All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Who’s afraid of The Real Anthony Fauci?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s book The Real Anthony Fauci has sold over a million copies and was on best-seller lists for weeks. Yet, apparently, it has not been reviewed in the US mainstream media. This intrigued me.

            Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been following arguments from a range of perspectives: the Covid orthodoxy — which keeps changing — and a diversity of critics. It was hard to avoid hearing about Kennedy’s book, published in November 2021, but I thought it probably addressed issues regularly canvassed among sceptics about Covid orthodoxy.

            I read about attacks on Kennedy and his book published in the New York Times and elsewhere, attacks that did not address the contents of the book (Brown, 2022). Still, that wasn’t enough to get me to read it. Then I read a commentary by Phillip Adams (2022), a prominent progressive voice who has a column in The Australian, otherwise a bastion of conservative opinion. Disappointingly, Adams disparaged Kennedy, calling him a “full-time conspiracy theorist,” and dismissed his book as “a long diatribe that would appeal to anti-vaxxers” without saying anything about the book’s contents. That did it: I resolved to read the book myself.


Robert F Kennedy Jr.

            The Real Anthony Fauci is about Fauci, to be sure, but in a wider sense it is about the pharmaceutical industry and its hold over the US and global health system. Fauci is the hook for a more wide-ranging examination.

            I am a social scientist, not a physician or medical researcher, and have not attempted to get to the bottom of claims and counter-claims about Covid and health matters more generally, for example studies of hydroxychloroquine or adverse reactions to vaccines. But based on a long study of the politics of health, it is possible to make some judgements about whether Kennedy’s analysis is compatible with scholarly treatments.

            The Real Anthony Fauci is a lengthy tome, massively referenced. Kennedy acknowledges a “team of researchers and fact checkers who sourced, cited, and fact-checked this manuscript” (p. xii), and indeed there are lots of “facts” in the book, more than a single investigator might expect to verify in a few years. The book is available in electronic form and in print which, due to the small font and narrow margins, is not appealing to the eye. Even so, I preferred to read the print version. There is no index.

            Another issue is the organisation of material. For the most part, the chapters are coherently written, but occasionally there are digressions, some of them reprising themes covered elsewhere. In other words, the book is not as tightly constructed as it might be. On the other hand, it is quite up to date, suggesting it might have been rushed to publication.

            In the following, I look in most detail at Kennedy’s treatment of Covid issues, and then turn to some other parts of The Real Anthony Fauci.

Pandemic matters

Many readers will be most interested in chapter 1, “Mismanaging a pandemic,” a lengthy and up-to-date treatment. Much of the chapter is on treatments for Covid, specifically hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and remdesivir. Kennedy’s argument is that US health authorities and media followers tried to discredit cheap, safe and effective treatments, meanwhile promoting expensive, dangerous, less effective and inadequately studied responses.

            Here’s the story in brief, as presented by Kennedy. Hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin have been used for decades for a variety of health problems and have well-researched safety profiles. Some doctors and researchers thought they looked promising as treatments for Covid, tried them on patients and obtained positive results, often in protocols also involving zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, quercetin and other supplements and medications.

            The US medical establishment, in which Fauci played a key role, did not initiate a massive research effort to see whether these protocols were effective. Instead, they poured money into a patented treatment drug, remdesivir, and into the development of vaccines. Then, when some doctors and researchers championed hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, Fauci et al. mounted an attack on these two drugs and tried to deregister or discredit their supporters. You might have heard ivermectin referred to as a “horse dewormer,” making it seem ill-advised for human use. Media coverage with this sort of depiction seldom mentions that doctors regularly prescribe drugs “off-label.” Calling ivermectin a horse dewormer reminded me of antifluoridationists who call fluoride “rat poison.” Sodium fluoride is indeed used as rat poison but only in doses far greater than can be obtained from the fluoride added to public water supplies to reduce tooth decay. Similarly, that ivermectin is used as a horse dewormer should not automatically discredit its use, in much smaller doses, as a preventive or early treatment drug for Covid.

            Kennedy documents a massive campaign to discredit hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. This campaign had a research dimension. Some studies of hydroxychloroquine used it only on seriously ill patients when, according to proponents, it is least effective. Kennedy says researchers set up their studies to show hydroxychloroquine didn’t work.

            Then there was a major paper published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet based on nearly one hundred thousand patients in numerous hospitals, definitively showing hydroxychloroquine was ineffective. It seemed like the coup de grace until it was revealed that the data could not be verified. The company running the study apparently organised a giant fraud. The Lancet retracted the paper.

            Why should there be such a campaign against cheap drugs that showed promise in treating Covid? Kennedy gives an answer: the US Food & Drug Administration, by law, cannot approve a vaccine for emergency use if there is an available treatment. Pharmaceutical companies, then spending vast amounts of money developing Covid vaccines, would not have their vaccines approved quickly if hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin or other therapies were shown to be effective as treatments.

            Kennedy quotes supporters of these two drugs saying that if they had been widely available in the US, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. Instead, according to Kennedy, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), in an unprecedented move, ordered doctors to stop prescribing ivermectin, bought up stocks so they would not be available for sale, and encouraged pharmacists to refuse to fill doctors’ prescriptions.

            Meanwhile, Fauci’s favoured treatment drug, remdesivir, was pushed through the approval process despite studies showing minimal benefits and a high-risk profile. According to critics quoted by Kennedy, the use of remdesivir contributed to the death toll from Covid in the US.

            Then came the vaccines. Kennedy provides figures showing Covid vaccines are far less than fully effective and cause far more adverse reactions than officially reported.

            The underlying motive, or factor, is clear enough: pharmaceutical company interests. Hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are not under patent, and a course of either one costs only a few dollars, so there is little money to be made from them. In contrast, remdesivir and Covid vaccines were financial bonanzas, offering profits of billions of dollars.

            This story is a damning indictment of the US medical establishment, basically saying that cheap and effective treatments were discredited and made hard to obtain so that proprietary drugs and vaccines, with dubious safety profiles, could become the preferred way to deal with Covid, all at the expense of large numbers of lives. This story is almost a reversal of the views presented by government officials and the mass media, in which hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are suspect and vaccines the only long-term solution.

            Is Kennedy’s analysis of pandemic politics compatible with viewpoints expressed in the field of social analysis of health and illness? To address this question, I look in turn at four areas: undone science, analyses of big pharma, the role of Fauci, and suppression of dissent.

Undone science

David Hess, professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and author of many works on science and health, developed the concept of “undone science” (Hess, 2016). It refers to research that could be undertaken, and is called for by civil-society groups, but is not pursued because the findings might be unwelcome to powerful groups. Undone science is most commonly found in the areas of environment and health. Hess focuses on undone science involving environmental risk, but the concept can also be applied to vaccination safety research.

For many years, critics have called for comprehensive studies comparing the health of unvaccinated and fully vaccinated children (e.g., Golden, 2019), but governments have not funded any such studies. It could be that such studies would definitively show the benefits of childhood vaccines but there is a risk they might show harms greater than publicly acknowledged. So this research remains undone except for relatively small studies not funded by governments or vaccine manufacturers.

            The concept of undone science sidesteps debates about the nature of knowledge, focusing instead on research agendas. It can be slightly broadened by referring to topics that companies or governments investigate but then do not publish their findings.

            Kennedy’s account of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin fits perfectly in the model of undone science. Despite calls from doctors and patient groups for studies of these and other cheap and widely used drugs for Covid, pharmaceutical companies and governments did not urgently pour billions of dollars into studies. They basically ignored these calls, instead channelling their research dollars towards proprietary options. This does not prove that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are effective, but it does suggest that the way the medical establishment responded to calls for studying these drugs fits a well-established pattern.

Big pharma

It may seem shocking to imagine that companies making billions of dollars would compromise the health of populations just so they could make more billions. Is this plausible?

            In the 1960s, the German drug company Grünenthal marketed a morning sickness drug, promising wonderful effects. The company began receiving reports from doctors that their patients were suffering serious side effects from the drug, including peripheral neuropathy. Grünenthal ignored the reports and continued marketing the drug, and in some cases tried to discredit the doctors. This might have continued indefinitely, but then reports were published about pregnant women on the drug giving birth to children with serious deformities. This was enough to have the drug withdrawn from sale. Despite the damning evidence, Grünenthal denied responsibility and fought lengthy legal battles to avoid paying compensation (Insight Team, 1979).

            This is the story of the drug thalidomide, which became a famous emblem of corporate culpability. Was Grünenthal’s behaviour an outlier or a sign of things to come?

            Consider the tactics used by Grünenthal: marketing a drug before it had been sufficiently tested, ignoring reports of adverse effects, attacking critics and undertaking protracted legal means to avoid paying compensation — and never admitting wrongdoing. For some, it may be hard to believe companies could act in such a way. After all, they present themselves as supplying valuable solutions to health problems. Could they really be corrupt, enriching the pockets of executives and shareholders at the expense of public health?

            According to a range of critics, the answer is yes. The story of thalidomide became notorious but the same pattern has been repeated many times, except with less adverse publicity: the companies have become more sophisticated in their efforts to make exceptional profits without accountability.

            Ben Goldacre is a doctor and science journalist who wrote a scathing attack on alternative medicine, Bad Medicine (Goldacre, 2008). Then a few years later, he wrote Bad Pharma, an exposé of the pharmaceutical industry, giving example after example of how researchers studying drugs for companies fudge their results, for example by fixing endpoints, ignoring adverse effects and using physiologically active placebos. Bad Pharma provides revealing stories of what might be called systematic scientific fraud (Goldacre, 2012).

            Sergio Sismondo is a prominent figure in the field of science and technology studies, among other things having been editor of the premier journal Social Studies of Science for many years. He undertook a detailed investigation of the publication and marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies, for example attending conferences for pharmaceutical company liaisons and sales representatives, who use various forms of persuasion to encourage doctors to prescribe favoured drugs. In his book Ghost-managed Medicine, Sismondo (2018) documents the process by which company researchers produce papers for publication in top medical journals, finding academics who have had little or no involvement in the research to be the nominal authors, thereby giving the papers greater credibility. After publication, these papers are distributed to as many as hundreds of thousands of doctors as part of well-coordinated marketing efforts. In Sismondo’s picture, medical research is a just part of a marketing enterprise.

            Peter Gøtzsche is a medical researcher who helped set up the Cochrane Collaboration, a network of independent scientists who carry out assessments of drugs and other medical interventions. Gøtzsche himself is a highly energetic investigator and a fierce critic of shoddy research and corrupt practice. In his book Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime, Gøtzsche (2013) gives numerous examples of pharmaceutical companies that market products they know are dangerous. He says the pharmaceutical industry is just like organised crime in knowingly harming people, the main difference being that the industry kills far more people than organised criminals.

            In addition to analyses by Goldacre, Sismondo and Gøtzsche, one can turn to indictments by former editors of major medical journals (Angell, 2005; Smith 2005). Then there are pharmaceutical company whistleblowers who have told about corrupt practices from an inside perspective, as well as about the reprisals they suffered for speaking out (Rost, 2006).

            In this context, Kennedy’s analysis of Covid politics is nothing surprising. It is plausible that companies would promote responses to the pandemic that serve their own interests, even at the potential cost of large numbers of lives.

            But how could scientists and executives do such a thing? For the scientists, it is straightforward: they are part of a larger system, and they can just focus on their own narrow tasks (Schmidt, 2000). For executives and others, belief systems are convenient. They can truly believe that they are serving the public interest — or they can adopt any of various justifications for their actions. It’s not necessary to imagine that those who promote medical interventions as the solution to the pandemic have some secret agenda, scheming to cull the population. There is a well-known precedent, after all: the tobacco industry, responsible for the premature death of tens of millions of people (Proctor, 2012). We don’t need to think big tobacco is run by homicidal maniacs with a secret agenda. Well, they do have secrets, but for the purpose of maintaining and expanding markets for their products and making more money.

The role of Fauci

Kennedy’s book is titled The Real Anthony Fauci so it is hardly surprising that Fauci plays the lead role in Kennedy’s account of responses to Covid. Kennedy says relatively little about the politics of treatments and vaccines outside the US, except in as much as they support his argument. Is it reasonable to blame Fauci personally for so much of Covid policy?


Anthony Fauci

            One alternative is to use a structural analysis, standard in social science, that focuses on institutions and processes and sees individuals as epiphenomena. In this sort of picture, the drivers of the responses to the pandemic include the pharmaceutical industry which created the basis for a Covid paradigm — a hegemonic way of understanding Covid and what to do about it — that serves to support the industry’s interests. Responses to the pandemic were also influenced by political leaders who gained support by implementing tough policies, from the mass and social media that gave saturation coverage of the Covid threat without much historical or social context, and audiences frightened by a Covid hysteria and who looked to authorities for protection.

            Using this sort of structural analysis puts Fauci in a different light. He may have had an outsized influence on developments, but if someone else had been in his position, the outcome may not have been all that different. How to assess the value of a Fauci-centred analysis as compared with a structure-centred analysis is not straightforward. One way to proceed might be to undertake a comparative analysis of Covid responses in different parts of the world, looking at the roles of key individuals and policy decisions. For example, has the Swedish policy, widely seen as a contrast with policies in other European countries, better explained by Swedish history and institutions or by the influence of key individuals, or some combination?

            Kennedy’s focus on Fauci can also be understood as a narrative device, as a way of creating interest in the story. Readers may be more attracted by a story of a scheming individual than by the operations of faceless organisations and sets of ideas. You are reading Kennedy’s story about Fauci, the master manipulator at the centre of a web of influence, and learning about drugs, policies and much else along the way, without having to plough through the sort of prose found in a sociology monograph.

