When I read Madeline Weld’s editorial in Humanist Perspectives, it disturbed me so much I had to write a refutation in order to stop it churning around my brain. Just before publishing it here, I asked the editorial board of Humanist Perspectives if they would run the piece below as a Letter to the Editor. To their credit, my response was published in full in the subsequent issue of the periodical. An earlier version of the letter ran here.
To the editors of Humanist Perspectives,
I read your editorial entitled “A Prescription For Dealing With The Pandemic: Less Fear, More Reason” in your Winter 2021/2022 issue with some interest. I favour addressing pressing issues with reason over fear, and the subject matter is of particular interest to me: In February 2020 (just before the pandemic reached North America) I gave a talk about how to talk to anti-vaxxers, called “Stab Everyone You Love.”
I have been a secular activist for over 15 years and had previously heard of Humanist Perspectives but had never read it. I looked forward to correcting that lacuna with the article written by Madeline Weld, co-editor of Humanist Perspectives and vice-president of Canadian Humanist Publications. Unfortunately, her essay is polemical propaganda, filled with falsehoods presented as facts and logical fallacies sufficient to undermine her thesis. If Weld’s composition is indicative of Humanist Perspectives’ editorial quality, I am unlikely to read much else from the publication.
The first sign that the piece does not hew to its promise of “less fear, more reason” is its regular use of loaded language. A few examples:
- “government-mandated discrimination”
- “mainstream media’s suppression of dissenting viewpoints on Covid vaccines and lockdowns”
- “Does anyone remember the Nuremberg Code? Apparently not the Ontario Human Rights Commission”
- “mass hysteria is being fomented […] as they tighten their authoritarian grip on society”
This is hardly the tone to set if one is seeking to foster rational discourse. It is, however, pitch perfect if one’s goal is to provoke outrage.
Weld’s opening anecdote is about a downtown Ottawa restaurant. At a rally “against coerced Covid vaccines and rolling lockdowns,” she heard a rumour about a food establishment that served the unvaccinated. When it told her their policy was “no vax, no service” she concluded that “government inspectors must have gotten to them,” rather than acknowledging that a restaurant might quite reasonably insist on operating within the law.
Throughout the editorial, Weld shows a worrying disregard for facts and logic, despite her professed commitment to reason. She seems to prioritize subjective impressions over objective observation: “What I don’t like about the Covid vaccines is that they force a person’s own cells to make a protein that their own immune system will attack. To me, that sounds like asking for trouble.” In other words, according to Weld, there is no need to understand immunology, examine the relative risks of vaccination vs. remaining unvaccinated, or look at any scientific data. “Foreign genetic material” sounds sketchy to her, so the vaccine mandate must be immoral.
She writes, “The death rates in various countries have not shown a year-to-year rise because of Covid.” She chooses a bizarre statistic to defend this contention: “According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 (i.e., pre-Covid), the average age of death was 76.5 years, while the average age of Canadians who died of Covid in 2020 was 83.8 years.” While the linked page does contain those data points, they do not support her claim that COVID did not cause the death rate to rise. In fact, the very same paragraph also states “COVID-19 caused over 15,600 deaths in the country in 2020.”
Furthermore, Weld is wrong. The death rate in Canada spiked to 691.4 per 100,000 in 2020, from 654.6 in 2019. This was the highest death rate since 2012. From StatsCan: “Overall, increases in the mortality rates in 2020 were closely aligned with mortality rates directly attributed to COVID-19.” It’s hard to characterize Weld’s statement that COVID has not increased death rates as anything but a lie.
Regrettably, the inaccurate presentation of data does not stop there. Weld writes that “it has long since become obvious that the virus presents little risk of severe illness or death for those who are not elderly and do not have comorbidities.” This is little more than wishful thinking. Harvard Medical School tells us, “Adults in the 18 to 39 age range account for about 2.4% of COVID deaths. […] And they may be among the long haulers — people who continue to experience fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, or other symptoms weeks and months after their illness.”
Weld declares, “Vaccination does not stop the transmission of the virus; it merely reduces the symptoms.” This is highly misleading. While it’s true that even triple-vaccinated adults can contract and spread COVID, unvaccinated adults are 13 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 68 times more likely to die, according to the CDC. I question the appropriateness of Weld’s use of “merely” to describe these results; we should celebrate the order-of-magnitude reduction in transmission that vaccination brings, and the even larger reduction in mortality. But for Weld, it seems, anything short of perfection renders the entire endeavour ineffective.
Weld draws on questionable sources to support her argument.
- She cites the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in her essay, which has launched a “constitutional challenge in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice [against] the province’s Covid-19 vaccine passport mandate.” This is an organization that hired a private investigator to follow the Manitoba chief justice. Its founder and president, John Carpay, has compared pride flags to swastikas.
- In her criticism of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Weld links to a Breitbart article, a site that Media Bias/Fact Check states has “extreme right-wing bias, [publishing] conspiracy theories and propaganda as well as numerous false claims.”
- Weld refers to the “20,244 Covid vaccine-related deaths reported to the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)” without mentioning that “VAERS data cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused an adverse event.” Indeed, research has shown that “More than two-thirds of the common side-effects people experience after a Covid jab can be attributed to a negative version of the placebo effect rather than the vaccine itself.”
This is not how one restores reason to public discourse.
From misrepresenting facts and relying on questionable sources, Weld pivots toward pseudoscience. “The political and medical opposition to the therapeutic and preventative use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Ivermectin seems incomprehensible,” she writes. Weld’s stand against COVID vaccines (“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” she claims) is due to “no long-term studies assuring us of the safety of the vaccines.” Why, then, is she jumping on the bandwagon for other drugs that have, at best, ambiguous results in COVID studies to date? Is Weld aware that there are often vast differences in drug efficacy between lab and animal studies and its effects in humans? Why does she dismiss the recommendations, based on a review of all available data, against the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin for COVID-19 from the National Institute of Health? Weld is either woefully ignorant or deliberately dishonest.
Finally, she ends the article by approvingly quoting a German doctor claiming it is “wrong and dangerous to speak of a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” because “vaccinated people also play a significant role in transmitting the virus.” Once again, Weld misleads her readers. We do have a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are more sick, require more care, and spread this disease at far greater rates. Hospitals are not overloaded because there has been a sudden surge in traffic accidents — emergency wards have been over capacity for nearly two years because of the large numbers of unvaccinated patients suffering from COVID. As a result, “elective” procedures (brain surgery, hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses, etc.) are being postponed, contributing to excess deaths (though not directly from COVID-19). To Weld, claims that the unvaccinated “place an inordinate burden on the healthcare system” is “fear-mongering.” She is wrong.
I do agree with Weld’s final sentence: “Surely this is an issue that humanists and their organizations could weigh in on, on the side of reason.” I hope humanists and their organizations unite to oppose Weld’s shoddily argued and poorly referenced editorial.