Dr. Jay Bhattacharya speaks after receiving the first annual Samizdat Prize, an award that will be given by Real Clear to journalists, scholars, and public figures who have fought censorship and stood for truth, whatever the cost.
Real Clear Foundation president David DesRosiers explains: "What does Samizdat mean? It translates as 'self-published' in Russian. Samizdat was the underground literary network in the Soviet Union that distributed Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Are we suggesting the American mind and society are closing and becoming more Orwellian and Soviet? Yes, we are. This is why we inaugurated the Samizdat prize, to celebrate those great few who stand for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of science, even at great personal cost."
Read Dr. Bhattacharya's remarks:
DR. JAY BHATTACHARYA, HEALTH POLICY PROFESSOR AT STANDFORD UNIVERSITY: I'm overwhelmed, you guys, thank you... In 1970, I looked this up before I got here, the New York Times Albert Parry published an article about the Soviet dissident intellectuals who would covertly pass around ideas to each other in the form of handcrafted, typed written documents called Samizdat. There are people in this room, scientists in this room, that I passed Samizdat to. David mentioned one, Scott Atlas. From the earliest days of the pandemic, we would pass papers to each other. My colleague Yaron Ben David, we'd secretly talk to each other in whispers in the corridors of Stanford...
We would tell each other, "Here's what the data are showing," "Why aren't people seeing this?" And if you tried to share it, God forbid that happened.
Let me read to you from this New York Times piece:
"Censorship existed even before literature, says the Russians. And, we may add, censorship being older, literature has to be craftier. Hence, the new and remarkably viable underground press in the Soviet Union called samizdat.
Samizdat – translates as: “We publish ourselves” – that is, not the state, but we, the people.
Unlike the underground of Czarist times, today’s samizdat has no printing press. The K.G.B., the secret police, is too efficient. It is the typewriter, each page produced with four to eight carbon copies, and that does the job. By the thousands and tens of thousands of frail, smudged onionskin sheets, samizdat spreads across the land, a mass of protests and petitions, secret court minutes, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's banned novels, George Orwell's "Animal Farm," and all sorts of sharp political discourses and angry poetry."
That's what we were involved with. Angry poetry.
It is hard to hear what I am about to say next, but it is absolutely true. The sad fact is that we are living in a time and in a society where there is once again a need for scientists to pass around Samizdat secretly to one another rather than openly talking about what they actually believe. The idea is to avoid being smeared and censored. I've lost count of the number of scientists and doctors who would write to me to say please speaking, I can't because of usually the threat of losing their job. All kinds of actions that people imagined would happen to them. And they weren't just imagining it. There was this tremendous pressure.
I say this from first-hand experience. During the pandemic, it wasn't just social pressure. During the pandemic, the American government violated my free speech rights and those of my scientist colleagues for questioning the government’s prefferdd COVID policies.
The American government officials, working in concert with big tech companies, attacked and suppressed me and my colleagues for criticizing the official pandemic policies -- criticism that has been proven prescient. now you are looking at me like I'm crazy. I sound like a conspiracy theorist to myself, but it is a documented fact that the federal court just affirmed what I just said.
In August 2022, I got a call from the Missouri attorney general's office, they were entering a lawsuit with the Louisiana attorney general's office and they asked me to join as a plaintiff in this lawsuit, the "Missouri vs. Biden" case. We were the plaintiffs and the defendant was the Biden administration. The suit's goal was to end the government's role in the censorship of American speech and restore the free speech rights of all Americans. How am I supposed to say no to that? So I signed up.
It's been very productive because through the case, lawyers in the "Missouri v. Biden" case deposed under oath representatives from many federal government agencies, including Tony Fauci himself. You can go online and look at that deposition. You'll see him when asked about the evidence on masking or immunity after Covid recovery, whether he was involved in devastating takedowns of scientists, you can see him saying time and time again. "I don’t recall," "I don’t recall," "I don’t recall." It's a very different Tony Fauci than you'll see on TV.
Broad discovery of the email exchanges between the government and social media companies showed an administration willing to threaten to use its regulatory power to harm social media companies that did not comply with censorship demands.
The case revealed the CDC, the office of the Surgeon General, the Biden White House, and even the FBI pressured social media companies Google, Facebook, and Twitter to censor and suppress even true speech contradicting federal pandemic priorities.
For instance, in 2021, the White House threatened social media companies with regulatory action unless it censored scientists sharing the demonstrable fact that Covid vaccines do not prevent you from getting Covid. The fact that almost everybody who got the vaccine knew because they themselves experienced getting Covid after getting the vaccine, as I did. But you weren't allowed to share that on social media.
The reasoning that they told themselves was that if you shared that information, people wouldn't get the vaccine. So you're not allowed to tell the American people the truth. True or false, if the speech interfered with government priorities, it had to go.
On July 4 this year, I got a tremendous gift from U.S. Federal District Court Judge Terry Doughty. He issued a preliminary injunction ordering the government to immediately stop coercing social media companies. In his decision, Judge Doughty analogized what the American government was doing to an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth." In a federal court decision, he called what the American government was doing an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth."
