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You don't owe anyone a debate
The marketplace of ideas loses its effectiveness when we have debates in media formats that invite vapid exchanges and superficial understanding of what's been said.
If you’re on Twitter, you probably saw the “DEBATE ME, YOU COWARD!” dustup this past weekend involving Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Joe Rogan. But even if you’re not aware of this whole thing, the incident gets at the heart of how to handle mis/disinformation and public discourse, so I wanted to spend some time with it here.
For those unaware, RFK Jr. is running for president has been a big denier of vaccine efficacy despite overwhelming consensus in scientific studies (he also thinks wifi causes cancer, and you’ll be shocked to know he has no evidence for this). Antivax discourse is constantly swirling on social platforms and thrives in particular in unmoderated spaces. So of course in the Elon Twitter era, it has been allowed to run wild.
The incident that spurred this post started when Peter Hotez, a scientist who studies immunology and won a Nobel Prize for co-creating a patent-free COVID vaccine for use in developing countries, criticized Rogan for having RFK Jr. on his podcast. His criticism, in this case, is that Rogan platformed a person who has consistently spread misinformation about the link between vaccines and autism. Rogan has one of the largest podcast audiences around, typically getting 10 million listeners per episode. He’s influential.
Hotez can say what he wants about Rogan’s interviewee choices. The problem is more the host and format. Rogan’s style of asking ignorant questions from an everyman's point of view is influential with a certain demo. And while he couches the whole experience as dialogue, the consistent lack of representative expertise on the show means it often becomes an echo chamber that consistently spreads misinformation, and even critical follow-ups he attempts to ask are so based on lack of expertise that he can’t properly push and challenge an interviewee.
Rogan’s challenged Hotez to come on his podcast and debate RFK Jr. about vaccine safety. Rogan offered to donate $100,000 to charity if Hotez would do the debate. That got the attention of the attention-seeking Elon Musk on Twitter, who tried to goad Hotez into making it happen. In no time it was a Category 5 Twitter storm.
Hotez, of course, smartly said no because it wouldn’t do any good even if the goal is to change minds.
One of the problems with this whole dustup is our imagination of what we think we're talking about when we say “debate” outstrips the reality of what really happens when we debate in 2023.
We picture a debate as this long, detailed discussion with points, evidence, counterpoints, and nuance. Our reference point is famous things like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which took place in 1858, as it represents a type of marketplace of ideas standard—a long and detailed discourse with points and counterpoints that theoretically lets people arrive at an informed view of an issue.
Lincoln-Douglas carries unhelpful nostalgia when it comes to modern debate. First, there were seven of these debates and each of them was about three hours long. The debate format itself was grueling. It started with either Lincoln or Douglas speaking for about an hour, followed by a rebuttal for about an hour, and then another hour or so of rejoinders. Lincoln-Douglas was built for complexity and nuance because of the time and format involved. If you really wanted to get into an issue and examine it from all sides, this is the type of design that gets you there.
This is, of course, not how we do debates now. Would you sit through a 3-hour debate without visuals of any kind and few intermissions? Could you watch and focus for three hours with your phone put away? I'd guess the answer is no for most of you. If I’m being honest, I'd include myself among those who couldn’t do it. Our attention spans have been trained by electronic, visual media to be shorter.
Shifting debates to mediated spaces instead of in-person gatherings has reshaped the format and altered our own expectations. In my intro course at Lehigh, we study the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 as a watershed moment for the format. It was the first time a presidential debate had been done on television and was the beginning of replacing radio as the primary vehicle for such events. The shift changed everything.
Specifically, Nixon-Kennedy was the beginning of the TV-ification of political discourse. Over the years, debates got shorter to serve the format. Speakers got less time to answer questions, rebuttals got even shorter times (and in some cases were done away with altogether). The format came to represent a quick bullet-point list type of reply, full of talking points and lacking any kind of complexity. We went from Lincoln speaking for an hour to a format that forced candidates to talk about how to handle complex problems like trade with China in one minute.
Why is this? Because television is a fast-moving medium, requiring scene and cut changes, constant shifts in format to keep the viewer entertained. Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death about how television is primarily regarded by users as an entertainment medium, and content would trend toward entertainment packaging because that’s how audience expectations govern choices. Postman argued this is a bad scenario when we’re trying to deal with deep, contextual information that helps us learn and form evidence-based opinions:
“I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”
One exercise I have had students do is watch a newscast or television show (it honestly doesn’t matter what it is) and count the number of seconds between camera cuts (a change in angle or perspective). What they discover is the camera doesn’t linger long. And in fact, when I show them videos where the camera lingers, it feels boring or uncomfortable to them. Television requires that information be presented as exciting and dynamic (full of change) compared to the written word.
So what happened with debates is what happened to a lot of information programming as television matured with its audiences: visual interestingness took priority over what was being aired. Look at old newscasts, such as Edward R. Murrow’s first episode of See It Now in 1949, and ask yourself if that format would fly on TV today.
Thus, debate formats over time have bent to the medium. We are not talking about the full exchange of ideas when we speak of debate in 2023. We are a long way from Lincoln-Douglas. “Debate” is an idealized term even as modern debate often strips these events of any sort of nutritional value from a civics standpoint.
