Why it's silly to debate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Joe Rogan about vaccines

A simple lesson on framing the debate

Why it's silly to debate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Joe Rogan about vaccines

Here’s a simple lesson on framing that is useful in everyday life. It focuses on the question of when — and whether — to debate an issue.

The issue arose publicly last week when podcast host Joe Rogan demanded that Dr. Peter Hotez, a scientist, debate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on his show. Hotez is a distinguished vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. Rogan and Kennedy have no scientific credentials but embrace disproven anti-vaccine beliefs.

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Hotez rightly declined Rogan’s demand for a debate with Kennedy. There’s no question Hotez would have easily won a debate based on facts, science and reality. But that’s not what Rogan and Kennedy offered. Instead, they would have swamped him with falsehoods, myths and anti-science bunk. It would be a competition of charisma and personality, not logic or reason. So Hotez was right to sidestep the silly trap.

“Never argue with an idiot. They’ll bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

— Anonymous (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain or George Carlin)

The reason why is simple and gets to the very heart of framing a debate.

First, Rogan’s debate setup contains the built-in assumption that Kennedy’s anti-vaccine beliefs are equal to Dr. Hotez’s knowledge. This is not the case, but it would appear to be the case if Hotez agreed to debate Kennedy. A useful debate generally needs two equal sides. The moment a medical expert agrees to debate an anti-vaccine quack, they have granted the anti-vaxxer a major victory. That’s because no amount of logic or reason can outweigh the impression that an anti-vaxxer should be regarded as equal to a medical expert.

“You should never equate, morally or practically, true science and pseudoscience or quackery,” John P. Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times. “By just appearing with these people, you give them a stature that implies they’re equivalent, and they’re not.”

Second, Rogan is the opposite of a neutral moderator. His show has become a major amplifier of anti-vaccine falsehoods. Last year, more than 1,000 doctors and medical professionals signed an open letter to Spotify, which hosts Rogan’s show, protesting the constant stream of vaccine disinformation on his show. While it’s silly for a doctor to debate an anti-vaxxer, it’s especially silly to do it on a show known for promoting anti-vaccine lies. The whole framework of such a debate would be to a) make an anti-vaxxer’s ignorance appear equal to a doctor’s knowledge and b) overwhelm the expert by making him debate two know-nothing anti-vaxxers at once.

Third, a debate on Rogan’s podcast has no value because it won’t change any minds. Since Rogan has made a point of featuring anti-vaccine propaganda, it’s reasonable to assume that his audience has a large percentage of anti-vaxxers. Their minds likely won’t be changed by science or medical expertise. No matter what happens, their unscientific beliefs will only grow stronger. Even if Dr. Hotez were to disprove every word that came out of Kennedy’s mouth, the anti-vaxxers would still declare victory.

In addition, they would edit the debate video in order to make Hotez look ridiculous and give a false impression of Kennedy’s competence. Remember: Facts and science do not change the minds of those who reject facts and science. A debate between a doctor and an anti-vaxxer is essentially pointless. It simply rewards the anti-science party with attention and visibility.

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

Proverbs 26:4

How does this connect to framing? At the heart of framing is the idea that we must be careful in choosing to engage with certain words or ideas.

These words and ideas establish frames, and with repeated use these frames can become embedded — physically embedded — in our brains. As such, we must be alert for which frames are being asserted in the political discourse. We must reject bad or false frames while promoting good and truthful frames. (Hotez parlayed the attention from the debate flap into major media appearances in which he was able to share his message without giving false equivalence to anti-vaxxers.)

The false and debunked assertions of the anti-vaccine movement aim to frame vaccines as scary or uncertain. It doesn’t matter that these can be refuted, point by point, with data, facts and science. The goal of the anti-vaccine troll — or most trolls, for that matter — is to simply get its messages repeated to as many people as possible. Forcing people to refute false assertions is a tried and true method of getting a message repeated.

Remember: When you negate a frame or idea, you activate that frame or idea in the brains of other people.

“One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change-for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely.”

The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.”

Of course, there are times when it is legitimate and necessary to debate and disagree. Some issues are matters of opinion or preference rather than fact. But when confronted by someone who does not regard facts as relevant, you’re better off skipping the debate and saving your energy for a more productive conversation.

As a general rule: Don't take the debate bait! Engaging someone with zero credibility or validity only helps them to gain status and spread lies. By trying to negate their false ideas, you'll end up activating them. Remember: They win by making the difference between lies and truth seem like a matter of opinion.

Further reading:

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