June 21, 2023 - Debating deniers

Twitter is a really interesting platform. These days, the algorithms are confused, the ads are plentiful, and the hate speech is growing. Despite all that, it remains a central pillar of academic social networking - probably because we're all slow to adapt to new platforms as much as anything else. Most of the time, the different sections of my Twitter are talking about their own things - Dr. David Shiffman is talking about sharks and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is tweeting about climate change - and, of course, Andy Naylor is reporting on Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, since that's the other half of my Twitter presence. 

But this week, academic Twitter was overrun when Joe Rogan (yes, that Joe Rogan) challenged well-known infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez to join him on his show and debate RFK Jr. about the importance of the COVID vaccine - he even offered to make a charitable donation in Hotez's honor. An audience of millions. A one-on-one debate. Money for charity. One man with science on his side, one with conspiracy. Yet, Hotez declined. Why wouldn't Hotez join the show and show the world what a fool RFK is? Well, actually, there are a lot of reasons, and this is one area that environmental scientists have done a lot of thinking. 

Let's break this down into three key ideas: 

So what does that mean? 

False Equivalence

Let's take the example of climate change. More than 99% of scientific articles agree that climate change is happening, it's largely man-made, and it's bad for both humans and the planet. Yet, the one-on-one format of a radio-show (or televised or in-person or... etc.) debate presents this much differently. Put two people on the same screen, and you make it a 50-50 call - which one is right? Which one is wrong? The problem is that we already know which one is right and which one is wrong - climate change is happening, vaccines do not cause autism, and the earth is not flat. Dr. Andrew Dessler laid out this argument in-depth in his discussion of this weekend's Twitter fiasco. Among my favorite illustrations that Dessler cites is John Oliver's classic "fair debate" on climate change - see for yourself: 

Modern science's built-in debate mechanism - Peer review

Scientists don't always get things right on the first try - many skeptics will point that out - the whole idea of scientific inquiry is that it continues unabated even after consensus is reached. So why, then, should alternative perspectives (some might call them absurd conspiracies, but I digress) not be given the time of day in a debate format? One of the key reasons is that science already has a built-in debate mechanism - if people like RFK Jr. want their ideas to be taken seriously, they can join in that debate platform - it's called peer review

So what is peer review? Peer review is the model by which scientific articles are first assessed by other scientists ("peers") before being published. Scientists must do three things to make it through peer review. First, they must tell other scientists why they're working on something, what's been done before, and how they're advancing it (this is called literature review - and it means dozens of hours of reading the existing literature to better understand the state of the art). Second, they must carefully report out the results of their empirical research - tell us the results of the experiments or observations, and explain how and why this relates to the central question the article is trying to answer. And third, they must put these results into conversation with existing research, detail the ways it agrees with or contradicts those previous studies, and convince the reviewer that this is a worthwhile and valid attempt to expand the base of scientific knowledge - to advance the state of the art. 

Typically, peer review consists of a panel of at least two, usually three or more, scientists who read a paper, provide anonymous written feedback to both the journal editor and the authors, and explain their position on the validity of the paper. Authors are often asked to amend their work and respond to these critiques - through this back and forth, the final contribution to scientific knowledge is ironed out. Anybody can join in this debate. Submissions to journals are open to anyone pursuing scientific inquiry. But the prerequisites are simple: a clear and comprehensive knowledge of past work, a carefully designed and executed inquiry into the subject, and a robust discussion of how this advances knowledge. 

None of these ingredients are well-suited for oral debate. Take just the knowledge of past work - no person can be expected to memorize all of the thousands of articles on any one topic. So what happens when RFK Jr. badly misinterprets a scientific article in the middle of a debate? The scientist across from him might know that particular paper - but how can they prove he is wrong without reading the text live for the audience? Peer review is designed to allow for careful, considered debate of the implications of past and ongoing work. Joe Rogan-style debate is designed to advantage the best rhetoric, the best speakers, and very often not the person who is objectively correct. 

People lie. Evidence doesn't. Expertise matters. 

Mark Twain is often cited as reminding us that "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" - for the record, credit for that idea probably goes to Jonathan Swift, but that bit of common misinformation seems appropriate for the subject of the quote. Anyway, the point is simple - in a debate between a renowned scientist and a conspiracy theorist, the two sides face very different margins for error - and very different burdens of proof. The conspiracy theorist can present any manner of so-called evidence, often misinterpreting or misrepresenting science or simply disregarding the evidence altogether (see Conscious Ad Network's interesting definition of climate misinformation). While the scientist is busy batting down cherry-picked data points and outdated quotes, the conspiracy theorist only has to stump them once. That pause, that diversion, that blink - however minor, that becomes the sound byte. 

One of the most common tactics in disinformation campaigns appeals to our own arrogance - charlatans like RFK Jr. would like us all to believe that we are at least as qualified to make a judgment about the safety of vaccines as a world-renowned expert. They'd like us to believe that we can all interpret climate models as reliably as someone who has dedicated their entire life to understanding their complexities. The problem is simple - we can't. But by appealing to our own hubris, disinformation can invite us to make our own interpretations of an overwhelming milieu of data points. By simplifying the debate to a few carefully selected ideas and presenting only a subset of the facts, disinformation specialists can make it seem like a simple judgment call, something we each must decide for ourselves - vaccines are good or bad, climate change is human-caused or not, the earth is flat or round. It's not a judgment call, and we're not all equally qualified to interpret the data. 

I don't have time to read thousands of articles on the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Even as a trained scientist, there are words and ideas in most of those articles articles that go over my head. Heck, I work on climate change adaptation, but I don't model its effects, and there are parameters in integrated assessment models of the global climate that I still don't understand - I let the experts configure those and use the outputs for my work. At the end of the day, a debate must simplify and cherry-pick what is discussed. And the debaters get to choose what they bring up. In the modern anti-establishment environment (especially on something like Rogan's podcast), the scientist will always be on the defensive, and they don't have the luxury of sending the listener to read through dozens of peer-reviewed articles to bring them up to speed. Instead, they have to distill and condense the ideas, something that the conspiracy theorist can inevitably use to dissemble and distort the nature of the debate. 

So what did Hotez do instead of agreeing to debate? He offered to join the show and present his side of the issue (science’s side) - just as Rogan had allowed RFK to do the week before. No one presentation - or debate - is going to end misinformation. Instead, we must continue to expand efforts to restore public trust in science as an institution. We must continue to develop new science communication strategies. We don’t need to mud wrestle the pig - when we do that, we’ll all get muddy, but only the pig will enjoy it.