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They Hate Him Because They Are Him
Bret Weinstein, Media Neurotics, and Their Shared Delusion
Oh, vaccination. I’ve more or less stayed away from this topic for quite awhile, aside from occasionally sharing data points. Last week, I finally gave in and did a deep dive on the topic, trying to understand how this fragmentation happened in the informal online circle of podcasters and writers. After digging for not-too-long, I found that the answer was neither extreme nor unusual. I think the answer is best demonstrated by the story of one of the most prominent vaccine skeptics: Bret Weinstein.
Weinstein is a friend and fellow podcaster to Joe Rogan. Many of Rogan’s talking points around both vaccines and the COVID treatment ivermectin are verbatim quotes from a conversation he had with Weinstein and Pierre Kory, another ivermectin supporter. The doubts the duo have promoted about the vaccine and ivermectin is riddled with evidence that is at best contentious, at worst undeniably false. They have also attracted volley after volley of criticism from much of legacy media, some of it fair, some of it ridiculous.
Bret Weinstein is quite far from a conspiracy theorist, at least in his own arguments. In my view, he’s definitely wrong about vaccines and most likely wrong about ivermectin. However, the mistakes in his thinking are not just non-conspiratorial, but even commonplace. They are logical errors that you see and hear daily, in essentially every cable news, podcasts, and print publications. And it’s a great case study in how a series of overused errors and fallacies can lead to incredibly false conclusions.
Telling Compelling Stories
In his podcast appearances, Bret and a rotating cast of skeptics lay out a fairly coherent narrative about COVID, vaccines, and treatment. First, doubts are raised. Sometimes this is done with technically correct, but insignificant data points, such as the slightly increased rates of myocarditis among young vaccine recipients. Other times it’s done with anecdotes that are next-to-impossible to falsify, like those of Pierre Kory. Plus, there are some statements that are perfectly correct, such as the idea that “no long-term data has been collected”, that aren’t bad arguments on their own, but more so fodder for bad arguments to be introduced later on.
Next, systemic arguments are raised against the opposing side. Bret attacks pharmaceutical companies for having a profit motive. He attacks scientific publications and academia for having financial biases due to grants, and for being skewed towards conformity due to hiring and publishing processes. He attacks legacy media for having political biases and establishment biases. He attacks fellow podcasters like Sam Harris for being influenced by their political priors. Note that none of these arguments are attacks that contradict the data or arguments being levelled against him. Instead, they are attacks against the way that data is produced. Some people consider this conspiratorial but I think that this is impossible to apply consistently without categorizing half of politics conspiratorial. Profit motives, individual incentives, systematic biases are real problems, and have significant influence over the decisions of lawmakers, regulators, and media in some cases. I don’t think the early approval of vaccines is one of those cases, but this is more a case of Bret applying a common media mistake than alleging a grand conspiracy.
Finally, and most important, is the appeal to risk aversion. Bret at no point claims that he knows for sure that the vaccines are dangerous. He was much more confident about ivermectin, at least prior to the retraction of two major studies, one by Elgazzar et al. and one by Carvalho et al. due to data falsification. Now he does a similar style of handwaving around uncertainty and around the (in his view) censorious conduct of ivermectin opponents. Instead of claiming that vaccines are definitely or even likely unsafe, he points towards the potential dangers in the scenario where vaccines aren’t safe, sweeping aside the problems with the status quo. Mind you, Weinstein isn’t shy about expressing the same level of fears towards COVID — he has been pro-mask, pro-distancing, and pro-shutdown since early in the pandemic. However, he elevates the risk of vaccines over the risk of catching and being hurt by COVID, and most important of all, he elevates the risk of both over the damages of continuing shutdowns any longer.
Spot the Error
Finding the mistake in this narrative, especially in the compelling way it is told by Weinstein, is not an easy task, particularly for someone without statistical training. However, it’s the bread-and-butter of my media criticism, so most of you will already know where I’m going. I essentially agree with Scott Alexander’s critique of ivermectin, namely that in aggregate, the data is much closer to the border of statistical significance and that this difference is likely due to confounding factors, such as ivermectin’s very real antiparasitic benefits. This is the last time I’m going to talk about ivermectin specifically, because I don’t think it’s that shocking that someone would be wrong on that issue, particularly before Elgazzar et al. and Carvalho et al. were retracted. Some of the later critiques still apply, but I think on ivermectin Bret mostly just made an understandable methodological error and hasn’t caught up.
