Thoughts on economics and liberty

Transcript of key points in Gigi Foster’s interview with Will Kingston of Spectator

I thought it worth my while to make a transcript of Gigi Foster’s interview with Will Kingston of Spectator – published on 16 February 2023:

Obviously there are some errors – and I couldn’t understand bits, plus I’ve excluded some bits – but it largely captures Gigi’s views .

The HTML below. Download a Word version here.


Let’s go back in time. The WHO declares a pandemic in March 2020, governments start locking down soon after  that. When did you first have concerns about the policy response?

Pretty much as soon as we were hearing about these society-wide lockdowns. Anything that was going to be applicable to all population members um seem to me to be alarmingly wrong because the data even then even in March 2020 and in February 2020 made it very clear that this was a virus that was not dangerous to young healthy people. So I said very surprisingly to my producer on my ABC podcast in late March 2020 just directly on the air that I thought lockdowns were the wrong response to covid and we should be focusing our attention on the vulnerable who were the elderly and aggressively protecting them – which is of course essentially what the Great Barrington declaration came out and declared in October of that year and I thought it was just common sense.

I mean I truly didn’t think, it would be much of a, you know, there wouldn’t be much of a storm raised up by that comment, but as it happened not only my producer was somewhat taken aback but certainly my co-host Peter Martin was pretty much flummoxed by that comment and the readership or the listenership of the ABC just delivered huge amounts of mail back to them saying this woman is a danger to Public Health and she should be taken off the air and you should retract what she said.

And that was the beginning of me recognizing that this was not a scenario in which we were going to be able to have rational scientific discussion about what we were doing right. This was something different. This was something I had not seen in at least as stark relief previously and so it was going it was going to need all of my tools of analysis to understand what was happening and how I could best fight the damage that I knew was going to happen from these places.

Well, you mentioned that your response would have been essentially the focused protection of vulnerable people and my understanding is that in the cracked glass – in case of emergency – strategic pandemic plans that most countries had, that was the essence of those plans. How did that thinking change so quickly to widespread quarantine of the healthy?

Well, it’s very interesting some people think that what happened is that populations were essentially enslaved by their governments that the governments themselves were the first movers, shall we say towards lockdowns. I think in the West that’s not the direction of causality. I think what happened and we saw this if you were here in Australia in in March 2020, what happened is that the population became extraordinarily fearful. It was extremely scared, really fighting, really anxious about this threat that had been ballooned out of proportion by the media stories about – you know, how people had been falling over in China and everyone’s dying in Milan, and New York has got too many bodies and they can’t bury them all. These are very scary stories people just really bought into that and so they were the people, those actual everyday people on the street, who pressed politicians to save them from the covid threat.

And you can see this change in the politicians tunes by looking at the statements that came out of even Australian government mouths in March 2020 earlier. Even up to almost mid-March the Australian people were getting all sorts of reasonable messages from their governments about, well, this is kind of a nasty virus but if you’re not older and sicker you’re probably OK and, you know, wash your hands kind of thing, right. But then this really changed after the Ferguson report came out – you know, the modeling that said you know huge numbers of people are going to die. And after the people in Australia took that on board, the fear just ramped so far up that the politicians felt, well we have to be seen to do something here. It was the politician’s logic. It wasn’t, “Well, let’s take a scientific approach”. It was politics all the way, and so that’s why. It was it was that moment that courage was in absence in the Australian polity. That’s when a politician who truly cares about his people in his country recognizes what’s going on recognizes that the people have been led down a Garden Path by these overblown media stories, looks at the actual data, realizes this is not the path to go down and then embarks upon a contrary messaging campaign whereby he tries to damp down the fear and he puts in place a logical plan of action that does make it looks like something is going on, something’s being done to address this this fear, this threat, but it’s in a proportional way: it’s not this radical draconian restriction of freedoms that we’ve never seen before in peacetime Australia.

So that’s what didn’t happen and once that that failure happened, we were kind of on a path dependent trajectory for many months and in fact years here in Australia. You know we can talk about how that went here relative to other countries but I think that was the key thing it was the fear of the population and in fact in our book The Great Covid Panic we have three characters to try to show what happened to different people, different kinds of people in the pandemic, and how they reacted.

One of them is Jane and Jane is very important. She’s the fearful member of the public who basically is the force that presses the politicians to make that choice: are you going to be courageous and a leader or are you going to just pander to your own political needs?

