“The Censorship Trap”

Yves here. As we indicated, Rajiv Sethi was surprised, and not in a good way, at having a very careful and well-substantiated post he wrote on RFK, Jr.’s presidential bid, with attention to the candidate’s anti-Covid vaccine claims singled out by Google as [AntiVaccination]. He was sufficiently troubled that he used this development to discuss his post, the Google denigration of it at Naked Capitalism, and the impact of censorship generally.

Notice that Sethi endorses our reading of Google’s demand to remove the posts it cited as “plainly and systematically flawed.” He uses our case as a point of departure to discuss the question of whether the vaccine mandates were based on unduly narrow considerations and the fact the strangling of debate around the Covid vaccines has backfired and bolstered anti-vaccine sentiment generally.

One of the issues with the censorship of Covid vaccine-relation discussion is some key information is not well known to people like Sethi, interested and rigorous thinkers who nevertheless can only go selectively into Covid and vaccine data. He gives public health officials the benefit of the doubt in quoting Francis Collins, then a director of the National Institutes of Health, as regretting how public health officials may have over-prioritized saving lives and not considered societal costs adequately.

Aside from the fact that “public health” is not a monolith (it is a state responsibility, although the CDC and NIH try very hard to drive the train), problems with the vaccine approval process and the shifting rationale for the vaccinations have been conveniently memory-holed. Sethi likely does not know about Pfizer’s extreme efforts to bar the release of data, or the fact that neither Pfizer or J&J set to measure “all cause mortality” as a study endpoint. They then set out to make that impossible by making sure there was not long-term control group by urging the controls to take the vaccines once the positive efficacy data came in.

In addition, a key priority of the vaccine mandates was the notion that vaccination would prevent spread. That was explicitly stated by some officials, as we have repeatedly shown. It may actually have been true to some degree with the “wild type” Covid but was vastly less so with Delta, witness Rochelle Walensky being shocked after an outbreak in Provincetown generated the finding that the vaccinated had the same nasal viral load as the unvaccinated. However, a major and not-well admitted motivation was shielding hospitals. Recall that hospitalization with wild type led to two to three weeks of patients coughing their lungs out and, generally, death. That tied up so many hospital beds that routine criseslike heart attacks and strokes often faced 36+ hour waits in the emergency room. Lambert also noted in subsequent Covid waves that the metric officials seemed to care most about was hospitalization, even as evidence of other, cumulative health costs from getting Covid keeps rising.

In any event, we very much appreciate Rajiv Sethi taking issue with ever-rising censorship campaigns in the US and pointing out that the Covid example shows they can be counterproductive as well as corrosive.

By Rajiv Sethi, Professor of Economics at Barnard College, Columbia University. Originally published at his website

Back in July 2023, when RFK Jr was still seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, I wrote a post evaluating his candidacy and claims. Yves Smith at naked capitalism occasionally reposts my articles in full (with a link back to the original source) and did so in this case. A couple of weeks ago, Yves emailed me to say that Google had threatened to demonetize her site based on 16 posts that allegedly violated their policy, and that mine was among them. She believes that the company “relied on algorithms to single out these posts,” and that the “AI results are plainly and systematically flawed.”

I think that any reasonable person who looked at the list of posts that were flagged would reach the same conclusion. But these are not just clumsy errors that can be easily corrected and quickly forgotten. They feed the narrative that free speech is under siege in America, and inflame precisely the sentiments that have attracted people to Kennedy. He has polled as high as 22 percent in recent surveys by well respected organizations—Quinnipiac, Reuters/Ipsos, and Harvard/Harris—and stands at 15 percent in the RCP three-way average. This is a sizeable group of voters, and they could well prove decisive in the election.

The following extract from my original post summarizes my view of Kennedy and his appeal:

Kennedy believes with a high degree of subjective certainty many things that are likely to be false, or at best remain unsupported by the very evidence he cites… But the evidence is ambiguous enough to create doubts, and the failure of many mainstream outlets and experts to acknowledge these doubts fuels suspicion in the public at large, making people receptive to exaggerated claims in the opposite direction.

