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Anti-Vaxxers Don’t Want a Debate; They Want a Spectacle

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

With the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a noted vaccine opponent, and the popularity of vaccine-hostile commentators like Joe Rogan, pseudoscience is having a moment. Dr. Peter Hotez, a highly regarded Texas-based vaccine scientist, knows this all too well. When Hotez criticized Rogan for hosting Kennedy on his podcast, Rogan offered to donate $100,000 to the charity of Hotez’s choice if the scientist debated Kennedy on his show. “Then, billionaires claimed they’d give more money and vaccine skeptics piled on,” the Washington Post reported. Elon Musk joined in, tweeting that Hotez was “afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong.”

Hotez hasn’t taken the bait. Though he has said he would go on Rogan’s show, he has refused to debate Kennedy, enraging anti-vaccine activists who have aggressively harassed him online and in person. Whatever the personal cost, Hotez is right to refuse a debate, many experts say, because doing so would provide anti-vaxxers like Kennedy with an opportunity to spread their baseless views even further. A debate may also validate the harassment that Hotez has faced.

“This is a standard anti-vaccinationist playbook,” explains Andrew Wehrman, a professor of history at Central Michigan University and the author of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution. In the 19th and early-20th centuries, the anti-vaccinationists, as they were then called, would stand outside public libraries and “try to talk to people, but what they often sought was a big public audience,” Wehrman says. “Debates against local public-health commissioners, debates against vaccinators and doctors where they could recite the things that were built up in their literature, on a stage where they’d be on equal footing with the health commissioner or the doctor.”

For public-health commissioners, the anti-vaxx demand for debate became “a Catch-22,” Wehrman says. “If they do it, then they boost the notoriety, the standing, the fame of their opponents,” he added. “And often in a debate situation, the public-health officials are really on their heels because they can’t keep up with the cherry-picked statistics or fabricated anecdotes or especially the emotionally charged speech from their opponents.”

Daniel Loxton, the former editor of Junior Skeptic and the author of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, tells me that debate “is just a very bad way to get at the truth about everything.” Scientists and skeptics learned that lesson amid tangles with creationists and anti-vaxxers alike. Loxton points to the phrase “Gish gallop,” which was coined by his colleague, Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Named for a creationist debater, a Gish gallop allows a person to “get on stage and say a hundred baloney things, or a thousand things, as many as you can fit into your speaking time without the opponent having any chance of addressing even a tenth of those,” Loxton says.

He explains, “So I can get on stage and say, ‘The Darwinist agenda for vaccines are turning children into Toyotas.’ And if my debate opponent wanted to start unpacking that, it’s going to take a lot longer than the one sentence that I just spent spewing that.” Debates, he says, allow a person whose beliefs lack evidence to appeal “directly” to the public. “Sometimes this is purely because they have an ideology, some idea they want to spread. Sometimes it’s because they want to make money, and oftentimes it’s both,” he explains. (Sometimes they’d like to be president.) If someone, like Hotez, takes them up on their demand, “you’ve instantly elevated yourself to an equal and opposite authority to the person that you challenged.”

Anti-vaxxers deprived of a debate with Hotez have resorted to abuse and threats of violence. A heckler showed up at the scientist’s home, and an ammunition company tweeted a photo of bullets inside a bag with Hotez’s name on it. Such incitement is familiar to public-health advocates like Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and former California lawmaker. After Pan co-authored a 2015 bill that ended a personal belief exemption for vaccine requirements for schools and day cares, he and his staff received death threats. “Some of my colleagues had closed their district offices because they’re concerned about the safety of their staff and their district office,” he tells me. In 2019, Pan co-authored another bill to curb the use of medical exemptions by parents opposed to vaccines, and an anti-vaccine activist shoved the doctor in the street, hard.

Kennedy frequently invokes the Holocaust when discussing vaccination, Pan points out, which not only likens physicians to Nazis but seeks to justify their additional harassment. On Twitter, some anti-vaxxers have begun tweeting the hashtag #Nuremberg2. “What should you do to a Nazi?” Pan asks rhetorically. “You should hang them, right?” It’s not the first time anti-vaxxers have relied on violent imagery. When controversy erupted over Pan’s 2019 bill, an anti-vaxx protester threw blood from her menstrual cup toward lawmakers during the final night of the legislative session, the Los Angeles Times reported. Shortly before the act, protesters brandished signs that showed Pan’s face marked up with red, like blood. Every time Kennedy mentions the Holocaust, “he’s trying to incite violence,” Pan says, adding he’s not surprised that someone showed up at Hotez’s home.

In Pan’s view, the real debate over the safety and efficacy of certain vaccines takes place in medical literature, where scientific claims can be made and critically evaluated. But anti-vaxxers don’t want a debate, he says. “They want amplification, spectacle,” he explains. “That’s how they make their money. That’s how they get followers.” Kennedy and Rogan and Musk “want that gladiatorial fight in the arena,” he says. If they wanted the truth about vaccines, they’d publish research, he argues. It’s hard to check Kennedy’s claims live, however, so a performance is what the candidate seeks. It “takes a lot” to be familiar with Kennedy’s specific pseudoscientific theories, he adds. “You can say, ‘That doesn’t sound right. I think that’s a lie,’” he says. “But they’re going to say, ‘Well, prove it’s a lie.’” Though a good moderator would tell an anti-vaxxer to provide evidence for his claims, that’s not going to happen on Joe Rogan’s show, Pan believes. “It’s a platform for misinformation,” he says. “Whoever is coming on essentially is elevating the person who’s lying.” Anti-vaxxers would get their spectacle. When they win, the rest of us lose.

Anti-Vaxxers Don’t Want a Debate; They Want a Spectacle