About a year ago, three scientists wrote and issued the Great Barrington Declaration. When I wrote about it at the time, I characterized the Declaration as “magnified minority” and eugenics, the former because it followed a common crank playbook of issuing a declaration about a fringe science position and getting lots of doctors and scientists, the vast majority of whom have no expertise in the area, to sign it, and the latter for reasons I will describe. Named after the town in Massachusetts where the right wing “free market” think tank, the American Institute for Economic Research is located, the Great Barrington Declaration proposed, in essence, letting COVID-19 rip through the “healthy” younger population in order to build up “natural herd immunity,” all while using “focused protection” to protect those at high risk for severe disease and death from coronavirus, such as the elderly and those with chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Tellingly, what “focused protection” would actually mean in practice and how it would protect the vulnerable were never really described in sufficient detail to determine if this was a viable strategy. (Hint: It wasn’t, and, despite more recent claims by Great Barrington signatories, still doesn’t.) Basically, when I first encountered the Great Barrington Declaration, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the whole thing had a “Screw the elderly and sick!” vibe to it that reeked of eugenics. Amusingly, when criticized, AIER portrayed itself and the advocates of the Great Barrington Declaration as the “new abolitionists,” parroting a common antimask and antivaccine theme that likens public health interventions against COVID-19 to “slavery.”
Unfortunately, the Great Barrington Declaration was also widely influential. Indeed, Gavin Yamey and a certain author regular readers here know well wrote a commentary for The BMJ entitled COVID-19 and the new merchants of doubt, in which it was described just how influential. Great Barrington Declaration signatories Martin Kulldorff of Harvard Medical School, Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University have been hugely influential. For instance, Gupta’s arguments found favor in UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, while Great Barrington Declaration-like arguments also were eagerly embraced by the Trump Administration and in Florida.
For example, in March 2021 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hosted a video roundtable with Atlas, Gupta, Kulldorff, and Bhattacharya, where they expressed opposition to masks, testing and tracing, physical distancing, and mass vaccination. YouTube removed the video “because it included content that contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities regarding the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” GBD authors, predictably, cried, “Censorship!” Bhattacharya continues to advise Governor DeSantis on Florida’s covid-19 policies, including providing legal testimony in support of DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates in public schools.
More recently, Gov. DeSantis appointed Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a member of the group of quacks known as America’s Frontline Doctors and a signatory of the Great Barrington Declaration (not to mention an enthusiastic acolyte of it) as Florida’s Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health.
To be honest, I’ve been rather surprised at how little pushback there has been to that BMJ article, at least initially after its publication. For some reason, it took a month for the gears behind the apparatus behind the AIER and the Great Barrington Declaration to start turning to produce pushback, but push back they did, beginning with an article by Martin Kulldorff, soon amplified by his co-signatory Jay Bhattacharya and other Declaration-friendly sources:
Besides his use of the term “laptop class” to characterize those of us who have been pushing back against COVID-19 contrarianism and misinformation, I was rather amused by the claim of “slander” by Dr. Bhattacharya (even aside from the point that slander is verbal defamation and he should have used the term “libel”). The BMJ, after all, is published in the UK, which has some of the more plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the developed world. The article went through around four months of fact-checking, tweaking, and revision by The BMJ‘s lawyers, for that very reason. (UK laws require the defendant to prove that allegedly defamatory statements in an article are factual rather than the plaintiff to prove that they are false.) That’s just an aside, though.
If you want to get an idea where Kulldorff is coming from, you really should read his last paragraph first, though, particularly this passage:
That such an article was published exemplifies the decay in standards of scientific journals. Open and honest discourse is critical for science and public health. As scientists, we must now tragically acknowledge that 400 years of scientific enlightenment may be coming to an end. It started with Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and René Descartes. It would be tragic if it would end up as one of the many casualties of this pandemic.
“Brave maverick scientists” sure do love their persecution narrative, don’t they? Kulldorff is invoking what I like to call the “Galileo gambit,” a technique much loved by promoters of fringe science in which they compare themselves to Galileo and his persecution for advocating heliocentrism at a time when it was widely believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The Galileo gambit was one of the earliest topics that I ever wrote about, and whenever I see it I like to respond with Carl Sagan’s famous retort:
But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
I do realize that the reference to Columbus is rather dated, which is why I sometimes quote Michael Shermer’s variant of this retort:
They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.
