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Can Sam Harris Pull Back From The Brink Of Covid Misinformation?
A case study of how miscalculated fear, media propaganda, and selective deference to scientific authority lead to the dangerous sacralization of mRNA vaccines.
As a foil to this critical analysis of Harris’ Covid views, consider reading Rav Arora’s spiritual conversation with Harris about the goal of mindfulness, overcoming fantastical thinking, and postponing happiness here: In Conversation with Sam Harris On Christmas Eve.
In Lex Fridman’s new 4-hour interview with neuro-philosopher Sam Harris, Harris provides the clearest, most elaborate articulation of his impassioned views on the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the course of his explication of why he chose to become a staunch advocate of the novel mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, we are given an illuminating case study into the unfortunate corruption of one of the most brilliant, intellectually honest, and sophisticated minds of the 21st century.
“In a few decades, many of our current [medical] practices will seem barbaric. One need only ponder the list of side effects that accompany most medications to appreciate that these are terribly blunt instruments.”
- Sam Harris in Waking Up (2014)
Harris makes a number of misleading and false claims in the conversation which may evade the sensibilities of a casual follower of the Covid discourse, but upon close inspection, his dubious assertions become remarkably striking. I’m going to go through merely a handful of such assertions (this piece could have been three times as long):
Sam Harris: “It was obviously reasonable to get vaccinated, especially because there was every reason to expect that while it wasn't a perfectly sterilising vaccine, it was going to knock down transmission a lot…so it wasn’t just a personal choice — you were actually being a good citizen when you decided to run whatever risk you were going to run to get vaccinated.”
As this first example reveals, Harris is operating from a remarkable level of Avidyā (ignorance), to use Buddhist terminology. Unfortunately, he is not quite informed in this debate — something he admits.
For one, the mRNA vaccines were never tested against transmission. 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.”
The vaccines were only tested against symptomatic infection and public health experts extrapolated from the data the mRNA vaccines would halt transmission in the long-term. This proved to be accurate for only about a couple of months at best, before vaccine efficacy started approaching near-zero levels.
Many people who had not closely followed the trial data from the start and trusted the mainstream experts, were shocked to hear Pfizer executive Janine Small recently admit to the EU parliament that Pfizer did not test the Covid vaccine for transmission. In reality, this was already established fact. Unlike Harris, initially pro-mRNA pundits like Ben Shapiro have been far more intellectually honest in shifting their perspective on the matter:
For Harris to say that getting inoculated with likely the most dangerous vaccine that has ever been promoted on the market is a civil duty because of the naive hopes that “it was going to knock down transmission a lot” (which proved to be short-lived) was a complete miscalculation. Indeed, it was not out of the question at that time — given the absence of long-term data — that vaccines may substantially curb transmission, but there was no data to support the peculiarly strong faith individuals like Harris had in mRNA technology.
By morally elevating those who chose to take part of a highly variable and unprecedented medical experiment as “good citizen[s]” — while demonizing those who had rational forms of skepticism (“there’s no long-term data!”) — Harris unknowingly entered incredibly dangerous and authoritarian territory.
Sam Harris: "Vaccines were reasonably safe and Covid was reasonably dangerous....the tradeoff for basically everyone was it was rational to get vaccinated given the level of testing...given what we were seeing with Covid"
As Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and I recently responded to Sam’s similar statements on vaccine risk-benefit ratios, he has not immersed himself in the relevant data in order to present a rational perspective. Such statements are far too simplistic and sweeping. There is simply no good evidence to suggest vaccines were “reasonably safe” compared to a “reasonably dangerous” virus for “basically everyone” (for elderly, severely obese, and immunocompromised people, the calculus is entirely different).
In fact, the best available evidence suggests the opposite is true for the vast majority of people. According to a top, peer-reviewed re-analysis of the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials (authored by scientists at Stanford, UCLA, and other prestigious institutions), mRNA vaccines are associated with a 1 in 800 adverse event rate — orders of magnitude higher than any other widely administered vaccine in international pharmaceutical history. Virtually every other vaccine on the market has adverse event rates in the 1 - 2 per million range. Historically, vaccines with much higher associated adverse event rates (1 in 10,000 — 100,000) — such as the 1976 swine flu vaccine or the 1999 rotavirus vaccine — were swiftly pulled off the market for being far too dangerous.
