Skepticism

No One Should “Debate” Anti-Vaxx Kook RFK, Jr. on Joe Rogan

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Here’s a fun fact about me: Boston University allows students to basically pick whatever they want for their concentration (which is like a minor but not as hard to get), so I picked Classics because I was already interested in the myths and history of ancient Greeks and Romans. One of my favorite Greek legends was that of Kassandra, who Aeschylus described as having been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, who was in love with her. When she rejected his advances, he added the curse of knowing the future but no one would ever believe her.

Anyway, on to today’s video topic: RFK, Jr. went on Joe Rogan’s show to spew anti-vaccine and other misinformation for three hours, after which Rogan and his fans tried to bully an actual doctor into coming on his show to “debate” RFK. One of the fans actually showed up at the doctor’s house within 24 hours. 

Wow, if only someone had pointed out that we ignore RFK at our peril.

My previous video on RFK, Jr. inspired hundreds of comments furiously insisting that he is NOT, in fact, an anti-vaxxer, which I expected. It’s what all the anti-vaxxers USED to say back in the good old days when Jenny McCarthy was the primary vector of misinformation encouraging people to let their babies die from whooping cough. These days, I’ve noticed a significant number of anti-vaxxers are proudly owning the label, because this is the darkest timeline and self-awareness is at an all-time low.

RFK, Jr. indicated early on that he would downplay his anti-vaxx beliefs for his run for president, but I suppose he just couldn’t help himself. I also suppose he never heard the old bit of advice that “it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” Anyone who still assumed the best of him can no longer defend his beliefs, which he detailed in full for Rogan’s audience of millions: vaccines cause autism, vaccines contain mercury, ivermectin cures COVID, “Big Pharma” “had to destroy” ivermectin to get emergency use authorization for vaccines, all the studies showing no benefit to ivermectin are fake, taking the COVID vaccine makes you “21 percent more likely to die of all causes,” he’s being silenced by “Big Pharma,” and oh yeah, wifi “radiation” ALSO causes autism plus food allergies, asthma, and eczema while “degrad(ing) your mitochondria and (opening) your blood-brain barrier.”

To which Joe Rogan responded with a pathetic, open-mouthed gape. Because he’s what would happen if you gave a podcast to one of the monkeys who had his neurons melted by Elon Musk supergluing a computer chip to his brain.

And I want to be clear that it’s not JUST Joe Rogan, it’s also people who I previously would have described as “real journalists,” like Briahna Joy Gray who invited RFK onto her show on The Hill TV and let him just make shit up for 42 minutes with zero pushback. Like, she hadn’t even bothered to do her research before the interview, and when she did finally get around to it AFTER the interview, by “reading up on some stuff” during a 3-hour train ride, she ended up supporting him by saying the dumbest shit imaginable, like implying that because the CDC says there are probably environmental reasons for autism, it’s possible that RFK, Jr. is right to point a finger at vaccines.

But back to Rogan. After Rogan’s disaster of an interview with RFK, Jr., another former guest registered his disgust: Dr. Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and global health advocate who said that he started seeing an increase in harassment from anti-vaxxers following the RFK episode. Rogan was infuriated by that, and offered Hotez $100,000 to the charity of his choice if he would come on and debate RFK, Jr. Hotez replied very politely that he would be happy to discuss the issue with Rogan but that wasn’t enough. Rogan began harassing Hotez, joined by Kennedy, Elon Musk, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer, and a thousand morons who paid Elon Musk $8 a month for their harassment to appear at the top of these threads.

This escalated VERY QUICKLY, as within a day an unhinged “pedo poacher” filmed himself approaching Dr. Hotez outside of his HOME and yelling at him. That is TERRIFYING. Leave the pediatrician alone, dude. 

