Atlas Doesn’t Want to Shrug
Scott Atlas’s “A Plague on Our House” dovetails beautifully with both my earliest pieces of the Covid era and the broad themes I laid out in “The New Civil War.”
When Covid Was Young
Way back in 2020 when Covid was young, a consensus emerged so broad that it transcended bitter partisan boundaries: The messages emanating from the White House were incoherent.
For a relatively small handful of us, the tragedy appeared to be that though the President’s instincts pointed in the right direction, he allowed bureaucratic “experts” to override them. His detractors derided his efforts to tamp down the panic—a practical impossibility given the media frenzy—but he was prescient in recognizing panic as the greatest danger we faced. The psychological and behavioral fallout of Covid panic have since inflicted far greater pain on far more people than the virus itself—precisely as anyone who refused to panic could have predicted.
To those of us looking from the outside, President Trump seemed committed to focusing Covid protection and prevention measures on vulnerable sub-populations while minimizing the impositions on the public at large. His White House Task Force, the CDC, the FDA, and the rest of his executive branch all appeared to be pushing hard in the opposite direction. By now we all know how that conflict resolved itself. They won; he lost. America and the world lost with him. Freedom fell to paternalistic authoritarianism, as the attractiveness of the Chinese governance model far surpassed American individualism in the global imagination. The world entered a dangerous new era.
The palpable sense of irrational panic was evident from the outset for those of us adept at reading data and appreciating the nuances of forecast models. It was clear that the science aligned with the President’s instincts. The scientists—or at the very least, all of the high-profile officially empowered scientists—had other ideas. They sought to shut down the economy, place us all under house arrest, and promulgate universal and uniform regulations across society “for our own good.” The entire program seemed to fly in the face of millennia of experience dealing with communicable disease—as well as the best practices embraced by successful public health authorities around the world.
The program ignored the complexities that define both humans and human society. Instead, it adopted a monomaniacal focus on the Covid virus. American and world leaders declared a human vs. virus battle to the death. No cost was too high to ensure our victory. An entirely new—and perverse—morality emerged overnight to justify this bizarre declaration of war.
Given that public opinion depends almost entirely on image—media, celebrity, and credentials—rather than on substance, the non-scientist President and the data supporting his instincts had no chance against slick, credentialed, telegenic scientists. America and the world, largely lacking the scientific acumen to truly follow the science, followed the scientists instead—like lemmings off a cliff. And those scientists themselves had based their strategy in a view of humans as pathogenic carriers—a nominally accurate but woefully incomplete understanding of humanity—perhaps couple with some conflicts of interest.
Enter Dr. Atlas
Several months into this debacle, a radical idea dawned upon the President. What if he could find and promote a scientist, boasting impeccable credentials, willing to follow scientific best practices and the actual data? Might that scientist actually prevail? Might the data confirm the President’s instincts—driven as they were by common sense rather than scientific training?
President Trump reached across the country to Stanford’s Dr. Scott Atlas. In A Plague on Our House, Dr. Atlas provides the details confirming that things were indeed as bad as they appeared to be. When President Trump staffed his White House Task Force and handed the reins to Vice President Pence, he essentially cut himself out of the equation. The Task Force’s two leading bureaucrats immediately seized decision-making authority; none of their nominal superiors were either willing or able to reclaim it. From early on, the press and much of the American public embraced the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci, while most governors deferred to the Task Force’s liaison to the states, Dr. Birx. A third key bureaucrat, CDC Director Redfield, supported their diktats while maintaining a (marginally) lower profile. No one else much mattered.
Dr. Atlas, who came to Washington reluctantly for the sole purpose of getting hard data, common sense, and actual science to matter resented being relegated to the periphery. Though perhaps “resented” is the wrong word, and perhaps it was data and science rather than he who suffered the relegation. Still, in a world in which Anthony Fauci can smear anyone who disagrees with him as standing opposed to science, life could only have been painful for the one actual scientist in the room.
For me, however, the most interesting part of the book by far was neither the specifics nor the anecdotes, but rather the backstory about the caliber of the people who rise to the top in American society. It seems that at least part of that backstory caught Atlas by surprise.
