“If you’re under, like, 70 or 65 and you’ve no underlying conditions, this is all a hoax.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that this wild assertion about a pandemic that has killed over 4.3 million people worldwide and caused sequelae for an untold number of survivors came from someone who knows nothing of medicine and immunology. These words were spoken by Professor Dolores Cahill, a tenured professor at the School of Medicine of University College Dublin with a doctorate degree in immunology. She is part of a coterie of outspoken academics and healthcare professionals spreading harmful misinformation about COVID-19, people who should know better, and their contrarian crusade creates friction between two competing ideas: academic freedom and scholastic rigour.
Cahill, who until recently was teaching a class for first-year medical students called “Science, Medicine and Society,” has been making a number of staggeringly erroneous claims about COVID-19 and its associated vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic, never correcting her mistakes and always doubling down. She has said, falsely, that COVID-19 can be prevented by taking vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc, and that the most efficient treatment is in the form of hydroxychloroquine, a cheap medication against malaria and autoimmune diseases that turned into an object of worship for some individuals, even as the evidence clearly showed it did not work against COVID-19. She has boldly stated that children wearing a mask—the kind that doctors, nurses and dentists have been wearing for decades—would be starved of oxygen and see their IQ lowered. As for the RNA-based vaccines, she falsely claimed they did more harm than good. “If you paid me ten million,” she warned, “I wouldn’t take it. I would go to prison first. If someone vaccinated me [with an RNA vaccine], I would charge them with attempted murder.”
Bolstered by Cahill’s academic and scientific credentials, her misinformed and hazardous claims have grown to the point where students at her university wrote a 33-page scientific rebuttal of these claims, a document that was signed by 133 students from the university’s own School of Medicine and sent to its administrators. One of the claims these students had to debunk: that once you get COVID-19, you are immune for life. This brazen assertion’s confidence is in contradiction with actual knowledge in the field, which is that we do not clearly know how long immunity does last. But this is the upside-down world at University College Dublin right now, where students are teaching their own professor basic facts about a topic she should be familiar with.
Because Dolores Cahill is not a naturopath, or a multilevel marketing supplement saleswoman, or a bestselling author claiming that a spirit whispers medical information from the future into her ear. She has a proper biomedical research background, working for many years at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics and as an advisor and international expert on many boards and committees, including the Irish Government’s Advisory Science Council. Ironically, she has also been active in the field of scientific integrity. To say that her credentials are at odds with her public campaign of COVID denialism is to put it mildly: her pre- and post-pandemic academic selves seem completely at odds with each other. When, arguing against physical distancing, she claimed that “only three organisms are transmitted in that way [via the air]: it’s tuberculosis and smallpox and Ebola,” I’m at a loss for words. Has she never heard of measles? Does she not know that hospitalized patients with the flu are isolated to prevent transmission? Does she understand respiratory infections?
While the School of Medicine eventually distanced itself from her views on COVID-19, the university cited strict guidelines on academic freedom as a reason for their inaction. Can university professors say whatever they want, no matter the harm they cause, and get away with it?
Freedom from truth?
The idea of academic freedom is very old: it can be traced back to Ancient Greece and it made its way into the German university system from which it was adopted into the United States in 1876, with the founding of the first American research university, Johns Hopkins University. Academic freedom is meant to protect the search for truth. It is the right for members of academia to pursue research, to publish and to teach without restraint or control from their employer. Basically, if a university is uncomfortable with the fact that the sky is blue—perhaps because many of its donors belong to a group that believes the sky is yellow—its professors are allowed to conduct and publish research showing that the sky is blue without fear of losing their jobs.
This principle of academic freedom, which is argued to be useful to attract high-quality professors and to protect them from ideological witch-hunts, has encountered a growing challenge. Professors are more and more taking to social media, to video-sharing platforms, and to podcasts to address society at large, and what they are saying has, in a few cases, been wildly inaccurate and potentially harmful. Cahill does absolutely not represent the majority of academics, who tend to be responsible when speaking to the public, but she is unfortunately not alone. I am aware of a Canadian university professor who has repeatedly made ill-informed statements about the pandemic. When a concerned citizen contacted the university president, the reply was a limp statement of the problem with no solution in sight: the university was at once deeply committed to academic freedom and to the highest standard of scholastic integrity.
The friction between the two is not easily resolved. For example, there are tensions between Stanford University and the Hoover Institution it helped spawn. Dr. Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Hoover, became the coronavirus adviser for the White House and contradicted public health guidance during the pandemic. When he spread health misinformation essentially under the name of Stanford University, many of the university’s professors were troubled. Academic freedom does have limits: in fact, tenured professors (meaning professors who achieve an indefinite appointment at their university and benefit the most from academic freedom) can be declared unfit for duty. The problem is, what constitutes unfitness? It is rarely made explicit.