I’ve read the book and Jane actually caused me to reflect a lot on that initial public response, and my thought was that this may be the first time in modern history where as a society we have prioritized individual safety over a set of collective values. If you think back to our grandparents generation in World War II they knew that sending young men off to war they were going to be running into machine gun fire, but they did it anyway because of a set of beliefs.

Why do you think as a society we did at some point make that flip from a focus on collective freedoms to that just single-minded focus on the safety of the individual?

Well, you know there’s been a lot of talk about this and I’m trying to understand it and it’s not as though we haven’t had these kinds of group think examples in history. I mean, obviously the 1930s in Germany was a perfect example of groupthink as well. And the collective versus individual thing, that tension has been in history as well, but I do think that there are some modern elements of society that have precipitated a bit of lack of standing up for some of the basically the Enlightenment values that certainly in my generation.

I’m Generation X. We were still taught about Enlightenment values and the importance of thinking critically and rationally and scientific approaches to things and realizing that whatever you try to understand your world you are only inevitably going to be able to understand a small fraction because there’s this incredible complexity going on, and it’s way bigger than you, it’s way bigger than your brain, so to be a scientist you have to have humility and you have to know that whatever you say, whatever you conclude, is always subject to caveats. You’re never certain in science. That’s the difference between science and sort of a religious faith, where there’s this sort of non-testibility aspect.

Well, that is really not something that we teach much anymore, to be honest. You know, that kind of approach, that kind of philosophy to living and to thinking about one’s world. And, of course, we’ve seen the fraying of community fabrics. We’ve seen the retreat into social media by young people. We’ve seen the reverse Flynn effect where people have been getting dumber because partly because of social media and sort of the distractions of the Modern Age. And you know the thing is we don’t really subject people to many risks these days in most professions. There are a few professions – and in fact they were the ones who tended to be resisting some of the lockdowns, because they regularly deal with many more risks than what covid poses. But in a lot of professions, certainly yours and mine, risk to life is very rare to encounter, and so people kind of got out of the habit of that. We have antibiotics. They didn’t have antibiotics back in the 30s, so there’s a sort of a safer kind of cocoon that has grown up around people. Plus the weakening of community ties and notions of success interpersonally being what delivers happiness in this life, rather than sort of success on the on the professional scale. It’s money or something like that, and I think all of those things were contributing factors.

I’ve actually been trying to work towards a number of new initiatives since the covid period since we started on this madness, to try to remedy some of that. So I’m very active in education programs, for example, and trying to start new resistance groups that are promoting values of science and freedom, because those are things that we’ve lost, and also to promote the idea of love and empathy for one another because that connection with one another you know that’s something that has been decayed as well by many of the sin stories that have been promulgated by the elite who want to stay in power.

What’s the way to control people that’s best used, most successfully used across history? Well, you divide them. So you divide the whites from the blacks and the men from the women and the old from the young. And pretty soon everybody’s fighting amongst themselves and not worrying about the fact that they are enslaved by somebody at the top who started all of these sin ideologies going. So, for all of those reasons, I feel like I have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do in the resistance over the next five to ten years.

Yes, I agree and I think that’s a very good summary. The pointer on risk and the general risk aversion of people today is particularly interesting and it’s not just the risk aversion of individuals it’s the decisions of governments that they can make a risk calculus for consenting adults as opposed to giving that decision back to the people. I’m a fanatical Rugby Union fan and English rugby is in turmoil at the moment because the governing body of English rugby has unilaterally lowered the tackle height for rugby players from the shoulders to the waist, and the big response to that has been: we know that things like concussions are a potential risk in rugby what we’re saying is as consenting adults we choose to take that risk and play that game and that in some respects is part of the thrill of it. So it was a problem in covid but I think it is, more generally. I think you’re right a problem that that risk aversion on the individual level certainly has increased the government then filling that void and saying, well, we’re going to make risk decisions for you.

And it’s quite ironic really, because in normal times there is actually a role for governmental economists in back rooms to do evaluations based on costs and benefits for whole of society policies. In fact that was conspicuously absent during the covid period, which is one of the reasons why I wrote my most recent book with Sanjeev Sabhlok called Do Lockdowns and Border Closures serve the greater good, which is a cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns in Australia.

For two and a half years there was crickets [i.e. nothing] from governments in Australia trying to defend their policies. I was expecting this naively for many months and finally realized it’s not happening.

So at a social level, at a whole of society level, we do expect accountability of our governments through that mechanism – through the mechanism of showing us what’s the expected cost of this policy overall, what’s the expected benefit. But that’s for a social level policy.

