Is Robert Malone crazy?
The roots of a vax skeptic’s dark world view
Two weeks ago Robert Malone, the famous Covid vax skeptic and self-described “inventor of the mRNA vaccine,” was on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about how wildly inflated he thinks America’s Covid death statistics are. Here’s how he explained the cause of the inflation: “The CDC made the determination that they were going to make a core assumption: If PCR positive [if you test positive for Covid using a PCR test] and you die, that is death due to Covid.”
By way of illustrating how crazy this is, he continued: “If a patient comes in with a bullet hole to the head and they do a nose swab, and they come up PCR positive, they’re determined to have died from Covid… that is by definition from the CDC.”
For present purposes it doesn’t matter whether this is true (it seems not to be). What matters is that if it is true—and if it’s also true, as Malone believes, that testing patients for Covid is common practice regardless of why they’re admitted to the hospital—then a whole lot of people are being mistakenly counted as dying from Covid when they just died with Covid. If Malone’s premises are right, the official number of 850,000 American Covid deaths must be, way, way high—like, by hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile, in that same conversation with Rogan, when Malone was complaining about the government’s skeptical stance toward treating Covid with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, he said, “There’s good modeling studies that probably half a million excess deaths have happened in the United States through the intentional blockade of early treatment by the US government... That is a well documented number. And it’s a combination of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.”
Wait a second. If indeed, as Malone believes, (a) the 850,000 number for people who have died of Covid is way, way high, yet (b) 500,000 people who have died of Covid would be alive if only they’d been given ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, then (c) it would seem to follow that just about all Covid deaths could have been prevented if only we’d administered ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. And yet, even the claims made for the efficacy of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine by their most prominent supporters in the scientific community don’t suggest a combined efficacy of anywhere near 100 percent. (See my note at the bottom of this piece for details.)
In other words: If these “good modeling studies” (which I haven’t been able to locate) indeed found that 500,000 Covid deaths could have been prevented, they must rest on the assumption that the total number of Covid deaths is roughly what the government says it is.
Malone seems beset by an internal conflict. He wants to believe that the official Covid death number is way, way too high. But he also wants to believe the results of a model that must have taken something close to that number as its starting point. He resolves the tension by magically believing both.
This is not the kind of internal conflict that qualifies as insanity. (The question of whether Malone is crazy—like in the sense of seeing lots of conspiracies that don’t exist—is one I’ll examine below.) In fact, this kind of internal conflict isn’t even unusual. People are good at holding contradictory beliefs—I’ve done it myself!
Still, when people do hold contradictory beliefs, there’s usually a reason for it. There’s a reason they find each belief so appealing that they don’t notice the contradiction. What is Malone’s reason?
To put it another way:
Malone’s believing two apparently contradictory things can be seen as an example of confirmation bias—the uncritical embrace of evidence that supports your views. But what views are being supported here?
And I don’t just mean Malone’s known views on Covid—that the efficacy of cheap drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine is being understated, that the severity of the pandemic is being overstated, that Covid vaccines are much more dangerous than we realize. It’s true that these views seem to account for various instances of confirmation bias on Malone’s part, but what I’m curious about is why he holds these views in the first place. What is the world view that gives rise to these views? And how did it take shape? And is it the world view of a crazy person?
I’m now going to assess three conspiracy theories floated by Malone during his conversation with Rogan and then do some hypothesizing about his underlying world view.
But I’ll go ahead and give you two of my takeaways right now:
(1) There is an important sense in which the much-discussed question of whether Malone is exaggerating his role in the development of the mRNA vaccine doesn’t matter. The kind of smarts it takes to make a breakthrough in the microscopic world of molecular biology doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the kind of smarts it takes to make sense of things in the macroscopic world of human beings. And, anyway, regardless of how smart you are in either of those senses, it’s possible for your view of the world to get so warped that your judgment shouldn’t be trusted.
(2) There’s another sense in which the question of Malone’s role in the development of the mRNA vaccine may matter a lot. In fact, I think there’s good reason to believe that this question is a kind of Rosetta Stone—the key to understanding the development of a world view that’s very dark and, it seems, increasingly influential.
