Last week, Joe Rogan aired a conversation on his podcast with longtime vaccine misinformation spreader and current not-inconsequential Joe Biden primary challenger Robert F. Kennedy Jr. According to an article in Vice, the three-hour episode was “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.”
On Twitter, Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine, criticized the conversation. In response, Rogan invited Hotez to debate vaccines with Kennedy on his show. Hotez declined, instead offering Rogan a one-on-one conversation. Rogan insisted on a debate, and Elon Musk popped into his replies with a jab at Hotez, implying Hotez was afraid of the debate, afraid of being proven wrong. On Sunday, two people, evidently spurred into action by the kerfuffle online, harassed Hotez at his Houston home.
Still, Hotez refused to debate RFK. Good.
“Hotez made the right choice,” wrote epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina and physician Kristen Panthagani Tuesday in an issue of Jetelina’s newsletter.
It’s tempting to engage in debates with people who disagree on matters of fact, said Jetelina — but what results can look more like a UFC match than a forum for learning, and can actually result in further entrenching polarized perspectives.
Here’s why debates are actually a bad forum for discussing contentious scientific issues — and what works better.
Why debates are bad for communicating science
Debates are a less-than-ideal forum for having conversations about contentious issues —especially when they’re issues whose understanding is clouded with misinformation.
There are several reasons for that. For starters, a debate about a scientific issue implies there is scientific disagreement about that issue, said Rupali Limaye, a social scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s public health school who studies vaccine communication. You’re “giving individuals a platform to really promote something that goes against scientific consensus,” she said.
That creates a sense of false equivalence, said Limaye. In this case, it suggests there’s as much good science to support avoiding vaccines as there is to support getting vaccinated — when in fact, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports vaccination safety and effectiveness.
But another important reason that debates fail at science communication is that they’re usually conducted with an audience, whether they’re live in a studio, listening on headphones, or following on Twitter.
That has several consequences, one of which is to disincentivize participants from changing their minds. A debate’s performative aspect means its participants are rewarded for doing what best preserves their public image. For people whose public identity is strongly tied to holding specific beliefs, that means standing their ground — not learning something new, which they may see as signaling to their audience that their identity is on shaky ground.
Simultaneously, the promise of an audience incentivizes debate participants to do whatever it takes to draw in and retain an even bigger audience. “You want drama, you want something that people are going to click on and be like, ‘Oh, my god,’” said Limaye. The interior process of learning isn’t the most likely thing to elicit that response; debate highlights are far more likely to include snappy retorts than thoughtful murmurs. A participant who scores points off the other guy is most likely to gain followers and fame.
It’s not just vaccine science: Many areas of science really don’t benefit from “debate.” There have been plenty of debates broadcast on climate science, for example, but according to climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, they have hardly moved the needle on climate denialism. Schmidt wrote on Twitter that “however well [the debate] went, there was never any let up or shift in the opponents tactics or messages.”
Hotez appeared to offer a conversation with Rogan as an alternative to a debate with RFK. Jetelina thought it was a good alternative. “More of an educational kind of approach, question and answer,” she said, “may be helpful for a large audience like that.” With a Q&A, the focus is more on learning and less on winning.
What makes for productive engagement?
It makes sense for a scientist like Hotez not to engage in a public debate on Joe Rogan’s podcast. But what’s a good model for a conversation? We all come into contact with people we disagree with, and those disagreements aren’t often turned into a spectator sport. Might we have a chance to engage in productive conversation on contentious subjects?
Assessing who you’re communicating with, when and where you’re communicating, and what and how you’re communicating can provide some guardrails that make interactions around these subjects more likely to be productive.
Who are you talking to?
Understanding a person’s motivation for engaging is key to determining whether the two of you can have a productive conversation. “Is the goal fame and money,” said Jetelina, “or is the goal truly to get to the bottom of what do we agree on and what do we not agree on, and understanding that?”
Engaging with people who approach you and your conversation in good faith — that is, with real curiosity — makes a productive interaction more likely.
Limaye cautions that having questions or hesitations on a complex topic does not automatically signal bad faith. People’s reasons for delaying Covid-19 vaccination ranged broadly: During Limaye’s pandemic-era conversations with about 3,000 people who were hesitant to take Covid-19 vaccines, she guesses about 90 percent were approaching her with genuine good intentions.
“They were just like, ‘Oh, I heard I can’t take it because I have this comorbidity,’” or because they’d heard there’s formaldehyde in the vaccine. “They weren’t there to bait me,” said Limaye. (And these concerns are easily addressed: Severe allergic vaccine reactions and certain post-vaccination inflammatory syndromes are the only contraindications to Covid-19 vaccines, and the minuscule amount of formaldehyde that occurs in vaccines is smaller than what naturally occurs in the human body.)
It’s not always easy to identify people motivated by less noble goals. However, if someone seems most motivated by a desire to create a public spectacle — if, perhaps, they refuse one-on-one conversation — or they don’t seem interested in learning something new about a subject, these may be indicators that an interaction with that person is going to be unproductive.
You’re allowed to decline to interact with people you judge to be bad-faith actors. If you do, it’s ideal to be civil — although that can be really hard, said Jetelina — and to leave the invitation open for a more productive conversation in the future.
When and where are you talking?
Finding the right venue for a conversation, whether online or in the real world, can make a big difference in determining its direction.
First, there’s the decision of whether to have a conversation in public or in private. Because public conversations involve an audience, there’s always the threat of the other person playing to the audience — and playing to win. Private conversations are less likely to turn into a circus (although the downside is that you reach fewer people).
There’s also the consideration of whether to interact online — whether in text, audio, or video — or in person. But this choice comes with some hard-to-adjust-for variables. People speak and interpret each other’s speech differently in these worlds (i.e., you don’t have tone of voice or body language to know how aggressive someone is being). Each pairing of people in an online conversation brings its own communication challenges.
If there’s doubt about someone’s goals or about how you may interpret each other, moving the conversation from the public sphere to a private space — potentially even to the real world — can help. Refusing any of these modifications could, again, signal a bad-faith engagement.
There’s also the issue of timing: The ideal approach to scientific communication gets ahead of public concerns, said Jetelina. She has written that this kind of proactive method requires anticipating and preventing information voids by providing timely and digestible answers to questions before they arise. For example, she suggests, public health authorities could be releasing a lot of messaging right now in anticipation of the RSV vaccine misinformation likely to appear this fall.
What and how are you communicating?
Determining what to say and how to say it when the stakes seem high can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to. The most critical thing here, says Jetelina, is listening to the concerns of the person you’re talking to.
Asking what concerns and questions a person has, and patiently hearing them out, allows you to zero in on what information they might have wrong — and what they might have right. “When you’re able to pinpoint it, and you’re able to find that kernel of truth, that’s when you’re able to start breaking it down and bringing them along for that scientific discovery,” said Jetelina.
This applies to other subjects where misinformation plays an important role in shaping opinions. Research on combating anti-trans prejudice has shown that nonjudgmental listening, following up on concerns, and asking people to reflect on their lived experiences can actually help move the needle on changing viewpoints.
When she shares facts with people in these scenarios, Jetelina says she’s not trying to convince them to take one action or another. “I’m okay with anyone making whatever individual-level decision they want, as long as they have the evidence-based science presented to them,” rather than basing their decisions on myths and disinformation, she said.
Part of working toward a better future is having conversations with people we disagree with that are genuine enough to allow us to find things in common, said Jetelina. It’s hard work, but it’s better than the alternative.
Debates like the one Rogan envisioned “just don’t help people discover what’s true,” Jetelina said, “and it’s hard for scientists to watch and participate in, as well.”