When you’re talking about the risks that an individual person takes or indeed that a profession would take, it’s much more difficult, much more nuanced. Because once you get to a level where the government is dictating exactly the level of risk that any person can take, as you say, you suck the joy right out of things. You don’t accommodate human nature. Many people are more risk loving than others. We have a spectrum. Not everybody’s the same, and so that’s why freedom is important. Of course, we do have some overall rules, for example seat belts, that’s a really good example. Or speed limits.  And again, with those things the government has been accountable to the people by saying – here’s our data, we think overall the benefits of having these things compared to the cost.

In Australia we are a bit more of a nanny state in general than a lot of other Western democracies but certainly in covid that got really ramped up to a level that has never been seen before. I think it’s now permeating the political discussion. We’ve seen that, for example, with Jim Chalmers recent diatribe about how he’s going to dictate the ideology that he wants into markets. What is going on is a sort of “Yes, what I think is the right way to behave is the way that everybody must behave”. That is just nuts.

The Australian people unfortunately, I hate to say this, but we have brought this upon ourselves by being so complicit, being so passive, valuing compliance for compliance’s sake, not recognizing the value of the well – shall I say tall Poppy, but just different Poppy, the value of the Poppy that has a different color. We need to have that Poppy because that Poppy is going to be the source of innovation, the source of growth eventually in all of our institutions and our way of life and so this notion of command and control we’ve got to beat it out of not just the politicians but the people as well.

I’d summarize this whole issue as the “Don’t kill Grandma argument”. I had so many difficult conversations during covid with people. I tried to make the point that governments every day weigh up the balance of the quality of life for the majority with the likelihood a particular policy will save or extend the lives of a minority. During covid the response to that was simply: “Well, I don’t want Grandma to die even if it means shutting shops or closing down schools”. And to your point, very few politicians have the courage or I guess the communication skills as well to be able to make that point to the public. How would you have framed that in a way where you’d hope to try and change hearts and minds?

That’s an excellent question. I was trying to do this for years during this period. I was trying to communicate alternative messages. I was saying in many of my media appearances this sort of thing – that what we needed was a new political message. I was trying to voice my advice to politicians even though I never got a call from a politician during this period. But I was trying to voice it through media to say look you can do this, you can you can craft a new message and it needs to be: “We have got this virus’s number. We are in control of this virus. We know things now that we didn’t know in March 2020 that are relevant to setting our policy.” That is still going to be somewhat true, for example we learned about the value of proning. I remember that coming out in mid-2020: leaving people on their back was not so good, so you put them on the stomach, instead. It lets them breathe better and that primarily was better for recovery. There are some things that we’ve learned about the spread and ways that you can combat it. We have a whole early treatment store of knowledge now which is basically suppressed by the mainstream media. But we’ve certainly learned a lot there thanks to the good work of good doctors around the world. So you can certainly spin that story – “we now know more than we did, and we are also aware unlike our knowledge in 2020 in March 2020 that these lockdowns and other costs are very high, we are hurting ourselves every day that we continue these various restrictions, whether it’s the masking or the compulsory vaccinations or the lockdowns or whatever, and so for the sake of Australia we really need to stop that initial policy setting and we need to pivot to something else”.

And I really do think it could have been done. Instead, what we saw was basically the turnover of politicians. We had turnover in New South Wales, for example, and Perrottet was much more able to chart a different path right than Berejiklian was. And I think it was just with the path dependence, you know. She felt unable to strongly pivot because she was afraid she was going to be skewered in the media and by people for being wishy-washy. Whereas the reality is that strength is the ability to reevaluate data and come to a different conclusion, recognize when you’re wrong, and change course so that you don’t cause more damage. And you know admitting that that’s what had happened – so much damage had happened – I think was seen as politically untenable for her. And that was the tragedy.

As soon as this started rolling, you just want to stop it as soon as possible, because the longer it goes on the more people become complicit in it, the [greater] are the damages and the more difficult it becomes for any politician to extricate him or herself from that reality.

And so that was why it was very frustrating. I want[ed] to tear my hair out every month it would go by in 2020, because could see this was just setting up this path dependence and we were going to be in. The longer that it’s lasted, it’s a real mess now. Of course, we see some signs of hope and I am quite hopeful, but it certainly had lasted a lot longer than I initially expected.

