Over the last few weeks, there’s been a growing storm over the claims that some of the Covid vaccines are unsafe, that ivermectin is an unjustly suppressed miracle drug and related concerns. Much of this storm has centred on the evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, hosts of the Dark Horse podcast. After YouTube and other media platforms removed some Dark Horse conversations on these topics from their sites, this controversy became the latest front in the ongoing debate about free speech versus censorship. Bret and Heather were sent a draft of this article several days ago, to give them an opportunity to reply.
But this controversy also taps into many other crucial issues: health policy, the acceptable bounds of public discourse, the role of big tech platforms in regulating speech and how to distinguish heterodox-but-essential ideas from misguided or dangerous ones. The focus on censorship and free speech is a distraction from the much deeper problem of how we can find truth in the internet age—especially given the yawning gap between mainstream and alternative sources of information. There is pressure to conform to the consensus on one side, and a lack of accountability on the other.
Although many of the claims that Bret and his guests have made had already been circulating for a while, mainly within vaccine-sceptical communities, Bret and Heather’s embrace of them brought those claims to the attention of a much wider audience, particularly after Bret appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience (the world’s most popular podcast) and on news shows hosted by Lex Fridman, Tucker Carlson and Megyn Kelly.
Bret and his guests have said that the vaccines are unsafe and that the data shows that the drug ivermectin is “something like 100% effective at stopping you catching Covid.” Bret has even taken the drug himself live on air.
In support of his decision to publicise these claims, Bret points out that he has previously made claims on other topics that many experts at the time were downplaying or denying, but later acknowledged to be correct (the virus spreads indoors; masks are effective)—or that they upgraded from fringe conspiracy theory to very possible (the virus may have originated as a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology).
As he has acknowledged, Bret’s arguments could lead some to decide not to get a Covid vaccine, after which:
They could well contract Covid-19 when they otherwise would not have. They might die. That’s not a responsibility I want, but it’s one that I feel I must take on because the analysis that matters is the net analysis. What is the best policy from the point of view of reducing the number of people lost to this disease—as opposed to lost to adverse reactions to vaccines.
This week, it emerged that Leslie Lawrenson, a British man who died of Covid after recording himself saying that he was glad he had the virus because he didn’t trust the vaccines, had been sharing Bret’s content. Bret points out that Lawrenson said that he didn’t think Covid was dangerous, while he and Heather have been clear from the beginning that they believe it is a very serious illness.
Bret and Heather are high profile participants in what has been called the intellectual dark web (IDW): a group of podcasters and public intellectuals that is said to include Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein (Bret’s brother), Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Sam Harris and the editor of Quillette, Claire Lehmann. (Some have described Quillette as the IDW’s in-house magazine.) In an early article about the IDW, Bari Weiss identifies the key challenge facing any movement that seeks to give voice to heterodox ideas:
I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.
The challenge that Weiss describes is relevant to Bret’s current claims about ivermectin and vaccine safety: how can we distinguish the good ideas from the bad? Opinions differ. Weiss has spoken out in favour of Bret and Heather’s general content, while Claire Lehmann has been highly critical. I have serious concerns.
In our age of near-total fragmentation of the media landscape, what is seen as truth in one information ecosystem is seen as obviously false in another. This is an existential problem, because if we can’t agree on what is true, we cannot solve any of our other problems—or even agree on what those problems are. Covid has thrown this challenge into sharp relief: some forms of misinformation have taken on a life-or-death importance.
This debate was recently brought to a head by a Quillette article co-authored by Yuri Deigin and Claire Berlinski, and by Sam Harris’ interview of Eric Topol. Yuri Deigin, who has been a guest on the Dark Horse podcast, is one of the principal researchers behind Drastic, a decentralised global network of researchers that did much to uncover new evidence about the lab leak hypothesis.
Over the last few weeks, Bret has hosted a number of Covid-vaccine dissenters on the Dark Horse podcast—including the vaccine researcher Robert Malone and the entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, who expressed serious concerns about the potential dangers of vaccines. He has also hosted the frontline medic Pierre Kory, who made strong claims about the efficacy of ivermectin in treating and preventing Covid. YouTube has removed some of these videos, has issued a community-guidelines strike against Bret’s two channels and has demonetised them (meaning that YouTube will no longer run advertisements on them).
Many who object to Bret’s position rely on their understanding that it goes against the current medical consensus—as if that alone should be enough to discredit it. However, that’s not how truth-seeking works. New facts can come to light, and what is heterodox one day can become the new status quo the next. YouTube censorship is no way to adjudicate truth claims, especially ones of this importance. In addition, such censorship often triggers a Streisand effect: when viewers voice strong objections to the removal of videos on free speech grounds, this only draws more attention to those videos and to the claims made in them.
