Here at SBM, we don’t just discuss specific medical claims and the evidence that does or doesn’t support them, but I like to think that we go beyond just refuting misinformation with facts and science. In addition to that, we try to inoculate our readers with critical thinking skills by discussing the tactics of disinformation and misinformation. One of the most common tactics is to challenge a scientist or science advocate to a “live public debate” about the topic in question, whether it be the claim that vaccines cause autism (they don’t), whether HIV causes AIDS (it does), or regarding “integrative medicine” or “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). Regular readers no doubt can recount why quacks, cranks, pseudoscience-promoters, and conspiracy theorists have the advantage in these debates—”Gish gallop” anyone? —but there are other reasons why science deniers gravitate towards this particular tactic. Sometimes the motivations are dishonest, but more often they are not, being based instead on the false idea that such “debates” are a fair and democratic method to settle a question, whether there is a real scientific debate or not. (Almost always, there is not.) Given that I’ve been seeing a rash of challenges to a “debate” coming from COVID-19 contrarian and antivaccine social media personalities and doctors, I decided that now would be a good time to address this common tactic again, particularly given that I haven’t discussed it here since 2015 and a lot has changed, such as two years (and counting) of a pandemic that has turbocharged science denial around the world.
“Debate me, bro!” say Dr. Oz and Steve Kirsch
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of “live public debates” with antivaxxers and quacks, and regular readers of my personal not-so-secret other blog know it even more, because I’ve written about it so many times there relative to here. Although I’ve recounted my reasons a number of times in the past, I do think that it’s worth writing about this topic again every so often, for the simple reason that it’s such a classic tactic of science deniers to demand a “debate” and then to accuse science advocates of cowardice if they decline. Why this particular topic bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness again is simple. Steve Kirsch has been repeatedly invoking this tactic again, even going so far as to justify why he prefers “live public debates” so much more. Meanwhile, Dr. Mehmet Oz (remember him?) has turned his spurious challenge to “debate” Anthony Fauci—”doctor to doctor,” yet!—into a central theme of his carpetbagging Senate campaign in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Oz has been issuing his “challenge” on Twitter for nearly three weeks now, complete with a poster:
Most of us who’ve followed Dr. Oz and his promotion of quackery going back to his days on The Oprah Winfrey Show as “America’s doctor”—or, as I coined the phrase, “America’s quack”—could only look on with a mix of amusement, contempt, and resignation (just look at the responses and quote Tweets if you don’t believe me) as Dr. Oz tried to milk this challenge to aid his fundraising campaign to win the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania Senator this year. Grifter that he is, Dr. Oz knows quite well that Dr. Fauci would never accept such a “challenge” and that he probably couldn’t accept such a challenge even if he wanted to given his high ranking position at the NIH. However, the marks from whom he’s trying to raise campaign cash don’t know that.
Meanwhile, a week and a half ago, Steve Kirsch, whom I last discussed in reference to his prodigious weaponization of the VAERS database on Substack to portray COVID-19 vaccines as deadly, published this challenge, “An Open Debate Challenge to the 270 “experts” who signed the Spotify letter challenging Robert Malone“. It was in response to an open letter to Spotify signed by 270 scientists and healthcare professionals about Joe Rogan, whose podcast has routinely platformed COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, antivaxxers, and disinformation promoters:
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine. He has discouraged vaccination in young people and children, incorrectly claimed that mRNA vaccines are “gene therapy,” promoted off-label use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 (contrary to FDA warnings), and spread a number of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. In episode #1757, Rogan hosted Dr. Robert Malone, who was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Dr. Malone used the JRE platform to further promote numerous baseless claims, including several falsehoodsabout COVID-19 vaccines and an unfounded theory that societal leaders have “hypnotized” the public. Many of these statements have already been discredited. Notably, Dr. Malone is one of two recent JRE guests who has compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust. These actions are not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.
All of this is undeniably correct, which is why the letter concluded:
Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications. As scientists, we face backlash and resistance as the public grows to distrust our research and expertise. As educators and science communicators, we are tasked with repairing the public’s damaged understanding of science and medicine. As physicians, we bear the arduous weight of a pandemic that has stretched our medical systems to their limits and only stands to be exacerbated by the anti-vaccination sentiment woven into this and other episodes of Rogan’s podcast.
This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform. We, the undersigned doctors, nurses, scientists, and educators thus call on Spotify to immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.
