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.