The heart of the problem is the chasm between mainstream and alternative narratives (covered in more detail here). From the mainstream perspective, Malone and Kirsch are cranks who should not be interviewed alongside mainstream medical experts, lest it create a sense of false equivalence. Before the invention of YouTube and other media that allow people to upload their own content, there were gatekeepers who decided what would be published, which was an effective way of controlling the conversation. However, there are now so many information sources that gatekeeping no longer works. Mavericks can find huge audiences on alternative channels and in softball interviews with podcasters and YouTube channel hosts who neither challenge nor critique their claims.
Much of what used to pass for truth-seeking in mainstream media has been captured by ideological groupthink. But alternative media hosts may find truth-seeking even more difficult, since the marketplace of ideas only works when ideas are held up to scrutiny, and there is little incentive for hosts to do that. Iona Italia and I discuss this in more detail here:
Bret has hosted several people who have made very serious allegations about matters of enormous public importance. He has not hosted anyone who would challenge those perspectives, he has generally expressed agreement with his guests’ views of the science and he has neither seriously challenged them nor asked them to respond to criticism.
Bret has justified this approach by pointing out that his show provides a necessary counterpoint to the dominant narrative. While there is some truth to this—his advocacy of the lab leak theory, for example, helped it attract mainstream attention—that isn’t how human minds work and it isn’t how the internet works. Once you build an alternative platform, you create a new ecosystem, which can become just as closed off, just as liable to groupthink and just as resistant to criticism as the dominant narrative often is.
Bret is convinced that there is ample evidence that the vaccines are dangerous, that ivermectin has been proven to be a highly effective Covid prophylactic and treatment and that these truths are being deliberately obscured by the entire mainstream medical and media landscape, which he believes has been captured by corporate interests aligned with the CDC and other public bodies.
He correctly points to several perverse incentives that can motivate people to promote the mainstream argument, particularly the stigmatisation of scepticism regarding vaccine safety. Many journalists and commentators who care about their reputations may shy away from this topic altogether. But as a result of this reluctance to boost vaccine sceptics’ claims, those claims often go unexamined.
The online landscape warps our understanding of the world around us. Social media companies exploit our tribal instincts, cognitive biases and dislike of information that challenges our views. We cannot even begin to make sense of what we encounter online until we have wrestled with these aspects of ourselves and understood how our intuitive responses are being manipulated.
I expect that the only solution is genuine dialogue between those who disagree. But the online world provides very few suitable forums for this. Mainstream sites are often wary of hosting such debates for fear that they will be accused of giving oxygen to “anti-vaxxers,” while alternative forums—with their dedicated, vocal audiences—are often seen by those who favour the mainstream view as enemy territory. Even disagreements between those within alternative media can be savage. The Quillette piece critiquing Bret is scathing: “His promotion of outright quackery, during a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any catastrophe since the Civil War, is immoral,” write Deigin and Berlinski. And in his conversation with Sam Harris, Eric Topol describes some of the medical figures Bret has hosted as “predators.”
But Bret himself also implicitly frames everyone who disagrees with him or his guests on topics like ivermectin and the Covid vaccines as either co-opted, compromised or acting in bad faith. This seriously diminishes the chances of reasonable dialogue and a joint search for truth. In a landscape rife with moral sanctimony, the shaming of those who question consensus thinking and accusations of bad faith on all sides, moralising language is only likely to further entrench us in opposing camps.
So how should we frame such disagreements? And what obligations do those of us who host alternative media channels have to our audiences? Legacy media outlets take this question seriously—sometimes too seriously. Their emphasis on presenting only rigorously fact-checked information can lead them to distrust their audiences’ ability to evaluate claims for themselves. However, many alternative media outlets don’t even attempt to vet the claims they platform. It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially for those of us who, like Bret and Heather and myself, are working outside of institutions and have limited resources. We are likely to need support and help to recognise our blind spots. We’re all likely to make mistakes. And we’re all likely to be attacked when we do.
It’s just possible that Bret’s assessment of Covid vaccines could be correct and that there could have been a major cover-up—as there was on the over-prescription of psychiatric drugs. This genuine medical scandal is laid out by the award-winning Boston Globe journalist Robert Whitaker in his evidence-backed 2010 book, Anatomy of an Epidemic. One of the odd aspects of psychiatric drug prescription practices is that some doctors tend to attribute any harmful effects of the drugs to the patient’s initial presenting condition (for example, depression) and, once people have entered the psychiatric care system, they may find themselves trapped in a cycle of taking different prescriptions with various harmful iatrogenic effects. Big pharma has suppressed that story, and high-profile, top-tier scientists have suffered professional consequences for questioning the widespread use of these drugs—a prime example being David Healy, who was denied a position at Toronto University.
