8 Reasons You Can’t Resolve Scientific Disputes via Debates
Jun 22, 2023   •   Tim Henares
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Jun 22, 2023   •   Tim Henares
Let’s say you’re a doctor who has helped produce one of the vaccines people use for COVID-19. Or at the very least, you’re a doctor who’s familiar with how vaccines work and the work that went into creating this vaccine. With an offer of $2.5M to the charity of your choice, the world’s biggest podcaster is inviting you to debate about vaccines on his show. Your opponent? A politician. Not a doctor. Not a scientist. Not even a med student. A politician. Would you take the money and engage?
If you did, then you just fell into a trap. And that’s exactly why when presented with this exact same scenario, Dr. Peter Hotez, a prominent vaccine advocate, rejected Joe Rogan’s offer to debate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on The Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast listened to by 11 million people per episode.
So why is debating someone who should be an intellectual lightweight compared to a bona fide doctor a bad idea? Here are 8 reasons why.
COVID-19 happened in 2020. Nearly 7 million people have died from the disease since it was first discovered. That number sharply started dropping shortly after the vaccine became introduced. Correlation does not mean causation? Sure. Except for the numerous studies that have shown a causal link between the two. And the countless other studies establishing how diseases like Polio and Measles are practically rarities if not non-existent thanks to vaccines.
So if this “debate” has been resolved a long time ago, why are we still having it? Because some people refuse to listen to reason, and not only will a debate do nothing to change that, it will actually put a trained scientist and a politician on the same footing over a topic only one of them is actually an expert in.
This is dangerous, because it makes it seem like there’s actually a conversation to be had about this topic, when there isn’t. If debates really worked, then every single time a remotely rational person debated a flat-Earther would have irrevocably changed that flat-Earther’s mind. Except it hasn’t, and then to make matters worse…
Excepting the $2.5M in charity, what does debating a non-issue really accomplish? Well, seeing how when Ken Ham debated Bill Nye over creationism and that debate actually benefited Ken Ham more than it did Bill Nye, it doesn’t even matter if Bill objectively won the debate. The Creation Museum has excerpts of that debate, painting a very different picture, because of course it would. In the end, the debate funded a creationist project, while it just earned Bill Nye mixed reviews from people who knew better. Speaking of knowing better…
Take it from someone who used to participate in debate tournaments while (at the time) having next to no political opinions: if you have the rhetorical skills, charisma, and plain talent needed, you can wing a lot of debates – even formal ones with actual adjudicators and all. Now imagine taking that set of skills to Joe Rogan’s podcast with him playing moderator. While Dr. Hotez could be a brilliant doctor and an expert in vaccines, this does not translate into the ability to debate with a skilled orator, and let’s face it, RFK Jr. definitely can spew some terrible stuff. But as a politician, it’s almost a given that he will be a decent speaker at worst, and can easily run circles around a scientist who isn’t.
The scientific method does seem straightforward: observation, research, hypothesis formulation, experimentation, data analysis, and a conclusion. What people fail to notice is the rigor involved in that method. For you to have a conclusion, you need to do every other step before it. And for your conclusion to be true, it has to be replicable because otherwise, your results are a fluke. So only through repeatedly doing something then repeatedly getting the same result does science make an actual conclusion.
Debating does not do the same thing. So how do scientists resolve disputes and the possibility that someone is *gasp* lying? Well…
Open letters. Peer review. Replicating results. All of these things are ways to objectively determine if a conclusion is indeed correct, or if someone is making things up. This was exactly how the causal link between vaccines and autism was completely debunked despite the initial “study” having been published in The Lancet — because other scientists looked at the study, and found issues in about every step of the method: from the conclusion, to the methodology, to the fact that the study wasn’t replicable at all.