Or, as Gavin Yamey put it:
Indeed. The brave maverick appeal to Galileo and other “vindicated” scientists in history is the cherry on top of the crank sundae. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that likening yourself to Galileo rarely turns out well and is a very reliable indicator of a crank. Or, as Shermer also put it:
For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists.
Or, as I once put it 16 years ago:
For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted—and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct!
Really, I’m surprised that Kulldorff didn’t quote Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous (and wrong) adage, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Besides being risibly wrong (a crank’s “truth” never gets to the third stage because it’s not “truth”), Schopenhauer’s saying is a favorite of cranks everywhere. I’ll give Kulldorff credit for having restrained himself. Most cranks can’t, even though Schopenhauer almost certainly never actually wrote or said it.
It’s obvious that Kulldorff and his fellow signatories view themselves as “brave maverick” scientists, misunderstood and persecuted by the scientific establishment and that all hold onto the favorite delusion of such people that I like to call the fallacy of future vindication, or, what I like to call, “I’ll show you! or “I told you so!” Sadly, for most “brave mavericks,” that future vindication never comes. (See my response to Schopenhauer, above.)
Kulldorff’s article is a veritable Gish gallop, so much so that I would rather concentrate first on more of a “bird’s eye” view of what’s going on first and then perhaps address a couple of his key claims. The key question that needs to be addressed is this: Why are Kulldorff and his fellow Great Barrington Declaration signatories so anxious to distance themselves from the AIER, and vice-versa?
For example, Kulldorff writes:
The BMJ article mentions ‘AIER contributor Scott Atlas’, but Dr. Atlas has never been affiliated with nor written for AIER.
To which I can only respond: ORLY? Well, I can also point to this article by Atlas on the AIER website entitled Will the Truth on COVID Restrictions Really Prevail? Sure, it’s a reprint, but Atlas is frequently mentioned quite favorably by AIER. One wonders why Kulldorff is so anxious to disavow any connection whatsoever with Atlas, one does.
But let’s move on to more Kulldorff blather:
The GBD was not ‘sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) – and I’m pleased to see that the BMJ has at least retracted this claim. We were there for media interviews, with no sponsorship. How did such a blunder end up in print in the first place?…If we had written the Declaration at say, Starbucks, would the BMJ have claimed that it was sponsored by the coffee shop?
This excuse is disingenuous in the extreme. Does Kulldorff really think his audience is so stupid as to think that his presence, along with that of his co-signatories, at the AIER headquarters in Great Barrington, MA, where, as I will show, they had been invited to travel for a long weekend conference, and where they just happened to get together to write a declaration that they named after the very town where they drafted it is the same thing as their having happened to write the declaration at a random Starbucks? (Maybe he does. He published his article in The Spectator, after all.) As you will see, the AIER enticed Kulldorff with a weekend of fine food and hanging out with like-minded individuals to get him to recruit the other two members of the trio of Great Barrington Declaration signatories.
First, though, let’s look at what AIER itself said:
From October 1-4, 2020, the American Institute for Economic Research hosted a remarkable meeting of top epidemiologists, economists, and journalists, to discuss the global emergency created by the unprecedented use of state compulsion in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The result is The Great Barrington Declaration, which urges a “Focused Protection” strategy.
Sure, they were there just for “media interviews.” From the AIER description, it sure sounds as though it was more than just that. One might speculate that the Great Barrington Declaration was a hoped-for outcome of the meeting..
But let’s consider something else. Kulldorff and his fellow “focused protection” mavens were at AIER’s headquarters for this conference for four days. Did AIER pay anything for Kulldorff’s travel and lodging? Meals? Anything at all? Perhaps he will answer this. (A simple yes or no will do.) In general, for conferences like this, if you are featured as prominently as Kulldorff and his fellow signatories were featured, the organization sponsoring the conference will almost always pay at least your travel and lodging expenses, if not an honorarium as well. Perhaps Kulldorff, Bhattacharya, and Gupta, out of the generosity of their hearts, decided to forgo any honorarium, paid their own travel and lodging expenses, and did everything for AIER for free. If that’s true then they’d definitely a highly unusual exception. I might even consider them useful idiots for the AIER.
In addition, I wouldn’t exactly say that The BMJ “retracted,” but rather clarified the article. There is no doubt that, even if the Great Barrington Declaration signatories didn’t receive grants, direct payments, or even travel and lodging expenses from AIER, they definitely received support of considerable other value from the think tank in the form of the “coming out” press conference that the AIER held for them to announce the Declaration and access to the press and high-ranking government officials in the UK and the US. Before the Great Barrington Declaration, they were mostly unknown outside of their professional circles. After that conference, they were well on their way to becoming superstars of the anti-lockdown, antimask movement and were able to promote their ideas at the highest levels of government and for major publications like Newsweek.
