About a week and a half ago, longtime antivax conspiracy theorist and influencer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which during the pandemic has become one of the go-to sources for COVID-19 minimization, antivax propaganda, and conspiracy theories, where, true to form, he spewed his usual litany of antivaccine conspiracy theories, misinformation, and pseudoscience. Given how much difficulty I have watching three solid hours of Rogan with anybody, much less RFK Jr. (with whom I am all too familiar, having written about his antivax stylings for over 18 years now), I’m not going to take on a debunking of what he said on the podcast. For that, I leave you a link to Debunk the Funk’s excellent debunk of the copious misinformation. (Seriously, RFK Jr. and Joe Rogan partied like it was 1999 when it came to antivax misinformation about mercury in vaccines.) Rather, it is what happened after RFK Jr.’s appearance that concerns me for this post, because it is yet another example of one of the favorite misinformation techniques of science-denying conspiracy theorists like RFK Jr. I’m referring to a challenge to a “live public debate” issued to vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez that followed his accurate characterization of RFK Jr.’s appearance as spreading misinformation.
Truth be told, when I didn’t write about this topic last week, I thought that I had probably missed my opportunity (at least for this blog) because I honestly didn’t think the kerfuffle unleashed by this “Debate me, bro!” challenge would still be percolating a week later. Unfortunately, I was wrong, the kerfuffle is still percolating, and here we are. In fact, waiting a week might have been advantageous, because if I had written about this last week, I would have missed all the developments since last Monday, including Ross Douthat’s incredibly bad take on the challenge in his Saturday op-ed, Go Ahead. Debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr..
Before we get to the bad takes, why they’re bad takes, and what the bad takes tell us about the effectiveness of “Debate me, bro!” as a propaganda technique, let’s recap what happened. Also, as you read this, there’s one question that I’d like you to be considering: Why is it that challenges to “live public debates” about vaccines and other topics subject to denialist campaigns (e.g., evolution) come almost exclusively in the form of the science denier challenging a scientist, physician, or science communicator/advocate to a “live public debate” and only very rarely the other way around? Why is it that people like RFK Jr. crave “live public debates” with scientists like Dr. Hotez so much? I’ll try to answer that question through the lens of Ross Douthat’s op-ed, which is epic in its cluelessness, as well as through some other reactions to the kerfuffle.
And so it begins: Joe Rogan issues RFK Jr.’s “debate” challenge to Dr. Peter Hotez
On June 15, RFK Jr. appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. As he is wont to do, he spewed his usual misinformation, pseudoscience, quackery, and conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism, COVID-19 and vaccines, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, 5G (which, he thinks falsely, causes cancer), and the like. He even called back to his 2005 antivax “coming out” article Deadly Immunity, in which he popularized what I like to call the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory, which claims that in 2000 the CDC had met at the Simpsonwood Conference Center in suburban Atlanta in order to alter and cover up data that had supposedly demonstrated that mercury in childhood vaccines had been responsible for a surge in autism. I’ve discussed the gory details of why this is a conspiracy theory and explaining that the CDC did nothing of the sort multiple times; the best summary is probably this one from 2014. (As an aside, this was when I first encountered RFK Jr.’s antivax proclivities, and the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory is an variant of what I like to refer to as the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement.) It was so bad that Anna Merlan aptly described the interview as an “an orgy of unchecked vaccine misinformation, some conspiracy-mongering about 5G technology and wifi, and, of course, Rogan once again praising ivermectin.” Her article, published the day after RFK Jr.’s appearance, played a big role in what happened next.
Last Saturday, Dr. Hotez expressed his frustration on Twitter, linking to Anna Merlan’s article:
Spotify Has Stopped Even Sort of Trying to Stem Joe Rogan’s Vaccine Misinformation. It’s really true @annamerlan just awful. And from all the online attacks I’m receiving after this absurd podcast, it’s clear many actually believe this nonsense https://t.co/GwIFsOODC2
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) June 17, 2023
Within hours, Joe Rogan issued this challenge on behalf of RFK Jr.:
Peter, if you claim what RFKjr is saying is “misinformation” I am offering you $100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you’re willing to debate him on my show with no time limit. https://t.co/m0HxYek0GX
— Joe Rogan (@joerogan) June 17, 2023
Dr. Hotez responded, quite reasonably:
Joe, you have my cell, my email, I’m always willing to speak with you https://t.co/dJDzJMxBwi
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) June 17, 2023
Obviously (and understandably) Dr. Hotez did not want to appear in the same venue with RFK Jr. Rogan, as you might imagine, was not mollified. I will take this opportunity to point out that he did, however, reveal something very important about these “debates” and debate challenges by “debate me bros,” even as he received tactical air support from Elon Musk. Indeed, what happened next should make you think about the question I started with above: Why do people like RFK Jr. crave these “live public debates” so much? Why are they almost always the ones issuing such challenges to scientists, and not scientists issuing such challenges to cranks? Joe Rogan, of course, is just searching for “bread and circuses” that will draw viewers and attention, but why are RFK Jr. and his fans so thirsty for this sort of “debate”? Why are they so emotionally attached to the idea?