You know how long it took before The Lancet finally retracted this article and concluded that yes, it was dead wrong? 12 years. I know Joe Rogan’s podcasts can be long-form, but they’re not 12 years long per episode. And more importantly, before you can have a place at the table to debate a Dr. Andrew Wakefield, you also need to have Dr in your title. And here’s another thing about science…
Ever noticed that the scientific studies we know about are the exciting ones? “New treatment can cure cancer in 2030,” says one. “Diabetes can now be prevented,” says another. Maybe something about people’s sex lives, or something funny about burps and other bodily functions. And you know why these studies come up a lot lately? Because if people pay attention to them, they can get funded. Otherwise, discovering something will take ages. If it’s not “sexy” enough to get funded, if it’s too niche for people to care, such as an incurable disease that occurs 1 every 300 million people, then there simply isn’t enough interest to fund.
So how do you think the average person would feel once Dr. Hotez starts talking about MRNA and how it works, bla bla bla? “Oh, if he’s good, he can Explain it Like I’m 5.” Except oversimplifying science dilutes it, which means the debate format is not the proper avenue to discuss medical science. Debate is the purview of politics. The fact that believing or not believing in science is now a political stand is a tragedy.
A frequent and strong rhetorical tactic is to pepper your arguments with anecdotes. After all, if it happened to someone you know, then it must be valid, and suddenly, it’s on the other guy to prove that such a thing never happened. This is not the burden of proof science operates on, and the level of effort you need to put forward to just even say “no” to something scientifically is soooo much more than the other guy saying “yuh-huh!”
Here, try this dialogue on for size:
Debater: I can fly to the sun with a spaceship.
Scientist: What? You wouldn’t even come close enough to the sun before you burn up and die! The surface of the sun is 5,500 degrees Celsius, which is 55 times the boiling point of water. This isn’t even considering the amount of fuel you would need to make the trip and back.
Debater: But I can fly to the sun at night.
Yeah, when a debate goes that way, and the general public has no idea how the sun works (the way the general public has only vague ideas about how vaccines work), then a lot of lies, half-truths, and overall misinformation is going to get through in the middle of the debate. And the fact that the debate even happens gives these lies a platform to exist, to persist, and to warp the scientist’s arguments out of context, as is often the case when people want to “win” a debate at all costs. And yes, that includes lying and claiming you’re the one who’s lying. And if either guy is lying, what’s the use of having a debate?
There is a saying that goes, “pick your battles.” And imagine how draining it would be if Dr. Hotez engaged every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wanted to debate him. Worse, imagine how many times will the same points and counterpoints be brought up in each of these debates ad nauseam?
We’ve already established that we shouldn’t dignify stupid ideas as if they have the same merits as sensible ideas. Nobody is going to entertain debating that hitting your head hard on a wall is going to stimulate your brain and make you smarter. Do we even need to bother? Obviously not.
We’ve already established that even if you manage to acquit yourself well in the debate, people are going to willfully splice all that material to make you look at your worst and the other guy look at their best, and make sure that’s the version that gets around. That means that because they “beat” the fancy-pants guy with the M.D. title in his name, they now officially know better than the guy. Newsflash: I don’t care how good he talks, RFK is not going to convince me that he can fly a plane better than a pilot. But that’s how a debate goes: it’s closer to American Idol than a scientific journal.
We’ve also established that if all else fails, they can just claim you’re lying, and how much evidence do you now have to present to show you’re not? And how much of that evidence will they just dismiss as more lies? And if they lie, how much evidence do you now have to present that they’re lying, when the claims they make are unfalsifiable claims because that’s how anecdotes work?
When you add up all of that, it seems like even $2.5M isn’t that much of an incentive to engage in a debate. The pursuit of science isn’t a game of “gotcha” between someone who wants to prove something versus someone who wants to disprove it. Science doesn’t care about feelings or opinions, only about what is observable and replicable to analyze data and draw conclusions from.
In contrast, debates are precisely about feelings and opinions, even with the most rigorous of standards applied to it. If renowned adjudicators can differ on how they score formal debates, then what more a moderator like Joe Rogan who clearly has skin in this game, given how much he sides with RFK Jr.?
So if debating is a no-win situation, and not debating is also clearly a losing proposition, then how can the scientific community respond? By using the scientific method to test RFK’s hypotheses.
Unfortunately, that’s not something a few episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience can just cover. And that’s why it’s not going to happen, either, even if that is the correct and fair way to settle this “debate” once and for all.
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