None of this has taken place during Covid.
Yes, this was not known at the time Harris turned into an overnight mRNA vaccine evangelist — and such an outcome could not have been concretely forecasted — but absence of safety and efficacy data does not mean safety and efficacy are to be assumed by the whims of FDA-regulated Pharma companies such as Pfizer and Moderna.
We needed rigorous safety testing and long-term data in order to come anywhere close to concluding that the “the tradeoff for basically everyone” was to get vaccinated with highly experimental biotechnology. Not all of this was Harris’ fault — the experts he selectively platformed (primarily Dr. Eric Topol and Dr. Nicholas Christakis) took strangely extreme positions on this matter and did not exercise appropriate caution (Topol has been proven wrong time and time again this year alone, while Christakis peculiarly inflated Covid fatality on Harris’ podcast). Eric Topol has been an advocate for the new bivalent Covid booster shot.
Furthermore, Harris does not appear to understand the basic fact that mRNA vaccines were inadequately tested due to the public health crisis and invocation of ‘Emergency Use Authorization.’ Vaccines were rushed under ‘operation warp speed’ and corners were clearly cut in order to meet unprecedented and nearly impossible time frames.
The continually emerging safety concerns — myocarditis, blood clots, acute cardiac events, menstrual irregularities, and reduced sperm counts — prove the danger of mass-administering a poorly tested medical product.
Sam Harris: The question is if you roll back the clock 18 months, was I wrong to want to platform Eric Topol — a very well-respected cardiologist on this topic — or Nicholas Christakis…?
Continuing my analysis of the last claim, it is important to highlight that while Dr. Eric Topol is lauded in mainstream circles, he is widely critiqued and considered uncredible in (vindicated) Covid-realist circles such as Sensible Medicine — a Substack publication run by the likes of Dr. Vinay Prasad, Dr. Marty Makary, and others. Here is a direct quote from Dr. Vinay Prasad’s latest Substack post:
Eric Topol (a frequently incorrect online commenter) famously took credit for delaying these shots— a catastrophic blunder consistent with his long history of getting science wrong, detailed here and here. Yet, these debunkers largely applauded these delays b/c it hurt Trump— never mind the sacrifice of older Americans.
Here are two more Sensible Medicine articles exposing the utter unreliability and inaccuracy of Dr. Topol’s Covid views: Eric Topol’s myocarditis fallacies, Eric Topol erroneously interprets study on post-Covid strokes and heart attacks. This is not to say everything Dr. Topol says is wrong, but his innumerable errors have proven him to be one of the most dishonest actors throughout the pandemic. As Lex Fridman tells Harris, Topol’s arrogance makes his communication all the more difficult to reach rational vaccine skeptics.
(Unlike scientists of high integrity such as Dr. Bhattacharya, Dr. Topol never engages with his critics. Rather, he swiftly blocks them, as he did to Dr. Vinay Prasad earlier this year.)
Harris’ mistake in platforming unreliable professionals such as Dr. Eric Topol was understandable and all-too-human. Many of us, myself included, would have been similarly inclined to default to the “experts” in plain sight being quoted in all the top magazines and newspapers. However, an intellectual lazy and non-skeptical platforming of such experts is far from expected from Harris. In the discourse surrounding Black Lives Matter and the popular perception of epidemical racist police violence, Harris has penetrated the fallacious mainstream narrative and produced the single most compelling, masterful analysis of the subject in 2020 (despite his clear lack of “expertise” in policing, black history, and interracial dynamics):
His views on the media-driven misperception of racist police shootings are most certainly at complete odds with the vast majority of mainstream “experts” on the matter (sociologists, criminologists, and other public intellectuals who have written bestselling books on African-American issues), such as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Dr. Ibram X Kendi. Rather than surrendering his critical intellect to such “experts,” Harris has deemed black heretics such as Dr. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes as far more honest and reliable.
