Reason Interviews

Jay Bhattacharya on COVID, Social Media Censorship, and Trump vs. Biden

"It’s not like public health is infallible," the Stanford professor and Great Barrington Declaration author tells Reason's Nick Gillespie.


Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of health policy and economics at Stanford University and a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, which rejected COVID-19 lockdowns in favor of focused protection of older Americans and other high-risk groups. Bhattacharya is now involved in a high-profile lawsuit before the Supreme Court, alleging that the government improperly pressured social media platforms to censor scientific opinions that deviated from official narratives. Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with him in May at Reason Weekend in Boston.

Q: You're originally from India, but you grew up here. What did it feel like when you first read that you were on a blacklist at the government's behest?

A: It was surreal. The American civic religion is free speech. Blacklists are a thing of the past. That could never happen in modern America. To see my name on a blacklist—I didn't know how to process it.

Q: Talk about the collusion between the social media platforms and the government that led to the lawsuit.

A: The White House, the Surgeon General's office, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]—government agency after government agency [saying] things like, "kick these people off or else." If you read the discovery in the [Murthy v. Missouri] case, the response from the social media companies reads like a hostage situation.

Q: There's something wrong if the government is saying to a private company, "We don't like this opinion, so we want you to squelch it," right?

A: I think that is a direct violation of the First Amendment.

Q: The two guys who were running for president at the beginning of the pandemic are running—or perhaps shuffling—for president again. Was Joe Biden worse than Donald Trump on the pandemic response?

A: No, I think they both failed during the pandemic, in different ways. For Trump, I think the imposition of the lockdown itself was a failure. If I were advising Trump at the time, I would have said the lockdowns are not likely a good idea. I would also have told him that there's no such thing as two weeks of lockdown. I would have told him the harms of lockdown, especially on kids. There was tremendous literature before the pandemic that suggests you should never close schools in situations like this because it's going to harm kids without having a tremendous effect on the spread of the disease.

Q: What was Biden bad on?

A: I think the worst thing was the way that he managed the vaccine rollout. Instead of accepting the limitations of the scientific data, he and his advisers assumed that the vaccine would stop you from getting and spreading COVID. The consequence was to create almost a caste system, where if you're vaccinated, you're clean, if you're unvaccinated, you're unclean. It was simply inconsistent with the scientific data. That, I think, vastly undermined American trust in public health and also in vaccines more generally.

Q: With science, nothing is ever settled. But does that mean you must talk to the person advancing an argument that is completely nuts?

A: If you are a trustworthy public health agency and you are treating people respectfully, even people you think are wrong, you're going to influence a vastly larger number of people than if you say these [other] people are pariahs. It's not like public health is infallible. I want to treat ideas that I disagree with respectfully because I might be wrong.

Q: Transparency is really a big value for you, right? You're going to lay your cards on the table and say, "Here it is. Tell me where I made mistakes."

A: Exactly. That's how science actually works. In fact, if I'm not [ever] wrong, I'm not being bold enough as a scientist.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.