COVID-19 deniers are a new species of science denialists that have arisen since our planet was hit with this pandemic. You know the type – masks are evil, closing restaurants will cause the end of humanity, COVID-19 is a plot by liberals, blah blah blah. They have nothing but conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.
These people really aren’t much different than climate change, vaccine, evolution, and HIV/AIDS deniers who reject science for their own beliefs. The problem with them is that they make it appear that there is some sort of debate when there isn’t. And they’re dangerous to the public health.
But it gets worse. Recently, COVID-19 deniers have signed onto the Great Barrington Declaration, a pretentious sounding “petition” that tries to make it seem like there is a massive number of scientists who dispute some or all of the science about this pandemic.
Those of us who have been fighting the good fight with scientific skepticism have seen this type of thing many times before. Basically, just change the names and the denialism – the Great Barrington Declaration sounds like the same science denialism we’ve all seen before.
Let’s take a look back into history, so take a seat, get some popcorn, and let’s have some fun.
COVID-19 deniers – the Great Barrington Declaration
The name “Great Barrington Declaration” makes me think that a bunch of early Americans were standing on some altar somewhere in Massachusetts yelling about the British taxes on tea. Maybe that’s the imagery that they were trying to invoke, since many of the COVID-19 deniers are also right-wingers, at least in the USA.
So what does this pompous declaration say?
The Great Barrington Declaration – As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.
Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.
Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.
As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.
The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.
Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent PCR testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.
Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.
It appears that they have gotten thousands of signatories, but we’ll get to that later.
Now this all seems reasonable until you scratch the surface, then the COVID-19 denialism rears its ugly head.
Let’s start with the claims of herd immunity. This seems to be the right-wing slogan of the month, yet my guess is that whoever wrote this “declaration,” either hasn’t a clue what herd immunity is, or they’re ignoring it for their own gain.
Essentially, herd immunity is the point at which enough people are immune to a particular infectious disease, by vaccination or infection, that the risk of the disease being transmitted through a community is reduced. It does not mean that there is no risk at a particular level of herd immunity, it’s just that the risk to non-immune people becomes quite low.
Right now, we don’t have a vaccine for COVID-19, and we don’t know if we ever will have one. Thus, we have to rely upon natural infection to cause immunity.
The case fatality rate, or the proportion of deaths from COVID-19 compared to the total number of people diagnosed with it since February 2020, in the USA, is about 2.2-2.7%. That means for every 1000 people who contract COVID-19 about 22-27 will die.
Of course, the number has a lot of variability due to age and other comorbidities. For example, about 95% of coronavirus mortality in the USA is in individuals over the age of 45. And persons of color are at much higher risk from death in the USA from COVID-19.
So, “natural” herd immunity will lead to excess deaths in people over the age of 45 and persons of color. Think about that – it’s a form of genocide that an average person would find offensive if this were being discussed for anything else other than COVID-19.
Furthermore, we don’t know much about the actual immunity to this disease. We don’t know if the immunity wanes which may lead to subsequent infections (and may lower the effectiveness of potential vaccines). We don’t know if the virus will mutate and how frequent it will mutate.
What we don’t know about this virus may be a lot more than what we do know.
Moreover, it’s more complicated than that. The case fatality rate for your average white person under the age of 45 is not zero. It is small, but it is statistically significant.
And there is a large amount of evidence that there are significant long-term effects from the coronavirus. Even if the individual is young and healthy, they could experience issues that have a material impact on their daily lives.
On the surface, this sounds oh-so-reasonable. However, saying that we should aim for “herd immunity” is a common trope of COVID-19 deniers. While there are certainly valid concerns about potential negative effects of lockdowns and business closures on various health and economic measures and how society should balance the positive effects of preventing death from coronavirus infection versus the negative effects of restrictive measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the statement above recommends a dangerous course not advocated by the vast majority of public health officials and infectious disease epidemiologists.
It’s also an egregious example of the appeal to false authority. I don’t care what names are in there, I’d be more impressed if this declaration had a list of peer-reviewed articles published in prestigious journals that say “our only choice is herd immunity.” Then, maybe we would all stand up and salute this. But this declaration is nothing more than a bunch of COVID-19 deniers making claims without merit.
In other words, they’re doing what all other pseudoscience-loving people do – serve up pablum that sounds like legitimate science, but it’s not.
This declaration is not science
I know most of you probably understand that this pompous declaration has no meaning. But outside of the bad science, here are some other reasons to dismiss it.
- Science is not a democracy. I do not care how many people sign this bogus document, but the only thing that should matter to any of us is published scientific evidence. And that published scientific evidence contradicts nearly everything they state. Scientists don’t get together and “vote” on what is good or bad science, develops over time through consensus or collective opinion of scientists. Just because 6500 or 65,000 “scientists” sign off on this document means nothing.