Where the major errors are on display is his narrative around vaccines. I mentioned earlier that unlike outright anti-vaxxers, who argue with high or absolute certainty that vaccines are harmful, Weinstein’s endpoint is instead one of uncertainty. It’s telling that he hasn’t explicitly addressed, in either direction, a statement of the following kind: if all of the data points he has presented so far were true and there was nothing more, vaccine risks would be rare enough and benefits strong enough that the cost-benefit calculation is overwhelmingly in favor of vaccination. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he agreed with that statement if forced to take a position. Of course, “and there was nothing more” is doing a lot of work in that statement. Weinstein’s argument is heavily based on leveraging uncertainty to argue that there likely is something more, and appeals to the possible severity of that something as a reason not to be vaccinated. Before giving the strongest possible pro-vax argument, we’ll take a detour to explain why legacy media critics have been lackluster at delivering convincing pro-vax arguments, as well as why independent media figures like David Fuller and Richard Hanania have been much more convincing.
The Other Side of the Coin
It is my assertion that in order to make the best case for vaccination, you have to be pro-reopening. A version of this argument about providing more freedoms to the vaccinated has been made, but I am making a separate argument. Instead, I think it is simply more convincing in both logic and affect to be simultaneously pro-vaccine and pro-reopening.
A strong critique leveled against Weinstein has been the unequal application of standards. Weinstein accuses vaccine producers of corruption due to a profit motive, but does not hold the same standard for drugs such as monoclonal antibodies, or all sorts of products and services we all use in our daily lives. Oversimplified, I don’t see why we should be more terrified of a vaccine than a Big Mac. This also holds true for his standard of evidence and publishing. He claimed that publishing created incentives for poor data, which might be true, but turned out to be quite ironic after he was caught endorsing the Elgazzar and Carvalho ivermectin studies. And of course, it’s difficult to accuse others of motivated reasoning when Weinstein himself has admitted on his brother’s podcast to having his view of academia fundamentally altered by an earlier experience in his life involving publishing manipulation and mouse telomeres.
A similar critique applies to many anti-reopening arguments. Anecdotal arguments about how any child dying of COVID (despite a death rate of 0.1%) is justification for school closures activates the same type of irrational fear that justifies anti-vaccine arguments, particularly the ones Weinstein makes. Giving that type of fear legitimacy may encourage vaccine hesitancy, while the parallels between these arguments weaken any pro-vaccine case to be made. To make matters worse, the American public often has a generalized perception of “the media” or a news network in general, so even if there are mainstream voices who avoid this crucial mistake, such as 538’s Nate Silver, they may nonetheless be distrusted due to the hypocrisy of others who appear on the same or even different networks. Even myself and other independent writers such as the aforementioned Hanania or Fuller are accused of “hypocrisy” based on statements that we have never made and completely disagree with, simply because those ideas have been associated with people who are pro-vaccine. All of this is leaving aside the damage that’s done by having fallacious, sensationalist, and statistically innumerate journalists and news anchors aside from giving fodder to the anti-vax, but that’s for another article.
Aside from school closures, which may be the most grievous, but also plenty of other anecdotal arguments ranging from ones to justify lockdowns for the young and/or vaccinated to anecdotal sensationalism over police killings or terrorist attacks by the left and right respectively, these faulty arguments are employed constantly. This puts Weinstein’s flawed reasoning, as well as the broader vaccine-skeptical movement, in a much more realistic context. There are certainly crazy anti-vaxxers out there, but also a large faction if not a majority who are simply biased, wrong, partisan, or otherwise sharing flawed patterns with prominent establishment figures. This doesn’t change anything about how wrong their beliefs are or how consequential these mistaken beliefs are in reality, but understanding or even sympathizing with the lines of thinking that lead to those beliefs are a crucial part of trying to actually make convincing counterarguments.
Covid is Endemic
The incomparably strongest argument for getting vaccinated is the comparative one: we will all be exposed to COVID eventually, and either we can do it with the vaccine or without. When comparing the risks of the vaccine to full COVID, we can go line by line on the risks, from death to myocarditis to literally all named side effects which I’ve seen studied, and full COVID is more likely to inflict each one. In mathematics we give this scenario, where one option is greater than the other in every single way, the apt name of domination. There is an extreme fringe who believe in Bill Gates inserting microchips or that the whole pandemic never existed and those people will never be won over. But to the majority of vaccine skeptics in the much broader Weinstein wing, in order to oppose vaccination, it is necessary to believe in Zero COVID - that COVID will eventually reach complete extinction instead of persisting in some form.
The last holdouts on Zero COVID, unfortunately, are not only the anti-vax but also the neurotics whose contradictions made it so hard for us to convince the anti-vax in the first place. They continue to institutionalize a theory, Zero COVID, that has dwindling scientific support and that acts as the bedrock for anti-vax hopes. Ultimately Zero COVID lockdown supporters and Zero COVID anti-vaxxers are not too different. They make fear-based arguments, appeal to conjecture, wheel out anecdotal stories to scare populations that are largely unaffected, and fail to apply equivalent standards to the damage inflicted by their decisions. The antidote is simple: ignore them, mock them if necessary, and set an example by getting vaccinated, then returning to normal. In the end, living your life that way is the best argument you can make.
This article was mostly written before data about omicron became clear, but as of 2021/12/23, it seems like everything about omicron has only made the arguments in the article stronger.