This is the presentation by Dr. Scott W. Atlas after he received the Freedom Leadership Award from Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn at their National Leadership Seminar on February 18, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Thank you, President Arnn, supporters of Hillsdale and Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar program, and members of this distinguished audience.

It is a great honor to be here to receive Hillsdale’s Freedom Leadership Award. I am very grateful, highly honored to be on the list of winners. I sincerely thank everyone for this award.

Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar program was founded with a specific mission: “to foster enlightened leadership and informed decision-making for America’s third century by communicating the fundamental principles of freedom and order on which Western civilization is based.”

The pandemic has been a tragedy, no doubt. But it has exposed profound issues in America that now threaten those very principles of freedom and order that we Americans often take for granted.

First, I was shocked at the enormous power of the government, to unilaterally decree, to simply close businesses and schools, restrict personal movement, mandate behavior, and eliminate our most basic freedoms without end;


Second, I was and remain stunned, and almost frightened, at the acquiescence of the American people to these destructive, arbitrary, and wholly unscientific rules, restrictions, and mandates.

This crisis also exposed what we all have known existed, but tolerated for years—the bias of the media, the suppression of academic freedom on campuses, the lack of neutrality in big tech, and now more obviously than ever, the politicization of science—ultimately, the freedom to seek, and state, the truth is at risk here in the United States.

First, we all acknowledge that the consequences of the SARS2 coronavirus pandemic and its management have been enormous. Over 500,000 American deaths have been attributed to the virus; more will certainly follow. Even after almost a year, the pandemic still paralyzes our country. And despite all efforts, there has been an undeniable failure to stop cases from rapidly escalating and preventing hospitalizations and death.

Here’s the unacknowledged reality—almost all states and major cities, with a handful of exceptions, have implemented severe restrictions for many months, including closures of businesses and in-person school, mobility restrictions and curfews, quarantines, limits on group gatherings, and mask mandates dating back to at least the summer.

And let’s clear up the myths about behavior—social mobility tracking of Americans and data from Gallup, YouGov, the COVID-19 Consortium, and the CDC have shown significant reductions of movement as well as a consistently high percentage of mask wearing since the late summer, similar to Western European countries and approaching that in Asia.

All legitimate policy scholars should, today, be reexamining policies that severely harmed America’s children and families, while failing to save the elderly. Studies, including one from Stanford University’s infectious disease scientists and epidemiologists Bendavid, Oh, Bhattacharya, and Ioannidis, have shown the mitigating impact of the extraordinary measures used in almost every state was small at best. President Biden openly admitted their lack of efficacy in his speech to the nation on January 22, when he said “there is nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months.”

Bizarrely, though, many want to blame those who opposed lockdowns and mandates for the failure of the very lockdowns and mandates that were widely implemented.

Separate from their limited value in containing the virus—efficacy that has often been “grossly exaggerated” in scientific journals, as documented by epidemiologists and biostatisticians Chin, Ioannidis, Tanner, and Cripps—lockdown policies have been extraordinarily harmful. The harms to children of closing in-person schooling are dramatic, including poor learning, school dropouts, social isolation, and suicidal ideation, most of which are far worse for lower income groups. A recent study confirms that up to 78% of cancers were never detected due to missed screening over three months. If one extrapolates to the entire country, three-fourths to over a million new cases over nine months will have gone undetected. That health disaster adds to missed critical surgeries, delayed presentations of pediatric illnesses, heart attack and stroke patients too afraid to call emergency services, and others, all well documented.

Beyond hospital care, CDC reported four-fold increases in depression, three-fold increases in anxiety symptoms, and a doubling of suicidal ideation, particularly among young adults after the first few months of lockdowns, echoing the AMA reports of drug overdoses and suicides. Domestic abuse and child abuse have been skyrocketing due to the isolation and specifically to the loss of jobs, particularly in the strictest lockdowns. Given that many in-person schools have been closed, hundreds of thousands of abuse cases are never reported, since schools are the number one agency where abuse is noticed. Finally, the unemployment “shock” from lockdowns, according to a recent NBER study, will generate a 3% increase in mortality rate and a 0.5% drop in life expectancy over the next 15 years, disproportionately affecting African Americans and women. That translates into what they called a “staggering” 890,000 additional U.S. deaths from the lockdowns.

We know we have not yet seen the full extent of the damage from lockdowns, because it will last for decades. Perhaps that is why lockdowns were not recommended in previous pandemic analyses, even for infections with far higher death rates.

To determine the best path forward, shouldn’t policymakers objectively consider both the virus harms and the totality of impact of policies to date? That’s the importance of health policy experts—my field—with a broader scope of expertise than that of epidemiologists and basic scientists.

