You Really Can't "Debate" Your Way to Truth
What vaccines, the moon landing, and the Satanic Panic have to do with it.
Hello, dear readers. Parker here.
be debate, or not to be debate, that is the question.
For the past few days, podcaster and pseudoscience enthusiast Joe Rogan has been trying to convince Dr. Peter Hotez, a prominent virologist, to debate presidential candidate and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
It all started on Saturday, when Hotez tweeted a link to a Vice article titled, “Spotify Has Stopped Even Sort of Trying to Stem Joe Rogan’s Vaccine Misinformation,” along with the words, “It’s really true … Just awful. And from all the online attacks I’m receiving after this absurd podcast, it’s clear many actually believe this nonsense.”
Rogan then offered Hotez $100,000 to the charity of his choice to debate Kennedy. Hotez told Rogan he was open to chatting with the podcast host, to which Rogan responded, “This is a non answer,” said that he challenged Hotez because the doctor “agreed with that dogshit vice article,” and again hyped up the “massive opportunity for a debate.”
After this, a bunch of tech bro weirdos and right-wing goons (there’s a fair amount of overlap between the categories) began taunting (Elon Musk on Hotez: “He’s afraid of public debate, because he knows he’s wrong.”) and unsuccessfully trying to goad Hotez into agreement. *sigh*
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If he’s correct, why shouldn’t Hotez debate Kennedy about vaccines? I’ll tell you.
Kennedy’s most recent appearance on Rogan’s show, the very topic of Merlan’s Vice article, was some of the most unhinged, paranoid, conspiratorial nonsense I’ve ever heard.
The Twitter account bad_stats clipped videos from the podcast. If you want to read through a point-by-point breakdown of the podcast, you can check that out here. That said, you really can trust me when I say the episode was bonkers.
So, of course, Hotez is correct. Of course, Hotez knows much, much, much more than Kennedy on just about any medical topic, I’d imagine.
So why not just show up, defeat Kennedy in debate, and leave the audience better informed? Let’s first consider a few things:
What does “winning” look like? Obviously, there’s nothing Kennedy or Rogan could hear in a debate that would change their minds about vaccines. This would be a play to Rogan’s (very large) audience. So those are the people Hotez would be trying to persuade.
What makes you think that facts matter in this format? So much of the “Debate Me” mentality is built on this idea that nothing is real and all that matters is charisma, social skills, and vibes, for the most part. If you put a scientist with minimal media training up against a media-savvy politician with years of TV and radio appearances and experience on the public speaking circuit, it won’t matter that the scientist has all the facts in the world on his side; I’d put my money on the politician.
If you aren’t starting from a shared set of facts, what, exactly, are you debating? One person saying something and the other responding, “That’s not true,” over and over isn’t a debate. Not a useful one, at least. If you can find a set of facts, you can have a debate over what the right response to that knowledge might be. But you can’t determine what the facts are by “debate.”
How do you push back on flat-out false things that he’ll say? Kennedy believes in all sorts of kooky nonsense that he’s been fact-checked on repeatedly over the years. It’s 2023, and he’s still out here pushing the lie that vaccines are linked to autism, arguing that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were effective COVID treatments (they weren’t, at all), and claiming that “WiFi radiation” causes cancer and other maladies. This is all baseless, tinfoil hat stuff. Now, you might think, “Oh, well, you can just direct people to accurate information,” but the issue is that guys like Kennedy have websites they can point to and say, “See!” as Kennedy often does when citing Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine group he founded and currently chairs.
This seems to be an increasingly common tactic. Just last week, the Washington Post ran a story about how the American College of Pediatricians — a group that split off from the much, much larger and much, much more mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 in protest over AAP’s finding that children of same-sex parents fared just as well as children of heterosexual parents — has used this veneer of professionalism to inject pseudoscience into debates about abortion and trans health care.
Beyond that, we have seen how these sorts of debates go, and they often don’t end well for the person with facts on their side.
Back in 2007-ish,, who writes the , agreed to debate Rogan on the topic of the moon landing. Rogan thought it had been faked; Plait disagreed. They did this over the course of a couple of episodes of Penn Jillette’s radio show.
Plait had all the facts on his side. Rogan had bonkers, debunked conspiracy theories on his. Did that mean Plait “won” the debate? Well… let’s look at how he talked about the second episode in a Slate blog post (bolded emphasis mine):
I talked about the rocks brought back, and Joe stopped me with a story about Werner von Braun going to Antarctica, supposedly to collect lunar meteorites to pass off as Moon rocks.
Things basically ran off the rails right then. I wasn’t familiar with the story (I had heard von Braun went, but not any details). I was able to debunk this story quickly enough– it doesn’t make any sense to send von Braun to Antarctica to collect rocks. Why send your chief rocket scientist to collect rocks?
But Joe started going off about von Braun being a Nazi (which is not necessarily true– he worked for the Nazis, but we don’t know he was a Nazi himself). I was trying to remain rational, and I called Joe on his logical fallacy – poisoning the well – but he’s very aggressive, and was rattling stuff off quickly enough that he was able to throw me off a bit.
The rest of the show is like that; Joe made some claims, I generally had answers but my timing was thrown off by his manner, which was very different than in the first show. I shouldn’t have let that get to me, but I did.
