Should We Trust Authority or Evidence?

Twitter user @Rosewind2007 recently tweeted this. This is a great example of people who revere “authority” over evidence. Take a look at the two excerpts. Notice anything? Neither one includes actual evidence. But we are asked to make a judgment about which one is correct. Why? Because the person who posted it makes judgments based on the speaker and not the evidence. Thomas Grant is obviously right and Peter Gøtzsche is obviously wrong, evidence need not be consulted. If Gøtzsche says something at odds with what Grant says, obviously Gøtzsche is wrong. Unfortunately, I do not reason that way. I like to look at evidence.

Why does Grant “wholly reject” Gøtzsche’s allegations? Apparently because 1) Mark Wilson and Martin Burton have superhuman integrity and he divined this during a personal interview with each, and 2) everyone interprets what happens in a meeting slightly differently, so we should expect some difference in the interpretation of minutes. Those are already some thin arguments, how good do they hold up? Not so good.

First, note the repeated use of colorful language, both in describing Wilson and Burton’s motives and in describing the allegations. In describing their actions and motives, the language reaches a level of adoration not often seen in legal documents. The allegations are said to be “a very serious allegation” two times. What is the relevance of this? This raises the burden of proof. Grant is describing the allegations as criminal allegations and justifying his judgment on them by shifting to a criminal burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt), whereas the claims against Gøtzsche were looked at from a civil perspective (more likely than not). This allows Grant to start from a position of innocence, ignore the evidence, and then dismiss the allegations because there is not enough evidence to reach a guilty decision under a criminal standard. This is never explicitly stated, but that appears to be the purpose of this colorful language.

Let us tackle the allegation that Wilson “tampered with” the minutes for their March 21 meeting in Lisbon. The key point here is (6) in Grant’s document: “The precise details of PGs’ objections to the minutes are immaterial. During fluid discussions people have different perceptions and recollections.” This is the entire basis Grant uses for dismissing the allegation (that and the obvious integrity oozing from Wilson’s pores). It sounds convincing: sure, I can see that people have differing opinions on what is discussed at meetings and it’s interpretation.

How can Gøtzsche possibly allege that he knows the minutes were intentionally wrong? What does his report submitted to Grant say? “…the minutes [] look very much like a precise, verbatim transcript of what was said…This is correctly quoted in the minutes [] but the start of my reply was omitted…It can be verified by listening to the recording and by calling upon witnesses…” Say what? The minutes are not a recording of “perceptions” and “recollections”, but a near verbatim transcript? It would seem the impression Grant gives is misleading. There is an audio recording and Gøtzsche has witnesses and Grant has neither listened to the recording nor interviewed the witnesses? How could Grant omit this information, other than for misleading reasons? This is critical information that shreds Grant’s argument into pieces. If the minutes were nearly verbatim and most of the missing information had an adverse effect on Gøtzsche, one must assume this was intentional, or the world’s greatest coincidence. Presented with all the evidence, we now see the misleading way Grant has selectively quoted Gøtzsche and presented a limited set of evidence. Grant quotes Gøtzsche’s statement that he “assumes” Wilson tampered with the meeting minutes. In the context, we are led to believe the assumption is based on no evidence. But digging into that context, we see the assumption is quite logical, based on strong evidence.

Grant uses his argument about “perceptions” and “recollections” to avoid looking at relevant evidence. But when exposed to that evidence, it is clear why Grant’s construction is wrong. And that Grant’s failure to obtain and listen to the audio is an indictment of his judgment and neutrality. Nothing Grant says squares with the evidence when you read Gøtzsche’s report – a report sent to Grant and allegedly read by him. The most notable consequence of Grant’s argument is that in practice, no one could ever be found to have tampered with meeting notes under his criteria, regardless of evidence, as he asks you to ignore the evidence in favor of vague generalities. If you follow Grant’s assertions, the rules of the game are rigged.

Turning to the allegations against Burton, again we see the same pattern here. Again the dismissal of the allegations seems to be based on Grant’s adoration for Burton and a general claim that perceptions and recollections differ. Does it hold up here? First, let us again take a moment to appreciate Grant’s mind reading powers and general adoration of Burton. In only half a page, he manages to drop in the following judgments that require mind reading or adoration: “…it was MB’s sincere attempt..”, “…a eminent figure…”, “…was created with honest and sincere purpose…”, and “MB’s statement…was sincerely and reasonably made.” With that silliness out of the way, are there any arguments beyond the general ones already noted? No.

