This was meant to be the lead story of tomorrow’s Morning Report, but there’s a lot to say on the topic, and once I started I couldn’t stop. So, a bonus piece this week for all the real ones. Ah, and one more important thing: check out our new podcast! Godspeed.
Debate me, bro. Friday, the world discovered VICE magazine somehow still exists after Anna Merlan published a hit piece on Joe Rogan following his conversation with Presidential candidate RFK Jr. (forbidden). VICE charged both men, and Spotify, with the crime of spreading vaccine “misinformation,” which inadvertently sparked a sprawling, deafening, still ongoing information war. At the center of it all — improbably, obnoxiously, but definitely somewhat hilariously — stands a rather dwarfish little “expert” rule enforcer by the name of Peter Hotez, in a bow tie and a charming Hobbit hat, who earnestly believes “antivaxxers” are worse than terrorists.
It began like this: Hotez, who previously guested on Rogan, shared Anna’s dumb article, and accused Rogan of spreading dangerous misinformation. Rogan responded with an invitation for Hotez to debate the “misinformation” claim with RFK on his show in exchange for a charitable donation of $100,000, RFK co-signed, and Elon amplified the conversation. As Hotez is a high priest of the vaccination church, and Elon gets a lot of attention online, this gesture was interpreted as an act of harassment by the “disinformation” industrial complex. David Frum, some sort of writer people apparently used to care about, insanely characterized Rogan’s invitation to debate as literally antisemitic. Tom Nichols went rarely viral after suggesting a medical ‘expert’ should never accept an invitation to debate with a non-expert on a podcast, and from there the drama quickly broke along predictable tribal lines. On one side, it was “debate me, bro, what are you afraid of?” On the other, it was “believe science, peasant.” An embarrassing display from everyone, which is just another way of saying we were all on Twitter. But the underlying tension here is, actually, important.
First of all, Hotez wasn’t “harassed.” Hotez has testified before Congress multiple times. He has appeared consistently on MSNBC, CNN, and the most popular podcasts in the country — including, again, Rogan. On matters of public health, this “expert” has influence, he exerts this influence in the hope of shaping public health policy, and he appears to be succeeding. In other words, Hotez has power, and in America power is not above critique. Now, with that out of the way, okay yeah… debates really are a stupid waste of time, and the “debate me bro” challenge especially breaks down when leveled at a person who claims to be a man of science.
Media stardom demands charisma, wit, a kind of nimbleness as one dances around a subject, picking arguments to pieces, and empathy. Great science isn’t necessarily improved for any of these qualities, and when we do meet “scientists” who feel more like entertainers (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye) they probably shouldn’t be trusted. The purpose of a debate is not really to explain a position, to thoughtfully interrogate some other opinion, or to educate an audience. The purpose of a debate is to win, and while winning is important it’s not a virtue. Victory only matters insofar as one is fighting for a just cause. But what are today’s “experts,” or their warriors in the press, actually fighting for?
I don’t want to defend RFK. The truth is, I don’t really like him. I think the man’s overly paranoid, if correct on a few things, lacking in nuance, and a little too conspiratorial for the White House. Also, he’s a moron on the topic of nuclear power (opposed), and the notion of another Kennedy in government, framed as a populist anti-establishment guy, is frankly just kind of annoying. But on Covid, while VICE presents all of RFK’s positions in the least charitable way possible, his more unusual perspectives on HIV and Xanax (doesn’t cause AIDS, and does cause teen shooters respectively) are more or less ignored. This is because the “expert” class doesn’t seem to hate the man for being crazy, they seem to hate the broad and far more reasonable Covid policy backlash he represents. And that’s worth discussing.
At the top of 2022, I summarized America’s schizophrenic public health response to Covid, “expert” approved, which drove us indoors, where it was easiest to catch the virus, while our Vitamin D-rich beaches and parks remained closed (along with our economy). The stupidity we were made to believe was almost limitless. Remember when it wasn’t possible to catch Covid between sips of Coca-Cola on an airplane, or between bites at a restaurant, but walking to the bathroom without a mask put a man in mortal peril? Speaking of masks, and of somewhat more consequence, in the early days of the lockdown — just after Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx explained it would only take two weeks to stop the spread — Fauci, the CDC, and the histrionic former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams all insisted masks could not protect us from the virus. Weeks later, after all of the ‘important’ people received their supplies, masking up was made the law.
