Years ago, I watched with dismay as Dr. Bret Weinstein, a professor at Evergreen State College, was chased out of his tenured position by a student led mob calling him a racist and making demands of the administration. He — and unavoidably by proxy his wife, Dr. Heather Heying — became the the prototypical victims of what we now call cancel culture.
Fast forward to now and they have landed, more or less on their feet, leveraging their unplanned and Streisand-Effect induced celebrity into the role of minor public intellectuals. They joined “intellectual dark web” —a term coined by Bret’s Brother Eric. Since a portion of the population had lumped them in with the basket of deplorables, they were free to address whatever topics they wanted to, including controversial third-rail subjects that mainstream media.
When the pandemic struck, Bret set up a home podcasting studio and took to twice-weekly livestreams, co-hosted by his wife and produced by their sixteen year old son. Both being PhDs in biology, they helped their audience sort through confusing technical and medical announcements and find their footing in what was a very stressful and confusing time for all of us. Their livestreams are now up to number eight-something and I have listened to most of them.
Early on, they took an approach based on folksy common sense and suggested that no matter what government officials were saying, wearing face masks were almost certain to provide at least some protection from the virus and everyone should be wearing them when out in public. Bret wore a goofy bandana tied around his neck so that a moment’s notice, he could have his improvised face mask, at a time when fashionable face coverings with elastic straps were still barely available and hand sanitizer was sold out everywhere.
They also were taking the pandemic very seriously, unlike the US Republican lawmakers who were trying desperately to cling to a fantasy of a swift reopening so they could get the economy back on track. They were also adamant that while cooped up, that people take steps to protect their mental health, finding ways to get out into nature and exercise safely.
Although technically they only got that partly right. It turns out that masks were mainly effective at preventing an asymptomatic carrier from spreading the virus to others. It offered rather limited protection to a non-infected individual. An important fact that has truly faded from memory in the latter part of 2020.
Then they ventured off in a rather unusual direction.
The Darkhorse hosts became fixated on the possibility that the source of the virus was a lab, and most likely the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That’s when I started to get rather suspicious that they were… not demonstrating the highest level of scientific skepticism. From the tone of the conversations it was clear that they were strongly motivated by a general distrust of government and that someone must be covering up something. And the fact that no mainstream source was taking the “lab leak hypothesis” seriously was simply evidence of just such a coverup.
The problem with conspiracy-based epistemology is that it doesn’t work. If a coverup is successful then a lack of evidence becomes evidence of a successful conspiracy. It’s logical kryptonite. As soon as someone confesses that they have no evidence, the conversation has to stop. The same way as having an Unidentified Flying Object can’t be evidence for aliens. It’s unidentified by definition, so any inference that comes after that is meaningless and immediately subject to Hitchens’ Razor.
Perhaps a credentialed virologist or epidemiologist could have been brought on as a guest to provide support, but no such guest materialized. It was clear that they were clinging to an idea far longer than was justified by the evidence. (Evidence in this case being nothing more than their blend of evolutionary theory and folksy common sense.)
And then another digression
There was a brief pause in all of this as the US Presidential election heated up. Expressing dissatisfaction with both candidates (Trump was an irresponsible, albeit effective disruptor, and Biden was facing encroaching senility) he decided to float his idea of a third centrist political party called “Project Unity”. Of course, out of an abundance of caution, Twitter shut down their official account. It probably looked too suspiciously close to a Russian disinformation campaign amend at confusing voters.
But they had been provided with an important weapon in their epistemological arsenal. They were being censored by big government and/or big tech. Who wouldn’t want to know more about such controversial ideas.
How does the saying go?
The twenty-two most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help. But don’t worry. I’m a contrarian with a podcast. You can trust me.Ronald Reagan… maybe
Then another shoe dropped. The mainstream media took renewed interest in the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab. It’s important to point out that there are actually multiple versions of the “Lab Leak Hypothesis”. An institute doing legitimate research but let the virus escape through accident or incompetence is quite different from someone cooking up a virus in a lab with the intent of sewing global chaos.
Here our intrepid contrarian hosts started to engage in one of the shady tactics that they criticized the woke social justice mob for employing so often: The Motte and Bailey fallacy. This is where you have two different versions of your position; one modest an unobjectionable, and the other extreme and unpalatable. By choosing your words with enough vagueness, you can get people to agree with one and claim you have support for the other. Here they were declaring victory because the Lab Leak Hypothesis was being discussed as a viable possibility. But from the tone, they were eager to conflate the media discussing the hypothesis as a possibility, with that possibility being very probable.
This is a common argument tactic — confusing P-words — where you can slip between statistical concepts like possible, plausible, and probable and hope that no one notices.
Then things got bad
More recently, they have come under fire for advocating for the use of a repurposed drug called Ivermectin, which they would submit has been demonstrated effective in both treating and preventing COVID-19. Apparently there are both numerous small studies and natural experiments that have “proven” its effectiveness, yet the world at large seems to have taken no notice. YouTube has an express policy against talking bout Ivermectin, classifying it as vaccine misinformation and the video was removed. (Again… big tech censorship to draw more Streisand-effect attention and intrigue.)
