From the Brownstone Institute
Science is the process by which we learn about the workings of material reality. Though modern innovations – built on the fruits of science – would look like magic to people living only decades ago, they result from the time-tested scientific method.
Contrary perhaps to media portrayals of science, the scientific method depends not on the existence of a mythical consensus but rather on structured scientific debates. If there is a consensus, science challenges it with new hypotheses, experiments, logic, and critical thinking. Ironically, science advances because it believes it has never arrived; consensus is the hallmark of dead science.
One of us is a college student with an unpremeditated career in alternative indie journalism. The other is a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine with an MD, a Ph.D. in economics, and decades of experience writing on infectious disease epidemiology. Despite the wealth of differences in our backgrounds and experiences, we converge on foundational scientific and ethical principles that public health authorities abandoned during the Covid pandemic. Principles like evidence-based medicine, informed consent, and the necessity of scientific debate serve as the bedrock on which the public can have confidence that science and public health work for the benefit of the people rather than regardless of it.
The illusion of scientific consensus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic led to disastrous policies, with lockdowns the primary example. It was clear even on the eve of the lockdowns in 2020 that the economic dislocation caused by them would throw tens of millions worldwide into food insecurity and deep poverty, which has indeed come to pass.
It was clear that school closures – in some places lasting two years or longer – would devastate children’s life opportunities and future health and well-being wherever they were implemented. The emerging picture of catastrophic learning loss, especially among poor and minority children (with fewer resources available to replace lost schooling), means that lockdowns will fuel generational poverty and inequality in the coming decades.
And the empirical evidence from places like Sweden, which did not impose draconian lockdowns or close schools and which have among the lowest rate of all-cause excess death in Europe, suggests that lockdowns failed even narrowly to protect population health during the pandemic.
The illusion of consensus around the proper use of the Covid vaccines was another major public health disaster. Public health officials everywhere touted the randomized trials on the Covid vaccines as providing complete protection against getting and spreading Covid. However, the trials themselves did not have the prevention of infection or transmission as a measured endpoint.
Rather, the trials measured protection against symptomatic disease for two months after a two-dose vaccination sequence. Prevention of symptomatic infection is obviously a distinct clinical endpoint from prevention of infection or transmission for a virus that can spread asymptomatically. In the fall of 2020, Moderna chief medical officer Tal Zaks told the BMJ, “Our trial will not demonstrate prevention of transmission…because in order to do that, you have to swab people twice a week for very long periods, and that becomes operationally untenable.”
Despite these facts, public health officials botched the public health messaging surrounding the Covid vaccines. Based on an illusion of scientific consensus, public health authorities, politicians, and the media pushed vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, and vaccine discrimination.
Prominent officials, including Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, told the public that science had established that covid vaccines stop transmission. CNN anchor Don Lemon advocated for “shaming” and “leaving behind” unvaccinated citizens from society. Countries such as Italy, Greece, and Austria sought to punish their unvaccinated citizens with heavy financial penalties of up to $4,108. In Canada, the government stripped unvaccinated citizens of their rights to travel anywhere via plane or train and their ability to work at banks, law firms, hospitals, and all federally regulated industries.
The premise was that only the unvaccinated are at risk of spreading covid. An illusion of consensus emerged that getting the shots was a required civic duty. Phrases such as “It’s not about you, it’s to protect my grandparents” became widely popularized. Ultimately, as people observed many vaccinated people around them contract and spread Covid, the public trust in these authorities collapsed.
Early last month, the Biden administration extended its foreign traveler mRNA vaccine requirement to May 11th (which is now coming to an end) after the restriction was set to expire on April 11th. None of these policies ever had any scientific or public health rationale or epidemiological “consensus” to support them— and they certainly do not in 2023.
Related errors are overstating the necessity of the Covid vaccine for the young and healthy and downplaying the possibility of severe side effects, such as myocarditis which has been found mainly in young men taking the vaccine. The primary benefit of the Covid vaccine is to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death upon covid infection. There is more than a thousand-fold difference in the mortality risk from covid infection, with children and young and healthy people facing an extremely low risk relative to other risks in their lives.
On the other hand, the mortality risk for older people from infection is considerably higher. So the maximum theoretical benefit of the vaccine is meager for young, healthy people and children, while it is potentially higher for elderly people with multiple comorbid conditions.
Institutional public health and medicine ignored these facts in the push to vaccinate the entire population, regardless of the balance of benefits and harms from the vaccine. Public health should have cautioned young and/or healthy people regarding the uncertainty regarding vaccine safety for a novel vaccine.
