I’ll begin by repeating a universally held and oft-expressed belief here at SBM: vulgarities and threats are never an acceptable part of scientific discourse.
One person who has likely received such abuse is economics professor Emily Oster, particularly after she published an article in The Atlantic in March 2021 titled “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma.” “Children are not at high risk for COVID-19,” she wrote. They are “naturally protected,” she added. “Being a child is a really great vaccine.”
One person to rally to Dr. Oster’s defense at the time was Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, the Higginson Professor of Physiology and Medicine, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and Former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine (2007- 2016). He said:
Of course, it’s not clear exactly to which “vitriolic attacks” Dr. Flier was referring. Some people on Twitter said her article was “stupid” and “evil”. Beyond this, Professor Oster certainly has been the subject of stern criticism. Peste Magazine awarded her the “Achievement in Public Health Disservice by a Non-Public Health Professional“, and I strongly encourage you to read this article titled “Motivated Reasoning: Emily Oster’s COVID Narratives and the Attack on Public Education” by Drs. Abigail Cartus and Justin Feldman. They wrote:
Oster’s influence on the discourse around COVID in schools is difficult to overstate. She has been quoted in hundreds of articles about school pandemic precautions and interviewed as a guest on dozens of news shows. Officials from both parties have used her work as justification for lifting public health measures. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited her study while announcing an executive order banning school mask mandates, while CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy referenced Oster’s research in anticipation of relaxing classroom social distancing guidelines. Oster also co-authored an influential school reopening guidance document that was released in early 2021.
Would Dr. Flier consider these articles a “vitriolic attack”? Quite possibly he would.
Of course, strident criticisms are not “vitriolic attacks”. They are part of a healthy discussion and debate, something Dr. Flier claims to value. Too often, harsh but fair critiques are falsely labeled “vitriolic attacks” in an attempt to shame the critic into silence and shift the conversation away from those who spread misinformation. The pandemic has birthed a sad sort of sanctimonious scold, who scrupulously avoids substantive discourse, and says in essence: sure, doctors said herd immunity arrived two years ago and spread anti-vaccine misinformation, but the REAL problem is you hurt their feelings and you should stop it. To these advocates of Feelings Based Medicine, criticizing someone’s ideas is attacking them personally, and the “wellness” of anti-vaccine doctors is priority #1.
And thus we come to the most eye-catching part of Dr. Flier’s Tweet. He also wrote that “vitriolic attacks against her reflect a moral sickness that may rival COVID19 in its ultimate harm so far.” This is not the first time he’s argued that words are violence and delicate professors need a safe space. At the start of the pandemic, along with Dr. Vinay Prasad, he penned a defense of Dr. John Ioannidis, another influential and incorrect voice, which said:
Society faces a risk even more toxic and deadly than Covid-19: that the conduct of science becomes indistinguishable from politics.
Though Dr. Prasad now frequently calls vaccine-advocates “idiots”, “stupid”, and “mentally ill“, they wrote at the time, “We think it is important to hear, consider, and debate these views without ad hominem attacks or animus.”
Though I share their objection to “ad hominem attacks or animus”, let’s compare this to COVID’s toll so far. One study found:
Although reported COVID-19 deaths between Jan 1, 2020, and Dec 31, 2021, totalled 5·94 million worldwide, we estimate that 18·2 million (95% uncertainty interval 17·1–19·6) people died worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic (as measured by excess mortality) over that period.
That estimate is only from the first two years of the pandemic, and it doesn’t take into account the countless millions of people who survived COVID, but were injured by it. That all sounds a whole lot worse than even the most vitriolic attack towards Professor Oster or anyone else ever in the history of the world, does it not? What breach in decorum could one day rival COVID?
I suppose Dr. Flier is imagining some future dystopia where a plucky, contrarian economist holds the key to solving a global catastrophe via an article in The Atlantic, but is instead threatened into silence, with resultant mass death and suffering. In this imagined future, dueling scientists- motivated only by politics and tribalism- hurl juvenile taunts at each other, rather than engage in polite, civil discourse about science and data. In one sense, this sounds like an absurd movie plot. However, in another sense this is exactly what happened much of the pandemic, especially to the mostly anonymous healthcare workers on the ground.
