President Donald Trump first saw Atlas, who is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, on Fox News. Once ensconced in the White House as an official coronavirus adviser, Atlas was more than happy to gloss over Trump’s Covid-19 hunches with a goo of science-y language and “own the libs” dudgeon.
Atlas had his own hunches, some of which turned out to be sound (he was a strong advocate for keeping schools open), some of which turned out to be dangerous (in the face of mounting evidence that masks work, he insisted the opposite), and some of which turned out to be disastrous (he believed that increased testing misallocated resources, that college students should be left to their own devices, and that the president should both resist bureaucratic efforts to expand testing in the fall and encourage efforts to resist state lockdowns as cases rose).
In reality, a lack of testing hobbled state efforts to curtail a predictable rise in cases as college students going back and forth between home and school spread the virus, largely because many people who spread the virus don’t show symptoms. Herd immunity, a controversial Covid-19 containment strategy that Atlas pushed early on, is clearly not something this diagnostic radiologist understands. It turns out that the virus is orders of magnitude deadlier than Atlas first thought, and that Americans do not want the virus to tear through communities unchecked until we get vaccinated.
Outside of government, Atlas would be a crank. Inside government, he drove policy decisions that contributed to suffering and death.
But Atlas’ many mistakes are not the problem — not exactly. Scientists get things wrong, and plenty have made mistakes during this pandemic. But the difference between Scott Atlas and most scientists is that most scientists adjust their beliefs to fit the evidence, whereas Atlas simply dug in.
A scientist should approach public communication humbly, as a privilege. Atlas approached it as an exercise in partisanship. Scientists are already facing an uphill battle because the public is often persuaded by loud, repetitive, certainty-hardened voices. Outside of government, Atlas would be a crank. Inside government, he drove policy decisions that contributed to suffering and death.
Technically, he was appointed a “special government employee,” which administrations past have used to bring unique experts into government service during emergencies. The day he was named to the coronavirus task force, Trump called him “a very famous man who’s also very highly respected.” (He was marginally respected by a specific conservative clique and only Fox News-famous.)
A scientist should approach public communication humbly, as a privilege. Atlas approached it as an exercise in partisanship.
I can’t see into Atlas’s brain, but I can run an experiment on myself. If I was asked to serve on the coronavirus task force, a position to which I would bring no unique perspective or expertise, what would I do? I can fake it as well as anyone, and yeah, I’d be close to the seat of power. Power and influence are seductive, as is the chance to help influence the course of history and to know stuff before other people do. A job like that would most likely make me feel, in the moment, like I was famous and highly respected.
But I’d like to think I would resist it. Because what good is fame if you can’t live with the broader consequences of your actions?
Atlas is now famous. He will never not be famous. He’s so famous he has developed a celebrity-thin skin, which tends to happen: The more pretend power you get, the more your ego defenses become vulnerable to criticism. I wonder if there’s some lesson in that.
In one of his last television appearances, Atlas correctly noted that elderly Americans are suffering in isolation, and that government lockdowns can be harmful. Then he said that Americans should gather with their relatives for Thanksgiving because “for many people it might be their final Thanksgiving, believe it or not.”
I could try to spell out the illogic and cruelty in this statement. Or I could simply ask you to imagine a healthy grandmother who contracts Covid-19 because her family listened to Atlas’s advice, then suffers a lonely and painful deterioration in December and dies before Christmas. And then, two weeks later, your grandmother’s best friend, who didn’t get visitors during Thanksgiving, gets the first shot of a vaccine.