Three Things #1: Jan. 16, 2022
On Covid, Mass Psychosis, and Censorship (Oh My!)
In the not too distant future there will come a day when we can have conversations (and write newsletters) without mentioning Covid. That day isn’t today. Sorry. Have faith, we’ll get there!
Thing #1: Covid and vaccination
Driven by Omicron, Covid cases are surging again, hospitals are buckling, and tests are still scarce. Vaccines seem to be helping a lot as most people requiring hospitalization are unvaccinated and most breakout cases aren’t too severe. It seems pretty clear that the vaccines are safe and effective. And yet there are still plenty of holdouts. Around 63% of Americans are “fully vaccinated”, a number that has barely budged in months (although the definition of “fully vaccinated” is obviously a little up in the air at the moment).
Rather than intentionally trying to make life difficult for the unvaccinated, as France’s president pledged to do, or claim that “there is no justifiable excuse for refusing vaccination” (there is), I think it’s essential that we hear the concerns of the unvaccinated. It was with that spirit that I listened to a recent conversation between Joe Rogan and Dr. Robert Malone that was controversial even by Rogan standards.
Malone is a physician who made “early contributions to research around the mRNA vaccine technology.” He spent three hours with Rogan calmly and methodically making a series of claims that by and large sound plausible, involving things like risks from Covid vaccines to certain groups of people (especially children), government overreach, perverse financial incentives and conflicts of interest, and the success of certain treatments using existing drugs in places like India.
The media likes to label him an “anti-vax conspiracy theorist.” Malone has spent a big part of his career working on vaccines, and he is vaccinated, so he’s definitely not “anti-vax” (anyone who calls him that is gaslighting you). And, while he does sound chronically disgruntled and overconfident, he doesn’t strike me as a nut job nor as an out-and-out conspiracy theorist.
I spent a while trying to fact check Malone, and frankly I didn’t get very far. It seems like the entire mainstream establishment is in attack mode, but the vast majority of articles I found claiming to “fact check” or “debunk” his claims in fact only set up and tear down strawman arguments (“He calls himself the ‘inventor of mRNA vaccines’ but didn’t singlehandedly create the Covid vaccines! The nerve!”) without really engaging with any of his claims. The best discussion I found is an Instagram post which did engage with some of his claims, but falls back on anecdotal, “there is no data that proves…” responses to most of them. I have yet to find any credible responses that engage with his claims about irregularities in the Pfizer trials or informed consent. (To be fair, debunking things is hard.)
At worst, Malone makes a few claims that aren’t strongly supported by scientific evidence: e.g., that lipid nanoparticles from the vaccines found in the ovaries in certain studies in mice can be linked to menstrual changes in humans. But given how many steps were skipped during the vaccine trials (including animal testing) and how widely the vaccines are being deployed, shouldn’t we continue testing and collect more data on these things?
Malone did succeed in making me think more about the Covid vaccines than I ever have before. I was first in line for the initial vaccine when it became available, and also for the booster. While I don’t regret the decision—I spent most of last year traveling, attending in-person events, “pen-testing the vaccine” and staying miraculously healthy, so they seem to have worked for me and caused no harm that I’m aware of—it does make me uncomfortable to realize how little I thought about the vaccine before signing up for it. Malone claims that dodgy stuff happened during the Pfizer clinical trial, such as The Curious Case of Maddie de Garay (apparently sharing information about this got him kicked off Twitter), which of course also makes me uncomfortable. And, no matter how often the experts say that the vaccines should be safe over the long run, the reality is that we don’t know for sure because mRNA vaccines are new and this is the first time they’ve been deployed en masse.
The point isn’t that Covid vaccines are bad, or that people shouldn’t get vaccinated. Most people probably should (it’s a little bit less clear for healthy children). The point is that, if you get vaccinated, it should be a choice that you made with agency, and with full access to information. You should do the math, weigh the risks, and make a personal decision for you and your family. With a very small number of exceptions, such as maybe frontline health workers and others who work closely with the most vulnerable, no one should be forced to be vaccinated or to get booster after booster. (Fortunately, it looks like the Supreme Court agrees with me here.)
In any case, listen to the interview, do your own homework on the veracity of Malone’s claims, and form your own opinion.
