An Open Letter to Henry I. Miller

by Don Boudreaux on January 11, 2023

in Current Affairs, Myths and Fallacies, Science

January 11, 2023

Dr. Henry I. Miller

Dr. Miller:

Before laying out – in “Stanford University’s Fickle Commitment To Science (Part 1)” – your appropriate criticisms of what you call Stanford’s “long-standing, anti-scientific tendencies,” you yourself succumb to an anti-scientific tendency by taking a potshot at Stanford Medical School Professor Jay Bhattacharya. Your criticisms of Prof. Bhattacharya are based, it seems, on a shoddy reading of one lone source – namely, an interview that he did this past September with the Wall Street Journal’s Gerry Baker.

Consider your complaint that Prof. Bhattacharya described covid vaccines as being “oversold.” If you read the interview to which you link, you’ll discover that the interviewer, in the question in which “oversold” first appears, says this to Prof. Bhattacharya (emphasis added):

It then became clear actually, especially with these different variants of COVID-19, that actually meant those vaccines were not effective protection against contracting the virus. But I think the argument still was that and still is, I think the evidence, and you tell me the evidence is still very strong that they’re effective in protecting against serious disease.

Prof. Bhattacharya agrees that vaccines are effective at reducing the risk of severe consequences of covid; he said about vaccination – again, in the very interview to which you link – that “It does protect against severe disease and death, especially against COVID death.” What was “oversold,” in Prof. Bhattacharya’s estimation, is the vaccines’ ability to prevent transmission. And in this matter Prof. Bhattacharya is correct. Even CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledges that the vaccines cannot prevent transmission.

Now consider your accusation that Prof. Bhattacharya “denied the effectiveness of masks.” Here’s part of his reply to a question that Mr. Baker asked about masking – a reply that certainly sounds reasonable and grounded in science:

If you have trained and you’re fit tested in hospital settings, it can be useful for also short periods of time, few hours. But at a population level with people who are not trained to use them, using inadequate devices, cloth masks, surgical masks with gaps, N95s with gaps and waste N95s, dirty reused masks over and over again. There was no chance of it actually succeeding in slowing spread. And then there was a dozen randomized studies from before the pandemic on the face mask and the flu, which found no evidence that it at a population level does anything. It may have even made things worse because older people went into public wearing a cloth mask thinking they were protected when they weren’t. And they may have taken more risk than they ought to have during the height of the pandemic.

A good deal of evidence supports Prof. Bhattacharya’s position on masking.

Your most egregiously mistaken accusation, however, is that Prof. Bhattacharya – presumably because he co-wrote the Great Barrington Declaration – is, as you describe, “a vocal, irresponsible proponent of ‘let it rip’ pandemic policies.” This charge is nonsense, as you would know if you were to attentively read even just the interview to which you link. (Even better would be for you also to read the Great Barrington Declaration, as well as many of other pieces – scientific and popular – written over the past three years by Prof. Bhattacharya.) The deceptive description of the policy proposed in the GBD as a “let it rip” strategy was fueled by the purposeful – or perhaps recklessly ignorant – mischaracterization of the GBD by Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci.

Prof. Bhattacharya calls not for letting the virus “rip,” but, instead, for Focused Protection. Focusing resources, attention, and care on those persons who are vulnerable while rejecting the utterly unprecedented practice of locking down whole societies is emphatically not a “let it rip” strategy. Prof. Bhattacharya made this fact perfectly clear in, among many other places, a November 2020 essay that he wrote with his GBD co-authors, Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldorff. There they describe Focused Protection as “the middle ground between lockdowns and ‘let it rip’” – implying that they no more support “let it rip” than they support lockdowns.

In the end, your defense of the scientific method against irrational prejudices, politically convenient fads, virtue signaling, and ignorance of the facts is severely weakened by you yourself falling victim to the vices against which you rightly protest.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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