I’ve been continuing to follow the the unfolding saga about the descent of Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and the Dark Horse Podcast down the conspiracist rabbit hole and I noticed something. The more I listen to Bret and Heather, the more they remind me of creationists.
Now for two evolutionary biologists being likened to creationists is well beyond “fighting words”. I don’t mean to imply that they reject any science to do with the theory of evolution, the age of the universe or anything like that. But in their role as public intellectuals, they are deploying persuasive tactics with their audience that resemble those used on lay audiences.
In this case, a creationist (at least the proselytizing kind) is someone who is is an expert in one field (in their case study of the King James Bible) who believes that their expertise offers them a supervening vantage point where they can evaluate and criticize the expert consensus of another field even though they don’t actually possess the relevant expertise. This is typically done by cherrypicking select findings from the peer reviewed literature that challenge the consensus of a field and extrapolating that to say that the field itself pretty much doesn’t know what it’s talking about. They are then ready with a convenient alternative explanation which is simple, folksy and commonsensical and should therefore be easy to accept even on the basis of flimsy evidence.
It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way science works. They feel that the best way to advance a view within the scientific community is not to try and convince experts in the relevant field that you’re on to something, it’s to do an end-run and evangelize directly to the lay public, convince them that general intelligence and careful thinking from the armchair (where you may be holding an iPad) can override domain specific knowledge as a means of finding truth. And the argument is intuitively persuasive, because no one wants to be told “You don’t have the relative expertise therefore your opinion doesn’t actually count.” Except in science it’s true. And it also goes along with the mythologized history of science which tells of plucky outsiders like Darwin on the Beagle, or Einstein in the patent office. And ignores the domain-specific expertise. (Darwin spent years immersed in animal specimens making comparisons, Einstein actually did the math and made it work to unify Maxwell’s equations with Galilean relativity and it was persuasive to scientists.)
How it started
It’s worth remembering how this all began back in the spring of 2020. At the time, no one knew what was going on. The only thing that we knew could potentially be effective was to send as many people as possible home from their jobs, grind the economy to a halt and hope that these radical measures to minimize the contact we had with our fellow human beings would slow transmission of the virus to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed.
At that point in time, two biology PhDs using their scientific background to help a scared and confused audience parse news reports and public health recommendations was tremendously beneficial. They were open and public about the safety measures they were taking, and sharing tips. They also knew how to access the obscure corners of the internet where academic papers reside, including a flood of “preprints” – not formally published and peer-reviewed papers placed online for the benefit of the scientific community – being produced. If you were a listener, you probably benefited from their early advice to use some kind of face covering. Early YouTube broadcasts featured Bret wearing an adorable kerchief around his neck which he would be ready to cover his mouth and nose with at a moment’s notice. They were experienced teachers and knew how to articulate complex ideas while speaking more or less plainly. They were also acting as ersatz therapists, helping people deal with the stress of lockdown, encouraging people to exercise and go out and spend time in nature. They were making a right-fully panicked audience feel safer, better informed, and more in control when the world was spiralling out of control.
But at the same time, they were not really experts. They had left formal academia and were hosting a podcast out of their home. No lab or funding to do research. Not that they would have been doing research in the relevant fields. They spoke the language of science (which means they knew how to express caution and uncertainty; to caveat statements appropriately so that they could speak in a way where they were never, in the strict logical sense, wrong about anything ever. But for all practical purposes they were amateur journalists. They didn’t have the cache of a major network or newspaper to actually ask questions directly of anyone who mattered. If they found an article that they felt disagreed with some piece of public health advice, it’s not like they could ask Dr. Fauci for comment.
And it was the final year of the Trump presidency. Skepticism of experts was warranted because no one could be entirely sure whether or not official data was being monkeyed with for political ends at the behest of a pathologically narcissistic gameshow host.
(Technically, they were only half right about the masks. Virus particles are quite small and can get through all but the highest medical grade masks with relative ease. But because COVID has an asymptomatic period, if you are infected and don’t know it, the mask arrests the water droplets coming from your own face-holes making it harder for you to transmit the virus to other people.)
This is America
Also important that they were providing this calm-collected level headed advice while the country was not only dealing with a pandemic, but also a narcissistic mentally ill game show host president who was incapable of valuing the lives of citizens over the success of the stock market. He had also cultivated a nasty self-centred base of supporters who couldn’t understand the concept of sacrificing for the benefit of the country. So virtually all public health recommendations became intense controversial political flash points. The country didn’t have the benefit of a shared scientific reality on which to make decisions.