With that in mind, let us examine Gøtzsche’s report. On the first allegation – Burton’s summary of the meeting between Gøtzsche and Wilson, Grant’s argument about perceptions and recollections has a little bit of relevance. A little. However, Gøtzsche paints a very detailed case that Burton’s description of the events between Wilson and Gøtzsche is misleading. And misleading in favor of Wilson and against Gøtzsche. I would not convict someone of criminal intent based on this alone, but it sure looks more likely than not that this is not a fair retelling of the events. So at minimum, Burton’s description of these events violates his duties as a trustee. His retelling minimizes negative information about Wilson and deprives Gøtzsche of fair treatment. As an example, Burton’s account makes it seem as if both Wilson and Gøtzsche exchanged “strong words” and got heated, when witnesses say it was only Wilson who used strong words and only Wilson who lost his temper. The exchange was so dramatic that another member of the board who witnessed it brought it up during the board meeting.

The next allegation is even more serious. Gøtzsche alleges that at a board only meeting in Geneva, the board discussed the special restrictions that were placed on him and decided no one should be subject to special restrictions – only the Cochrane policies everyone else must follow. Burton’s description of this meeting is not just differing in “perceptions” and “recollections” from Gøtzsche’s – it is contradictory. Burton writes that to his recollection no such agreement was made at the meeting, and that most of the other trustees are not aware of the special restrictions and thus never could have voted to release him from them. But Gøtzsche states in his report that he made all the members of the board aware of the special restrictions at the meeting and they discussed those restrictions while he was out of the room waiting at the door, since they involved him personally. Gøtzsche further states that he discussed the meeting with another board member who remembers as he does and is prepared to testify to the same facts. And the meeting minutes themselves indicate some discussion on this issue took place. Yet Burton and the other board chair deny any of this happening.

Gøtzsche states that he had prepared remarks on this issue ahead of time and he read from them, after board co-chair Lisa Bero attempted to exclude him from the room without a chance to defend himself. Eventually he was allowed to speak and after doing so waited outside the room for approximately ten minutes. This kind of detail would be astonishing to fabricate and easily contradicted by other board members, yet Gøtzsche has at least one witness ready to testify to his version of events, while the board co-chairs offer no evidence. Gøtzsche adds that at least three board members confirmed he was released from the special restrictions, with one telling him the vote was nearly unanimous – no doubt the co-chairs were dissenting votes, possibly the only ones. He offers to produce the names of the other board members from his notes if needed, though he does not divulge them in the report for privacy reasons.

It is impossible for anyone to reasonably believe the co-chairs simply forgot this event took place. It was a serious discussion about another member of the board, involving a long standing issue, and there was quite a bit of conflict over it. Indeed, the meeting minutes confirm some discussion took place. And vaguely (and perhaps intentionally misleadingly) note that Gøtzsche agreed to follow the Spokesperson Policy (which everyone already does anyway). Since everyone is bound by this policy, this sentence only makes sense as the resolution to the issue of special restrictions.

One other note in this same area of the document: item 139.4. Why would it be right to stop discussion of the CEO’s aggressive physical behavior toward a board member? Is that not relevant information the rest of the board should hear and discuss? The board is specifically tasked with oversight of the CEO. I can understand not taking action on the behavior, but failing to discuss it at all? And praising the board chair for shutting down discussion? How does that make any sense? Well, it makes sense in a world where Burton and Wilson are men of raw, pure integrity, with superhuman judgment unrivaled by mere mortals. The world of Grant’s document.

These are just a couple examples of the duplicity of the board co-chairs and CEO of Cochrane, and the misleading arguments put forth in the report by Grant. As a general matter, when one party is disinterested in the evidence and insists his client is so trustworthy that to question his behavior is offensive and the other party offers all relevant documents and audio recordings for you to examine, I have but one question. Whom do you believe? I believe the evidence.

And what does this say about how Cochrane leadership conducts business when Gøtzsche knew he needed to bring witnesses to meetings and make recordings to protect himself? Is it a sign of good governance when you need to wear a wire in your meetings with leadership?

One thought on “Should We Trust Authority or Evidence?

  1. Thank you again. This whole horror should be part of every leadership course and every social ethics study, it is sound training for clear thinking and for judicious action. Would that there were some way to rectify the situation. I am reminded of Cochrane nordik’s complaint to the ema , basically that the science is broken, there’s no mechanism to fix it and the public need to know.


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