While we can all agree that it’s disgusting that prominent people with large audiences are egging on this sort of bonkers behavior, we’re still left with the question of whether or not a debate like this should happen. The “pro-debate” crowd have no idea how science is done, how debates are done, or how public perception of science is influenced – or, they do know all of this but their bank accounts are reliant upon them pretending they don’t. For Rogan, it’s obvious: he makes millions of dollars by putting on a circus. Michael Shermer spent years “debating” kooks like Dinesh D’Souza all over the country, and when he started I had never heard of D’Souza and now, twenty years later or so, I know D’Souza as a very successful and prominent alt-right con artist. I’m not sure if they ever settled “Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?” but it seems like over time things ended up in D’Souza’s favor. I mean, besides the prison time.

That said, I’m not opposed to debates in general–but there are three key aspects of any debate that affect whether or not I will think it’s a good idea:

  1. The setting
  2. The participants
  3. The topic

The setting means “is this a formal debate with a formal moderator? Or is it a screaming match designed to be as ridiculous as possible in order to entertain an audience of morons?” I like the former, personally.

The participants: are they more or less equally knowledgeable about the topic and skilled at public debate? For instance, are they two physicists who are comfortable speaking in front of a crowd? Or is one a physicist who hasn’t been in a room with more than 3 non-physicists in the past decade and the other is a TikTok star who thinks gravity is a Jewish conspiracy? Again, it’s the first one for me.

And finally, the topic: does it desperately matter? By which I mean, is it a theoretical question with equally valid positions on both sides that we can spend time discussing deeply, or is it a topic that has been settled by science beyond reasonable doubt and questioning it puts millions of lives at risk? Again: the former, for me. There are better ways to deal with the latter.

Feel free to disagree with me on this but in my opinion, you gotta at least pick two of the three. 

For instance, I’ve certainly enjoyed some events from Intelligence Squared, where the setting tends to be formal and well-moderated, the participants tend to be well-matched, and the topics tend to be things like whether ChatGPT is good or bad for our future. Debates about important issues like the environment tend to focus on areas where reasonable scientists can disagree, like “Is Carbon Capture Essential to Fighting Climate Change,” and the participants there are both actual environmental scientists.

On the other hand, we have this RFK debate. Let’s go over the three factors:

  1. The setting is a podcast often used as a platform for spreading wildly inaccurate and dangerous misinformation, moderated by a man who once told a primatologist she was a “fucking idiot” with a vagina for trying to gently inform him that a mythical ape doesn’t exist.
  2. The participants are A) the “founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, a Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, the Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, and University Professor of Biology at Baylor College of Medicine” who “served previously as president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, is a founding Editor-in-Chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, (and)  is also the co-director of Parasites Without Borders, a global nonprofit organization with a focus on those suffering from parasitic diseases in subtropical environments.” Versus B) a lawyer who believes that chemicals in the water are turning kids trans. That is not a good balance.
  3. Finally, the topic: do vaccines save lives or harm them? According to a study in Lancet Infectious Diseases, the COVID vaccine alone in its first year prevented 14 to 20 million deaths globally. According to the CDC, childhood vaccinations prevent 4 million deaths every year. Negative outcomes from vaccines are incredibly rare: vaccines are safe for the vast majority of the population, and compared to the diseases they prevent, they are absolutely essential for giving us better, healthier lives. There is no question about this in the scientific world. These vaccines have been exhaustively studied and improved upon over the decades we’ve been using them, and the results have been undeniable. This is not open to debate. If someone has a sincere belief that this scientific consensus is wrong, they don’t need to get in a ring and shout at a doctor. They need to go to university, do the research, and show their work.

So yeah, that’s a zero out of three for that. Personally I don’t think that any serious person should go on Joe Rogan’s show at this point, but I get that some people want to get at that audience and they think they’ll be the one to convince them. Fair enough! But walking into a debate with a raging lunatic and Joe Rogan as the moderator is only ever going to do your side of the “debate” a disservice. Ignore the people claiming that not debating would just let the lunatics win. If this were a boxing match would you say the same? Fight me in the ring or you concede that vaccines cause autism? Because that’s going to be exactly as effective at getting your points heard as getting shouted at by a roided up monkey with his neurons leaking out his ears. There are better ways to persuade lay people to listen to the simple science about critical topics like vaccination.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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