Suppression of dissent

In a revealing passage (pp. 142–143), Kennedy tells how for years he was able to have articles published in major newspapers and was widely sought after as a speaker on environmental issues. Then in 2005 he wrote an article about corruption in CDC’s vaccine branch, published in both Salon and Rolling Stone — and everything changed. His articles were removed, newspapers henceforth refused to publish his articles, and speaking engagements dried up due to complaints to venues or hosts.

            Throughout The Real Anthony Fauci, Kennedy describes how critics of orthodoxy have been suppressed, including losing their funding, being deregistered and being subject to derogatory misrepresentations. For example, in the 1970s, distinguished scientist J. Anthony Morris questioned the promotion of a flu vaccine. Kennedy describes the methods used against Morris: “… enforced isolation, disgrace, prohibiting him from publishing papers, presenting at conferences, or talking to the press, changing his laboratory locks to prevent further research …” (p. 360). I had read about this case earlier (Boffey, 1976).

            Based on my studies of “suppression of dissent” (Martin, 1999, 2015), this aspect of Kennedy’s account is completely believable. What he describes accords with experiences reported by hundreds of other scientists and campaigners.

Pandemic matters: summary

Kennedy provides a hard-hitting critique of US pandemic policy. Contrary to the official narrative that vaccines are the salvation and that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are kooky or dangerous, Kennedy argues that these two generic drugs, if used appropriately, are potent treatments for Covid. If they had been recognised and widely used, they might have reduced the US Covid death toll by hundreds of thousands. Accepting them as valid treatments, though, would have meant that Covid vaccines should not have received emergency use authorisations, and the proprietary drug remdesivir would not have been favoured. Behind this scandal, Kennedy says, is Anthony Fauci, the Covid-response kingpin whose actions faithfully served the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of public health. If Kennedy’s account is accepted, it points to one of the greatest scandals in the history of US public health.

            As a way of reflecting on Kennedy’s claims, I asked myself whether his analysis is compatible with analyses in the sociology of health and illness. Overall, it is. It is well documented that the pharmaceutical industry often has pursued profits over patient health, has silenced, discredited and suppressed those who challenge its agendas, and has colonised the medical profession to serve its own ends. Sociologists would probably not place so much importance on a single person, Fauci in this case, as being responsible for abuses, but instead would point to institutional and systemic processes, but this does not change the basic compatibility of Kennedy’s account with scholarly perspectives. This does not mean Kennedy’s account is right, just that it should not be ruled out as implausible. If it is considered a conspiracy theory, it might well be about a real conspiracy. I now turn to some other parts of The Real Anthony Fauci.

AIDS

Kennedy, after looking at Covid, turns to earlier stages in Fauci’s career, especially concerning AIDS. From the 1980s, Fauci was involved in the US response to AIDS, which was first diagnosed in 1981. For treating AIDS, Fauci championed the drug AZT, which turned out to be highly toxic.

            Kennedy, to show Fauci’s intolerance of contrary views, gives extensive commentary on the view that HIV is not responsible for AIDS, or not fully responsible. Starting in the late 1980s, this HIV-AIDS heresy was championed by Peter Duesberg, a highly prominent virologist. Previously he had received generous, prestigious funding for his research; after questioning HIV-AIDS, he was vilified and all his grant applications failed. He had difficulty publishing scientific papers, even in venues where normally he had guaranteed access.

            I have long been aware of HIV-AIDS dissent and the treatment of Duesberg, even citing it as an example of heresy in medicine. However, I never delved into the issue deeply, in large part due to my involvement in another AIDS debate, specifically the theory that AIDS developed from contaminated polio vaccines used in central Africa in the late 1950s. In 1991, I arranged for the publication of a working paper about this view (Pascal, 1991), which led to close contact with several of the key figures in the debate over the origin of AIDS, including the indefatigable investigator Edward Hooper (2000).

            Not long after the discovery of HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, in 1983, a related virus was discovered in monkeys, simian immunodeficiency virus, SIV. Immediately, scientists speculated that SIV — of which there are many variants — had somehow gotten into humans and become transmissible. The question was how. One suggestion was that it was from people eating monkey meat. Another was that a hunter, in butchering a monkey, got monkey blood in a cut. This view can be called the cut-hunter theory or the bushmeat theory.

            Then there was the polio-vaccine theory. Polio research pioneer Hilary Koprowski ran trials involving polio vaccines that were administered orally to up to a million people in central Africa. These vaccines were cultured on monkey kidneys, offering a pathway for contamination by SIVs. Many scientists intensely disliked this theory. Naturally, the polio pioneers accused of accidentally causing AIDS were strong opponents, and a number of others joined them. I had a front-row seat in seeing the underhanded techniques used to censor and discredit the polio-vaccine theory, including blocking publications, suing for defamation, manipulating a scientific conference and making false claims (Martin, 2010).


Hilary Koprowski

            With this experience, it is easy to say that Kennedy’s treatment of Duesberg and HIV-AIDS dissent fits a pattern of suppressing dissent from AIDS orthodoxy. The question that came to my mind was, why did Kennedy give so much attention to the HIV-AIDS dissent and not even mention the origin-of-AIDS controversy? An obvious factor is that Fauci was centrally involved in the response to Duesberg and his allies but played no role in the response to the polio-vaccine theory.

            Kennedy states that “From the outset, I want to make clear that I take no position on the relationship between HIV and AIDS.” (p. 178). Nevertheless, in writing about HIV-AIDS, he gives extensive explanations of the viewpoint of Duesberg and other dissidents, focusing almost entirely on AIDS in the US. In this perspective, early US AIDS cases were attributable to poppers and other drugs used widely in the gay community, and later cases were due to AZT, the drug widely used to treat AIDS, with toxic consequences. This is a cogent account of the case that HIV is not responsible for AIDS. But it is one-sided. Nowhere does Kennedy mention evidence that might be difficult for Duesberg to explain. Why, for example, are the earliest cases of HIV-positive blood traced to central Africa from 1959 and after? Why did Ugandans recognise Slim, the local name for AIDS, as a new disease at the start of the 1980s, just as HIV appeared there? (Hooper, 2000, pp. 168–169). If HIV is simply a passenger virus, as Duesberg argues, why did it seem to emerge about the same time as the earliest cases of AIDS, and in the same location? I’m aware that Duesberg and his supporters can come up with explanations for anomalies like this. My point is that Kennedy has given only the information that HIV-AIDS dissidents can more easily explain.

A fatal flaw?

One-sidedness is a feature throughout The Real Anthony Fauci. Earlier I described Kennedy’s writing about Covid, specifically about hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, remdesivir and vaccines. In relation to hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, Kennedy writes like a lawyer for the defence; in relation to remdesivir and vaccines, he writes like a prosecutor.

            Is this a fatal flaw in his arguments? If it is, the same fatal flaw is present in most of the writing giving the standard, official views about Covid, which offer no acknowledgement of any contrary evidence. For example, official pronouncements about hydroxychloroquine never cite the many studies showing its effectiveness against Covid. In this context, Kennedy is presenting views to counter a one-sided orthodoxy. Furthermore, he is confronting an establishment committed to censorship and suppression. He has taken his opportunity to present a challenging view in as strong terms as he can manage. Nearly all of his readers will be fully aware of the orthodox view, which is dominant in mainstream sources and which shapes policy. So, in a sense, Kennedy might be excused for being one-sided.

            It’s useful to remember that The Real Anthony Fauci has been a bestseller that has received no reviews in mainstream media, only attacks. If Kennedy’s arguments are so dangerous, why not respond to them in a careful manner rather than trying to censor the message and discredit the messenger? One consequence of official intolerance of dissent is that some of those with reservations about the official line will find a well-documented presentation of contrary views persuasive. They might feel their only choices are orthodoxy or a Kennedy-informed heterodoxy.

Gates

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book is Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is well known as one of the world’s richest people. He and his former wife set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has dispensed billions of dollars for the cause of public health. At the same time, many commentators in the Covid-critical community see Gates as an evil manipulator, one who might even have depopulation as part of a sinister agenda.


Bill Gates

            Kennedy quotes critics of Gates’ so-called “philanthrocapitalism” who point out that the Gates Foundation, while giving away large amounts of money, is becoming even wealthier, as indeed has Gates himself. The explanation is Gates’ investments in pharmaceutical companies and the Gates Foundation’s focus on vaccination as the solution to the world’s health problems, especially those in Africa.

            According to Kennedy, the Gates Foundation, by making generous donations, has colonised international bodies like the World Health Organization, major research bodies and the mass media. In Africa, Gates promotes vaccines while long-time development experts say primary health care is more important. The money poured into vaccines has meant neglect of the basics, including adequate food and clean water. In other words, Kennedy says, Gates’ prioritising of vaccines is serving the interests of pharmaceutical companies rather than those of people in need. Throughout his book, Kennedy makes the point that Fauci, Gates and those in their thrall put disproportionate emphasis on vaccines and drugs while neglecting efforts to build people’s immune systems through better nutrition and hygiene. In summary: “… global public health advocates accuse Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci of hijacking WHO’s public health agenda away from the projects that are proven to curb infectious diseases (clean water, hygiene, nutrition, and economic development) and diverting international aid to wedge open emerging markets for their multinational partners and to serve their personal vaccine fetish.” (p. 323)

            Does this sound conspiratorial? It might, but there is no need to invoke conscious scheming. As studies of paradigms suggest, it is quite possible for Gates to be serving his own interests while sincerely believing that he is playing a life-saving role for hundreds of millions of people.

Intellectual property

A revealing indication of priorities is the role of intellectual property (IP) in public health. The rationale for IP, which includes copyright and patents, is to stimulate the production of new ideas and products by giving a temporary monopoly to the creator. I am one of many critics of IP, on several grounds (Martin, 1995). At the simplest level, the length of copyright terms, now standing at 70 years after an author’s death, is vastly longer than needed to stimulate more creative works. More generally, IP primarily benefits big companies in software, publishing, genetically modified foods, Hollywood entertainment — and pharmaceuticals.

            Intellectual property is a restraint on innovation justified by the need to stimulate more innovation, but big companies regularly use their controls to stymie competitors. This process is institutionalised in global agreements, most famously TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The US government has been the most aggressive in pushing to include stronger IP controls in trade agreements, even though for practical purposes IP restrains trade.

            Sometimes IP comes in direct conflict with public health. After AIDS drugs were developed, pharmaceutical companies charged exorbitant prices for them. Governments in low-income countries argued that these drugs should be compulsorily licensed so they could be made available at close to production costs and thereby be used to treat millions of AIDS patients who otherwise would not be able to afford them. The companies, backed by Gates and his entities, vigorously opposed this relaxation of tight IP controls. Gates, in software and drugs, put IP-derived profits above public health.

            Then came Covid and the same scenario, this time with vaccines and public health. The pandemic was proclaimed to be a public health emergency that warranted the most urgent efforts to develop vaccines that would be rolled out for the world’s entire population. But when governments asked for compulsory licensing so manufacturers of generics could provide otherwise unaffordable vaccines, the companies and Gates resisted.

            The willingness of big pharma and its government allies to fight against making their products available at low cost to fight pandemics — AIDS and Covid — is a damning indictment, yet it has received little media attention. Kennedy recounts how the Gates Foundation has made significant donations to media organisations, most of which muzzled themselves when it comes to any questioning of orthodoxy even when, as with licensing of drugs and vaccines, the realities of IP protection clash with public health priorities.

Depopulation?

Perhaps the most outlandish-seeming claims about Fauci and Gates are that they have a depopulation agenda. Kennedy addresses several versions, inadvertent and intentional.

            Inadvertently, some vaccine promotion efforts may lead to higher death rates. Scientist Peter Aaby and colleagues have studied the mortality of children in Guinea-Bissau following various vaccines (Aaby et al., 2018; Kristensen, 2000). The measles vaccine reduces mortality significantly but the DTP triple vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) increases mortality, quite dramatically for young girls. Years ago, the whole-cell pertussis component of DTP was found to be dangerous, so in the West it was replaced by an acellular version, with the resulting triple vaccine denoted as DTaP. However, as Kennedy reports, WHO, supported by Gates, continued to promote the more dangerous DTP version in Africa. This might be called an inadvertent depopulation process.

            Then there is the way vaccine promotion in low-income countries actually hurts population health by diverting money from basic measures such as providing clean water. Kennedy gives the example of the hepatitis B vaccine, promoted in India despite the disease it targets, hepatocellular carcinoma, not being a significant health problem in the country. Furthermore, according to Kennedy, Gates’ entities and allies pushed the WHO to include the hepatitis B vaccine in the mandated list of vaccines worldwide, irrespective of whether it addressed a significant problem. This meant governments paid large amounts to pharmaceutical companies for the vaccines; Gates has large holdings in these companies, so by giving money away he increases his fortune. By diverting scarce funds from more important health problems, this vaccine-promotion agenda could be said to be an inadvertent depopulation process.

            Then there are overt measures to control populations: promotion of anti-fertility drugs. Kennedy presents evidence suggesting that some vaccination programmes in low-income countries were covers for administering anti-fertility drugs, notably one called Depo-Provera. He cites writers who note that the schedule for giving the vaccines was one injection every six months for several years, rather than the usual pattern for the tetanus vaccine. Kennedy also refers to Gates’ longstanding interest in population control.

            The administration of anti-fertility drugs under the guise of vaccination, without proper consent, is obviously scandalous. However, even if true, it is not necessarily evidence of an intent to kill vast numbers of people, as might be suggested by the term “depopulation.” If Kennedy’s claims are correct, they are compatible with Gates sincerely seeking to address the problem of overpopulation, albeit sometimes with unethical means.

Conclusion

The Real Anthony Fauci is an impressive book, covering a wide range of important topics with extensive referencing. There is much more in the book that I have not discussed, including chapters on declaring pandemics and on biological warfare. I have not tried to pass judgement on Kennedy’s claims but rather to comment on whether his general perspective is compatible with some of the analyses by scientists and social scientists who have studied the same issues. For the most part, it is.

