"What I think is most problematic is that we [in the medical field] were a bit dishonest in saying we had more confidence than we really did," says Vinay Prasad, a practicing hematologist-oncologist and associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. "The place that I have been most critical of the pandemic response is communication around the certainty of the evidence when it is, in fact, a lot more uncertain."
Prasad, an outspoken and persistent critic of what he views as an incompetent, censorious, and overly invasive response by the American public health establishment to the COVID-19 pandemic, is also the host of the podcast Plenary Session, which covers medicine and health policy. He spoke to Reason about the major hit in public trust that public health agencies, the medical profession, and science in general have taken during the pandemic by insisting that Americans blindly "trust the science."
"It's more complicated than just 'the science,'" says Prasad. "It's science plus values and preferences of the population. What I think is the misstep is that the scientists, they have a policy conclusion in their mind that they want. And so they overstate the certainty of the science so they can get their desired policy conclusion. But that is a scientist usurping the political role, usurping, I think, the values and preferences of society. And they replace it with their own values and preferences, which they are completely entitled to have as one citizen among many, but [that doesn't mean] that their values and privacy should dominate."
Prasad, who spoke with Reason about the failure of lockdowns, overzealous mask and vaccine mandates, and unscientific school closures and restrictions on children, says that "groupthink" overtook the medical establishment early in the pandemic and is something physicians, public health officials, and scientists must resist if they're ever to regain the public's trust.
"The people who talked about cancel culture being problematic across all domains of life I think are really on to something," says Prasad. "I'm 100 percent sure that the majority of scientists who could have commented on COVID-19 have self-censored. The people you're hearing are a very, very tiny fraction of all the people that are actually doing science. We have no idea what the average scientist thinks about masking two-year-olds or vaccinating five-year-old mandates. They're very quiet, and they are quiet because they have almost no professional upside to speak out on the issue. Only professional downside."
But Prasad says that more medical professionals must find the courage to speak honestly if they want to restore public trust and save the younger generation from lasting harm.
"There are lots of people who study early life course development, and they study social economics, and they study disparities," says Prasad. "If you are silent on school closure…masking kids and these issues, this is the greatest issue in your career, in your lifetime. It's going to be a thousand times, 10,000 times more impactful…If you're in this business because you want to make a difference, this is the issue. This is the issue to make a difference on. It's not five years from now."
Interview by Zach Weissmueller; edited by Adam Czarnecki.