That necessarily means admitting that social lockdowns and significant restrictions on individuals are deadly and extraordinarily harmful, especially on the working class, minorities, and the poor.

Optimistically, we should be seeing the light at the end of the long tunnel with the rollout of vaccines, now at 1.5 million per day. On the other hand, using logic that would put “Alice in Wonderland’s” Mad Hatter to shame, in many states, the new vaccines were first more frequently administered to healthier, younger people instead of those at risk to die. Or somehow that children must be vaccinated, when they have extremely low risk from this infection and are proven to not be significant spreaders to adults? Or the Kafka-esque nonsense that teachers must be vaccinated before they teach in-person, when schools are one of the lowest risk environments and the vast majority of teachers are not high risk?

Worse, we hear the same old so-called experts on TV warning that social distancing, masks, and other restrictions will still be necessary . . . there is no clear intention of those in power to allow Americans to live normally, to live freely, again.

Just as in Galileo’s time, the real problem is the “experts” and “vested academic interests.” Many universities, America’s centers for critical thinking, have overtly intimidated views contrary to their own, undoubtedly out of political reasons, leaving many afraid to speak up.

But it is not only the matter of academic freedom that needs comment.

Instead of rethinking failed policies, some have chosen to employ toxic smears in opinion pieces and through organized rebukes against those of us who disagreed with what was implemented and who dared to help the country under a president they despised—apparently, the ultimate transgression.

Defamatory attacks with malicious intent, based on straw-man arguments and out-of-context distortions, are not acceptable in civilized society, let alone in our great universities. In their attempt to intimidate and discredit me using falsifications and misrepresentations, some might say a group of professors violated with impunity Stanford’s code of conduct, damaged the Stanford name, and abused the trust parents and society place in them to influence America’s children, our next generation of leaders.

It is understandable that most Stanford professors are not experts in health policy—that is my field—and most are ignorant of the data about the pandemic. But it is not acceptable to claim that I made recommendations that were “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science”—that is a lie. No matter how often a lie is repeated by politically-driven accusers, and regardless of how often those lies are echoed in biased media, lies do not transform into truths.

We all must pray to God that the phrase attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels—“A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”—never becomes true in these United States of America.

All policy considerations I recommended to the President were designed to reduce both the spread of the virus to the most vulnerable and the structural harms of the policies to those impacted the most—the poor and working class of America. I was one of the first to push for increasing protections to those most at risk, particularly the elderly. Almost a year ago, I recognized that we must also consider the enormous harms to physical health, mental health, and lives lost coming directly from the draconian policies that attempted to contain the infection. That is the most appropriate goal of public health policy, to minimize all harms, not simply to stop COVID-19 at all costs.

The claim in a recent JAMA opinion piece by three Stanford professors that “nearly all public health experts were concerned that [my] recommendations could lead to tens of thousands (or more) of unnecessary deaths in the US alone” is patently false, absurd on its face. As pointed out by Zinberg, the proposal called the Great Barrington Declaration, co-authored by medical scientists and epidemiologists from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford, is “far closer to the one condemned in the JAMA article than anything [Atlas] said”. Yet, that policy declaration has already been signed by over 50,000 medical and public-health practitioners. When critics display such ignorance about the scope of views held by experts, it exposes their overt bias and wholly disqualifies their authority on these issues. Indeed, it is almost beyond parody that these same critics wrote “professionalism demands honesty about what they know and do not know.”

I have explained the fact that younger people have little risk from this infection, as well as the biological concept of herd immunity, just like Harvard epidemiologist Katherine Yih did. That is very different from proposing that people be deliberately exposed and infected—I have not done that. And I have been accused of "arguing that many public health orders aimed at increasing social distancing could be forgone without ill effects.”

To the contrary, I have repeatedly called for mitigation measures, including extra sanitation, social distancing, masks, group limits, testing, and other increased protections to limit the spread and damage from the coronavirus. I explicitly called for augmenting protection of those at risk—in dozens of on-the-record presentations, interviews, and written pieces.

One must also question why these accusers ignore my explicit, emphatic public denials about supporting the spread of the infection unchecked to achieve herd immunity—denials quoted widely in the media. Are not my own statements the object of their criticism in the first place? Might it be due to their own political rage, their own desire to delegitimize anyone who accepted the call to help the country under President Trump?

For many months, I have been vilified after calling for opening in-person schools—in line with Harvard Professors Martin Kulldorff and Katherine Yih, and Stanford Professor Jay Bhattacharya—but my policy has been corroborated repeatedly by the literature. The compelling case to open schools is now admitted to be longstanding truth in lay publications, like the Atlantic. They acknowledged “Research from around the world has, since the beginning of the pandemic, indicated that people under 18, and especially younger kids, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to experience severe symptoms, and far less likely to be hospitalized or die” and “We’ve known for months that young children are less susceptible to serious infection and less likely to transmit the coronavirus. Let’s act like it.”