            The Real Anthony Fauci is, in parts, far more strident than typical scholarly treatments. In places, it reads like a diatribe, especially against Fauci and Gates. For example, Kennedy writes, “Blind faith in Saint Anthony Fauci may go down in history as the fatal flaw of contemporary liberalism and the destructive force that subverted American democracy, our constitutional government, and global leadership.” (p. 231). Many scholars would look less at the role of individuals and more at social structures, in particular at social systems that allow certain individuals to have an inordinate role in decision-making.

            A serious criticism of The Real Anthony Fauci is that it is one-sided. It presents lots of damning information but seldom attempts to present the other side, except to attack it. Discerning readers need to be aware that this is a critique of Covid orthodoxy and of the actions of the pharmaceutical industry and its most powerful supporters in government, science and philanthropy.

            The one-sidedness of the book might be considered, in context, a counter to the one-sidedness of the orthodox position concerning the pharmaceutical industry, Covid and vaccination. There is a certain symmetry here: both defenders and critics of orthodoxy give insufficient recognition to the other side. But there is a big difference. The defenders of Covid and pharmaceutical orthodoxy are backed by vast wealth and power, including the power to censor critics. The New York Times published attacks on Kennedy, meanwhile refusing to run an advertisement for his book (Lyons, 2022).

            There is one other difference between The Real Anthony Fauci and the many scholarly critiques that raise similar concerns: Kennedy’s book has sold over a million copies. In the age of Covid, it testifies to a widespread interest in seeing a well-documented perspective that questions the official line. That mainstream media decline to review the book or to address its claims shows the importance of a critique that reaches a wide audience.

Acknowledgements

For valuable comments on drafts, I thank Kevin Dew, Bob Dildine, Kurtis Hagen, Ed Hooper, Olga Kuchinskaya, Susan Maret and Sergio Sismondo. None of them necessarily agrees with Kennedy’s views or my own.

References

Aaby, Peter, Søren Wengel Mogensen, Amabella Rodrigues and Christine S. Benn. 2018. “Evidence of increase in mortality after the introduction of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine to children aged 6–35 months in Guinea-Bissau: a time for reflection?” Frontiers in Public Health 6(79), 1–10.

Adams, Phillip. 2022. “Conspiracy of fools,” Weekend Australian Magazine, 19 February, 42.

Angell, Marcia. 2005. The Truth about the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do about It. New York: Random House.

Boffey, Philip M. 1976. “Vaccine imbroglio: the rise and fall of a scientist-critic.” Science 194 (December 3), 1021–1024.

Brown, Steve. 2022. “RFK, Jr.’s ‘The Real Anthony Fauci’ is a record-smashing bestseller — but mainstream media pretends it doesn’t exist.” Children’s Health Defense, February 17. https://childrenshealthdefense.org/defender/rfk-jr-the-real-anthony-fauci-record-smashing-bestseller/

Goldacre, Ben. 2008. Bad Science. London: Fourth Estate.

Goldacre, Ben. 2012. Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. London: Fourth Estate.

Golden, I. 2019. “Reluctance to vaccinate: reasons and solutions.” Journal of Translational Science 5, 1–6.

Gøtzsche, Peter C. 2013. Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare. London: Radcliffe.

Hess, David J. 2016. Undone Science: Social Movements, Mobilized Publics, and Industrial Transitions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hooper, Edward. 2000. The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS. Boston: Little, Brown. http://www.aidsorigins.com/the-river-a-journey-to-the-source-of-hiv-and-aids-2021-edition-by-edward-hooper/#more-3529

Insight Team of The Sunday Times (Phillip Knightley, Harold Evans, Elaine Potter and Marjorie Wallace). 1979. Suffer the Children: The Story of Thalidomide. London: André Deutsch.

Kennedy, Robert F., Jr. 2021. The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. New York: Skyhorse.

Kristensen, Ines, Peter Aaby and Henrik Jensen. 2000. “Routine vaccinations and child survival: follow up study in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.” BMJ 321 (December 9), 1–8.

Lyons, Tony. 2022. “We tried to run an ad for ‘The Real Anthony Fauci’ in The New York Times. Here’s what happened.” Children’s Health Defense, March 13. https://childrenshealthdefense.org/defender/ad-the-real-anthony-fauci-the-new-york-times

Martin, Brian. 1995. “Against intellectual property.” Philosophy and Social Action 21(3), 7–22. https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/95psa.html

Martin, Brian. 1999. “Suppression of dissent in science.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 7, 105–135. https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/99rsppp.html

Martin, Brian. 2010. “How to attack a scientific theory and get away with it (usually): the attempt to destroy an origin-of-AIDS hypothesis.” Science as Culture 19(2): 215–239. https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/10sac.html

Martin, Brian. 2015. “On the suppression of vaccination dissent.” Science and Engineering Ethics 21(1), 143–157. https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/15see.html

Pascal, Louis. 1991. What Happens When Science Goes Bad. The Corruption of Science and the Origin of AIDS: A Study in Spontaneous Generation. Working Paper No. 9, Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, Australia. https://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/documents/AIDS/Pascal91.html

Proctor, Robert N. 2012. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Rost, Peter. 2006. The Whistleblower: Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press.

Schmidt, Jeff. 2000. Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sismondo, Sergio. 2018. Ghost-managed Medicine: Big Pharma’s Invisible Hands. Manchester: Mattering Press. https://www.matteringpress.org/books/ghost-managed-medicine

Smith, Richard. 2005. “Medical journals are an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies.” PLoS Medicine 2(5), e138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020138

********************
Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Can you focus as well as you’d like?

What do gym-goers think about when they’re lifting weights? I don’t know, but in recent years I can see what half of the gym-goers are looking at between sets: their phones. Some become so engrossed that they seem to forget, for a while, that they’re at the gym.

            Outside, walking along, when I come up behind a young person who is walking slowly, I guess they’re multitasking: walking and checking their phone. Usually they are.

            For years I’ve been fascinated with attention, including what we pay attention to and how we maintain it. Part of the challenge is having some control over our attention when others are trying to hijack it, for their own purposes. You might be trying to read but the children want you to do something with them. Or you get a call from a friend. Sometimes interruptions are welcome, such as when you’re doing a boring task and you need a break.

            Interruptions from children and friends are one thing. Interruptions for commercial purposes are another. For quite a few years I’ve been reading about how advertisers seek to capture people’s attention.

            For an eye-opening survey of media and attention, see Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Wu tells how US and UK military propaganda methods were adopted by advertisers, who then pioneered more effective methods. According to Wu, the standard method for capturing your attention is to offer something for free — or just seeming to be free — and then resell your attention to advertisers. Because attention is scarce and there is competition, the race heads downwards, seeking to engage with the intuitive mind and sidestep the rational mind. From The Attention Merchants I learned a different way of understanding developments in television, celebrities, blogging, Facebook and much else. My blog post.

            For understanding how social media have become so good at capturing attention, turn to Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching. It’s a highly engaging account of behavioural addictions, covering evidence for their rise (especially via smart phones), addictive tendencies, the biology of addiction, the engineering of behavioural addiction through goals, feedback, escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction, and what to do about it. Alter provides a stimulating treatment of gamification, in which activities are turned into games. He addresses how habits are formed. My blog post.

Stolen focus

Then I heard about Johann Hari’s new book addressing attention. I had learned a lot from his first two books, Chasing the Scream about the war on drugs and Lost Connections about depression. Hari writes in a highly engaging way, telling about his search for answers to crucial questions, drawing on his own experiences and interviews with key participants and researchers.

            Hari’s new book is titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. He starts with the observation that many people don’t seem to be able to focus for as long as they used to. He tracks down researchers who have studied the capacity to focus. They say the evidence does show that, on average, people’s capacity to focus is declining. Hari wants to find out why.

            He first tackles the most obvious explanation: social media and apps. You might think you are in control of what you do when using your phone. Think again.

            Hari interviewed a former Google engineer, Tristan, who says that success for Google workers was getting more people engaged, in other words hooked. This was not a nefarious plot but simply maximising income: engagement brings in more money from advertisers. At Google and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, no one thought about what they were doing to people’s attention.

            When you use your smartphone, the phone is smarter. The apps are designed by some of the smartest people on the job market to capture your attention. Hari lists several ways that websites and apps are designed that harm attention.

  1. They train your mind to crave rewards – frequent ones.
  2. They encourage you to switch tasks. Task-switching disrupts attention.
  3. They learn what make you tick and use what they learn to distract you and keep you on the platform.
  4. They make you angry, because being angry keeps you engaged. The result is that online, condemning rather than understanding has become the norm.
  5. They make you feel like you’re surrounded by angry people, though this is partly a result of getting everyone engaged.

The result is that your capacities — your intelligence, rationality and focus — and those of others are downgraded.

            What should be done? Why not just take control? Switch off notifications. Unsubscribe from lists. Set your phone to be offline for designated periods. When you go to bed, put it in another room. Hari talked with Nir, who helped develop engrossing apps and then wrote a book about how to resist them. Hari agrees that individuals can do a lot to protect themselves from perpetual distraction, but it’s not enough. When users are up against highly sophisticated algorithms designed to bypass rational controls, only a few have the resources to resist effectively.

            Hari supports individual efforts but thinks collective action is needed to bring websites and app design into a different model, one that supports users rather than exploits them. He gives a nice example of what could be done. It would be simple to develop an app to tell you about everyone in your neighbourhood who would like to go out for dinner, right now. But such an app isn’t available because it would help people go offline.


Johann Hari

What else?

A good portion of Stolen Focus is about devices that hijack your attention, but Hari thinks there are other factors, and continues his explorations. Another important contributor is insecurity. If you’re worried about your job or being able to pay your bills, then it’s harder to concentrate. With the rise of the gig economy in which many people can only obtain insecure and irregular employment, it is no surprise that anxiety levels escalate and attention suffers. Hari argues that a UBI, a universal basic income that is provided to everyone with no strings attached, would do a lot for people’s attention, and for their happiness as well.

            Another factor is your diet. Do you ever binge on junk food? When you aren’t getting enough nutrients, that’s a problem. When you get too much sugar, then after a while your blood sugar level crashes, and your capacity to focus suffers. Add to this environmental chemicals that can affect the brain, especially kids’ brains. Hari says added chemicals in food, as well as ones in the environment, are damaging to attention.

            Finally, Hari explores the way that children, in many affluent societies, are continually monitored. Due to exaggerated fears of child abductions and the promotion of “stranger danger,” many parents no longer allow their children to walk or cycle to school or to play unsupervised. Actually, says Hari, children need the opportunity to organise their own activities. Adults, by their excessive oversight, are not meeting their children’s needs.

Here’s how he summarises the impact of several of the factors he explored:

“We don’t let them play freely; we imprison them in their homes, with little to do except interact via screens; and our school system largely deadens and bores them. We feed them food that causes energy crashes, contains drug-like additives that can make them hyper, and doesn’t contain the nutrients they need. We expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere.”

This is quite an indictment, but there’s only so much an individual can do. Many of the processes Hari describes are hard to escape unless you are really privileged. If you’re Bill Gates and own a small island, you can go there to get away from interruptions. Otherwise, you’re largely on your own — unless you join up with others to bring about change. Hari says there needs to be a social movement to regain the capacity to focus, a movement to support people engaging in the experience of flow in which you become totally engrossed in an activity requiring you to exercise your skills.

            As a clincher, Hari says the people of the world need their attention to deal with serious problems such as climate change. This sounds good. I followed Hari all the way with his explorations, and definitely think it’s worthwhile to cultivate the capacity to focus, and to use it regularly — including to read every word of Stolen Focus. The problem is that the power of attention can also be turned to less noble purposes such as building weapons and constructing ads. Yes, let’s join together to protect and restore our capacities to focus, but also join together for goals that help others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

What is university research for?

Every year, Australian academics spend long hours preparing applications to the Australian Research Council, which awards grants to the most highly ranked projects. Each application is scrutinised by experts in the field and judged by panels of leading scholars. Before the awards are made, they have to be signed off by the Minister of Education, usually a routine bureaucratic step. However, for the ARC round for 2022 funding, the Minister rejected six projects selected by the ARC, causing howls of outrage from the university sector. The projects were selected on academic merit. The Minister was jeopardising the reputation of Australian scholarship by injecting a political assessment into the process.

(Incidentally, if the Minister is going to veto projects, why not do it at the beginning, based on titles and abstracts, thereby saving researchers the effort of preparing their applications?)

There have been ministerial vetoes in several rounds of ARC applications in recent decades, nearly all of them being projects in the humanities and social sciences. One interpretation is that the Minister is appealing to voters who think academics are self-interested and privileged.

The vetoes can also be seen as part of a wider process of channelling university research in the direction of the “national interest,” usually interpreted as serving commercial or government interests. For years, all ARC applications have had to include a justification for how the proposed project serves the national interest. Apparently the “national interest” means commercial interests: the government has been pushing for more commercially oriented research.

These pressures raise the question of the purpose of university research. Just because there are profits to be made does not necessarily make something worthwhile. The classic example is the tobacco industry, which sponsored lots of research, but only continued supporting researchers who gave results serving the industry. Association with the tobacco industry is now a source of stigma, but this was not always true.

Today, some of the most corrupt research practices thrive in biomedicine. The pharmaceutical industry carries out its own research and sponsors research by academics. Research favouring industry products is far more likely to be published. In some cases, academics are listed as authors of papers ghostwritten by industry scientists. Dissidents may be subject to discrimination and reprisals.

Quite a few scholars have pointed to the corruption of academic research by commercial interests. Findings about drugs and environmental impacts, among other topics, are skewed towards the interests of companies, harming the public interest. The classical ideal of independent, disinterested research was never achieved, but with commercial inroads into universities, the reality is further than ever from the ideal.

