The Joe Rogan Experience: When ‘debate’ creates an imbalance between science and misinformation

The Joe Rogan Experience: When ‘debate’ creates an imbalance between science and misinformation

By: john faerseth&
uzma afreen&
June 30 2023

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The Joe Rogan Experience: When ‘debate’ creates an imbalance between science and misinformation

Image source: Reuters

Vaccine scientist Peter Hotez was recently tweet-challenged by podcaster Joe Rogan to debate political activist and vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his show ‘The Joe Rogan Experience.’ Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and a professor of pediatrics, molecular virology, and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine at the University of Houston, frequently debunked COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on social media during the pandemic.

On June 17, 2023, he tweeted an article from VICE that criticized an interview with Kennedy on Rogan’s podcast. In response, Rogan challenged him to debate Kennedy on his show, offering to donate $100,000 to a charity of Hotez's choice if he accepted. Other public figures and vaccine skeptics followed suit, bringing the total pledge to over $600,000. Twitter Owner Elon Musk and former US President Donald Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon also chimed in with their support for Rogan’s challenge.

Hotez responded on Twitter, expressing willingness to speak with Rogan and agreed to appear on his show. Rogan then called Hotez's response a "non-answer" and continued to push for a debate with a large audience. This reportedly led to Hotez receiving a deluge of online attacks and being harassed outside his home on June 17, 2023

During the podcast 

In the original podcast, Kennedy, the eldest son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, presented false claims about vaccines. He stated that mercury in vaccines causes autism in children and that the decline in infectious diseases is due to better sanitation and hygiene, not vaccines. 

Kennedy on The Joe Rogan Experience. Source: YouTube

Kennedy also claimed that ivermectin could be used to treat COVID-19 but had been suppressed in favor of vaccines. Logically Facts has previously debunked these claims. Several studies have shown no relation between vaccines and the development of autism, and the role of vaccines in combating infectious diseases cannot be denied. Nor is there evidence of ivermectin being effective against COVID-19. 

Robert Kennedy Jr. has been a noted vaccine skeptic since 2005 when he published an article about an alleged conspiracy to cover up links between the mercury-based preservative thimerosal and autism. Due to numerous factual errors, the article was later pulled down by both Salon and Rolling Stone, who had initially published it. There is no evidence of a connection between thimerosal and autism, and thimerosal has not been used in children’s vaccines since 1999. 

Rogan’s podcast, ‘The Joe Rogan Experience,’ recently celebrated its 2000th episode on Spotify and has long been a pool of anti-vaccine narratives, climate change denial, and other misinformation and conspiracy theories.

To debate or not debate

Hotez was later interviewed on MSNBC, explaining that he does not view science as a topic of debate and espoused the values of peer review.

Asbjørn Dyrendal, professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and researcher of conspiracy theories, told Logically Facts that debates such as the one Hortez was invited to participate in are not conducive to establishing truth. 

“Participating in this kind of debate means giving publicity and legitimacy to people who really have nothing valid to contribute. They take place in an arena oriented towards attention-seeking and not truth-seeking. As a scientist, you start out with a huge handicap since simple messages are more effective than scientific truth,” Dyrendal said, adding, “Engaging in a debate this way establishes a ‘false balance’ that both views are equally worth considering. It activates and repeats the ideas and frames of known falsehoods that can be very sticky, for instance, because they typically use narrative conventions of popular fiction, with the world divided into villains, heroes, and victims.”

In the past week, several scientists have stated that they consider Twitter increasingly “scary” due to a shift in anti-vaccine views and increased anti-scientific rhetoric. 

The misinformation podcast?

This is not the first time ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ has hosted guests who have indulged in conspiracy theories and peddled misinformation. In an episode released on Spotify on 14 January 2023, comedians Matt McCusker and Shane Gillis, hosts of Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast, downplayed the effects of climate change. In another episode released on January 18, YouTuber Jimmy Corsetti claimed that Earth’s magnetic fields will shift and cause a global catastrophe. 

Joe Rogan hosting the podcast. Source: Spotify

Vaccines have long been a popular topic on the podcast. One of the most controversial episodes was with American physician and biochemist Robert W Malone, a prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptic. 

In an episode released in December 2021, Malone claimed that President Joe Biden had urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to conceal the successful use of ivermectin in Uttar Pradesh. “Whatever was in those packages was rumored to include ivermectin. But there was a specific visit of Biden to Modi, and a decision was made in the Indian government not to disclose the contents of those packages that were being deployed in Uttar Pradesh,” he stated. However, there is no evidence that ivermectin caused a fall in infection rates in Uttar Pradesh. 

Bret Weinstein, American author, former professor of Biology, and renowned COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, has also been interviewed. In an appearance in January 2023, Weinstein claimed that the term vaccine was really a label for gene therapy. The day after Rogan challenged Hotez to a debate, Weinstein tweeted in favor of Kennedy.

Earlier, on April 29, 2021, Rogan clarified on his podcast that he was not anti-vaccine. “In fact, I said I believe they're safe, and I encourage many people to take them. My parents were vaccinated. I just said I don't think that if you're a young, healthy person that you need it,” he said. However, Rogan has continued to host guests who push anti-vaccine rhetoric.

The Spotify deal

In May 2020, Spotify made an official announcement about securing an exclusive licensing agreement for Rogan's show following a highly competitive process. The deal was reportedly worth more than a hundred million dollars. ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ reached the number-one spot on Spotify’s Top Global Podcasts for 2020, 2021, and 2022

The platform relies heavily on a diverse group of content creators, each with a niche following. Still, none of them possess significant individual influence, unlike Rogan. 

Source: Spotify

Spotify previously deleted podcast episodes related to COVID-19 misinformation and added “content advisory” notices to episodes discussing coronavirus. During a conversation about Spotify giving a platform to Rogan, Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told The Guardian, “This story is a synecdoche of big tech’s arrogance, indifference, and greed over the past decade. They are the custodians of the most powerful communication technology in history.” 

“Their business model is a short-termist grab for cash that, ironically, destroys their long-term brand value. We should do everything we can in society to force reform,” he added.

We have reached out to Spotify for a statement, and the story will be updated if and when they respond.

Sharing misinformation

David Helfand, author of ‘A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age,’ told Logically Facts that we respond to misinformation in two ways. “If it is surprising, it grabs the brain’s attention. A study showed that false statements on the internet spread six times faster than true statements —  we want to share surprises,” Helfand says. 

Alluding to confirmation bias, he added, “The other response is to misinformation that aligns with one's values —  this is comforting just because it is not surprising and can be shared with like-minded people to reinforce group identity.” He believes that, due to these responses, misinformation becomes readily accepted in society, which causes not only poor personal decisions but larger, more impactful decisions of public policy that can cause widespread harm to society and the planet at large.

The nature of the internet itself means that information of all kinds can be expressed freely, without restriction or damage limitation. This makes real-world consequences impossible to control. Scientific expertise once considered the societal benchmark for public health and safety, is consistently undermined. 

Referring to a 2017 book by Tom Nickolls on how the information age has helped fuel resistance to authoritative knowledge and a disdain for experts, Helfand notes, “Given that we live in an age of ‘The Death of Expertise,’ such statements from a so-called expert would only make it more likely believers in such nonsense will stick to their beliefs and seek out information on the internet (of which there is plenty) to bolster their beliefs.” 

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before