Rebekah Jones, a scientist who produced a data visualization tool that helped track Covid-19's spread, has had her house raided by police brandishing guns. Jones reported on Twitter that her “hardware and tech” had been taken. The police say they were investigating allegations she encouraged colleagues to expose the true scale of the pandemic in her native Florida. Jones has a different explanation, and if she is right this marks a dramatic escalation in the ongoing war on scientists' capacity to tell the truth.
When the pandemic hit, Jones was the Florida Department of Health's General Information System team manager. She helped build a dashboard that gave people easy access to county-by-county information on case rates. Although borrowing in design from the widely used Johns Hopkins University global tracker, Jones' work was considered innovative at a local scale and was imitated for other jurisdictions.
In May, Jones was dismissed. She did not go quietly, however, claiming she had been pressured to censor data to make it look like the outbreak was less severe than it really was in order to support Florida governor Ron DeSantis' anti-lockdown push. Jones told CBS News data missing from the site reflected policy decisions.
This morning, Jones made this post on Twitter.
In the seven months in between, Jones has kept reporting case numbers, primarily for Florida, but also for school acquisitions nationwide through her website FloridaCovidAction.
The official allegation against Jones is that she accessed an emergency messaging system to encourage her former colleagues to speak out. However, Jones told CNN she no longer had access to that system. She believes the real motivation was to identify an individual who had been leaking her evidence of cover-ups.
A spokesperson for DeSantis told CNN: “The governor's office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation."
The raid follows the front page of the Orlando Sentinel running the headline “Secrecy and Spin” with the subheading “How Florida's governor misled the public on the pandemic.” Although Jones is not mentioned in the story, she has been a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in drawing together information on what is really happening in Florida and how it differs from the official line.
Totalitarian governments have always suppressed science, most famously when studying evolution from a Darwinian perspective could get Russian scientists sent to Siberia. Democracies, on the other hand, have usually seen the free practice of science as part of their lifeblood, including the distribution of findings without military implications.
In recent years that has been changing. Climate scientists worldwide are now routinely harassed by members of the public aggrieved at their results. Some governments have joined in the persecution. Canada's former Harper government banned scientists from discussing their results in public without official approval.
Florida has been at the forefront of this trend, with merely mentioning climate change being forbidden for state employees. Nevertheless, trying to scare a scientist into keeping quiet by pointing guns at their children would be a new low, if that is what we have just seen.
Update: The judge who signed the warrant to raid Jones' house was only appointed in November. According to Jones this was the first warrant he had signed off on.