As a hematologist-oncologist specializing in cancer drug development, I often quip that my job is to terrify cancer cells. But after my keynote speech at a prominent medical conference was axed for my opinions on the Covid-19 response, I realized that it’s not just malignant cells that get uneasy around me.
I was set to be the keynote speaker this November at the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) annual meeting in Dallas. Then, a vocal minority on X (formerly Twitter) complained. That was all it took for the organizers to cancel my lecture. If you care about free speech and the free flow of ideas, this should alarm you.
Back in May, ACCP’s executive director, Michael S. Maddux, approached me to speak at their event. He told me the 16,000-member organization, like Sensible Medicine, the Substack colleagues and I run, was committed to the “best available evidence” to guide decision-making in medicine. I initially demurred due to overcommitment—last year I accepted 75 invited lectures—but the folks at ACCP were persistent, and I finally accepted.
We agreed my talk would focus on whether medical evidence should have an expiration date. In other words, as conditions change (less smoking; more obesity), should doctors and pharmacists regularly reassess the evidence for our pharmaceutical treatments? I have published both an academic paper and a Sensible Medicine post on this topic.
Then, a handful of online critics noticed I was giving the keynote. Some were anonymous accounts, but others identified themselves as members of ACCP. Altogether, I counted, at most, fewer than 200 protesters—less than one percent of the organization’s members.
What was my crime? The critics were vague. In one open letter, Alicia Lichvar, a University of California, San Diego pharmacist, alleged that I had a “history of spreading misleading and inaccurate information” about Covid policy, and that my presence on the podium would be to “spit in the faces” of virtually everyone who has been affected by Covid.
As a physician and medical scholar who has published over 450 academic articles and two books, my research team and I base our opinions on a sober assessment of available evidence. We found that there was no strong data to back up masking kids or closing schools. The drug Paxlovid lacks evidence to support its use in vaccinated people. The CDC has made numerous errors, including inflating the number of children who died from the virus. In early 2021, Covid vaccines did benefit the elderly and vulnerable people who had not contracted the virus. But there’s no solid data to support their repeated use in children or in young people who have already had Covid, especially as of 2023. I believe our policy was largely a self-inflicted wound, one that should have been subjected to rigorous debate.
I invite my critics to disagree with me on any of my positions and to change my mind. Like any good scientist, I have changed my mind over the course of Covid. I was initially skeptical that Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed could develop a vaccine so quickly—I was wrong. I was optimistic that vaccination would halt the spread of the virus—I was wrong.
But instead of debate or dialogue, the ACCP organizers preferred to cancel my talk on a topic unrelated to Covid. The same thing happened to geophysicist Dorian Abbot, whose lecture on geology at MIT was canceled because of his views on affirmative action.
In her letter, Lichvar claimed that, in a 2021 post, I likened the Covid response to the Third Reich. This is false. As journalist David Zweig explained, “Prasad talked about democratic norms that had eroded during the pandemic, including military action in Australia to prevent movement of citizens. . . He argued there can be a slippery slope toward totalitarianism when democracies accept the loss of certain freedoms, and he referenced Germany in 1929–1939. . . . He did not say the Covid response was like Nazi Germany.”
I was surprised to see the chairman of medicine at Indiana University, David Aronoff, label my selection as a speaker “super bad👎” and “gross.” (He and I were on opposite sides of the masking debate—I favored dropping most mask requirements.) You’d think someone charged with fostering high-minded academic engagement and upholding academic freedom would be a bit more, oh, I don’t know, academic about it? One pharmacist who campaigned to have me removed returned to my social media feed to gloat that he succeeded. One person who had called for cancellation posted, “bullying works.”
In response to the criticism, the ACCP did not ask for my opinion. They did not poll their members. They did not even discuss the controversy with me. (Remember, Covid was not the subject of my talk.) Instead, they caved to a mob—a small mob that, as far as I know, expressed itself only on X. They sent an email notifying me that my talk had been canceled because of complaints, and then posted the announcement online.
What does it say that small groups of people online can cancel talks?
I don’t know how many ACCP members agree with the decision to cancel my keynote. In fact, some members said that they were upset with the cancellation. So while ACCP wrote in their cancellation letter that “your voices have been heard,” they apparently listened only to the angry ones.
I pity those unwilling to engage in ideas. But I feel intense concern for the young men and women who are receiving the message: keep your ideas to yourself, or else be punished. That’s not the America I cherished, where we were encouraged to express our opinion to friends, colleagues, and the public sphere. A 2017 survey by FIRE showed that 78 percent of students who consider themselves “very liberal” and 38 percent of “very conservative” students support withdrawing a guest speaker’s invitation in some cases. I worry that those who carry this authoritarian impulse often have more influence than those who are committed to open discourse.
No one is entitled to give a speech. But once an invitation to speak has been extended, it should not be canceled merely because a tiny online minority dislikes the speaker. It simply incentivizes online rage, and the more that organizers give in, the more calls for cancellation they will get. It’s a lot harder to have principles and stick to them.
Free Press columnist Vinay Prasad is a hematologist-oncologist, and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. Follow him on Substack, on his YouTube channel Vinay Prasad MD MPH, or on Twitter (now X) @VPrasadMDMPH.
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