There’s a reflex, when you think you know about a particular topic, to engage in discussions and disagreements using that knowledge as your primary tool. Most of the time this is fine, but when it comes to debates and public arguments, it turns out that being correct and knowledgeable can count for much less than being a fast talker who’s good at engaging with an audience. When it comes to Joe Rogan, it’s generally not hard to point out where he’s factually wrong, but as with young-earth creationists and climate deniers, that’s often not enough. It’s also important to consider how he responds to disagreement, and whether it’s worth engaging with him at all.
John Stewart recently declared Rogan to be “someone you can engage with”, which prompted Rebecca Watson to take a skeptical look not at whether Rogan is right or wrong about a given issue, but specifically at what happens when he is provably wrong, and someone tries to point that out to him.
And this is perfectly encapsulated in the Josh Zepps interview: Rogan takes approximately 10 seconds to say “for young boys in particular there’s an adverse risk associated with the vaccine: there’s a 2-4 fold increase in incidences of myocarditis.”
Zepps responds “Yes, you know there’s an increase in myocarditis in that cohort from getting COVID as well which exceeds the risk of myocarditis from the vaccine.” That also takes him approximately 10 seconds.
Rogan responds “I don’t think that’s true.” In the next 60 seconds, Rogan reads the article that says Zepps is correct, and argues that it’s not true for children, at which point Zepps needs to dumb it down for him a little to make sure Rogan understands that it IS about the cohort he’s talking about. When it becomes indisputable that Zepps is correct, Rogan objects to the source of the article, and just starts saying complete nonsense: “That is NOT what I’ve read before, and also it’s like even when we’re reading these things where are we getting this from even from the VAERS report, the amount of people that report, the underreporting.”
So he never actually admits that he was wrong. The best he can do is say it’s “interesting” and “not what (he’s) read before.” And that, to Jon Stewart, is an example of someone who isn’t an idealogue, someone we can engage with. And this is the BEST POSSIBLE CIRCUMSTANCE: Rogan was speaking with someone who already knew the actual answer to the single piece of misinformation he happened to spout at that time; Rogan’s opponent was a white man who he respected; and the opponent did not back down when Rogan continued pushing back.
Now let’s see what happens when Rogan says a piece of misinformation and is confronted by an expert in the field on which he’s pontificating, but it’s NOT a white man who he respects. On the Opie and Anthony show, Rogan claims that researchers recently found a new chimpanzee called the Bondo ape in the Congo, a 6 foot tall 400 pound chimp that nests on the ground, walks upright, and kills lions. Then a PhD primatologist calls in. Let’s see what happens (starting at 5:40)!
I bet some of you were thinking “well it’s not because she’s a woman” right up until he yelled “I have a vagina” at the end, weren’t you? Admit it. I mean, he’s also dismissive of men who know more than him but he doesn’t usually have the guts to scream over them quite so heartily.
And again, that was just ONE false claim. It took Rogan about a minute to make it, and when a primatologist had the nerve to point out that he was wrong (which he was: the “Bondi ape” was announced in 2003 and by 2004 researchers confirmed that it was a common chimp), he spent several minutes just screaming epithets over her. In the course of a regular Joe Rogan show, he can make dozens of false and misleading claims that no one would be able to rebut.
It can be difficult to navigate the confluence of free speech and bigotry at times, but this particular instance doesn’t seem particularly hard to figure out. I’m generally of the opinion that when someone has an outsized amount of power, they also have a comparable amount of responsibility to the rest of society. That means that they also are going to have more limits on their freedom, simply because of the damage they can do. Rogan’s massive audience means that he can’t just be some guy talking to people he finds interesting. He has a massive amount of influence, and he’s paid very, very well for that. He is responsible for damage that he does in spreading misinformation, and that should make him more careful about what he says. Hell, it wouldn’t even require him to do more work – at his level of wealth, he could easily pay people to do fact-checking and analysis for him, and to hold his hand through pre-interview research.
For a man with his resources, ignorance is a choice. For a man with his influence, willful ignorance is a danger. I think it’s very respectable for Young and others to choose not to associate with Spotify and Rogan, and all this hand-wringing about freedom of speech rings more than a little hollow. Maybe Rogan will change – I’m not optimistic enough to believe he’ll go away – but in the meantime I think Watson’s right. Rogan isn’t worth engaging with directly, and there are better ways to refute someone than going on their show to debate them. I’m not going to think less of people who keep their work on Spotify because they can’t afford not to – it’s certainly no worse than selling books on Amazon – but I am glad to see that they’re taking at least a little bit of a hit from all this.