Dan Klein’s Open Letter to Tyler Cowen

(Don Boudreaux)

My colleague Dan Klein wrote this open letter to our mutual colleague Tyler Cowen. I share it here:

Dear Tyler,

Like Don, I am distressed by your recent blog post disparaging the Great Barrington Declaration. Don quotes the 509 fine words authored by Drs. Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff. They bear presenting once again, with boldface applied to the Declaration’s essence:

As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.

Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.

Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.

Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.

As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e.  the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

The GBD is a declaration. As Don said, it is the expressing of a judgment. That judgment is one against heavy-handed widescale coercions and other closures (lockdowns), and in favor of focused protection.

The considerations behind that judgment are manifold, in terms of specific comparative merits and demerits of each counterfactual course of action and in terms of the moral, political, constitutional, cultural, psychological, economic, and health factors considered.

It would seem that you disagree with the GBD’s judgment. Is it the opposition to heavy-handed widescale coercions that you disagree with? Is it the call for focused protection? What is it that you disagree with? The parts in boldface above are the essence: Is it those parts you disagree with?

As Don pointed out, nowhere do you tell us what is it that you disagree with. In your new post, not once is the GBD quoted, even when you say “Going back to the GBD proper”—a remark that is doubly false in that you had not previously quoted the GBD. In the post you elide the lockdown issue entirely, which is what the GBD is about.

In the GBD, the judgments are expressed in 509 words. The reasoning, hypothesizing, and argumentation behind the judgment may run to a thousand times that. To scour that paper trail, made during the unfolding process of learning and the candid discoursing of the authors—like soldiers on the battlefield arguing with one another over how best to fight the battle—, and to snipe at a few instances that might, in hindsight, arguably be deemed mistaken exemplifies the unethical practices that now plague the blogosphere.

Also, you dive deeply into guilt by association, smearing the GBD and its authors by associating them with wicked witches and warlocks who have had connection with AIER, etc. Unjust practices are seen as such when one faces up to an impartial application. Has any of the individuals you’ve associated with, such as guests on Conversations with Tyler, ever said something regrettable? Has any Fast Grants recipient made predictions or assessments that turned out to be not quite right? Has there ever been a sinner among those you have broken bread with? Are you responsible for all statements of all such people?

Unethical practices instill chilliness and caution in what would otherwise be franker and more candid discourse and association. Now prudently mistrustful, we become isolated and atomized, afraid that associating with someone may lead someone else to slime us. The resulting isolation prevents people from correcting others who stand in need of correcting. A sage said “frankness and openness conciliate confidence;” frankness and openness improve science, as well, I think. You join in in unethical practices when you should be admonishing people away from them and setting an example worthy of emulation.

From what might amount to more than one million words of discourse from Drs. Bhattacharya, Gupta, and Kulldorff, delivered bravely in times of crisis and controversy, you come up with the following supposed zingers:

Dr. Gupta: “What we’ve seen is that in normal, healthy people, who are not elderly or frail or don’t have comorbidities, this virus is not something to worry about no more than how we worry about flu”.

Dr. Gupta: “‘Why would you arrest transmission?’ she asks. ‘To wait for a vaccine? You cannot get rid of it.’”

Dr. Gupta in May 2020: “Covid-19 is on the way out.”

Drs. Kulldorff and Bhattacharya: “The idea that everybody needs to be vaccinated is as scientifically baseless as the idea that nobody does. Covid vaccines are essential for older, high-risk people and their caretakers and advisable for many others.”

Dr. Kulldorff: “Those with prior natural infection do not need it [Covid vaccines]. Nor children.”

Those five bits are all of the ammo you fire, in terms of their quoted words—none from the GBD. Your effort, given the myriad words by them, points to a conclusion different than you wish readers to draw.

Even if one where to embrace your own interpretations on the matters touched upon in the five snippets, would the soundness of the judgment of the GBD collapse? If Kulldorff is wrong to say that someone with antibodies does not need a vaccine, would that undo the soundness of GBD’s judgment against heavy-handed widescale coercions? If GBD’s judgment remains sound even were the dust settled to your fancy, where is the justness in your disparagement?

I thank Don for posting this open letter at Café Hayek. Here is a link to The Other Me. I much admire and feel gratitude to many of the people your lesser you has treated in unbecoming fashion—not just the GBD authors and people at AIER but others such as Ivor Cummins, who has generated perhaps a million words, in my estimation very much to the betterment of humankind.

I close by repeating Don’s closing words: “You’re better than that, Tyler.”


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