I would have signed this letter myself, had I known about it in time or had anyone asked me to, although I have seen reports that Rogan’s fans harassed some of the doctors who had signed the open letter, as Rogan’s fans tried to claim that the scientists, healthcare professionals, and educators who had signed the letter were trying to “cancel” Rogan because he’s a “threat to their quest for power”, going on to claim that “if the experts shut Rogan up, there’s no one with a large enough platform to challenge them”. I do have to admit to seeing the fact that someone with an audience as large as Rogan’s would be so threatened by such a relatively mild open letter and that his fans would go so ballistic over it as evidence that Rogan knows what he’s doing. That being said, let’s look at Kirsch’s response:
To the 270 scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicatorswho signed the letter to Spotify complaining about medical misinformation:
We challenge every Professor and medical doctor (MD) who signed the Open Letterto a live recorded Zoom debate at 10am PST on January 28, 2021 for 3 hours. The purpose is to identify and expose any misinformation on the Joe Rogan podcast cited in the letter (JRE #1757).
We are old fashioned. We think scientific agreements should be settled by open discussion between scientists and not assigned to unknown, unqualified, and unnamed censors who hide deep inside the bowels of high tech companies.
I hope you agree with that and will accept our offer to an old fashioned scientific debate.
He goes on:
We will supply 12 debaters from our team which includes people such as Robert Malone, Robert F. Kennedy, and others. We will also invite Joe Rogan to attend if he is available.
This response is obviously nonsensical on its surface. How would a “debate” involving even a fraction of the 270 professionals who signed the letter against 12 of Kirsch’s hand-picked antivaxxers, much less a debate on Zoom, even work? It would be an incoherent free-for-all, and no doubt Kirsch knows that. In fact, he is likely counting on it, and that no one can “win” such a debate. I also note that the “team” in his link includes 30 members, all of whom are promoters of COVID-19 disinformation. The link also reveals that this has been Kirsch’s schtick for a long time, as he adds after his list:
We will debate any qualified experts with comparable credentials in an open public fair debate to defend any of our viewpoints on vaccine safety, whether vaccines are a good idea, the efficacy of early treatments, whether ivermectin really works, why fluvoxamine should be used, whether masks work, etc.
The only problem is that NOBODY will debate us. They will claim privately that everything we say is false, yet they REFUSE to debate us in an open public debate.
We’ve asked the CDC, FDA, NIH, mainstream media talking heads, members of Congress, members of the medical community, etc. No takers.
I wonder why, particularly given the proposed “rules” of the “debate,” which might seem reasonable on the surface but would be guaranteed to produce a free-for-all, particularly Rule #6:
Control is given to each side for 6 minutes at a time. That side “has the floor” and can ask the other side questions, interrupt the person, etc. This is how it works in a Congressional hearing where the Members ask questions of the witness and can interrupt the witness at any time. The side in control can assign the “floor” to a single team member to use or control may be shared among multiple team members. The important feature is the side in control has full control and can interrupt the opposing side if they feel the questions are not being answered and the other side is running down the clock and not answering the question. There is no limit to the topics covered in the 6 minutes. We suggest one questioner and one topic for each 6 minute slot, but that is just a recommendation.
How much would you like to bet that Kirsch’s side would constantly interrupt the pro-science side and wouldn’t let them complete an argument? Amusingly, Kirsch is becoming increasingly desperate to rope someone into his “debate” that he’s now offering $1 million (or even saying they can name their price) to members of FDA and CDC committees in charge, respectively, of approving vaccines and making recommendations for which ones should be incorporated into the recommended vaccination schedule, how many doses, and at what ages. In this, he reminds me of Jock Doubleday, whose “challenge” offered large sums of money to vaccine advocates to drink all the vaccines in the schedule at one sitting, or RFK Jr.’s similar “challenge,” in which he offered $100,000 to anyone who could refute all the studies that he had amassed to show that vaccines cause autism.
On Saturday, Kirsch was echoing Dr. Oz’s bogus “challenge” to debate Dr. Fauci, just not with Dr. Oz. Rather, he shared a Change.org petition demanding that Dr. Fauci do a live TV debate with “opposing doctors,” because a Change.org petition is so likely to change Dr. Fauci’s mind. The panel of doctors from which Dr. Fauci could choose include a list of doctors, most of whom been featured on this blog at one time or another for promoting COVID-19 disinformation, including Drs. Peter McCullough, Ryan Cole, Harvey Risch, George Fareed, Pierre Kory, Richard Urso, Paul Marik, Aaron Kheriaty, Robert Malone, and David Wiseman.