In any event, The BMJ article in its current form now reads:
This is not the first time billionaires aligned with industry have provided support to proponents of “herd immunity.” Gupta, along with Harvard University’s Martin Kulldorff and Stanford University’s Jay Bhattacharya, wrote the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), which, in essence, argues that covid-19 should be allowed to spread unchecked through the young and healthy, while keeping those at high risk safe through “focused protection,” which is never clearly defined. This declaration arose out of a conference hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), and has been heavily promoted by the AIER, a libertarian, climate-denialist, free market think tank that receives “a large bulk of its funding from its own investment activities, not least in fossil fuels, energy utilities, tobacco, technology and consumer goods.” The AIER’s American Investment Services Inc. runs a private fund that is valued at $284,492,000, with holdings in a wide range of fossil fuel companies (e.g. Chevron, ExxonMobil) and in the tobacco giant Philip Morris International. The AIER has also received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, which was founded and is chaired by the right-wing billionaire industrialist known for promoting climate change denial and opposing regulations on business. Koch linked organisations have also opposed public health measures to curb the spread of covid-19.
I get it. Kulldorff, Bhattacharya, and Gupta don’t want to be seen as in the thrall of AIER, and AIER in particular doesn’t want to be seen as paying for scientists to provide them with a statement that it can use to promote its political agenda. That’s too obvious. And none of them wants to be perceived as having anything to do with the Koch brothers, which led Kulldorff to write:
The BMJ attempt to link us to the Koch brothers is an ad hominem attack of the highest order, but failed to mention much closer connections. We all work for universities that have received donations from Koch Foundations, although unrelated to any of our own work. While the AIER has received only a single $68K (£50,000) Koch donation a few years ago, many universities have received multiple, much larger Koch donations, including million dollar gifts to Duke,Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford. Since university staff frequently publish in the BMJ, the journal is arguably more closely connected to a ‘network of organisations funded by Charles Koch’ than the AIER.
Saying that other universities receive funding from Koch-associated organizations is not exactly the slam-dunk defense that Kulldorff thinks it is. It’s more of an indictment of universities than a defense of AIER or the Great Barrington Declaration or anything else. Also, a lot of the funding that AIER doesn’t come directly from the Koch Foundation, as was pointed out elsewhere:
However, at some point in early 2017 no later than February, Benjamin Powell joined AIER’s board of directors. Powell was one of several new key staff who joined AIER around that period, with many having ties to the Koch-funded George Mason University (GMU) among other Koch-funded or affiliated groups. 
Powell, a GMU economics graduate (PhD), is a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Independent Institute and former president of the Association of Private Enterprise Education that itself received at least $330,500 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation according to DeSmog’s review of public 990 tax forms. 
As shown in comprehensive books including Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains,George Mason University’s (GMU) Economics Department, and the Mercatus Center at and Institute for Humane Studies at GMU have long been key groups for recruiting, training and connecting people for Koch-funded universities and think tanks in the Koch Network. , 
As I emphasize for the case of AIER and the support it gave the Great Barrington Declaration, not all support is financial, and there’s a lot of important support in terms of personnel and training that filters out from Koch-affiliated organizations to groups like AIER that allows such groups to claim plausible deniability or to discount the amount of Koch-related support as relatively inconsequential by pointing to how seemingly small any direct contributions are.
Then Kulldorff really stretches credulity with this claim:
The AIER staff did not even know about the Declaration until the day before it was signed, and the AIER president and board did not know about it until after publication.
Unfortunately for Kulldorff, Jeffrey Tucker, “founder of the Brownstone Institute and an independent editorial consultant who served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research,” was, as the famous song from Hamilton goes, in the “room where it happened,” as he states at around 5:15 in this episode of the official podcast of the John Locke Foundation posted only a week after the confab at the AIER headquarters that led to the Great Barrington Declaration:
Let’s transcribe what Tucker said about the Great Barrington Declaration soon after it had been issued and his role in its drafting:
I was there while it [the Great Barrington Declaration] was being drafted. I was very moved. I made a couple of suggestions here and there.
Remember, Tucker is the editorial director of AIER. He’s in charge of its entire messaging apparatus. Earlier in the video, he also characterized the process of writing the Great Barrington Declaration this way:
Scientists—most scientists—are not political people. They’re in science and epidemiology and public health because they want to help people and minimize the social damage of infectious diseases and pathogens. They’re scientific people, not political people. Unfortunately, because of lockdowns, suddenly infectious disease became highly political. It never should have happened, but it happened, and they found themselves in awkward positions.