One tool at our disposal to be able to have this conversation with the public in a more intelligent way is QALYs, which I wasn’t aware of until doing some reading on your work. Can you explain what QALYs are and how they can be used to have this conversation in a more holistic way.

A lot of people put up the false dichotomy early in 2020 that people like me who were arguing against lockdowns were prioritizing the economy over lives, that there was implicitly a trade-off of lives versus the economy. Of course, that makes it sound horrific. No wonder that I was called a neoliberal Trump. The reality is if you’re going to make a comparison of costs and benefits which is what we do when we evaluate government policy, you need to have apples to apples comparisons. You need to have apples in your costs and apples on your benefits side. That’s the only way to do the comparison. You can’t really compare what is the value of somebody’s job versus the value of somebody’s sickness, or something that doesn’t make any sense.

So QALYs are a currency that measures human quality of life essentially and health, and that can be used on both sides of the equation, so you can measure the presumed or the estimated benefits of lockdowns by estimating how much life would be saved or made more healthy by having the lockdowns, and also by estimating how much those lockdowns are costing in terms of that same currency: how much are we causing extra suffering mental anguish, etc.

Now the QALY measure is used in normal times by governments around the world including Australia because we need to make those kinds of social decisions I was talking about earlier about allocation of resources to different line items that can promote human life and health, and so when we for example negotiate with drug companies we tell them: “Look we are willing to buy a particular drug or intervention that you may have invented only if it will cost us less than a certain threshold amount per QALY”. So the drug company will say this drug will give, you know, three QALYs on average if you prescribe it to the person who has illness X. We say, “OK, well three QALYs, so we don’t want to spend more than say three hundred thousand Australian dollars for that because that’s our social willingness to pay”. So we use QALYs. In normal times it gives us a sense of what we’re willing to pay when we see those kinds of transactions that our government undertakes.

Of course, in a place like India or you know a poorer country like Africa somewhere, their threshold value for QALY is going to be much lower.

It’s difficult in the lockdown context to measure everything that matters using a QALY because the QALY is really just about health. It doesn’t really capture the kind of mental stress that you would have, having been locked down in your homes. Your physical health might be fine but your mental health isn’t so great. So we use a different currency that is translatable to the QALY and also to dollars, so we have a possible mapping across dollars, QALYs and this other currency which is called the WELLBY which is relatively new. It was invented in 2018 by my colleague Paul Fritjers and his team at the London School of Economics. It’s called the well-being year, and essentially measures people’s life satisfaction.

So there are questions about: “overall how satisfied are you with your life nowadays” on social science surveys all around the world. That question was asked of people during lockdowns. It was also asked, of course, previously. We can see that lockdowns cause a decrease in that response that we get to that question and so we use that to come up with an amount of damage done to people in this WELLBY currency and that can be translated to QALYs and the QALYs can be translated to dollars and that’s how we are able then to come up with a cost-benefit analysis in which on both sides of the ledger we have the same currencies, whether it’s dollars, QALYs or WELLBYs.

We can express it anyway and when we do that in the book that I published last year with Sanjeev
Do Lockdowns and Border Closures Serve the Greater Good we estimate that the costs of lockdowns in Australia have been at least 68 times their plausible benefits, so that’s the scale of misfiring that we’re talking about. It’s just absolutely staggering number.

The question I actually had next was with all the data that we have how, would you summarize the efficacy of lockdowns, but I think you’ve just done it in one very startling sentence.

Yes, it’s very staggering and we’re not the only researchers to have found this. There have been papers around the world now, at least half a dozen, or probably closer to a dozen now for different countries, evaluating the efficacy of lockdowns. No one using anything like a robust cost benefit analysis has found that lockdowns of whole healthy populations were on net beneficial. Most people find ratios ranging from something like from four or five to 200 to one in terms of costs to benefits. So the result for Australia is actually pretty much kind of in the middle, it’s not extreme by any stretch of the imagination when you contextualize it against those other papers around the world.

But, of course, the scientific community generally speaking still has not accepted this. There are a few of us who have been writing these papers and clamoring from the rooftops to try to get attention for this but it’s been a slow battle and a really hard road to walk because most of the mainstream is still captured by the ideology particularly in Australia that lockdowns were successful because we didn’t lose that many people to covid in 2020 and 2021, and the GDP figures didn’t look as bad as some other countries and therefore that’s, you know, case closed, that’s the end of the story. That’s just tragically incomplete as an analysis.