Jarringly, the Change.org petition concludes:
Whether you are a fan of Dr. Fauci or not, everyone should sign. We should all want to make this happen in an effort to lay to rest all the divisive rhetoric invading our every day conversations. Please sign this petition and pass it along using the hashtag #MakeFauciDebate
I somehow suspect that, even if such a debate occurred, it would not even come close to laying to rest all the divisive rhetoric invading our everyday conversations.
There’s another example of a call for a “live public debate” in which the purpose of the “debate” is to let the COVID-19 minimizer and antivaxxer to start “just asking questions,” a.k.a. JAQing off with questions like, “Why would you not have procured sufficient quantities of HCQ, ivermectin, vitamin D and Zinc and mandate people take a proactive approach to prevent illness and to treat the ill?” and “Why have you completely disregarded the view of the 55,000 infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists that signed on to the Great Barrington Declaration”? The rest of the questions are of a similar sort, in which cranks ask questions based on refuted science in a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” manner.
Does all truth come from live public debate?
I can’t resist spoiling the answer to this question by saying right away that the answer is no, all truth does not come from “live public debate”. I won’t say that it’s always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate like the sort in the “challenges” by Dr. Oz and Steve Kirsch. After all, Steve Novella showed me how it’s done back in 2012 when he accepted a challenge of convenience to debate Dr. Julian Whitaker about vaccines at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2012. (The Amazing Meeting was being held the same weekend in Las Vegas so Steve and I were there already.) However, it turns out that Dr. Whitaker was very bad at the deceptive debate techniques that cranks use, but also Dr. Novella was very, very good at anticipating and responding to common antivaccine arguments. Even though Dr. Novella basically mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker, I still had misgivings. These were the same misgivings that I had when Bill Nye appeared to have wiped the floor with creationist Ken Ham in a debate of science versus pseudoscience with respect to evolution, given that it has been credibly argued that the debate was, in actuality, a disaster for science and a huge win for Ham and creationism. Basically, I view these examples as the exceptions that prove the rule that scientists really shouldn’t debate cranks, and here’s why.
The main reasons that debating cranks is pointless at best, and counterproductive at worst, are well-known to most regular readers of SBM. Common “live public debate” formats favor science deniers because they are not bound by science or even the truth. They are free to Gish gallop to their heart’s content; that is, to “baffle them with a torrent of BS” that includes obscure studies, bad studies, studies that don’t support their points, and even irrelevant information that superficially to nonexperts appears to support their arguments. Unless a scientist or science communicator is not only very skilled at dealing with this technique but also very familiar with the deep well of studies ranging from the highly dubious to the good studies misrepresented by the science denier, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to swat down each gallop in turn and have no time left to make an argument for science. Such “debates” also value glibness, rhetorical skill, and the debater’s charisma far more than facts, logic, reason, and science.
Even worse, contrary to politics and other areas where there is not necessarily a “right” or a “wrong” answer and the value of different ideas can be assessed through argumentation and debate, science does have actual right and wrong answers. Evolution is real. Vaccines do work and don’t cause autism. COVID-19 is deadly to a small percentage of the population that is large enough to have produced a death toll in the US approaching one million, and the vaccines do work to decrease transmission and dramatically decrease the chances of one becoming seriously ill and dying of the disease. mRNA-based vaccines do not “permanently alter your DNA”. “Debating” these issues in the sort of forums that Kirsch wants serves no purpose other than falsely elevating the status of cranks and the pseudoscience and conspiracy theories that they peddle to falsely appear to the public to be in the same ballpark as that of real scientists and valid scientific conclusions, even when those conclusions are not as certain as the conclusions that vaccines do not cause autism and evolution explains the diversity of life.
Because they cannot convince actual scientists and experts in the fields whose science they deny or in which they embrace pseudoscience with evidence and science, science deniers tend to look to the public or validation. Hence, they portray science as being decided more by a democratic process than scientific evidence that eventually persuades other scientists. That is why they appear to believe that science is decided in public debates and view the quite proper reluctance among scientists like myself and skeptics to engage cranks in such spectacles as “cowardice”. It is not, but cranks continue to labor under the delusion that science is somehow decided in such forums, which are a variant of a sort of argumentum ad populum, in which something is argued to be true because it is popular or, in a debate, an argument is thought to be closer to the truth because it is more popular; i.e., it sways more people than the opposing argument.
