Why Peter Hotez Should Not Debate RFK Jr. On The Joe Rogan Experience

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If you’ve been on Twitter, by now you may have heard that Joe Rogan tweet-challenged Peter J. Hotez, MD, PhD, to come on to his Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) podcast and debate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Soon after Rogan tweet-issued his challenge, billionaires Elon Musk and Bill Ackman tweet-chimed their support of Rogan’s tweet-proposal. Musk even tweet-claimed that Hotez is “afraid of public debate.” Musk twit or tweeted this despite the fact that Hotez, a world-renowned infectious diseases expert, the founding Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and a Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, has regularly spoken about Covid-19 and vaccines across many different public venues. All of this brouhaha—or perhaps tweethaha—does raise an important question. Would such a debate moderated by Rogan be fair? Would it even be worthwhile? Or will it simply further anti-science misinformation?

Rogan’s challenge certainly caught the attention of many legit scientists around the world who have known and worked with Hotez, including myself. The June 17 challenge came in the form of the following tweet from Rogan: “Peter, if you claim what RFKjr is saying is ‘misinformation’ I am offering you $100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you’re willing to debate him on my show with no time limit,” as you can see here:

Note that Rogan specifically said, “On my show,” rather than “On any neutral platform.” It also seemed to shift the burden of proof from the person who had made the claims on Rogan’s show—namely Kennedy—on to Hotez. That could sort of suggest that people can say whatever they want to say like, “The Earth is a gigantic hot dog. Prove me wrong,” which is not really how science works. Interestingly, Rogan added two decimal places after the $100K in his tweet. Maybe this was to distinguish that he would be willing to pay $100,000.00 as opposed to $100,000.01?

Regardless, Rogan’s tweet-challenge came after Hotez had tweet-shared a VICE article by Anna Merlan that had covered a June 15 JRE episode featuring Kennedy. In the article, Merlan described Rogan’s interview of Kennedy as “an orgy of unchecked vaccine misinformation, some conspiracy-mongering about 5G technology and wifi, and, of course, Rogan once again praising ivermectin, an ineffective faux COVID treatment.” And, spoiler alert, here’s one situation where the word “orgy” was not used in a positive manner. Merlan wrote, “They included innumerable talking points that have already been debunked: at one point, for instance, Kennedy falsely suggested that vaccines cause autism, which has been repeatedly and roundly disproven, with Rogan interjecting supportively.” In other words, throughout the episode, Rogan wasn’t exactly playing fact-checker.

This certainly wasn’t the first time that Rogan has had a guest on his podcast who made unsupported claims about Covid-19 and Covid-19 prevention and treatment measures without really fact-checking the claims. For example, back in January 2022, I described for Forbes how Robert Malone, MD, made a mass of unfounded Covid-19 claims on Rogan’s show including that there is a so-called “mass psychosis” going on in the U.S. without Rogan stopping Malone and saying something like, “OK, what specific concrete evidence do you have to support such statements?” I also covered for Forbes later that month how over 270 scientists, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals had signed a petition to Spotify stating that “throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Joe Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine.” When it comes to Covid-19 info, Rogan’s podcast has been more RoganLine than MEDLINE. Heck, Rogan has even said, “I’m not a doctor, I’m a bleeping moron,” and “I’m not a respected source of information, even for me.”

This raises the immediate question as to whether Rogan would be a fair, unbiased moderator of any debate between Hotez and Kennedy. This is a really important question because the moderator of a debate can play a major role in how a debate turns out and appears to others. For example, a moderator can choose who can speak when and decide which points to highlight and which to suppress. So, would you engage in a debate with a former significant other with his or her close friend as a moderator? How about joining a dance contest against a Kardashian where another Kardashian is the judge? Or playing a football game against the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers as a referee? OK, maybe that last one wasn’t the greatest example. But, you get the point. You can’t have a debate when the moderator is already swayed in one direction. And, in this case, one direction doesn’t refer to the musical group.

You also can’t expect someone to agree to a debate without first spelling out the ground rules. Not delineating the ground rules would be sort of like saying, “I challenge you to play a game that involves balls.” That could elicit questions such as with what balls or whose balls? There would be a big difference between playing football, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, Royal Shrovetide Football, Mesoamerican Ball Game, and kick you in the balls. And “no time limit” is not a reasonable ground rule. That’s like saying, “Are you free forever?”

Even if Rogan were to ostensibly set ground rules for the debate, you’ve gotta wonder what kind of home field advantage Kennedy would have. A lot could be done before and during the show to help one side be more prepared and comfortable for the debate and thus offer one side an unfair advantage. For example, would one side get a better sense of the questions to be asked in advance? Would one be positioned in a more comfortable part of the studio? Could all of this be a bit like saying, “Come fight my friend in my house. I will give someone else $10.oo for you to do so?”