So can major corporate interests warp our understanding of medicine, with serious consequences for public health? Undoubtedly. Should we be wary and sceptical of the power of big pharma during the Covid pandemic? Yes. Does this mean Bret’s narrative holds up? I’m far from convinced.
In one of the most recent Dark Horse episodes responding to the Quillette article, before addressing any of the detailed claims, Bret and Heather spent half an hour outlining Bret’s view that the “aligned incentives” of big pharma have corrupted the truth-seeking landscape so much that we can no longer trust their data. They then read an excerpt from Ben Goldacre’s book, Big Pharma, about how major medical companies can warp research and bury bad news. These problems are well documented. In my experience, the majority of medical professionals are well aware of them. But they are irrelevant to the specific factual claims made by Bret, Heather and their guests.
The problem with such conspiratorial thinking is that it ignores the crucial last 10% of the evidence. The first 90% of arguments in support of such thinking is generally sound, pointing out obvious instances of corruption, bias, conflicts of interest or collusions. But once trust in official narratives has collapsed, the will to simply believe the conspiracy can kick in and result in an irrational degree of certainty. Expressions of such certainty should be a red flag.
Conspiracy theories tend to flourish when there are obvious gaps in the official narrative, which people tend to fill with speculation. The official narrative is that Covid vaccines are overwhelmingly safe, and that anyone who believes otherwise is a crank. It would be more accurate to acknowledge up front that, like all medical interventions, Covid vaccines carry risks, but that these must be weighed against the rewards of protection against Covid. The overwhelming consensus is that this balance is firmly on the side of the vaccines.
The entire pandemic response has shown up the inherent difficulties that arise when centralised bureaucracies try to respond to multifaceted problems. Authorities generally settle on single solutions—in this case vaccines—and may neglect to research other possible solutions, such as ivermectin. Some of Bret and Heather’s points are well grounded: that, as the virus mutates, some variants may turn out to evade the vaccines’ protection; that there is a need for more research into alternative strategies; that it is important to assess whether the risks of vaccinating children outweigh the rewards; and that it would be useful to question whether we should vaccinate people who have already had Covid.
But many of these points have also been tackled by the mainstream. For example, hundreds of scientists have recently raised concerns about the UK policy of lifting lockdown in what is a highly vaccinated country while case numbers are spiking, as this may lead to the evolution of a vaccine-resistant variant. In addition, both the AstraZeneca vaccine (in Europe) and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (in the US) were temporarily withdrawn over safety fears after just a small number of rare blood clotting incidents. And these more mild claims are not what has propelled Bret and Heather to prominence among a new vaccine-sceptical audience—this is more likely to be the result of their embrace of more extravagant claims and their interviews with guests with more extreme views.
In a recent podcast episode, Bret and Heather say that they are not responsible for any decisions made by people who listen to their content. However, they have chosen to boost some extremely dubious statements, including the idea that the data shows ivermectin to be “nearly 100% effective” as a prophylactic, and that this information has been deliberately suppressed, in order to promote emergency-use authorisation for the vaccines.
There may be a case for ivermectin’s use as a Covid treatment, though the quality and strength of the supporting data is hotly disputed. There is much less data on its effectiveness as a prophylactic. Bret’s repeated claim that it is “something like 100% effective” is based on a single, highly dubious study that was considered suspect even at the outset, and has been found to contain some worrying anomalies. Even the meta-study that Bret and Heather suggest is a gold standard includes in its analysis only two papers that examined the use of ivermectin as a preventative measure (as opposed to a treatment)—and some of the other evidence they cite is dubious as well. For example, they claim that ivermectin may have helped reduce the number of deaths from Covid in India. However, it was never widely used a prophylactic there, and data from crematoriums in that country suggest that there may have been up to ten times more Covid fatalities than had previously been thought.
Claiming that ivermectin helps you recover if you contract Covid is very different from claiming that it works better than vaccines in preventing you from catching it. Vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in large-scale trials. No large-scale trials have yet been conducted on ivermectin. To claim that its prophylactic efficacy is proven on the basis of the available evidence, and to suggest it could be used in lieu of vaccines is reckless at best.
In addition, on an episode of Dark Horse entitled “How to Save the World, in Three Easy Steps,” Steve Kirsch made several inflammatory, and clearly false claims. He claimed that the spike protein from the vaccine migrates to the ovaries and becomes concentrated there—and showed a graph that was on view for nearly ten minutes, purporting to demonstrate this. He also suggested that Covid vaccines cause miscarriages and result in babies being born with “the brain split in half.” He and Bret both claimed that the vaccines were “unsafe for women.” Since many of the women who watched or listened to this episode have probably already been vaccinated, these claims are likely to have caused considerable distress and concern.