I had used that term in testimony before Congress in 2021. You can go look up online what happened. I got yelled at by two Congressmen who proceeded to -- it wasn't the funniest moment. So as of July 4, we have free speech in this country once again, after this.
That lasted ten days because the Biden administration immediately appealed, claiming that they needed to be able to censor scientists or else public health would be endangered and people would die. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted them a stay on the injunction we had that lasted until [mid-September], wherein free speech to some degree has been restored. On Friday, at long last, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that we were not imagining things. The Biden administration did strong-arm social media companies into doing its bidding. The court found that the Biden White House, the CDC, the surgeon general’s office, and the FBI "engaged in a years-long pressure campaign on social media outlets designed to ensure that the censorship aligned with the government’s preferred viewpoints."
Did anyone get censored on Facebook during the pandemic? You can say it was the government and you won't be a conspiracy theorist. It probably was.
The judges described a pattern of government officials making "threats of ‘fundamental reforms" like regulatory changes. It is as if they told the social media companies what Al Capone might say, "Well that’s a nice company you have there. It'd be a shame if something were to happen to it."
The government told social media companies that if they didn't censor people like me, they would regulate them out of existence. And the platforms capitulated. According to the 5th Circuit judges, the officials' plan succeeded and the platforms capitulated to state-sponsored pressure and changed their moderation policies.
The ruling, and this is the good news part of this, is a victory for all Americans because it restores our free speech rights. Because I'm so excited about it, I am going to read you the short paragraph of what they told the government they can't do. I am very pleased by this.
"Defendants, and their employees and agents, shall take no actions, formal or informal, directly or indirectly, to coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech. That includes, but is not limited to, compelling the platforms to act, such as by intimating that some form of punishment will follow a failure to comply with any request, or supervising, directing, or otherwise meaningfully controlling the social media companies’ decision-making processes."
I've never been so happy to read.
Do you know how lawyers sometimes use a lot of adjectives? That was a beautiful set of adjectives, my friends.
Although I am thrilled by it, the decision isn’t perfect. Some entities at the heart of the government’s censorship enterprise can still organize to suppress free speech. For instance, there is an agency that I never knew about before the pandemic called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, that can still work with academics, including here at Stanford, to develop a hit list for government censorship. They can identify, using machine learning tools, who is violating wrongthink. And they have done that and told the government who to censor and what to censor.
At the National Institutes of Health, Tony Fauci’s old organization, they can still coordinate devastating takedowns of outside scientists critical of government policy. Because the government has free speech rights itself.
I don't want to take away from the headline because it is a good one. The federal government can no longer threaten social media with destruction if they don't censor scientists on behalf of the government.
That is true not just for me but for everybody. That is the meta-theme about government censorship that the Samizdat Prize is about, but it is really important to know: "What is it that the government really wanted censored?"
The trouble is the Great Barrington Declaration, a document I wrote with my colleagues Dr. Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Sunetra Gupta, of Harvard and Oxford, on October 4, 2020.
The declaration called for an end to the lockdowns because they had already failed. They had already harmed our children in ways that are basically impossible to recover from. Our children are still paying for it.
We called instead for a "focused protection" policy. Rather than assuming that suppressing social functions would automatically protect vulnerable older people, which it didn't, we argued instead that we should have a policy of specifically thinking how best to protect older people. Rather than saying that masking toddlers would automatically protect grandma, which was foolish on its face, we should have been thinking about how do we move resources. When the virus is floating around, we advise older people to stay at home for a little while. We can organize communities to deliver groceries... or to provide sabbatical leave. We spent $6 trillion, so why not focus and brainstorm specifically on how to best protect older people?
We didn't have all the answers, the Great Barrington Declaration is a one-page document. It was a call for discussion and debate to the public health community to say this group of people, Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, wants a discussion about how best to protect older people. This is what should have happened in a normal, scientific environment.
With hindsight, it is really clear that this strategy to avoid lockdowns was the right one. How do we know? There is this country in the very far North called Sweden, and they didn't lock down. They never closed their schools for kids under 16 during the entire pandemic. They had a normal childhood for their kids. After initially making the same mistake Andrew Cuomo made, which is to send Covid-infected patients to nursing homes, in Stockholm they corrected their ways and figured out strategies to protect their older populations where they lived.
The result is that Sweden had among the lowest age-adjusted all-cause excess deaths of any other country in Europe, with the exception of Denmark. So Sweden protected the lives of its people better than any other country. Better than Germany, which had lockdowns, better than the U.K., which had lockdowns, better than nearly every other country in Europe.
In the United States, Florida, after initially locking down, followed a much more reasonable path. They opened schools... in August 2020. The Florida teachers union sued and we won that case. In Florida, kids got normal schooling. The learning loss numbers out of the U.S. are heartbreaking. Our children are a year to a year and a half behind where they should be, and it is not evenly distributed. It's poor kids, minority kids, who paid the highest price.
