The Dangerous Illusion of Scientific Consensus
Join Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and Rav Arora in their new independent media project.
Welcome to Dr. Jay Bhattacharya (Stanford professor) and Rav Arora’s (independent journalist) exclusive, new podcast-fuelled Substack newsletter The Illusion of Consensus.
Science is the process by which we learn about the workings of material reality. Though modern innovations – built on the fruits of science – would look like magic to people living only decades ago, they result from the time-tested scientific method. Contrary perhaps to media portrayals of science, the scientific method depends not on the existence of a mythical consensus but rather on structured scientific debates. If there is a consensus, science challenges it with new hypotheses, experiments, logic, and critical thinking. Ironically, science advances because it believes it has never arrived; consensus is the hallmark of dead science.
One of us is a college student with an unpremeditated career in alternative indie journalism. The other is a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine with an MD, a Ph.D. in economics, and decades of experience writing on infectious disease epidemiology. Despite the wealth of differences in our backgrounds and experiences, we converge on foundational scientific and ethical principles that public health authorities abandoned during the Covid pandemic. Principles like evidence-based medicine, informed consent, and the necessity of scientific debate serve as the bedrock on which the public can have confidence that science and public health work for the benefit of the people rather than regardless of it.
The illusion of scientific consensus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic led to disastrous policies, with lockdowns the primary example. It was clear even on the eve of the lockdowns in 2020 that the economic dislocation caused by them would throw tens of millions worldwide into food insecurity and deep poverty, which has indeed come to pass. It was clear that school closures – in some places lasting two years or longer – would devastate children's life opportunities and future health and well-being wherever they were implemented. The emerging picture of catastrophic learning loss, especially among poor and minority children (with fewer resources available to replace lost schooling), means that lockdowns will fuel generational poverty and inequality in the coming decades. And the empirical evidence from places like Sweden, which did not impose draconian lockdowns or close schools and which have among the lowest rate of all-cause excess death in Europe, suggests that lockdowns failed even narrowly to protect population health during the pandemic.
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The illusion of consensus around the proper use of the Covid vaccines was another major public health disaster. Public health officials everywhere touted the randomized trials on the Covid vaccines as providing complete protection against getting and spreading covid. However, the trials themselves did not have the prevention of infection or transmission as a measured endpoint. Rather, the trials measured protection against symptomatic disease for two months after a two-dose vaccination sequence. Prevention of symptomatic infection is obviously a distinct clinical endpoint from prevention of infection or transmission for a virus that can spread asymptomatically. In the fall of 2020, Moderna chief medical officer Tal Zaks told The BMJ, "Our trial will not demonstrate prevention of transmission…because in order to do that, you have to swab people twice a week for very long periods, and that becomes operationally untenable."
Despite these facts, public health officials botched the public health messaging surrounding the covid vaccines. Based on an illusion of scientific consensus, public health authorities, politicians, and the media pushed vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, and vaccine discrimination. Prominent officials, including Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, told the public that science had established that covid vaccines stop transmission. CNN anchor Don Lemon advocated for “shaming” and “leaving behind” unvaccinated citizens from society. Countries such as Italy, Greece, and Austria sought to punish their unvaccinated citizens with heavy financial penalties of up to $4,108. In Canada, the government stripped unvaccinated citizens of their rights to travel anywhere via plane or train and their ability to work at banks, law firms, hospitals, and all federally regulated industries.
The premise was that only the unvaccinated are at risk of spreading covid. An illusion of consensus emerged that getting the shots was a required civic duty. Phrases such as "It's not about you, it's to protect my grandparents" became widely popularized. Ultimately, as people observed many vaccinated people around them contract and spread covid, the public trust in these authorities collapsed. Early last month, the Biden administration extended its foreign traveler mRNA vaccine requirement to May 11th (which is now coming to an end) after the restriction was set to expire on April 11th. None of these policies ever had any scientific or public health rationale or epidemiological "consensus" to support them— and they certainly do not in 2023.
Related errors are overstating the necessity of the Covid vaccine for the young and healthy and downplaying the possibility of severe side effects, such as myocarditis which has been found mainly in young men taking the vaccine. The primary benefit of the Covid vaccine is to reduce the risk of hospitalization or death upon covid infection. There is more than a thousand-fold difference in the mortality risk from covid infection, with children and young & healthy people facing an extremely low risk relative to other risks in their lives. On the other hand, the mortality risk for older people from infection is considerably higher. So the maximum theoretical benefit of the vaccine is meager for young, healthy people and children, while it is potentially higher for elderly people with multiple comorbid conditions.
Institutional public health and medicine ignored these facts in the push to vaccinate the entire population, regardless of the balance of benefits and harms from the vaccine. Public health should have cautioned young and/or healthy people regarding the uncertainty regarding vaccine safety for a novel vaccine. For the young and healthy, the small potential benefit does not outweigh the risk, which – with the early myocarditis signals – turned out not to be theoretical in nature. A rigorous independent analysis of Pfizer and Moderna's safety data shows that mRNA covid vaccines are associated with a 1 in 800 adverse event rate — substantially higher than other vaccines on the market (typically in the ballpark of 1 in a million adverse event rates).
To maintain an illusion of consensus, public health authorities and media thought it necessary to suppress these facts. In June 2021, for instance, Joe Rogan stated healthy 21-year-olds do not need the vaccine. Despite his correct medical judgment which has indisputably stood the test of time, all sectors of the corporate media and social media platforms unanimously pilloried him for spreading “dangerous misinformation.”
Worse, many people who suffered from legitimate vaccine injuries were gaslighted by the media and medical personnel about the cause of their condition. One of us has devoted the past several months interviewing victims of the illusory scientific consensus that covid vaccines are on net beneficial for every group. For example, there is a 38-year-old law enforcement officer in British Columbia who was coerced into vaccination against his conscience to keep his job. Nearly two years later, he remains disabled from vaccine-induced myocarditis and has been unable to serve his community. National data from countries in France, Sweden, Germany, Israel, and the United States shows a substantial rise in cardiac conditions among younger populations after the distribution of the Covid vaccine.
The illusion of consensus surrounding Covid vaccination — wrongly viewed in the same light as hand-washing, driving within speed limits, or staying hydrated — has led to greater political divisions and discriminatory rhetoric. The failure of the traditionally well-regarded public health agencies like the FDA and CDC – with perverse influences from pharmaceutical companies in tandem with the powerful forces of censorship on social media — has destroyed trust in public health institutions. Disillusioned with the "illusion" of consensus, a growing number of Americans and Canadians are distrustful of scientific consensus and are beginning to question all things.
The project of science calls for rigor, humility, and open discussion. The pandemic has revealed the stunning magnitude of the political and institutional capture of science. For this reason, both of us — Rav and Jay — are launching a podcast devoted to investigating the concoction of pseudo-consensus in science and its ramifications for our society. We will be examining the illusory consensus during COVID but also branching out into issues pertaining to transgender care, mental health, psychiatry, and nutrition — topics that have been wholly corrupted by one monolithic consensus that has proven to bear many costs on our society.
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