Let’s find out, by quoting responses by Joe Rogan and Elon Musk:
He’s afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 17, 2023
And there you have it, the message that cranks always try to push with respect to their “Debate me, bro!“ challenges: That refusal means that you must be a coward, a chicken, a scaredy-cat. Clearly refusal means that you don’t believe in your position strongly enough to defend it against critics! As we have seen in years past, cranks will often up the ante and increase the pressure to say yes with financial inducements, be they “prizes” for a bogus challenge (something RFK Jr. has done before) or pledges to donate to the target’s favorite charity (as Joe Rogan did here). That Musk amplified the message shows that he was all-in with this sort of performative nonsense, and Rogan, Musk, and RFK Jr. got tactical support from other wealthy “contrarians” and antivaxxers, who joined in to increase the pressure by chipping in more money to the pledge to Dr. Hotez’s favorite charity. Here’s one prominent and early example:
— Bill Ackman (@BillAckman) June 18, 2023
Of course, to men like Rogan and Ackman, this offer is the equivalent of my offering to donate $250 to Dr. Hotez’s favorite charity if he’ll “debate.” It’s not a large sum to these people, who are deeply unserious and acting in bad faith. It does, however, allow cranks like RFK Jr. to ask oh-so-plaintively why Dr. Hotez won’t agree to “debate” him, if only to benefit his favorite charity. (“Won’t someone please think of the children?”) After all, $250,000 would be a lot of money to most charities (even if it’s not a lot of money to the likes Joe Rogan and Bill Ackman). Unfortunately, it’s an effective message to much of the general public, which is one answer to my question, but not all. In fact, over the last week financial aspect of this “challenge” has only escalated, with a collection of wealthy antivaxxers chipping in to get the kitty up to a total of $2.6 million and counting:
6/18 11pm EST UPDATE
💰 The Peter Hotez vs. RFK Jr Charity Debate Pot Is Now Over $2.62 MILLION!!
Here is the Leaderboard:
— Chief Nerd (@TheChiefNerd) June 19, 2023
Money aside, here’s what I mean by Rogan’s having “revealed something important.” It’s something that also contributes to the answer to my question. Rogan issued the challenge publicly because these challenges to “debate” are not about science, medicine, or getting at any sort of accurate information or truths to the public. They are theater, nothing more. Real scientists debate all the time in the academic literature, at conferences, and among themselves as they work. Staged “debates” like this are not really debates at all. They are opportunities for cranks to appear on the same stage as a respected scientist like Dr. Hotez and then firehose, Gish gallop, make crap up, misrepresent and cherry pick studies, and basically flood the zone with nonsense that sounds plausible to people without the relevant scientific background, after which they inevitably declare victory. I’ve explained more times than I can remember now why agreeing to staged debates like this with a crank like RFK Jr.—especially one moderated by a credulous twit like Joe Rogan—is a very bad idea for scientists, physicians, and skeptics. Even scientists or science communicators who not only possess strong public speaking and debating skills but are very knowledgeable about the relevant conspiracy theories and misinformation likely to be employed can often be hard-pressed to deal with a glib pseudoscience-pushing crank. (Remember, RFK Jr. is a lawyer and used to debating in the form of arguing cases.) We, after all, are bound by science and the truth. Cranks like RFK Jr. are not. Also, RFK Jr. lies all the time about a number of things. For example, he lied on Joe Rogan’s podcast about his conversation with Dr. Paul Offit, held not long before he started spreading antivaccine misinformation. He’s also been lying by claiming that big pharma got Deadly Immunity retracted.
There were real-world consequences to the social media (and legacy media) pile-on aimed at Dr. Hotez. For example, one antivax crank showed up at Dr. Hotez’s house:
Mr. Rosen went on to mock all the stories about his harassment of Dr. Hotez on the basis of Dr. Hotez’s having been civil with him. Personally, had Mr. Rosen accosted me on my own property I would have calmly but in no uncertain terms told him to leave or I would call the local police, but instead Mr. Rosen posted this the evening after he had accosted Dr. Hotez:
— Alex Rosen (@iFightForKids) June 18, 2023
Through it all, the social media harassment continued, up to and including not-so-veiled “Nurember 2.0”-style death threats:
It seems some of you don't understand history, so let's explain what happened to those doctors who violated informed consent during the Holocaust.
They were put on trial for their crimes.
That's what we advocate for.
