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A Contagion of Cowardice


Jordan Peterson’s interview with Jay Bhattacharya is one of the more insightful conversations to come out of the post-pandemic period. It’s fascinating to see Peterson coming to terms with the sheer scale of the lockdown during which time he was rather sick. We could have used his voice then and I have no doubt that he would have been fantastic.

Fortunately for the whole world, we did have Jay. It’s not just his credentials or his position at Stanford University. It’s his erudition that gave him the reach to make sense of our times. In this interview, Jay explains the unfolding of events in ways I personally found compelling.

Summing up his message, the response upended a century of public-health practice based on computer modeling that was not informed by any medical knowledge or public-health experience. That modeling came to be fused with a military-style response that waged a war on a pathogen with no exit strategy.

Powerful industrial interests saw their chance to realize every hidden agenda.

That was further complicated by severe political division. Even though the lockdowns began under the Trump administration, opposing them mysteriously came to be seen as “right-wing” even though the pandemic policies violated every civil liberty, massively harmed the poor, divided the classes, and trampled essential freedoms, which one might suppose were concerns of the left, once upon a time.

Jay knew from the beginning that these policies were a disaster but his method of dissent was to stick with the genuine science. He worked with colleagues very early in the pandemic on a study from California that proved that this war on the “invisible enemy” was futile. Covid was everywhere and only a mortal threat to a narrow group in the population needed to have its guard up while the rest of society moved on. That study was released in April 2020 and the implications were undeniably devastating to the war planners and the lockdown pushers.

The conclusion of the study seems rather commonplace now: “The estimated population prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County implies that the infection may be much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases.” But at the time, when dissent was rare if non-existent in scientific literature, and when the planning elite had declared its number one goal was to track, trace, and isolate, and thereby minimize infections through compulsion while we wait for a vaccine, this conclusion was anathema.

That’s when the attacks began. It was like he had to be shut down. The popular press began to go after him savagely, smearing both the study and his motivations (this later became outright censorship). At this point, he began to realize the intensity of the campaign against dissent and the push for full unity in favor of the policy response. It was not like normal times when scientists could disagree. This was something different, something fully militarized, when a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” consensus was being demanded by every institution. That meant no heresies against orthodoxy were allowed.

At this point, the interview breaks and Peterson begins to ask probing questions of the sort he likes concerning the spiritual struggle all of us face in life, a subject that clearly consumes him. Peterson believes that all seeming political struggles are ultimately personal ones. Do we back off and acquiesce to conventional wisdom or do we continue to walk toward the light as shown by our conscience?

He asks Jay if he faced this moment, and Jay admits that he did indeed face this. He realized that continuing in this direction – researching to discover facts and telling the truth as he saw it – would massively disrupt his career, his life, and everything he had worked for. Everything would be different, away from comfort and into an uncertain and isolated frontier.

He faced that choice and made the decision to go ahead, undeterred. But the decision cost him dearly. He could not sleep. He lost tremendous amounts of weight. He faced social and professional ostracism. He was dragged through the mud daily in the press and scapegoated for every policy failure. He was accused of conspiring with the purveyors of dark money and every other form of professional corruption. He found himself vexed beyond which he had ever been in his entire career. But still he forged ahead, eventually gathering with other scientists to make what is now a famous statement of public health that has stood the test of time.

It’s fascinating to consider how few in academia and professional life made this choice. And the reasons why are also intriguing. Many in these high-end professions, particularly in academia, have far less job flexibility than we think. We might suppose that a tenured professor in the Ivy League could and would say anything he wants.

The opposite is true. They are not like the barber or auto mechanic who can leave one job and easily start another a few blocks away or in a different town. They are, in many ways, trapped in their own circle of influence. They know this and dare not depart from industry norms. And too often those norms are formed by funding. Yale University, for example, gets more overall revenue from government than from tuition. That’s typical among such institutions. And now we know that media and tech are also on the payroll.

These conflicts of interest combined with careerism played themselves out in brutal ways over the last few years. The high-end professionals who left their jobs to work in the Trump administration, for example, found that they had no jobs waiting for them at all when that presidency came to an end. They were not welcomed back, certainly not by academia. They were discarded. I personally know of many cases where people on advanced career tracks lost all merely by agreeing to what they believed would be public service.

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