On Friday Nov. 20, as reported in the official Stanford News, the Stanford Faculty Senate formally condemned Scott Atlas, Hoover Senior Fellow and a special adviser to the reviled President Trump. The full resolution is posted here (but only available with a Stanford id).
The resolution lists a single documented fact.
in a post to his Twitter account, Atlas called on the people of Michigan to ‘rise up’ against their Governor in response to new public health measures…
They acknowledge his later correction
Although he subsequently claimed that his call to rise up had been misunderstood, we believe that this latest communication is a dangerous provocation
The President of the University himself piled on,
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”
Now, indeed this was a dumb tweet, and I do not defend it. My view of scientific advisers is that they should advise and serve the President and shut up. Most presidents want them to do that, and not become an independent part of political messaging. But this administration is, er, different, and President Trump has not objected to Scott’s tweeting habits. None of us know even if tweeting is expected or not in Scott’s job.
I do not here defend any of Scott’s opinions, merely his freedom to state them, advise the President as he sees fit, and not be the first person formally condemned by the university for that speech.
But let us be clear: It may have been dumb, but Atlas did not call for violence. Period. You can call it “interpreted,” you can call it “dog whistle,” you can put all the words into Scott’s mouth you want, but those words are not there. Condemnation for speech is bad enough, condemnation because someone might misinterpret speech is unimaginable.
You can also interpret it as I did, a call for people whose livelihoods and health are being imperiled by nitwit proclamations to exercise their rights and duties as citizens of this great country to, well, rise up, to protest to their elected officials, to complain in regular and social media, peaceably to assemble (with masks) and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
So, is a tweet calling for the people of Michigan to ‘rise up’ against a set of widely panned, economically devastating, ineffectual public health measures, at least in Scott’s view (more later), an act meriting this unprecedented and unique condemnation?
Unprecedented and unique. As far as I can tell, the faculty senate of Stanford has never “condemned” any statement by any faculty or staff member (like me, Atlas is not faculty) in its entire history. (Corrections welcome — my institutional memory and googling skills are not perfect. If you know of precedent, comment. Update: see the comment for the precedent.)
Meanwhile, adorning Stanford’s Green Library, right across the street from the Provost and President’s offices, is a 100 foot tall banner proclaiming “No Justice, No Peace.” It has been there for months. (Note: the “No” is in a different color so it stands out. It’s hard to see in my picture, but much clearer in person.)
I too am outraged by George Floyd’s murder. A bit of “rising up” for peaceful protest seems like a worthy reaction and invocation. A bit of “undermining local authorities,” especially ones with guns in their hands and a Black man in the sights seems worth doing. But “No Peace” leaves very little to the imagination – what can “No Peace” mean but an explicit threat of violence? And what can a 100 foot tall banner draped over the main university library mean, but that this is an official pronouncement of the University — not just a tweet on a private twitter account by a researcher on leave from Stanford in public service? Yes, the banner has multiple meanings, but on the President’s standard for Scott, it is very easy to interpret this banner as official institutional support for a particular very political movement.
Our country was founded on “rising up.” The Bostonians who flung tea into the harbor were precisely trying to undermine local authority. The courageous protesters of the civil rights era rose up, and undermined local authority. No Scott’s tweet does not rise to this holy status — but that’s the point. The condemnation did not qualify, it did not state that some rise up, undermine is ok and some is not, and Scott’s was the later. It states as a matter of principle that a tweet, and thus any tweet, with language such as “rise up” and “undermining local authorities” is per se beyond the pale, is speech worthy of the first-ever official condemnation of a member of our community.
It does not qualify because we all know (I hope — I wonder how much we all agree on more and more these days) that a disagreement about speech concerning public policy — how to add science, economics, politics and law — should not be subject of a university condemnation. So the accusers must try to make it a matter of principle. But since the principles are, when examined, ludicrous, the hypocrisy is plain. No, you do not care about “rise up” and “undermining authority.” You just disagree with Scott, but you’re not willing to state facts of the case.
Science and credentialism
So what are the facts? Perhaps Scott’s public policy opinions are also beyond the pale and worthy of a formal condemnation? But the motion and discussion mentions no facts. They adopt the mantle of “science” and naked credentialism:
“Many of his opinions and statements [none are documented] run counter to established science”
“What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university,” [Professor of Medicine David] Spiegel said. “He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way.”
That Stanford, overflowing with interdisciplinary public policy advocacy centers and institutes, would condemn a statement made by one of us because he doesn’t have the right “professional expertise” is preposterous. Should we condemn George Shultz, Secretary of State who set in motion the end of the Cold War, because his Ph.D. was in economics not political science? Yes, Scott’s medical degree is Neuroradiology, not Epidemiology. But may only people with degrees in Epidemiology speak? Me, and the dozens of economists writing papers on the spread of Covid-19 better watch out; Doug Bernheim, Chair of the Economics Department, who recently wrote with coauthors a nice paper
documenting the spread of Covid-19 at Trump rallies had better watch out; (or would he only have to watch out if the paper had mentioned protests, on which it was silent?) Paul Romer, Economics (not medicine) Nobel Prize winner, who has been on a worthy campaign to spread the news that rapid testing could stop the pandemic had better watch out. None of us have any medical degrees at all! Must we be silent, or face university condemnation?
Actually, lead inquisitor David Spiegel
, is a professor of Psychiatry,
and his webpage lists no work in public health, epidemiology, viral diseases, economics, political science or any other credential to think about these issues, where Scott
has been doing nothing but health policy research for 20 years, producing 5 books in the process and more articles than I can count. Who is missing credentials? And since when does Stanford decide the merit of an argument based on credentials rather than logic and fact, and condemn people for speaking outside their credentialed silo?
