Quacks in the Ivory Tower: How Conspiracy Theorizing Took Over Lockdown Science
Is the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) simply a front for a secret global eugenics plot, hatched at AIER by the British Ministry of Defence and financed by the Koch Brothers as part of an ongoing effort to force climate change, tobacco, and Covid-19 infections on our senior citizens? Such claims may sound like the farcical ravings of an internet paranoiac, yet precisely this narrative has gained a shocking amount of currency among ostensibly serious public health scientists and journalists since the Declaration launched last October 4th.
This outcome is the result of a disturbing turn in the academic discourse around Covid-19 policy over the past several months, with scientific disagreement taking a back seat to the political vilification of anyone who questions the wisdom of lockdown ideology – even as the lockdowns themselves utterly failed at their stated aims. Rather than debating the evidence around these policies and evaluating their performance over the last year, it has now become the norm to accuse anyone who questions “the science” of lockdowns of being beholden to secretive “dark money” interests and operating in the service of nefarious profiteering and political malice.
This bizarre string of conspiratorial attacks on AIER began in the days after the GBD’s release last fall. Self-described “journalists” with dubious backgrounds led the charge from peripheral media outlets that nonetheless provided a political message for the GBD’s opponents.
Consider the case of Nafeez Ahmed, a writer from a London-based blog called the Byline Times who has spent the better part of the last year posting conspiratorial bromides against scientists who question lockdown ideology. Fresh off of an unsuccessful Twitter campaign to flood the GBD’s website with fraudulent signatures during the week after it went live, Ahmed shifted his tack in mid-October with a new charge. In a succession of blog posts, he purported to show that the GBD was part of an elaborate scheme by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch to force the reopening of the American economy in spite of Covid’s risks, using AIER as its front. After outlining the financial portion of his conspiracy theory, Ahmed quickly appended a new “partner” in the alleged plot: the British Ministry of Defence, which he implied to be the source behind the GBD’s website. To top it off, this growing plot was allegedly orchestrated through the owner of a resort hotel in Wales, operating amid a web of military contracts that somehow or another pointed back to the GBD authors and AIER.
If that sounds like loony talk, it is.
Contrary to Ahmed’s wild imagination, Charles Koch had absolutely no involvement with the Great Barrington Declaration or AIER’s hosting of the conference that produced it. While I cannot say with certainty where Mr. Koch himself stands on these issues, his philanthropic organizations appear to have mostly stayed away from Covid-19 policy debates (the few exceptions where a Koch-network organization has weighed in on the subject at all tend to take a pro-lockdown stance, such as the Mercatus Center’s Tyler Cowen, who awarded a research prize to Neil Ferguson of Imperial College for his Covid-19 lockdown model. AIER was one of the first high-profile critics of Ferguson’s model and continues to track its abysmal performance over the last year.)
It is the right of philanthropic foundations, including both Cowen and Koch, to direct their grants and donations to projects of their own choosing. Indeed, AIER partnered with Koch in 2018 on a small grant to co-sponsor an economics conference in North Carolina – the apparent origin of Ahmed’s confused claims. But it also appears that we find ourselves taking different approaches to pandemic policy issues, and not by conspiratorial design but rather honest disagreement of the type that has unfortunately been lost amid the heated debates over the last year.
Oh, and that bit about the British Ministry of Defence supposedly orchestrating the GBD’s website through some hotel in Wales that nobody at AIER has even heard of? Utter nonsense – our web developer put it together on-site during the GBD conference, pulling an all-night marathon to ensure that it would be ready to go live the day of the release.
Although Ahmed’s batty narrative about the GBD’s origins does not withstand even minimal scrutiny, his conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on the pro-lockdown side of the epidemiology profession, and among the journalistic outlets that support them. For a brief period back in October, Google News inexplicably boosted the fringe Byline Times blog on search results for the Great Barrington Declaration, ranking Ahmed’s postings above coverage in mainstream outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Fox. Paul Krugman even promoted the product of Ahmed’s ravings in his New York Times column.
Several of the most widely-quoted critics of the Great Barrington Declaration in the press seized on the same narrative and began repeating tall tales about nonexistent funding sources and the wholly imaginary British Ministry of Defense website scheme. Some even added new fringe theories of their own to augment the salacious charges.
David Gorski, a professor of medicine at Wayne State University and one of the media’s favorite go-to sources for quotes denouncing the GBD, published a blog post on October 12th where he liberally quoted and endorsed Ahmed’s conspiracy theories. Not to be outdone by the Byline Times blogger, Gorski appended his own paranoid attack by branding the GBD a “eugenics-adjacent” plot to cull and “sacrific[e] the elderly” in the name of economics. Even though the GBD drew tens of thousands of co-signers in the medical and public health professions, Gorski went on to label it a “magnified minority” campaign – his term for a propaganda initiative to dupe the public into accepting the secret eugenics scheme he repeatedly claimed to have uncovered. Gorski’s attacks are not only symptomatic of a deeply disturbed state of mind – they’re unbecoming of a scientific professional, let alone one that the media enlists for expert quotations as a primary interlocutor of the GBD.
Gorski was far from the only lockdowner in the public health world to embrace Ahmed’s conspiracist blogging. So did Eric Feigl-Ding, one of social media’s most aggressive promoters of school closures and the fringe “Zero Covid” theory. Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University in London, a principal organizer of the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum, has promoted the Byline Times conspiracy theories about the GBD’s funding on multiple occasions, pairing it with another conspiracy theory of her own that tries to fault the GBD authors for the failure of three successive lockdowns in Britain. As has Gabriel Scally, a UK-based epidemiologist who serves the pro-lockdown “Independent SAGE” group. David Fisman, a Canadian epidemiologist who aggressively pushed for lockdowns and school closures in Ontario, is another fan of Ahmed’s conspiracy theories, praising him for providing “important context” to the policy debate.
