Debate as a tool for misinformation and propaganda

David Gorski rips on all those quacks and debate-me bros. It’s good stuff.

Challenges to “live debates” from science deniers are challenges that scientists should, with only the rarest of exceptions, generally decline. Nothing good comes of them, as they are theater, not science. Their purpose is not even really to persuade anyone. Rather, it is to represent pseudoscience as being worthy of being on the same stage (or Zoom meeting) as science, quacks as worthy of having their beliefs presented as being of similar credibility to science-based medicine presented by real doctors, pseudoscientists as worthy of being considered equally with scientists, and conspiracy theorists as worthy of being considered equally with real experts in a field. They are a tool of propaganda and almost never a tool to get at valid science. That’s exactly why cranks love “live public debate” so much, even when faced with criticism from an even crankier crank, and, even better for them, these forums allow them to puff up their egos by convincing themselves that they’ve bested a real expert.

If that doesn’t demonstrate why scientists should politely decline such requests, I don’t know what will. To paraphrase Scott Weitzenhoffer, such debates are like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. Depriving them of that opportunity not only drives them up the wall, but it prevents them from using you, as a scientist, physician, or science communicator as a tool to foil to use to spread their misinformation.

Maybe we ought to have some kind of pledge where we all agree to not give those people oxygen. David has been more consistent than I have in spurning the debate-me bros, but I’d sign it, too.

I have to disagree with him mildly on one thing, though.

I can’t resist spoiling the answer to this question by saying right away that the answer is no. All truth does not come from “live public debate.” I won’t say that it’s always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate like the sort in the “challenges” by Dr. Oz and Steve Kirsch. After all, Steve Novella showed me how it’s done back in 2012 when he accepted a challenge of convenience to debate Dr. Julian Whitaker about vaccines at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in 2012. (The Amazing Meeting was being held the same weekend in Las Vegas; so he and I were there already.) However, it turns out that Dr. Whitaker was very bad at the deceptive debate techniques that cranks use, but also Dr. Novella was very, very good at anticipating and responding to common antivaccine arguments. Even though Dr. Novella basically mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker, I still had misgivings, as I did when Bill Nye similarly wiped the floor with creationist Ken Ham in a debate of science versus pseudoscience with respect to evolution. Basically, I view these examples as the exceptions that prove the rule that scientists really shouldn’t debate cranks…

Floors were neither mopped nor wiped in those debates. They’re still filthy. I agree with Novella and Nye, so I agree that they did a fine job of presenting their position, but no, the “loser” of those debates did not see the error of their ways, and the majority of their fans did not change their minds. I don’t pay any attention to this Whitaker person, but I do check in on Ham now and then — and he brags about his debate. He believes he triumphed, and his followers slavishly agree with him. See also Kent Hovind, who claims to have been in 260 debates, and to have won every single one of them with half his brain tied behind his back. He even claims to have won a debate with me, which didn’t occur!

If those are our best examples of victories, I’m going to go ahead and say it: it’s always a bad idea for a science advocate to agree to a debate.


  1. Kim Plofker says

    The term I use for all such “debates” mimicking actual scientific exchange in order to galvanize and exploit ill-informed popular audiences is “misinfotainment”.

  2. notaandomposter says

    another reason not to ‘debate’ cranks. they are not honest about what a debate ‘is’.
    a debate should be where both sides take a position on an issue and honestly defend their side, using facts. both sides need to agree to the definitions of certain terms, rules of the debate, what is off limits etc. To a crank, a debate is theatre, a way to virtue signal to their followers that the POV being debated is legitimate and they will NOT play by the rules. The debate isn’t about finding facts/revealing truth, it’s a sermon or propaganda. Also ‘winning’ or ‘loosing’ a debate doesn’t necessarily concur with who is ‘right’, just who may have better skills in debate tactics, or is slipperier in evading revealing that they are wrong. An honest debate has as basic tenant (in my opinion) that the ‘loser’ has been proven wrong, and accepts that. These cranks will never do so, and their positions are often unfalsifiable anyway.

    don’t wrestle with a pig. You’ll get covered in mud and the pig probably likes it (and a pig won’t admit when they are wrong)

  3. says

    Debates are performances. Science is written down and organized knowledge – it does not depend on rhetorical tricks or selective reading. What does a debate decide? The information is already sitting there waiting to be read and thought about.

    The “quickly convinced” are Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson fans. A bit of study shows they are liars or wrong. A debate shelters bloviators rather than exposing them.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    “half his brain tied behind his back”.

    Ugh! It’s bad enough that he’s spreading pseudoscientific bullshit, but he has to plagiarize late pile of shit, Rush Limbaugh too?

  5. Artor says

    “If that doesn’t demonstrate why scientists should politely decline such requests…”
    Is there something wrong with impolitely declining?

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    For these chuds, debate is not just performative, it’s their epistemology. To them and their hyper-competitive, strong-conquers-the-weak mindset, confounding a debate opponent with some Gish Galloping bullshit or otherwise spewing nonsense to the thunderous applause of other mouth-breathers is more indictive of “truth” than all the expertise and evidence the other side can muster. If you aren’t willing to debate, it must be because you’ll know you’ll lose to the swaggering confidence they think is “knowledge.”