For the young and healthy, the small potential benefit does not outweigh the risk, which – with the early myocarditis signals – turned out not to be theoretical in nature. A rigorous independent analysis of Pfizer and Moderna’s safety data shows that mRNA covid vaccines are associated with a 1 in 800 adverse event rate — substantially higher than other vaccines on the market (typically in the ballpark of 1 in a million adverse event rates).
To maintain an illusion of consensus, public health authorities and media thought it necessary to suppress these facts. In June 2021, for instance, Joe Rogan stated healthy 21-year-olds do not need the vaccine. Despite his correct medical judgment which has indisputably stood the test of time, all sectors of the corporate media and social media platforms unanimously pilloried him for spreading “dangerous misinformation.”
Worse, many people who suffered from legitimate vaccine injuries were gaslighted by the media and medical personnel about the cause of their condition. One of us has devoted the past several months interviewing victims of the illusory scientific consensus that covid vaccines are on net beneficial for every group. For example, there is a 38-year-old law enforcement officer in British Columbia who was coerced into vaccination against his conscience to keep his job.
Nearly two years later, he remains disabled from vaccine-induced myocarditis and has been unable to serve his community. National data from countries in France, Sweden, Germany, Israel, and the United States shows a substantial rise in cardiac conditions among younger populations after the distribution of the Covid vaccine.
The illusion of consensus surrounding Covid vaccination — wrongly viewed in the same light as hand-washing, driving within speed limits, or staying hydrated — has led to greater political divisions and discriminatory rhetoric. The failure of the traditionally well-regarded public health agencies like the FDA and CDC – with perverse influences from pharmaceutical companies in tandem with the powerful forces of censorship on social media — has destroyed trust in public health institutions. Disillusioned with the “illusion” of consensus, a growing number of Americans and Canadians are distrustful of scientific consensus and are beginning to question all things.
The project of science calls for rigor, humility, and open discussion. The pandemic has revealed the stunning magnitude of the political and institutional capture of science. For this reason, both of us — Rav and Jay — are launching a podcast devoted to investigating the concoction of pseudo-consensus in science and its ramifications for our society.
You can subscribe to the authors’ new Substack and Podcast
Witnessing the Media’s Covid Coverage from the Inside
From the Brownstone Institute
If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative.
In the movie An Education, the main character gets sidetracked from her studies by a smooth-talking art dealer who turns out to be a criminal—and married. Our protagonist learns more from that experience than from all the medieval literature books she cracked open before. I have similar feelings about my own education. While I’ve been earning my living as a writer for the past 29 years, it’s only during the Covid era that I learned what the writing business is really about.
I wear two hats in my professional life: medical writer, creating materials for doctors and the healthcare industry, and feature-article journalist for consumer magazines. It wasn’t until Covid that I began pitching essays and op-eds for publication.
I started with a piece called “A Tale of Two Pandemic Cities,” which grew out of my short trip to Amsterdam and Stockholm in the summer of 2020, when the European Union opened its doors to “well-behaved” countries like Canada. The Covid hysteria in my country had made me desperate to visit more balanced parts of the world, and my trip didn’t disappoint. The article found a home at a Canadian outlet called Healthy Debate, though the editor asked me to temper my enthusiasm for the Swedish strategy with an acknowledgement of its risks. Happy to find a legit publisher for my first Covid piece, I capitulated, sort of. (You can judge for yourself.)
Thus began a feverish outpouring of essays, each one motivated by the same bewildered questions: What the hell is happening to the world, and why? Has everyone else gone mad, or is it me? I had written a few controversial articles throughout my career, but never before had I held a “dissenting view” about an issue that affected the whole world—or felt such an urgent need to express it.
The Great Divide
I quickly learned that certain news outlets were less open to my pieces than others. Salon, fuggedaboutit. Spiked Online, bull’s eye on the first try. Washington Post, not a chance. Wall Street Journal, a couple of “close, but no cigar” efforts and then finally a yes. It boiled down to this: the further left a publication leaned, the less likely it would publish my pieces (or even respond to my inquiries). I’m sure a statistician could write an equation to capture the trend.
So why the radio silence from left-wing publications? I doubted I was tripping their “Covid disinformation” radars, as my pieces had less to do with scientific facts than with social philosophy: the balance between safety and freedom, the perils of top-down collectivism, the abuse of the precautionary principle, that sort of thing. If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative. (Not that right-wing media behaved much differently. Such is the age of advocacy journalism.)