They tagged onto that an extra hypothesis that actually people receiving the COVID-19 vaccines are dropping dead by the hundreds, and possibly thousands and that this too is not being discussed.
As I was listening to this analysis I was realizing that on the one hand, the logic being presented seemed reasonable. But that I was in no position to evaluate the quality of the research that Weinstein was citing. I found myself in a similar situation with Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity of Jesus. The logic seems sound, but I was in no position to verify the historical and textual claims being made.
It was at this point that I realized I was familiar with this style of argumentation. It’s the kind typically employed by creationists. They have a sincerely held belief and have marshalled “evidence” in support of it. But rather than try to get their findings published in the scientific literature to persuade the experts in the relevant field onto their side, they accuse their opponents of a conspiracy to suppress the truth and then make an appeal directly to the lay public, presenting them evidence which they are not qualified to authenticate.
That’s not an argument, logically speaking, that Weinstein is wrong. It’s an argument that the reasonable layperson should not find him credible. If he is indeed right (as he was 50% right about masks and maybe 10% right about the Lab Leak Hypothesis) he needs to do a better job of making his case to people with the relevant qualifications.
What has happened is that because of their rather odd position as public intellectuals, they are scientists in adjacent field (biology as opposed to virology, epidemiology or pharmaceuticals) so they are not quite qualified to separate fact from fiction, but they are also not quite journalists who can go to interview the relevant bodies asking for comment and clarification.
Really, the kind of analysis being presented here is bad math. It’s emphasizing possible unknown quantities while quietly ignoring known quantities (in this case the proven safety and effectiveness of the vaccines currently being administered.)
Again there’s a motte and bailey strategy going on here as well because they are juxtaposing their enthusiasm for Ivermectin with suspicion about the safety of vaccines. So they will occasionally defend Ivermectin as a bulwark in parts of the world that don’t yet have access to vaccines, then quietly shift gears towards saying that people with access to vaccines are okay to wait because they can take prophylactic ivermectin instead. (Again quietly ignoring the math that says this is less effective.)
The conversation here is not entirely self-consistent, but Weinstein is very good at marshalling pseudo-reasonableness: I just want all options up for discussion, you don’t know what the long-term consequences could be, and so forth.
Will the truth win out?
They have now been prominently criticized twice. Once by an article in Quillette on July 6, and more recently on Sam Harris’ Making Sense Podcast with Eric Topol. Between them, they have placed him rather squarely in the well-intentioned crackpot box. The expert consensus is settling around the evidence for the effectiveness of Ivermectin is simply weak to non-existent. (If you want to be uncharitable and claim that this is because Weinstein’s income is directly co-related to the size of his podcast audience and he is viewing the world through contrarian-tinted glasses because controversy is good for eyeballs, you can. But it’s simply necessary to conclude that he is merely wrong without trying to engage in tacit mindreading on top of that.)
I have heard podcast-based replies to both the Quillette article and the Harris podcast. (Weinstein has allegedly promised a detailed written response to the Quillette article that hasn’t materialized yet.) In both cases, they make quibbling objections without being able to address the substance of the critiques. The one nice clean point they had against the Quillette authors was their inappropriate use of the term prophylaxis. This meant that they weren’t qualified to interpret the data and so the criticism wasn’t valid. They are primarily scoring points with a friendly podcast following. They are explaining why the critiques don’t count rather than trying to rebut them.
In responding to Sam’s podcast, Dr. Heying hadn’t even listened to the whole thing and they ignored all of the objections. This is a question of question begging. The Dark Horse position is that Ivermectin is a proven miracle drug. And when people are trying to criticize the quality of the evidence, the response is that they just don’t understand the evidence the way they (non-experts) do. It has the sound of having a conversation with a Christian apologist. Every statement has embedded in it the assumption that God exists and the bible is a reliable source of moral wisdom. It’s hard to have a meaningful exchange with someone who won’t acknowledge the thing you’re disagreeing over.
At one point, Bret suggested that a nice resolution would be for him and Sam to “have a conversation about it.” That’s an odd choice of resolution for a scientist: have two non-experts talk about their limited understanding of evidence. Their last episode (No 89) left me with a bad feeling.
Having listened to their podcast for over a year, it’s undeniable that Drs. Weinstein and Heying are approaching the subject from a genuine place of care and compassion. They want the pandemic to go away as quickly as possible and they want to minimize the suffering for people as much as possible along the way. It does seem, however, that the Weinstein family trait of “I’m way smarter than all of you and the sooner you notice and take my advice, they better off we’ll all be” has driven them down a rather unfortunate rabbit hole. In a materialist world, evil is really nothing more than the intersection of good intentions and untrue beliefs. And in the current vaccine climate they’re really not helping and I’m afraid when we look back on this in a few months, they won’t be well remembered.