Mistakes are made of course, but the enduring problem of our “expert” mistakes is they are never, under any circumstances, referred to as such. Throughout Covid, the public was expected to simply follow orders, no matter how draconian, and no matter how damaging, even while our policy was more or less constantly changing. Then, the Covid vaccine began to ship, and from the moment Biden was safely elected to the White House this vaccine was framed as essentially magical.
I took the shot, twice, and consider its underlying technology to be an exciting technological breakthrough. I’m glad it exists. But in hindsight, given the reality of Covid morbidity across various demographics, it seems something so new should only have been strongly recommended for populations most at risk: older Americans, Americans with pre-existing conditions that left them especially vulnerable to Covid, and — especially — the obese. Then, while the vaccine should have been offered to fit, healthy young men and boys, it should not have been recommended, as was standard throughout Scandinavia. Most crucially, the vaccine’s very rare complications should have been more openly and honestly discussed, along with their rates. These complications should have been compared to Covid rates, which were, for most populations, far worse, and we should have all been left to our (obvious) conclusions. Instead, we were treated like children.
Americans were led to believe the Covid vaccine had no side effects (unheard of). We were also told that if we took the shot we couldn’t get or spread the virus. This was more believable, as for most of our lives the word “vaccine” meant “thing that kept one from getting a disease.” But that didn’t quite pan out, and, in keeping with the principles of Encyclopedia Titanica, the definition for “vaccine” was simply changed by both the CDC and the dictionary once our “experts” were embarrassed. Many of us saw the next step coming, not that it made it any more pleasant:
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, “I mean I know people must like to have their individual freedom and not be told to do something, but I think we’re in such a serious situation now that under certain circumstances, mandates should be done.” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the NIH agreed. With their marching orders delivered, our state parrots carried out their work.
“Don’t get the vaccine? You can’t go to the supermarket.” — Don Lemon. “If you don’t get vaccinated, you can’t come into the gym, or the restaurant, or the workplace.” — Joy Behar. “Mandate the vaccine.” — Chris Cuomo. “It’s time to start firing unvaccinated people. Trump lovers, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, the same people who used to call themselves patriots.” — S.E. Cupp. “People must be mandated to take this vaccine.” — Joy-Ann Reid.
Media hysteria was uniform on the issue of forced vaccination, and proponents ultimately got their wish instantiated in the most authoritarian public health policy that has ever existed in this country. Colleges across America forced students to undergo an essentially experimental medical treatment almost none of them needed. California Governor Gavin Newsom forced all state employees, health care workers, and public school students to vaccinate. Mayor Bill DeBlasio applied the legislation to restaurant workers at private establishments, and President Joe Biden applied the rule to all federal employees, and our military.
It was never clear why anyone should have cared if unvaccinated adults assumed a risk of Covid for themselves, given the vaccinated were presumably immune. When this question was raised, no answer was provided. We were rather told our opposition to coercive vaccination was radical, dangerous, and ignorant: adults have always been forced to vaccinate, the experts all insisted. I took this final position apart, in detail, in My Body, My Choice, but as the months went on it became clear the history of mandates wouldn’t even matter. Individuals vaccinated against Covid were both susceptible to Covid, and — critically — able to spread the virus. With the entire, rational, “greater good” justification for forced vaccination thus obliterated, certainly the mandates would be lifted. Right? Of course not. That took polling data.
Today, coercive vaccine requirements (“take the shot, or lose your ability to feed your family”) have mostly been rolled back, and we mostly pretend they never existed. But they did exist. Our policy mistakes throughout the Covid pandemic were all real, and unless we want to repeat them they are in serious need of interrogation. This, I think, is really what animates most people standing behind Rogan on the issue — myself included.
We are now living in a world in which it is relatively easy to create new viruses. There will be another pandemic. It could easily be worse than Covid, and right now, for our “expert” class’s total refusal to own their mistakes, or entertain the thoughts and concerns of the public, half the country is primed to believe all vaccines are dangerous, while the other half is primed to believe skeptics should be jabbed, silenced, and jailed. There was a brief moment at the beginning of the Covid pandemic where we all took a breath and tried to understand, together, what was going on. That kind of cooperation is presently impossible. Another pandemic will destroy this country.
Debates are stupid, and no scientist should be expected to defend himself on Rogan. But the canonization of our experts is existentially dangerous. Assuming public health is earnestly our priority, it’s worth noting humility is the only thing capable of easing back the public’s rage. My suggestion for the “experts” is they attempt it, which is not a moral expectation, but a piece of good, tactical advice. You’re welcome. Now please be less evil.