It is quite common for scientists’ research to be sponsored by a company or government with a vested interest in the outcome. For the scientists, this represents a conflict of interest and should make the results suspect. Greater commercialisation accentuates this problem, indeed makes it a goal. It is a perversion of the ideals of independence to encourage and reward sponsorship of research by vested interests.


Philip Mirowski writes about commercialisation of US scientific research

What’s off the agenda?

The emphasis on commercialisation leads to neglect of research that serves human needs but has little or no profit-making potential. There are numerous areas where research is vitally needed but where results are likely to be contrary to commercial or government interests.

Industrial democracy involves workers participating in decisions about how to carry out jobs and sometimes even what products to produce. Some managers encourage limited forms of worker participation, but deeper forms are usually discouraged because they cut into managerial prerogatives. This is despite research, going back many decades, suggesting that greater worker participation can improve productivity. Decades ago, several Australian social scientists, including Fred Emery and Trevor Williams, were leaders in research on industrial democracy, but this pioneering work has fallen into a vacuum.

Even ignoring the benefits of greater productivity, greater worker participation has been shown to improve the quality of working life, more than improvements in salaries and conditions. Research into industrial democracy is a social good, but don’t expect companies or governments to sponsor much of it.

One of the most exciting areas today is the production of goods and services through the cooperative efforts of unpaid contributors. The most well-known example is free software. The computer operating system Linux is superior to proprietary alternatives, and it was produced through non-commercial means. Open-source approaches are now found in many areas, including colas, drug development and solar technology. Combined with 3D printing, open-source software opens the possibility of a jump in productivity using an entirely different model: distributed production with free sharing of ideas.

In the face of such emerging initiatives, pushing universities in traditional commercial directions is retrograde.

Research into peace and human rights is vital for dealing with the problems of war, genocide, torture and exploitation. Governments spend an enormous amount of money funding militaries, including military research, collectively feeding the war machine and human rights abuses. Scientists continue research into weapons, and there is a long history of militaries drawing on university research. By comparison, research into nonviolent methods of struggle is extremely limited, despite pathbreaking findings that challenging repressive governments through nonviolent means is more likely to be effective than armed struggle.

A different agenda

Pushing university researchers to serve government and corporate interests accentuates a decades-long trend away from independent research into areas of human need. However, it should not be assumed that priorities for university research set by scholars are necessarily worthwhile.

It has long been the case that researchers seek money, preferably with no strings attached, to carry out their pet projects. They want support without accountability except to their scholarly peers. This can lead to research that serves the researchers, with publications, status, promotions and prestige, but has little wider benefit.

Within research fields, jargon and esoteric theory can proliferate, so outsiders cannot easily understand studies, and topics pursued that have little potential social relevance. In some instances, so-called pure or blue-sky research turns out to have immense practical spin-offs. Are these the exceptions?

Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher of science, argued that research agendas should be changed from a search for knowledge to a search for wisdom. Knowledge is not necessarily beneficial, such as knowledge about how to kill or exploit people. Maxwell’s “philosophy of wisdom” involves research to serve human needs, for example addressing issues of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Following Maxwell’s analysis, the goal for university research should not be ivory-tower investigations, simply following the agendas of academics, but a greater orientation to pressing social issues. This means not separation from society, but wider community participation in setting research agendas. Corporations and governments should have a say, but so should farmers, builders, nurses, teachers, parents, people with disabilities and a host of others.

Rather than posing a dichotomy between ivory-tower research and research driven by government and commercial priorities, there is another option: research agendas shaped by input from members of the wider community – the ones who should be benefiting in the long run.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Clark Chilson, Jungmin Choi, Caroline Colton and Olga Kuchinskaya for useful comments.

Tiny habits for writing

It’s not easy to become a productive writer. Using the tiny habits approach has much to offer.

A common problem for writers is procrastination, often linked to excess perfectionism: “I don’t feel like writing today. I’ll wait until I feel the inspiration.” Delay follows delay. Sometimes, when sitting down to write, a perfectionist keeps rewriting the first paragraph or even the first sentence, because it’s never quite right.

            Finally, after an interminable delay, pressure builds up, often due to a deadline, and this triggers a surge of writing lasting hours or even days. It’s a binge. It generates lots of words but it’s exhausting mentally. Not wanting to do it again soon leads to procrastination, and the cycle goes on.

In 2008, I read Tara Gray’s book Publish & Flourish. It is a short, easy-to-read and inspiring guide to becoming a productive scholarly writer. The core of her approach is writing daily — a practical way to overcome procrastination and bingeing. Gray was inspired by research, carried out in the 1980s, by psychologist and education researcher Robert Boice. He observed that most new academics were overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, but noticed a small number who were less stressed and more productive. Boice thought the techniques used by these more productive junior academics could be taught to others and set out to show how. He found that a practice of daily writing, in short periods and with accountability, could work wonders.

Since 2008, I’ve used the Boice-Gray approach myself, offered it to my PhD students and coordinated a writing programme for academics and research students. I’m always on the lookout for ideas to make the process easier and more effective. It was with this background that I came to BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits.

            Fogg developed his programme for building habits a decade ago and has been using it to help thousands of people. Tiny Habits is a straightforward presentation of the programme, with lots of exercises, diagrams, lists and — most revealing of all — stories about habit development. Some of the stories are about people Fogg knows, and some are his own personal experiences.

Here I’m going to point to a few of the ideas in Tiny Habits and say how they relate to the Boice-Gray writing programme.

Start small

A key idea in Tiny Habits is to start small — very small. The purpose is to make it as easy as possible to start a new behaviour. Once it becomes a regular part of your routine, it can be built up. Fogg repeatedly uses one example from his own experience: after he has a pee, he does two push-ups. And to start with, the push-ups can be against the wall. Easy! Fogg wanted to become fitter, and he wanted to develop habits that would help in this quest. He didn’t start by going to the gym for a workout. He started with the two-push-up routine.

            In the writing programme, we have something similar. Rather than procrastinating and then going on a writing binge, the goal is to write a relatively small amount each day, an amount small enough to feel unthreatening, small enough to feel doable.

When I started the Boice-Gray method, I aimed at about 15 minutes per day, which felt like a breeze compared to my previous methods, and easy to maintain week after week. However, I soon learned that for many of my colleagues, even to sit down and write for 15 minutes was too daunting to contemplate. They couldn’t do it. Some couldn’t write anything at all. So, for those who join our group and started out writing many hundreds of words each day, I say, “Cut back. Don’t write for so long each day. Think of doing five or ten minutes. Do this until you create a sustainable habit.”

This advice worked for some, but others dropped away after starting the programme, returning to their usual pattern of procrastination and bingeing. If I had known about the tiny habits approach, I would have offered something simpler: start by writing just one minute each day. Or even simpler: start by picking up a pen and looking at a sheet of paper. Do this every day for a week. If you feel like writing a sentence, do that.

Tiny habit indeed! Picking up your pen — or putting your fingers on a keyboard — and thinking about writing seems pretty easy. That’s the point! It’s so easy that it’s hard to rationalise not doing it. It’s hard to say, “I’m too busy to pick up a pen and look at a sheet of paper for a few seconds.” It’s so easy that excuses are too obviously just that, excuses.

Don’t rely on motivation

Many people, when they want to start a new behaviour, rely on motivation. They want to lose weight, so they rely on their willpower to eat less or eat differently. This sounds obvious, but it hardly ever works.

Fogg devotes pages of text telling about motivation and why it’s an unreliable road to change. He tells about “behaviour design” as a way of getting around the “motivation monkey.” The idea is to discover what you really want to do, and develop a way to turn that into a routine.

The Boice-Gray writing programme is also based on a distrust of relying on motivation. The bad habit of procrastination is driven by an assumption, or rationalisation, that you need to be inspired to write, so if you don’t feel like it, then you should wait until you do. For quite a few scholars, the result is very little writing.

Here comes a delicate issue. Fogg provides a detailed set of steps for figuring out what you really want to do. The writing programme assumes you really want to write, or at least to be an author. But perhaps some scholars don’t really want to write. Maybe they don’t really want to be authors because they fear putting out their work for others to read.

Make it easy enough

Fogg provides an illuminating diagram showing the areas where action will be taken, with the axes being motivation and ability. If your motivation is too low, you won’t act; if you lack ability, you won’t act. Doing 20 push-ups might be too hard; doing two push-ups against the wall probably won’t be.

Everyone in the writing programme has the ability to write. Most of us are either doing PhDs or already have PhDs. But sometimes it seems that writing on a challenging topic for an article or thesis chapter feels too hard. Because it’s important to write regularly, we sometimes suggest easier options, such as writing a diary entry, a letter to a friend, or just whatever comes into your head, so-called free writing. Options like these help keep up the daily writing habit, and maintain or improve our capacity to turn thoughts into words on a page.

Use prompts

When it comes to building a habit, a crucial factor is having a prompt: something that will remind you of what you want to do. Fogg gives many examples of prompts and how to find one that is reliable and effective.


This is probably not a good prompt.

            In the writing programme, we recommend finding a regular time and place for writing, so it becomes part of a routine. For me, it’s soon after getting up in the morning. Others time their writing after specific activities. We could do more to help each other find prompts.

Over the years, many participants in the programme say that it’s important to do their writing before checking emails or social media. It’s easy to get sucked into hours of online browsing, and before long writing seems too hard. One tip is to turn off notifications, so there’s less temptation to see what’s come in. For those who find it easy to be distracted, we’ve suggested various tricks, for example leaving a sheet of paper on top of the computer, to be seen at the next visit, saying “WRITE”. The problem of overcoming distractions can be thought of as breaking an undesired habit. Fogg tells about this too.

Celebrate

Fogg recommends celebrating immediately after every single success in carrying out a tiny habit, even just doing two wall push-ups. He goes to great lengths to encourage you to find the most effective way. It might be a fist-pump, shouting “Yes!” or doing a little dance. Fogg says it’s worth experimenting to see what actually brings out a positive feeling. It’s the positive emotion that’s important: it helps wire in the habit.

            In the writing programme, we encourage people to reward themselves after finishing a writing session, for example by having a favourite drink, taking a walk or checking social media. That’s fine, and is compatible with a tiny habits approach, but I think Fogg would recommend something more immediate and emotionally powerful right after writing the last word in a session.

What else?

There is far more detail in Tiny Habits than I can indicate here, and it would be fascinating to explore many possible applications to writing. There is one other connection, a general one, worth mentioning here: experimentation. Fogg says it’s worth trying out different techniques to find what works best for building a desired habit, or ending an undesired one. In our writing group meetings, I often say that finding the most effective approach to writing is a matter of trial and error. What works for one person may not work for another. Each of us listens to others describe techniques they’ve tried and thus get ideas about what we might try ourselves, so in a sense we’re experimenting both individually and collectively.

Tiny Habits is remarkably detailed in its guidelines. There’s one thing I missed: comparison with other works on habits. Fogg gives no references. I would have liked to see a discussion of Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book The Power of Habit or of research on expert performance such as Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Perhaps this is just a scholarly quibble. The test for each individual is whether learning the tiny-habits approach is worthwhile.


BJ Fogg

            Are you going to get a copy of Tiny Habits? Maybe you need some incentive to order it. Then, are you going to read it? Start small: just open the book once a day. Then aim to read just one page each day — and celebrate just after you do. Before long, you’ll have perfected a habit of regular reading.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Monica O’Dwyer and Bec Watt for useful feedback on drafts, and to all members of the high-output writing programme for sharing experiences.

Understanding resistance to vaccination

Those who don’t support vaccination are often seen as irrational. Yet, on closer inspection, the issues are not so clear-cut. Condemning “anti-vaxxers” might even be counterproductive. Better is understanding resistance to vaccination.

Given the positive connotations of “resistance” — often thought of as valiant opposition to unfairness — it might seem wrong to give this label to anyone who does not fully support vaccination, the rationale being that they are being selfish and endangering public health. Whatever your view, it can be useful to better understand the psychology and politics of vaccination.

“Resistance to vaccination” can take many forms. It includes accepting some vaccines but not others, spacing out injections, openly questioning official vaccination policies, and publicly protesting vaccination mandates. Resistance can be individual or collective.

With the advent of Covid-19, vaccination has become a high-profile personal and political issue, with nearly every adult needing to make a personal decision about whether to be vaccinated and how to relate to others depending on their vaccination status. I address resistance to Covid vaccines later.

Personally, I do not have strong views about vaccination. My interest in the vaccination issue comes from supporting the free speech of Australian vaccination critics who came under severe attack over many years.

Background

From the very first vaccine, for smallpox, there was resistance. In the 1800s in England, mandates triggered greater resistance, and even mass protests.

            In the second half of the 1900s, vaccines were introduced for an increasing number of infectious diseases, including polio, measles, pertussis (whooping cough), mumps, chickenpox and others. Most of these vaccines are recommended for children rather than adults, thus introducing an extra consideration: parents need to make vaccination decisions for their children who are too young to give informed consent.

Governments and medical authorities throughout the world recommend vaccination against a range of diseases, though the number of vaccines and preferred ages differ somewhat. Some governments apply strong pressures for vaccination whereas others do not. The greater the official and social pressures, the more relevant is the concept of resistance.

Arguments

For those who support vaccination, the arguments are pretty straightforward, summarised by the slogan “Vaccination saves lives.”

In particular, vaccines are designed to improve immunity against specific diseases, thus providing a benefit to the vaccinee (the person who is vaccinated). However, some people cannot be vaccinated or do not develop adequate immunity, for example cancer patients receiving chemotherapy who have a reduced immune function. These people are protected from infection when nearly everyone around them is immune. More generally, when nearly everyone is immune, infections have a hard time spreading. This sort of protection of those without immunity is a collective benefit.

