DEBATABLE

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.

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29 Responses to “DEBATABLE”

  1. RosiesDad Says:

    James Fallows addressed false equivalence in the media a couple of months ago, during the shutdown.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/10/a-bountiful-harvest-of-false-equivalence-analyses/280452/

    The best course of action for dealing with the blatantly false would be to ignore it but that strategy would eliminate about 20 cable news stations, sending thousands to collect unemployment benefits.

  2. Andrew Says:

    I agree with you that the Holocaust and the HPV vaccine are not open for debate, but how can we decide which things ARE open for debate if there is no debate?

  3. J. Dryden Says:

    You cannot be fair to the facts by allowing them to be represented as opinions.

  4. grendelkhan Says:

    It's people being flip, but have you considered the metaphorical equivalent of only engaging in debate wearing a clown suit?

    I learned a lot about biology by debating creationists and seeing others do so (many thanks to the compilers of the Index to Creationist Claims!), but I don't have an credibility to impart to them. Indeed, it seems like it should be a useful skill to explain your field to a popular audience.

    So… grad students in clown suits?

  5. Xynzee Says:

    @Andrew: when something is factual. Eg. In base-10 2+2=4. Period. No discussion. There's no maybes or I disagree so I postulate it's really 7.
    Same with: Who killed more Jews? Stalin or Hitler?

    A debate can be had around who do you think will sell us out to Wall St. faster? Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz?

  6. Anonymouse Says:

    What Katie Couric overlooks is that you can't have a rational discussion with the irrational. To use Xynzee's example, 2+2=4. It's obvious, easily-proved, sensible. Irrational people whose worldview has been informed by right-wing news sources and have been carefully trained to ignore reality will go to their deaths insisting 2+2=7 because some drug-addicted child-molester with his own radio show said it. They've been carefully trained to ignore mathematicians, teachers….anyone with an education, really. To quote the great Stephen Colbert, "Reality has a liberal bias".

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    One of the problems, is if people know how to do google-foo on the intertubes, they can find all sorts of material that will back pretty much any position.

    This makes people feel like experts. They read all of the material that supports their position, and then spout it at will.
    What they don't read, is material that will prove their position false.

    The problem with thinking vaccines do more harm than good would be ok if the only people affected were the "morans" and their special little Jayzoos-shielded families.
    But when your little prayers fail to reach Jayzoos, or he wisely decides to ignore your stupid asses, your sick children will infect other children around them, and their families, and their friends.

    Thus, your stupidity and ignorance and faith are a public health hazard.

  8. Anonymouse Says:

    Agreed, Gulag; the anti-vacc'ers are putting everyone's lives at risk, especially that part of the population that can't be immunized (too young or extreme old age, poor health status, pre-existing allergy to ingredients in the vaccine). Some places have seen outbreaks of whooping cough and measles in the general population, and those diseases are killing the vulnerable.

  9. Anonymouse Says:

    Remember, folks, Batshit Bachmann insisted she had met a woman whose teenage daughter was "literally made retarded" by an HPV shot. Stupid people believe these lies.

  10. middle seaman Says:

    Avoiding debates on controversial topics becomes difficult in an open society. Instead, the public should expect debates to follow some minimal guidelines. Medical topics should involve only qualified health care providers. Debates on historical facts should make sure that both sides have documents to rely on.

    Even these guidelines wont eliminate vacuous debates. You'll find scientists denying global warming, physicians blaming vaccines, etc.

    It's like eliminating stupidity. Highly desirable but unachievable.

  11. Anonymouse Says:

    I agree that experts should be debating these things, not former Playboy bunnies. However, there's a growing cohort of Rill Murkkkuns who won't accept any sort of authorities because they've been carefully brainwashed to discount them.

  12. NonXNonExX Says:

    As a newbie to this site, i'm impressed with the level of comments here, but a little surprised that no bunny followers have come to Ms M's defense. (Not that there is any defense for her views.)

  13. Tim H. Says:

    ms M has proven herself to be ornamental, a reminder that beauty is skin deep and stupid goes clear to the bone.

  14. Chuckles Says:

    I think gulag has it nailed. I've got a number of friends who are antivacciners and I actually enjoy engaging with them, I don't know that they feel the same way. I can tell you that on several occassions I have been told that I am not educated on the subject and that they are. Having actually read a great deal of what they consider education on the subject most all of it is random websites from random people (usually trying to sell naturopathic products) with no citations or actual factual evidence of any kind. Also a lot of the type of arguing by annecdote. One friend in particular comes from a very religious family that are all antivaccine and most of her "evidence" and "education" on the subject comes from her sisters.

