who make and occasionally act on such threats. According to Dr. Hotez, the hate mail he received “was filled with all sorts of Nazi imagery, Nuremberg hangings and terrible, terrible stuff. It was pretty upsetting”. I wonder if any of the people who messaged Dr. Hotez heard Dr. Wolf call him a “conflicted” pharma shill during her interview with the Atlas Society.

Both sides, you see.

As a last resort, Dr. Hicks nursed grievances, saying he was a victim of a “guilt-by-association“. To paraphrase an assertion he made on multiple occasions: I never said anything about time-traveling via vaccine nanopatticles. So why should I be held accountable as a senior leader of an organization that legitimizes people who say such things?

Is this how Howard Roark would react if lazy workers with poor craftsmanship used the shoddiest materials to construct one of his buildings? As it crumpled to the ground, would he say, “Hey, don’t look at me, bro. I just made the drawings”?

I don’t think so.

Healthcare workers should not engage with people who treat us like game pieces for their amusement

These deflection techniques are very familiar to regular readers of SBM. However, it was what Dr. Hicks said at the end of the conversation that inspired this essay. Reflecting on the discussion, he said the whole thing was just a “mostly fun Twitter thread on Covid” and that he “mostly enjoyed the wide-ranging discussion today”.

And there is it. It was just a game the whole time.

Indeed, the pandemic has been little more than a game and brand-building opportunity for amoral disinformation groups and the grifters they promote. Having been informed that over 300,000 Americans died due to the type of anti-vaccine disinformation his organization legitimizes, Dr. Hicks could only reflect on how entertaining the whole spectacle was. The greatest mass death event in American history is just an intellectual puzzle, discussed in a state of purposeful ignorance regarding the real damage caused by some of its players.

Multiple people tried to impress upon Dr. Hicks that this wasn’t just a conversation about which superpower is best. Despite our efforts, like all the people I write about, Dr. Hicks never showed any recognition that flesh-and-blood people, including children, have suffered as a consequences of anti-vaccine disinformation. I discussed previously how some contrarian doctors even shame those who dare to acknowledge any individual child lost to COVID.

In contrast, I believe that individuals matter, and so I’ve made a point of recognizing them, including doctors who were friends and teachers of mine. I make an effort not treat people as mere numbers on a government website. Speakers at the Atlas Society do that.

Though the experience was “mostly fun” for Dr. Hicks, I don’t think anyone else felt that way, especially the healthcare workers. They are burnt-out and checking-out as they are fed up with having to mop up the mess created by disinformation superspreaders. They are tired of sheltered talkers treating their lives and the lives of their patients as mere pawns on a chessboard, whose value must be weighed against the harms of offending delicate anti-vaxxers. I previously noted the irony of competent people quitting their jobs not despite Objectivists, but because of them. (Not you, Mr. Bayer).

At least I learned something valuable: It’s a waste of time to engage with someone who treats healthcare workers like game pieces for their intellectual entertainment. I won’t do it again. I certainly didn’t have “fun” talking with Dr. Hicks. Not only did I grasp the stakes involved, but I was also frustrated that he was willing to “debate” anything except the only thing that mattered: Is it ethical to legitimize and amplify only dishonest anti-vaccine voices in a pandemic where over 1 million Americans have died?

I don’t think it is.

Though I won’t interact with Dr. Hicks on social media, I’m always open to different perspectives. So, I really hope he pens a rebuttal to my piece titled: Those Who Believe in Time-Traveling via Vaccines With Nanopatticles and Other Essential Pandemic Voices. You see, I don’t believe in time-traveling via vaccines with nanopatticles, my essays don’t have pictures of guillotines, and I’ve treated many COVID patients. If these character flaws aren’t disqualifying, I’d be thrilled to give a talk at the Atlas Society titled “This is What Ayn Rand Warned About”.

And while it’s unlikely they’ll platform someone who’s willing to stand alone against a group, I’m glad that Dr. Hicks and one of his critics found some common ground.

Author

  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.

Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.