Science doesn’t work that way. It is decided on evidence presented at scientific conferences and peer-reviewed journals, where the real scientific debate plays out until it is temporarily settled and scientists come to a provisional consensus. That provisional consensus, of course, is always subject to change as new observations, data, and experimental results come to light, but it takes observations, data, and experimental results to change the consensus, not “live public debates”. Such “live public debates” are meant for one thing and one thing only: To sway public opinion to a viewpoint not supported by science, in the process elevating pseudoscience or the unproven to the same plane as the scientific consensus as a scientifically viable “alternative”.
If Steve Kirsch or his motley crew of quacks truly wanted to convince scientists of the validity of their claims, they would publish their data and do battle where scientists normally do battle, in the scientific literature and at scientific conferences, rather than issuing vacuous and deceptive “challenges” to scientists who refute their misinformation. “Live public debates” might sway a few souls when the odd hapless scientist or skeptic unprepared for the Gish gallop makes the mistake of going up against a smooth-talking crank, but the scientific consensus remains unchanged. Someone like Burzynski can change my mind and the minds of my fellow Skeptics™ regarding his use of antineoplastons to treat cancer. It just takes him publishing all the evidence from his completed phase 2 clinical trials instead of 42.5% of one. If we find the data compelling, we will start to rethink our positions.
All of this is why I generally decline challenges from cranks to “debate” and don’t care if they portray my refusal to “debate” them as cowardice. It’s been my policy going back to at least 2007, and I haven’t suffered for it. If a crank is really interested in a “debate”, sometimes I’ll proffer a counteroffer for a written debate on our blogs, with each of us linking to each other’s responses. Interestingly, no one has ever taken me up on that counteroffer. I wonder why.
Actually, I don’t. Steve Kirsch has apparently received such counteroffers before. In fact, hilariously, he’s been in an exchange with people who think that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 either hasn’t been isolated or doesn’t even exist. He’s even doing it such a manner that, even though he’s a crank, he’s claiming the mantle of reasonableness by attacking even worse cranks. One of the virus deniers, Christine Massey, responded reiterating that the virus doesn’t exist. Kirsch, being Kirsch, couldn’t resist responding this way:
I responded to her open letter by offering up to a 5 hour zoom call with a few of my friends who do work in this area so we can settle the matter in one meeting. If she’s done early, we end early. I thought I was being generous with the time offered, but was accused of being disingenuous. The reason for 5 hours is having done this before on other topics, it takes hours, so I allow for plenty of time on both sides. Not offering sufficient time could be seen as “ducking” her challenge. She can bring as many people on her side as she wants but for something like this, I suggest a limit of 3 per side. If she wants less time, I’m fine with that!!! She can leave the room at any time if we are done early.
That’s right. Even on one of the rare occasions when Kirsch is on the right side of a scientific argument, he can’t resist by responding with a classic crank “debate me” gambit. Massey responded by saying that she would be happy to “engage in WRITING,” adding, “take it or leave it”. I laughed out loud at the reversal. Here the crankier crank was taking the role that I normally would have taken, insisting on a written debate with Kirsch, and he was having none of it. He did, however, perfectly explain why:
Insisting on a debate in writing is problematic:
- it’s really easy to avoid answering questions
- easy to change the topic and what we’ve seen in other instances is the responses get longer and longer and longer and go nowhere. I see this over and over.
- it’s easy to fool people. For example, her open letter goes on and on. How many readers know enough to challenge her on each point? Very few.
Others are camera shy like those 270 so-called experts who want the Malone interview censored on Spotify. No response so far to my debate offer. Who’d have guessed? A written discussion with up to 270 people is impractical. Who will read the hundreds of pages of documents? Pretty much nobody.
I’ve played this game before and it never goes anywhere. I don’t think the folks I’d ask to do this would want to spend time writing papers to Christine. They don’t even have the time to prepare their own papers. Doing written documents is much more time consuming than talking because people spend the time to make it bulletproof.
Funny, but I always thought that taking the time to make your arguments as bulletproof as possible was a good thing, but apparently Kirsch disagrees. I also find it utterly hilarious that Kirsch insists on a five hour Zoom debate. Neither I nor most doctors or scientists whom I know have five-hour blocks of time free to devote to such a pointless exercise, but a lot of us do have time to write in short blocks.
