The American Institute of Economic Research and the Great Barrington Declaration
We thank Phillip Magness and James Harrigan for helping to clarify the extent of involvement of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in crafting the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), which came in the form of providing meeting space and lodging, arranging a meeting with journalists, editorial feedback, and amplification in the media (including videography, social media, and web services). Determining the scope of AIER’s involvement in the publication and dissemination of the GBD is crucial to understanding its ideological underpinnings and is a matter of national importance given that Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta, the authors of the GBD, met with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, on 5 October 2020, the day the document was published.
After a weekend conference hosted by AIER and held at its headquarters, the GBD was credited to three scientists: Martin Kulldorff, Jay Bhattacharya, and Sunetra Gupta. The rapid response by Magness and Harrigan says that “the idea for a general letter came about spontaneously on the afternoon of October 4” (although the GBD website provides a different timeline beginning on 2 October 2020). In addition to these authors, the conference included AIER Senior Editor Jeffrey Tucker, AIER administrative staff, and journalists John Tamny and David Zweig. AIER claims that none of the GBD signatories “received any money, honoraria, stipend, or salary from anyone for either the Declaration or the video recording.” However, it has been unclear whether, and if so, what other forms of support were provided. We have repeatedly asked AIER for a full accounting of its support of the GBD, because “sponsorship” in the US encompasses not just direct payments to featured participants, but also meals, lodging, travel, alcohol, meeting facilities, communication and organizational support, and other expenses. After repeated prompting, Magness acknowledged that AIER had covered the costs of the signatories’ lodging at AIER’s mansion in Great Barrington, MA, the town after which the GBD was named. We still do not know whether the AIER also paid for the signatories’ travel, because Magness has steadfastly refused to answer that question.
Whatever the level of support, it is now clear that the AIER did more than merely “host” the GBD. In an episode of the official podcast of the John Locke Foundation (a libertarian think tank) posted online a week after the GBD conference, Tucker described how he had been in the room with the GBD signatories during its drafting, adding, “I made a couple of suggestions here and there.” Tucker further described how he himself had been central to organizing the GBD conference—beginning by contacting Martin Kulldorff:
“I quickly dropped him a Twitter notice, ‘We’ve got a nice place, why don’t you come and visit here? We’re a few hours away. We’ll feed you well and relax a bit,’ and he wrote me back, ‘OK.’”
Magness and Harrigan argue that the GBD happened “spontaneously” but Tucker’s account on the podcast suggests otherwise. GBD authors were then put up in AIER’s headquarters, provided with meals and support services, including rapid website design.
Magness and Harrigan ask whether “financial theories about AIER and the GBD” are where we want to hang our hats. The answer is: obviously. The AIER’s support of the GBD and AIER’s own sources of financing are important to understanding its ideological agenda and motives, for example, its well documented climate and tobacco denialism. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt and a scholar of science denialism, wrote about AIER and the GBD in her book Why Trust Science?, stating that AIER “promotes anti-scientific discussion of climate change, much of which promotes the familiar canard that climate change will be minor and manageable.”
As we said previously, scientists should understand that, when it comes to AIER, we are dealing with “a well-funded sophisticated science denialist campaign based on ideological and corporate interests.”
Competing interests: GY has received research funding from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which support COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment. He was an unpaid member of the World Bank’s COVID-19 Vaccine Development Taskforce and an unpaid adviser to Gavi in the design of COVAX. He has written articles, including in TIME, in support of public health measures to curb COVID-19 (including masks; test, trace, isolate, and support; distancing; workplace and school safety measures; and ventilation of buildings). He was a co-author of a Lancet correspondence, “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now” (Lancet 2020;396:E71-E72) that was the basis for the Jon Snow Memorandum. In a legal case in which 7 rural Manitoba churches and 3 individuals argued that Manitoba’s public health measures violated their charter rights, an argument supported in court by GBD author Jay Bhattacharya, Yamey provided unpaid scientific guidance to the legal team that argued in support of public health measures; the judge, Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, ruled that the public health measures were reasonable limitations on the group's charter rights in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. DHG has no competing financial interests. He does however, edit a weblog that has published many posts pushing back against COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation and has been critical of the GBD in particular.