During the interview, Malone mentioned a very interesting idea, “mass formation psychosis,” which brings us to the next thing…
Thing #2: Mass Formation Psychosis
This term, which literally none of us had heard of a few days ago, totally blew up thanks to the interview. So, of course, everyone began looking it up. In response, Google put up a warning and eventually decided to manipulate its search results to show a bunch of articles from mainstream sources debunking a strawman version of the concept (“people aren’t literally hypnotized!”) without actually explaining what it is or how it could possibly be relevant to the current context. Because everything the bad man says is necessarily wrong and, as usual these days, there is no room for nuance. Rather than engaging in thoughtful debate on the topic, most responses are of the form, “there’s no such thing”:
The top results on DuckDuckGo, by contrast, are three articles explaining the idea—with Malone’s own article about the idea on top:
I won’t get into details about the concept here—you can read and watch more about it on your own—but suffice it to say that, as an explanation for some of the irrational behavior we’ve seen in response to Covid, it actually makes a lot of sense to me. When people feel confused, afraid, and isolated, under attack from a thing they can’t see and don’t understand, and leaders offer simple-sounding solutions, people might latch onto those solutions even if they don’t make sense or aren’t backed by science. Is that such a preposterous idea?
In any case, if you have a better explanation for why people who are young and healthy refuse to leave their home for months at a time, wear masks while outside alone, or why they, you know, do this sort of thing, I’m all ears. By the same token if you can help me understand why smart people who claim to believe in science refuse to accept that natural immunity might be as good as or better than acquired immunity from vaccines, why we keep ignoring the peripheral consequences of lockdowns, why universities full of young, healthy students keep shutting down, or why we still seem irrationally focused on the impossible goal of eliminating a virus that clearly will be with us forever, I’m all ears.
What scares me is the way people everywhere have criticized, insulted, and dehumanized the unvaccinated, rather than trying to understand their concerns or engage with them. Even scarier is the way leaders have taken advantage of Covid (“never let a good crisis go to waste”, as they say) and used fear as a tool to increase their power and enact bad policies motivated by politics not science (e.g., most travel bans), and how people in some places work diligently to support these policies no matter how unrealistic or inhumane they are. If you ask me, the real global crisis is the rise of authoritarianism, something that is going to last longer and cause more long-term suffering than Covid.
But as I’ve already hinted at, there’s yet another scary story to be told here…
Thing #3: Censorship
I’m not particularly interested in specific claims made by Robert Malone or in how right or wrong he is. I’m very interested in the fact that, rather than attempt to engage with him or refute his claims, big tech companies, the mainstream media, scientists and medical professionals have tended to write him off or attempt to cancel him.
Malone’s appearance on Rogan came shortly after he was banned from Twitter for violating the platform's Covid-19 misinformation policies (he was previously also banned from LinkedIn). The Rogan episode was deleted from YouTube. A Republican congressman subsequently posted a transcript to the Congressional Record, accusing “Big Tech” of censorship. A coalition of “scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators” responded by calling on Spotify to “moderate misinformation” (which sounds to me like another name for censorship). Unsurprisingly, the episode blew up, causing some folks to point out that mainstream media is “losing the fight of its life” to Rogan.
I understand that not every person and not every idea deserves to be engaged with, because to do so in some sense legitimizes the person or the idea. But, given his background, his well thought out questions about Covid vaccines, and (thanks to Rogan) his audience, Malone clearly does deserve to be engaged with. Censorship is not the answer, and in cases such as this, only serves to make things worse.
Censorship is never the right response to legitimate, thoughtful questions or grievances. Censoring someone is what you do when you’re afraid to or incapable of engaging with them. It demonstrates weakness and fear. It damages your brand and reduces your credibility. And when you start to cancel legitimate voices, people start wondering whether everyone you’ve canceled wasn’t canceled illegitimately. I got so frustrated about this that I posted a tweetstorm about it.
What makes the liberal, free West different from unfree authoritarian states is that we have the freedom to engage in vigorous, open debate on controversial topics like this one. Woke warriors, big tech, and mainstream media would do well to understand this because the rising tide of woke illiberality is one of the biggest threats to our society.
One final thought: we live in an increasingly complex world, and pandemics and vaccines are complicated and difficult to understand, but even so citizens need to have agency and freedom in decisions like vaccination and public health policy. Rather than dumb things down, talk down to everyday people, hide information, and censor those who resist or dissent, government, thought leaders, experts, and companies should meet people where they’re at, attempt to address their concerns, give them complete information, and trust them to make the right decision for themselves, their families, and society. To do otherwise in this information age is both unethical and untenable.