The JAMA accusers stated “Atlas disputed the need for masks”. That is misrepresenting my words. To the contrary, my advice on mask usage has been consistent—“wear a mask when you cannot socially distance”—and it matched the published recommendations of the World Health Organization: “When outside, wear a mask if you cannot maintain physical distance from others”. In December, the WHO modified that to “In areas where the virus is circulating, masks should be worn when you’re in crowded settings, where you can’t be at least 1 metre from others, and in rooms with poor or unknown ventilation.”, i.e. not at all times by everyone. That also matches the NIH document “Prevention and prophylaxis of SARS-COV-2 infection”: “When consistent distancing is not possible, face coverings may further reduce the spread of infectious droplets from individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection to others.”

Regarding universal masks, 38 states have implemented mask mandates, most since at least the summer, with almost all the rest having mandates in their major cities. Widespread, general population mask usage has shown little empirical utility for stopping cases, even though describing that evidence has been censored. Widespread mask usage showed only minimal impact in Denmark’s randomized controlled study.

Here’s the reality—those who insist that universal mask usage is absolutely proven effective at controlling the spread of this virus and is universally recommended by “the science” are deliberately ignoring the evidence to the contrary. It is they who are propagating false and misleading information.

Those who charge that it is unethical, even dangerous, to question broad population mask mandates must also explain why several top infectious disease scientists and public health organizations question the efficacy of general population masks. For instance, Jefferson and Heneghan of University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine wrote “It would appear that despite two decades of pandemic preparedness, there is considerable uncertainty as to the value of wearing masks.” Oxford’s renowned epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta said there is no need for masks unless one is elderly or high risk. Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya stated “mask mandates are not supported by the scientific data . . . there is no scientific evidence that mask mandates work to slow the spread of the disease.”

Throughout this pandemic, the WHO’s “Advice on the use of masks in the context of COVID-19” has stated “At present, there is no direct evidence (from studies on COVID-19 and in healthy people in the community) on the effectiveness of universal masking of healthy people in the community to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.” The CDC, in a review of influenza pandemics in May 2020did not find evidence that surgical-type face masks are effective in reducing laboratory-confirmed influenza transmission, either when worn by infected persons (source control) or by persons in the general community to reduce their susceptibility.” And until the WHO removed it on October 21, 2020 (soon after Twitter censored my tweet highlighting the quote), the WHO had written “At the present time, the widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence and there are potential benefits and harms to consider.” My advice on masks has been based on scientific data and matched the advice of many of the top scientists and public health organizations throughout the world.

At this point, one could make a reasonable case that those who continue to push societal restrictions without acknowledging their failures and serious harms are themselves putting forth dangerous misinformation. But I will not call for their official rebuke or punishment. I will not try to cancel them. I will not try to extinguish their opinions. And I will not lie to distort their words and defame them. To do so would repeat the shameful behavior of intimidating discourse that is critical to educating the public and arriving at the scientific truths we desperately need.

It seems that university mottos like Harvard’s “truth,” Stanford’s “the winds of freedom blow,” and Yale’s “light and truth” need major revision.

Social media has piled on with a heavy hand to eliminate discussion of conflicting evidence. Without permitting, indeed encouraging, open debate and admission of errors, we might never solve any future crisis.

As a health policy scholar for over 15 years and as a professor at top universities for 30 years, I am shocked and dismayed. Some faculty members of our acclaimed universities are now dangerously intolerant of opinions contrary to their favored narrative.

Some go further, distorting and misrepresenting words to delegitimize and even punish those of us willing to serve the country alongside a polarizing president they loathe. It is that behavior, to quote those same Stanford professors, that “violate[s] the core values of [Stanford] faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ‘are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’” Worse than a violation of ethical behavior among colleagues, it does not meet the standard of simple human decency.

If academic leaders fail to renounce such unethical conduct, many more experts with a reputation to lose will be unwilling to serve their country in contentious times. As educators, as parents, as fellow citizens, that would be the worst possible legacy to leave to our children.

I also fear that the concept “the science” has been seriously damaged, and even the best journals in the world, NEJM, Lancet, Science and Nature, have become contaminated by politics. Many have simply become fatigued by the arguments. That is even worse, because fatigue will allow fallacy to triumph over truth.

If the social media continues as the arbiter of allowable discussion, the United States is on the precipice of losing its cherished freedoms, with censorship and cancellation of all those who bring views forward that differ from the accepted mainstream. It is not clear if our democracy will survive—but it is clear that people must step up, or it has no chance.