Vaccination thus has two sorts of benefit, personal and collective. The collective benefit is often treated as generating a moral imperative that everyone should be vaccinated, to protect those with impaired immunity.

            Before proceeding further, it’s necessary to say that nearly every important claim about vaccination is disputed by some partisans — that includes both individual and collective benefits.

Turning to arguments against vaccination, the most influential is the possibility of adverse reactions to vaccines, including illness, disability and death. Critics claim adverse reactions are far more common than normally recognised. Another argument follows the line of thinking that some diseases — for example mumps — are usually harmless in childhood and give better immunity than vaccines.

Most early vaccine developers — for example, the polio vaccine pioneers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin — gifted their discoveries to the public: they did not try to commercialise their vaccines. Beginning in the 1980s, pharmaceutical companies sought to profit from vaccine development and sales. This fed into concerns felt by some parents that the profit motive might be compromising safety.


Jonas Salk

            Decades ago, only a few vaccines were standardly available and recommended. More were added year by year, so in the US a child is now recommended to receive dozens of vaccine doses for numerous diseases. The great increase in the number of vaccines has contributed to parental reservations, especially for diseases that are rare or usually mild.

Sociologists have interviewed parents who have concerns about childhood vaccines. One of their findings is that parents with hesitations are usually well informed, well educated, and care a great deal about their children’s wellbeing. Few of them fit the caricature of being anti-rational or obsessed with conspiracy theories.

When a child seems to have an adverse reaction to a vaccine, the parents often report that doctors and health officials are sceptical, even contemptuous. These hostile attitudes can be counterproductive, causing parents to become alienated from mainstream medicine. Parents with reservations gravitate to places where they can share experiences without being shamed. When they discover vaccine-critical citizens groups, they may feel at home.

            Numerous writers about vaccine hesitancy lay blame on “anti-vaccine” information on the Internet, promulgated by campaigners. Yet it may be the other way around: vaccine-critical groups may be driven more by common experiencesthan by winning recruits through fear-mongering. A study of members of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network found that most had concerns before they joined. The implication is that such groups are more the product than the cause of concerns about vaccination.

Forms of resistance

Many parents who decide not to follow official vaccination recommendations try to keep a low profile, especially in places where unvaccinated children are stigmatised. In these cases, resistance is individual and not publicised.

When pressures to vaccinate become stronger, the stakes are raised and resistance can have bigger effects on both children and parents. In some US states, to attend school the option of religious and conscientious objection has been removed and obtaining medical exemptions made more difficult. Parents can resist this sort of pressure by finding a sympathetic doctor, moving to a different state or home-schooling.

The stronger the pressures, arguably, the more likely some parents are to seek information and support from vaccine-critical groups. Strong pressures can sometimes foster the resistance they are supposed to overcome.

            In Australia, rates of childhood vaccination have been high and stable for many years. Mainstream proponents of vaccination realised that only a few percent of parents were strongly opposed and that there were far more parents whose children were not fully vaccinated due to personal circumstances, including distance from doctors, travelling and inconvenient schedules. In this context, the most promising way to increase vaccination rates was to make it easier for parents who supported vaccination to have their children receive all their vaccines. These proponents argued for having respectful conversations with parents as the most productive way to increase vaccination rates.

However, other pro-vaccination campaigners — including Australia’s largest media organisation, News Corp — decided to target vaccine-critical groups and to get the government to remove welfare benefits from families whose children were not fully vaccinated. This campaign succeeded in stigmatising critics and increasing financial penalties but had little or no impact on vaccination rates. In this instance, resistance to vaccination was the rationale for financial penalties. It might be said that vaccine resistance became a political tool.

How should we think about resistance to vaccination?

If we think of slavery or the Nazis, it seems obvious that resistance is warranted, indeed praiseworthy. The same applies when resistance is to something that nearly everyone agrees is unjust or oppressive.

In the case of vaccination, the rights and wrongs of resistance are highly contested. From the point of view of supporters of vaccination, resistance is wrong: it is dangerous to public health. Furthermore, to publicly criticise vaccination is wrong because it may encourage refusal. Because vaccine hesitancy is such a danger, censorship and coercive measures are justified.

From the point of view of prominent critics of vaccination, resistance is valiant. They are campaigning for the right to choose, and pointing out information, unmentioned in official pronouncements, that they believe needs to be taken into account. Then there are parents, in particular those who want to learn enough to make their own informed decisions about their children’s health. Some of them decide to deviate from official recommendations. They become resisters.

Studying an issue like vaccination means being catapulted into a scientific controversy, a typical one in which most of the experts and groups with money and power are on one side and a few dissident experts and citizen groups are on the other. It’s possible to adopt a non-partisan position and just examine the methods of resistance, but more common is to decide one side is right and try to figure out how to help it overcome resistance. This is the path taken in numerous studies by supporters of vaccination.

The vaccination issue highlights the importance of the tactic of devaluation. Proponents stigmatise those who have reservations, calling them “anti-vaxxers.” Devaluation happens to resisters in a wide range of domains but is especially important in relation to vaccination, where the language of stigma has been taken up by many members of the public. In studying resistance, it is important to study the techniques used by authorities to subjugate resisters.

Note also that some critics put down those who are vaccinated as dupes or sheep, and send abuse and make threats against proponents. This is usually counterproductive.

Finally, it is important to note the enormous emphasis on vaccination as the solution to the problem of infectious disease and the consequent marginalisation of other methods of improving health, including exercise, good diet, sleep and avoidance of toxins. In a sense, the vaccination debate is a distraction: the focus should be on ways to protect and improve health. By putting so much attention on vaccination, and stigmatising and attacking critics, other contributors to ill-health are neglected. This includes cars and labour-saving devices that discourage physical activity, unhealthy foods, and the myriad chemicals that contaminate the environment. Companies that make great amounts of money from the way society is organised — from tech companies to town planners — avoid responsibility for associated harms. They are let off the hook by the focus on vaccination. The implication is to pay attention to issues that may be sidelined by the most prominent struggles.

The takeaway message is that the vaccination issue, including resistance, is not as simple and straightforward as often assumed. Learning more reveals complexities as well as insights for understanding resistance.

Covid vaccination: why is there resistance?

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments introduced extraordinary measures to control the spread of the disease, including isolation orders, lockdowns, travel restrictions, contact tracing, testing, quarantining, distancing and mask-wearing. These were seen as temporary measures until Covid was brought under control. The hoped-for salvation was widespread vaccination.

            Vaccines became available in record time. But that was not the end of the story. As in the case of other vaccines, there was resistance. The story of Covid-vaccine resistance repeats what happened with many earlier vaccines. But there are also important differences.

First, the similarities. Covid vaccines promise a benefit to individuals, reducing their susceptibility to disease and to serious impacts, and also promise a collective benefit because the infectious agent, the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has fewer people susceptible to infection. The argument for vaccination appeals both to self-interest, to protect your own health, and to social responsibility, to protect others.

As in the case of other vaccines, there have been critical voices, including among doctors and scientists, raising the same sorts of concerns, specifically that the benefits of the vaccines are oversold and that the risks are greater than acknowledged. As in the case of other vaccines, critics and vaccine-hesitant individuals have been stigmatised.

Thus in many ways the controversy over Covid vaccines is nothing new. It raises many of the same issues familiar to those involved in the politics of vaccination. But there are also quite a few differences that have made the issue far greater than anything before.

What’s different about Covid vaccines?

First, Covid vaccines have been introduced in the middle of a pandemic, furthermore one in a world interconnected as never before. The stakes are higher. The enormous alarm about Covid has meant that hopes and fears about vaccines have a correspondingly higher profile.

Second, the benefits and risks from Covid vaccines have an unusual profile. As is well known, the benefits from Covid vaccines are greatest for those most vulnerable, namely those who are old and have other health problems. This is like the pattern for influenza, except the flu also can be dangerous to the very young. The risks from Covid vaccines, due to adverse reactions, seem to be greatest for those who are young. So for children and young people, there is a curious combination of low personal benefit and higher personal risk. Adding to this, most studies show that having Covid gives longer-lasting immunity than being vaccinated, so for those young people with the lowest risk of contracting Covid, there seems to be less to gain from vaccination.

Third, Covid vaccines are the first ones imposed on the entire adult population. Most other vaccines are given in childhood. In the United States, flu vaccines are recommended throughout life but are widely recognised as being only partly effective, and are compulsory only for a few occupations such as healthcare. In the history of vaccination, compulsion is often met with widespread opposition, which is why most health policy leaders have advised against mandatory vaccination. For most adults, Covid vaccines are the first occasion in which they have experienced strong pressure to vaccinate and, in some cases, severe sanctions for not doing so.

Fourth, vaccination is seen as part of a wider package of Covid control measures, including isolation orders, lockdowns, distancing and mask-wearing. Some of the control measures, especially lockdowns, have had a severe psychological and financial impact on some individuals and sectors of the population. This has led some individuals and groups to challenge the narrative presented by political leaders that “We are all in this together,” when it is obvious that some groups are prospering while others are paying a high price. Also important are the serious psychological impacts of isolation. Although vaccination imperatives are not responsible for the effects of other Covid control measures, they can be seen as part of an apparatus of oppression, a sort of guilt by association.

            Fifth, there has been extensive censorship of viewpoints contrary to official policy. For example, some critics have had their Facebook and YouTube accounts abruptly cancelled. However, because there are many alternative channels to obtain views contrary to orthodoxy, censorship may make critics, and anyone with reservations, feel unfairly treated. It can seem like there is not a free and open discussion.

Sixth, the call to be vaccinated for the good of the community comes after decades of neoliberal policies fostering individualism, using the rhetoric of personal freedom. People are encouraged to satisfy their desires through personal consumption of goods and services rather than through building shared activities with neighbours and friends. Employers have less loyalty to employees, who in turn treat jobs as stepping stones to personal advancement. Accepting a lower salary and status to serve the public has less attraction than before. In this context, suddenly people are called upon to make sacrifices for the common good. When they feel forced to make sacrifices, for example when their income is lowered, and they see elites with special privileges, this can make some want to push back against Covid controls — including vaccination.

            Given these factors, resistance to Covid control measures is not surprising.

What to do

What are the implications? This depends to a great extent on one’s position concerning vaccination, so I will separately list some possibilities for different views.

For those who do not want to receive Covid vaccines, or who oppose mandates or coercive measures, what is the most effective way to resist? This is not easy to answer at an individual level, because people’s circumstances vary so much. At a collective level, in many countries there have been public protests with thousands of people joining marches and rallies.

It is well known that the mass media selectively report violence, so when ten thousand people protest peacefully, if ten of them break windows or clash with police, that will lead the news. This means that it is very hard to assess what is going on except by being there or talking to many who were.

            Many of those involved are new to protest. To become more effective, one step would be to contact experienced nonviolent activists and develop a campaign strategy with clear goals and a variety of methods that will communicate concerns and mobilise greater support. Would silent vigils be effective? It’s hard to know but it would be worth trying to see whether a wider cross-section of the population would feel safe to participate. Clashes with police are likely to be counterproductive. Basically, protest organisers could learn a lot from experienced nonviolent campaigners. As well as protesting against, there could also be constructive actions that show what the desired future would be like.

Now consider implications for those who support Covid vaccinations and who are critical of or hostile towards those who refuse them. It is worthwhile to clarify goals. Is the goal greater levels of vaccination, or greater levels of immunity, or better health overall?

An initial suggestion is not to be so quick to condemn those who challenge or flout pressures to vaccinate. Although some refusers may be ill-informed, some have studied the issues, spent time weighing up options, and reached a considered decision. For such individuals, condemnation is unlikely to be helpful. Engaging in respectful conversations is more likely to be productive.

Vaccination mandates and censorship of Covid views contrary to orthodoxy may harden resistance. Some people oppose compulsory measures simply because they are compulsory. Another factor is that those who feel pressured to vaccinate are more likely to seek support from others with similar concerns. The result is that vaccination resistance transitions from individual to collective forms. In a sense, mandates create the very enemy — organised opposition — they are supposed to overcome.

Another implication is that resistance is about values, not just science. Talking about “following the science” is unlikely to be convincing to those who put a great priority on personal freedom, even at the expense of their own health. Furthermore, values can shape acceptance of medical authority, so it becomes a question of which authorities to invoke, mainstream or dissident.

            Some supporters of vaccination become self-righteous, assuming they hold the one and only truth about Covid. Furthermore, if they recognise the role of values, in particular the values of individual rights versus public health, they assume their own values are superior. Presuming to hold the one and only truth and that one’s values are unquestionable is a poor basis for understanding resistance.

Some of the concerns of well-informed resisters may point to genuine issues, for example the lack of information about long-term consequences of Covid vaccines, the lack of comprehensive studies of adverse reactions, the role of vested interests and the relative neglect of preventatives and treatments, especially using nonpatentable substances such as vitamin D and ivermectin. It is possible to learn from resisters about ways to make vaccination more credible to at least some of its critics.

It may be possible to find common cause with some Covid vaccine critics. For example, agreement might be possible over non-vaccine ways to reduce the harms from Covid, such as encouraging exercise and protecting those who are most vulnerable.

When lives are at stake and some people seem to be flouting basic advice for the common good, it is tempting to attack, condemn and use coercive measures. It would be more productive to show respect, learn from critics and join together in whatever ways are possible.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Bob Dildine, Kelly Gates, Julia LeMonde and Tom Weber for helpful comments on drafts, and to many others for stimulating discussions on vaccination issues.

Other posts and articles about Covid

On Covid protesting

Many people have protested against Covid control measures. How can their efforts be made more effective? Should they be?


Covid protest, Melbourne, 2020

After the first major Australian public protests against lockdowns, everywhere I looked there was condemnation. Media stories highlighted violent incidents and reported that right-wing extremists were involved. Many protesters were not wearing masks, so the danger of Covid transmission was emphasised. Some prominent left-wing figures criticised the protesters, siding with the police for a change.