This is a very good segue actually into the broader issue I suppose of the failure of our institutions starting with the political class. Every single Australian state and federal leader abrogated their responsibilities at one time or another by saying, well, we will follow the science as opposed to taking that QALY-led view which incorporates the economic side, psychological side, the scientific side, to say this is our rounded policy response. Do you blame a bad crop of politicians or do you blame a political system in 2023 that makes that sort of nuanced political discussion nigh on Impossible?

I tend not to blame individual people. The parts of the resistance that clamor for the head of particular leaders are barking up the wrong tree because the reality is that human nature is complex and everybody can be evil in the right circumstances. I don’t think that Australia was well positioned culturally to be able to manage this. We hadn’t had really truly courageous leaders for probably a generation at least in this country who I would trust in a time of, for example, war or something to do the right thing for the country. So I’m not hugely surprised that we didn’t see that kind of leadership come out.

It would have been an exceptional situation if we’d seen that in Australia and you did see a few of those in other countries. In Sweden you saw Anders Tegnell who was not a politician but certainly advocated for the welfare of his people and I think Sweden ended up handling covid better than any other country in the West.

This is another good case study. Of course, exactly DeSantis in Florida and you had [Kristy Noem] in South Dakota who resisted so there were a few politicians around the world in different regions but not in Australia.

Yes, culturally, you can say that that was expected because we just aren’t a particularly courageous people despite our Paul Hogan exterior. At the end of the day, we just look for Daddy to save us.

I think the politicians are kind of the same, or they’re looking for the great action that they can do that will save their faces. And there’s really a problem with accountability. Just nobody wants to be accountable for anything in our large organizations all across Australia, and that is a big problem. Nobody wants to, you know, just man up and take responsibility for things.

I think that the main problem going forward to fix is not to select better people for politics – because there’s always going to be a problem of getting the wrong people in politics – but rather to fix the institutions or at least try to amend some of the institutions that led us down this path.

One of the big problems, of course, is [that] during this period it was possible for all of these mandates and rules and regulations and dictats to be passed by unelected bureaucrats with no parliamentary oversight whatsoever.

What we were able to do as people was simply to let our voices be heard during two elections for the political leadership, and when we did that sadly we returned to office with landslide margins the very people who had been repressing us. So in some sense maybe it wouldn’t have helped that much to have more voice from the people on these kinds of issues.

That’s called the Dan Andrews conundrum I think.

Indeed, or the McGowan. Either way, those two were just the most standout examples and that shows you the political impossibility in some sense for any politician who cared about his career more than he cared about Australia to actually stand against this.

You’d have to honestly care more about Australia than about your career to have resisted but at the same time I think moving forward we need to have institutions that take in the opinions of diverse Australians all over the place, different kinds of people, not just those who pass muster for the political class who are then able somehow to make their voices heard in decision making. And so I have some ideas about that in the Great Covid 2 Panic, with my co-authors Paul Fritjers and Michael Baker. But I think it’ll be years of work towards those more directly Democratic institutions being formed or taking hold in Australia. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do just getting people to recover from the psychological trauma that they’ve been through.

So that’s honestly job one. Job one for me is helping people recover from this absolute disaster and that means including the people who were complicit like the everyday Janes. They’ve been psychologically traumatized and abused by the governments. They need help and if they’re going to ever admit what actually happened – that they were promoting and advocating for policies that directly hurt themselves, their parents and their children – that is a psychological burden to bear.

So those people need help and we need help for all the other people who are directly hurt by lockdowns.

As a second stage and perhaps simultaneously working towards it, is that we need that kind of institutional reform and figure out how to get more diverse voices into policy making, more checks and balances, more direct democracy.

I’ll get to that second step of what that future world could look like in a second but I need to vent my frustration around that first step. This is specifically around accountability. The use of social structures to coerce people into taking a vaccine has made a lot of people very angry but it’s made a lot of people even more angry when they’ve discovered that the key assumption that underpin that policy turned out to be incorrect and that assumption was that that the vaccine can prevent or reduce transmission. We now know that that is not the case, so there isn’t that argument that was put forward to say, look your bodily autonomy is less important than protecting the wider population.

There doesn’t appear to be any accountability for people who are putting forward that argument that led to people losing their jobs, that led to people in some cases having to go against their religious beliefs. This to me is an absolutely outrageous state of events. How do you go about finding that accountability as we move forward?