Furthermore, the general themes that arise in Kennedy’s rhetoric—the corrupting influence of money in politics, the folly of military adventurism abroad, the smugness and failures of elite opinion, and the need for open and robust debate—will strike a chord with many voters across the ideological spectrum…

Kennedy’s bid remains unlikely to succeed, but if his party adopts a dismissive and contemptuous stance towards him and towards those whom he has mobilized, it will sink its own prospects. The proper and prudent response is to identify and absorb his legitimate concerns, while pushing back firmly but respectfully on the claims that lack merit.

Although Kennedy is now running as an independent, I stand by these remarks.

The failure to engage in robust and honest debate about contentious issues, and the inclination to target dissenters with ad hominem attacks, can lead to significant policy failures. Consider for example, this recent post by Paul Offit, a pioneer in the development of vaccines and a strong supporter of mandates early in the pandemic:

In May 2021, after about 70 percent of the United States population had been vaccinated, we hit a wall. About 30 percent of the American public simply refused to get a COVID vaccine, either because they thought the vaccine was unsafe or because they didn’t think COVID was that bad.

In response, we mandated COVID vaccines. We mandated them for travel, schools, restaurants, businesses, and federal employees. We mandated them for entry into churches and synagogues. We mandated them for sporting events; athletes who refused to be vaccinated weren’t allowed to compete… Early in the pandemic, mandates appeared to be the way to go. But there was, as it turned out, an unanticipated price to pay. Some public health officials now question whether vaccine mandates were a mistake. Here’s why. In 2023 alone, 48 states introduced 377 bills many of which addressed the legality of vaccine mandates and argued for more non-medical exemptions. For example, in April 2023, Mississippi allowed a religious exemption to vaccination. A few months later, 1,800 religious exemptionswere granted. Prior to this ruling, Mississippi, because it had only offered medical exemptions to vaccines, had the highest vaccination rate in the country and, consequently, one of the lowest rates of vaccine preventable diseases. That won’t last. And Mississippi is just the tip of the iceberg. About 35 percent of parents now question the value of school vaccine mandates for all vaccines. Consequently, vaccine exemptions among school children have increased dramatically. It is not a coincidence that measles cases are how sweeping across the country; 15 states are reporting cases.

As a second example, consider the case of Francis Collins, who was among the architects of our pandemic response as director of the National Institutes of Health. On a podcast appearance first posted in July 2023, Collins expressed some regrets (the relevant clip is just 45 seconds long):

If you’re a public-health person and you’re trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life. Doesn’t matter what else happens. So you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life. You attach a zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recovered… This is a public-health mindset, and I think a lot of us involved in trying to make those recommendations had that mindset, and that was really unfortunate.

The video didn’t attract much attention until several months later, when it was posted on social media and picked up by more conventional outlets. While it is heartening to see some reflection of this kind, the lives versus livelihoods framing is misleading. Unemployment, learning loss, and social isolation don’t just affect the quality of life, they have downstream effects on morbidity and mortality. These ought to be factored into any public health mindset. Moreover, other mindsets also need to be applied to major policy decisions, even those concerned with disease suppression.

I was born at a time and place when small pox was still a deadly scourge, and have the mark on my left arm where the vaccine was administered. I had both measles and mumps at about the same time when very young, and though my memory of this is hazy, I’m told by my parents that my temperature reached 105 degrees and I could well have perished. I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine in March 2021, just weeks before rushing to India, where my father was desperately clinging to life in the midst of the deadly Delta wave. I’m convinced that the vaccine protected me when I most needed it, and when others most needed me to stay healthy.

But even if none of this were true, I would hope that my arguments would be met with a presumption of good faith, evaluated on their merits, and allowed to circulate freely. Not because any of us is entitled to such treatment, but because we will all be better off in the long if we steer clear of the censorship trap.

Francis Collins on Braver Angels
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  1. Mikel

    “Sethi likely does not know about Pfizer’s extreme efforts to bar the release of data, or the fact that neither Pfizer or J&J set to measure “all cause mortality” as a study endpoint….”

    For what it was worth, J&J didn’t try as hard to pass their non-sterilizing shots off as sterilizing.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      It gives me nightmares thinking we are returning to a dark feudal time when I see the rising acceptance of censorship. There are so many things happening on this front all at once right now that it is too hard to list them all. A robust open society allows the discussion of everything, with sacred cows needing to withstand challenge, not once, but continuously. At least I can console myself knowing that the power elite have always built a narrative around themselves, and their narratives track with the arc of their influence. The current chilling wave of legislation against wrongthink seems to have germinated from dwindling revenues to media companies, dwindling control of everything by the Pax American global superstructure, and dwindling economic growth in the West (that’s conjecture on my part). The vigor with which “fact checking” reliable sources are extolled by the most suspect organizations like military intelligence services or representatives of uber-wealthy is a trend that cannot be ignored.