I thought, “Not so quick.” It is standard for media reports to focus on the negative aspects of protests, especially violence. I was reminded of protests against nuclear war back in the 1980s. Opponents dismissed the protesters as uninformed and as tools of the Soviet Union. Didn’t they know nuclear weapons are there to protect us?

Here I’m going to present some ideas from research on protest movement strategy and comment about how these ideas can apply to resistance to Covid control measures. For those who oppose Covid protests, there are a few suggestions at the end.

Why would I want to suggest ways for Covid protests to be more effective? Most importantly, if people are going to protest, I think it’s better for all of us when they use nonviolent methods — whether or not you or I agree with their goals. Many of those involved are first-time protesters, and it would be good if they developed their understanding and skills. You never know when you might want them on your side.


Covid protest in France

Background

Governments around the world have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with a variety of control measures, including distancing, quarantining, masking, lockdowns and promotion of vaccination. Many governments have used Covid as a justification for restrictions on civil liberties. In many places, there has been resistance to these measures, including massive protests.

In Australia, government leaders have condemned the protests and the protesters, while mass media have mostly ignored or condemned them. A common response is to say that control measures are to protect the public from a dangerous disease and that protesters are being irresponsible: they are threatening public health. My impression is that the same sort of response to protests occurs in many other countries.

My personal background is relevant to this issue in two ways. Since the late 1970s, I’ve been studying scientific controversies, including the ones over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation, the origin of AIDS — and vaccination.

Also since the late 1970s, I’ve been involved with social movements, including the movement against nuclear power and the peace movement. Related to this, I’ve studied nonviolent action, which refers to methods like rallies, strikes, boycotts and sit-ins. As well, I compiled a collection of resources for resisting repression in Australia.


Covid protest in Berlin

Covid protest rallies fit the usual model of protest: people have a grievance or a social concern and join together to express their feelings in the hope of promoting change in policies or practices. The strange thing is that so many activists from other movements seem to have stayed away, and furthermore to condemn the protesters. They hear about Covid protesters who are linked to right-wing extremists, or who have weird ideas, and dismiss the protesters as dangerous and ignorant.

Controversy

Concerning Covid, most governments and health authorities have adopted a standard view, that the pandemic is a major threat to public health warranting extreme measures to control the threat. However, the standard view has been contested by some researchers and doctors. This is a typical public scientific controversy, similar in many ways to others I have studied. There is disagreement about technical matters and the technical disagreements are mixed in with differences about ethics and decision-making.

There are actually several Covid controversies. One is over the origin of Covid: wet markets or lab leak. Others are over the seriousness of Covid, treatments for the disease, vaccination, masks and lockdowns.


Lab leak or wet market?

As with many other controversies, such as over climate change, genetic modification and fluoridation, those on the side of scientific orthodoxy say critics are ill-informed, ignorant and dangerous, and that governments and the public should trust the experts. They assume there is only one rational response and that anyone who disagrees is “anti-science.” This obscures the role of differences in values. In disputes over Covid control measures, there are differences in values placed on controlling Covid versus freedom of movement and assembly.

Here I’m going to offer some ideas about Covid protests drawn from the theory and practice of nonviolent action. These ideas are fairly general because I haven’t participated in any protests and because there is so much variation in experiences from place to place, worldwide and even within Australia. Those opposed to Covid protests can skip to my remarks in the final section.


Covid protest in London

Getting the message out

Rallies and civil disobedience are good for showing passion, commitment and breadth of concern, but they are not so good for communicating the reasons people are protesting. Media coverage, if there is any, is usually more about the events than the issues. Protesters can carry placards and banners, but these are too brief to communicate much about the evidence and arguments.

A social movement needs a communication strategy. One important aspect is self-education. Participants need to learn about the issue, including facts and arguments, and how to counter contrary viewpoints. Just because people join together on the streets doesn’t mean they have a deep understanding of the issues. This is nothing new. It has been true of many other movements.

A few members are highly knowledgeable. They know about all sorts of scientific research, about ethical arguments and much else. The challenge is for others in the movement to learn from them. In anti-war movements of yore, one technique was the teach-in, in which knowledgeable speakers would explain issues. These days, this can be done online. It’s like a classroom, with a priority on interactive learning.

The ideal, which can never be reached, is for every person at a rally to be knowledgeable enough so that they can give a good account to a journalist or an observer. This will seldom be possible, so those who have a better grasp of the issues or are more articulate need to take the lead in talking with others.

At a rally, speakers usually try to fire up the crowd with powerful rhetoric. This is good for building a sense of a common cause but not for educating the public. It is speaking to the converted. This needs to be supplemented by a strategy to reach those who are neutral or sceptical.


Door canvasser

There are various options, such as going door to door inviting conversations, holding information meetings (online or face to face) and circulating leaflets and links. This doesn’t sound exciting. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of joining a rally, but it is the foundation of any effort to change people’s views.

A crucial part of a communication strategy is to show to others that campaigners, and people with concerns, are human, ordinary people. Given the rhetoric that anyone sceptical of the official Covid line is some sort of lunatic who doesn’t care about others’ health and welfare, it is vital that campaigners come across as sensible, reasonable, considerate and, when possible, just like other people. Messages are most persuasive when the sender is similar to the receiver in age, occupation and other characteristics.

Action

Gene Sharp in his classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action presents the “dynamics of nonviolent action,” which is a series of stages or features of nonviolent campaigns. He developed this framework by studying numerous campaigns, such as the Indian independence struggle and the US civil rights movement. It’s worth considering how Sharp’s dynamics framework applies to campaigning against Covid control measures.

Sharp calls the first stage “laying the groundwork.” It involves communicating with supporters, building organisations and networks, developing skills and preparing for action. Laying the groundwork is a vital part of any campaign, done before taking strong action. Without sufficient preparation, movements are more likely to fade away after the initial excitement.

Covid protester organisers, however, seem to have put in relatively little effort in laying the groundwork. Instead, they have gone straight to action, calling rallies before there has been time to build the capacity of the movement. This has been possible due to social media, which enables rapid mobilisation, unlike what was possible just a few decades ago. Zeynep Tufekci in her book Twitter and Tear Gas describes the problems that can arise from mobilisation with relatively little preparation, for example in Turkey and Egypt: often there is a big impact in a short time, but without the foundations of trust and decision-making processes, the movement is susceptible to pushback from authorities, and some early gains are lost, as in Egypt after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak.


Cairo, 25 January 2011

Sharp’s second stage is “challenge brings repression.” When the movement takes action against authorities, this often leads to police attacks on activists, for example beatings, arrests and shootings.

In some countries, police have been heavy-handed in shutting down Covid protests. More commonly, though, protests have been tolerated with not so much repression. The reason is that, in many countries, rallies are a regular and accepted method of protest and, in Sharp’s terms, do not constitute nonviolent action. However, when gathering in public places is banned, as with lockdown rules, a public protest is indeed a challenge to authorities and may be met with harsh measures.

What sort of action is most effective?

A challenge to authorities may bring repression, but there’s a prior question: what sort of challenge is most effective? Movements around the world have used mass rallies to challenge dictatorial rulers, and because such mass events are so visually striking, they can be seen as the essence of social action. However, rallies alone are usually not enough to bring about significant change. Also needed are other methods, and there are a lot of them, ranging from vigils to strikes to alternative economic systems.

In deciding what action to take, there are several considerations. One is to enable participation by as many people as possible, from different walks of life. This builds the movement. Another consideration is to make the action as meaningful and empowering as possible for participants. This also builds the movement. Thirdly, ideally the methods used in the action should be ones compatible with the goal being sought. There are other considerations too. How will members of the public react? How will the police react? Choosing the right action is not a simple matter.


Covid protest in Italy

In the age of Covid, many people are deeply frightened of catching the disease. Therefore, when they see large crowds of people protesting, not wearing masks and not keeping distance, they are frightened. The crowds may be outside, where the risk of transmitting an infection is far less than indoors, but that doesn’t do much to reduce the fear. So what about other actions? What about a silent march, single file, wearing masks and carrying candles? This would be less threatening, many people can join in and it might be more moving for those involved.

It’s useful to think of two sorts of actions: those that resist injustice and those that help build an alternative world. Imagine a stall in which activists pass out free vitamin D capsules. Vitamin D is cheap and not patentable, and some research suggests it reduces the risk of contracting Covid. This sort of action could generate attention to alternatives to control measures.

Remaining nonviolent

There is one other vital consideration: not using violence. The third element in Sharp’s dynamics of nonviolent action is “solidarity and discipline to fight repression.” The key is to “maintain nonviolent discipline”. By this, Sharp means not using physical violence against police or other authorities. If there’s a rally of a thousand people and two of them throw bricks through shop windows and try to fight police, their behaviour can discredit the whole protest and become a pretext for police violence against the entire group.

Here’s the situation. When no one protesting uses any violence, then if police attack, it can be seen by many observers as unfair, and this can generate sympathy for the protesters. However, if any protesters use violence, this turns the engagement into a contest – a violent confrontation – and the police have all the advantages.

Experienced nonviolent campaigners try to ensure nonviolent discipline by announcing publicly that they are committed to remaining peaceful and by arranging for participants to go through some preparation beforehand so they don’t react to provocations.

In 1960 in Nashville, Tennessee, Black activists in the US civil rights movement wanted to challenge segregation and made plans to sit at lunch counters. They knew they would be attacked, so they spent months preparing, including being able to sit while whites yelled insults and police made arrests. Their preparations paid off, leading to the ending of restaurant segregation in the city.


Lunch-counter protesters attacked in Nashville, 1960

For many Covid protests, there is no preparation at all. People show up with no experience. It’s amazing that so many rallies have been completely peaceful. Preparation would help to reduce the risk of being discredited due to the violence of a few.

Even yelling abuse at the police or politicians can be counterproductive. Being aggressive in any way signals to observers that the protesters are unruly, inconsiderate, even dangerous. Furthermore, it scares away potential participants, for example ones with children.

Then there are opponents of Covid measures who send abuse to prominent figures such as Anthony Fauci. Some send death threats. This is disastrously counterproductive. These opponents sound tough but in practice serve to alienate potential supporters.

Sensible campaigners should publicly condemn abuse and threats targeted against those on the other side, and exclude anyone who they know uses abuse and threats. If there’s one thing that will discredit a movement, especially one with fewer numbers, it’s being abusive and threatening.

When movements start to become strong, and remain nonviolent, one thing police often do is use agents, who pretend to be activists, to encourage the use of violence. There was one incident in Australia, in 2016, in which pro-vaccination campaigners apparently tried to fake Twitter messages to appear like abuse from vaccine critics.

This all ties in with Sharp’s next stage, political jiu-jitsu. When police attack peaceful protesters — ones who maintain nonviolent discipline in spite of provocations — this can often lead to greater support for the movement. There are famous instances, for example in India in 1930, South Africa in 1960, East Timor in 1991. A similar process occurred in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd, triggering a massive expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement. This process of political jiu-jitsu can be observed, on a small scale, in the mobilising impact of videos showing police abusing Covid protesters.

Aftermath of Sharpeville massacre, South Africa, 1960

However, police brutality doesn’t always lead to political jiu-jitsu. Police have regular ways of reducing public outrage. Activists need to learn how to counter police tactics of outrage management.

There are more stages in Sharp’s dynamics and more I could say about making campaigns effective, but this is enough for now. There is a lot of writing about how to build social movements, including Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan and Mark and Paul Engler’s book This Is an Uprising. There are many experienced nonviolent activists in a range of movements, for example climate campaigners. My advice would be to make contact with experienced activists, get their advice and learn from them. Some may not be willing to help Covid protesters, but some will. Some may be sympathetic to protest goals, and some may think, “I don’t agree with your goals but if you’re going to protest it’s better to do it following nonviolence principles.”

One last point: prepare for a long struggle. When people first join a rally or a protest group, they come with enthusiasm that success is not far away. After all, they know they have justice on their side and all that’s needed is to help others to see the truth. This isn’t the way it works. Your truths may be heresy to others. Many campaigns go on for decades. Think of nuclear power, fluoridation, animal rights and climate change. Covid struggles might be with us for a very long time. Maybe not, but it’s better to prepare for a long struggle, indeed for one in which things get worse before they get better.


Covid protest, Washington state, USA

The other side

What if you think Covid protesters are deluded and dangerous? What’s the best way to respond?

  1. Discourage attacks. Every time police are heavy-handed with a protester, there’s a chance of turning the protester into a martyr. Remember political jiu-jitsu.
  2. Oppose mandates, such as vaccination mandates, and coercive measures. These are likely to foster greater resentment and resistance.
  3. Encourage responsible protest. If people are going to protest, it’s better if they do so with less risk to public health and less danger to police and bystanders.
  4. Engage in respectful conversations with people who have contrary views. Learn about their concerns and suggest ways forward.
  5. Search for common interests. Most people are concerned about wellbeing but they may have different ideas about how to achieve it. For example, it may be possible to agree on encouraging exercise, which can improve health and the immune system, even while disagreeing about lockdowns or vaccinations.


Running protest against racial injustice, USA

These methods won’t end the divisions and the conflict, but at least they won’t make things worse. Remember, Covid conflicts may be with us for a long time, so it’s worth finding ways to manage the conflict that bring out the better side of human nature.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For valuable comments, thanks to Paula Arvela, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde, Monika Onken and others who prefer not to be named.

Other posts and articles about Covid

Making a vaccine in record time

Did you ever wonder how Covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly? Usually it takes five or ten years to develop and approve a new vaccine, but in 2020 several vaccines were ready in less than a year. This speed led to suspicions about quality and safety being compromised.


Sarah Gilbert

     For an explanation, turn to the new book Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green. They are key members of the team at Oxford University that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine. Vaxxers is an engaging first-hand account that contains many insights.

