The Weaponization of Debate

Ten years ago, while still a relatively fresh academic, I was invited onto the Joe Rogan podcast to debate Peter Duesberg, a biologist who was infamously claiming that the HIV virus is not the cause of AIDS. I declined the invitation for several reasons, not least of which was that I was not comfortable granting credibility to a fringe and dangerous theory. 

I have second guessed that decision every day, as the podcast has grown to service an audience bigger than that of CNN. That memory was brought forth again this week as once more Rogan has invited a scientist –paediatrician and vaccine inventor Peter Hotez– to debate Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy (RFK) Jr, after the latter’s many anti-vaccination claims.

Rogan’s challenge has set Twitter alight, with many berating Hotez to accept the invitation, while others decry the very invitation itself. The episode demands that we interrogate the question of what value such debate brings to the enterprise of science.

Debating socially relevant issues has a long history, going back to the storied intellectual traditions of ancient Greece, India, and other cradles of civilization. According to the American Debate League, the aim of debate is “to convince the opposition that you are right.” But according to Aristotle, debate has four purposes: (1) to see both sides of an argument, (2) to instruct the public, (3) to prevent injustice, and (4) to defend oneself. 

Viewed through this seductive lens, it’s understandable how one could feel that any topic would be rendered clearer through the filter of debate. In today’s polarised society, though, the desire for debate is not so much to render a final truth as it is to see one’s own side represented. It is often entertainment via conflict, with little regard for any truths that might be squeezed out in the process.

We can therefore add a fifth purpose to Aristotle’s list: (5) to present one’s agenda to a bigger audience. Thus, “winning” is often not the goal of many debaters. Simply being present is victory enough.

What is the metric for debate success, anyway? The Munk Debates, hosted by the University of Toronto, decide a winner based on the number of audience members whose minds were changed. But people can be won over by many things, not just by the evidence laid before them. In other words, a debate might be won by the power of oratory and the charm of the speaker, not just by the quality of the argument.

In Plato’s “Gorgias”, Socrates concludes that rhetoric is no more than flattery, wherein a speaker wins over an audience by causing them to identify with that speaker, and not necessarily by presenting a superior argument. And indeed this appears to be the tack taken by all modern political debaters, for whom facts are fluidly convenient, necessitating a retreat to practised charm.

Within the domain of professional science, though, the crucible of truth is not on the debate stage, but in the pages of peer review, where criticism is naked and brazen. Facts must be proven, claims backed by citation, and conclusions must flow rationally from the evidence brought forth. In medical science specifically, fallacies and biases are interrogated through statistics and the hierarchy of preferred study designs, which in turn are reviewed by experts in statistics and research methods. 

While surely flawed, peer review’s imperfections are flattened out by the scientific requirement of reproducibility. A new truth is not accepted until the observation is repeated multiple times in multiple environments by different investigators. And even then, the caveat is that all of this is true only until further notice, when new data offer the opportunity to unseat the dominant paradigm.

To paraphrase a Twitter friend, debate is a skill like woodworking or cooking. What constitutes scientific truth should not depend on a speaker’s ability to deftly rebuff an unproven statement or an outright lie, nor indeed on his charm or agreeableness. Majority vote does not determine scientific truth. Sober expert consensus in the form of peer review is the best we have for that now.

I feel confident that I made the right decision ten years ago. Neither I nor Mr Duesberg would have changed each other’s minds. I bristle at the possibility that the audience’s acceptance of my scientific argument would be dependent upon my own questionable charisma. All that would have been accomplished would have been the lending of my limited credibility to harmful AIDS denialism.

Whatever decision Mr Hotez makes, it’s important that we do not construe a “debate” between himself and RFK Jr as any kind of test of scientific validity. Gorgias acceded to Socrates that the art of rhetoric is more effective before a lay audience than before experts, because to the inexpert, persuasion, charm and oratory count more than do mere facts. None of this is science.