DEBATABLE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 9th, 2013 by Ed

As a college student a professor in the department in which I was a major garnered some attention for refusing to engage in a "debate" with a publicity-seeking group of Holocaust deniers. Being 20 and generally full of shit, I visited him in office hours and told him that I thought that destroying their feeble arguments in public would be more effective than ignoring them. I'll never forget his response (I believe he was quoting or paraphrasing an authority on the subject): "If I debate them, no one will be convinced that the Holocaust was fake. But many people will be convinced that it is open for debate." The wisdom of that was apparent immediately and has become more central to the way I view social and political issues over time.

With that in mind, I'd like to get a summary of what is going through Katie Couric's mind when she decided to host a "debate" on the "HPV Vaccine Controversy." Seeing how no debate exists and not one shred of evidence links it to anything the anti-vaccine cult has laid upon it, it can hardly be called a controversy and there is nothing to debate. She brings on two mothers, one of whom had a daughter die a couple of weeks after taking the vaccine, and a skeptic described as a vaccine "specialist" to make wild accusations unsupported by anything but emotions. Then she brings out an actual doctor to explain why nothing the viewers just heard makes any sense. Couric also notes that she took her own kids to get the vaccine.

The bizarre thing is that Couric probably thinks not only that this was good, balanced journalism (We heard from Both Sides!) but also that the segment dealt a blow to the anti-vaccine claims. Bringing on actual experts to provide actual facts should have that effect. It would be ideal if those facts are what viewers took away from this segment. The problem is that by having this debate at all soft-headed viewers are likely to take away a different lesson: there is an open debate about the safety of this vaccine.

As the notion that every issue is a debate with two equally valid opposing viewpoints becomes ever more central to our public discourse we see more of these "controversies" every day. Providing a platform for people to make an emotionally charged but factually bankrupt argument ultimately is harmful no matter how good the balm of Debate and having Two Sides to Every Coin makes us feel. The appropriate response to these blatantly false claims is not to air and refute them, but to ignore them altogether. Even the process of poking holes in the argument gives it the kind of exposure it needs to rope in the confused and the gullible.