      Our understanding of important topics like climate change, public health, war, race/gender/identity and colonialism (to name a few) must be continuously renewed by vigorous challenge and debate. No science is “settled” by consensus. Policy decisions can be made on a balance of probabilities, but we must remain open knowing we are never sure of anything. History so obviously shows us that countless “truths” of the past were orthodoxies constructed to buttress the powerful.

      Science creates a basis for decision making that provides predictive capability, which in time will reward the users of the most reliable predictive base of knowledge. Spurious opinions or theories get weeded out because they lead to a lack of prosperity, influence, or even power. Societies in decline tend to be the ones who to protect sclerotic power structures, and don’t update their understanding.

      1. LifelongLib

        Speaking as someone who thinks that “important topics like…race/gender/identity” are largely the invention of hack academics and that “colonialism” is a bit more complicated than just icky people stealing somebody else’s land, I agree with you.

  2. Carolinian

    You attach a zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recovered… This is a public-health mindset, and I think a lot of us involved in trying to make those recommendations had that mindset, and that was really unfortunate.

    Perhaps the key here is that we live in a highly technical age of specialists who lack experience and understanding of anything other than their own field. They lack perspective and even what was once called common sense. Modern medicine has saved many lives while having little to do with many more lives and yet it only focuses on the former who are hurt or diseased. Or perhaps one should say they focus on the former unless the wallet biopsy suggests there may be a problem in that area as well.

    As for RFK, we can praise his willingness to be skeptical while questioning his common sense also. I think he has already shown himself to be deeply unimpressive as a politician for this reason.

    1. Roger Boyd

      I think it is also that these PMC types have generally lived very cushy lives in generally intact families from birth and therefore have no personal understanding of what “economically vulnerable”, “lonely” etc. actually means and what “disrupting people’s lives” and “ruining the economy” can lead to for those much less comfortable than themselves. What he doesn’t answer is the trashing of the scientific fact that COVID is airborne and therefore proper ventilation, hepa filters etc. should have been a crucial focus.

      I feel that the Chinese got it right, a very strong lockdown managed to reduce the spread, and then regional/local tight lockdowns where outbreaks occurred. By the time they “reopened” they had much better control of the disease, and also maintained the public health orientation.

      1. Paris

        I don’t think the Chinese got it right. Funny comparing freedom of information and speech with one of the most tyrannical societies out there. By the way, the Nordics got it right and there was no lockdown. Australia was a nightmare.

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    Many thanks to both of you, Yves Smith and Rajiv Sethi.

    I agree with Sethi’s assessment of RFKJr and his appeal in the three paragraphs that he quotes from his original article. (And for many of those reasons, I can’t vote for RFKJr, who strikes me as a legacy admission.)

    When I lived in the U S of A, I was a member of the ACLU and pretty much a “free speech absolutist.” So I am finding the pressure for censorship by the powerful as well as the self-censorship that I am witnessing (and sometimes feeling) to be worrisome indeed.

    I am seeing plenty of self-censorship in the arts. When artists start to embody a habit of lying, art is enshittified. One gets plenty of the type like Damien Hurst or Matthew Barney and very few like Francisco Goya or Robert Motherwell and his Elegies for the Spanish Republic.

    I keep remarking on the symptom of the use of the word “redaction” and an acceptance of the idea that the powerful have some right / privilege to black out parts of documents. I’d offer that the powerful don’t have that “right.”

    What we see here with Sethi and Naked Capitalism is a kind of lawfare by corporations. For years, those of us on the left have noticed this lawfare against whistleblowers, demonstrators, and the Water Protectors.

    And that’s why lawfare against Trump is so disturbing: It isn’t as if he is a sympathetic character who I’d like to have a cheeseburger with. And, no, I don’t hanker to share hot sauce with Hillary. The point is that Trump has deep pockets–and look at what is happening to him.

    [I also consider the sudden urge to legislate all kinds of exceptions, as noted by Sethi, a form of lawfare–exceptions and confusions.]

