Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, testifies before a Senate committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters)
The COVID era shows we don’t always know what facts are right. Let’s not suppress reasonable dissents from what happens to be the consensus at any given time.
Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — stating that fully vaccinated people can resume most of their pre-pandemic activities without masks or distancing — took many by surprise. I attended an outdoor event shortly thereafter. The event organizer’s rules called for masks and distancing — but I saw another attendee, empowered by the CDC guidelines, arguing that she didn’t have to wear a mask because she was vaccinated. Perhaps anticipating similar problems with enforcement, states and businesses began to roll back mask mandates.
Some experts and concerned citizens have pushed back against the new guidelines, arguing that the CDC’s shift was premature and risky, particularly considering high levels of vaccine hesitancy and the fact that, in public settings, there’s no reliable way to tell who is or isn’t vaccinated. They have drawn attention to the plight of those with compromised immune systems, who can’t protect themselves with vaccines and rely on others to keep them safe. They have drawn attention to the fact that children are not yet eligible for vaccination.
All in all, there has been a robust and open public discussion about how to move forward now that infection rates are down, vaccines are readily available, and more than 50 percent of the adult population has received at least one shot.
Earlier in the pandemic, another group of experts and concerned citizens disputed the recommendations of public-health authorities such as the CDC. These dissenters — who included experts at top universities — questioned the benefits of population-wide restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. They drew attention to the plight of those suffering mental-health effects from isolation. They drew attention to the fact that business owners, kids from low-income families, and people with substance-use disorders were struggling under the restrictions.
Yet these dissenters faced a much different reception. They were accused of being “anti-science” and spreading “misinformation.” Scientists who questioned the dominant narrative complained about hostility and censure from colleagues. Their motives were questioned. Even legitimate public-health experts faced censorship on social media. Many public voices mocked the weakest arguments of the skeptics (COVID-19 is a hoax) rather than honestly engaging with their strongest (COVID-19 restrictions have real, significant costs).
To take one example, YouTube recently removed a video in which a panel of experts — with relevant knowledge and academic appointments at Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford — expressed the opinion that children should not wear masks in schools. YouTube’s official policy states that its censors remove “content that disputes the efficacy of local health authorities’ or WHO’s guidance on physical distancing or self-isolation measures to reduce transmission of COVID-19.”
Does this mean YouTube will now remove videos in which experts criticize the CDC’s new guidelines? Or do the rules only apply to those advocating a loosening of restrictions, rather than a tightening?
One need not take a stand on the new CDC guidelines, lockdowns, or any other COVID-19 policy to be disturbed by this contrast. Disagreeing with a government agency shouldn’t get someone labeled as “anti-science” or accused of spreading “misinformation.” When the CDC recommends reopening schools, not traveling for Thanksgiving, or dispensing with masks and distancing for vaccinated people, they are implicitly weighing the benefits of these activities against the risks. Reasonable people (and the elected officials who represent them) can disagree on how to value these benefits and risks.
I’m an economist, not a public-health expert. But my experience as a scholar has taught me the value of intellectual diversity. I’m a mainstream economist — someone who is often in agreement with the professional consensus when one exists. However, I would not want YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter to censor economists who hold nonmainstream viewpoints — such as Marxists or Austrians — on the grounds that they are out of line with the profession’s consensus, as expressed by the Federal Reserve or the Council of Economic Advisers. I would not want those who espouse modern monetary theory to be shut down on social media or vilified in the public debate — even if most economists disagree with them, and even if their views have been “debunked” by prominent economists. While most economists hold a positive view of international trade, I would not want those who draw attention to the plight of workers displaced by trade to be disparaged as “anti-science.”
Diverse perspectives and healthy, respectful debate are essential to furthering our knowledge. And no institution — whether a government agency or a large corporation — should act as the arbiter of truth.
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