— Feni𝕏 Ammunition (@FenixAmmunition) June 20, 2023
Even antivaxxers were a little disturbed at the image of ammunition included. Unsurprisingly, that led to a disingenuous response:
You mean, our product?
Gee I wonder why we'd do that.
— Feni𝕏 Ammunition (@FenixAmmunition) June 20, 2023
Through it all, Dr. Hotez remained a class act, as always:
2/n but the support from people in the scientific community + the great actors, artists, journalists, historians, philosophers, healthcare professionals, teachers, essentially those whose take joy in learning new things and helping humanity really lifted my spirits + my family’s
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) June 20, 2023
So a simple thank you. I’m off to New York tomorrow for a meeting (more on that soon i hope), and then São Paulo for our vaccine program and to help Brasil find a path out of their awful antiscience aggression
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) June 20, 2023
This is the dynamic that has continued since the weekend before last, when Twitter and other social media blew up over Joe Rogan’s “challenge.” I’ve never seen anything like it before, at least in terms of scale. Sure, I’ve seen lots of cranks challenge prominent scientists to one of these fake “debates” over the years, with Steve Kirsch being one of the more outlandish practitioners of such “challenges.” I’ve even seen a scientist and science communicator as prominent as Neil deGrasse Tyson fall for such a trap. RFK Jr. himself once offered a $100,000 prize to anyone could show him one study that proved vaccines were safe, a scam “pioneered” by Jock Doubleday through his $150,000″challenge” to vaccine advocates to drink all the chemicals in the childhood vaccine schedule.
This brings us back to Ross Douthat’s op-ed. As I discuss it, think again about why it is that cranks like RFK Jr. crave these “live public debates,” why their supporters—and even those who might not be supporters but do fall for their narrative about “debates”—are willing to pony up lots of money as financial inducement, and why it’s almost never scientists “challenging” people like RFK Jr. to such “debates.”
Ross Douthat: Naive or clueless or both?
We finally arrive back again at Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the Saturday New York Times, Go Ahead. Debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In it, Douthat unintentionally demonstrates exactly why such bogus challenges to “debate” are so effective and why cranks crave “live public debate” so much. Unfortunately, he accomplishes this by epitomizing the attitudes and misunderstandings regarding science denying cranks and “debates” that people like RFK Jr. prey upon with their “challenges.” For a pundit privileged to have one of the largest legacy media soapboxes there are—and, make no mistake, the NYT op-ed page is still extremely influential—Douthat seems utterly oblivious to the reasons why these “debates” are propaganda, not enlightenment, and to how one counters such propaganda.
The very strange thing to me is that Douthat starts out with an anecdote, and then basically describes how he learned exactly the wrong lesson from his failure. That’s not how he describes it, but that’s really what he does, as you will see. Briefly, in his younger days Douthat was asked to fill in for a last-minute cancellation in a debate with Christopher Hitchens regarding God and religion, obviously taking the side of defending religion:
In my memory it was a brutal affair. The audience was there to hear Hitchens at the peak of his powers, and I was the Washington Generals. I threw some carefully rehearsed, extremely reasonable arguments at him; he batted them wittily away. The crowd cheered; the angels wept.
The lesson I took from that experience was simple: Trying to defeat charismatic men with facts and logic is a fool’s errand. Hitchens’s “religion poisons everything” account of human history was a mixture of balderdash, historical caricature and barely-veiled anti-religious bigotry. Therefore I should not have elevated his arguments by publicly debating them. Instead, I should have worked toward a world where institutions would decline to platform his fundamentalist style of atheism, no matter how many Nantucketers might clamor for tickets.
Wait, no — that’s not the lesson I drew at all. The lesson I actually took was, Ross, you blew it, do better next time. Because it didn’t matter whether I personally considered Hitchens’s atheism to be beyond some intellectual pale; he was an important figure leading an influential movement, and in a free society there is no substitute for trying to win arguments with influential figures, no matter the risks of defeat or embarrassment you run along the way.
This framing is actually rather clever in that this anecdote implicitly equates RFK Jr. to Christopher Hitchens. Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens and some of his less savory political opinions, on the subject of religion he was most definitely not a crank. Yet this setup suggests that Hitchens was akin to RFK Jr., just a “charismatic man” peddling nonense, when he most definitely was not. This false equivalency then allows Douthat to apply one frequent critique of “debates” with cranks like RFK Jr., one that I’ve made many times, that he “should not have elevated his arguments by publicly debating them.” Even if you accept the false equivalency that portrays Christopher Hitchens as being just like RFK Jr., a charismatic crank, one can’t help but point out a huge difference here. Hitchens was not the less prominent debater in this story. Douthat was, pulled in at the last minute to fill in for a much more prominent person (whom he does not name). Moreover, say what you will about religion and belief in God (and we at SBM generally stay out of such debates except when religious belief directly contradicts or attacks science-based medicine and healthcare), defending religion is not being on the side of scientific evidence. As Douthat would undoubtedly be forced to agree, religion and God are mainly about faith, not evidence.