Here are the three conspiracy theories—or to use the terminology preferred by Malone ally Bret Weinstein, “conspiracy hypotheses”—that Malone trotted out on the Rogan podcast:
1. The conspiracy to limit the use of hydroxychloroquine.
In 2020, two high-ranking federal health officials, Janet Woodcock and Rick Bright, together supported a policy that confined the use of hydroxychloroquine to hospitals—which meant that doctors couldn’t prescribe it for at-home use. Bright says this move grew out of concerns over the drug’s safety and efficacy. (Allowing it even in hospitals seems to have been a kind of compromise with Trump, a concession to his enthusiasm about hydroxychloroquine.) But Malone doesn’t buy this explanation for what he calls the “conspiracy” between Bright and Woodcock.
Why? One reason, Malone told Rogan, is that “part of Rick’s story… kind of doesn’t make sense—that there was no data on efficacy.” Malone went on to explain why Bright must have been aware of information bearing on the efficacy question: “I was the guy that first acquired—because I had Chinese connections—the Chinese protocol for treating this virus. I got it in late February, and I sent it in to my buddies at the CIA, at the ASPR, at the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. So the government had those documents when Rick Bright made those determinations. So the assertion that there was no data on hydroxychloroquine at the time when this decision was made, it’s just patently false. It’s there.”
So, as I understand it, Malone sent some information to somebody in the CIA, and he’s absolutely sure this information made its way over to the Department of Health and Human Services, where both Bright and Woodcock worked—even though (1) the CIA is famously possessive with information; (2) government bureaucracies are famously bad at getting information to all the places it might be useful; (3) human beings—even if they’re “buddies” of yours—are famous for letting emails drift below the event horizon in their inbox without giving them the attention they deserve.
With his mind uncluttered by considerations like these, Malone is free to continue his theorizing about Rick Bright: “So what is the motivation?… None of this makes sense… And, you know, the classic guidance is follow the money.”
2. The Biden administration’s conspiracy to let some Americans die in hopes of scaring other Americans.
In late December of 2021, after the emergence of evidence that monoclonal antibody therapy is ineffective against the omicron variant of Covid, the Biden administration suspended shipments of monoclonal antibodies to states whose Covid caseload consisted overwhelmingly of omicron. A surface reading of this would be that it’s an attempt to conserve a scarce and expensive resource. Malone’s reading of it, as usual, goes deeper.
Speculating about why Biden would restrict the use of a Covid therapy, Malone noted that the two-year Covid state of emergency declared by Trump in early 2020 will expire in weeks—and that state of emergency is what permitted Trump health officials to do various things (most notably rolling out vaccines) under an emergency use authorization. Malone, putting himself in Biden’s shoes, figures it will be politically easier to renew that state of emergency if Covid seems out of control.
There is, he says, a “perverse incentive here to amplify the fear porn and to amplify—if you buy into the hypothesis that for some reason there are incentives for the government to maintain the state of emergency, that is one explanation, given that those declarations are expiring and will have to be reimplemented. Because if they’re not, then all of this emergency use authorization vanishes like dust.”
Rogan then asked, “So are you saying, are you implying, that perhaps one of the reasons why they’re removing monoclonal antibodies is to enhance the amount of people that are sick?”
Malone replied, “I’m saying it is in the spectrum of the range of possible, just the same as the withholding of early treatments [the Bright-Woodcock hydroxychloroquine initiative] is inexplicable.”
Among the reasons to doubt Malone’s hypothesis that Biden is trying to make the pandemic worse: (1) Biden suffers from very low approval ratings that result partly from the sense that the pandemic is still not under control; (2) I haven’t seen evidence that Biden is a homicidal monster; (3) I’ve heard complaints from clinicians that the wasteful use of monoclonal antibodies on omicron patients is indeed a problem—in other words, that the concern said to underlie the Biden policy is valid.
3. Biden’s conspiracy with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to suppress information about ivermectin. A big talking point of ivermectin advocates is that the government of Uttar Pradesh, a state in India, used ivermectin to great effect, including it in Covid packages delivered to residents and thereby turning back the Covid tide. So why haven’t you seen this success story in American media? Well, I can think of several explanations (including the fact that whether it’s a success story is disputed). But Malone has an explanation more interesting than any of mine: Maybe the US government suppressed information about the use of ivermectin in Uttar Pradesh.
He told Rogan: “There was a specific visit of Biden to [Indian Prime Minister] Modi, and a decision was made in the Indian government not to disclose the contents of those packages that were being deployed in Uttar Pradesh.”