To be fair, Atlas arrived in Washington fully expecting to find a political process. He knew that he’d be dealing with politicians and bureaucrats. He knew that only a small fraction of the people charged with making public policy had any background in medicine, statistics, data science, or health policy. He expected—or at the very least hoped—that most of them would be receptive to an actual scientist teaching actual science.
That was his first mistake.
Atlas also trusted his professional colleagues to back him up when necessary. Having spent his career—first in radiology, then in health policy—in academic medicine, he was familiar with the world’s most prestigious experts and top institutions. He believed that they, at least, would cheer his efforts from the sidelines. He believed that they shared his goal of injecting science into the decision-making process. He believed that they would explain that there’s no shame in changing policy recommendations according to the dictates of accumulating data. He believed that his professional colleagues were more committed to good science, informed decision-making, and public policies that actually promote public welfare than to any particular political agenda.
That was his second mistake.
The System is Broken
Readers of The New Civil War should recognize immediately that what Atlas learned—well into a successful academic career—is what I learned as a junior academic. The system is not at all what it claims to be.
At the level of the mission statement, it’s hard to think of an institution nobler than the modern research university. America’s temples of higher learning claim a deep commitment to truth, fact, rigor, critical thinking, and the scientific method.
Sadly, they’re frauds. All of them, from top to bottom. Yes, there are indeed pockets of excellence sprinkled throughout American higher education. There are fields in which it is still possible to succeed while doing excellent work. By all indications, that’s precisely what Atlas has done—as have some of the professional colleagues who embraced his work, like Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff and Stanford’s Jay Bhattachrya. Unlike the Artificial Intelligence community I encountered in the 1980s, the public health and epidemiology establishments of recent decades allowed good science to flourish—meaning that excellent scientists could rise to positions of great prominence.
What few of those excellent scientists did, however, was rise to positions of great influence. America’s top scientists rarely rise to become America’s top decision-makers on matters of science. At best, some decision-makers might consult a top scientist, providing science the opportunity to prove persuasive. Even on such occasions, however, what compelled the decision-maker to choose such a scientist was not the quality of his or her science; it was the pedigree of his or her position and title.
Long ago, in an era before Microsoft, Apple, and the Internet upset the applecart, a saying ran through America’s biggest businesses: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” The message was simple. Decision-makers who stick with a known brand are bulletproof. Those who go off-brand are vulnerable. Have genuinely talented scientists like Atlas ever wondered how many of the key people they’ve advised selected advisors on the basis of excellence and how many selected advisors on the basis of title and affiliation? It’s a sobering question.
Even more sobering is how those decision-makers assumed their own positions. Atlas was clearly disgusted to learn that Fauci and Birx are mediocre scientists with minimal interest in experimentation and data. How did they become America’s most influential voices on medicine, pandemics, prevention, and containment? Clearly, they must have excelled at something. But what? Certainly not science. What might it have been?
It’s one of those questions whose answer is obvious the moment you hear it. Fauci and Birx were promoted into positions of authority because they excel at getting promoted. Mix basic scientific familiarity, marginal competence, and excellence at getting promoted and what do you get? The perfect, modern American “expert.”
Atlas learned, much to his chagrin, that the incentives driving his own field may have permitted excellence, but they do not promote it. In fact, as I highlighted in The New Civil War, the basic incentive structure of higher education is straightforward: Those who flatter the current decision-makers most successfully stand first in line to become the decision-makers of the future. Rewards in laboratory science, for example, do not flow to those capable of devising the best experiments or analyses. They flow to those who best impress the head of the lab. And though there are certainly exceptions, the most effective way to flatter the head of a lab is to build upon his or her own work.
In every academic discipline—from the humanities to the professional schools—every incentive motivates work that confirms and advances conventional wisdom. Such confirmatory work enhances personal and institutional prestige. Anything tending to disconfirm conventional wisdom risks imperiling the entire venture, embarrassing world-famous luminaries who’d staked their careers on conventionality, and cratering the flow of discretionary funding. No surprise then that “even” our scientific institutions place greater value on those who enhance institutional prerogatives than on those who follow the noble if mythical mission statement.
