Throughout the Covid era, those expressing views at odds with the dominant narrative were often subjected to unprecedented levels of censorship and psychological manipulation. Academic journals played a significant role in this silencing of alternative voices by, for example, ignoring the work of established scholars, perpetuating bias, rejecting research papers that reached conclusions inconsistent with mainstream views, and demonstrating a financial motivation to only publish studies favourable to the pharmaceutical industry. As a consequence of this partiality, the perceived scientific integrity of academic periodicals has suffered considerable damage. Alas, a recent article in the once highly respected Nature journal will have done nothing to improve the credibility of the academic press.
The article, titled “Mastering the art of persuasion during a pandemic“, is a supplementary ‘outlook’ piece written by Elizabeth Svoboda, a Californian science journalist. Drawing on the perspectives of a cluster of social science experts, Svoboda lauds the importance of health policymakers deploying “effective communication strategies” so as to ensure that the populace do the right things when faced with the next global pandemic. She asserts that a range of behavioural science strategies, or “nudges”, will be of central importance in enhancing compliance with public health restrictions when the next novel respiratory virus emerges over the horizon. The article, however, is riddled with highly questionable assumptions and ideological biases.
Arguably the most blatant distortion, illustrated many times by both the author and the experts cited, is that the Covid science is settled and their version is the definitive truth. The article opens with the ludicrous suggestion that the official advice in early 2020 – that masking healthy people would achieve no benefit – was a “fateful moment”, a missed opportunity “to stop the virus bringing the world to a halt”. In support of this assertion, Rob Willer, a sociologist at Stanford University, describes this initial guidance as “a big credibility mistake”, and goes on to suggest that it was an example of public health experts trying to protect the supply of masks to healthcare. According to Willer, this noble white lie led to many people feeling “resentful” at having been misinformed and it fuelled their reluctance to adhere to subsequent mask requirements. Totally ignored is that most of the more robust, real-world evidence concludes that masking healthy people achieves no meaningful reduction in viral transmission, and the U-turn in mid-2020 towards mask mandates was not the result of new research findings but was – more likely – politically motivated.