Rogan then asked, “So they were visited by someone in the Biden administration, is that what you’re saying?”
Malone: I just know there’s a meeting between Joe Biden and Modi.
Rogan: And you believe that out of that meeting…
Malone: I don’t know what they said. I wasn’t invited. All I know is that immediately afterwards there was a decision not to disclose the contents of what was being deployed in Uttar Pradesh.
Rogan: It’s so crazy to imagine that in the middle of a pandemic, there’s one place, one area of India that’s extremely successful in combating the virus, and they’re not going to say how they did it. That’s nuts.
Malone: That’s where my stance in all of this is to say, here are the facts, here are the verifiable data. Draw your own conclusion.
But are those even the facts? President Biden and Prime Minister Modi met in September. (And it was Modi visiting Biden—not, as Malone says, Biden visiting Modi.) They also chatted casually during a G20 meeting in Rome the next month. But back in May, four months before that first meeting, the government of Uttar Pradesh had trumpeted the fact that it distributed ivermectin—and credited ivermectin with helping in the fight against Covid. Also: the Covid packages delivered to Indian residences seem to have included (not shockingly) a list of the contents. For these reasons, among others, it seems unlikely to me that the guidance given to Biden by staffers before he entered his meeting with Modi included, “If you can get him to keep this ivermectin thing hush hush, that would be a big win for us!”
Credit where due: Rogan was right to say it would be “nuts” for a government to not talk about what it considered a success in fighting Covid.
There’s an interesting recent twist to the ivermectin story, a finding I’ve never heard Malone mention. One longstanding puzzle had been why studies of ivermectin’s efficacy in fighting Covid showed such wildly varying results. Well, it turns out that the studies that find ivermectin effective tend to be done in areas infested by parasitic worms. Apparently ivermectin’s anti-parasitic properties (the properties for which it was originally developed) help keep people from becoming so weakened by parasites as to be easy prey for Covid.
The good news for Malone is that, since some parts of India have lots of parasitic worms, this new finding could mean he’s right about ivermectin having helped fight Covid in Uttar Pradesh. The bad news for Malone is that, since America isn’t beset by parasitic worms, embracing this finding would mean letting go of the idea that a cocktail of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine could have saved 500,000 American lives. Maybe that explains why Malone hasn’t embraced this finding. As we’ve seen, he seems willing to overlook things in order to hang on to that 500,000 number.
I want to emphasize that, by itself, this kind of selective attention to data isn’t pathological or even abnormal. It’s just confirmation bias. What would be abnormal is never suffering from it!
The subtle power of confirmation bias and other cognitive biases is one reason I don’t doubt Malone’s sincerity. I think he genuinely believes (a) there’s a good chance that Biden is involved in two implausible conspiracies that have the effect of killing Americans and (b) there’s no chance whatsoever that an email sent to the CIA didn’t wind up in the Department of Health and Human Services. Distorting your assessment of probabilities to this extent is fully within the power of human cognitive biases.
That said, these seem to me like pretty extreme distortions. Also pretty warped is the world view they support—the view of a world where government officials and other pawns of Big Pharma deviously conspire, on a regular basis, to mislead the masses in ways that get tons of them killed.
Where did this world view come from? The answer I find most plausible grows out of Malone’s professional history.
I’m not fit to judge how big a role Malone played in developing the mRNA vaccine, but he definitely played a non-trivial role. He was the lead author on a much cited 1989 paper that, according to Wikipedia, reported “the first successful transfection of designed mRNA packaged within a liposomal nanoparticle into a cell.”
Which means… well, I have no idea what that means. But I do know that it appears in the very first sentence of the “history” section of Wikipedia’s article on the mRNA vaccine. And the second sentence cites a 1990 paper of which Malone was a co-author. So maybe Malone has good reason to see his work as seminal.
In any event, he seems to have planned to monetize that work. The show notes for the Rogan episode Malone appeared in say he “is the inventor of the nine original mRNA vaccine patents, which were originally filed in 1989.”
A question for Malone: If you indeed invented the mRNA vaccine, and you accordingly hold the “nine original mRNA vaccine patents,” and if a number of people are now getting very rich off of mRNA vaccines, then, um, why aren’t you one of those people?