Most nerve-wracking of all were the publishers who accepted my articles but, like that first Healthy Debate editor, insisted I make substantive changes. Should I concede or push back? I did a bit of both. The most important thing, I told myself, was to make people reflect on the topsy-turvy policies that had freeze-framed the world. If I had to soften a few sentences to get the word out, so be it. I have the utmost respect for writers who refuse to yield on such matters, but 29 years of paying the bills from my writing have tipped my internal compass toward pragmatism.
I did stand my ground with an article on the mask wars. My thesis was that the endless and pointless disputes on social media—masks work, no they don’t, yes they do, no they don’t—had less to do with science than with worldview: irrespective of the data, social collectivists would find a way to defend masks, while my freedom-first compatriots would never countenance a perma-masked world.
One editor agreed to publish the piece if I mentioned that some studies favor masking, but I argued that quoting studies would undercut my central argument: that the forces powering the mask wars have little to do with how well they block viruses. He wouldn’t budge, so we parted ways and I found a more congenial home for the piece at the Ottawa Citizen.
The process of pitching counternarrative essays, while arduous at times, led me to a smorgasbord of lesser-known, high-quality publications I never would have discovered otherwise. Topping the list was the glorious UnHerd, a UK news and opinion website with such daring thinkers as Mary Harrington and Kathleen Stock on its roster of contributors. The US-based Tablet magazine offered consistently fresh takes on Covid and never took the easy road in its analyses. In its pages I found one of the most powerful Covid essays I have ever read. The author, Ann Bauer (no relation), teased out the common threads between the “settled science” about the virus and the litany of quack theories about autism, which fed into her son’s death by suicide.
Then there was Quillette, whose contempt for the sacred cows of wokeism gave me a special thrill. True confession: I blew my chances with Quillette and it’s my own damned fault. Like many working writers, I sometimes pitch a piece to more than one outlet at the same time, a practice known as simultaneous submissions. This goes against protocol—we’re supposed to wait until an editor declines our pitch before approaching the next one—but the reality is that many editors never respond. With the deck thus stacked against us, we writers sometimes push the envelope, figuring the odds of getting multiple acceptances (and thus pissing off editors) are low enough to take the risk.
On this particular occasion, I submitted an article called “Lessons from my Half-Vaxxed Daughter” to three publications. Medpage Today responded right away, and I accepted their offer to publish it. (This was while Marty Makary, the dissident-lite physician who called out people’s distorted perception of Covid risk in mainstream media, led the editorial team.) A few hours later, Quillette’s Canadian editor sent me a slightly reworked version of my piece and told me when he planned to run it. I had no choice but to proffer a red-faced apology and admit I had already placed the article elsewhere. He never responded to my email or to a follow-up mea culpa a few weeks later—and has ignored everything I’ve submitted since then. I guess I’ll have to wait until he retires.
Earlier this year, Brownstone Institute published my book Blindsight Is 2020, which critiques the pandemic response through the lens of 46 dissident thinkers. By all standards a moderate book, it stays clear of any “conspiratorial” speculations about the origins of the pandemic or the political response to it. Instead, it focuses on the philosophical and ethical issues that kept me awake at night during the peak Covid years—the same themes I explore in my essays, but in greater depth. I wrote the book not just for “my team,” but for those who vehemently opposed my views—perhaps especially for them. I didn’t expect to change their minds as much as to help them understand why some of us objected so strenuously to the policies they cheered on.
After the book came out, a few podcasters invited me to their shows. I appeared on a Libertarian Institute podcast in which the host puffed on his hand-rolled cigarettes while we talked. I spoke to an amiable ex-con podcaster who made it his mission to share Ayn Rand’s ideas with the world. I bonded with Rupa Subramanya—a brilliant Canadian conservative journalist and podcaster featured in my book—over the Freedom Convoy we had both supported.
All told I’ve appeared on 22 podcasts to date, each of them hosted by a right-leaning or libertarian host. Crickets from the left. Not one to accept defeat, I’ve begun reaching out to left-leaning podcasters on my own. Perhaps one day I’ll hear back from them.
Covid media, like so much else in modern life, has become hopelessly fractured: the tall, left-facing trees dominate the landscape, telling the story of a deadly virus that we “did the best we could” to manage. Below the tree canopy lies the tangle of weeds that sway in the wind, whispering songs of freedom and warning against the totalitarian impulses that all too readily emerge during crises. While I’ll continue to throw my essays at those unyielding trees, the messy underbrush is where I’ve found my journalistic home.