Of course this was made worse by the fact that the country was headed into a presidential election, and a period of intense protesting surrounding the murder of George Floyd. In addition to their medico-scientific commentary, they were also offering political commentary. And they were continuing to establish themselves as folksy sensible centrists. (Which is not that difficult to do. You just have to be willing to criticize both Trump and Biden, and to decry police violence and violent looting and you instantly appear to be the voice of reason in the room.)
This is where the warning signs start appearing. In response to two candidates that he personally finds unpalatable (Because Trump is Trump and he believed Biden was acting in service to the woke left mob that had upended his entire life three years prior) he proposed creating a new centrist party, called “Unity 2020”. This was to become a grassroots endeavour to find a third option to put up on the ballots alongside the Democrat and Republican candidates.
The idea that a retired biology professor turned podcaster (who was soon to become a bestselling self-help author) with no background in civic engagement was the person who could use his following on Twitter to bootstrap a new national political party into existence less than six months before a presidential election would raise the eyebrows of Dunning and Krueger themselves! This is one of the major early signs that this was not an individual who was able to step back and see the world effectively from thirty thousand feet.
The Twitter account for this new political party was blocked on Twitter for spreading election misinformation. I’m not sure whether that was strictly justifiable. I’m in Canada, but I’m guessing that legally speaking, you need to do more than just create a Twitter account to be able to advance a candidate for president, so even if this were in principle possible, there’s no evidence that they were going about it in anything close to the right way. But that felt like censorship. And since Twitter is close enough to the public square, it felt like an infringement of First Amendment rights.
And like creationists who claim that mainstream science is trying to silence them because they can’t contend with the merits of their ideas, the Dark Horse brigade could now demonstrate that they were being truly censored.
Many people identify as free speech absolutists because it’s so hard to get censorship right. Even if the ideas being censored are legitimately harmful, it’s hard to avoid the practical impact that it has. You create martyrs and give them proof that their ideas must have value, because why else would the PTB need to silence them so badly? In this case, Twitter is being portrayed as a vanguard for the Left, in the pocket of the Democratic party (never mind that they waited until the Republican President incited an insurrection before removing him from their platform.)
A few months later…
Soon there was good news on the Horizon. Vaccines!
But Bret and Heather were skeptical. The main reason was that before taking advantage of any medical intervention, you need to know the long term side effects. But how could you possibly know the long term side effects of this Vaccine which has existed for (at the time) only a few months.
And this is a topic for legitimate discussion. How do you make choices in the face of uncertainty? When doing expected value calculations, what do you plug in for that unknown number? This leads you to Batfleck reasoning:
He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him.Batman, Batman Vs Superman Dawn of Justice
The conclusion is absurd, but the math is superficially plausible. Except we have a term for this among skeptics: Pascal’s Wager. The problem with Pascal’s wager is it discounts the real world cost of being wrong (in the Christian case, that’s all the time and money wasted praying and building churches to a nonexistent god, in the case of COVID, it’s countable extra deaths) relative to an uncertain future benefit. But when you insert infinite goods (heaven) or infinite bads (severe side effects, Superman destroys the human race) then you mathematically remove the ability to allow evidence to influence your beliefs.
Most people looks at Batman’s dilemma or Pascal’s Wager and say this is not an effective way of reasoning and should be disregarded in decision making. When you do the sloppy linguistic sleight of hand and argue on the basis of what could be true, rather than what you can demonstrate is likely to be true, you then are essentially making choices not on the overall weight of evidence, but based only on whatever single piece of evidence most tugs at you emotionally at the time of the decision.
Bret and Heather came down on the Batfleck side of the argument. Avoid getting the vaccine as long as possible, and avoid giving it to their children at all costs because they have the most years of life left to be adversely impacted. Actually, that solution kind of sort of works for them. They have effectively realigned their lives where they can write books and stream YouTube videos from their home. They can effectively earn an income collecting Patreon donations and minimize their contact with other human beings and minimize their chances of getting sick. Although this presumably doesn’t apply to their teenage children who are attending school in person and could presumably bring the disease back home asymptomatically and do their parents serious harm. But because of the fallacious nature of the calculation, none of that ever enters into it.
This is most wonderfully illustrated in a parable told by the late Christopher Hitchens (at 1:07:35 if the time stamp doesn’t load for you):
And that’s basically what happened. The hypothetical threat of unevidenced long-term consequences overpowered any currently-available safety data from the hundreds of millions of doses administered. By this logic it was resolved to be cautions and assume the vaccines were unsafe and the matter was shelved.
Because the government had declared these vaccines “safe” that meant that the government could no longer be trusted.