Justin Feldman, a self-described “epidemiologist of social inequality” at Harvard, added his own twist to Ahmed’s favorite conspiracy by alleging an elaborate plot to place favorable media coverage of the GBD on the UK’s Unherd website, only to walk it back a day later when he realized he had confused Unherd with another outlet. The public misstep did little to shed Feldman of his conspiracist tendencies though. His Twitter feed since that time has published a nonstop stream of frenzied allegations against lockdown critics in the public health profession, usually consisting of unsubstantiated innuendo about shady pecuniary motives behind their scholarship.
Duke University epidemiologist Gavin Yamey offered a “huge shoutout to Dr. Nafeez Ahmed” for supposedly uncovering the bizarre conspiracy linking the GBD website to the British Ministry of Defense and the Welsh hotel proprietor. Elsewhere he praised the Byline Times’s “great investigative journalism” about the GBD. Half a year later he still asserts that “Charles Koch shaped [pandemic] policy in the US” through a group of scientists who have no tangible connection to Koch’s philanthropy. Indeed, Yamey’s twitter feed contains dozens of examples of him promoting the Byline Times articles. Naturally, this whole-hearted believer of Ahmed’s conspiracy theories is also one of the journalism world’s favorite sources for an expert quotation denouncing the GBD, and a principal co-signer of a letter to the Lancet arguing against the petition’s scientific merits.
Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen, another frequent critic of the GBD in the press, embraced the funding conspiracy theory without the slightest skepticism or investigation of its assertions. “The GBD authors don’t actually mean well,” she continued, accusing the three scientists of being part of a “propaganda campaign” in the service of AIER’s supposed goal of “ignore the pandemic, let’s get back to making money via unfettered capitalism.”
Martin McKee, a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who denounced the GBD as a “fringe view” shortly after its publication, has a habit of giving his endorsement to Ahmed’s conspiracy theories about the very same document. Ahmed’s crazy tales of intrigue have another fan in Robert Dickinson, a professor of medicine at Imperial College London and signer of the pro-lockdown John Snow Memorandum. Snow Memorandum signer Hisham Ziauddeen promotes the same conspiratorial claims, in addition to his own blogging against the GBD for Ahmed’s outlet. Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves of Yale, another of the media’s favorite sources for ad hominem-laced anti-GBD hot takes, apparently concurs with Ahmed’s paranoid ravings. So does the University of Washington’s Carl Bergstrom, another press favorite for expert statements defending lockdowns.
Keep in mind that these endorsements of Ahmed involve claims that are not simply dubious or uncharitable interpretations – they are factual falsehoods that have entered the talking points of scientific experts who simply agree with their associated political connotations and believe that repeating them enough will discredit an opposing viewpoint. As matters of scientific analysis though, it would not be inaccurate at this point to state that leading academics on the pro-lockdown side of the Covid political debate are now regularly relying upon the paranoid ravings of a conspiracist blogger as one of their primary sources for attacks upon the Great Barrington Declaration.
Had these academics, public health professionals, and journalists spent even a moment investigating the source of their parroted stories about “dark money,” the British Ministry of Defense, and obscure hotel properties in Wales, they might have exercised more reservations before credulously repeating such unreliable claims.
Ahmed himself is no stranger to fringe political causes. The late Christopher Hitchens once described this particular writer as “a risible individual wedded to half-baked conspiracy-mongering.” Indeed, for almost two decades prior to Covid-19, Ahmed was a recurring presence in the circles around the so-called 9/11 Truth movement – the motley band of internet oddballs and kooks who claim that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were actually a controlled demolition carried out on behalf of some sort of “false flag” operation. In 2006, he added his own version of “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” to their cause. As Ahmed wrote in an article to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the attacks:
“[I]t is agreed by all that the fires never burned hot enough to melt the steel columns. Whether or not the steel was hot enough to buckle, the official account fails to explain the deposits of molten metal found after the collapses. If not the fires, what could have caused the steel to melt?”
Reiterating his own contributing interests in 9/11 Trutherism, Ahmed continued with a stunning assessment of the “jet fuel” claim. “Shocking and absurd conspiraloonery? Not really. That’s the easy way out. The scientific validity of [9/11 conspiracy writer Steve] Jones’ line of inquiry has been supported by several other experts,” upon which he proceeded to name a long list of Truther cranks and crackpots who maintain that the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda were really an inside job. (Ahmed quietly scrubbed this article from his personal blog in late 2020 after it became an embarrassment in light of his more recent attacks on the GBD, but an archived copy remains.)
With no small irony, many of the same scientists who frequently attack skepticism of lockdowns by labeling it a “fringe” and “unscientific” position have not the slightest compunction about taking their own cues on the GBD from an unmistakably fringe source of their own. That source’s ramblings remain equally mired in the same brand of “absurd conspiraloonery” he’s peddled on other topics for decades.
Sadly, several distinguished scientific figures in the epidemiology and public health professions have decided to seize onto and adopt Ahmed and the Byline Times’s paranoid style as their own, now that their star writer has shifted the focus of his attention away from World Trade Center Building 7 and onto anyone who dares to question the efficacy of Covid-19 lockdowns. The immediate result is both comical and horrifying, yet the real damage to epidemiology will play out for years to come. Scientific inquiry has succumbed to a proliferation of quacks in the ivory tower.
This article was published on June 19, 2021 and is reproduced with permission from AIER, American Institute for Economic Research.
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