I don’t know enough to say whether the answer is that Malone really didn’t in any meaningful sense invent the mRNA vaccine or that he just misplayed his hand or that the vagaries of patent law and capitalism can lead to injustice, or what. But I do know this: If I were Malone, and I considered myself the inventor of the mRNA vaccine, and I had taken out a boatload of patents to capitalize on my invention, and then I wound up getting zero dollars while a bunch of people I considered unworthy got rich and famous—then I’d be really pissed.
Where would I direct my antagonism? Well, let’s play this scenario out. Suppose that the person who gets the most media credit for inventing the mRNA vaccine, Katalin Kariko, was a vice president at BioNTech, the company that co-developed (with Pfizer) one of the two big mRNA Covid vaccines. And suppose that a scientist named Derrick Rossi—who, according to Wikipedia, is one of three people (along with Kariko) who have gotten more credit than Malone for the development of mRNA vaccines—was co-founder of Moderna, maker of the other big mRNA Covid vaccine.
If all of this were the case—which it is—and I were Malone, I doubt I’d have reacted to the development of these two vaccines with a hearty, “Well done, guys!” My reaction might be more like, “Badly done!” Or “unsafely done!” It would be only human for Malone to feel inclined to find flaws in these vaccines. And if you’ve never had the feeling I’m talking about—the impulse to belittle the work of your rivals—then maybe you should seek counseling; you’re not normal.
By the way, the Moderna vaccine was developed in collaboration with two government agencies: the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed by Anthony Fauci (about whom Malone has spoken in unflattering terms) and the Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority, which at the time was headed by Rick Bright— the same Rick Bright who is accused by Malone of “conspiring” to restrict the use of hydroxychloroquine. See how everything is fitting together?
The idea that all of this goes a long way toward explaining Malone’s world view is just a hypothesis. But it works on paper. It could explain why Malone sees money-hungry pharmaceutical companies suppressing information about the downsides of their lucrative and flawed vaccines and about the efficacy of cheap and potent alternative prophylactics and treatments. And it could explain why he sees the government as being in cahoots with them.
One reason I find this etiological scenario plausible is that I can relate to it. I know what it feels like to think you haven’t gotten enough credit. Don’t pretty much all of us? After all, one well documented feature of human nature is to overestimate the amount of credit you deserve and underestimate the amount others deserve. (My favorite corroboration of this: Co-authors of academic papers were asked to estimate what percentage of the credit for the paper they deserved, and the average sum of claimed credit for a paper was 140 percent.)
And we human beings really care about credit—and about the social status that goes with it! We care so much about these things that we seem to naturally disparage, and suspect the motives of, our rivals for credit and status. In fact, there’s a cognitive bias—attribution error—that helps us do that disparaging without even suspecting that we’re doing it for self-serving reasons.
Another human tendency, it seems, is to look hard for evidence of coordination among our rivals and adversaries—in other words, to err on the side of conspiracy theory. (Maybe, during human evolution, false positives in this domain were less costly than false negatives.)
All of which points to one problem with trying to decide whether to label people as crazy. The things we call crazy are often just natural human tendencies amped up beyond a certain point. And deciding where that point is can be hard.
There’s another reason I’m reluctant to label people as crazy even when their cognitive distortions seem pretty extreme. Sometimes people with extreme cognitive distortions are valuable social assets! Let’s face it: Big Pharma, like all big and powerful interests, should be subjected to critical scrutiny, because it consists of human beings, and human beings have been known to use their power to distort information in ways that serve their interests. (And, being human, they can do this without even realizing they’re doing it.) We should keep on the lookout for signs that commercial interests are polluting the flow of information about Covid and about health generally.
Still… It does seem to me that Robert Malone should—How can I put this delicately?—not be taken seriously. Though locating the exact point on the spectrum of human self-deception where insanity sets in is above my pay grade, I do know this:
One thing America doesn’t need right now is a guy with access to Joe Rogan’s powerful platform who is, on the basis of zero good evidence, spreading the idea that America’s president may well have conspired with a foreign leader to withhold life-saving medical information from Americans—and that this same president may also be part of a second conspiracy that has the effect of withholding life-saving treatment from Americans.
Again: It’s important that somebody play the role of gadfly—raise questions about whether we’re overlooking safety issues with vaccines or overlooking cheap and effective Covid drugs. It’s also important that somebody highlight conflicts of interest within what Malone not crazily calls the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. But, especially at this point in America’s history, it’s important that the people who play these roles have some semblance of balance and be reasonably good at assessing evidence.