You can see the projection going on here. Anyone who’s ever watched a political debate knows how pathetically easy it is to avoid answering questions; politicians generally answer the question with prepackaged talking points and, yes, change the topic until the discussion goes nowhere. Particularly ironic is Kirsch’s claim that it’s “easy to fool people” in a written debate. Actually, it’s far easier to fool people with rhetoric, Gish gallops, and emotional appeals in a live public debate. Indeed, I rather suspect that what Kirsch really means is that he doesn’t like that he can’t just keep badgering his debate opponent if he doesn’t like the responses he gets until the opponent either makes a mistake or starts showing signs of irritation or anger. Indeed, another post by Kirsch complaining about written debates, where he complains that written debates make it so that he ‘can’t get answers to simple “yes/no” questions’ pretty much tells me I’m right here.
I laughed even harder at this:
One of the commenters wrote this:
But when someone really knows their shit they would much rather handle it in a live conversation; it’s much more efficient (you don’t spend hours writing) and it reaches a wider audience, and that audience has the benefit of tone and body language to affirm (or negate) the veracity and substance of what is being said.
I agree with that.
Body language and tone have nothing to do with facts, science, and argument, and when someone who “really doesn’t know their shit” but is good at, well, bullshitting they would definitely rather handle disagreements in a live verbal debate because it’s easier to hide their lack of knowledge behind clever rhetoric. In contrast, someone who’s not a great public speaker (as in many scientists) might show nervousness and discomfort more over confrontation, even when in the right, than a smooth charismatic debater. Kirsch is basically agreeing that live public debates are about emotion, presentation, and showmanship, not science.
Just yesterday, Kirsch again reiterated why he prefers live debates. He starts out with why he doesn’t like written debates, basically expanding on what he said above. What made me laugh even more was that he referenced antivaxxer Del Bigtree’s asking the HHS 11 questions, as though trying to get information from a government bureaucracy for serious JAQing off questions is akin to, for example, a blog debate. In other words, he misrepresents something that is most definitely not a debate as being a debate. He then concludes:
This is the real reason why nobody supporting the vaccines wants a live debate: because with a written debate they can string things out forever.
RFK Jr. has been trying for 20 years to get someone qualified (Alan Dershowitz isn’t) to debate him live about vaccine safety. No takers.
The fact that RFK Jr. has been trying to get scientists to “debate him” for 20 years should tell you all you need to know about the value of such “debates”.
Steve Kirsch’s own experience should show why “live public debates” with cranks are useless
I’ll conclude by observing that Kirsch could learn from his own experience challenging Massey to debate whether SARS-CoV-2 exists or has been isolated. Going back to his lament over her refusal to do a five hour Zoom debate with his experts, he lists the reasons why he wants a live video debate:
I’m baffled as to why this is not a sufficient answer and this is precisely why interactive conversations work better than written requests and precisely why I wanted a video discussion. Christine will engage in video conversations with Tom Cotton, but not with people in the field who disagree with her. She doesn’t say why.
For Christine’s followers, it’s clear my answer won’t satisfy you. It seems clear to me at this point that no matter how much I write, it won’t satisfy you.
Perhaps you can convince Christine to accept the video discussion and we can clarify it then and we can finally resolve the issue. Otherwise, we will be going back and forth till the cows come home.
It likely has never occurred to Kirsch that a “live public debate” is no more likely to convince people on either side either, although I would chuckle heartily to see him or his “experts” try to respond to a Gish gallop.
Challenges to “live debates” from science deniers are challenges that scientists should, with only the rarest of exceptions, generally decline. Nothing good comes of them, as they are theater, not science. Their purpose is not even really to persuade anyone. Rather, it is to represent pseudoscience as being worthy of being on the same stage (or Zoom meeting) as science, quacks as worthy of having their beliefs presented as being of similar credibility to science-based medicine presented by real doctors, pseudoscientists as worthy of being considered equally with scientists, and conspiracy theorists as worthy of being considered equally with real experts in a field. They are a tool of propaganda and almost never a tool to get at valid science. That’s exactly why cranks love “live public debate” so much, even when faced with criticism from an even crankier crank, and, even better for them, these forums allow them to puff up their egos by convincing themselves that they’ve bested a real expert.
If that doesn’t demonstrate why scientists should politely decline such requests, I don’t know what will. To paraphrase Scott Weitzenhoffer, such debates are like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. Depriving them of that opportunity not only drives them up the wall, but it prevents them from using you, as a scientist, physician, or science communicator as a tool to use to spread their misinformation.