Proposed Debate With Antivaxxer Just a Shameless Bid for Content

Joe Rogan wants a real scientist to debate an antivax grifter. He doesn't care about the truth, he just knows it would attract the audience he needs.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted June 20, 2023 in Blog (Last Updated June 20, 2023)

The players and purveyors of the alternative media build their brands at least in part on distrust in the mainstream news media (and mainstream institutions more generally). And there's plenty of grist for that mill, everything from rigid formats to narrative construction to gatekeeping talent.

Perhaps the most universal issue with the legacy media is not this or that political bias; rather, it's that they make most of their money based on how many consumers they can attract, so they are incentivized to chase an audience. That leads them to sell the controversy instead of getting to the truth.

But if advertisement-driven news networks are the problem, advertisement-driven social media networks are definitely not the solution. Case in point: the current Joe Rogan controversy, in which Rogan and an army of his followers are goading and taunting and harassing a highly respected vaccine scientist to have a debate with a fraudulent antivax grifter on Rogan's show.

As bad as they often are, the mainstream media at least have some professional standards and norms that act as a moderating countervail to the incentive to chase drama.

Social media influencers like Rogan have no such filter. He regularly hosts grifters, swindlers, cranks, conspiracy theorists and alt-right hate-mongers, granting them a more or less uncritical platform to spread their propaganda to his millions of followers.

He also repeatedly extends his huge platform to antivax con artists like Peter McCullough, Robert Malone, and now Robert F. Kennedy Jr, giving them wide latitude to spread their reckless, dangerous disinformation with little to no meaningful fact-checking.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an American paediatrician and vaccine scientist whose research produces patent-free vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, had the temerity to criticize Rogan for giving a platform to Kennedy (by linking to a Vice article on the matter), and Rogan responded by trying to goad Hotez into a live debate with Kennedy with Rogan as moderator.

When Hotez quite reasonably refused such a poison pill, Rogan incited his vast array of followers to pursue and accost Hotez, with other influential tech bros, including Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, piling on as well. Hotez has already had people accost him outside his home as a result of this campaign of abuse.

He's absolutely right to refuse the debate. Antivax grifters have an elaborate toolkit of tactics they use to overwhelm their audience and their critics, like a hundred-year storm surge overwhelming a sewage treatment plant.

As a core tactic, antivaxers spray a vast and rapid firehose of claims that are calculated to sound reasonable enough to a non-scientist, and they shamelessly, repeatedly violate every principle of good-faith debate to suit their purposes: they invent claims from whole cloth, shamelessly inflate or downplay real evidence, claim that sources state the opposite of what they actually state, elevate the credibility of non-peer reviewed 'research' that would never be able to get published in a real journal, make conclusions that do not follow from real premises, move the goalposts every time someone goes to the effort to disprove their claims, and claim they are being 'silenced' by a conspiracy when they cannot get scientists to take them seriously.

As a format, a live, oral debate is great fodder for entertainment, which is why Rogan keeps asking for it. But an oral debate is at best only modestly useful for political competition, and quite useless for settling important scientific questions.

Scientific debate happens in peer-reviewed scientific journals, where teams of researchers submit papers documenting their experiments and the conclusions they draw, subject to review prior to publication by other professional scientists and to written feedback following publication.

It's not a perfect system, but over time it allows theories that are well-supported by multiple independent lines of evidence to emerge as a consensus, while tending to disprove theories that cannot bear the weight of evidence.

Ultimately the scientific debate format rests on the good faith of its practitioners: the working scientists conducting research, the editors and reviewers checking their work prior to publication, and the community of professionals who read the journals, engage with its contents and revisit their own work based on what it teaches them.

When scientists debate - over whether a study was well-constructed or whether a conclusion can fairly be drawn from experimental results, say - they are fellow participants in a shared concept of what constitutes empirical evidence, what constitutes a valid logical contingency, and so on. When they cite a source, they try to represent fairly what the source actually states.

Antivax grifters labour under no such constraints. It is inherently more difficult to debunk a false claim than to assert it. It takes no effort to make up a BS claim but it takes considerable effort to do the work and then show your work to prove that the claim is false. It is tedious, exhausting, exasperating work, and there is exactly zero chance that the antivaxxer will ever admit they were wrong.

After all, the researcher who first claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism in a 1998 Lancet article was eventually proven to have deliberately fabricated his research and hid his massive conflict of interest from reviewers. He was eventually struck from the UK medical register and barred from practicing medicine altogether.

Yet Kennedy continues to repeat the categorically disproven claim to this day, and shifted the goalposts from claiming the vaccine itself causes autism to claiming that a preservative that is sometimes used in vaccines causes it. Of course, that claim is also categorically false: there is no correlation whatsoever between receiving any vaccine and being diagnosed with autism.

So any debate between Kennedy and a credible scientist would be a huge waste of everyone's time - everyone, that is, except Kennedy, who would gain the allure of credibility from sharing a debate stage, and Rogan, whose eye-watering compensation in his exclusive contract with Spotify is tied to his ability to keep drawing an audience.

That need to keep growing his audience incentivises him to keep producing more and more extreme content to feed their appetite for novelty and drama.

In any case, the idea that Rogan could be a qualified, responsible moderator of a constructive debate between an antivax grifter and a real scientist is absurd. He doesn't know what he doesn't know about vaccine science, and he doesn't care. To him it's all just entertainment.