Malone would have you believe that one reason his handling of evidence should be trusted is that he is the “inventor of the mRNA vaccine.” And his detractors seem to agree that his credibility naturally rises or falls with the strength of this claim—at least, to judge by the amount of time they spend trying to undermine it.
But there’s another way of looking at this. The best explanation I can find for Malone’s dark world view is that it’s rooted in a powerfully felt grievance—a grievance about credit that seems to have warped his assessment of both scientific data and human motivation. And sometimes the most powerfully felt grievances are the most valid ones—the ones most firmly rooted in reality. Maybe, in a certain sense, the stronger the evidence for Malone’s claim to be the inventor of the mRNA vaccine, the more suspicious we should be of the things he’s saying about it.
Note 1, about the “half a million excess deaths”: What is probably the most formidable evidence mounted on behalf of the efficacy of ivermectin is a 2021 “meta-analysis” of numerous studies. It originally found that ivermectin was 62 percent effective in reducing death among Covid patients, but after one of the studies it comprised was withdrawn amid allegations of fraud, Theresa Lawrie, a co-author of the meta-analysis (and an ivermectin booster), re-did the math and found the efficacy rate dropped to 49 percent. As for hydroxychloroquine: studies of its efficacy seem to have been so disappointing that I’m not even aware of any hydroxy backers who have done a meta-analysis. But if you (very) generously stipulate, say, 25 percent efficacy for hydroxychloroquine and assume a random relationship between a patient’s 49 percent likelihood of being saved by ivermectin and their likelihood of being saved by hydroxychloroquine, you wind up with combined efficacy of slightly above 60 percent in death reduction (if I’m doing the math right, and I’d put the probability of that at, oh, 70 percent). Which means that to get to that 500,000 lives-that-could-have-been-saved number you’d have to start with more than 800,000 total deaths—roughly the number of total deaths the government cites. If you assume a modest negative relationship between those two likelihoods you could get to the 500,000 number by starting with something a bit below 800,000 deaths, but if you assume a modest positive relationship, you have to start with well over 800,000 deaths. My intuition would be that the relationship would be positive (since both drugs would presumably have the most success with the least dire cases), but a negative relationship can’t be ruled out, depending on the mechanisms by which the drugs work (assuming they do). But even if those mechanisms are such as to give rise to a negative relationship of some magnitude, it seems very likely that this magnitude would be mitigated by the factor encouraging a positive relationship (i.e., the great likelihood that both drugs work better in the less dire cases—or, to put it another way, that some patients are so far gone that neither drug has a chance of working). So, all told, it seems highly unlikely that the net relationship between the two likelihoods of efficacy would be highly negative. By the way, it’s of course, it’s possible that the “good modeling,” as Malone puts it, started with much higher numbers for the efficacy of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine than I’m assuming here. But since those would be completely indefensible, that would just mean that this “good modeling” was completely untethered to reality—so Malone’s use of that phrase would be more reason to doubt his judgment.
Note 2: Since posting this piece, I’ve come across this piece on Malone in the Atlantic by Tom Bartlett, published in August, that I think corroborates my assessment of Malone.
This article by Bob caused me to belly-up with a subscription. I've always admired his clarity of thought and balance. This is a great example. It is easy to be suspicious of Big Pharma. There are lots of examples of shoddy research and poor process we can point to. I'm personally fond of Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. That said, Bob's points with respect to Malone's motivations resonate strongly. Real wisdom IMHO. I listened to the entire (!) podcast with Rogan and Malone and it really helped me appreciate how people can buy in to Malone's narrative, but the statement's Bob points out couldn't be overlooked and damaged his credibility with me. Lot's of claims of multitudes of studies that supported his viewpoints as well as credible third parties, but they don't seem to exist when you drill down. I really appreciate Bob's humility and ability to give someone I could easily dismiss the benefit of the doubt that comes with recognizing our common, human biases and failings. Bravo, Bob!
There are strong parallels here to the few (but non-zero) climate change contrarians who are experts, such as Richard Lindzen at MIT. Lindzen is a brilliant scientist who has made major contributions to understanding the climate system yet has repeatedly and publicly downplayed the risks of climate change. He also doesn't believe that smoking causes cancer. There is a conspiratorial aspect to his thinking, in particular he points to group-think among climate scientists, and confirmation bias is also at work in the worry that climate change will prompt greater government control over our lives.