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What Stanford University and Fox News Have in Common

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On April 21, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, one of Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters, spoke to Stanford University physician-professor John Ioannidis about COVID-19. She prefaced the interview with reference to the pandemic as a nothing-burger:

And new antibodies testing on the West and East Coast shows that the true infection rate may be 55 times higher than previously thought by the, quote, “experts.” Meaning, the true fatality of the virus is somewhere below that of seasonal influenza.

As an architect of the testing, he concurred. He said that all of the “evidence points to an infection that is very common, that typically is very mild.”

Fox News’s Steve Hilton also provided a platform for fellow Stanford physician-professors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya, who were his partners in the survey. Speaking on behalf of the team, Jay Bhattacharya told the host Steve Hilton that the death rate is much lower than believed. What’s interesting is that Hilton also interviewed the man who funded the testing that provided such cheery findings, namely Jet Blue founder David Neeleman.

Neeleman told Hilton that the results indicated that the pandemic would go away in a couple of months. Hilton, a former adviser to Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, is on record as opposing “our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces [for] whipping up fear over this virus.” This reference to “our ruling class” is an odd one given Donald Trump’s tilt toward bankers, manufacturers, and real estate developers in the recent round of trillion-dollar handouts. He must have learned it from Tucker Carlson, a past master of cheap, radical-sounding demagogy.

Both Neeleman and the three physician-professors denied that there was any hanky-panky in the funding. However, one would have to be very naïve not to understand that he had a vested interest in getting the capitalist system quickly back on its feet again. In an article he wrote for the Daily Wire, Neeleman put it this way:

As the founder of several airlines in four countries, my companies and our industry have been particularly hard hit by the spread of COVID-19. Since the outbreak, I have spent all my days and a lot of my nights trying to find a solution to save as many as possible of the 40,000 jobs I am responsible for and do what I can to help avoid an economic catastrophe in the making.

My search for a solution has led me to three amazing and dedicated professors and scientists from Stanford University School of Medicine with impeccable credentials. I have come to know them personally. Drs. John Ioannidis, Jay Bhattacharya and Eran Bendavid, using their epidemiology models and other evidences from China, Italy, Iceland and the US, have questioned from the beginning the true number of those who have been infected by COVID-19.

If anything, the Daily Wire is even more reactionary than Fox News, which at least has a token resistance to the bullshit Laura Ingraham and Steve Hilton peddle. Its founder Ben Shapiro once mused that an 81-year-old dying of the coronavirus “is not the same thing” as a younger person dying from it. While supporting most of the Trump agenda, Fox News’s afternoon host Neil Cavuto took Donald Trump to task for using Hydroxychloroquine, which led the latter-day Caligula to call for a new network to kiss his ass. With several underlying conditions, including cancer now in remission, Cavuto had personal reasons for reporting that the emperor was not wearing any clothes.

Before the ink was dry on the Stanford report, other scientists began to tear it to shreds. Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and applied science at Columbia University, wrote about his concerns. He was troubled by its reliance on unreliable blood tests. Additionally, he questioned recruiting participants through Facebook solicitations. After all, people who experienced coronavirus symptoms were more likely to take advantage of a free test. In his summary, Gelman did not mince words. “I think the authors of the above-linked paper owe us all an apology. We wasted time and effort discussing this paper whose main selling point was some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.”

In what normally would be driving the final nail into their coffin, a NY Times Op-Ed dismissed it as “being leveraged by conservative commentators and activists on social media, forged into ammunition to support the protests against lockdowns and other social mitigation efforts meant to contain the coronavirus and minimize deaths.” The trio shrugged this off just as they would all criticisms. On May 14th, Jay Bhattacharya sat next to Aaron Ginn in a hearing on COVID-19 data in the Arizona House of Representatives. Joining them was Lahee Chen, a member of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University Program in Public Policy.

Ginn, a blogger of no particular qualifications, made a splash with a contrarian essay on Medium proposing that evidence didn’t support the “hysteria” over the consequences of the pandemic. The article was so tendentious that Medium took it down. As for Chen, he has joined Trump’s vendetta against the World Health Organization using Fox News to charge it with “playing politics, rather than taking the actions that could have saved lives around the world.”

Without engaging in conspiracy theories, I see quite a bit of overlap between Stanford’s medical faculty and the Hoover Institution, which has been making the same points.