I completely agree with your assessment of the situation there. It’s absolutely one of the worst offenses of this period and I would even say it even apart from whether or not the vaccines prevent transmissibility. Even if they did prevent it which we know now is not true, I find the argument that you must have this medical intervention because it’s good for everybody else even if an expectation is bad for you, I found that argument just rotten to the core. It is it is absolutely the most dangerous slippery slope that we could embark upon as a people because you are essentially saying that the person who is getting this medical intervention is the property of the state to do as they wish, as they deem is good for everybody else and that’s just not acceptable. That’s the kind of argument that led to some of the most horrific destruction in the Holocaust, for example. So I just I just reject that totally now.

On the transmissibility thing there are people who will have made that argument in their own head saying: well, you know maybe it is dangerous for me but I’m going to do it anyway, feeling courageous, feeling pro-social, feeling altruistic towards other people. That’s what made them do it. They did it out of love and now they realize that the whole motivation they had was essentially something by which they were manipulated by the state. That is a horrific shock as well, and it makes you really lose trust and faith in your institutions. I would I would think this is the sort of natural psychological reaction one would have when having been found to have been betrayed by the people who you trusted to do something that was obviously quite impactful upon your own bodily autonomy. So, to have been manipulated by your own care for other people into doing something that had no scientific basis for political reasons. That’s just horrific.

So how do we how do we get out of that?

Look, we are not yet in Australia I think at the point where we can actually see accountability happening in the next year or two. I think I think the narrative has to play out a little bit more.

We have to see more a few more months of you data coming out before we really have any calls for people who were advocating for these shots on baseless grounds to actually face justice. But I do expect that and I said this in a podcast with John Anderson and Jay Bhattacharya a few months ago. I do expect that at some stage at least the Pfizer Executives will face jail time.

I hope that that is true and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that they’re going to face large fines and of course they have paid those fines before. Pfizer is quite famous for having paid humongous fines in the past for various different kinds of abrogations of trust and whether or not Australian politicians or bureaucrats who had a hand in doing this will actually face justice.

I would like to think so. I would like to think that there will be some crimes against humanity style court cases, but at the moment what I’ve seen from the evidence so far in Australia is that our whole court system is pretty corrupted, pretty captured by the narrative. It’s very rare to find a judge who will actually judge something courageously based on the actual content rather than resorting to kind of letter of the law arguments and not seeking justice but just seeking you know compliance with technical requirements.

I think that’s dangerous and so and if you look at history it’s also unlikely that the people who perpetrated the war’s crimes will truly face the music. Usually what happens is perpetrators of great crimes get away with it in various ways. They slink away with their winnings and the people who were harmed have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and keep moving on. So I hate to say that, but that’s what history tells us.

I think it’d be great to see a few at least a few people during this period uh held up as examples because maybe that would also help future politicians to think twice before visiting this kind of betrayal on the Australian people.

I re-listened to that podcast with John Anderson last night and I’ve got in my notes here that very line I expect fires a leadership to face jail time underlined to discuss with you Perhaps 3

Perhaps take that next step and explain, if they did something wrong was this a case of malicious intent – they know they were doing something wrong and they proceeded anyway. Was it a case of negligence? How would you expand on that claim?

I’m an economist not a lawyer. So I can’t show up to you what the legal arguments are going to be to actually result in this. But I what I can tell you are a few things.

One, the quantity of anger and desire for justice that has been brewing in the hearts of the people who were harmed by these injections is enormous. These people are not all dead yet. They have lost people. Some of them are disabled. There’s a whole contingent of people who have lost family members or friends and who have been injured seriously and had their lives completely altered by this thing. So there’s a huge public demand for some kind of justice. So that’s ingredient one that is very important to actually seeing that some kind of justice is delivered.

Secondly, it will, at the end of the day, seem to be for everybody from the perspective of most people harmed, seem to be the responsibility mostly of the head of the pharmaceutical company that delivered this drug to actually call out whether there were problems with it. And that could have been the beginning. It could have been a little bit later on after the rollout began. But there should have been safety monitoring and that was partially Pfizer’s responsibility. I mean you might say biotech or whoever – I’m just using Pfizer as the sort of stand in.

I think a natural perspective that even if Pfizer employees at lower levels or even if the FDA or other government agencies you know may have had a hand in foisting this upon us, that ultimately the main party responsible is the head of the company that made this product. I think that will often be the mental gymnastics that people end up at that conclusion.

And finally you know, is it true that we’ve never seen any pharmaceutical companies face jail time? But you know, we’ve seen other kinds of heads of business that have done the wrong thing serve jail time. We’ve seen white-collar criminals do jail time. And this is worse than a white collar crime. This is bodies and deaths and things like that. This is real stuff. So it’s not just papers and money. So I think there is a possibility that it will happen and I think it would be of great comfort to some people at least.