Many of Kirsch’s claims have since been clearly and publicly refuted. The graph he provided is completely inaccurate. The vaccine does not become concentrated in the ovaries: the vast majority of it remains at the injection site, and organs other than the ovaries contain much higher concentrations. But Bret has yet to inform his audience about this refutation or any of the other refutations of Steve Kirsch’s false claims. Given the stakes, this failure is worrying.
Due to limited resources, it is almost impossible for independent media operators to fact-check every claim. But I believe that, having hosted guests like Steve Kirsch, Robert Malone and Geert Vanden Bossche, Bret has an obligation to talk to people who disagree with them, to investigate whether their claims are true and to report the results of that investigation to his audience. One doesn’t find truth by inviting people on to speak and simply agreeing with them. Ideally, hosts should themselves look for information that contradicts their pre-existing assumptions, do that research before hosting a guest, and raise potential objections to the guest’s claims in the interview itself.
We have not seen many experienced and credible mainstream figures making similar claims about the efficacy of ivermectin or the potential harms of the vaccines. This is striking, given that, by contrast, even the controversial lab leak hypothesis was championed from early 2020 onwards by a number of credible journalists and commentators, including Matt Ridley, Jamie Metzl, Josh Rogin, Nicholson Baker, Ian Birrell, Antonio Regalado and Yuri Deigin. So why are Bret and Heather so comparatively isolated now? Either they are the only people brave enough to follow the evidence, or else the majority of people, after researching these topics, have concluded that their narrative doesn’t make sense.
Bret and Heather have made solid points about the warped incentive structures of the mainstream, but that is only half the story. What about the skewed incentives of the alternative or consensus-challenging media?
It can be seductive to position oneself as a lone truth-speaker, standing up to the mighty power of the establishment—something Lex Fridman acknowledged when he asked Bret: “Are you aware of the drug of martyrdom, of the ego involved in it—that it can cloud your thinking?” Bret responded that he had no wish to be martyred.
In general, I value Bret’s contribution to the public discourse. Over the last few years, he’s established himself as someone to be taken seriously. However, many of the IDW figures have experienced the pitfalls of the new alternative media landscape, especially the phenomenon of audience capture. As Eric Weinstein and Sam Harris mused in 2018, the more poor quality criticism they have received, the less able they have been to identify valid critiques, and this has made it more difficult for them to refine their own thinking. (Iona Italia has also discussed the ways in which Dave Rubin succumbed to the effects of audience capture.)
The narrative of the heroic rebel fighting orthodoxies seems to seduce many of those who are intensely sceptical about mainstream narratives into blind acceptance of heterodox claims.
We all need to be much more open about the warping effects of the media platforms we are using, and self-reflective about the dynamics that our audiences and incentives create.
I believe that dialogue, rather than removing videos from platforms, is the right solution. But I believe it is erroneous to frame the demonetising of Bret’s YouTube videos as censorship, as Megyn Kelly, Matt Taibbi and others have done. Demonetisation primarily means that YouTube will no longer place ads on your content. Given how reluctant advertisers would probably be to be associated with this kind of content, it’s hardly a surprising decision. Demonetisation can also make a difference in how often the algorithm brings your videos to the attention of potential viewers. This is not censorship either, though. In fact, the degree to which Bret has not been censored is surprising given the content he has been putting out; this is probably because he has a high public profile, and perhaps also because of his family connections to Silicon Valley insiders.
I do not support the censorship of Bret and Heather’s content. But their situation demonstrates how fundamentally the marketplace of ideas is broken, and how the current media landscape is preventing us from making sense of the world.
It is difficult to know how best to address these perspectives. But it’s clear that the views of people like Steve Kirsch are already out there, and have to be engaged with. The old gatekeeping game is over. We still need to be cautious about creating a false equivalence, but I believe that we should try to host dialogues or debates between some of these figures and their critics, particularly once their claims reach a tipping point of public awareness.
I’ve tried to do that in this case by putting out a film in which I interview an ivermectin advocate, Tess Lawrie, alongside two ivermectin sceptics, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and Graham Walker, MD. I allow each of them to make their case, while challenging all the experts as best I can, leaving the viewer to evaluate both the messages and the messengers. YouTube removed the film last Wednesday, but reinstated it after an appeal—in both cases, for unknown reasons. YouTube’s guidelines suggest that they are within their rights to remove any content on ivermectin, and there are no exemptions for journalistic inquiry. This shows how ill-equipped they are for the task of gatekeeping medical knowledge.
This has been a very difficult article for me to write. Bret and Heather are personal friends and have been guests on my media channel, Rebel Wisdom, on multiple occasions. I believe that they are good faith actors who are trying to make sense of the world and who have a strong sense of civic obligation, and I think that they are important voices. But we urgently need a solution to the problem of how to seek truth in a kaleidoscopically fractured media landscape, in which the old certainties have been undermined. For now, I don’t know if there is any solution except to do our best to self-reflect, admit our biases and support each other through tough but honest criticism.