Stanford is infamous for the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution, and Peace, a rightwing think-tank Stanford alumnus Herbert Hoover founded in 1919. The Hoover Institution was in the news recently when one of its fellows, an NYU law professor named Richard Epstein, predicted that there would be no more than 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA. In a must-read interview with Epstein by the New Yorker Magazine’s Isaac Chotiner, the cocky and ill-informed lawyer was twisted into a pretzel, at one point stating, “You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.” I am not that much into Freud, but this sounds like a classic example of projection.

Another Hoover Institution fellow has made as big a fool of himself. Even more cocksure and reactionary than Richard Epstein, Victor Davis Hanson got in touch with Rush Limbaugh  to give him the good news about the discredited antibodies test. Limbaugh was beside himself:

Folks, I was minding my own business on Friday, and I got a flag email from my friend Victor Davis Hanson, and it was a preliminary report on Stanford University’s research in Santa Clara County. It is bombshell. It was the prepublication. The file that he sent me was actually the preprint version, which is pre-peer review.

But here is the take-away paragraph from the research. It suggests that one county’s cases, Santa Clara, California — which, by the way, is where the 49ers are. For those of you who know geography by your sports teams, Santa Clara is where the 49ers stadium is, 49er training complex. They’re not in San Francisco anymore. “One county’s cases could be more than double the entire state’s reported cases by testing.

Writing for Slate, Jane Hu took apart both Victor Davis Hanson and the scientists he relied on to spread his Trumpist talking points:

Let’s start with the facts. I reached out to Stanford Medicine to try to understand the goals of its antibody test, and how it relates to Hanson’s fall 2019 theory. The short answer on the latter is that it doesn’t. “Our research does not suggest that the virus was here that early,” says Lisa Kim of Stanford’s media relations team.

Neither does anyone else’s, it appears. “There is zero probability [SARS-CoV-2] was circulating in fall 2019,” tweeted Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been tracking SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code as it has spread. Allison Black, a genomic epidemiologist working in Bedford’s lab, says this is apparent from researchers’ data. As the virus spreads, it also mutates, much like the way words change in a game of Telephone. By sequencing the virus’s genome from different individual samples, researchers can track strains of the coronavirus back to its origins. They have been continually updating their findings on Nextstrain. (In case you’re wondering, the strains have nothing to do with severity of illness. They’re simply a way to track the virus’s mutations over time.)

Despite being on the Left Coast, Stanford is no hotbed of academic radicalism. It had a background like some of America’s other prestigious universities created and named after robber barons. Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie-Mellon in 1900, just 11 years after the steel magnate gave the green light to Pinkerton for an armed assault on Homestead steelworker strikers. Then, there is Duke University, named in honor of James Duke, the tobacco boss who left millions in an early grave from cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. Equally prestigious is Stanford University that got its name from Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon.

Like other robber barons, Stanford launched a political career. He became governor of California in 1862 and used his power to persecute the Chinese. In a speech made early in his career, he made Donald Trump look like Bernie Sanders by comparison:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population. Large numbers of this class are already here; and, unless we do something early to check their immigration, the question, which of the two tides of immigration, meeting upon the shores of the Pacific, shall be turned back, will be forced upon our consideration, when far more difficult than now of disposal. There can be no doubt but that the presence among us of numbers of degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration.

In Jeer Heet’s Nation Magazine article on Stanford’s tattered reputation, he refers readers to a Ken Auletta article in the 2012 New Yorker:

At Stanford more than elsewhere, the university and business forge a borderless community in which making money is considered virtuous and where participants profess a sometimes inflated belief that their work is changing the world for the better. Faculty members commonly invest in start-ups launched by their students or colleagues. There are probably more faculty millionaires at Stanford than at any other university in the world.

My advice is to read Auletta’s article if you can get past The New Yorker paywall. If you can’t, it might be just as well to visit the Stanford University Board of Trustees page where you will get a good idea of who runs the place. It is filled with hedge fund operators, real estate developers, silicon valley bosses, private equity, et al. If we ever cut off the head of the beast that is responsible for the mess we are in right now, one of the first things we’ll have to do is make all universities public and fund them properly. Right now, they are wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate American and, in this instance, glaringly so.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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