But at the same time, it’s going to be nowhere near holding accountable all of the people who are actually complicit. Because if we were going to do that, we would be handing out fines and jail times and sentences to you probably 50 per cent of the population of Western countries, because everybody was complicit in various ways at some point. The degree of that complicity varied but probably half of us would have done something that could be claimed to have directly hurt somebody else.

The separate but related point here is whether pharmaceutical companies use money and influence to be able to change or to nudge both scientific studies as well as to sponsor everything from talk shows to ads to encourage people to get vaccines was a conflict of interest. Firstly, in the scientific community something that you observed.

It was obvious. Those things are completely obvious to anyone, even to a monkey, honestly. If you look at how these things go right, I mean the amount of money Pfizer gives to the FDA, the amount of money that most scientists who are involved in the studies that were conducted that were favorable get from Pfizer or other drug companies.

And unfortunately, I have to say this – this is a trend within science more generally. As an economist I think of myself as a scientist in the field of economics. And unfortunately we don’t, I don’t get any kind of external funding at the moment, I haven’t for years. I used to get some from the Australian Research Council, but even then that’s a government body. We don’t tend to get a lot of money from big private companies, but in medicine you get that all the time. That’s kind of almost a [French expression], you know if you want to become a professor, you have to accept some money from some company at some point, as part of a grant. So that means that most of the scientists who are at the top of their fields at the top universities really cannot be claimed to be unbiased in their evaluation of their own study results or the design of their own studies.

That’s a big problem. Where is independence? Where do we get an independent view? How do you even come up with that?

So this is one of the reasons I’ve been encouraging people on the street to see [for] themselves, to empower themselves, to feel they have the right to query the scientific literature themselves. They should not simply passively kowtow to the notion of oh, this is a peer-reviewed scientific article therefore it must be correct. I mean that’s just nonsense. It’s become more and more nonsense since I’ve been in this profession. And now you know I look askance at any peer-reviewed journal article because most of the time, at least one if not all of the authors have some kind of bias and conflict of interest.

And just declaring the conflict of interest doesn’t make it go away. This is another Australian disease we have, this Australian disease that, well, if we declare it and you can manage it then it’s fine. Well no, it still exists. You’re just pointing out the elephant. You’re saying oh how lovely is this elephant in this room. It is a lovely elephant, let’s go and eat over here. Whoops! The elephant knocked our plates over. Oh well, at least we know the elephant’s there. Well, that’ll make it better. Come on, so the need to have independent voice in science is very pressing and that’s one of the things that concerns me most, really, about moving forward and rebuilding trust in science because at the moment there’s very little basis for that trust.

Well, this is the problem right with going from scientists to “the science” and it’s something which became more and more obvious as the pandemic continued. And it will continue to have implications in areas such as climate change where there are too many people who are willing to say that, say, the science around climate change is settled because a vast majority of scientists think the same way. What you’re saying is that the vast majority of those scientists are not a fair representation of the scientific community because they’re just the ones who have taken money to be able to then run those studies and then and then come out with particular outcomes. Is that is that probably right?

Definitely. And if you think about the incentives in play to actually give voice to alternative perspectives, there are very few. This is one of the reasons why you don’t have long-term randomized control trial studies of a lot of, for example, nutraceutical products or you natural health products, because who is going to fund that? No drug company is going to fund that. No drug company wants that to be known. In fact, drug companies will pay money to suppress that kind of study. So is it really such a wonder that we don’t have good evidence about alternative possible solutions to various problems.

And certainly, climate change is another one where if you happen to be a big voice in in that area you have probably taken money at some point from somebody that has a bias towards finding the mainstream line. And if you take a different line you will find yourself out in the cold very quickly. So punishment is meted out to those who do not toe the line. And that’s not science. That’s not science, that’s politics.

So we’ve got to get out of that mindset and be courageous in science, as well. Just as we need courage in politics, we need courage in science. We need people willing to lose their jobs for speaking the truth, and to lose that funding for speaking the truth. And we need institutions that will still allow those people, even if they do lose their jobs, to still have a voice – and ideally not to lose their jobs just because they speak something different.