It’s a pity, really. Quite often the most exciting critical breakthroughs—in any field—flow from the discovery of flaws in conventional wisdom. But when the most prestigious members of a field are—by definition—those who built that conventional wisdom, genuine excellence often runs counter to professional self-preservation. Those most eager to follow the science, the experimentation, and the data “wherever they may lead” often find themselves led right out of academia—or at the very least, out of its innermost circles.
What Atlas learned in an extraordinarily high profile, high stakes environment exists throughout American higher education—and by extension throughout all of America’s leading institutions. Incentives reward incrementalism, groupthink, flattery, and self-aggrandizement—the phenomenon I termed “incremental outrageousness.”
What Atlas learned about America’s public health establishment has little to do with public health. It’s an attribute of the American establishment. We have developed an ego-driven, elite expert class that exists to impose conventional wisdom, dictate to its lessers, and remind the masses how lucky we are to have experts. It’s a prescription for a society in a death spiral—which is increasingly what America seems to be.
By his own account, Atlas has fallen far from the inner circles of academia that he long believed he inhabited. But was he ever truly part of it at all? Certainly, a committed scientist who’s not making waves feeds the mythology and burnishes the image. Many academics love to point to such scientists as examples of excellence within their own fields. Few of those academics, however, feel compelled to follow such substantive and methodological excellence. Most of them are far more concerned with chasing grants, consulting gigs, and sinecures. Worse, those truly driving the field understand that a scientist committed to the science is unpredictable: The moment the data begin to point in an uncomfortable direction, the committed scientist will become a threat. The safest play is always to keep such a scientist at least an arms length away from actual decision-making—and holding titles that appear (at least to outsiders) a shade less prestigious than those assigned to the folks truly in charge.
Was Atlas indeed an insider who suddenly fell into heresy? Or was Atlas always a heretic able to go unnoticed until he became the center of attention? It’s a question that he will have to answer for himself.
Based upon his own telling of his own story, the latter possibility appears the more likely—though I concede that that appearance may be enhanced by my own somewhat jaded filter. From what I can see, however, Atlas spent his career committed to science within an environment committed to elitism. Had President Trump acted on Atlas’s advice, the entire public health bureaucracy would have stood stripped naked. Atlas threatened to become the young boy revealing that Emperor Fauci had no clothes.
That would have forced the media—an important part of that same elite expert class—to insist that the establishment experts were so brilliant that only the savvy could appreciate them. Who are you going to believe? A prestigious, expert, public servant with the backing of a sycophantic press or your own lying eyes, common sense, a rogue “non-epidemiologist,” and a deplorable President?
As a reward for his efforts, Atlas—along with the handful of other excellent scientists who dared to enter the fray—has found himself facing a question that few bother to ask: Whatever happened to the boy who announced that the Emperor was naked? Did the people who’d been gushing over the Emperor’s outfit embrace him as a hero? Was he executed for his impudence? Did he enjoy his day in the sun before fading into a lifetime as an outsider, never quite trusted to get with the program?
A Plague on Our House is important on a number of different levels. At its base, it provides richness and depth to our understanding of pandemic management in the Trump White House. One level up, it confirms what many Trump supporters believed: That our business-oriented President was a dreadful manager who let the federal bureaucracy defeat him. At its most important level, it provides a powerful critique of the elite experts currently running America into a ditch.
I told that story in the low profile context of a field committed to preventing—or at the very least, delaying—scientific inquiry. Atlas tells the story in the context of a critical field faced with responsibility for a global crisis.
The question remains: Will enough people learn the pervasiveness of that lesson before they see it in whatever field they happen to operate?
The answer is critical. The future of human freedom may depend upon it.
For more information about Bruce D. Abramson & American Restorationism, visit: www.BruceDAbramson.com
To learn more about how America’s elites destroyed the republic, see: The New Civil War: Exposing Elites, Fighting Utopian Leftism, and Restoring America (RealClear Publishing, 2021).
To learn more about the ideology driving today’s anti-American leftism, see: American Restoration: Winning America’s Second Civil War (Kindle, 2019).