I disagree with Scott too, on a lot of things. I had a long exchange with him recently in which I advocated lots of rapid testing. Scott disagrees, and has non-trivial arguments.
But let’s state the obvious: within the mantle of what “science” actually knows about the pandemic, there is room for a lot of disagreement. The sainted Dr. Fauci said masks did no good only a few months ago. The signers of the Great Barrington Declaration
agree Scott on a lot of things, disagree with the signers of this petition, and include lots of credentials. Scott was canceled by YouTube for opposing economic lockdowns while the WHO wanted lockdowns, but then the WHO changed its mind. Is Sweden anti-scientific? The science is foggy, and science does not translate directly to public policy.
Let’s state some more obvious. Public policy does not just consist of settled “science.” Tacking a pandemic requires input from science, but also input from economics, which the scientists know nothing about, to think about the costs of economic shutdowns, and behavioral responses. It needs input from political scientists and lawyers who understand the limited powers of the government even in a pandemic. And it needs a lot of input from businesspeople and regular folks, who can explain how pandemic measures work out in practice. Public policy needs politicians.
(Scott, for example, disagreed with my view on testing because he thought people who passed imperfect tests would do more dangerous things. I don’t think so, but there is no science on this question. Masks may work in lab settings, but giving people masks doesn’t mean they wear them right, or do not take more risks with masks on. There is no science on this question.)
Has any of you invoking holy “science” actually read what Governor Whitmer is doing? Is it possible that Scott has a point? Are you willing to defend every point of the Governor’s plan as scientifically valid? For example
, covering a lawsuit against the governor,
Indoor gatherings at private residences are limited to no more than two households and no more than 10 people. Michiganders can go to a museum but not a movie theater or ice skating rink. The list of arbitrary restrictions goes on,
So, you’re sure that there is a bulletproof randomized clinical trial that says 10 people safe, 11 not, museum safe, ice rink not?
The list of charges is not limited to a tweet. Mostly imported from a previous open letter
, the full list of charges is this:
He has misrepresented scientific knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics
He has actively discouraged the use of masks and other scientifically accepted protective health measures against Covid
Atlas’s words have endangered our citizens and now public officials
His pronouncements are also damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing
Atlas’s disdain for established medical knowledge violates medical ethics defined by the American Medical Association
Atlas’s behavior is anathema to our community, our values, and our belief that we should use knowledge for good.
The motion contains not one piece of documentation for any of this. Dear scholars, even Wikipedia
does a better job of footnoting its attacks. There was room; the next item on the agenda had 12 pages of background. This is how “science” argues?
I hope for the sake of the faculty Senate that a full and careful documentation was produced at the meeting, discussed, and will be in the written record, because otherwise Scott’s multimillion dollar defamation suit will slide through court in a jiffy.
Defamation? Indeed. The “condemnation” is deliberately public, spread in the Stanford report, sent by email to, well, me, and instantly picked up by media. Its only effect is to publicly besmirch Atlas.
Just who is “damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing?” This action tops any forgettable Altas tweet by miles.
Scott has “Disdain for established medical knowledge?” I would love to see any attempt to document that. Scott does not “believe that we should use knowledge for good?” Please. And good luck with that defamation suit.
What’s this about?
I think it’s perfectly obvious what this is about. And, if they disagree, and are going to get on high horses about statements that might be misinterpreted, they might think about the glaring possibility to misinterpret this one. Scott worked for Trump. In an institution that voted
94.7% for Biden and 3.5% for Trump – and that includes Hoover and the Business School — this truly is anathema.
What’s this about? “Values.” Atlas “violates the core values of our faculty.” Atlas’ “actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core value.”
Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.
“This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of – and pursuit of – knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment.”
So there are other “values” that trump freedom of speech and inquiry. Somehow the foaming at the mouth about “threats to democracy” extend to a tweet encouraging citizens to protest nitwit regulations. Hmm just how might that be “misinterpreted” as political?
This is the Trump Accountability Project to cancel from civil society anyone who worked for the hated Trump. Or, at least one could certainly infer that with great reason.
Atlas was not present to defend himself, and the coverage does not mention anyone appointed devil’s advocate at this inquisition. The one small dissenting voice comes from John Etchemendy, former provost
Among those [I hope there are others!] expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, …
“I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things – however outrageous – have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue.”
I think he’s almost on to something. What is the point of all this? There can only be one: Don’t work for Republicans, don’t advise them, don’t deviate from the campus orthodoxy on policy issues, censor yourself from speaking unpopular opinions. And expect to be isolated, publicly shamed with vague and undocumented charges, and drummed out of the university if you do.
I emphasize here (response to some commentary) that my own policy judgements, informed by my reading of science and economics, disagree in many ways with Scott’s. Free speech cases are always difficult, and the content of the free speech is never perfectly acceptable to everyone. But damn if he doesn’t have the right to render his judgments on these issues, differing from mine and the faculty senates’, without official condemnation.
I forgot to mention — the case is particularly puzzling given that our provost responded to the previous open letter, which this motion mirrors, by sending an email to all faculty, explaining that the open letter is a mis-use of university resources for political purposes. Just how is the same letter, now a motion passed by the faculty senate not a use of university resources for political purposes?
. Soberly and much more concisely. I don’t think I could have kept my temper as well.
Many commenters respond, well Stanford faculty have a right to free speech and Stanford as an institution does too. Indeed it does. The first amendment only covers government censorship. This is not a legal question. This is a question of, as one puts it “brand management.” While a university is free to politically censor its faculty (well, almost — receiving federal funds limits political litmus tests) the question is whether it is wise to do so. Is the function of a university to foster open inquiry and debate, or to enforce one particular ideological brand? I would rather Stanford made the choice for the former.
John H. Cochrane 2020-11-23 05:22:00
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