I don’t know shit about science. The last time I took a natural science class was as an undergrad, to meet a distribution requirement. I took a couple classes in geology because I thought they’d be easy, and got, I believe, a C and a B minus. They were the worst grades of my college career.
I say this to assert, emphatically and at the outset, that I have zero qualifications to evaluate the most effective treatments for Covid-19. Not only do I lack any specialized knowledge of drugs and viruses, I don’t even have the basic scientific competence to scan the methodology section of a research paper and render any meaningful judgment of it. I may as well be trying to read poetry in Russian.
Until now, my scientific ignorance hasn’t been much of an obstacle in my life. It has had no bearing on my professional career. In my daily life, rarely have I felt the need to dig up and review scientific papers. Whenever I’ve needed to form opinions on scientific questions, I’ve been content to read articles about them in newspapers I trust, by science reporters I presume to be competent, professional, and sufficiently disinterested.
All of that has changed. With the pandemic, suddenly science — or at least the science related to Covid-19 — is as relevant to our immediate lives as the weather. We’re not only expected to have at least vaguely informed opinions on questions related to virology, epidemiology and vaccinology, but we’d be foolish not to, as our health literally depends on it. Yet at precisely that moment, mainstream journalists have made it nearly impossible to trust them as impartial investigators of those very questions. We have never needed specific, objective, factual information more than at the moment when those who produce the news have made it their business to refuse on principle to seek it out. That has left us in a bizarre epistemological netherworld that is beginning to feel like a permanent condition in post-Trump America, whether the topic is science, politics, crime, policing, social stability, or anything with even a tangential relationship to the media’s newfound activist agenda. We’re entering a twilight zone of social fragmentation in our very perception of reality.
I’m vaccinated. I got the Pfizer vaccine months ago. Like most people, I’d never heard of mRNA vaccines before this year, but I trusted they worked — I still trust they work — because I’d been told so by highly credentialed people. I was aware that the vaccines had been approved by the FDA only under an Emergency Use Authorization, so the standard for proof of efficacy had been lowered, but understood that clinical trials indicated that they were extremely effective nonetheless. I knew that serious short term side effects had been largely ruled out, even if it was impossible to know whether there might be long-term side effects for a brand new technology.
I was not particularly skeptical of any of this. Many intelligent, highly informed people took the precaution of waiting to get the vaccine until it was a practical necessity; I was not one of them. I got the vaccine as soon as I could, and had no serious doubts about what I was doing. I considered myself adequately informed on the risks and the benefits, and I was sick of the lockdown.
But if I had the chance to do it all over again, I’m not entirely sure I would. That’s not because anything particular in the world has changed. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a wave of vaccine casualties or a revelation of fabricated data in the clinical trials. There’s no compelling reason that I’m aware of to believe the vaccines are any less effective or any more dangerous than we knew them to be before.
There is, however, a great deal of reason to believe that the media outlets that have been interpreting the science and informing our judgment are utterly, almost maliciously unreliable. And if I can’t trust the media’s presentation of the facts and I can’t trust myself to understand the science directly, then I’m left without much confidence in my own comprehension of the world at all.
I listen pretty regularly to Bret Weinstein’s podcast, Dark Horse. Weinstein and his wife and co-host, Heather Heying, are evolutionary biologists. The two have long been interested in the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as an effective, off-label treatment for Covid 19, and have become increasingly self-confident in their advocacy of it. To me, a scientific ignoramus, they and their guests make a persuasive case. I admire their probing, skeptical, systematic, rigorously logical approach to the topics they speak on, including ivermectin. But again, I know jack shit about science. With no scientific training, I have no way to meaningfully evaluate their claims.
Normally that’s where journalists would come in. I’d look to responsible reporters who actually know how to read research papers to listen to the arguments on each side and tell me in a language I can understand what their merits and shortcomings are. But what is the record of journalists tasked with interpreting the science of Covid-19? Or to be even more specific: what is the record of journalists tasked with assessing Bret Weinstein’s scientific hypotheses on questions related to Covid-19?
A year ago, Weinstein was one of the few professional scientists in the world willing to question the World Health Organization’s summary dismissal of the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the product of experiments aimed at making bat coronaviruses more transmissible and deadly to human beings. For that he was ridiculed. Last June, Weinstein was a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, where he described the lab leak hypothesis. After Rogan referenced that interview in a later episode, Media Matters For America derided him in a post headlined “Joe Rogan spreads unfounded conspiracy theory that COVID-19 started in a lab.” After Weinstein and Heying appeared on Bill Maher’s show to discuss the hypothesis, The Daily Beast dunked on them for pushing a “bonkers Steve Bannon Wuhan Lab Leak Conspiracy Theory.” The couple were dismissed as “a pair of culture-war-obsessed podcast hosts—who were biology professors and are not epidemiologists or virologists” by someone who writes TV recaps for a living.