  15. Robert M. Says:

    Delurking for just a moment here.

    @Andrew: The most predictable reaction to Couric's segment is not "Well, I'm reassured that the consensus of the medical and scientific communities is that Gardasil is as safe as we can make it," but rather "WAIT, VACCINES COULD BE DANGEROUS?!?"

    As Ed says, the major problem with granting equal time to scientists and anti-vax cranks is that it implies that both of them have points worth considering from an objective perspective. After all, Katie listened patiently and nodded along with both sides, right? The subsequent problem is that if a viewer doesn't really follow the arguments being presented, then what's left is a pair of dueling logical fallacies: an appeal to emotion versus an appeal to authority. So that viewer comes away no more certain about the actual answer to the "debate", but more convinced that both sides have something to say.

  16. quixote Says:

    Re Andrew's question (2nd comment) about how to decide what's debatable if debate isn't allowed.

    For scientific issues, which includes anything medical, GMO, climate change, and evolution, I keep pushing for people to use scientific standards. Accept a cutoff number for significance, just as we do in research, and then say "If over (for instance) 98% of scientists / doctors in the field in question agree in peer-reviewed papers that the issue is settled, then it's settled. Ignore the people who don't get it."

    Climate change: over 99% consensus. Evolution: over 99.999999% consensus. Vaccination: over 99.999999% consensus. And so on. For some aspects of GMO, it's lower and there is still something to validly argue about.

  17. chuck Says:

    I like this, a new liberal technique, Make a statement and then declare it NOT OPEN TO DEBATE! Obama is communist muslim, FACT, accepted, not open to debate! See how that works?

  18. Greg Says:

    Yay! You're back. Thank goodness

  19. Leo Artunian Says:

    Yay indeed. It's a Festivus miracle!

  20. erase Says:

    I must be out of touch. I thought the only controversy around the HPV vaccine was whether public health agencies should be paying for it, given its relatively high cost for a vaccine (~$250-300).

  21. Andrew Laurence Says:

    No, there's also a controversy over whether vaccinating children against a STD encourages them to have sex. As if people need any encouragement to have sex.

  22. E* Says:

    Thank goodness you're back! I was beginning to panic.

  23. Benny Lava Says:

    I agree with the thesis but let me take it a step further:

    The point of a debate is not to change the opinion of the debaters but to change the opinion of the crowd. This is why debates are unscientific (and why conservatives love them). Debates usually showcase the oratory skills of the debater rather than the merits of the argument. The nature of the format means anyone can say anything. Remember when Bush debated Kerry and he could say anything he wanted and who could check citations in real time? Think of it this way I could easily out debate Stephen Hawkings. The man uses his tongue to select words on a screen. That doesn't mean I'm right it just means I'm a better speaker. So yeah, no debates.

  24. Barry Says:

    chuck Says:

    "I like this, a new liberal technique, Make a statement and then declare it NOT OPEN TO DEBATE! Obama is communist muslim, FACT, accepted, not open to debate! See how that works?"

    A technique perfected by the right is a liberal technique?

  25. daveawayfromhome Says:

    The problem with any discussion is that there is a kind of rock-paper-scissors quality to it that I think a lot of people don't consciously get. Two people discussing anything with real facts can be considered on equal footing, but as soon as someone starts using emotion, especially fear, instead, facts will lose. The way to beat fear is with humor, which is maybe why so many people think the Daily Show is news. Mockery makes fear look small, which makes those who use it smaller. Mockery can be countered with facts, but that's useless unless you actually have some. I think everyone knows this instinctively, which is why trolls get heckled so mercilessly, but (real) news shows, sadly, aren't allowed to mock anyone, and so facts come out on the loosing side simply through adherence to "balance", despite how a-tilt a subject may be.

  26. Mo Says:

    daveafh – OK, sounds good, let's hear the joke that will make the vaccine fearful feel foolish.

  27. eau Says:

    Hold on, hold on. Are we debating the value of debate here? Fuck I love g@t. Ed, you magnificent bastard, never change.

  28. Berkeleyguy Says:

    The fact that someone doubts that the Holocaust ever occurred, makes it more likely that it could happen again.

  29. Ursula Says:

    We are in a strange place right now, because it wasn't too long ago that horrible things were taken as facts and allowing for additional opinions allowed the truth to be finally heard. There was a time when we needed to add more voices and perspectives to the mix, but now, the two sides argument has gone from a vital necessity to a way to keep us all confused.

    My take is that there really aren't two sides to every story – there are way more that, and learning to determine which ones are valid and which are bullshit is the real skill. After you figure that out, there is no use in re-hashing out the bullshit arguments unless they get some really amazing new evidence.