So another sort of little initiative of mine is to try to increase diversity of thought on campuses, increase the welcoming, the tolerance of campuses for alternative points of view, and get away from this cancel culture mentality which shuts down everything that a university should be about – which is critical thinking, investigation, taking risks intellectually, being prepared to have been wrong about something and changing your tune, having open debates, all of these things which is what I joined the academy to do.

This is what is exciting about being a university Professor. It’s not exciting to walk in and feel as though you have to conform to the monolithic view of the way the world works. That’s brain numbing and depressive. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be living in that misery. I don’t want that for my children.

There’s a whole other podcast worth of content around that issue which hopefully we can get you on to talk about. But I want to touch on another reason for group think in academic communities. You’ve described it as the self-licking ice cream problem. Explain the self-licking ice cream problem.

Self-licking ice cream cone. So essentially people think of peer-review as this gold standard, that if an article by a scientist has been peer-reviewed, independent peer-reviewed, then it must be correct, essentially, or must represent our current knowledge at least.

The problem is that actually – and having been a scientist now for near on 20 years – I can say this with confidence. Most of the time, what happens is that editors – who are only human – use referees whom they know, who are only human, and those editors and referees therefore are kind of a network. And they tend to have gotten those positions because they published well in the past and possibly still now, and they will have published well and been known to others. And others will want to know them. And so, there’s sort of a networking aspect to – who am I going to submit this paper to.

Do you know the editor there? Do you know this editor’s husband? I think maybe she would be amenable to this kind of font size, and so you play to the editor, and you want to get certain referees. You hope to get certain referees, and you try to befriend people who might be your referees in future. So this notion of independent peer-review: it is actually quite difficult to come up with truly independent peer reviewers in many fields nowadays. Because of all of this networking that happens in the backroom.

And actually if you’re interested in this, I would highly recommend a book that came out – a second edition of it called Rigged (the first edition was called Game of Mates) which is all about corruption and gray gifts. And kind of – not exactly illegal corruption but sort of this networking aspect of Australian culture that permeates industries across the country and really ends up defrauding the Australian people, through this this kind of mateship. We think of it as mateship, which is a good thing in the right circumstances, but it can also lead to what should be an open transparent pro-social process becoming a process that is inward looking and delivering benefits just to those in the in-crowd.

And so the ice cream cone itself licks. People publish in some of the top journals in my field. And only the people who refereed and edited and other people who have published there really can make any sense of some of those papers: econometrics is a classic one. It’s very technical and so people publish there, and then the people who have reviewed, or maybe edited that paper, will submit another paper which cites the other people who authored that paper and people who reviewed the paper, and when you get your referee reports you’re told you need to cite this person, all of whom are often in the co-authorship network of the reviewer. There’s a networking aspect to science, which, when everybody is receiving money from particular vested interests becomes an even bigger problem.

So we have this problem in economics, but in health science this is an even bigger problem.

That’s a major obstacle to the creation of really valid and trustworthy scientific research. And [to] that one doesn’t have an easy answer. It’s something I’m working on in various ways, but it’s a really entrenched problem, a cultural problem, and I don’t have perfect answer to it. I’m just trying my best to be as independent as possible and barrack for independence and alternative systems, and giving of respect to non-peer-reviewed research, if not more.

Well, the very frustrating thing about this is that a lot of people when they hear the accusation that some scientists may be compromised by grants funding and similarly when they hear the self-licking ice cream cone scenario they will we’ll call it a conspiracy theory, or a set of conspiracy theories, when really it’s just a basic human nature taken to its unfortunate [xx].

Exactly. In fact, this notion of calling someone a conspiracy theorist is something we’ve seen in the past and of course it’s come up a lot during this period. It’s a cancel culture technique. You block somebody into a box that has a label on it that everybody can agree with, like anti-vaxxer or something like that. And you say, therefore everything this person says can be rejected. That’s mentally very easy. It doesn’t require you to engage with their arguments. It doesn’t require you to respect that they may actually have some legitimacy behind their perspective. And it just the Lazy Man’s approach to coping with information that is displeasing.  And that too is non-courageous. We have a crisis of courage around here. We need to learn to talk to each other again, across boundaries, across beliefs, across perspectives, because if we don’t we are never going to be able to take advantage of the diversity that we have in this country which is a huge advantage if we were to use it properly, but if we just suppress everybody we don’t like, or everybody who doesn’t conform with a particular line, we lose all the potential of that diversity and we create horrible social fractures which are going to make for an unhappier and less wealthy and less positive Australia. It’s just senseless. We need to stop all that, I think.

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Sanjeev Sabhlok

View more posts from this author
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial