June 30, 2021 Reading Time: 9 minutes

Whenever I write an essay critical of expert opinion on Covid, I immediately receive indignant replies. Some assume I must be a bleach-drinking supporter of President Trump. Others label me a dangerous libertarian since, in their view, I challenge the “best” source of expert opinion.

Among my critics are well-meaning people who see no alternative but to follow the policy prescriptions of their favored experts. They do not see they are on the path of illiberal, anti-science, authoritarian thinking that is endangering the well-being of so many people today.

Karl Popper helps us understand why an “authoritarian attitude to the problem of human knowledge” hinders scientific progress. His essay “On the So-Called Sources of Knowledge” appears in his collection In Search of a Better World.  

Popper explains, “The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a question about origin. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may be legitimate itself by its pedigree.”

Popper explains how the mistaken belief that knowledge has a pedigree leads us to seek the “‘best’ or the ‘wisest’” to be our political rulers. We make the mistake of assuming there are ultimate authorities best suited to rule because of the knowledge they possess. Popper explains that there are no such ultimate authorities, and “uncertainty clings to all assertions.”

Popper argues that instead of focusing on who should rule, our focus should be on “How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers can do the minimum amount of damage?”

Since “ideal and infallible source of the knowledge” is as impossible as “ideal and infallible rulers,” Popper proposed a better question: “Is there a way of detecting and eliminating error?”

Dr. Fauci claims that to criticize him is to criticize science. Popper would challenge this authoritarian assertion since “pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist.”  

To detect error, Popper advises a mindset of inquiry that criticizes “the theories and conjectures of others.” Importantly, Popper suggests training ourselves to criticize “our own theories and speculative attempts to solve problems.”

Of course, human beings don’t do very well criticizing themselves. Popper says that in a free society that will not be an issue because “there will be others who will do it for us.”

What happens when we don’t criticize our theories? What happens when others are prohibited from criticizing our theories? Without critical inquiry, errors compound since “there are no ultimate sources of knowledge.”

Humility to acknowledge our ignorance motivates inquiry. Popper writes, 

“The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, clear and well-defined will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. The main source of our ignorance lies in the fact that our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must be necessarily infinite.” 

Authentic scientific inquiry is impossible when criticism is prohibited.

Covid Censorship

Evolutionary biologist Brett Weinstein is a modern-day Popper. Weinstein first came to prominence in 2017 when he was a professor at Evergreen State College in Washington State. A progressive supporter of Bernie Sanders, Weinstein became an early victim of the cancel culture when he refused to support a campus event requiring white people to stay off-campus. Evergreen State’s college president, George Bridges, declined to protect Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying, then a biology professor at Evergreen, from a campus mob. 

Run out of Evergreen State, Weinstein and Heying now produce the YouTube podcast DarkHorse and depend, in part, on advertising revenue for their livelihood. As the audience of DarkHorse has grown they have become independent media stars.

Today, Big Tech is after Weinstein and Heying. Prominent free-speech advocate Matt Taibbi writes, “Weinstein is on the verge of becoming one of the more prominent casualties to a censorship movement that it’s hard not to see as part of a wider Evergreening of America.” 

Why are Weinstein and Heying so dangerous to the orthodoxy? Throughout the Covid crisis, they have considered alternative views. They were among the first to consider the hypothesis that the virus was manufactured. They have considered Ivermectin treatments. Now they are considering the evidence that Covid vaccines are more dangerous than political authorities, the media, and their anointed experts are portraying. Importantly, they have not hesitated to question the integrity of officials such as Dr. Facui.  

Consider Weinstein’s Popperian assertion that “a movement opposes science when it doesn’t want assertions tested, challenges arithmetic when its claims don’t add up, ridicules ‘merit’ when it wants to triumph by other means, seeks to censor when it fears discussion.” 

Weinstein adds, “Those who coddle such demands sow the seeds of our undoing.” Censorship means risking our economies and our lives. 

To reject scientific inquiry, Weinstein argues, “is effectively an invitation to a dark age, which means an age where progress comes to a halt… We must at all costs prevent this shift in our mindset.”

Recently YouTube removed a DarkHorse podcast panel discussion featuring Dr. Robert Malone. The podcast is now viewable at Odysee, which runs on LBRY, a blockchain file-sharing decentralized platform.  