So after months and months some of them began to speak out. I noticed in particular Martin Kulldorff, and then also I noticed Sunetra Gupta, who’s a godlike figure in epidemiology, and also Jay Bhattacharya, who’s similarly a highly credentialed MD/PhD at Stanford. Sunetra is over at Oxford and Kulldorff is at Harvard. I noticed that they started to speak out a little bit. I began to feel bad for Martin because I thought that it must be a lonely life over at Harvard being against lockdowns, and he was taking a risk to his career speaking out this way. I quickly dropped him a Twitter notice, “We’ve got a nice place, why don’t you come and visit here?” We’re a few hours away. We’ll feed you well and relax a bit, and he wrote me back, “OK.”
So when I realized that Kulldorff was coming, I dropped a note to an attorney in New Jersey, Stacey Rudin, and then another one in New York who had become anti-lockdown…and said, “Listen, Martin Kulldorff is coming. Why don’t you join?” So they all came here. We had no agenda whatsoever. We went out to the cider mills, enjoyed each other’s company, got to know each other, because he had lost all of his old friends, you know….So we just had a really lovely weekend.
We’ve met Stacey Rudin before. Besides having written a number of articles for AIER, she’s the one who likened lockdowns to “slavery” and the AIER and other anti-lockdown activists as being like “abolitionists.” After Kulldorff went back home to Boston, having hung out with Tucker, Rudin, and other AIER luminaries, he emailed Tucker, as Tucker describes:
Well, within about ten days, he wrote me back and said: I have an idea. Let’s bring some high end journalists from around the country. We can meet at your place, and then I’ll get Jay Bhattacharya flown in from Stanford and then I’ll get Sunetra Gupta from Oxford. Well, I was nonplussed, thinking, “That sounds…interesting. When do you propose to do this, because we can’t do it until the 31st of October?”
He said, “No, we’re going to do it this weekend.” He said, “We can’t wait until the 31st, the crisis is too bad.”
So the next thing you know, we had all these people here, and we scrambled to get the recordings right. We didn’t have a big agenda, but we held a question-answer session. We taped a few interviews and that sort of. thing, and they wrote the declaration and released it. We built and released the website in 18 hours (something like that), and it was all kind of crazy and wonderful.
That explains this observation:
Interestingly, the Brownstone Institute describes its mission on its own website thusly:
The mission of the Brownstone Institute – which is, in many ways, the spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration – is constructively to come to terms with what happened, understand why, discover and explain alternative paths, and prevent such events from happening again. Lockdowns have set a precedent in the modern world and without accountability, social and economic institutions will be shattered once again. Brownstone Institute is essential in preventing the recurrence of lockdowns by holding decision makers intellectually to account. In addition, the Brownstone Institute hopes to shed light on a path to recovery from the devastating collateral damage, while providing a vision for a different way to think about freedom, security, and public life.
The “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration”? Interesting. Similarly, look at the list of “senior scholars,” which includes—surprise! surprise!—two of the three main signatories of the Declaration, Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff.
So let me get Kulldorff’s defense straight. He and his cosignatories of the Great Barrington Declaration, Jay Bhattacharya and Sunetra Gupta, traveled to AIER headquarters in Great Barrington “with no agenda,” but somehow over the course of a long weekend managed to write a declaration (with the help of at least one prominent AIER leader—the editorial director of the organization, no less!), tape a bunch of anti-lockdown interviews, and get a website up and running within 18 hours with technical help provided by AIER. That sounds like some pretty high level collaboration between AIER and the Great Barrington Declaration signatories to me!
Let me remind you what Jeffrey Tucker’s job is at AIER, as described by AIER President Edward Stringham:
Jeffrey will join me and colleagues to expand the influence of AIER, an illustrious institution founded in 1933 by MIT professor E.C. Harwood (1900–1980). AIER became the first market-oriented research institution in the world, inspiring the creation of many more and giving the liberal movement the boost it needed. An early contributor to what is now referred to as the Austrian theory of the business cycle, Harwood warned about the coming stock market crash that came in 1929, and the ill-effects of monetary expansion and devaluation on human wellbeing. He was friends with Henry Hazlitt and F.A. Hayek and his work helped shape the free-market thinking in the United States.