And he would be right (my appearance on Dr. Loury’s podcast last year lead to my first memorable personal interaction with Harris).
The reality is — exactly like the race relations discussion — the expert consensus on Covid was illusory and hid all the nuances of the discourse. Mainstream experts such as Dr. Christakis, Dr. Gupta, and Dr. Hotez vocally supported prolonged lockdowns, school closures, vaccine mandates, child vaccination, and mask mandates but other experts just as academically credentialed — and now on the “right side” of the debate — such as Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Dr. Martin Kuldorff, Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg, Dr. Mike Hart, Dr. Marty Makary, and countless others vehemently disagreed.
(In response to the heresy of such scientists, Francis Collins demonized Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and Dr. Martin Kuldorff as “fringe epidemiologists.”)
Harris remarkably failed to make the extra effort and maintain his rational, skeptical worldview — that has made him so compelling in other realms — by looking past sensationalist headlines in The Atlantic and The New York Times and recognizing the vast diversity of views among legitimate experts.
A simple solution to this problem would have been hosting a variety of experts, perhaps in a single podcast, such as anyone named in the aforementioned list. As an example, Harris could moderate a discussion between Dr. Christakis and Dr. Bhattachayra on topics they fundamentally disagree on such as infection fatality rate, vaccine mandates, vaccine safety, and efficacy of lockdowns.
(Dr. Bhattacharya has stated he would happily debate Dr. Christakis on the Making Sense podcast)
Sam Harris: “At every point along the way, I was the wrong person and Bret Weinstein was the wrong person — and there's many other people I could add to this list — to have strong opinions about any of this stuff...Deferring to experts much of the time makes a lot of sense.”
This is exceptionally hypocritical of Harris. All the while claiming to have no skin in the game, he openly airs his fallacious and uninformed views on the complex risk-benefit calculus of taking the mRNA vaccines during a global pandemic. When vaccines were rolled out, Harris did not at least conservatively say “I’m personally getting vaccinated and I think many others should consider it.”
Rather, he went on the air and dogmatically asserted,
“Even if you accept the worst claims about the risk of the mRNA vaccines, which are almost guaranteed to be false…the case for getting vaccinated is absolutely clear-cut”
Worst yet, he openly derided unvaccinated young men at a restaurant he was sitting at as deranged conspiracy theorists for making a medical decision different than his own. Harris practiced no reservation in his unwarrantedly confident views on mRNA vaccine safety and efficacy in the summer of 2021.
Moreover, while the individuals he names (including himself) are certainly not scientific authorities, their views on matters outside their “expertise” should still be taken seriously (if they are operating from good faith and some scientific reasoning). If we were to only listen to experts in a given field all the time without no outsider questioning, we would have a colossal problem on our hands.
Sam knows this.
This is why he has a popular podcast where he freely (and often compellingly) opines about a range of complex issues which are completely outside his area of expertise. Harris’ extreme (and disingenuously selective) deference to epidemiological “expertise” undermines his own views on the issue he is most known for: religion.
Harris is, in fact, not a credentialed “expert” on essentially any matter that is religious. Having immersed myself in comparative religions in college over the past two years, it is obvious Harris is no expert in Biblical hermeneutics, exegesis, patristics, ecclesiology, or the rest (as many of my professors have rightly pointed out).
However — despite the importance of studying disciplines such as exegesis — this does not discount Harris’ compelling views on the toxicity of sectarian, evangelical religious traditions nor should he be prevented from voicing them. He doesn’t need to spend a decade deciphering the Greek manuscripts of the Bible to hold some rational position on fundamentalist Christianity (whether he is right or not). Nor does he need to get a PhD in climate science in order to hold a reasonable view on the matter.
In the context of the Covid discourse, Sam attempted to fulfil his civic duty to provide rational, life-preserving, and disease-mitigating advice — with the aid of selectively chosen experts such as Dr. Eric Topol and Dr. Nicholas Christakis — but he was operating from the wrong premises and distorted facts.
