Even as COVID-19 infection rates are rising, there are people out there lobbying for decreased diligence. Open all the businesses! Party on! If everyone gets the disease, we’ll acquire herd immunity! That latter is from people who previously pooh-poohed the concept in order to defend anti-vaxxers, who now don’t give a damn if a few million people die in order to reach the unreachable goal. Worst of all, the right-wing think tanks are backing the nonsense. A small group of conservative shills have formulated something they call the Barrington Declaration.
The declaration, which calls for an immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone except the “vulnerable”, is written by three science professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, giving it the sheen of academic respectability. But there is much to set alarm bells ringing. It makes claims about herd immunity – the idea that letting the virus rip among less vulnerable groups will allow a degree of population-level immunity to build up which will eventually protect the more vulnerable – that are unsupported by existing scientific evidence. The professors do not define who is “vulnerable”, nor do they set out a workable plan for shielding them. The declaration sets itself up against a straw proposal that nobody is arguing for – a full-scale national lockdown until a vaccine is made available. There is no acknowledgement of the massive scientific uncertainty that exists with a new disease.
It’s coming out of an organization called the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which, as you might guess from the name, is not a medical or scientific institution, but one focused on making money for its sponsors or throwing out noise to prevent sensible initiatives that might save lives, but reduce profits. It’s fake.
The statement claims to have been signed by more than 6,000 medical scientists, but anyone can sign up claiming to be one (there are a number of fake medical signatories on the list, including a Dr Harold Shipman). When Sky News pressed one of the co-authors on this, he said: “We do not have the resources to audit each signature.” Consider what this approach would mean for scientific endeavour were it applied more broadly. And what are scientists doing fronting a campaign whose back office is run by a thinktank that flirts with climate change denial?
(The Shipman name is fake, I hope, since Dr Harold Shipman was a serial killer who committed suicide.)
This phony declaration business is a familiar tactic used by cranks, quacks, and profiteers, and I’ve run into it many times. There are a lot of gullible people who fall for it, though — false authority is a useful tool to sway the suckers, I guess. But today I first learned that there is a handy, succinct name for it from David Gorski.
I’ll discuss why that’s the case in a moment, but first I’d like to take a trip down memory lane to revisit various examples of science denialists using similar “declarations,” “petitions,” and “open letters” to give the false appearance of strong scientific support for their positions. Why? Because declarations like this, although they can be used for good (such as when US climate scientists recently signed an open letter to Congress reaffirming the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change and the overall warming of the climate), more frequently such letters are propaganda for pseudoscience. Indeed, such “declarations,” “open letters,” and “petitions” signed by physicians and scientists represent a technique that goes back at least to the tobacco companies lining up lists of doctors to testify to the safety of cigarettes. (One particularly ludicrous example from R.J. Reynolds in the 1940s claimed that 113,597 doctors preferred their cigarettes.) The idea was (and is) to give the false impression of a scientific controversy where none exists and to appeal to the authority of scientists and doctors to support their claims. It’s a technique that John Cook has referred to as the “magnified minority”:
Magnified minority is a denial technique amplifying the contrarians' significance to convey the impression of expert disagreement. The Global Warming Petition Project uses this technique: it amounts to less than 1% of U.S. science graduates (full video at https://t.co/RztsTyiyG9) pic.twitter.com/e9jHZH4qmg
— John Cook (@johnfocook) October 8, 2020
Nice, “magnified minority”. I’ll remember that.
As usual, Gorski is thorough in describing past “magnified minority” operations, and documents the phony signatures on this one, as well as the absurdity of their proposal and AIER’s shady history as a climate change denialist outfit funded by the Koch brothers. Really, why anyone listens to anything by them is beyond me at this point: “funded by the Koch brothers” ought to be the kiss of death for any organization.