Gilbert and Green had been working on vaccine development for a great many years. They and their collaborators sought ways to prevent diseases such as Ebola, malaria and MERS. One of their accomplishments was development of a vaccine platform, a cell structure that could be used to enable new vaccines to be created very quickly.

People sometimes say, “Why wasn’t anyone preparing for a new pandemic?” Gilbert and Green say, with some exasperation, that is exactly what they were doing. The trouble was that they found it exceedingly difficult to obtain funds to make better preparations.


Catherine Green

Nonetheless, when Covid arrived on the scene, they were far better prepared than they might have been. The initial challenge was to recognise that the first reports of a new infectious disease in Wuhan, China, represented an urgent priority. Gilbert and Green had other projects under way, and a variety of personal and professional commitments. They started monitoring the reports of the new disease. It took some time before they decided to act. When they did, progress was rapid. As soon as they obtained the genetic structure of the new coronavirus, later named SARS-CoV-2, they used their platform to create a vaccine.

“This meant that before we even knew the pathogen’s genome, we knew the design for our vaccine — the gene coding for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, plugged into ChAdOx1 — and once we did receive the genome, we were able to design the exact DNA sequence we needed within forty-eight hours. Less than four months after that we had the first doses made, quality-assured, and ready to use in clinical trials.” (pp. 153–154)

They make it sound easy!

As it became clear that the new disease, called Covid-19, would require full attention, they gradually mothballed their other projects and put their full energy on developing and testing a vaccine for Covid. Having a small quantity of a vaccine was just the beginning.

A personal story

Each of the chapters of Vaxxed is told either by Gilbert or Green, giving a personal perspective labelled as Sarah or Cath. The result is in part a sort of scientific autobiography. They each tell of their personal lives, their families and difficulties, their eating habits and especially their anxieties about producing the vaccine.

They put themselves under immense pressure to do everything required to make a high-quality vaccine in record time, knowing that every day shaved from the usual development schedule could make the difference to people’s lives and also knowing that mistakes could make the whole process come unstuck. At crucial stages, such as purifying the vaccine and unblinding trial results, they were confident due to having been through the same stages with previous vaccines, but they were also on tenterhooks because so much hinged on the outcome.

Scientists spend much of their time in labs and with their colleagues, and non-scientists can have a hard time appreciating what goes on. In Vaxxed, we are offered an inside look into everyday science, though in this case undertaken at high intensity and with high stakes. Gilbert and Green show they are humans just like the rest of us, with cares, hopes, distractions and lives outside of science, and with great experience and dedication in their research roles.

It is amazing that such a story has been told so soon after the events, indeed told at all. Scientists working for governments or pharmaceutical companies would have a hard time gaining approval to write such a revealing memoir. For scientists used to writing technical papers for journals in their fields, adopting a style aimed at a general audience is no mean feat. That Vaxxed is so readable may be attributed in part to excellent editorial support. At the bottom of the title page, in small print under Gilbert and Green’s names, is “Written with Deborah Crewe.”

The Oxford lab was set up to develop vaccines, not for mass production. At a crucial time, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was brought on board to collaborate with the Oxford scientists and produce the vaccine in commercial quantities. Rather than using laborious lab methods to produce dozens of doses, AZ could scale up production to millions or even billions of doses.

Unlike other companies producing Covid vaccines, AZ made the magnanimous decision to provide its vaccine at cost, namely with no profit, for the duration of the pandemic, and indefinitely for low and middle-income countries. It is far cheaper than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

The media

Few scientists have a high media profile, nor do many seek media attention. University administrators now encourage scientists to showcase their research, providing support from professional units that help write media releases. Gilbert and Green had been working for many years with this sort of limited interaction with journalists. Vaccines for diseases in foreign countries are seldom newsworthy. With the pandemic, suddenly there was intense interest in vaccine development for a disease affecting people in their daily lives.

Gilbert and Green tell about their steep learning curve doing media interviews, for example learning that an off-the-cuff comment, taken out of context, could become a misleading headline. They were pleased that so much coverage was supportive but then upset when a routine occurrence — pausing the trial while an adverse event was investigated — was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. Before long, they referred all enquiries to the university’s media unit, as it was impossible to handle all requests and to do so would have meant slowing their work on the vaccine.

Gilbert and Green sometimes had to push back against media intrusions, especially when film crews in the lab caused work to be compromised. On the other hand, they appreciated the opportunity, provided by the media, to publicise the vaccine and, more generally, to enable them to get out messages they thought were important.

Lab life under a media microscope

Quite separately from its contribution to understanding vaccine development, Vaxxers is a valuable contribution to writing by scientists about their own work. The classic book in this genre is James Watson’s book The Double Helix, his account of unravelling the structure of DNA, an account criticised for male chauvinism, in particular downgrading the role of Rosalind Franklin. Vaxxers, in contrast, is written by two women scientists who explicitly deny being pathbreakers or heroes. They repeatedly acknowledge the others in their team and explain how their work on the vaccine built on years of prior work and experience. They worked extraordinarily hard not so they would be recognised as elite scientists but because they wanted to do what they could to save lives.

“Before 2020, no one had ever developed a vaccine in a year. But that was not because it could not be done. It was because it had never been tried. We were able to go faster in 2020 not because we cut any corners or took risks with our product. We still did every single thing that needed to be done to develop a vaccine safely. We did not miss out any steps. Nor was any individual task — filling a vial, vaccinating a volunteer, analysing a graph — done with less than the usual care and attention. We went faster because we had to this time — the world needed the vaccine as soon as possible and, as we know from seeing the daily death rates, every day counts.” (pp. 160–161)

Vaxxers is also different from most books in the first-person scientist memoir genre in consciously being an intervention into the debates surrounding the research. Gilbert and Green are acutely aware of concerns about the safety of Covid vaccines developed at such great speed and want to explain how they were able to move so quickly without compromising quality or safety. In this they have undoubtedly succeeded. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide the same sort of reassurance about other Covid vaccines. We can read Vaxxers but no equivalent story written by government or pharmaceutical company insiders is ever likely to be published.

While Vaxxers addresses some of the concerns about Covid vaccines, it cannot deal with all of them. The full story of the health effects of the vaccine remains to be told, as does the comparison between risks from vaccines and Covid itself, for different demographics. Nor is the story over, because new variants of Covid continue to appear, meaning that new versions of vaccines may be developed.

The only time Gilbert and Green’s treatment loses authenticity is when they write about vaccine hesitancy, about which they rely more on others’ treatments than their own research and experience. For example, Gilbert writes, “I don’t understand anti-vaxxers” (p. 192). This is understandable given that she’s not a social scientist who has spent years interviewing parents and trying to learn about vaccine hesitancy.

Regarding blood clots from the vaccine, Gilbert makes a comparison with the risk of blood clots from having Covid or from taking the contraceptive pill. This is reasonable on the surface, but Gilbert is not an expert on the science and politics of risk assessment, about which there is a vast body of research addressing complexities and value judgements.

Final comments

Supporters of vaccines can learn from Vaxxers about how the substance injected into their arms was developed. Critics of vaccines can learn this too. All their criticisms will not be answered, but at least they can be better informed.

Gilbert and Green worked exceedingly hard and long for many months, and desperately needed a break. They write about what they will do after Covid priorities recede. It’s good they decided to take the time to write Vaxxers.


Sarah Gilbert with the Barbie doll modelled on her

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Disclosure: I had the AstraZeneca vaccine — hence my special interest in Vaxxers — and had no side effects.

Brian’s posts and articles about Covid

Comments from Robyn Gardner

Your review of Gilbert and Green’s work seems very balanced to me. My only reservation concerns the rush to autobiographical disclosure by scientists, which seems so common now in all fields, in government, media and the military. The speed of publication indicates that at some point it becomes part of the potential framework of research or design in any career-sensitive lab. The ‘confession’ is a kind of promotional agency, akin in some ways to pharmaceuticals’ harnessing of patient groups/parents/human interest stories for their own profits. The result is an erosion of the integrity we may imagine of/in science, pre-empting and incorporating the earlier systems of external critique and history of science.

It seems to me that popularizing and personalizing of research via the highly marketable and more inclusive representation of women is as risky in its way as the effacing of women  earlier was, which was, let’s face it, probably no different or inexorable as the effacing of many, many men – there being more men, in earlier periods, so that women may actually have had more ease of access, if only by dint of a family connection or their exception.

We still await some highly nuanced outside assessments of this cultural history and the very problematic politics of vaccine production, something akin to David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story which examines  the wider cultural context of a pandemic. Oshinsky’s book addresses the ‘boosters’ and marketeers of that first wave of public image harnessing as well as the personal volatile histories of Salk and Sabin. Furthermore, it addresses the upscaling of vaccine production by the moves from research and laboratory science to outsourced not-for-profit production (by the same agencies as for-profit ones or harnessed with them)  through the process of ‘gifting’ to middle tier as well as third world countries. Then there’s the old story of poorer places being used for testing in an era when you can’t as easily inject into the bodies of the disabled or the ‘isolated’ cultures of poor countries – unless you redefine them loudly and publicly as ‘most vulnerable’ and needing to be ‘included’.

We rapidly approach the place in which we are all included – so where precisely is the control group, of the unvaccinated? And what, historically, does this serve to cover over, if we’ve all been injected with so many and variable (including simian viral) and DNA active or lipid adjuvant substances, and what levels of biosecurity can possibly pertain given the places and speed of outsourcing in manufacture?


Robyn Gardner

I think of the silencing, and self-silencing, of any possible response, and of the wholesale ‘turn away’ from the polio vaccine origin-of-AIDS thesis by even those scientists who found it highly plausible, and on the part of  those who  could have been and should have been most active in inquiry. 

My concern about AstraZeneca is not the reporting of side effects in the short term, but the widely mediated hijacking of this possibility by labs and agencies and ghost-written preprints focussing on the ‘rare’ clotting events of the disease itself. The possibility of long term and highly likely slower vascular changes, not reversible, but activated – a ‘forever’ event – in vaccinated subjects will tend to get deluged and overwritten, buried, by the usual facile response of Covid causing the same or greater risk. So it goes. I guess this is science and business as usual, and the post-war scepticism about biological research, and rise of ethics, is now in reversal. We are all in thrall again to something called ‘the science’ – which is seen as pure again, and all inclusive, whilst any postgraduate qualification in the human sciences, which might include historical awareness and critical thinking, if not always clear, will cost a leg and an arm.

On not making up your mind

I’m finding it extremely difficult to remain open to a range of possibilities. On Covid in particular.

            I’ve read a large number of articles about Covid and talked with lots of people. There are articles about the urgent need for vaccinations and others about the risks of adverse reactions. There are articles about lockdowns and wearing masks, with different viewpoints. There are articles about the origin of Covid, some saying it came from wet markets and others saying it was from a lab leak.

When I read a well-documented and well-argued analysis, I think, “That’s persuasive.” Then I read another from a different perspective and think, “That sounds persuasive too.”

            Some time after the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to try to remain open to different views rather than reaching a firm conclusion. For example, there are claims for and against using ivermectin as a prophylactic, to reduce the risk of getting Covid. I don’t want to decide definitively one way or the other, at least not yet.

The trouble with reaching a firm conclusion is being trapped by confirmation bias. If I decide that mask rules are right or wrong, then I am likely to pay attention to material that supports my belief and to dismiss contrary information. I might find myself in an echo chamber.

This doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions. As soon as the AstraZeneca vaccine became available, I had my shots. That was a personal choice. But since then I’ve tried to remain open to information about the hazards of vaccines, for example from a rare blood clotting condition. Maybe it’s more common than official figures indicate.

            You see, I’m a social scientist, and I’ve studied numerous public scientific controversies, including ones over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and the origin of AIDS. On some of these issues I have a strong personal view but on others I don’t. For social analysis, it sometimes can be helpful not to care strongly about the topic under investigation, as this enables looking at the dynamics of the controversy from a less emotional perspective.

A decade ago, I started studying the vaccination debate. For me, vaccination was not a personal issue, having no children and no particular problem with vaccines; I’ve had the flu vaccine for the past five years. My angle was to support free speech for vaccine critics, because I believe free and open discussion of contentious issues is better than trying to silence contrary views.

            Being open to different perspectives on vaccination was like a warm-up for being open to different Covid viewpoints. Dominant perspectives are presented by the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as by various governments and health authorities. The mainstream media mostly report the views of authorities. But then there are contrary views, some of them supported by a few doctors and researchers, readily available on social media. By subscribing to newsfeeds giving different perspectives, the volume of commentary soon becomes overwhelming. Even to try to understand the subtleties of a single issue, for example hydroxychloroquine, becomes a bottomless pit of claim and counter-claim.

Sometimes official recommendations change, for example on mask-wearing. That should encourage remaining open to different views, because you never know when a dissident view might suddenly become the orthodoxy. What I’ve learned through my studies of scientific controversies, though, is that many people, especially campaigners, adopt a view and stick with it regardless of new evidence.

            A neighbour told me that her young daughter was in hospital with a mysterious illness. It developed shortly after a routine childhood vaccination, but her doctors were adamant that the illness was not connected with vaccines. My neighbour wasn’t sure. I thought, how can the doctors be so sure? Why couldn’t they be open to the possibility, however slim, of an adverse reaction? Thankfully, her daughter recovered.

I’ve talked with colleagues who are passionately pro-vaccination and condemn anyone who is hesitant as misinformed or worse. These colleagues do not work in any field related to health, so I think, “How can they be so sure?” Are they confident because their view is the same as that of health authorities?

I’ve also talked with passionate critics of vaccination orthodoxy. Some of them have studied the issues extensively but others less so. How can they be so sure? Doesn’t anyone have doubts about what they believe?

