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    State Power Does Not Settle Science


    By Barry Brownstein

    In his book Sway, Ori Brafman tells a story of sitting in an MBA class taught by Professor Roberto Fernandez. Fernandez showed the class a film of a 1950s open heart surgery to make a point about how people ignore information. The film showed the surgeon pouring a white powder over the patient’s heart; the powder was asbestos. “Unsurprisingly, the patients administered the asbestos started dying off,” but the hospital continued with its surgical protocol.

    In the 1950s, vested interests resisted the bad news about asbestos. Yet, no one had the power to stop discovery by proclaiming “the science is settled.” No one claimed airing opposing views would kill people. So scientific discovery continued, and relatively safe open-heart surgery developed in a reasonably short time.  Importantly, for people wanting an alternative to surgery, doctors such as Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn were free to develop radical dietary protocols as effective lifestyle alternatives.

    Imagine an alternative history of medical science in which those who openly opposed the use of asbestos were subjected to penalties. Medical research would have been misdirected and hindered, progress would have been difficult, and hospitals might still be poisoning their patients.

    Today, California is on the verge of enshrining bad medicine and blocking scientific progress. The California Assembly has passed AB 2098, which “would designate the dissemination or promotion of misinformation or disinformation [by physicians and surgeons] related to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, or ‘COVID-19,’ as unprofessional conduct,” subjecting doctors to disciplinary action, including the loss of license. The bill defines misinformation as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus.”

    The bill doesn’t explain how “contemporary scientific consensus” will be achieved; the bill does point to the determination by the FDA and CDC of the “safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.”

    Currently, the FDA is ignoring doctors who oppose COVID vaccines for children. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) claims, “If your child is 6 months or older, you can now help protect them from severe COVID illness by getting them a COVID vaccine.” Dr. Vinay Prasad, famous for his work in evidence-based medicine, says in response: “Just a lie. There are no randomized data, nor even a single observational study that has shown a reduction in severe disease in this age group. 6mo-4yo.” Many are unaware of mounting criticism of the FDA for its unscientific approval of the COVID vaccine for children.

    The claim that a state-proclaimed consensus settles science has resulted in many losing their jobs. In 2021, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty was fired from the University of California, Irvine. Kheriaty was a professor at their School of Medicine and director of their Medical Ethics Program. He was fired for being unvaccinated and for believing natural immunity was superior to the COVID vaccine.

    Dr. Kheriaty delivered his testimony against the California bill that would ban the expression of opposing opinions: “Advances in science and medicine typically occur when doctors and scientists challenge conventional thinking or settled opinion. Fixating any current medical consensus as ‘unassailable’ by physicians will stifle medical and scientific progress.”

    Kheriaty explained how repressing alternative views creates a false consensus driven by politics and crony interests. Government cures drive out real cures.

    He added, “Good science is characterized by conjecture and refutation, lively deliberation, often fierce debate, and always openness to new data.” This is why, for example, surgeons no longer use asbestos during open-heart surgery.

    When bad medicine is not backed by state power, its destructive force is limited. The worst scientists in the world can advance their ideas and yet cause little harm if others are free to reject those ideas and experiment with other pathways. As Kheriaty and others such as Karl Popper pointed out, errors are corrected by “conjecture and refutation.” Human beings can be vicious in defending their position, and when the vicious and incompetent deploy the power of government, errors are compounded with deadly consequences.

    History is clear about the terrible consequences when state power decides science; millions of lives have been lost. Sam Kean reports on deadly science under Stalin. The science of genetics was dismissed as contrary to Marxist doctrine; Stalin preferred the theories of Trofim Lysenko.

    Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet-era “biologist,” a crackpot, and one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Kean relates, “Lysenko promoted the Marxist idea that the environment alone shapes plants and animals. Put them in the proper setting and expose them to the right stimuli, he declared, and you can remake them to an almost infinite degree.” Lysenko was sure he could grow orange trees in Siberia.