Douthat’s framing of his failure debating Hitchens as just like what Dr. Hotez and other scientists supposedly fearing about “debate” with RFK Jr., namely losing to a charismatic and skilled debater even though the facts are supposedly on your side, is very useful in that it validates what Douthat then argues: That scientists should “debate” RFK Jr. because “in a free society there is no substitute for trying to win arguments with influential figures, no matter the risks of defeat or embarrassment you run along the way.” There is an assumption that is very arguable there: That “live public debates” are the only way (or at least the best way) to “win arguments with influential figures.” Actually there is a second assumption there, namely that you can “win an argument” with an influential crank like RFK Jr. in such a debate by marshaling evidence, science, and logic against him. Douthat’s perspective from his experience losing badly in a debate with Christopher Hitchens dominates his thoughts on whether Dr. Hotez should “debate” RFK Jr.:
This is basically the perspective I bring to the argument about whether it makes sense for defenders of mass vaccination and other consensus health-and-science policies to publicly debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Democratic candidate for president.
While I understand at first why the memory of a humiliating defeat in a debate might color one’s perspective, what I had trouble understanding when I first read Douthat’s op-ed is how that memory could lead someone like Douthat to view a debate with Hitchens to be, in essence, the same sort of problem as a debate between a scientist like Dr. Hotez and a crank like RFK Jr. I think that I might understand now. Douthat appears to view the whole controversy over RFK Jr.’s misinformation as more political than anything else. Indeed, I suspect that his op-ed might even have been at least partially in response to an op-ed published in the NYT editorial section by Farhad Manjoo:
Various intelligent people wrote essays defending Hotez: For instance, for Bloomberg Tyler Cowen explained why he doesn’t engage with crankish economic theories, while my colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote about his experience debating Kennedy’s stolen-election theories about the 2004 election, and why he now thinks that was a futile effort.
I don’t begrudge anyone opting out of a specific debate format, and I agree that there are ideas that it makes no sense to dignify with sustained rebuttal. In the year 2023, however, the ideas that Kennedy champions are not obscure; they clearly have influence, for instance, over the millions of Americans who declined the Covid-19 vaccine. The man himself is a famous figure who already has access to many prominent platforms, Rogan’s included. And he’s a candidate for the presidency of the United States, probably ultimately a marginal one but with meaningful support in current polls.
This reminds me very much of a similar argument made by a certain person who has been a fairly frequent topic on the blog, Dr. Vinay Prasad, when he wrote a post on his Substack, When should scientists debate?, in which he asserted:
Merely because an idea is crazy does not mean it is unworthy of discussion. If an idea is gaining prominence rapidly, and actually changing policy— then a scientist needs to descend from the ivory tower and debate it.
I get the same energy from both Douthat and Prasad. Damn, those scientists (like Dr. Hotez) in their “ivory towers”! Never mind that Dr. Hotez has spent his career developing vaccines for neglected diseases for which big pharma doesn’t consider it profitable to develop vaccines, mainly for tropical diseases, and to provide access to essential medicines for hundreds of millions of people, while Douthat has a cushy spot on the editorial page of the NYT and Dr. Prasad is ensconced at UCSF as an academic oncologist with only around 20% clinical practice who doesn’t actually do his own clinical trials but rather criticizes existing ones, all while spending his free time writing posts on Substack and doing podcasts in which he argues that masks don’t work, fear mongering about myocarditis from COVID-19 vaccines, and arguing that children don’t need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Also, in a previous Substack post, I note that Dr. Prasad twisted logic into a pretzel to avoid calling RFK Jr.’s ideas “crazy.” Has he changed his mind?
Regarding Cowen’s article, the title is very apt: If Joe Rogan Asks You to Debate, Be Suspicious. Precisely! His article explains why it is pointless to debate proponents of various crank economic ideas, stating that one good reason not to debate cranks is because “advocates have never presented a coherent model showing how their arguments fit together.” His money passage makes an excellent point that Douthat doesn’t even try to refute:
As a general rule, one should not debate publicly with conspiracy theorists. Some conspiracies may be true and should not be dismissed out of hand. But any discussion needs to start by demanding the best available documented evidence, and then subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny. This is very often impossible to do in a public debate, where the unverified anecdote is elevated and methodological issues are obscured or unexamined. Furthermore, it takes more time to rebut a charge than to level it, and in the meantime the rebutter has no choice but to repeat some of the other side’s talking points.
