Over a hundred Stanford faculty recently signed an open letter titled “COVID-19 and the Hoover Institution: Time for a Reappraisal.” The letter, which you can read in its entirety here, challenges the integrity of the Hoover Institution, its fellows, and its relationship with Stanford.
Stanford faculty and their colleagues at Hoover have the absolute right to criticize one another. That freedom makes Stanford a more vibrant intellectual community.
The Hoover Institution has survived faculty crusades before. This latest effort exceeds previous ones in pettiness and sophistry, though not in self-awareness on the part of its authors. The letter is a poor attempt at a hit-job against one of the leading public policy research institutions in the United States. Let’s examine it.
The letter’s first target is Dr. Scott Atlas, a Hoover fellow, former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Hospital, and now an advisor to the White House coronavirus task force.
Dr. Atlas has advocated for an age-targeted COVID-19 policy which seeks to protect the elderly and vulnerable, but allows those in low-risk categories — college students, children, and some healthy adults — to return to certain aspects of normal life, as many universities are doing successfully.
Some doctors, including some of his former colleagues at Stanford, have criticized him on science and policy. But Dr. Atlas is not a heretic. He has drawn different conclusions from the same public health data, and has articulated perfectly mainstream objections to the U.S. lockdown strategy.
Some people may think debate about public health is blasphemy. But it is a critical part of policy making, and correct public health judgements are extremely difficult to make, even with the best information.
Rather than address specific areas of disagreement with evidence, Dr. Atlas’s critics have instead ascribed positions to him which he has not taken, and dismissed his every claim as “dangerous misinformation.”
In fact, many doctors, including epidemiologists, agree with Dr. Atlas’s concerns about collateral damage stemming from lockdowns. One Harvard Medical School professor wrote to The Stanford Daily in support of him. Doctors in the UK have raised similar concerns with their government.
The letter also complains that other Hoover fellows’ public statements on the coronavirus pandemic “...consistently emphasize economic benefits over health issues…”
Newsflash: the economy is consistently the most important issue to Americans, even in 2020. Only in the ivory tower of a private university that raised tuition during a pandemic would concerns about the economic consequences of health policy be considered controversial.
Of course, tenured professors at Stanford do not face the same economic hardship of working and middle class citizens who have lost their jobs, their businesses, and their livelihoods due to pandemic lockdowns. So one can hardly expect members of the academic cartel to have a balanced perspective on what is and isn’t mainstream.
The letter specifically decries the following passage from an op-ed by Eric Hanushek, a Hoover fellow and education scholar.
“Re-opening of schools is presenting new challenges. Regardless of the approach taken, the huge economic losses associated with lost learning must be addressed, and the best of the currently discussed re-opening models are insufficient to deal with the mounting learning deficits.”
The authors characterize Hanushek’s policy argument as “opinions disseminated as facts.” The op-ed, published in the opinion pages of a national news outlet, is not being “disseminated as facts.” As for the factual assertions Hanushek makes, the faculty letter does not address even one of them.
If the signatories to the letter actually believe that an education economist should not be allowed to scrutinize the impact of government lockdown policies on student learning, one begins to wonder: is there any form of expert disagreement with their preferred worldview they consider legitimate?
As for non-experts, the letter also criticizes Richard Epstein, a legal scholar at Hoover. In March, Epstein was roundly — and rightly — criticized for publishing dubious claims about the coronavirus, including that no more than 500 Americans would die.
Needless to say, Epstein was proven wrong. He retracted his claims and has apologized for them repeatedly. Even with peer review, mistakes can happen in the course of research, and Epstein is hardly the only person guilty of harmful misstatements in 2020 (see: the WHO).
The letter says of Epstein:
“Like Atlas, Epstein is not qualified to make such pronouncements -- he is a legal scholar with no expertise at all in epidemiology.”
This charge belongs in a psychology textbook, not an open letter. It's a classic example of projection.
At the time of our publication, about 70% of signatories to the letter represent the humanities and social “sciences.” The remaining 30% represent STEM fields, most of them environmental scientists and civil engineers. None are economists. Four are medical doctors and zero are virologists or epidemiologists.
Academics at a university or research institution may specialize in only one field. But this does not preclude them from contributing to the public debate on a wide variety of issues, particularly those with implications for all parts of society, like a pandemic.
Like the freedom of speech, this comes at a cost, as in the case of Epstein’s ill-advised pronouncements about the virus early in the pandemic. But to use such an incident as a pretext for the take-down of an ideological enemy, is a serious violation of a liberal university’s principles.
Academic freedom means that art historians and anthropologists are absolutely free to tell lawyers and neuroradiologists to shut up about… epidemiology (and visa versa). But neither group can use the power of the university to silence the other.
Reflecting on how they view the role of the university, the authors write:
“The production of unbiased scientific facts is one of the most important roles of a university, and one in which Stanford has excelled--we are regarded as a trusted source of knowledge worldwide.”
Stanford (and the Hoover Institution, for that matter) is a trusted source of knowledge, but the “production of unbiased scientific facts” is just one reason. Stanford’s reputation also depends on the guarantee of academic freedom and open debate, as expressed in its motto, “The wind of freedom blows.”
The faculty who signed this letter are not bolstering Stanford’s credibility; they’re attacking its foundation. We will cease to be a trusted source of knowledge if scholars are subject to reprisals by the rest of the faculty.
The letter concludes by widening the attack to include the Hoover Institution as a whole, saying that:
“...the relationship between the Hoover Institution’s way of promoting their policy preferences and the academic mission of Stanford University requires more careful renegotiation.
We ask for the Academic Senate of the University to take up that task, and for the administration to help develop solutions with those discussions in mind.”
Here, the authors try to hide behind obtuse academic language and an appeal to process, but let’s be clear about what they’re calling for: the end of the Hoover Institution’s independence as a part of Stanford, on the basis of academic and political disagreement.
Sorry, but academic freedom is not up for “renegotiation." And if common sense and pluralism prevail, neither is the presence of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. The Faculty Senate should reject this odious call for “solutions” to the problem of viewpoint diversity on a university campus.