I’ve received a lot of email from folks who have listened to the podcast and most people were supportive of my performance, though there have been a couple of people who have taken me to task for not being better prepared. I was thinking the same thing after the interview itself, but now, listening to it again, I don’t feel so badly anymore. I think I did pretty well. I do have an advantage over Joe – I’m right, after all! – but he has a lot more rhetorical practice, of course. He’s a standup comic, and an actor, and a TV show host and is a lot more aggressive than I am. On radio, that makes up pretty well for being wrong!
As a debate, I think I was able to handle most of what he was dishing out – not all, but most. But this wasn’t a debate, it was a radio show, and so his aggressive manner and rapid-fire attack makes it sound like he has more going for him than he really does. When you really look at the evidence he brought up, it’s all circumstantial at best. It sounds good on radio, but it’s really mostly empty air. As I’ve said for years, it’s easy to bring up a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense, but it takes time to show why it’s wrong. On a radio, there simply isn’t that kind of time. That’s the reason I prefer not to debate stuff like this on the radio or on TV. You can be right, but still look like the other guy owned you. It’s not an argument that will be won or lost on the evidence. If it were, the Hoax folks would lose before they step foot in the studio.
In 2019, during an appearance on Rogan’s show, Jillette brought up the moon landing debate between Rogan and Plait. Check it out (transcript below, bolded emphasis mine):
Penn Jillette: “So Joe Rogan believes this crazy shit. We didn't go to the moon. I know Joe Rogan. We're on a radio show together, da da da da da. He's a good guy, we did Fear Factor, and he believes this sh*t. Let's have him talk to someone who's real." So I call Phil Plait, who I don't know that well, right? But he's the Bad Astronomer and he knows this sh*t. And I say, "I really want you to come on my radio show and just talk to Joe Rogan about the Moon Landing.
And Phil says, "No problem, we'll just go on there, we'll set him straight."
“I just want to warn you, have your ducks in a row because Joe's really good."
And he goes, "Well, Joe's a comic, right?"
"Yeah. And that's your problem because Joe's better at talking than you. Joe knows when the commercials are coming. Joe knows how to make a joke, and Joe knows also how to set you up and take you down."
"Oh, no, no, no. It'll be no problem."
I said, "You understand that he's smart. He’s not an astrophysicist, but you understand that he's smart, and you are going into his form. We're going to be on radio. This guy has done a lot of radio. This guy's talked to a lot of people. So just have all your facts in line.”
And then we're sitting there, because you were on the phone, and Goudeau, who's on my podcast with me, too, sitting across from me, and we're listening. And you come in, and you come in humble and charming and sexy and with perfect timing on everything.
And Phil Plait’s just, “[unintelligible].”
I go, "Oh man, Joe is wrong, and Joe is gonna f*cking win."
And I set this up so that it would be fair. My whole thing of doing this, the way I billboarded it was, I'm just gonna have two guys talk from two points of view. I'm not supposed to comment. I don't know if you remember, but the whole show ends and I go, “Oh, by the way, we did land on the moon.” I just tried to do this final authority thing, and Phil said afterwards, “well… he… he had a lot of…” I said, “Yes!”
It's just that idea that you can't — you know, his idea was there's the science team that's right, and then there's this goofy comic. And trying to get Phil Plait to understand that a goofy comic was not a goofy comic — and I believe that the only thing that the SATs truly test is how good you will be as a comedian. That kind of verbal— it was a wonderful thing to listen to. It was wonderful to listen to someone who I believe, absolutely, was 100% wrong. Who was just so skilled and so moral and so thoughtful and so humble. You had everything going for you that I respect, except it didn't happen to be right.
Joe Rogan: Well, we don't know what happened. We assume that what we see is what happened. We assume that what the scientists tell us was what happened. We assume that what NASA told us was what happened. When you say, "I know this happened," you're not always correct. You’re oftentimes correct. I know Kennedy got assassinated in Dallas. I've seen the video. I know he got assassinated in Dallas. I don't know if Lee Harvey Oswald did it. I don't know. I assume he was involved. It seems like he was. Was there other people involved, too? I assume there were, and one of the reasons why I assume there were was the magic bullet the…
(Yes, I did leave the beginning of Rogan’s rant about the moon landing still being an open question and segue into the JFK assassination in there. I think it provides some context.)
I reached out to Plait earlier today, asking for his thoughts on the current Rogan/Kennedy/Hotez brouhaha and whether it’s worth it to debate these guys. Here’s what he told me:
I think it wasn't the wrong thing to do at the time, but he's so far down the red pill path that it would be worse than useless now. He will claim victory no matter what happens, so you have to take the War Games route: the only way to win is to not play.
Note that Musk is already claiming Hotez won't debate because he's afraid to. That's the most tired conspiracy theorist bullshit claim there is. Rogan and Musk would never consider that he won't debate because they're bad faith crackpots. That could not occur to them.
I've got to say that I’m with Plait on this one, and I think that the points he and Jillette made about the role setting and format are important to keep in mind. Science is a thing. It is real. There are real, legitimate ways to question and challenge these sorts of things, and “debate” on a radio show tends not to be among them.
You can’t prove that vaccines are/aren’t effective by having a discussion with someone who will confidently invent and promote baseless and debunked claims any more than you can prove vaccines are/aren’t effective by challenging LeBron James to a dunk contest. Both events may be entertaining, but they won’t necessarily tell us much about science.
Coming up for paid subscribers: two additional arguments against debating conspiracy theorists. Plus, some additional reading.
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