    Those of us with much smaller net worths (which includes Naked Capitalism as a small “publishing company”) can be squashed like bugs.

    1. Piotr Berman

      Trump and related cases form “elephant in a coal mine”. Assorted small critters were squashed before, others allowed a timid existence outside the Overton Window. Wikileaks made a big splash in a subsequently placid lake. Who cares about canaries? Some do, but rather few on electoral scale.

      However, relentless attacks on Trump, with the latest 400+ million fine on seemingly week grounds, target ca. 1/3 of electorate (extrapolating his support within GOP voters). With Biden being so awful in his foreign adventurism, basically throwing a carload of matches, and some crates of dynamite to his “kids” (like still young Secr. Blinken) to play to their hart content, like many, I feel that Trump cannot be worse while the conduct directed against him should be penalized. What warms are heart is reading about fears that Trump will purge agencies of the deep state. His track record is not promising, but perhaps he will learn from experience, for vengeance if nothing else.

      Of course, there also exist GOP censorious and repressive tendencies, and awful bipartisan consensus. Slay BDS! Slay Tik-tok! Matamoros! Charge!

    2. Tom Doak

      Categorizing RFK Jr. as a “legacy admission” is spot on, but also consider that if he didn’t have that legacy, and was just another person like you or me, he would be completely ignored by the media so none of his skepticism would infect the public at large.

      1. Bsn

        Legacy admission? Well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Joe Biden – Hunter, Don Trump – Jared, Bobby and John Kennedy – Robert Jr. Your choice of member in the orchard. Plus, the article is about censorship. Yves has pointed out that even the writer is a victim of censorship, not in what he wrote, but in what he was allowed to read. He has missed so many studies, arguments and facts that readers of NC are well aware of. Robert F. Kennedy is aware of those studies and has not fallen for, nor participated in the mass propaganda and ignorance. So, vote for 1 of the above mentioned 3, which one?
        The author states “Kennedy believes with a high degree of subjective certainty ….” yet sites no examples nor refutes them. Ergo his premise is not supported, at all. I call Bee ess.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Wellie I did carefully read the first two chapters of RFK, Jr.’s book on Fauci, including the footnotes. ~40% of the time, the text of the book misrepresented what the studies (or sometimes news stories in sciency-journals) presented as supporting his argument actually said. So Sethi is actually being charitable. RFK, Jr. is regularly a knowing falsifier of evidence.

          I stopped after 2 chapters. I concluded the book was worthless and was mad at myself of having purchased it.

        2. JonnyJames

          On a different note: Jr. is a genocidal Zionist just like the rest of the crew. His foreign policy recommendations are based on lies and ignorance. For that reason alone, I could never “vote” for him. Unfortunately in our system, there is no way to vote against the interests of the oligarchy. (except perhaps in some local elections)

  4. The Rev Kev

    ‘You attach a zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recovered’

    I have to confess feeling uncomfortable with this line of thought. A mature civilization would have quickly realized that Covid was spread by aerosols and taken action with masks, ventilation, filters, meters, etc. but we did not go that way. Instead we went with prioritizing the 2019 economy which led to mass infection, Long Covid and everything else that we see. So that quoted sentence is actually a justification to how we prioritized the economy over people lives – but which Long Covid will wreck anyway. And in passing, keeping schools open meant keeping open a major vector for spreading Covid throughout each community.

    1. Watt4Bob

      So that quoted sentence is actually a justification to how we prioritized the economy over people lives – but which Long Covid will wreck anyway.

      I would go further, IMO, that statement is not only a justification of callous indifference to human suffering in the past , but also an effort to assure, as always, that consideration of “economic impact” is accepted as a legitimate reason to discount the importance of the tenents of Public Health in the future.

      And as you point out, the long-term cost of ‘letting ‘er rip‘ may far outpace the economic damage these ‘thinkers‘ so righteously believe was ignored in fighting covid.

      If there was a grand mistake made, and there was, it was in allowing the powerful private interests to incite the populace to violently defy any sensible efforts to stop covid.

    2. Paris

      There was no major transmission in schools. It was criminal to keep schools closed. Your sources, please.

