Joe Rogan is no stranger to criticism. His popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience has hosted divisive figures like Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes; he has discussed conspiracy theories ranging from the idea that the moon landing was faked to 9/11 trutherism. But a year and a half after migrating his platform to Spotify, Rogan is involved in perhaps the biggest firestorm yet.
The controversy began when Rogan suggested that young, healthy people shouldn’t get vaccinated for COVID-19. It escalated when he tested positive for Covid and mentioned ivermectin in his list of treatments. And it came to a head when two recent guests—Peter McCullough and Robert Malone—alleged that the world has fallen under a “mass formation psychosis.”
On Rogan’s show, McCullough claims that the pandemic was planned (as evidenced by a 2017 Johns Hopkins training document, which was presented in a “planning seminar” for the pandemic) and that treatments were systemically withheld to stoke enthusiasm for vaccination. He says that the evidence is “completely laid out” in a couple of books: one by Pamela Popper and Shane Prier, and another by Peter and Ginger Breggin.
The book by Popper and Prier, COVID Operation: What Happened, Why It Happened, and What’s Next, claims that the CDC and the WHO together engineered the H1N1 swine flu:
I started my investigation with a lot of skepticism about the seriousness of “the virus” [SARS-CoV-2] due to my investigation of the H1N1 (Swine) flu debacle in 2009–2010. Both the CDC and WHO were found to have engaged in unethical practices in order to turn run-of-the-mill flu into a pandemic. Drug companies benefitted financially, millions of people were vaccinated without cause, and without evidence that the vaccine was effective since it was not clinically tested. Could this type of deception be behind the growing concern about this virus?
Of COVID-19, she writes:
It was a planned and carefully orchestrated event involving a campaign of misinformation enabled by a willing and obedient media that allowed some bad actors to gain control over billions of people … The COVID-19 Hoax has been perpetrated by a wide network of enemies of the people who have managed to disguise themselves as public servants, health professionals, and founders and heads of global non-profit organizations. They are everywhere, they are incredibly rich, they are powerful, and they are intent on getting their way.
Peter and Ginger Breggins’ book is called COVID-19 and the Global Predators: We Are the Prey. McCullough wrote one of its three introductions. Global Predators has a similar message to COVID Operation. From the preface:
We uncovered how a loose but coordinated array of billionaires, tech companies, public health schools and authorities, major worldwide corporations, and their allies had been planning for at least four years to make a financial killing on what they defined and repeatedly predicted as the inevitable and soon-to-arrive pandemic. Four years ahead of time, the globalists began making massive marketing expenditures to prepare the world for accepting dangerously rushed vaccination programs in the future. The propaganda splurge was stunning, and before 2017 was over, they were already predicting and preparing the world specifically for a SARS-CoV pandemic through which to impose their vaccines on humanity at the first opportunity.
The authors then tie several leading medical journals into a Chinese Communist plot:
The medical and scientific establishments are marching into the future with the globalist predatory plans, including the most highly respected medical journals, The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), and The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). All of them continue to fully cooperate with the globalist predatory goals of exonerating the Chinese Communists, preventing early treatment, and pushing experimental vaccines onto humanity.
After stating that the pandemic plan was masterminded by Bill Gates, the preface ends on a strange, cult-like note. If you accept these truths, the authors write:
You will find yourself no longer alone. You will become empowered. You will make wonderful new friends. Your life will take on new meaning when you realize you have a rare opportunity in history to fight for Western values, the Judeo-Christian traditions, and the existence of individual and political liberty on Earth.
In his introduction, McCullough describes Peter Breggin as “an intrepid scholar … assiduous and methodological,” who conducts “impeccable” research.
Malone also refers the audience to “a great little video clip” by Zev Zelenko, documenting a conspiracy to suppress the administration of hydroxychloroquine. Zelenko is a Ukrainian-American doctor. In his introduction to Global Predators, he claims:
The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic is akin to mass murder and the genocide of the elderly and infirm. The root cause of this crime against humanity is the denial of man’s divine origin. Man is made in “the image of G-d” and, therefore, his or her life has intrinsic value and natural rights. … The denial that the human race is made in “the image of G-d” invariably leads to the slippery slope of moral relativism, which is governed by the principle of “the survival of the fittest.”
He also calls Darwin’s theory of evolution discredited pseudoscience before implicating it in the Holocaust.
This is not science.
McCullough is involved with the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which he describes as a group of “independent doctors [who] accept no money from pharmaceutical agencies.” He omits to mention that the AAPS take a number of political stances. For instance, they oppose abortion (writing that “Government should respect objections by all to health plans that facilitate the destruction of human life in its embryonic stage”) and gun control and brought a lawsuit against ObamaCare.
A 2005 AAPS paper was accused of fuelling anti-immigration sentiment. The author, Madeleine Cosman, claims that “Leprosy is now endemic to northeastern states because illegal aliens and other immigrants brought leprosy from India, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Mexico” and also that “Polio was eradicated from America, but now reappears in illegal immigrants, as do intestinal parasites.” The paper also argues against routine neonatal hepatitis B vaccinations: “Why inoculate all American newborns for Hepatitis B when most infected persons are Asians?”
In 1987, Duesberg claimed that HIV does not cause AIDS. In 2000, he advised the South African government, leading them to reject evidence that antiretrovirals prevent AIDS (he believed that antiretroviral medication can actually cause AIDS). As Tom Nichols has written, “there was no evidence for Duesberg’s beliefs, which turned out to be baseless.” The Harvard School of Public Health estimates that the South African government’s mishandling of AIDS led to over 300,000 preventable deaths.