The infection fatality rate for Covid in the non-elderly population was known to be in the proximity of 0.035% at the time (credit to John Ioannidis and Jay Bhattacahrya on this area of research) with a massive age gradient. Natural immunity was an established fact. The Covid death figures that greatly alarmed Harris at the time were known to be seriously inflated and miscalculated (read Dr. Vinay Prasad and Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg’s devastating new paper on the CDC’s umpteen errors). We knew those in the ICUs were not Harris’ contemporaries, but almost entirely elderly, obese, and severely sick patients suffering from 3 or more comorbidities.
“Scientists such as Dr. Jay Bhattacharya have proven their unreliability due to their erroneous Covid death predictions. In a March 2020 op-ed, Jay gave an unreasonably low estimate of Covid deaths in the United States, whereas Nicholas Christakis correctly predicted 1 million Covid deaths on my podcast.”
In addition to the many fallacies Harris broadcasted on Lex Fridman’s podcast, it has recently come to my attention that Harris unfairly critiqued Dr. Bhatacharya — as I paraphrased above from Making Sense #23 — for the very sins that Dr. Christakis made on Harris’ podcast. In his 2020 Wall Street Journal article, Jay provided an estimated range of U.S Covid deaths from 20,000 to 2 million. In his podcast on the Twitter Files, Harris derided Bhattacharya for giving 20,000 as a possible estimate when it was supposedly implausible at the time.
However, Dr. Christakis — one of Harris’ chosen sacred experts — gave a far lower range of Covid deaths in the ballpark of 35,000 to 300,000 deaths on Harris’ podcast within two weeks of Dr. Bhattacharya’s 2020 op-ed.
Contrary to Harris’ premise for judging the validity of scientific opinion, Christakis’ inability to foretell the exact magnitude of the pandemic does not invalidate his views (his arguments should be viewed with great skepticism since he greatly inflated the Covid fatality rate on Harris’ podcast in 2021). March 2020 was a vastly uncertain time with changing variables by the week. Extending maximal charity to Harris, it appears he simply misremembered — another all-too-human mistake. If so, he owes Dr. Bhattacharya a sincere apology.
As an ardent supporter of Sam Harris, I wish he had maintained the hyper-skeptical foundation of his nominally atheistic, nonsectarian (and mystical, in my view) worldview during the Covid pandemic. Instead, he chose scientific experts who have been far from vindication, failed to fully update his views when the science evolved, and poorly treated others with levels of empathy, understanding, and compassion far inferior to the values he earnestly promotes in his Waking Up teachings.
Despite my comprehensive critiques, I have genuine faith Harris will come to his senses. In his sprawling and often-times contradictory interview with Lex Fridman, he also voiced remarkable uncertainty for the mRNA vaccines and expressed skepticism towards the mainstream CDC recommendation for getting the bivalent booster (unlike Dr. Eric Topol who praises it’s dubious efficacy on his Substack).
Hopefully, Harris will fully come around to acknowledging his mistakes and the rotting corruption at the heart of the CDC, FDA, and other governmental institutions who unforgivably abused a fear-generating crisis for political promotion and financial gain.
After all, the “self” under the grip of great fear and uncertainty who made erroneous decisions at the time due to the influence of fallible, miscalculating experts is fundamentally an illusion (in some sense) and therefore not worth egotistically defending as Harris still seems to be doing. As Joe Rogan recently stated in his podcast with Michael Shellenberger,
“One of the worst things that happens to a public intellectual is when they are wrong and they refuse to admit they are wrong. This is the Sam Harris dilemma. There [are] many people that are very brilliant…but they’re in this trap where they can’t say they were wrong.”
On the grounds of humility, intellectual honesty, and even self-transcendence, I beckon Harris to re-consider his pandemic views and course-correct.
Read Rav Arora’s reflection on the recent 4-year-anniversary of Harris’ Waking Up app: a phenomenal, modernized library of the best Eastern wisdom has to offer.
Rav Arora is a 22-year-old independent journalist widely published in The New York Post, The Globe and Mail, and Foreign Policy Magazine. He has appeared on The Jordan B. Peterson podcast, Rising on The Hill, The Ben Shapiro Show, Sky News Australia, The Dr. Drew Show, and other programs. Subscribe to his Substack for continued fearless reporting on vaccine mandates and adverse events.