Jun 07 2021

Fauci’s E-mails

A few years ago I was sued for libel, in a case I ultimately won in summary judgement where the other side had to pay for some of my legal costs because the judge deemed it unreasonable. But the case did proceed to discovery, which means each side gets to request information from the other. This included me turning over something like 40,000 e-mails. Search tools allow for sifting through these e-mails to find those that may be relevant. And of course, the other side was able to find e-mails that they could twist to create the impression of something sinister. Fortunately, in a court of law, there are rules of evidence and logic, and there was time to dig down to see if the e-mails in fact were evidence of anything. They weren’t.

In the court of public opinion, however, there are no rules. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) can serve as a mechanism for discovery, and many academics, scientists, and public servants have been on the receiving end of them. Released e-mails can then be picked over with the zeal of a prosecuting attorney, but without ever facing the burden of legal protocol or a trained judge. In fact the purpose of this exercise is not to dig down to the truth but to cherry pick for anything that can be taken out of context to fuel conspiracy theories or to tarnish the other side. The purpose begins and ends with the twisting to create a sinister impression, and the results of any actual investigation are irrelevant (at least to many).

The first high-profile case of such an “e-mail gate” was with hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit.  Investigations ultimately found no evidence of any deception or anything nefarious going on, but the damage was done. The fact is, in any scientific process scientists will discuss many things with each other. A lot of crap will be thrown against the wall, and it’s very easy to take casual conversations out of context. Anti-science activists saw this as a template, and began using FOIA requests to harass scientists and hunt for similar gotchas.

And now, apparently, it has happened to Anthony Fauci. Fauci has been a focal point of competing political narratives about the pandemic. To many he was a calm and rational voice throughout the disruptions and uncertainty of the pandemic. To others he was a thorn in Trump’s side, contradicting many of his assertions, even if diplomatically. No one, even Fauci, claims that he got everything right. From the beginning experts were transparent about how little we knew. Many times we heard the phrase, “We’re building this plane as we are flying it,” or something similar. Fauci’s job was to give the administration and the public the best information we had at the time, knowing it was a moving target. And of course, the e-mails reflect all of this, giving ample opportunity to take them out of context and create the impression of deception.

The main focus seems to be on two topics, mask-wearing and the lab leak theory. On February 5, 2020 Fauci wrote in an e-mail:

“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection. The typical mask you buy at a drugstore is not really effective in keeping out virus.”

Again, keep in mind the date here, the very beginning of the pandemic. By coincidence, right before the pandemic, I had reviewed the scientific research on the efficacy of mask wearing for a piece for the SGU. What Fauci wrote was mostly correct, but he missed one important caveat. What he wrote is true – unless you are in the middle of a pandemic or high-risk area. Wearing a mask in the general population is of little benefit in terms of not catching an illness. But if the incidence of illness is high, then there was already evidence that wearing a mask reduces risk. In the early days, before the extend of the spread to the US was known, you could defend the position that wearing a mask in the general population was not necessary. Also at the time they were concerned about a mask shortage, and did not want low-risk people taking masks from high-risk workers.

Propaganda, however, does not like nuance. Rand Paul, for example, used that e-mail to justify claiming that “Fauci has been lying, I have been right all along.” The evidence does not support such claims, but the e-mails have served their political purpose.

Fauci also received a lot of e-mails, including one from ID expert Kristian Anderson, who wrote:

“Some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” and that other scientists “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

But, he added, “we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”

This is exactly the kind of discussion that scientists engage in when examining evidence and considering all possible hypotheses. The caveats are also all there – “potentially” and “opinions could still change.” When the evidence was reviewed, the scientists came to the consensus that the genomic evidence did not support the engineered hypothesis. The virus itself looks like it developed naturally from animal origins. This remains the dominant view. There are still open questions about the transparency of the Chinese government and the research being done in the Wuhan lab, and some interesting circumstantial evidence such as the sick employees in November of 2019. But still, a careful review of all the evidence leads to the conclusion that a natural origin is most likely, but the lab leak theory is possible and should be fully investigated.

Despite all this it is easy to present this e-mail as evidence for a cover-up.

And it needs to be noted that if you look through all the thousands of e-mails, there is a pretty consistent picture of Fauci working diligently and being completely transparent. The fact that so few e-mails can be cherry picked and taken out of context is testimony to this. That still won’t stop their abuse for propaganda.

There is also the deeper question of what the regulations should be with regard to FOIA requests and the day-to-day working e-mails of scientists. They are easily abused for nefarious purposes. I don’t think anything is going to change, and perhaps it shouldn’t, but it is a good reminder than any working scientist who is subject to FOIA requests needs to treat every e-mail as if one day it will be picked over by those with a political or anti-science agenda. Of course, you can’t control the e-mails people send to you. It’s more evidence we are increasingly living in a world without a filter, and we still have not come to terms with all the ramifications of this, good and bad.

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