Of course, Malone and McCullough’s specific claims about COVID-19 could still be true, despite the dubious credibility of some of the people they cite in their own defence. However, they both make several claims which seem clearly incorrect.
Contrary to expert sources, McCullough claims that “one of the big discoveries in 2020 is that the virus is not spread asymptomatically.” He also claims that the chances of a false positive COVID test if you’re asymptomatic and test positive are 97%. If he’s referring to rapid antigen tests then, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, this is a gross overestimate. If he’s referring to PCR tests, he is making a claim that has repeatedly been debunked.
McCullough also confidently states, on two occasions, that you cannot get COVID twice: “It’s one in seven billion people who get COVID a second time. … 135 studies support” the idea of permanent immunity. This also goes against the majority opinion of the medical establishment. (McCullough has since clarified that these comments referred only to pre-Omicron strains, but this too does not accord with the science.)
McCullough also claimed that people can avoid getting COVID: “you can dodge COVID forever.” He also (falsely) claims that “We have actually gone down in transmissibility” from Delta to Omicron, offering the advice: “Never wear a mask, never take a vaccine, never take another test. You’re done. It’s one and done.”
Malone also argues against vaccination, using as evidence a New York Hasidic Jewish community in which menstrual cycles were altered, thus serving as a “major threat to reproductive health in their communities.” However, altered menstrual cycles don’t necessarily imply reproductive harm and, in addition, getting COVID-19 can also alter a woman’s menstrual cycle. The scientific consensus is that the COVID mRNA vaccine does not affect fertility.
Malone also claims that people are more prone to infection post-vaccination (for an unknown length of time), meaning that “the multiple jab strategy is actually creating more and more windows” for people to get infected. He suggests that the more vaccines you get, the more likely you are to get infected with Omicron. Although he doesn’t provide specifics, Malone is probably referring to a preprint (an article which has yet to undergo peer review) by Christian Hansen et al. Hansen himself has addressed these concerns. He suggests that the results of the study were probably affected by bias—meaning that differential infection rates could be due to factors other than vaccination, such as behavioural differences between groups—which is “quite common in VE [vaccine effectiveness] estimation from observational studies based on population data.” “It is reasonable,” he writes, “to expect that the vaccine effectiveness estimates presented in our study are too low, not only for the fourth period (91–150 days after vaccination) but likely also for the earlier time intervals.” In other words, vaccines probably work better than the preprint suggests. (Malone does acknowledge that this study could have been biased.)
For all his worries about the vaccine, Malone appears remarkably unruffled by the risk of Omicron—which, at the time of recording in late December of 2021 was just beginning to become the dominant variant in North America. Although he mistrusts the WHO in some matters, Malone takes their word that, by late 2021, there were no known deaths associated with Omicron. However, he neglects to mention the WHO’s warning that it could take weeks to determine the full severity of Omicron, which he and Rogan write off as a highly contagious common cold.
Note the discrepancy between how Malone handles information that suits his vaccine-hesitant narrative and that which doesn’t. When the scientific establishment says that vaccines don’t affect reproductive health, Malone ignores them and reports on a Jewish community he’s familiar with. When a study’s author says that his paper and those like it do not necessarily imply negative vaccine effectiveness, Malone instead turns to Substack. But when the WHO makes a claim that fits with his bias—that vaccines are bad and government overreach is a bigger threat than the pandemic—he repeats it.
I have not discussed one key issue: whether Malone and McCullough are right that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are effective early treatment protocols.
What I wish to demonstrate here is that Malone and McCullough are questionable sources on COVID-19. They subscribe to a grand conspiracy theory in which, to quote Malone, “What we’re experiencing is a coordinated media warfare the level of which we have never seen before,” and “Our government is out of control … hopefully we’re going to be able to stop them before they take our kids.” And to quote McCullough: “It seems to me early on there was an intentional, very comprehensive suppression of early treatment in order to promote fear, suffering, isolation, hospitalization and death.”
They should consider the null hypothesis before jumping to such drastic conclusions: maybe there is no national or global conspiracy (which would require unprecedented levels of international coordination), maybe our scientific institutions and legacy media establishments—though imperfect—work well enough, and maybe Malone and McCullough are wrong.
Rogan certainly deserves criticism for his handling of this issue: he is largely blind to his own biases, he has an inflated opinion of his knowledge base, he is reflexively distrustful of mainstream news but credulous about contrarian claims, and when confronted with criticism he often retreats behind statements like, “I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron, and I’m a cage-fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian. … I’m not a respected source of information—even for me.”
Podcast hosts sometimes encourage the belief that public debates between experts are a reliable means to obtain scientific knowledge. They are not. How would the host or audience decide on the winner of any such debate, given that listeners are not experts in the matters at hand? Should we believe the most charismatic party; the most rhetorically gifted; the one with the most authoritative voice or the one who elicits the most enthusiasm on Twitter?
Just as Ted Talks have lulled millions into thinking that they’ve suddenly acquired great insight, so podcasts have tricked us into thinking that we can become experts on subjects within an hour or two (while true expertise takes months, years or decades). This false sense of expertise causes people to prematurely latch onto wrong information, making them less receptive to valid information when it finally comes along.
Robust civil discourse is good. Lockdowns, vaccine passports and the risk-reward calculus about vaccines are all fair game for discussion, otherwise we’re reduced to accepting mandates from on high without input into the democratic process. Podcasts are a place to discuss and popularise ideas worth consideration. But, if we are to take them seriously, those ideas need to have been developed and vetted by competent, knowledgeable peers before the host presses record. Meanwhile, caveat audiens.