Should I debate the fringe?
Recently, I was asked to debate some people who I would categorized as"Covid misinformation celebrities” in a rather large public forum online.
Should I engage with these folks? I’m curious what you think, as readers who both know me and who care about high-quality medical information. So, please share your views, including your experiences with this in the comments section at the end. Whether you’ve tried to debunk misinformation at your dinner table or on national television, I’d like to know what you’ve experienced and whether you found the attempt to be worthwhile.
This is a classic dilemma for someone like me. I treat real patients. I do real research. I am faculty at a real (and prestigious) medical school. Should I engage and debunk medical misinformation, or would I just be “lending the opposition credibility” by appearing on a virtual stage with its purveyors?
In the last couple years, my general take has been to ignore the conspiracy theorists, the data deniers, and the generally bad-faith opposition. Early in the pandemic, I used to dunk on these people on Twitter, but eventually felt that my engagement probably did more to help the grifters gain clout than it clarified facts for our shared audiences. I realized I was wasting precious hours trying to put out what amounts to an erupting volcano of misinformation with my trusty fire hose. Instead, my focus has been on adding information to the internet by writing for people eager for genuinely useful information that they can use to make the best choices—i.e., you!
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But I am beginning to worry that nobody from “our side” is showing up to these fights anymore. And I get it, because I’m also tired. Still, when misinformation—or even benign misinterpretations from more well-meaning corners—goes uncorrected, those wrong ideas are more likely to perpetuate.
The question then is, which fights should I show up to and which dumpster fires should I just let burn out on their own. On one hand…this classic comic…
Every time I engage in a debate with the opposition, I lose hours (or more) of productivity—time I could have spent doing more research, writing and engaging policy makers, or even writing this here newsletter! So, there are lost opportunity costs to consider.
On the other hand, if social media is the most powerful way to reach people, is it dereliction of duty to sit out, justified by the (truthful) cop-out that, “I’ve got better things to do”? There are not that many people who have a real command of the medical literature who also have the experience, the time, and the stomach to do this type of work. Sometimes I feel like the Bat Signal is being flown, but nobody is responding. That’s why I have, at times, engaged with “the opposition” when many of my colleagues would not.
Here’s a brief thoughtful commentary on this by Dr. Ben Mazer, based on work by Dr. Carl Bergstrom.
I’m honestly torn on what to do in these situations and I welcome your feedback. Where should I draw the line?
I chair a committee at work that makes decisions by consensus. What I've observed about consensus is that folks have to come to l the discussion with an openness or willingness to change their mind based on what they hear, otherwise they'll be dug in on their opinion. If the folks who want to debate are coming to you in good faith, with that openness to changing their mind (even a little bit -- consensus isn't about agreeing about every detail), go ahead and join in. But part of the reason why we are polarized is because people are not open to changing their minds and admitting they might have had incomplete or incorrect information, and if that's the case, no debate will help the situation.
You’d be wasting valuable time.