Malone is the creator of the mRNA technology used in Covid vaccines. Malone warns that the spike proteins may be responsible for various unpredictable side effects, including blood clots and myocarditis. The latter being especially prevalent in children and young adults for whom the risk from Covid is very low. Exhibiting Popperian humility, the panelists allowed their conjectures might not be entirely accurate. Malone and Weinstein have earned this right, not to be obeyed, but to present their ideas without censorship. 

If there is evidence that the spike protein mechanism was not fully understood, to believe in science would mean that you examine the warnings of eminent physicians and scientists. 

One doesn’t have to deny the benefits of the vaccine—and Weinstein does argue the vaccine has saved lives—to realize that the costs and benefits of any medical intervention can only be assessed accurately with uncensored information. Appearing on Tucker Carlson, Malone said of the vaccines’ risks: “We don’t have the information we need to make a reasonable decision.” Malone put it this way:

“One of my concerns is the government is not being transparent with us. I’m of the opinion that people have the right to decide whether to accept vaccines or not, especially since these are experimental vaccines. This is a fundamental right having to do with clinical research ethics.”

Dr. Joseph Ladapo and Dr. Harvey Risch are medical professors at UCLA and Yale. They too are concerned that vaccine side effects are not being fully explored. Evidence points to risks of “low platelets (thrombocytopenia); noninfectious myocarditis, or heart inflammation, especially for those under 30; deep-vein thrombosis; and death.” This failure to examine risk is being fueled by a strategy of ridiculing those who question the Covid orthodoxy. They write, 

One remarkable aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been how often unpopular scientific ideas, from the lab-leak theory to the efficacy of masks, were initially dismissed, even ridiculed, only to resurface later in mainstream thinking. Differences of opinion have sometimes been rooted in disagreement over the underlying science. But the more common motivation has been political.

Another reversal in thinking may be imminent. Some scientists have raised concerns that the safety risks of Covid-19 vaccines have been underestimated. But the politics of vaccination has relegated their concerns to the outskirts of scientific thinking—for now.

Ladapo and Risch warn that “political partisanship and science” don’t mix:

Public-health authorities are making a mistake and risking the public’s trust by not being forthcoming about the possibility of harm from certain vaccine side effects. There will be lasting consequences from mingling political partisanship and science during the management of a public-health crisis.

The results of such partisanship have been deadly even for groups of people supposedly receiving the most benefit from vaccines. Lapado and Risch point to the rare honesty of a report issued by the Norwegian Medicines Agency having “reviewed case files for the first 100 reported deaths of nursing-home residents who received the Pfizer vaccine.” The vaccine’s impact was not salutatory: “The agency concluded that the vaccine ‘likely’ contributed to the deaths of 10 of these residents through side effects such as fever and diarrhea, and ‘possibly’ contributed to the deaths of an additional 26.”

The CDC has acknowledged the reality of vaccine-induced myocarditis. The acknowledgment has come with a statement that the CDC believes the vaccine’s benefits exceed the costs. The FDA has issued a myocarditis warning label.

For some the CDC is the gold standard for medical guidance; for others, their guidance is dangerously flawed. Dr. Vinay Prasad, professor of epidemiology at the University of California wrote about the latest CDC guidance, “The current CDC guidelines are so poor they would recommend a 15-year old boy who recovered from documented covid19 and who got pericarditis from dose 1 go on to get dose 2.” He adds, “Can we pause a minute to contemplate how staggeringly negligent that is?” Dr. Prasad is clear, “Covid vaccines for children should not get emergency use authorization.” 

Faced with censorship in the marketplace of ideas, and faced with cronyism driving public policy, how can a parent weigh the costs and benefits of the vaccine for their child?

Dr. Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard, and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford write, “The idea that everyone must be vaccinated against COVID-19 is as misguided as the anti-vax idea that no one should. The former is more dangerous for public health.”

Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are particularly concerned about “intense [vaccination] pressure on young adults and children. They write: “Under such uncertainty [about side effects from vaccines], vaccine mandates are unethical. University presidents or business leaders should not mandate a medical intervention that could have dire consequences for the health of even a few of the people in their charge.”

Kulldorff’s and Bhattacharya’s conclusion are like those of Lapado and Risch:

Universities used to be bastions of enlightenment. Now many of them ignore basic benefit-risk analyses, a staple of the toolbox of scientists; they deny immunity from natural infection; they abandon the global international perspective for narrow nationalism; and they replace trust with coercion and authoritarianism. Mandating the COVID-19 vaccine thus threatens not only public health but also the future of science.

