On November 22nd, the Johns Hopkins Newsletter (a student-run publication) published an article that showcased COVID-19 research by Genevieve Briand, a program director in economics at the school. After crunching CDC numbers, Briand noticed that something seemed off: despite the virus’s growing death toll, she found that “not only has COVID-19 had no effect on the percentage of deaths of older people, but it has also not increased the total number of deaths.”
Furthermore, deaths due to other causes—like cancer and heart disease—had declined in 2020. Briand’s conclusion was simple: most likely a great number of deaths labelled as “COVID-19 deaths” are in reality the result of these other causes. (After all, cancer probably didn’t take the year off). The actual death toll of the virus was therefore exaggerated.
Briand stressed that she did not intend to dismiss the human cost of COVID-19, but rather to point to the “bigger picture” and, as the Newsletter author paraphrases, to point out “the habitual overlooking of deaths by other natural causes” amid the overwhelming coverage of COVID.
Just five days later, the Newsletter retracted the article. Why?
While the publication offered a few criticisms of the substance of Briand’s work, its main justification was the reaction the piece had garnered: the piece was “used to support dangerous inaccuracies that minimize the impact of the pandemic.” In order to curb “the spread of misinformation,” the Newsletter retracted the article. It was the use that might be made of the article, not its content, that was the first and foremost objection.
This case is important because of the growing conversation about conflicting “narratives,” especially political narratives, and science. Liberal outlets have consistently lambasted President Trump for failing to “listen to the science” of experts like Anthony Fauci and for peddling misinformation. Meanwhile, conservative outlets claim that liberals are also distorting the science, for example by unfairly criticizing hydroxychloroquine. Nearly everyone is trying to find a way to maintain science’s integrity by separating it from political agendas, a difficult task at a time when our politics center so much on the science of the coronavirus.
As for the John Hopkins Newsletter, the facts are complicated, but I think it is fair to say the editors got it wrong. Even if they were right to remove the article, they did so for the wrong reason—its misuse. In order to stop science (or in this case, an analysis of scientific data) from being misused to support false narratives, they stifled the science—even removing the original article from their website. Their approach was, “if it’s going to be abused and harm the cause, we should censor it.”
Ironically, this approach guarantees that narratives dictate science: if you refuse to engage in scientific inquiry or publicize its results for fear of it being misused, then you have capitulated. It’s a bit like being bullied at school and responding, “I refuse to be cowed by this vicious bullying. Therefore, I will simply stay at home where bullies can’t affect me.” In reality, you have let the bullies dictate your behavior, just like the Newsletter’s approach would let false narratives stifle the pursuit of scientific truth.
Of course, this does not mean that incorrect or misleading science shouldn’t be retracted or taken out of circulation. But such censorship should be based upon the content of the work, such as false findings or methodological errors. If Briand’s analysis was in fact substantially wrong and misleading, then a correction or perhaps even a retraction may well have been in order.
Most of the Newsletter’s post-retraction criticisms boiled down to the argument that it should not be understood in isolation from other COVID research—an obvious point. But other outlets published far more devastating criticisms (see here and here) that reaffirm the idea that COVID has, in fact, caused many excess deaths.
My purpose is not to defend Briand’s work, which I am unqualified to assess, but rather to argue that the retraction should have been based on these substantive criticisms alone and not upon its alleged abuse by some individuals in the broader society.
Aside from allowing narratives to hinder science, censoring because of alleged misuse is a bad idea for two reasons. The first is that the main criterion for doing so is speculation about how unscrupulous others can be. In a time of extreme political polarization and partisan animosity, this is a dangerous criterion. Ask either side and they’ll tell you that of course the opposition is distorting the science to fuel a nefarious narrative. The end result of this logic is censoring everything.
Second, we would do well to remember John Stuart Mill’s argument in his essay, On Liberty. Mill thought that those who wish to censor others in effect presume infallibility—that only the one who censors knows what is true.
Some try to get around this by justifying censorship on the potential the harm that some opinions may cause. But Mill objects: “There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself.”
It’s not enough to say “even if Briand’s analysis is correct, it will make readers laxer about COVID precautions.” The student author of the original piece has been bombarded with such accusations, claiming that her article would cause people not to wear masks or practice social distancing. This is pure conjecture. Moreover, the responsibility should be on the readers to let their conduct be guided by more comprehensive and authoritative sources—like the CDC—and not the opinion of one source.
Censoring based on potential misuse is also question-begging. How can we know that this research is dangerous unless we know if it’s true? Even if the article does make people less cautious about COVID, how can we know how much caution is reasonable unless we give people like Briand the opportunity of testing our presuppositions about COVID?
Finally, I would argue that there is a positive benefit to well-intentioned but erroneous research that must be weighed against its potential for misuse. As Mill argues elsewhere in On Liberty, we can be more confident in our opinions when we allow them to be criticized and they withstand the criticism.
Similarly, we must remember that science’s greatest strength is not that all of its theories and findings are correct; in fact, they are revised and discarded all the time. Rather, the strength of science lies in the fact that it is self-correcting and falsifiable. Scientists peer-review each other’s work, replicate experiments, design new experiments to disprove others. This is in large part why we can have confidence in science; we know that it is open to improvement and revision, especially in light of new information.
In this way, science exemplifies Mill’s argument, as well as the adage (a paraphrase of Justice Brandeis’ famous words) that “the remedy for bad speech is more speech.”
The Johns Hopkins case illustrates this point, since the aforementioned fact-checkers quickly identified problems with Briand’s work, including the fact that it failed to account for seasonable patterns in death rates.
So, perhaps COVID did cause those excess deaths after all. But censorship does not lead to robust review and correction of errors. It leads instead to conspiracy theories.
My belief is that there will always be bad actors who will try to use scientific data to further their false narratives. We will always have a fringe minority like those who think the coronavirus is a hoax designed to extend government control over our lives. Instead of stifling research for fear of these bad actors, we should continue to ask questions and study controversial issues like the virus. By doing so, we build a wealth of scientific evidence that will convince the vast majority of ordinary Americans—many of whom are currently wondering if the response to COVID hasn’t been somewhat overblown.
Pursuing the truth, in defiance of those who might twist it for their own narratives, will ensure that dangerous fringe opinions remain in the minority.