Precisely. Real debates require strict ground rules and a commitment by both sides to presenting accurate information in support of the arguments made. When Cowen mentions taking more time to rebut a charge than to level it, he is basically citing Brandolini’s Law (a.k.a the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle) which states that the “amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.” From my perspective, the man who coined this adage, Alberto Brandolini, was an optimist. My estimate is that it takes at least two orders of magnitude more energy to refute bullshit than it does to make it up—sometimes three.
Again, at the risk of being too repetitive, ask yourself: Why is it that these “debate” challenges come overwhelmingly from conspiracy theorists like RFK Jr. and those with a vested interest in entertainment capitalizing on such a “debate” and not from scientists themselves? Again, why? Conspiracy theorists like RFK Jr. might be deluded, but they are most definitely not stupid. Many of them, like RFK Jr., are highly intelligent, cunning, and skilled in the dark arts of PR. Always consider that when considering why they are so desperate to “debate.”
Manjoo put it very well. First, his article reminds us that RFK Jr. is not just an antivax conspiracy theorist anymore. The principle of crank magnetism implies that it is almost inevitable that someone who embraces one conspiracy theory will ultimately embrace many, which explains why RFK Jr. has evolved into more of an all-conspiracy Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist. This time, Manjoo engaged RFK Jr. over a hoary old conspiracy theory that John Kerry actually won the 2004 election:
But now I see where I went wrong. Not on the merits; there’s still no case that Kerry actually won in 2004. My mistake was attempting to debate and debunk Kennedy in the first place. At best, the effort was a waste of time and energy; at worst, a big bow-wrapped gift of the thing a conspiracy theorist desires most — recognition that his arguments are important enough to merit serious debate.
After getting in the mud with Kennedy all those years ago, I realized something important that we’d do well to remember now, as Kennedy mounts a long-shot run against Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination: You can come armed with all the facts in the world, but when you’re dealing with a conspiracist, there’s no real way to “win” an argument. For people whose views aren’t anchored to facts, winning is simply getting attention — and when you publicly argue with someone like Kennedy, you’ve already lost.
It is at this point that I like to cite Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt’s famous quote about “debating” Holocaust deniers during an interview in which she discussed why she had written her 1993 book Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory:
It wasn’t an attempt to answer deniers sort of tit-for-tat because I don’t believe in debating deniers. Debating deniers is like trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall. It’s impossible because no matter what you say to them they’re going to make something up. If you have no serious commitment to the truth, you could say anything you want. You make up, “I have a document that says this. I have a document that says that.” You half quote, you don’t give the exact statistics, you change things around. I’ll give you some examples of that in a moment. But it was an attempt to explain who they were.
“Trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall” is perhaps the most apt metaphor describing what it’s like for an expert to try to debate a crank that I have ever encountered, and I cite it often. If you strip the antisemitism and apologetics for fascism from Holocaust denial, Holocaust deniers are to the discipline of history what antivaxxers are to the disciplines of medicine and vaccine science. (Unfortunately, as some have noted, these days it’s questionable whether you can actually strip out the tendency towards fascism from the antivaccine movement, particularly with respect to RFK Jr.) Also, it’s rather interesting to note that this quote from Prof. Lipstadt was made in the context of discussing the libel suit by Holocaust denier David Irving against her. The reason I say this is that Irving’s libel suit demonstrates how difficult it can be to disprove denialist arguments. It took experts producing long analyses of how biased Irving’s depictions of “history” were and testifying to them in court for Prof. Lipstadt to prevail over David Irving in court.
These are not the sorts of arguments that can be countered in a three-hour “debate” on a popular podcast, where a clever denier and liar like RFK Jr. can firehose, Gish gallop, cherry pick obscure studies, misrepresent studies, tell tales missing necessary context, and generally spew misinformation to his heart’s content, such that even a very skilled debater steeped in the sorts of misinformation and conspiracy theories championed by the likes of RFK Jr. would have a hard time countering it all. Going back to Manjoo’s article, I note that he points out how he established his expertise on the topic of the 2004 election by recounting how he had covered election on the ground as a reporter and was very familiar with the conspiracy theories, having investigated them himself and found nothing to them. He then very accurately characterized the MO of cranks like RFK Jr.:
Looking back, though, I cringe. The other day I went back and listened to a debate I had with Kennedy on public radio’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” Lehrer opened the program by asking Kennedy for his big-picture case. But whether Kennedy is talking about vaccines, elections or other out-there topics (he told Rogan he was “aware” that he could be assassinated by the American government), he tends to present his theories in a particular way. He starts with a few sprinkles of truth — Ohio’s vote was run by a partisan official, some vaccines have serious side effects — and then swirls them up with enough exaggerations, omissions and leaps of logic to create a veritable McFlurry of doubt.