Why So Many Countries Followed China’s Lockdown Example
From the Brownstone Institute
The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward
A novel coronavirus that was 10 times deadlier than the flu had gripped the world in 2019. Without a compass to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, all lessons learned from previous viral pandemics were thrown out the window. The World Health Organization was adamant, “This is not the flu.” Tony Fauci terrified the US House of Representatives with forecasts of disaster. Global populations were defenseless without a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that no one had ever seen before. The only viable defense at the time was to shut down the world.
China took the lead in lockdowns. Media exported from China showed people dropping dead in the streets. Caskets were piling up. Doors to buildings were sealed to lock in tenants. Throughout the panic, all reasonable alternative assessments of risks from the viral outbreak were ignored, censored, or rejected.
Nevertheless, I wondered whether a video of a person falling down in the street was really representative of the entire population. Were caskets piling up largely due to families fearing to claim them because of contamination with the virus? I noticed that the front doors to my local mall in Ontario, Canada had also been sealed, just like in China apartment buildings, but this was only to control access through a single entrance to the building, not to seal in customers.
My first clue that the emergency response to the outbreak of the coronavirus didn’t seem to make sense was when I heard Fauci tell television audiences that if our response seems to be overreacting, then we are probably doing the right thing. What? Since when is overreacting ever the right thing to do? Do generals win wars by overreacting?
I looked at the numbers that Fauci had presented to the US House of Representatives concerning case and infection fatalities of the coronavirus. They were backwards! His 10-times deadlier prediction was simply a made-up number! This was in March 2020. By May 2020 it was obvious that people were NOT dying at the inflated rate Fauci had predicted.
I published a paper on Fauci’s coronavirus mortality overestimations: Public Health Lessons Learned From Biases in Coronavirus Mortality Overestimation. But when I mentioned all this to my friends, they responded that the lower than predicted deaths just proved the lockdowns were working. Fauci was off the hook. Back to China.
WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19
The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Director of the WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19 investigating the coronavirus outbreak.
Aylward noticed a precipitous drop in novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP) in China during February 2020. This was before China adopted WHO’s name of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). Upon seeing China’s surveillance data, Aylward announced the spectacular findings to the world and told the world to do what China has done and lock down. But he appeared to make a fundamental epidemiological error by wrongly assuming that the association of China’s lockdowns with lower deaths proved the lockdowns were working (just like my friends had told me).
Soon after in March 2020, China published its latest case definitions for NCP (Covid-19). In a nutshell, the definitions showed that no one could be declared to have died of the disease unless they had viral pneumonia (a severe acute respiratory illness), and only if no other virus normally associated with viral pneumonia was present, except SARS-CoV-2.
Coinfections with the coronavirus were not acceptable criteria, and what should have been a broad surveillance case definition with high sensitivity to monitor the spread of the virus within the population narrowed down considerably into an overly specific diagnostic case definition. That pretty much sealed the deal to declare Covid-19 deaths in only single digits for many months during the pandemic throughout China. This super-low outcome impressed Dr. Bruce Aylward enough in February 2020 to implore the world to lock down. Did we ever!
In the meantime, other countries used case and death definitions that went to the opposite extreme of China’s narrow diagnostic definitions, disseminating overinflated surveillance numbers without adjusting the numbers to remove bias. Even Fauci eventually admitted that reported cases and deaths counted WITH the coronavirus are much higher than cases and deaths counted FROM the coronavirus. Ironically, the WHO had previously published material on the correct use and interpretation of surveillance and diagnostic definitions in infectious disease outbreaks. Aylward didn’t appear to get the memo.
There is more to the story. Was this even really a novel coronavirus, or just a novel genetic sequence of the coronavirus showing greater detail than previously available? China supposedly received updated genetic sequencing technology in late 2019. They had abandoned surveillance of SARS in 2003 for lack of technology.
Now they were back in business again by the end of 2019. The team of virologists that reported the genetic sequence of the virus in Wuhan noted that it would be necessary to investigate the epidemiological evidence to guide infection control responses. Who has time for that? Shut it down!
If the novel coronavirus isn’t really so novel, this would explain why the lockdowns didn’t work. We had already known that lockdowns don’t work in other viral pandemics. Even China eventually gave up its Zero Covid Policy after it was obvious that lockdowns weren’t working. My friends owe me some explanations to justify their lockdown views. Maybe Fauci isn’t off the hook after all.
For more information on biases in Covid-19 case and death definitions, see my peer-reviewed article with cited references: Biases in COVID-19 Case and Death Definitions: Potential Causes and Consequences.