Unfortunately, podcasts don’t come with footnotes, so this discussion is spread out over probably a dozen hours of video footage. So fact checking any claims (or even definitively establishing what claims were made and when) is a fool’s errand. Logically speaking, regardless of whatever evidence might have been on their side at the time, by now the proof is in and the vaccines truly are safe. But for listeners to Dark Horse it is simply embedded in the background knowledge of the podcast that they are dangerous, the same way a creationist simply presumes the existence of God and the truth of the Bible as accepted background.
Then the Horse Dewormer
Ivermectin is seen by most to be the new Hydroxychloroquine. A miracle cure that is supposed to treat and/or prevent COVID. Except most experts agree that they don’t work. This is where the Dark Horse lack of expertise comes to the forefront and the Creationist-style reasoning takes over almost entirely.
At least in principle, Bret and Heather agree that what is really needed to establish the effectiveness of Ivermectin is a large scale properly conducted double-blind randomized control trial. The disagreement is what to do when you don’t have access to your Grade-A epistemological tools. The consensus of the medical field says that false positives are too easy to come by with anything less than a randomized double blind controlled trial and to rely on anything else is irresponsible. Don’t use anything that hasn’t been proven to work. (It’s also worth adding that there is no biological mechanism to allow us to infer that Ivermectin should work. It appears to be making the same mistake as prescribing antibiotics for a viral infection. It’s a basic category error with no foreseeable way to overcome the objection.)
But to the folksy contrarian, ambiguity and uncertainty can be successfully addressed by good old fashioned common sense. So trust the studies even if they’re small, or underpowered, or have suspect data. Rely on anecdotal evidence like unverified self reports from the VAERS database. Trust the reasonable centrist who’s never been afraid to tell it like it is. Don’t trust the government or the large corporation because the likelihood of corruption is too high.
Actually it got worse than that. They hypothesized a conspiracy that the government was aware that Ivermectin was effective and actively trying to suppress that knowledge because… reasons. This, of course led to more censorship. YouTube demonetized the channel for spreading vaccine misinformation. Trust the contrarian who is being silenced by the man. They must be onto something.
The medical expert world has more or less come out definitively against Ivermectin, and we have been able to get on with the process of vaccinating the world. The virology expert world has come more or less come out definitively against the lab leak hypothesis (oh… I forgot to mention that Bret and Heather are convinced to a near certainty that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Virology Lab and that this is the centre of another conspiracy coverup… this rabbit hole goes really deep.) Bret’s friends have been calling him out publicly, saying that he is spewing harmful misinformation. The case is effectively closed.
However the Dark Horse Podcast has now carved itself out a nice corner of conspiracy internet where they will continue to survive for some time. I’m sure part of it is money. During the Trump presidency, we watched a once reasonable sounding Dave Rubin drift into FoxNews fantasy land, making fun of the libs and opening for Jordan Peterson. Bret and Heather, having left the world of teaching are now effectively amateur journalists at the whim of the market where they need controversy and clickbait to garner enough attention.
In the end, it’s just numbers
Throughout the year, Bret and Heather have shown themselves to be really bad at weighing evidence. They are able to look up multiple sources and diverse opinions and lay out conflicting viewpoints on the table. But they are unable (or just unwilling) to put that evidence in its broader context.
What started as a cautions sensible concern about possible long-term side effects turned into an unassailable objection that couldn’t be moved even large scale clinical trials followed by millions of actual doses given to individuals of all ages, many of whom have been vaccinated for a year (and no evidence in history about adverse side effects materializing ever after a few months.)
They were concerned that vaccinating while the virus was spreading would increase the chance that a vaccine resistant strain would emerge, but ignored the fact that mutation is random, so the chance that such a change happens is proportional to the number of infected people. So driving that number down quickly reduces that chance.
Bret was convinced that Joe Biden was suffering from dementia. When the campaign made a point of highlighting the fact that he stutters, this new evidence was not accounted for in subsequent commentary.
They point to the long term safety record of Ivermectin without acknowledging the ever growing safety record (and effectively measured effectiveness) of vaccines.
They are convinced that minor lifestyle changes like Vitamin D supplements or weight loss and increased exercise would be game changing, but never explain how dropping a few pounds is supposed to compare with a vaccine which is 90%+ effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization.
In their most recent episode (102) they were arguing against the vaccination of children. In their discussion they focused on one number, which was the mortality of young children infected. What they fully ignored was the transmission risk for these children (who would be sitting in classrooms and playing with one other in large numbers) would pose for one another, their teachers and their families.