- Science is not a democracy, part 2. There are over 8 million research scientists across the world. So, less than 0.1% of these scientists support COVID-19 denialism. And this ignores the fact that many of the signatories aren’t real scientists, so their relevance to the discussion about the science of this pandemic is nearly at zero.
- The only thing that matters in science is published evidence. Opinions are not relevant.
The only people who are swayed by this type of petition are those who want to believe that there is some valid minority “opinion” about COVID-19 that far outweighs the scientific expertise of literally thousands of public health and infectious disease experts across the world. It really doesn’t work that way.
It’s like when many of us get into intense discussions with anti-vaxxers. They try to say “well, Andrew Wakefield says you all are wrong.” If we are, bring evidence because we have provided boatloads of evidence that Wakefield is wrong. And our evidence is included in hundreds of articles published in respected, high-quality journals.
In addition, we all know that the science on this pandemic is fluid. As more evidence is gathered, scientists fine-tune what we know and don’t know. Most science deniers think that everything is dogmatic – either you have divined the truth or you’re completely wrong. But what we know about COVID-19 today is infinitely more than we knew six months ago, and the Great Barrington Declaration represents no science whatsoever.
And yes, I’ve seen this before
I haven’t written about this in a long time (it’s so far back, I can’t actually find the right article) – I actually used to write a lot about evolution and these petitions – this gambit by the COVID-19 deniers is right out of the evolution denier handbook.
The Discovery Institute, which is a pseudoscientific group who pushes the creationist “intelligent design” nonsense, created (get it?) a petition called “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” As far as I can tell, they have gathered around 1000 signatures, though I don’t think it’s an active thing anymore. And more than that, evolutionary science has evolved (sorry) a lot since Darwin.
Like the haughty COVID-19 declaration, most of the signatories were not actual biologists who would be the leading experts in the study of evolution. And those that were made up less than 0.01% of actual biologists in the USA.
Moreover, the evidence supporting the scientific fact of evolution is overwhelming. There are over 1,000,000 articles, books, and other media that support evolution, literally a mountain of data.
Science is always provisional – if we get better evidence, then scientists can improve upon our theory of evolution. But because of that mountain of evidence, to contradict evolution would require another mountain of evidence. To be completely honest, there is not even a small anthill of evidence that refutes evolution.
So, 700 signatories on this petition mean nothing to me but a time to laugh hysterically at the ridiculousness of it.
There are a whole bunch of other science denialism declarations and petitions:
- The Physicians and Surgeons who Dissent from Darwinism group also pushed by the aforementioned Discovery Institute. Do they not understand that just about everything in medicine relies upon evolution (not Darwinism) from mutations to drug resistance to genetics. I would consider a physician who rejected evolution to be no different than a physician who accepted homeopathy.
- The “letter to the UN” which claims that 500 scientists say that there is no concern about climate change. Of course, the letter was penned by a group called “Friends of Science” which was essentially a front organization for Canadian oil interests. I guess they’re pretty bad friends of science.
- The “Oregon Petition,” another climate change denier petition includes over 7000 PhDs. But when you dig into that 7000, you find most are not climate scientists but engineers and others in unrelated fields. Once again, they make up a tiny minority of actual climate scientists.
I could go on and on, especially since there appears to be a bunch of climate change denialist declarations and petitions. They’re all the same, inflating their value by using logical fallacies, and denigrating real science which is based on published evidence.
And then there’s Project Steve
Of course, most scientists have a wicked sense of humor. OK, maybe not that good.
In 2003, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) started the tongue-in-cheek Project Steve (named for Stephen Jay Gould), treating the creationist propaganda lists with all of the respect it deserved, which is nothing. Project Steve was simply a list of Steve’s (including Stephanie, Stephan, Steven, Estaban, and other derivations of Steve) with Ph.D.s who supported the theory and fact of evolution.
These signatories agreed to the statement that:
Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.
As of July 2020, Project Steve has gathered 1,457 signatures of Steves, Stephanies, etc. with PhDs who support the science of evolution. What does this mean? Absolutely nothing and that is precisely the point.
Even if these 1400 or so Steve PhDs are the greatest scientists on earth, it should not matter. The fact that they are all Steve PhDs AND support the science of evolution because of the evidence is much more impressive.
The meh COVID-19 deniers declaration
I just don’t care what these COVID-19 deniers have to say about the disease. At best, they’re misguided political hacks trying to push the right-wing agenda. At worst, they want massive genocide because they don’t care.
But whatever their motives may be, the consequences of it could be dangerous. This declaration is going to be used by every other COVID-19 denier to claim “science backs me up.” Well, they don’t represent science, and they don’t have evidence to support their claims.
I hope that this declaration is ridiculed across the internet so that it will be ignored like all of the other worthless petitions and declarations by the pseudoscience crowd. And I hope Project Steve evolves (I can’t help myself) into a new one supporting COVID-19 science.