Such was his effort when we met on “Lehrer’’: Kennedy offered an assortment of claims about the election that, in big and small ways, were unsubstantiated. So when Lehrer turned to me, I felt I had no choice but to start out by correcting Kennedy’s misstatements. I did so pretty handily, but because I had to point to sources and tease out the nuances Kennedy had elided, I couldn’t help but sound like the boring, persnickety nerd stuck in the weeds. After a few rounds of this back-and-forth, I can’t imagine that much of anything had been clarified for the audience. Instead, the impression was one of earnest complexity: One side says X, the other says Y, but whoever is right, it sure seems like this is a debate we should be having.
In other words: Each side has their own numbers. We’ll never know what actually happened. This guy sounds like a Republican. My story could be right. And isn’t it suspicious that no one is talking about it?
Manjoo nails it. The purpose of “debates” like this is to promote doubt about established knowledge. Moreover, it doesn’t matter if there is good evidence to lead one to to doubt that established knowledge or whether, as is the case for vaccines and autism (and RFK Jr.’s other conspiracy theories), there isn’t anything resembling good evidence to support that doubt. In either case, the purpose is to promote doubt, and these “debates” are an excellent tool to achieve that end. Also remember that this happened with Brian Lehrer moderating the discussion. Just imagine what would happen with someone like Joe Rogan moderating. The same thing would almost certainly happen, but way worse (with RFK Jr. saying that his opponent sounds like big pharma, for instance), if a vaccine advocate sat down with RFK Jr. on Rogan’s podcast, no matter how knowledgeable the advocate.
Douthat’s “alternative”: The same as a COVID-19 “contrarian” alternative
So what does Douthat propose as an alternative? After arguing that Dr. Hotez should “debate” because the “ideas that Kennedy champions are not obscure” and “clearly have influence, for instance, over the millions of Americans who declined the Covid-19 vaccine,” while RFK Jr. himself is a “famous figure who already has access to many prominent platforms, Rogan’s included”—to which I can’t resist countering, “So why give him one more?”—and is a candidate for the presidency, Douthat challenges:
Which means that if you don’t think he should be publicly debated, you need some other theory of how the curious can be persuaded away from his ideas.
First, Cowen already provided one other way of persuading the curious away from a crank’s ideas, which is to counter with a simple question, which Douthat ignored:
So when someone demands a public debate on an issue, be suspicious. Why can’t the supposed truth be established by other means? Is it really helpful to throw so many scientific questions into the boiling cauldron of our delightful but chaotic culture of public debate? It may not be realistic, and it would definitely not be as exciting, but in many cases a better use of public resources would be to spend $100,000 on a panel of experts to summarize the best available evidence.
Then keep hammering RFK Jr., Joe Rogan, and their sycophants, toadies, and lackeys about why they don’t do that. $2.6 million would go a long way in that effort.
Also, note the common slippery argument used by Douthat, which I’ll paraphrase: If you say that my proposal isn’t the best way to counter RFK Jr., then you have to provide an alternative. If you can’t, then my proposal is obviously what we should do. In other words, you can’t just explain why Douthat’s argument that Dr. Hotez should debate is a terrible idea that will almost certainly do more harm than good; you must provide an alternative. I trust the reader to recognize this argument for what it is. You don’t always have to provide an alternative when explaining why you consider an argument to be a very bad idea. Sure, it’s nice if you can provide an alternative, but it’s not mandatory.
Also, I note that Douthat himself never really acknowledges any alternative other than this:
Right now the main alternative theory seems to be to enforce an intellectual quarantine, policed by media fact-checking and authoritative expert statements. And I’m sorry, but that’s just a total flop. It depends on the very thing whose evaporation has made vaccine skepticism more popular — a basic trust in institutions, a deference to credentials, a willingness to accept judgments from on high.
This is a caricature of arguments against debating cranks, which Douthat, predictably, easily bats down as the straw man that it is. While it is true that fact checking and authoritative expert statements are two tactics to counter RFK Jr. whose efficacy is debatable, no one is saying that they are the only tactic or even the best tactic. Also, note how nowhere does Douthat really actually provide a coherent argument why, even if we accept his blithe assertion that “fact checking and authoritative expert statements” are not nearly as effective as we would like, that accepting a “debate challenge” like Rogan and RFK Jr.’s is a better alternative than that to sway fence sitters, the vaccine hesitant, and the antivax curious.
Worse, Douthat’s description of how he would handle a “debate” with RFK Jr. is cringeworthy in the extreme. His entire tactic seems to be to concede some ground to RFK Jr. in the hopes of somehow “regaining trust” of those attracted to RFK Jr.’s antivax arguments:
Whereas argument, while it risks much, gives you a chance to make the suspicious feel like their suspicions are being taken seriously, to regain the trustless person’s trust.
