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April 3rd, 2024 (Permalink)

The Penalty for Humility & Magna Est Veritas

For want of me the world's course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.1

Recommended Reading

  • John Wood Jr., "This doctor admitted COVID pandemic mistakes. Then his critics attacked him again.", USA Today, 1/30/2024
    For all of the rending of our social fabric over the past eight years in the United States, nothing has been more bitterly polarizing than our public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with a fast-spreading virus and the potential of millions of American deaths, public health officials and politicians accelerated the development of vaccines and implemented lockdowns on businesses, schools and communities in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease and to save lives.

    Now, Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, has been publicly reflecting on the mistakes made by the public health establishment during the pandemic. In doing so, he has unintentionally highlighted a challenge for those who seek to rebuild trust among the American people and between the American people and their leaders: the penalty we pay for humility. …

    Here are some of Collins' now viral comments: "As a guy living inside the Beltway, feeling the sense of crisis, trying to decide what to do in some situation room in the White House…. We weren't really considering the consequences in communities that were not New York City or some other big city. If you're a public health person and you're trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life. Doesn't matter what else happens. …2 You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people's lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recover from."

    Some of Collins' critics took that admission as an opportunity to pile on. A new wave of criticism crested on social media…. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board wrote: "This was precisely the argument we made on March 20, 2020…2 for politicians not to accept the lockdown advice of public-health officials as gospel. They think too narrowly, and political leaders have to consider the larger consequences of policies for the public good."

    Infectious disease specialists, such as Collins, should not be expected to take economic, educational, or other social issues into consideration in their recommendations: they're not experts in those things. In addition to consulting medical specialists, decision-makers should consult economists, experts in education, social scientists, and even moral philosophers before settling on a policy. The failure to do so was not Collins' fault, but the fault of those higher up in the government. This does not absolve Collins for those things he did do wrong3.

    I have no problem with such criticism, and in fact, agree with it. I was among the many Americans who, as the lockdowns continued for months, became frustrated at the inattention paid to the secondary effects of such policies. Put aside concerns for civil liberties. What would it mean for public health itself for millions of Americans to find themselves unemployed, socially isolated, fearful and stuck at home for extended periods of time?

    But if Collins and his peers can be criticized for having thought too narrowly about the consequences of our public response to the pandemic, the doctor's critics also can be criticized for thinking too narrowly about the consequences of brushing aside his act of contrition. Humility from leading public officials is the rarest of commodities, but it is needed more than ever in our current political culture.

    De rigueur dig at ex-president Trump omitted.

    Our culture tells leaders to never admit they were wrong[.] Neither, for that matter, do many activists and pundits. Certainty is the currency of the realm, it seems. To admit fault is to betray weakness that people in public life feel they can't afford.

    Yet, if we can't admit mistakes, then there can be no culture of reflection in our politics. And without a culture of reflection, it means we won't learn from our mistakes. Nor can we trust one another (or our leaders) to do so.

    That approach locks us into the pattern we find ourselves in now. When politicians and public figures from each end of our political duopoly do and say things that are destructive, they feel compelled to double down on the same course out of fear of the consequences of admitting they were wrong. …

    Francis Collins took a meaningful step with public reflection on the consequences of his leadership during one of the most difficult periods of recent American history. His willingness to do so should not exempt him from criticism or accountability. But critics must at least be willing to applaud the precedent that Collins set in offering such statements if we are to hope that more public figures will not only acknowledge their mistakes, but also help us all learn how we can do better in the future.

    As a nation, we need humility and graciousness to replace arrogance and stubbornness so that that we can begin to make progress together again.

  • Martin Kulldorff, "Harvard Tramples the Truth", City Journal, 3/11/2024
    I am no longer a professor of medicine at Harvard. The Harvard motto is Veritas, Latin for truth. But, as I discovered, truth can get you fired. This is my story―a story of a Harvard biostatistician and infectious-disease epidemiologist, clinging to the truth as the world lost its way during the Covid pandemic.

    On March 10, 2020, before any government prompting, Harvard declared that it would "suspend in-person classes and shift to online learning." Across the country, universities, schools, and state governments followed Harvard's lead.

    Yet it was clear, from early 2020, that the virus would eventually spread across the globe, and that it would be futile to try to suppress it with lockdowns. It was also clear that lockdowns would inflict enormous collateral damage, not only on education but also on public health, including treatment for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health. We will be dealing with the harm done for decades. Our children, the elderly, the middle class, the working class, and the poor around the world―all will suffer.

    Schools closed in many other countries, too, but under heavy international criticism, Sweden kept its schools and daycares open for its 1.8 million children, ages one to 15. Why? While anyone can get infected, we have known since early 2020 that more than a thousandfold difference in Covid mortality risk holds between the young and the old. Children faced minuscule risk from Covid, and interrupting their education would disadvantage them for life, especially those whose families could not afford private schools, pod schools, or tutors, or to homeschool.

    What were the results during the spring of 2020? With schools open, Sweden had zero Covid deaths in the one-to-15 age group, while teachers had the same mortality as the average of other professions. Based on those facts, summarized in a July 7, 2020, report by the Swedish Public Health Agency, all U.S. schools should have quickly reopened. Not doing so led to "startling evidence on learning loss"4 in the United States, especially among lower- and middle-class children, an effect not seen in Sweden.