            Trying to keep an open mind has been challenging, especially when talking with others who have strong views and think anyone who disagrees is foolish or even dangerous. It seems everyone has an opinion, even those who know little about the issues. Am I being foolish by trying to remain open to different ideas?

Some views seem so extreme or peculiar that I tend to dismiss them out of hand. Some of the claims in the “Plandemic” videos seem implausible to me. But I haven’t studied the topic in depth, so should I be confident about my judgement? Perhaps I can just ignore Plandemic claims, assigning them a tiny probability, at least until more people start taking them seriously.

            Ah, here’s a clue. When others take an idea seriously, it’s tempting to go along with them. This is influence via what is called social proof. Anyone trying to be a rigorous thinker presumably should be alert to this influence and attempt to counter it, or at least to examine the evidence used to support the idea. But this leads back to the beginning. It’s impossible to investigate all the evidence on all facets of Covid, or indeed any other controversial topic.

As I’ve persisted in trying to remain open about Covid issues, while still making decisions, I’ve noticed something else. On other issues, especially ones I haven’t studied in depth, I’m more likely to question my views. Will this lead to a state of precarious uncertainty? Or will it be a refreshing and invigorating alternative to the usual rush to judgement?

For helpful suggestions and thoughtful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn, Suzzanne Gray, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Brian’s posts and articles about Covid

Why you should get moving

Physical activity is good for you in lots of ways, so why do so many people not get enough?

The evidence is overwhelming: exercise is good for you. Not just physically, but also mentally. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety. It boosts your memory. It protects against disease.

I’ve just read a new book, Move! by Caroline Williams, that tells about some of the latest research on the benefits of physical activity. More on that in a moment. First, a few observations.

Working in universities for many decades, I’ve met numerous smart people, including some who think highly of their own intellects. After all, one of the few talents that academics have more than others is using their minds to extend knowledge. Yet if academics are proud of their mental capacities, and seek advancement in their careers depending on the outputs from their intellectual prowess, why do so few take heed of the evidence that physical activity protects the mind and boosts mental performance?

            There are several possible explanations. One is a persistent belief that the mind is pretty much independent of the body. Another is that using your body is lower in status than mental work. This is why, if you’re going to exercise vigorously, do it in a gym where you have to pay, not out in public. Driving a car is more dignified than walking to work.

A third explanation is that our lifestyles are designed to discourage exercise. More on that later.

Move!

Caroline Williams is a science writer. She interviewed scientists researching how the body affects the mind, and weaves what she has learned into an engaging account, adding comments drawing on her own experiences. If you need convincing that movement is good for you, Move! is a good place to start.

            The book is more than a motivator. Williams tells how different sorts of movement affect different aspects of mental performance, including creativity. She starts by telling about human evolution and how movement and mental functioning are intertwined.

“… our biological baseline is to be on our feet, moving and thinking at the same time. If we don’t do it, our brains make the sensible decision to save energy by cutting brain capacity. In better news, when we get on our feet and move, it primes the brain to be alert and to learn.” (p. 32)

This reminds me of research I read about years ago saying that the brains of people over age 50 start to shrink — except for those who exercise regularly. Use your body or lose your mind.

Williams reports on research about physical activity and rumination, which is repeatedly and unproductively thinking about things in the past. The more you ruminate, the less happy you’ll be. Here’s a surprising finding. When you are moving, walking or jogging, you are literally putting things behind you, and this sense of forward movement reduces rumination and hence is good for your mental health. This made me wonder whether walking outdoors is superior to walking on a treadmill, because with a treadmill you remain in the same place. Maybe you still feel you’re moving forward, especially if you watch a screen showing scenery going by.

            As well as moving, it’s also valuable to build your strength. Having stronger muscles leads to a longer life and makes you feel better too. You don’t need a physique like Arnold Schwartzenegger’s: you can be stronger without any increase in muscle size. There are mental benefits too. Williams states:

“There is also a link between bodily strength and a healthy brain. A ten-year study of twins showed that greater strength in middle age is linked not only to more grey matter but also to a better functioning memory and a quicker brain a decade later, while grip strength (an overall indicator of muscle power) is associated with a healthier hippocampus.” (p. 57)

Many people think muscle-builders are less intelligent than weedy types who spend their days reading. This needs to change. Having strong muscles and flexing them regularly is a good way to enhance brain power and creativity.

To get moving is good. To do it in rhythm is even better, certainly for mental functioning. Dancing is one option. Another is an exercise class, accompanied by energising music.

            Moving together with others dissolves the sense of self, so you feel part of the group. Williams notes that you need to be careful about this. The Nazi salute and mass rallies helped to bond the German population with Hitler.

“Sit up straight!” Did your parents ever tell you this? Slouching may feel more comfortable, but there’s solid scientific evidence about the physical and mental benefits of good posture. Sitting or standing straight is linked to having positive thoughts. More generally, using core muscles is good for controlling stress. Options include running, Pilates and yoga. Strangely, using core muscles is calming.

            Stretching is good for you too. If you’ve been sitting for a while, it’s beneficial to get up and stretch. Williams delves into the advantages and disadvantages of stretching beyond what the mind says is too far, and the challenges for those who have hyper-mobile joints.

Then there is breathing, normally an automatic activity but one that can be the focus of attention. Williams tells of research on breathing six times per minute, a process that stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the body.

Barriers to physical activity

Given decades of research showing the physical and mental benefits of physical activity, you might think that everyone would be going out of their way to keep active. Alas, only a minority do, and those who are older and need it the most are the least likely to move enough for optimal mental and physical health. Why?

The main problem is that humans have constructed environments for themselves that make it too easy to be lethargic, at all ages. Think of “labour-saving” devices. Think of cars, ride-on mowers, video games, Facebook. Think of parents protecting their children by driving them to school.

In the book The Energy Glut, Ian Roberts says cycling to work is dangerous but it’s even more dangerous not to cycle to work. In other words, the health risks from not getting exercise are greater than those from commuting by bicycle.

            In Australia and many other countries, cities are constructed in ways that discourage everyday walking and cycling. There are vast car parks around shopping centres and just a few places for bicycles. Imagine an alternative urban design, closer to that in Amsterdam, that makes it easy and attractive to walk and cycle, and makes it slow and inconvenient for drivers.

Unfortunately, most of us live in what is called an obesogenic environment, one that discourages activity and encourages overeating. Although it’s possible to go to the gym or participate in sports, the trouble is that this requires initiative. A society that prioritises movement would design the physical environment and incentives so that being active would be the easy option and sitting for hours on end was considered foolish.

We can dream about an alternative society, but until things change it is mostly up to individuals to do what they can in their personal situations. So read Move! and be inspired. And while you’re reading it, remember to occasionally get up and stretch.


Caroline Williams

PS Some earlier accounts that I’ve found useful.

John Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown, 2008)

Ralph S. Paffenbarger, Jr. and Eric Olsen, LifeFit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1996)

Roy J. Shephard, Aging, Physical Activity, and Health (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997)

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Tim Johnson-Newell and Jody Watts for helpful comments.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The voice in your head

Is there a voice in your head? What does it say? Does it encourage you or does it tell you that you’re no good?

 

Did you ever stay up late during high school with last-minute cramming for an exam or writing an essay due the next day? If so, you have experience with procrastination followed by binges of studying and writing.

I coordinate a writing programme for academics and research students based on a different approach: moderation. It’s inspired by research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how researchers can be more productive. The foundation of the programme is brief daily writing sessions. This is quite a contrast with the far more common approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Why do writers procrastinate? One of the factors is the voice in your head that says you’re not ready, you’re not good enough, you’ll never finish, and anyway you might as well wait until you’re in a better mood. Basically, the voice is telling you to give up, which leads to procrastination.

            Gradually I learned that most writers have to deal with this sort of negative self-talk. Boice and Gray each tell about it. In some of our writing group meetings, we’d talk about the voice. Once the question was asked — “Do you have a voice that discourages you?” — people would open up telling about their own experiences. It was reassuring to find out that others have the same obstacle.

To deal with the voice, I have recommended either ignoring it or challenging it, for example telling it that it’s wrong or just to go away. Somewhere along the line I obtained a tiny rubber duck that would squeak when squeezed. Putting it on your shoulder represented the voice in your head. Then there was accompanying note paper that said “Shut the duck up!”

Chatter

If there’s a voice in your head and it’s causing problems for writers, what should be done about it? Ever since learning about this problem, I’ve been on the lookout for insights and practical solutions. Then recently I obtained the wonderful book Chatter by Ethan Kross. Suddenly, there are answers.

            Kross is a researcher, and his special interest is self-talk. He writes that “we all have a voice in our head in some shape or form” (page xxi). Chatter has many pages of references to scientific studies, but the main text is a model of engaging story-telling. Kross tells about his own embarrassing experience when his inner voice took over his behaviour, turning him into a nervous wreck as he irrationally prepared for a threat — and this was despite all he knew about how the inner voice operates.

Kross’s message is that the inner voice, in other words the conversations in our head, can be valuable but can also cause distress and worse.

First consider the advantages in having silent conversations in our heads. Kross provides evidence that the inner voice aids working memory, enables self-control and helps evaluate progress towards goals. Sounds good.

Then there are all the negatives. A basic problem with the inner voice is that it sabotages your focus on tasks. You want to write but the voice is telling you that you’re no good. Even if you can overcome the negativity and start writing, the voice occupies some of your mental capacity so you’re not fully engaged.

            One of the ways to try to address the problem is to tell others about your distress. This seems to help but can push others away. In Chatter, Kross reports on studies showing that ruminating on our difficulties is linked to both aggression and unhealthy stress. This is sounding very bad indeed. So what can you do about it?

One helpful method is to create psychological distance. Have you ever imagined yourself up in the sky looking down on the world, and there you are sitting on a chair, walking along outside, or staring at your screen? Imagining yourself from the outside reduces destructive chatter. You may feel that your problems are not as overwhelming as they seem up close.

            You can also gain distance by imagining yourself from the perspective of five or ten years from now, looking back at what’s going on right now. In this imagined hindsight, what is upsetting or distracting now seems like a triviality in the scheme of things. The point of temporal distancing is to escape being fully immersed in your current reality.

Another way gain distance is to think of yourself in the second or third person. Rather than thinking or saying, “I need to relax”, I should tell myself “Brian needs to relax” or “You need to relax.” This reduces the self-critic. So get out of “I” and talk to yourself with “you.”

This sounds too simple. Does it work? Kross describes experiments in which individuals preparing for a stressful task — speaking to an audience on an assigned topic with little preparation — are less stressed when they speak to themselves beforehand using “you.” Furthermore, independent observers say their speeches are better. How could something like this be so effective? Easy. By using “you,” you reduce the chatter in your head that takes up mental space and undermines confidence.


Ethan Kross

Helping others

I was talking with Alice, who is going through a stressful time. She tells me about her difficulties and I sympathise, and ask for more details. This goes on for some time. Alice feels better for having shared her feelings.

Whoops. Kross says this is not the best way to help. Indeed, when you and your friend commiserate, this “co-rumination” concentrates attention on the details that are linked to distress, so in the longer term this continues the stress by encouraging ever more thinking about the issues.

It’s more useful for me to offer practical help to Alice. Rather than rehashing the events, I can suggest ways forward or other things to think about. Even better, I can offer what Kross calls “invisible support.”

            Alice is preparing for a crucial performance. If I give her unsolicited advice on what to do, the advice might be useful but the giving of advice might reduce her self-belief. More useful is to do some shopping or cleaning. Those who can most readily offer invisible support are people who live in the same household or have regular contact.

There’s another option. I could send Alice some pictures of nature, perhaps of forests or streams. Kross reports fascinating research showing that being in nature has many health benefits, including calming inner conversations. Furthermore, it’s not even necessary to be among trees. Just seeing pictures of them is beneficial.

Another thing that helps is rituals, either personal or social. Most of us in the writing programme have found that it works better to schedule daily writing in the same location and at the same time of day. After a while, it becomes both a habit and a sort of personal ritual, perhaps with the accompaniment of a specific drink, certain music or following a predictable set of steps in preparation.

A social ritual for writing? That’s not so obvious. If you are part of a group of writers, you can schedule a particular time and process.

Another thing you can do is clean up your office so that it looks neat and, more importantly, ordered. Kross offers evidence that order in the external world — such as a neat desk — can foster internal order, including less chatter.

Chatter is engaging to read because of the stories that Kross tells about himself and others, and his attractive style of writing. At the end of the book, he helpfully includes a list of the main methods for reducing chatter, many of which I’ve mentioned above.

The voice in your head is not going to change quickly. If you struggle with self-talk that undermines rather than helps you do what you want to do, reading Chatter should be valuable, and so is a systematic effort to implement Kross’s suggestions.

How does chatter manifest?

One thing intrigues me. Kross says everyone has a voice in their head, but how does it speak? I’ve asked several friends about this. Their answers vary. Some people hear a voice. If so, whose voice is it? Their own? A parent’s? Some people have conversations in their mind. They don’t hear anything but they know what’s being said. Who are the conversationalists? Two sides of themselves? I don’t hear a voice and don’t have mental conversations, so what’s wrong with me?

If I’m reading Kross’s book and concentrating on what he’s written, I’m thinking, but presumably this isn’t chatter. Only, perhaps, if extraneous thoughts intrude, such as thinking about someone I need to contact or about some grievance from decades ago, would that be unproductive thinking. But what if I suddenly have an inspiration about how to address a research puzzle I’ve been working on? That would be welcome.

Experienced on the inside, there are many commonalities in people’s minds but also some important differences. I know some aspects of my own mind, up close, but continue to find it difficult to fully appreciate the diversity of other people’s inner worlds.

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Aloysia Brooks, Kelly Gates, Tara Gray, Olga Kuchinskaya, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Melinda Waterman and Qinqing Xu for useful feedback, and all those who have shared with me their experiences with their inner voices.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au