Weinstein, Heying, Lapado, Risch, Malone, Prasad and many more disagree with a blanket endorsement for Covid vaccinations. 

In the absence of vaccine mandates issued by colleges and schools, those who disagree with the CDC would be free to do so. The CDC/FDA position is akin to issuing a warning label on cigarettes and then mandating smoking. 

Dr. Francis Christian is a clinical professor of general surgery at the University of Saskatchewan. A self-described “very pro-vaccine physician,” he was fired for issuing a statement urging parents to exercise “informed consent” about Covid vaccines. Christian writes:

The person by whom the drug, vaccine, treatment or intervention is administered must always make the patient fully aware of the risks of the medical intervention, the benefits of the intervention and if any alternatives exist to the intervention. This should apply particularly to a new vaccine that has never before been tried in humans.

He adds, “I have not met a single vaccinated child or parent who has been adequately informed and who then understands the risks of this vaccine or its benefits.”

Dr. Christian points to alternatives. From the outset of this pandemic, Fauci, Bill Gates, and others told us that life could not get back to normal until we achieved herd immunity via vaccinations. For the FDA to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Covid vaccines, there must be “no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.” 

Manufacturers of Covid vaccines are indemnified from liability, and the government has made sure they are also protected against competition. It seems to be a law of cronyism that crony greed is maximal and concern for others is minimal.

Consider Ivermectin, a generic drug with a long history of safety. Weinstein and others argue Ivermectin is not only an effective treatment but a potential prophylactic against Covid. Weinstein, Heying, and their guests have advocated for further study of Ivermectin. Matt Taibbi recently documented how the consideration and use of Ivermectin has become a political issue. 

Big Tech routinely censors reports of vaccine harm and alternatives to vaccines. Censorship is the product of an illiberal, anti-science, authoritarian mindset. Censorship kills because decision-making is distorted. 

Consider the knowledge of the disinfecting properties of soap and water. In a world where that knowledge was censored in favor of antibiotic treatment for all wounds, people would die needlessly, and antibiotics would be overused. 

Our Responsibility

Popper interprets Kant’s principle of autonomy as the “realization that we must never accept the command of an authority, however exalted, as the basis of ethics. For whenever we are faced with the command of an authority, it is always up to us to judge, critically, whether it is morally permissible to obey.” 

Popper allows, “The authority may have the power to enforce its commands, and we may be powerless to resist.” 

Today we are not yet powerless to resist the censors. We can acknowledge our ignorance and engage in inquiry. We can still seek out and find alternative views and consider disconcerting evidence. We can resist the urge to self-censor and instead share what we are observing and learning. We can reject authority as the basis for our personal ethics. Popper writes, “If it is physically possible for us to choose our conduct then we cannot escape the ultimate responsibility.” 

Lex Fridman is a research scientist at MIT and the host of a popular podcast. Recently he had Weinstein on his show to talk about censorship. Fridman said this: “Science is the striving of the human mind to understand and solve the problems of the world, but as an institution, it is susceptible to flaws of human nature, to fear, to greed, power, and ego.” To reduce uncertainty about the best solutions to Covid, Fridman argues, “No voices should have been silenced, no ideas left off the table. Open data, open science, open scientific communication, and debate is the way, not censorship.”

Censors claim the moral high road; they assure us they are coercing others for our own good. Fridman dismantles their authoritarian hubris: “There are a lot of ideas out there that are bad, wrong, dangerous. But the moment we have the hubris to say we know which ideas those are is the moment we lose our ability to find the truth, to find solutions.” The conversation he had with Weinstein is larger than Weinstein’s ideas. Fridman warns that at stake is “the very freedom to talk, to think, to share ideas.” Fridman believes, “This freedom is our only hope.”

Censorship distorts decision-making and destroys hope. For some, Covid is a matter of life or death. Censorship challenges our ability to make responsible health choices for ourselves and those in our care.

In 1644 John Milton wrote, “He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” Today, acknowledge the destructive consequences of censorship. Speak out now or we risk allowing Big Tech’s algorithms and community guidelines to continue to destroy reason, hinder science, and undermine hope for humanity.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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