- Hundreds of public health officials have resigned or retired rather than face abuse and threats. According to news reports, “Some have become the target of far-right activists, conservative groups and anti-vaccination extremists who have coalesced around common goals: fighting mask orders, quarantines and contact tracing with protests, threats and personal attacks”. According to a survey from The New York Times, “Public health agencies have seen a staggering exodus of personnel, many exhausted and demoralized, in part because of abuse and threats”. They report “more than 500 top health officials who left their jobs in the past 19 months”.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci needed “personal security from law enforcement at all times, including at his home”. According to news reports, “he and his family have required continued security in the face of harassment and death threats from people angry over his guidance on the coronavirus pandemic”. Dr. Peter Hotez has been doxxed and subject to coordinated campaigns of harassment for his vaccine advocacy. 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”. Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Richard Pan was assaulted in the street for advocating for vaccines. Dr. David Gorski has been the victim of harassment campaigns.
- A Nature survey of 321 scientists found that “more than two-thirds of researchers reported negative experiences as a result of their media appearances or their social media comments, and 22% had received threats of physical or sexual violence. Some scientists said that their employer had received complaints about them, or that their home address had been revealed online. Six scientists said they were physically attacked”. Dr. Novella discussed this here.
- According to one article titled “At the Peak of the Pandemic, Health Care Workers Were Heroes. Now, They’re Getting Threats“:
Doctors and nurses at a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, hospital have been accused of killing patients by grieving family members who don’t believe COVID-19 is real, said hospital spokeswoman Caiti Bobbitt. Others have been the subject of hurtful rumors spread by people angry about the pandemic. “Our health care workers are almost feeling like Vietnam veterans, scared to go into the community after a shift,” Bobbitt said.
Over Labor Day weekend in Colorado, a passerby threw an unidentified liquid at a nurse working at a mobile vaccine clinic in suburban Denver. Another person in a pickup truck ran over and destroyed signs put up around the clinic’s tent.
This is but a very small sample (more examples here) of actual vitriolic attacks this pandemic, and it’s quite possible that Professor Oster was on the receiving end of some of this deplorable conduct. Dr. Flier would be absolutely right to call this a moral sickness. However, as awful as this was, the healthcare workers who’ve actually been silenced are those who died from COVID. Their voices are completely absent from “areas of discussion/debate in areas of ongoing uncertainty”.
In contrast, Professor Oster has been a ubiquitous and consequential presence throughout, despite never caring for a COVID patient herself. So while I am sure that she’s been the victim of indefensible vitriolic attacks, it’s curious that Dr. Flier chose her to warn against an imagined nightmare when our present is exactly what he seems to fear- tens of millions of people are dead and countless millions more injured. Children were orphaned. Schools and businesses were shuttered. The pandemic deeply affected the life of every human on the planet. Meanwhile, threatened scientists are on the run while anti-vaccine doctors who manipulate data are promoted to high places and defended by the likes of Dr. Prasad.
Incredibly, Dr. Flier feels that “vitriolic attacks” against Professor Oster “reflect a moral sickness that may rival” all of that.
Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in a New York City hospital throughout the pandemic, but I’m not too worried that vitriolic attacks against a famous, sheltered economist will soon rival COVID’s carnage. To be honest, I can’t even conceive of a “vitriolic attack” that compares to tens of millions of dead people, especially considering so many of them should still be alive. The Delta and Omicron variants arrived shortly after Professor Oster published her article in the spring of 2021, proving that being a child wasn’t always a really great vaccine. However, even before this, there was already evidence that not all children were “naturally protected”. Sadly, the fact that we did an OK job of protecting children early in the pandemic was used as “evidence” they didn’t need protecting at all.
It’s not a “vitriolic attack” to point any of this out to Professor Oster- though assuredly, someone who pretends to value “debate and discussion”, will frame it that way in the hopes of dissuading me and anyone else from making pointed criticisms in the future.