And unlike most major sporting events, debates don’t tend to have official, agreed-upon, scoring systems and scoreboards. It’s not uncommon for one side to leave a debate claiming victory, despite what really happened. That’s what David Gorski, MD, PhD, Professor of Surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine, tweet-warned Hotez about by posting: “Don’t do it, @PeterHotez. Debating a disinformation specialist like @RobertKennedyJr in a venue where the moderator is clearly biased against you is a fool’s errand. He’ll be able to firehose and Gish gallop to his heart’s content, and no matter what happens will declare victory,” as you can see here:

Gish gallop may sound like some kind of dinner dish. But instead it’s an oft used debate tactic where the other side just blasts a firehose of arguments to overwhelm you without really making sure that those arguments are actually factual or legitimate. It’s sort of like being in a boxing match where your opponent starts throwing all kinds of random objects at you like chairs, tables, inner tubes, sweater vests, anvils, One Direction statues, hot dogs, and mops. It’s not fair. But it can leave you flustered and create chaos so that others can’t tell fact from fiction.

It does seem highly likely that some people will declare Kennedy a victor after any debate regardless of what happens during the debate. After all, many viewers may already have their minds made up before a debate and go into the debate simply looking for nuggets to support their pre-existing positions. And those with armies of followers and bots can then mobilize them to make it seem like the victor was clear. Heck, some have already been making conclusions about Hotez before any debate has taken place. For example, Musk offered the following take on Twitter: “Maybe @PeterHotez just hates charity.” Umm, what? Hates charity? Where does one get that conclusion?

That wasn’t the only thing that Musk tweeted about Rogan’s challenge to Hotez. Musk followed-up Rogan’s tweet-challenge with “He’s afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong.” Again, Hotez is someone who regularly appears in public, ranging from scientific meetings to commencement speeches to appearances on major new networks. Hotez’s hundreds of scientific publications (including ones on Covid-19 that we’ve co-authored together such as a May 2021 one published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases) have gone through extensive peer-review and are available in the public domain. To Musk’s tweet, MSNBC TV host Mehdi Hasan tweeted, “Noted conspiracy theorist who has zero background in medicine and public health and said Covid would be gone by April 2020 (!) thinks he knows more about vaccines than the world-renowned, award-winning scientist who helped create patent-free Covid vaccines for the poor”:

Another big question is how Rogan and Kennedy might respond if the tables were turned, and they were asked to debate others in a venue not of their choosing. For example, billionaire, philanthropist, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban followed up on Kennedy’s follow-up to Hotez with: “How about a debate with @thereal_truther ? This is what he had to say about you. Im [sic] sure you want the chance to refute him?” Cuban included a video from The Real Truther that debunked a number of the Covid-19 vaccine claims made by Kennedy previously as you can see here:

It’s not clear whether Kennedy has agreed to Cuban’s challenge to debate The Real Truther.

All of this raises the biggest question of them all: why? A debate may work when two or more people are arguing over things are really opinions rather than facts. Debates can help clear up what politicians actually stand for or don’t stand for or which ending to the TV series How I Met Your Mother would have been better. However, a standard debate format isn’t a great way to evaluate scientific facts, which frankly are very different from simple opinions, When you were in school, did a teacher say, “OK, class, let’s debate over whether most frogs have four or 20 legs” and then allow someone claiming that frogs have 20 legs to have equal air time? No, instead, the frogs have 20 legs claim could be easily discounted via diagrams, pictures, statistics, and pictures of frogs that are readily available across many different official textbooks and sources. If someone wanted to push the 20-leg claim about frogs, he or she would have to show evidence of such a thing and find himself or herself without a leg to stand on, so to speak.

Similarly, if you are claiming that vaccines cause autism or other side effects that go against what’s been found in formal published scientific studies, you’ve got to first present the data to support your claims. You can’t make such claims and then just expect others to drop what they are doing to engage in a debate with you. Otherwise, there would be an endless strong of debates over whether the Earth is flat, the moon landing was staged, or King Charles is a vampire. It has already been established that the Earth is not flat, the moon landing actually occurred, and, well, you decide what you want about King Charles. You can always find someone who will believe anything.

Amidst the tweet-cano eruption that occurred after Rogan’s challenge, Hotez tried to bring everyone back to reality by posting, “Let’s remember what this is about, not a small number of Americans lost their lives from antivaccine disinformation during the pandemic. 200,000 Americans perished, 40,000 from my State of Texas I have nothing personal vs Joe, Elon, RFK Jr. Just hoping to halt more destruction,” in the following tweet:

In other words, why are these tweet-challenges even occurring when the focus should be more on how to combat disease, prevent suffering, and save lives. He added, “Not easy to respond when those 3 gang up and tag team. Wish I could be more eloquent and clever when the moment demands, but there you are..” Yeah, three on one is not very fair unless you are talking about bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes.

At first blush, “just have a debate” may sound like a fair thing to do, sort of like “just have a boxing match.” But as mentioned earlier, the rules, the venue, the moderator, the format, and the whole reason for the debate do matter. If Kennedy or anyone else really believes that vaccines are causing certain side effects that have not been identified by published scientific studies, why not provide real, concrete scientific evidence for the scientists around the world to review and vet? Facts and evidence should always trump a carefully worded argument. After all, when a person catches his or her significant other cheating, whom should you believe? The one who provides the concrete evidence? Or the one who just wants to debate about it?

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