  7. imback says

    @1. Misinfotainment is a good neologism. Disinfotainment when they’re lying on purpose.

  8. KG says

    Is there something wrong with impolitely declining? – Artor@6

    Robert May is said to have responded to a creationist challenging him to a debate:

    That would look great on your c.v. – not so good on mine.

  9. says

    Society today seem to have this notion that all ideas and voices are equal and deserves equal time. And I think this is poor “social hygiene” for lack of another word. Some topics are done literally to death. Millions of them.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    ‘I’m not trying to be controversial’: Joe Rogan responds to Spotify protests, COVID advisories

    He also said that he schedules the guests on his podcast himself, and that he would try to book doctors with different opinions right after he talks to “the controversial ones.”
    Rogan noted that he had previously sat down on the show with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical correspondent for CNN, Dr. Michael Osterholm, who is a member of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, and Dr. Peter Hotez from Baylor College of Medicine.

    Sort of “fair and balanced” or some such? To give people the idea that both sides have equal weight, and they should make their own choices between sound scientifically-based medicine and whackaloonery?

  11. Deepak Shetty says

    I did sort of figure this out when I realized that Hitchens would likely “win” a debate with most people, no matter what side he chose.

  12. chrislawson says

    Whatever value debates might have had in the past have been made obsolete by modern communication technology. Not only can we all access a wealth of information on any given topic, we can also see original research papers for ourselves (paywall willing — although if it’s a really important paper the journal will often make it open access anyway).

    But even if there was once value in debates, they were being abused as far back as we have history of them. The ancient Athenian democracy worked by direct public voting. Very quickly there arose a group of professional speakers, rhetores, who would argue for whatever position they were paid to. This is the etymology of the word rhetorical, as in rhetorical question and, more to the point with regard to the value of debates, rhetorical fallacy. Initially rhetores was a term of respect as it applied to teachers of the rhetorical arts: poetry, music, history, as well as persuasive speaking. It did not take long for it to evolve into a term of contempt once it applied to professional political operators.

  13. gijoel says

    Unfortunately the general public has a very poor idea as to what a debate entails. In their eyes a debate is when two stuffy, old, white guys stand behind a lectern and make rhetorical points at each other. Real debate, whether scientific, philosophical or pubic affairs don’t occur in such a constrained venue.

    Such debates occur in science journals, convention, newspaper articles, internet forums, emails etc. Serious and meaningful debates don’t occur in the space of an hour. Nor do both sides get equal time as consensus can shift over time and one side of the debate no longer produces any novel arguments.

    It’s not that you shouldn’t debate cranks, it’s that you shouldn’t play by their rules. Cranks have no interest in playing fair and will try to constrain you in such a manner that is conducive to their victory. Should a crank challenge you to a ‘debate’ you should point out that you have already in a debate when you rebutted their stupid ideas and point them towards said resources.

  14. says

    He’s weirdly obsessed. I expect to see another rash of his hate-commenting in the near future, because his style is to make several innocuous comments under a new pseudonym to get past my approval process, and then save up those pseudonyms to splurge in an orgy of stupidity.

    I’m suspecting it might be Franc Hoggle (there’s an old name for those of you around here!), since Hoggle wrote to me back in October to gloat over my demise. Yeah, I know. I checked myself for bullet holes, but I seem to be intact.

  15. wzrd1 says

    Well, the comments are pretty much inline with most of the “debates”. You know, content and quality free, just astroturf bullshit and call the vacuum a valid point.

    Personally, I far prefer scholarly debate, such as cost-benefit analysis discussions, risk profile analysis discussions, etc. If nothing else, at least I learn something new.

  16. Kagehi says

    Its terribly sad that they a) only use one half of their brain doing this stuff, and b) its the half that is currently asleep…

  17. DanDare says

    These debates are between reasoners and dogmatic authoritarians. This means the common moment is happening in two different universes.
    The authoritarian is showing to their audience that he can stand firm with doctrine and not get upset at the vile attempts to trick him out of his good place.
    The reasoner thinks the audience understands how things follow from given established points. This is not how the audience in the other universe deals with things.

  18. DanDare says

    In face to face conversations I prefer to use lateral thinking I ask those I’m talking with to explore the space with me. Unlike Boghosian whose street epistemology is one sided, I truly attempt to be exploring rather than driving to a destination.

  19. Dago Red says

    Generally, audiences usually get what audiences ask for. Debates can be totally useful exchanges, but audiences don’t want useful (that’s too much mental work!), they want theater, they want performance, they want wit and verbal sparring…they simply want nothing more than to be entertained. Until the audiences stops being utterly shallow about what they want from debaters, this is the best we can hope for from this format.

  20. DLC says

    You can’t debate these people. They don’t want an exchange of ideas, or an examination of contrasting viewpoints, they want a chance to get up there, Gish Gallup some talking points, then collect their notes and go home, claiming victory. That they got their clock cleaned means nothing, because they know no permanence of events. What happened an hour ago has no meaning to them, thus they are incapable of learning or changing their minds.