June 19, 2023 - 10:00am

Last week, the guest on the Joe Rogan podcast was Robert J Kennedy Jr. Among other things, Kennedy is a well-known vaccine sceptic and so Rogan was immediately criticised for giving him a platform.

One of those critics was Professor Peter Hotez, a leading vaccinologist, who took to Twitter to express his disapproval:

Rogan responded by offering to host a debate between Hotez and Kennedy. As an added inducement, he said he’d donate $100,000 to a charity of Hotez’s choice.

The professor was unenthused — and so a debate with RJK Jr. is unlikely to happen. However, Rogan has provoked a furious debate about the debate.

Many of the internet’s self-appointed rationalists are firmly against the idea. The general thrust is that a show-down with the “anti-vaxxers” would be pointless because “you can’t debate crazy”. Or, as George Carlin once said: “Never argue with an idiot. They will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Certainly, it’s hard to fact-check claims and counter-claims in a live setting — thus handing an advantage to the participant most willing to play fast-and-loose with the truth. What’s more, we’re not just talking about a contest of facts and logic, but also of rhetorical ability. There’s a risk that a skilled debater would run rings around a deeply knowledgeable, but less fluent, opponent.

On the face of it, live debates look like a bad way of settling scientific disagreements. However, what’s at stake here isn’t science itself, but political disagreement on scientific issues. There is a distinction. In politics, wrong ideas are less easily confined to the fringe. If we’ve got mainstream politicians claiming that men can have cervixes, for instance, then it’s vital that truth-tellers take a very public stand for reality. Ditto on vaccines, climate change and all the rest of it.

So, yes, the defenders of scientific orthodoxy should go head-to-head with the heretics.

Of course, we’re still left with the limitations of live debate as a format. How, then, would we stop each confrontation from descending into flailing chaos? As with boxing, the answer is rules. I’d suggest three in particular — plus a deal-breaker.

Firstly, no picking on weak opponents. Each side should be free to nominate a champion of their choice to do the actual debating. In this way, any gap in rhetorical ability could be minimised.

Secondly, factual claims — especially those that depend on specialist knowledge — should be limited in number and properly referenced. That would focus the debate on broad principles and logical consistency, while allowing the most important facts to be checked.

Thirdly, the debate should be open-ended, to give fact-checkers time to report back. Their job wouldn’t be to judge who’s won and lost — but to let the audience know if a key claim is disputed, has no credible source or is completely made-up.

Which brings us to the deal-breaker: everybody involved would need to agree on the fact-checkers. The fact-checking industry certainly does not have a stellar reputation — Covid has taught as us much — but independently-minded scientists might be suitable in the role.

Joe Rogan’s $100,000 offer is beside the point. Instead, he should focus on a creating a forum for debate in which BS merchants would be at maximum disadvantage. After all, who could object to that?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.