They have argued extensively in favour of the Lab-Leak-Hypothesis, citing the mind boggling coincidence that the virus could have possibly emerged zoonotically (from an animal) so very close to the institute which specifically studied coronaviruses. But when it’s pointed out that the reason the Wuhan Institute is where it is was because that’s where the dense population of disease carrying bats was located, and that they have the arrow of causation backwards… crickets.
Heather has recently come out rather strongly against the use of sunscreen, going against the mainstream consensus of dermatologists who believe that UV exposure has long term negative health consequences. Again, it’s an example of the creationist reasoning: an educated outsider flipping through individual papers and articles is capable of spotting something that an entire field of experts is blind to. In support of this, they often point to controversial ideas that turned out to be revolutionary. (Darwin, Einstein, Semmelweis.) They forget that these revolutions are extremely rare; somewhere between once a decade so the Bayesian prior that it’s going to come from a pair of Podcasters surfing the internet is quite low. In a recent episode (103) she quoted from some research about vitamin D and COVID outcomes where she clearly elided over the distinction between “significant” and “statistically significant” which is one of the worst mistakes a science journalist can make.
And the Weinstein family’s penchant for conspiracy theories has been well documented elsewhere. (See for example multiple episodes of Decoding the Gurus.) And conspiracy theories in general are just untenable. They seem appealing because they skate around Occam’s Razor. They seem simple: It’s just this massive organization out to truck you. But they discount the incredible complexity and improbability required to pull off effective conspiracies. Instead they claim that absence of evidence for the conspiracy is just evidence of the conspiracy. Debate Kryptonite.
Heather and Bret speak the language of science and are able to pay lip service to all of these ideas while not embracing them in practice. Unlike good Bayesians who update their credences by amalgamating new evidence with old evidence, they throw out the old evidence as irrelevant and only agree to look at new evidence consistent with the conclusion.
But there’s also logic
In logical terms, none of this is sufficient to conclude once and for all that Bret and Heather are wrong about any of this. There could be front page headlines tomorrow saying that the virus escaped from a lab, that Ivermectin is a miracle drug or that people who have been vaccinated are suddenly showing harmful side effects. The point is to show that there is no reason that any average person with less relevant expertise than two non-experts still with PhDs should take them seriously. They are using the tricks of persuasion used by Creationists to claim they know better than entire fields of science working overtime with higher than normal levels of funding, engagement and scrutiny.
The playbook is rather straightforward: pick out some inconvenient data that goes against the mainstream consensus, then conclude that the experts either don’t know what they’re talking about or are engaged in conscious conspiracy to cover up the truth (it’s never really explained what the goal of these conspiracies are, because they never seem to have incentives that match up with any reasonable goals). Then fill in the gaps with folksy common sense and furrow your brow at any contradictory information (this study reported 100% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19, how could you possibly claim that has no effect.) And above all else, listen to the plucky contrarians because they’re your best chance of getting at the truth. And of course the inducement to “do your own research” appeals to American individualism and makes people feel smart, but is now nothing more than code for “experts are lying to you.”
And there’s a reason we disallow the teaching of creationism in schools and it’s not because of an opposition to free speech. But if you are going to label yourself a science educator or a science journalist (as contrasted with an actual scientist doing experiments or crunching data), then you are essentially submitting to the requirement that it is your job to just convey the mainstream scientific consensus to your audience in plain English as best you can. We know that in terms of creationism that does real harm to kids, and when it comes to COVID misinformation that it does harm in countable lives lost.
Should we be listening to self-styled public intellectuals anyway?
The danger with people who present as scientists but are, for all practical purposes, political pundits is that they are accountable only to their Patreon supporters. And they become more dangerous by being so reasonable. Jordan Peterson tells people to clean their room and take responsibility for themselves, how bad could he really be? Bret’s brother Eric was recently posting on Twitter that fellow conspiracist Joe Rogan (the world’s superstar podcaster) had just encouraged him to loose some weight and get in better shape (which he has done with a graph to prove it), so what’s not to trust.
The issue is not what these intellectuals get right, it’s what they get wrong. If Jordan Peterson is 90% sensible psychologist and 10% loonie religious guru, then it’s better to just ditch 100% of Jordan and go with someone like a Steven Pinker or a Daniel Dennett who will give you all the helpful bits without any weird woo. When we fly, we insist on a chance of crashing which is so close to zero, it’s incalculable to anyone but an enthusiastic data scientist. If the GPS on your phone only knew the names of 96% of the streets in your city, you’d say it was garbage. In the case of Bret and Heather’s vaccine “skepticism” whatever common sense they bring to table has now been overshadowed by orders of magnitudes by increased deaths which are likely directly attributable tot their broadcasts.