Returning to Cahill as an example of an academic who divorced herself from science while benefiting from her credentials, her constant misinformation is embedded in a larger ideology. She was the chairperson of the right-wing, Eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party until March of this year, when she quit after being condemned for spouting COVID-19 misinformation. She is currently the president of the World Freedom Alliance, whose website identifies her as “Professor Dolores Cahill” and links to her University College Dublin public profile. Like so many anti-lockdown groups that sprouted during the pandemic, her Alliance fetishizes freedom to the exclusion of public health. In her mind, health is simply a matter of personal responsibility and sickness can be avoided by eating right, taking in sunlight, and buying the right supplements. Cahill’s Alliance has already partnered with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, a rallying point for the modern anti-vaccination movement. The World Freedom Alliance also has a youth wing; its Custodean platform publishes a notice of liability for people to give to their doctor who refuses to treat them with hydroxychloroquine; and it has embraced the notion of “natural law,” by which institutions and their laws are not recognized, only “the Creator’s laws.”
While academic freedom may protect her, some academics have pushed back more generally at the idea that tenure should provide some sort of blanket immunity. Their arguments can be summarized pithily. Academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech. Academic freedom can be misused and abused. What is controversial, and therefore ought to be protected, is not the same as what is incorrect. Factual statements are not opinions. There are minimum benchmarks of academic rigour that should be met by members of academia. The harm caused by repeatedly spreading misinformation should not be swept under the rug. Professors hold a special position in the community and therefore ought to have special obligations: medical academics, for example, have a responsibility around public health. As Spider-Man learned from his Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. Someone interested in “the Creator’s laws” might instead turn to the Bible: “to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask the more.”
The question that remains is how someone with Cahill’s training and expertise can be so incredibly wrong about the pandemic.
The wisdom of the expert crowd
Scientists, doctors, and more generally (and to borrow a bit of British slang) “boffins” are not immune to brain farts and inconsistencies. Some experts venture outside their field of expertise and suffer from a bad case of overconfidence bias. Appraising scientific papers is itself challenging. The peer review of manuscripts before publication is just one layer of this critical appraisal; bad statistics and questionable methodologies can escape detection until the paper is read by the right person. Strongly held values can also inform motivated reasoning. If a professor has an all-consuming focus on individual liberties, it may guide her interpretation of the evidence in favour of her position. Once a public position has been clearly taken, walking it back might invite shame, so doubling down becomes attractive. These days, with social media, academics and healthcare professionals who are predisposed to filling the role of the martyr or guru can find attention, money, and a large following by becoming a contrarian, especially in the middle of a public health crisis that has reshaped our world. Receiving a Ph.D. from a university does not, unfortunately, immunize you from these forces.
In fact, there is a phenomenon known as Nobel disease which is an extreme example of what Dolores Cahill exemplifies. Some Nobel Prize winners go on to endorse strange notions later in life. For example, Linus Pauling became obsessed with the idea that megadoses of vitamin C could cure many diseases, and Luc Montagnier who co-discovered HIV is now consumed by the pseudomedicine of homeopathy.
If the average consumer of health news cannot automatically trust an expert simply because of their individual credentials, how then to find truth? The best bet remains to seek out the consensus if it exists. As scientific data accumulate, different lines of inquiry converge on an answer, and large professional and scientific bodies recognize this emerging consensus. If 99 atmospheric scientists agree that the sky is blue but one argues it is always yellow, a blind person’s best gamble is to trust the consensus. The idea of the renegade scientist who upends science and ushers in a revolution has been overplayed: most of the time, scientific knowledge evolves in small steps built upon a solid foundation.
And finally, Cahill’s claims can be put to the test of time. Have her apocalyptic predictions come true? In late December 2020, Cahill claimed in a filmed discussion that, regarding the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in the UK, “most of the elderly, most of those people will have serious adverse events or will die in the next few months.” That has not happened. Elderly people were vaccinated first in many countries and they did not suddenly fill up hospitals’ intensive care units after receiving the jab, or swiftly drop like flies. In fact, the people dying of COVID now are almost exclusively the unvaccinated.
If Cahill’s bold prediction did not come to pass, what else has she been wrong about? A whole lot, as it turns out, and her university credentials can’t help her save face.
-Dr. Dolores Cahill is a professor at the School of Medicine of University College Dublin who has consistently spread misinformation about COVID-19, including the myth that children wearing masks would have a lower IQ
-University professors who, during the pandemic, have spread clear and harmful falsehoods about COVID-19 are said to be protected by academic freedom, but there is a tension between this freedom and scholastic rigour
-People with science doctorates and medical degrees are not immune to believing untrue things, being motivated by their values, or failing to properly understand and appraise the scientific literature
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