    Kean describes Lysenko’s method: “Lysenko began to ‘educate’ Soviet crops to sprout at different times of the year by soaking them in freezing water, among other practices. He then claimed that future generations of crops would remember these environmental cues and, even without being treated themselves, would inherit the beneficial traits.”

    Sounds insane? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, Vol 1, gives an example of Lysenko at work:

    In 1934 Pskov agronomists sowed flax on the snow—exactly as Lysenko had ordered. The seeds swelled up, grew moldy, and died. The big fields lay empty for a year. Lysenko could not say that the snow was a kulak or that he himself was an ass. He accused the agronomists of being kulaks and of distorting his technology. And the agronomists went off to Siberia.

    If Lysenko had been born in America, few people would have even heard his insane theories. But Lysenko had the power of Stalin behind him. Stalin was looking for an answer to famines caused by his collectivization policies. Kean writes:

    In the late 1920s and early 1930s Joseph Stalin—with Lysenko’s backing—had instituted a catastrophic scheme to “modernize” Soviet agriculture, forcing millions of people to join collective, state-run farms. Widespread crop failure and famine resulted. Stalin refused to change course, however, and ordered Lysenko to remedy the disaster with methods based on his radical new ideas. Lysenko forced farmers to plant seeds very close together, for instance, since according to his “law of the life of species,” plants from the same “class” never compete with one another. He also forbade all use of fertilizers and pesticides.

    In the novel Everything Flows, the great Soviet-era novelist Vasily Grossman sarcastically refers to Lysenko as “the famous agronomist” who resorted to “police methods.” Kean explains the consequences of these police methods:

    Unable to silence Western critics, Lysenko still tried to eliminate all dissent within the Soviet Union. Scientists who refused to renounce genetics found themselves at the mercy of the secret police. The lucky ones simply got dismissed from their posts and were left destitute. Hundreds if not thousands of others were rounded up and dumped into prisons or psychiatric hospitals. Several got sentenced to death as enemies of the state or, fittingly, starved in their jail cells (most notably the botanist Nikolai Vavilov). Before the 1930s, the Soviet Union had arguably the best genetics community in the world. Lysenko gutted it, and by some accounts set Russian biology back a half-century.

    You would be wrong if you think sanity was restored quickly after Stalin died. In her biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, Alexandra Popoff writes, “In fact, many of the opportunists and denouncers who drove talented people out of the sciences and other spheres of life maintained their key position in the post-Stalinist era.”

    You will miss the point if you think the horrors of Lysenkoism are merely due to the wrong people being in power. The horrors of science dictated by central planners are not, as Friedrich Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom, “mere accidental by-products which have nothing to do with the essential character of a planned or totalitarian system.”

    Better people in charge won’t prevent the worst. Hayek explains, “Once science has to serve, not truth, but the interests of a class, a community, or a state, the sole task of argument and discussion is to vindicate and to spread still further the beliefs by which the whole life of the community is directed.”

    Dr. Prasad asks, “Why has this administration made so many [public health] errors?” Prasad says the “answer is simple. They have chosen to surround themselves with bad experts. People who subscribe to groupthink, and political tribalism.”

    Fauci and Lysenko are similar in mindset. Both demonstrated intolerance to challenges to their ideas and eagerly deployed government coercion. The significant difference between these two is that Fauci operates in a system with more checks on his power.

    Intellectual intolerance of challenging ideas is not a recent phenomenon. The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944, and already intellectuals espousing collectivist ideas were enabling the burning of ideas in “free” societies:

    Perhaps the most alarming fact is that contempt for intellectual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith and who are acclaimed as intellectual leaders even in countries still under a liberal regime. Not only is even the worst oppression condoned if it is committed in the name of socialism, and the creation of a totalitarian system openly advocated by people who pretend to speak for the scientists of liberal countries; intolerance, too, is openly extolled.