What I'd suggest is that we hear "debate" and think "intellectual exchange of ideas" and blow right past all the medium-specific factors that influence how we decode and process what's said. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." What he meant by this is that when it comes to a particular type of media (print, radio, tv, internet, etc.), we should focus on the social effects of media technology. It is the format that changes us and changes our perceptions of the message. The same message in print is received and understood differently than if you present it on television or radio.
In this case, shifting debates to visual types of media such as television had a dramatic impact on debate formats and tactics. I'd argue the format makes modern presidential debates borderline unhelpful. It forces candidates to talk in bullet points and soundbites, to speak in zingers that will stick with an audience’s short attention span at the expense of nuance and rebuttal. This is particularly unhelpful on complex issues because the audience often is coming to the debate less clear on the issues (in part due to declining daily news use) and perhaps only guided by superficial understanding.
An anti-vaxxer would get trounced in a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate. They don't have that much material, and there's time to reveal themselves as having big opinions built on scant or dodgy evidence. Rebuttal means you can’t get away with lying or sticking to talking points. But the biggest plus here is the audience is captive. They are there for three hours, and you have their attention.
Rapid-fire debate done for televisual spectacle makes fact-checking and charlatan-exposing much more difficult. The person who knows their stuff can be kept off balance by constantly having to correct the record at the expense of telling us what they know. A person can be correct and lose the debate in the public mind by not being entertaining or punchy enough, so what are we really testing here? Remember when people dunked on Barack Obama for sounding too professorial in debates? That says a lot about how audiences approach these types of situations, and it gives some clue how Hotez would be received in a podcast debate. He’d be judged for sounding dry-yet-prepared in a format that favors bomb-throwers.
With TV debates, and here’s where I’d add a very long podcast debate such as what Rogan proposes, your audience isn’t solely focused on the content. They can listen only to the first part when someone with a weaker knowledge base might sound impressive in ways that wouldn’t hold up if you listened the whole time. They could also scrub through it for interesting parts, or listen to it at half attention while they’re at work or working out. No focus.
So let's apply those lessons to Hotez situation. A debate sounds like the democratic ideal in theory, and generally I favor dialogue as a means to persuasion. Who wouldn’t support that?
But it’d be a bad idea for Hotez to engage here because whatever he’d try to accomplish would be overwhelmed by the format. Counterproductive, even. The hope of debate is to persuade, but a format that elevates a conspiracy theorist to equal status and is unmoderated for misinformation and faulty evidence ultimately is rigged against someone who has knowledge to share. There is no persuasion to be had.
This is not to say withdraw from the arena and not engage. Vaccine misinformation is everywhere, and it needs our engagement. But it doesn’t need engagement in a space whose format is built for a superficial understanding of the arguments. The medium is the message.
If you think about the most heated cultural arguments of our time, aren’t they all suffering from this kind of phenomenon? As our arguments have become more mediated in electronic spaces, it becomes less possible for learning, dialogue, or persuasion because they are happening in spaces where digital tribal identities (our preset beliefs and ideologies) are baked into how we listen. We’ve already decided; we show up not to learn but to engage in pro wrestling.
No, most of Rogan’s audience already has a view, and giving two people space to just shout past one another only serves to elevate the conspiracy theorist over the scientist. It’s great for ratings, though.
I mean, that is the real lunacy here. To imagine a debate with sides as represented by a) a scientist who has studied the thing he’s talking about and b) a non-scientist with a public profile who Has Opinions. By accepting a debate invitation, Hotez unintentionally signals RFK Jr. has the credentials to actually have a debate here, and then modern debate formats don’t allow the audience to see the context of that knowledge gap. Saying yes just creates a dangerous type of false balance even as these two sides are very much not equal.
Media messages have all kinds of contexts and frames around them that affect how people process messages. With fast-moving electronic media, in particular, the format has a big say in what people hear. The mere existence of a debate creates a context around what is said, starting with the idea that both sides have valid arguments.
By the way, we have had the vaccine debate. Where? Medical journals. Medical journal debate is Lincoln-Douglas in style. Scientists produce data and knowledge around particular problems, and ultimately through discussion and follow-up research find supporting or counter-evidence and over time we arrive closer to truth.
So if people want the truth, they don’t need a podcast debate. They can read the journals, which of course requires a level of scientific literacy and attention that people don’t want to invest the time in. It’s easier to just spout off in a social space, and it creates an opening for a person like RFK Jr. to say crazy things that sound somewhat couched in evidence but unable to withstand even a small amount of scientific rigor. Indulging Rogan’s challenge risks watering down scientific knowledge for consumption in vapid, shouty spaces and invites superficial understanding.
While the science is clear on vaccines, understanding it requires some complexity and familiarity with scientific inquiry. You’re not going to get that on a podcast that is more pro wrestling in format than an earnest, truth-driven debate that starts with a shared set of facts. It is in fact a format that favors conspiracy theorists over scientists. Because if baseline knowledge is low and understanding is superficial, lies easily thrive in this environment because the truth is boring and takes time.
More to the point, it’s crazy that people think Hotez owes Rogan or RFK Jr. a debate. He owes these people nothing, and having an opinion doesn’t mean you’ve earned a conversation. In theory, the only point of debates is to persuade, and I have yet to find anyone shaming Hotez who doesn’t already have a strong, preformed opinion on the vaccine issue at hand. It’s a waste of time.