With the hiring of Jeffrey, I feel confident that AIER will take that necessary next steps in expanding our impact to help promoting economic knowledge in America and beyond. Thanks to his joining our team, we are honored and very excited for the future.
There’s no doubt that, through his role in facilitating and publicizing the Great Barrington declaration, Tucker succeeded beyond Stringham’s wildest expectations in expanding the impact of the AIER and its influence among governments with similar political alignments.
So the story that I perceive coming into focus is that Kulldorff, at least, was an enthusiastic participant, if not the instigator of the Great Barrington Declaration. If Tucker’s account is to be believed, AIER reached out to Kulldorff and invited him for a weekend at AIER to be wined and dined while hanging out with like-minded anti-lockdown cranks. Kulldorff, apparently thinking that he’d finally found his people, signed on enthusiastically to the AIER mission and then brought on board Bhattacharya and Gupta to help him and the AIER promote its anti-lockdown message.
I’ll conclude with one last observation. The Great Barrington Declaration was published, as I’ve pointed out, a couple of months before there were any COVID-19 vaccines available. After the vaccines did become available, you’d think that the Declaration signatories would have eagerly embraced them as part of “focused protection,” mainly because vaccinating the most vulnerable is one of the only focused protection strategies that had a chance of working well. You’d have been wrong.
Let’s see what Kulldorff wrote about vaccines when striking back against The BMJ:
It says we have ‘expressed opposition to mass vaccination’. Dr. Gupta and I have spent decades on vaccine research and we are all strong advocates for Covid and other vaccines. They are among the greatest inventions in history. To falsely credit the anti-vaccine movement with support from professors at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford is damaging for vaccine confidence. This is unworthy of a medical journal.
Gavin Yamey has the receipts to show that Kulldorff’s claim is BS. I realize that some don’t like republished Twitter threads in blog posts; so I’ve been trying to do less of it. In this case, though, I think it’s appropriate:
As a reminder:
Last month, I myself provided a few receipts myself for the antivaccine talking points now being pushed by Great Barrington Declaration signatories:
One notes that achieving herd immunity without mass illness and death is exactly the goal of a mass vaccination program.
Then there’s this:
The reason that vaccine efforts have expanded to younger people is that, in many places in the US, the level of vaccination among the elderly is high.
And what about Kulldorff himself? Here he was in July parroting antivax messaging:
As I said at the time, whenever you see what I like to call an “appeal to ancient ways of knowing,” particularly coupled with a risible claim such as that ancients “understood immunology better than we do,” run! Run as fast as you can and as far as you can! You’re dealing with a crank.
That’s not all:
Again, as I said at the time, the above statement would not have been out of place on the crankiest of crank antivaccine blogs and websites. I’ve seen variants of it many times going back two decades on sites as utterly bonkers as Mike Adams’ NaturalNews and on that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism. Whenever you see someone like Kulldorff likening vaccination to a religion, you’re seeing someone parrot a longstanding antivaccine talking point, whether he realizes it or not. Sadly, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, all roads from COVID-19 contrarian arguments like those made by the Great Barrington Declaration signatories seem to lead to antivaccine messaging.
Finally, if there’s one thing that Tucker’s interview, coupled with his statements and articles, has taught me, it’s that Kulldorff is clearly a true believer in the Great Barrington Declaration. That appears to me to be why he was not only so easily recruited by Jeffrey Tucker but, if Tucker’s account is to be believed, was the one who, having been recruited, spearheaded the Great Barrington Declaration under the auspices of the meeting organized by AIER and him at the AIER headquarters in Great Barrington. Of course, anyone who’s read Naomi Oreske and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt knows, political and corporate interests that promote science denial (as, for example, the Heritage Foundation has long done for climate science) much prefer to use scientists who enthusiastically believe in the cause when they can find them, and boy did AIER find them in Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta.
In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether AIER paid them or not. It supported them in other ways, by facilitating bringing them together and giving them a platform to spread their message. As a result, AIER and Jeffrey Tucker got far more than they could ever have dreamed possible. To keep that message seeming credible, though, he AIER, while trumpeting the Great Barrington Declaration, has to downplay its involvement, all in order disguise the astroturf nature of its efforts. Similarly, the Great Barrington Declaration signatories have to deny being paid (or even influenced) by the AIER in order to protect their reputations and give the appearance of being objective scientists rather than political operatives. And who knows? Maybe they did travel to Great Barrington and pay for their own lodging a year ago because they so strongly believed in the cause. After all, true believers are the most potent weapons for groups like AIER.