The newest member of the coronavirus task force is giving out terrible advice

Why shouldn’t we trust the advice of an M.D. from Stanford University? Because he’s unqualified, that’s why.

As everyone with a pulse knows, the U.S. has handled the coronavirus pandemic very, very badly. Tragically, over 220,000 people have died, and our rate of deaths per capita is higher than any other country in the world.

The Trump administration established a coronavirus task force back in the spring, supposedly led by VP Mike Pence. For a long time, the task force included Dr. Anthony Fauci, a world-renowned expert on viruses who is also the Director of the NIH’s infectious disease institute, where he has worked for 40 years. Despite the frequently erroneous and misleading statements by President Trump, Dr. Fauci consistently gave the public advice that was both scientifically and medically accurate. He never promised that the virus would simply disappear, and he urged everyone to wear masks and avoid unnecessary contact with others. He also warned against re-opening businesses too quickly.

Trump didn’t like that, so he pushed Fauci to the sidelines in favor of someone whose advice matched what he wanted to hear.

Enter Scott Atlas. Atlas is a Fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he studies health care policy. He’s also an M.D., a radiologist who specializes in MRIs. Notably, he has no special expertise on viruses, vaccines, or epidemiology.

Atlas has pushed for schools to reopen and for college sports to resume, against the advice of public health experts. Just last week, he tweeted that masks don’t work, a claim that was so outrageous and dangerous that Twitter took it down. (To be precise, Atlas’s tweet was “Masks work? NO”.) Another coronavirus task force member, Dr. Deborah Birx, said she felt “relief” that Atlas’s tweet was removed.

Perhaps Atlas is so convinced of his own brilliance–after all, Stanford is one of the world’s top universities, and he wason the faculty there–that he thinks he’s an expert on everything. But a good scientist would pay attention to the recommendations of others who are clearly more qualified, and Atlas has not done that. For example, he has argued, against the evidence of experts, that “low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem” (wrong–they can spread the infection to high-risk groups) and that only people with symptoms should get tested (very bad idea, given that many people are asymptomatic).

Alarmed at the harm that Atlas’s advice has been causing, a group of more than 70 of his Stanford colleagues, including world-renowned experts in infectious diseases, epidemiology, and health policy, published an open letter decrying Atlas’s bad science. Their statement read, in part:

“... we have both a moral and an ethical responsibility to call attention to the falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas, a former Stanford Medical School colleague. Many of his opinions and statements run counter to established science and, by doing so, undermine public-health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy.”

Atlas responded by threatening to sue his Stanford colleagues over their letter, and in response to that, an even larger group of Stanford professors released a statement saying they wouldn’t be intimidated. The second letter, with over 100 signatories, stated:

“We believe that his [Atlas’s] statements and the advice he has been giving fosters misunderstandings of established science and risks undermining critical public health efforts.”

My bottom line: Atlas is a bad scientist, apparently far more interested in power and influence than in public health. I’m not commenting on his skills as a radiologist, which are irrelevant here. (He might be an outstanding radiologist.) However, he’s providing advice to the U.S. government that contradicts the advice of scientists who are far more qualified than he is, and when they pointed that out, rather than buttressing his arguments with data, he threatened to sue. That is not the behavior of a good scientist.

To those who think that this disagreement means there are two sides to the issue, I urge you to think again. Science and medicine are highly specialized. Just as you wouldn’t want a virologist to read your MRI scan, you wouldn’t want a radiologist (Atlas) to decide on the best way to treat the Covid-19 virus. So when a radiologist (Atlas) disagrees with a virologist (Fauci) over a virus, guess who’s most likely to be right?

It’s unfortunate that the current administration has chosen to heed the advice of someone who tells them what they want to hear, rather than someone who truly has the qualifications to advise them.

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