Who protected the lives of people better? Florida or California? Who has the lower all-cause excess deaths since the start of the pandemic? Florida has the lowest, lower than all the sunbelt.
Gov. DeSantis has protected the lives of Florida citizens better than Gov Newsom did. And I mean lives, I don't mean learning loss or any of the business harm. I literally mean lives. At the very least, you can't say the lockdowns were obviously the right thing to do.
In the poorest parts of the world, the lockdowns were an even greater disaster. By spring 2020, the United Nations was already warning that the economic disruptions caused by the lockdowns would lead to 100 million or more additional people starving. The World Bank warned we would have 100 million additional people thrown into $2 per day, dire poverty. Why was that? Because we have globalized the world. Poor countries had to restructure their economy to fit into the West so when we had a supply chain disruption at a global scale, some poor schmuck (and I call him a schmuck because he believed the promises of the West) loses his job, starves, and can't feed his family. We caused that with the Western lockdowns. We had the warning in 2020 and we did it anyway.
At a stroke, the lockdowns broke the promise the world’s rich nations had made to poor nations. Globalization had lifted a billion people out of poverty over the last 40 or 50 years, and we reversed that promise overnight. A lot of the promises we made to the poor of the world, all the flowery phrases about what we actually value, when our lives were threatened by Covid, we basically turned out backs on all of them.
We closed our schools here in [California], and disrupted education for two years. The lockdowns then, were a form of trickle-down epidemiology. The idea seemed to be that we should protect the rich and well-to-do living in the West, somehow by osmosis we'll protect the poor and the vulnerable. That was a lie.
That is what the government wanted to suppress, they wanted to suppress the fact that there were prominent scientists opposed to the lockdowns. They wanted to create an illusion of consensus among scientists in favor of the lockdowns as if there wasn't legitimate scientific discussion going on as opposed to the lockdowns. Even at Stanford, there were colleagues of mine who were quite vocal... others were less vocal, but I can guarantee there was no scientific consensus in favor of lockdowns. Scientists disagreed like we normally do, we fight with each other all the time. It's great fun, that's how you know you're born to be a scientist... That was not the impression the public got.
The impression the public got was that there was a high pope of science. Remember Tony Fauci going on TV to say, "When you criticize me, you are not simply criticizing a man, you are criticizing science itself." That is not science. That is nothing like the science that I recognize. There is no single person with the wisdom to tell everybody what the truth is and is not.
So the Great Barrington Declaration was seen by officials like Tony Fauci, and some in the Trump White House like Deborah Birx, as a kind of heresy. for suppression. Four days after the declaration, Francis Collins, a man I have long admired, wrote an email to Tony Fauci calling the three of us "fringe epidemiologists."
"Fringe epidemiologists," I have that on a business card.
And then he called for a "devastating takedown" of the premises of the declaration. What followed was hit pieces in the Washington Post, Wired Magazine, all these fancy journals like the New York Times, and then there were death threats. Racist attacks, things I never thought I would experience in my life. Before the pandemic, if five people read my paper I was very happy with myself.
At the height of the pandemic, I found myself smeared for my supposed political views, and my views about Covid policy. The idea was if you could attack me as a "fringe epidemiologist," what are other scientists going to do? Keep their heads down. It had the desired effect of creating self-censorship at scale.
It is impossible for me not to speculate about what might have happened had the Great Barrington Declaration been given a fair hearing. The lockdowns might have ended earlier. Kids in California might have gone to school earlier... Without censorship, we might have won that debate, and if so, the world could have moved along a different and better path.
I will close with a story about a Soviet scientist named Trofim Lysenko. It's a little overwrought but it is close, and it shouldn't be close. Lysenko was Stalin’s favorite biologist. he hated Mendelian genetics... The Soviet mantra was it is not nature, it is nurture. "We can create the perfect human, we can create the perfect plant."
Lysenko developed a theory that if you expose seeds to cold before you plant them, they will be more resistant to cold. The idea worked exactly as well as you thought. Soviet agriculture took a big hit. Millions of people died as a result of these crazy ideas.
Lysenko was elevated by Stalin to be the director of the USSR’s Institute for Genetics for more than 20 years. Stalin gave him eight "Order of Lenin" awards. I'd rather have this prize.
Lysenko used his power to destroy the career of any scientist who disagreed with him. He sent scientists to Siberia. When he expressed disapproval, Stalin would have scientists shot. The ideas of Lysenko hurt not just the Soviet Union, but China. Mao took up some of his ideas. There are indications these ideas also caused the Ukrainian mass starvation event in the Soviet Union. These are not trivial things. Scientific ideas matter in the lives of every person. The only way forward really is discussion and debate.
Scientists are never right, we're wrong most of the time. The only way we get to be anywhere close to right is by having people correct us. Censorship is the death of science and the death of people.
I always thought America should be a bulwark against this kind of nonsense, but it was not during the pandemic. The tide is finally turning with the "Missouri v. Biden case," but we need reform and we need to remember so the kind of things that happened during the pandemic, that led to so much death and destruction, never happen again.
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