    “Truth,” Hayek explains, is redefined by the intolerant. No longer “something to be found,” truth “becomes something to be laid down by authority, something which has to be believed in the interest of the unity of the organized effort and which may have to be altered as the exigencies of this organized effort require it.”

    “Complete cynicism” crowds out “the spirit of independent inquiry and of the belief in the power of rational conviction.” Abandoned is the principle that “individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief.”

    Like Lysenkoism, Faucism, CDC science, FDA science, and HHS science display the characteristics of totalitarianism that Hayek warns of. The odds are vanishingly small that any of today’s totalitarian “scientists” or those supporting AB 2098 have ever read The Road to Serfdom, but Hayek anticipated their playbook (numbers added):

    1. “The whole apparatus for spreading knowledge— the schools and the press, radio and motion picture—will be used exclusively to spread those views which, whether true or false, will strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the authority; and all information that might cause doubt or hesitation will be withheld.
    2. The probable effect on the people’s loyalty to the system becomes the only criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of information is to be published or suppressed.
    3. Everything which might cause doubt about the wisdom of the government or create discontent will be kept from the people.
    4. The basis of unfavorable comparisons with conditions elsewhere, the knowledge of possible alternatives to the course actually taken, information which might suggest failure on the part of the government to live up to its promises or to take advantage of opportunities to improve conditions—all will be suppressed.”

    During the pandemic, the United States has been going further down the road to serfdom. Here is the question that should haunt us all: Why are there so few doctors like Kheriaty and Prasad?  

    Recently, Johns Hopkins medical professor Marty Makary and Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg reported on  “relentless” calls they receive from “doctors and scientists at the top levels of the NIH, FDA and CDC.” These professionals “are variously frustrated, exasperated and alarmed about the direction of the agencies to which they have devoted their careers.”

    One senior FDA official said, “It’s like a horror movie I’m being forced to watch and I can’t close my eyes. People are getting bad advice and we can’t say anything.”

    The official was referring to the authorization, without clinical evidence, of “Covid vaccines for infants and toddlers” and “booster shots for young children.”

    No official would go on record, yet they are haunted by the impact of political decisions on vaccines, school closures, and masks, especially on children.

    One official put it his way: “I can’t tell you how many people at the FDA have told me, ‘I don’t like any of this, but I just need to make it to my retirement.’”

    When you are tempted to sit in judgment of the decisions made by others who acquiesce to totalitarian forces, consider this universal story told by David Whyte in his book The Heart Aroused:

    A man I know finds himself in a meeting room at the very edge of speech; he is approaching his moment of reckoning, he is looking for support from his fellow executives around the table … the CEO is pacing up and down on the slate gray carpet. He has asked, in no uncertain terms, for their opinion of the plan he wants to put through. “I want to know what you all think about this,” he demands, “on a scale of one to ten.”

    Whyte explains the CEO is testy and has made it plain by his behavior that he wants to hear “ten.” Whyte’s friend thinks the plan is terrible and has heard that other executives in the room think so too. As the CEO goes around the room, Whyte’s friend hears his fellow executives say “ten.” When it is his turn, “against everything he believes, (Whyte’s friend) hears a mouselike, faraway voice, his own, saying ‘ten’.”

    Solzhenitsyn observed, “Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.” The courage to say “one” is cultivated through sustained practice. There are consequences, to yourself and others, of saying “ten.”

    California, once again, is showing the way toward a dystopian medical-political dictatorship that will cost lives, block medical progress, and erode freedom.

    The courageous voice that Drs. Kheriaty, Prasad, Makary, Høeg, and many others express exists in every human being. That voice lies dormant until we value the voice. The tyrants in our midst are counting on human weakness to follow the voice that says “ten” until retirement. To say “ten” is to co-create an American dystopia. The retirement some are dreaming of will not be what they are expecting.

    Barry Brownstein

    Barry Brownstein

    Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

    He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.



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