    Sweden was the only major Western country that rejected school closures and other lockdowns in favor of concentrating on the elderly, and the final verdict is now in. …Sweden had the lowest excess mortality among major European countries during the pandemic, and less than half that of the United States. Sweden's Covid deaths were below average, and it avoided collateral mortality caused by lockdowns. …

    That spring, I supported the Swedish approach in op-eds published in my native Sweden, but despite being a Harvard professor, I was unable to publish my thoughts in American media. My attempts to disseminate the Swedish school report on Twitter…put me on the platform's Trends Blacklist. In August 2020, my op-ed on school closures and Sweden was finally published by CNN―but not the one you're thinking of. I wrote it in Spanish, and CNN-Español ran it. CNN-English was not interested. …

    I had no inclination to back down. Together with [Sunetra] Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford, I wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, arguing for age-based focused protection instead of universal lockdowns, with specific suggestions for how better to protect the elderly, while letting children and young adults live close to normal lives.

    With the Great Barrington Declaration, the silencing was broken. While it is easy to dismiss individual scientists, it was impossible to ignore three senior infectious-disease epidemiologists from three leading universities. The declaration made clear that no scientific consensus existed for school closures and many other lockdown measures. In response, though, the attacks intensified…and even grew slanderous. [Francis] Collins, a lab scientist with limited public-health experience who controls most of the nation's medical research budget, called us "fringe epidemiologists" and asked his colleagues to orchestrate a "devastating published takedown."5 Some at Harvard obliged. …

    At this point, it was clear that I faced a choice between science or my academic career. I chose the former. What is science if we do not humbly pursue the truth? …

    In 2020, the CDC asked me to serve on its Covid-19 Vaccine Safety Technical Work Group. My tenure didn't last long…. Every honest person knows that new drugs and vaccines come with potential risks that are unknown when approved. This was a risk worth taking for older people at high risk of Covid mortality―but not for children, who have a minuscule risk for Covid mortality, nor for those who already had infection-acquired immunity. …

    At the behest of the U.S. government, Twitter censored [me] for contravening CDC policy. Having also been censored by LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube, I could not freely communicate as a scientist. Who decided that American free-speech rights did not apply to honest scientific comments at odds with those of the CDC director? …

    For scientific, ethical, public health, and medical reasons, I objected both publicly and privately to the Covid vaccine mandates. I already had superior infection-acquired immunity; and it was risky to vaccinate me without proper efficacy and safety studies on patients with my type of immune deficiency. This stance got me fired by Mass General Brigham―and consequently fired from my Harvard faculty position. …

    Most Harvard faculty diligently pursue truth in a wide variety of fields, but Veritas has not been the guiding principle of Harvard leaders. Nor have academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, independence from external forces, or concern for ordinary people guided their decisions.

    Harvard and the wider scientific community have much work to do to deserve and regain public trust. The first steps are the restoration of academic freedom and the cancelling of cancel culture. When scientists have different takes on topics of public importance, universities should organize open and civilized debates to pursue the truth. Harvard could have done that―and it still can, if it chooses.

    Almost everyone now realizes that school closures and other lockdowns, were a colossal mistake. Francis Collins has acknowledged his error of singularly focusing on Covid without considering collateral damage to education and non-Covid health outcomes5. That's the honest thing to do, and I hope this honesty will reach Harvard. The public deserves it, and academia needs it to restore its credibility.

    Science cannot survive in a society that does not value truth and strive to discover it. The scientific community will gradually lose public support and slowly disintegrate in such a culture. The pursuit of truth requires academic freedom with open, passionate, and civilized scientific discourse, with zero tolerance for slander, bullying, or cancellation. My hope is that someday, Harvard will find its way back to academic freedom and independence.

    I share that hope, but I'm not going to invest any money in it.

Recommended Listening

Martin Kulldorff & John Tierney, "Harvard's Unscientific Consensus", City Journal, 3/13/2024

Recommended Viewing

"Martin Kulldorff: Fired by Harvard for getting Covid right", UnHerd, 3/15/2024


  1. Coventry Patmore, "Magna Est Veritas", The Reader, 8/28/2018.
  2. Ellipsis in the original.
  3. See, for instance: Vinay Prasad, "At a time when the U.S. needed Covid-19 dialogue between scientists, Francis Collins moved to shut it down", Stat News, 12/23/2021. I don't know whether Collins has apologized for this.
  4. The Editorial Board, "The Startling Evidence on Learning Loss Is In", The New York Times, 11/18/2023.
  5. See the previous selection.

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.

April 1st, 2024 (Permalink)

Flaubert's Befuddler

French novelist Gustave Flaubert posed the following problem to his sister in a letter:

Puisque tu fais de la géométrie et de la trigonométrie, je vais te donner un probème: Un navire est en mer, il est parti de Boston chargé de coton, il jauge 200 tonneaux. Il fait voile vers le Havre, le grand mât est cassé, il y a un mousse sur le gaillard d'avant, les passagers sont au nombre de douze, le vent souffle N.-E.-E., l'horloge marque 3 heures un quart d'après-midi, on est au mois de mai…. On demande l'âge du capitaine?*

Here's my translation: "Since you are doing geometry and trigonometry, I'll give you a problem: A ship is at sea, having left Boston full of cotton, weighing 200 tons. It sets sail to Le Havre, its mainmast broken, a cabin boy on the forward deck, with a dozen passengers, the wind E.N.E., at a quarter past three in the afternoon, in the month of May…. How old is the captain?"

Can you determine the captain's age?

* Gustave Flaubert, "Lettre à Caroline, 16 mai 1841". Ellipsis in the original.

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