Today, Weinstein and Heying have been largely vindicated. Anthony Fauci has walked back his prior rejection of the hypothesis. President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate it. Media outlets, including the Daily Beast, have gone back and scrubbed their old headlines to reflect the new consensus that it is entirely plausible that Covid was spawned in the Wuhan lab. And yet Weinstein and Heying are again being branded conspiracists, this time for their belief in ivermectin. This time, though, they’re not just being called names; they’re being censored by YouTube.
While I have no scientific background with which to evaluate Weinstein’s and Heying’s assertions, I do have a solid basis for judging the position of those who have sought to disparage them. That’s because doing so requires no knowledge of science, since science is not the means with which they have attempted to win the debate. They have chosen another tool instead: silencing by decree. It’s a tactic that’s as anti-scientific today as it was when the Catholic Church used it to suppress heretical new discoveries in cosmology.
YouTube’s “misinformation policy” on Covid-19 prohibits “medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.” To most people this might appear eminently reasonable, since most people don’t think too much about how science works. But in fact, YouTube may as well be deferring to the Scriptures. Despite its illustrious name, the WHO’s authority on what constitutes scientific fact is as arbitrary as that of any governing agency. As a scientific bureaucracy, the WHO may represent the default consensus of the medical and scientific establishment at any given time, but to assume ipso facto that the medical and scientific establishment is correct in its conclusions about scientific questions that are brand new to us is to reject the very nature of the scientific method.
Almost by definition, breakthrough discoveries in science are rejections of the conventional wisdom, and can thus be expected to meet resistance from within the scientific establishment. Scientific discovery moves forward in cycles of resistance and breakthrough like an internal combustion engine, and the fuel for this process is the free exchange of ideas. That’s precisely what YouTube is throttling by slavishly subjugating its content creators to the authority of the WHO, a political organization that, let’s remember, also dismissed the lab leak hypothesis. YouTube is not protecting us from scientific “misinformation” by prohibiting dissent from scientific orthodoxy; it is practically ensuring it.
To be fair to YouTube, its posture toward Official Scientific Truth is hardly unique; it reflects that of the media establishment, which, throughout the pandemic, has bowed to the authority of the WHO, the CDC, the NIH and Anthony Fauci practically by reflex, in a manner reminiscent of the jingoistic post-9/11 years. This convergence of opinion between the social media platforms and the media is entirely unsurprising, given that liberals have been demanding it for years. But it could be a harbinger of a great deal more digital speech policing in the near future. After all, scientific orthodoxy is hardly the only dogma the media has embraced. In their mission to restrict the public to a diet of information that they regard as best for our health, journalists have sought to determine for the rest of us what is and what is not permissible to believe about all kinds of topics, including gender, racism, crime and policing, standardized testing, and a complete stranger’s interpersonal experiences. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine a day when YouTube starts pulling down videos for contradicting official sources on questions related to basically any topic that draws the right amount of political attention.
The ivermectin question has been at the top of my mind lately, because I have an infant son. Sometime soon, I expect the Covid vaccines to be approved for all ages, and I’ll have a decision to make. Do I “believe the science,” which is to say, do I trust the experts that the vaccines are safe and the alternatives are not? Or do I regard injecting my baby with a brand new technology to be an unwarranted gamble with his long-term health? And in the face of massive peer pressure — not just the soft kind of being yelled at on social media for being “anti-vaxx,” but also, potentially, vaccine passports and other rules that restrict the liberties of the unvaccinated — how firmly do I hold any reservations I might have?
Often when I bring up these complicated questions with others, I’m met with a quizzical look. I can see people quietly revising their opinions of me as I fumble to explain that you can’t trust the mainstream media and that people with unpopular opinions are literally being censored. In those moments I can’t help but question my own mental health, as I see myself through their eyes, ranting about ivermectin or the long-term hazards of the vaccines like someone convinced that airplanes are spewing mind-controlling chemicals in the sky and that vaccines cause autism. Then I remind myself that in 2021, taking the media’s word for granted means believing that America was founded specifically to preserve slavery, that the Kremlin perpetrated a massive international conspiracy that installed a Manchurian candidate in the Oval Office, and that it’s sheer lunacy to wonder why Covid broke out in the same city that happened to house one of the only labs in the world that tinkered with bat coronaviruses.
It’s a feeling that’s becoming alarmingly familiar, whether the topic is Covid treatments, the function of police, the ambiguities of gender dysphoria in children, or the allegedly racist or homophobic motivations of mass shootings. As a question enters the public discourse, myriad outlets spontaneously converge on a single common interpretation, contradictory views are sanded down to a uniform texture, and dissidents begin to be regarded with contempt or pity. Open inquiry, even intellectual curiosity, is shunned as thinly veiled bigotry. A regime of acceptable opinion forms. An orthodoxy coheres.
What emerges from this process is not “moral clarity” but a collective charade of agreement, performed by people too timid to express their private doubts. It’s a sort of Potemkin Village that we’re all forced to live in. As individuals, we’re left stranded: we don’t quite buy the performance we’re all compelled to participate in, but we wonder whether the alternative explanations are what they are accused of being: delusions cooked up by conspiracy nuts.
Down one path lies madness. Down the other, the same. It’s a free society — choose one.