  5. pjay

    I would add a couple of other observations to a discussion of censorship and why public distrust has grown so exponentially. First, in addition to the clearly flawed and attenuated research on the vaccines and the misleading justifications for mandates, we should not forget the absolute *demonization* of any physician or researcher who was desperately searching for mitigating treatment options (other than vaccines) in the early dark days of the pandemic. I knew two people in the medical profession who were stunned by the vehemence of the official sanctions for anyone even suggesting any form of unsanctioned treatment. Some of these early efforts would become part of standard procedure later on, but at the time they were attacked as dangerous pseudoscience. Why would good faith efforts to alleviate suffering in a desperate time be so discouraged? A third person – my family physician – was very upset about the official narrative in the early days and, while more cautious with his opinions, he did slip one day and exclaimed very angrily “they’re *lying* to us”.

    A second issue is the COVID origins debate. As the article by Jeffery Sachs posted the other day makes clear, there are many unanswered questions on this issue that have yet to be addressed. It is not questionable, however, that there was an early coverup and continued resistance to any real inquiry. Once again, people asking relevant questions were simply demonized as “conspiracy theorists” with debate stifled.

    I would support free speech and open debate in any case. But it is clear to me that on this subject, like so many others today, many advocates of censorship are not just trying to protect us from “disinformation.”

    1. David in Friday Harbor

      I too read Jeffrey Sachs’ latest lab-leak FOIA reporting round-up.

      I have to admit that when I frame the response as a lab-leak cover-up, elite behaviors start to make a lot more sense to me. In a very bad way.

  6. ISL

    “You attach a zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recovered.”

    What I recall was the opposite – for example NOT protecting people with Vitamin D recommendations, especially essential workers, or good masking, advice, or ventilation advice – or a layered defense (Francis Collins does not read NC!). Instead, the strategy was to keep costs low (better profits), taxpayer costs high, further kill main street, with cash give-outs to politically connected friends).

    My own personal opinion, the experiment had to be stopped and the vax was the tool. The US payed for a middle class lifestyle for 75% of its population to stay home and NOT work by printing cash, yet no hyperinflation, society didn’t collapse, and morality did not detonate (Corollary – the vast majority of working Americans are not economically necessary). Had the experiment continued, a universal basic income might have entered the political discourse, people could have learned that home cooked food is quick and tasty, and if you have a little land you can grow your own food.

  7. Dagnarus

    Something which I don’t remember reading about here is the desire to apply the precedent of operation warp speed to the development of other drugs.
    As a layman this strikes me as deregulating drug testing. One of the things which made me suspicious about the Covid-19 vaccines was that, when I was reading up about this stuff before Nov 2020 it sounded like there had never been a successful vaccine against a Covid virus, but now that a republican president introduce new legislation reducing the testing requirements for covid vaccines, at least 5 separate companies managed to create a new highly effective vaccine for Covid-19. Sure this can reasonably be explained by the immense interest directed against this one virus, but it could also be explained by the fact that these vaccines had a much lower bar to get under. To my mind this is reinforced by the fact that the official effectiveness of the products were continuously downgraded, further for the rollout of booster of these products the 2 heads of the vaccine department at the FDA both resigned (on the topic of censorship the top search result on google for me was this which doesn’t even seem to mention the reason why they were resigning) (also to not be misleading, their public statements were not anti covid vaccine, nor particularly anti-booster, publicly they wanted more doses to go to the unvaccinated, and didn’t think there was much evidence for boosters).
    It seems that most current evidence for the effectiveness of mRNA covid vaccines are observational studies (which as near as I can tell, whether or not these can be relied upon is a subjective judgement based upon whether it supports the opinion the person citing the study wants to make). Vinay Prasad gave the example of this early Israeli study for boosters which showed 90% effectiveness against death from covid from getting a booster, except not stated was that the those who had received a booster were 90% less likely to die from any cause, i.e. the boosted were much healthier than the unboosted to begin with. If I am to take this data from NZ seriously, those over the age of 30 are 50% less likely to die in the 21 days after receiving a Pfizer jab than the base rate for their age group, given no such thing was shown by the initial studies we can assume that those who received covid vaccines were, on average significantly more healthy than those who didn’t even before receiving there doses. This seems like a very good testing model for big Pharma, less stringent regulation in the beginning when you have to provide rigorous Randomized Control Trials to prove that your drug actually work and is safe, then you can use less rigorous observational studies to prove that your clients, who on average are more likely to have health insurance, have better health outcomes than the general population.

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