Given that we live in a world in which almost everything, including presidential politics, takes on the trappings of cheap entertainment, it’s no wonder that the purveyors of anti-vaccine and anti-science claptrap are demanding that legitimate experts validate their positions through the spectacle of public debates.
The experts are right to say no.
The most recent example of this demand erupted recently, after webcaster Joe Rogan, an enthusiastic promoter of COVID-19 conspiracy-mongers, anti-vaxxers and other sources of pseudoscientific hogwash, hosted anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his program for three hours.
I could no more sit down with RFK Jr. than I could sit down with a white supremacist and discuss eugenics. You should not give them the moral equivalence.
Immunologist John P. Moore
When vaccine expert Peter Hotez tweeted a link to a thorough critique of Kennedy’s lies and misrepresentations by Vice.com, Rogan challenged Hotez to participate in a public debate with Kennedy.
Hotez refused, though he offered to engage Rogan — whose show he had appeared on before — one on one, a context in which Hotez was prepared to address Rogan’s misconceptions serially. Rogan treated that offer as an evasion, which led to Hotez being accosted at his home by a stranger demanding that he take the bait.
There are many reasons why serious scientists should reject these invitations. One is that it gives liars and deceivers legitimacy. “You should never equate, morally or practically, true science and pseudoscience or quackery,” says John P. Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “By just appearing with these people, you give them a stature that implies they’re equivalent, and they’re not.”
Moore’s insights come from his experience with AIDS denialists including the notorious Peter Duesberg starting around 1999. An expert in HIV and AIDS, he was appalled at the decision by Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, to deny antiretroviral drugs such as AZT to AIDS patients in favor of herbal nostrums.
Mbeki was motivated by scientific advisors who questioned that AIDS resulted from a virus; his policies have been blamed for more than 330,000 unnecessary deaths in his country.
The denialists “were always saying, ‘come and debate with us,'” Moore told me. Serious virologists tried posting accurate information to combat the misconceptions, to little avail. “It was just a waste of time, because you were never going to persuade the hard core to change their position.”
Their refusal to engage in public debate frustrated the denialists, Moore recalls, “because they wanted the validation of being on the same stage with us.”
Another reason not to debate “gaslighters,” as Science Magazine Editor Holden Thorp labels them, is that in many cases the debate is settled. The safety and efficacy of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are well established after hundreds of millions of doses administered in the U.S. and billions worldwide.
Although rare side effects have occurred, they’re typically mild compared with the risks from contracting the disease itself — contrary to the fabricated and unethical claims of anti-vaccine propagandists such as Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo.
So, too, is the uselessness against COVID of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, both of which have been promoted by Kennedy. No public debate could outweigh the reams of validated evidence for their ineffectiveness.
There’s nothing new about the insistence of anti-vaxxers and other cranks and hucksters that public debates are all that’s needed to establish the truth. Nor is there anything new about the thirst of newspapers, news programs and consumers of social media posts for spectacle and clickbait, facts be damned.
The late pseudoscience debunker Robert L. Park opened his classic 2000 book “Voodoo Science” by telling the story of one Joe Newman, whose claims to have invented a machine that could produce an inexhaustible supply of energy — if only the business establishment and the patent office got out of his way — were promoted credulously by CBS News, which led to an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
Newman rented the Superdome in New Orleans to demonstrate his machine, ending his presentation by issuing a challenge to “any PhD physicist in the crowd” to come down and debate him. The crowd began to titter as Newman shaded his eyes, pretending to look into the stands for a challenger. But scientists, properly, ignored him.
Newman, like today’s cranks, got mileage from the refusal of real scientists to debate; knowing that their challenge will go unmet, they try to use that as proof that they must be in the right.
(Park is known for the best comeback to those who claim that they are being persecuted for speaking scientific truths to power — as many of today’s pseudoscientists do: “Alas,” he wrote, “to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right.”)
Scientists and experts who have accepted invitations to debate — some out of hubris, some from a genuine desire to point the public in the right direction — almost always find themselves overmatched. Often this is because scientists seldom have the training to make cogent presentations of their work in an adversarial setting; they’re more comfortable staking out their positions through painstaking exposition in writing or before conferences with their peers.
“Common ‘live public debate’ formats favor science deniers because they are not bound by science or even the truth,” observes the veteran pseudoscience debunker David Gorski. The deniers’ arsenal 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.”
Such debates treat science as a sort of cabaret act, in which “glibness, rhetorical skill, and the debater’s charisma” register “far more than facts, logic, reason, and science,” Gorski says.
That’s the malady of any debate staged for popular consumption, whether through television or social media — try to think of the last time that a presidential candidates debate yielded anything like hard information, as opposed to impressions of the participants’ demeanor, gift of gab or ability to avoid a verbal stumble or gaffe.
When science is on the agenda, the peril is even greater. The contest is often between the nuances of scientific inquiry and the cocksure bluntness of pseudoscience.
“Scientists are rooted in the truth; it’s what you’re trained to do,” Moore says. “You won’t lie, you won’t dissemble, you will often express yourself with caveats, acknowledging gray areas. They’ll come back with what they say are hard facts: ‘Vaccines kill,’ or ‘this athlete dropped dead because he was killed by a vaccine.’ You can’t deal with subtleties when you’re having blatant lies thrown at you one after another.”
Scientists are also trained to look at the totality of evidence when taking a position, Moore says. “The anti-vaxxers or denialists will cherry-pick factoids. Scientific literature is so vast and so mixed in quality that you can always find something that is going to support your position. We are trained as professionals to tune out the occasional outrider that is the product of incompetent or twisted science.”
Even people skilled at communicating scientific principles to nonexperts have been lured into the debate trap. One is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the most renowned science communicator in the world today. In April, Tyson allowed himself to be enticed into a webcast debate with anti-vaccine crusader Del Bigtree. He must have thought that his command of the art of public speaking would allow him to hold up his end.
He was wrong. Tyson’s first mistake was to agree to appear on Bigtree’s webcast, rather than in some neutral setting. But his main problem was that, as an astrophysicist, he simply did not have the knowledge to counter Bigtree’s torrent of anti-vaccination propaganda. The result was a train wreck for legitimate science in which the anti-vax position prevailed, or such was the impression that was left.
The “debate me” agitators assert that research only gains from being subjected to inquiry. That’s true, but it doesn’t gain from being subjected to criticism from people unfamiliar with the underlying science and arguing from a position of ignorance.
Their goal is merely to sow doubt, for their own interests and often for political goals. The attacks on Hotez, on Anthony Fauci — one of Kennedy’s targets — and on science in general have a clear partisan slant. Deniers of global warming and of the link between tobacco and cancer have been carrying water for the big businesses that profit from fossil fuels and cigarettes.
They’ve made common cause with anti-vaxxers because they see an opportunity to make political hay for Republican and conservative interests. (Never mind that the COVID-19 vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; even Trump has provided a platform for vaccine deniers.)
But the consequences of their campaigns can be measured in sickness and death. The anti-vaccine movement is complicit in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone by discouraging people from getting the shot.
That may be the best reason for responsible scientists to reject invitations to debate. “The spread of vaccine disinformation has hurt a very, very large number of people in a very horrible way,” Moore says.
“That’s the moral dimension,” he says. “You cannot forget what these people have done. I could no more sit down with RFK Jr. than I could sit down with a white supremacist and discuss eugenics. You should not give them the moral equivalence.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.