There are also multiple ways to have a public argument. For instance, if I were asked to to debate R.F.K. Jr., I wouldn’t speak on behalf of the vested authority of science, but on behalf of my more moderate doubts about official knowledge, a much more cautious version of the outsider thinking that he takes to unjustifiable extremes.
Apparently, he wouldn’t simply say that RFK Jr. is wrong about the things that RFK Jr. is clearly wrong about, like his belief that vaccines cause autism. Basically, this tactic is a parody of a common tactic suggested for swaying those who don’t agree with you: Appealing to shared values as part of your argument. This suggested tactic reminds me of one proposed by a certain person who has been a fairly frequent topic on the blog, Dr. Vinay Prasad, who, because he so desperately wanted to be on Joe Rogan’s podcast, wasted no time in volunteering to “debate” RFK Jr. in Dr. Hotez’s place:
RFK Jr holds views I disagree with. Mostly because I think he has not made a strong or sufficient case. Yet, I’m am willing to compromise on some of these issues, and I can devise a study that we will both agree upon that will adjudicate the question. If I were to speak with him, I would suggest that we agree to run these proposed studies, and let’s let that result settle the question. I strongly suspect he’s going to be incorrect about several things he believes. But I do think the best way to disarm his concerns is to sit down and agree upon the study that will settle the question. I think insulting him is very unlikely to be fruitful, yet that is the preferred media tactic.
The energy expended tap dancing around RFK Jr.’s conspiracist views is amazing, as is the oh-so-reasonable seeming suggestion that one can “disarm his concerns” by agreeing upon a study that will “settle the question.” (Hint: It’s been tried before. Many times. Yet here we are.) Moreover, it is not “insulting” RFK Jr. to call him a conspiracy theorist or an antivaxxer or a crank. He is inarguably all of these things, Dr. Prasad’s studiously twisting himself in a pretzel to downplay the bonkers notwithstanding. Indeed, it is primarily the cranks who misrepresent being called “cranks” as “insults,” all in order to defang and downplay such observations.
Dr. Prasad also demonstrates the peril of his approach, which is very similar to that of Douthat, namely to concede some points to RFK Jr. in the hopes that this can be an “in” to counter his truly dangerous misinformation about vaccines. I’ll show you what I mean by quoting this part of Dr. Prasad’s post:
Yet on hepatitis B vaccination, RFK Jr makes a fair point that we could target higher risk populations. At least that could be the central question of a randomized control trial. He’s also fair to ask if the particular timing of doses is optimized, or if it could be given it a later date. That could also be a randomized trial. I think this century will see the pediatric childhood immunization schedule the subject to a multi-arm, factorial RCT. It is better to launch that effort now before public distrust gets too out of control.
It is a longstanding antivax trope to call for RCTs of the childhood vaccination schedule, despite the expense and the impracticality of such an effort. Indeed, I challenge Dr. Prasad to design such a “multi-arm factorial RCT” of the childhood vaccination schedule that would be (1) feasible; (2) not require hundreds of thousands or millions of participants; and (3) ethical. Remember, any placebo-controlled RCT would require leaving one group unprotected against potentially deadly infectious diseases. Even comparing spacing out vaccines versus not spacing them out would leave one group potentially more at risk of harm. As for hepatitis B vaccination shortly after birth, antivaxxers like RFK Jr. love to demand why we are vaccinating newborn babies against a disease that is primarily transmitted sexually, needle sticks, or sharing needles. It’s primarily a moral argument, much as objections to HPV vaccines given to preadolescent girls based on claims that such vaccination will encourage promiscuity are moral, not scientific, arguments. The idea is that my baby or child isn’t at risk because my child doesn’t have premarital sex, share needles, or engage in what I consider morally dubious high risk behavior. The subtext, of course, is that those “dirty vaccines” should be reserved for people who need them because they are dirty too.
In fact, there are sound scientific and epidemiological rationales for vaccination against hepatitis B shortly after birth, including maternal transmission to the newborn and the observation of hepatitis B transmission in school and daycare settings. Seriously, if Dr. Prasad had done the least bit of research or engaged in the slightest bit of intellectual honesty, he would have acknowledged the reasons why the CDC recommends a birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine. Not all countries have chosen that path, but we have, and there are very defensible scientific reasons to adopt such a strategy.
It gets worse. See if you can hear echoes of Douthat’s using the tactic of saying that RFK Jr. is right about a lot of things but just “goes too far” on vaccines and COVID-19 when you read Dr. Prasad’s further criticism of reasons for not “debating” RFK Jr.:
The news media keeps labeling RFK Jr as a conspiracy theorist and a charlatan, but that is a colossal mistake. He is somebody who on many issues is saying something deeply true. On other issues, I think he is off the mark. One of those is his views on wifi. Another is his views on early childhood immunization with MMR and DTAP. He has not made a strong enough case that the harms of these programs outweigh the massive benefits. I understand why many doctors are critical of his statements on these topics.
RFK Jr. “has not made a strong enough case that the harms of these programs outweigh the massive benefits?” More like he hasn’t made any credible scientific case that the harms of these programs outweigh the massive benefits. I mean, seriously. I’ve been discussing his massive output of antivaccine fear mongering going back almost exactly 18 years, when he first published Deadly Immunity in 2005. At least Dr. Prasad “understands why many doctors are critical of his statements,” such as likening vaccination to the Holocaust, trying to persuade Samoan officials that the MMR vaccine was dangerous in the middle of a deadly measles outbreak, claiming that today’s generation of children is the “sickest generation” (due to vaccines, of course!), or toadying up to President-Elect Donald Trump during the Presidential administration transition period to be chair of a “vaccine safety commission.” His “criticism” of RFK Jr. is weaker than the Kennedy family’s was when they called him out for his antivaccine activism before the pandemic.
Yet, circling back to Douthat, in the minds of apologists for the “debate me, bro” approach any refusal to “debate” a raving crank like RFK Jr. is akin to, well, let me just quote his last couple of sentences:
And I like to think that I’ve done enough good for theism through, say, occasional appearances on Bill Maher’s HBO show to make up for my disastrous showing on that Nantucket beach.
Maybe that’s a fond delusion. But unless you’re willing to go all the way to a Ministry of Truth, there is no reasonable alternative.
Funny Douthat should mention Bill Maher. He is antivaccine, anti-“Western” medicine, and pro-quackery, as I have documented here and elsewhere dating back to 2005. More recently, Maher has fully embraced transphobic narratives about gender-affirming care of transgender adolescents. Bill Maher is basically the Joe Rogan of HBO right now and has been for quite some time. His format might be entertaining for arguing political issues for which there really are “two sides,” but for medical and scientific issues he frequently platforms cranks like RFK Jr. alongside real experts and scientists, you know, for “debate.” It’s odd that he would think that his being on Maher’s show to argue for religion was helpful, given that Maher is an atheist and extremely hostile to religion.
More tellingly, Douthat lays down a false dilemma: Either a scientist like Dr. Hotez “debates” RFK Jr. on his (and Joe Rogan’s) turf and terms, or, to counter him, you will have to embrace a 1984-like “Ministry of Truth” to shut him up. It’s a deeply unserious and disingenuous argument that ignores many other potential strategies, such as prebunking, and blithely brushes aside the many legitimate criticisms of platforming a crank like RFK Jr.alongside a respected scientist like Dr. Hotez.
Remember that challenges to “live debates” from science deniers like RFK Jr. and showmen like Joe Rogan who promote them are “opportunities” that scientists should 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 and conspiracy theories as being worthy of being “debated” on the same stage 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. As Manjoo put it, the message is doubt, not science and evidence, and that “whoever is right, it sure seems like this is a debate we should be having,” along with a favorite crank question, “Isn’t it suspicious that no one is talking about it?” Never mind that everyone is, in fact, “talking about it,” largely thanks to science deniers with huge platforms, like RFK Jr., and showmen who don’t care whether what they are presenting is true, like Joe Rogan, as long as it generates controversy that brings in viewers. They are a tool of propaganda and not a tool to clarify scientific controversies, mainly because they are about pseudocontroversies, not actual scientific controversies.
This brings me back to the question that I have been repeatedly asking throughout this post, perhaps to the point of annoyance. These issues are exactly why cranks love “live public debate” so much and are almost always the ones who initiate challenges to “debate” scientists and experts and not the other way around. They are “can’t lose” propositions. If the scientist accepts, because they are not bound by the truth or science, they can Gish gallop, distort, and even lie to their heart’s content, putting the scientist on the defensive and declaring victory, almost no matter how the debate actually goes. If the scientist demurs, as Dr. Hotez wisely did, they can hector and harass him with accusations of cowardice while puffing themselves up to their followers as being the person that “they” were “afraid to debate.”
Meanwhile, this meme epitomizes the “reasoning” behind such challenges to “debate”:
Unfortunately, bad faith “debate me, bro!” challenges are very effective propaganda techniques, which is exactly why they have been so commonly employed against scientists, historians, and other experts by conspiracy theorists like RFK Jr. Maybe they would be less effective if the public would just ask themselves a question about these challenges that the conspiracy theorists always love to ask when spinning their tales: Cui bono? (Who benefits?) If we could teach people to ask this question every time someone like Joe Rogan and RFK Jr. issues one of these “challenges” and then think about the answer, maybe they would come to understand that these challenges to “debate,” by design, favor the person issuing them.