RFK Jr. and How to Deal with Conspiracy Theorists
Sunday, June 25th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: RFK Jr. and how to deal with conspiracy theorists.
Heads up: The Bagel will be published at a later time next Sunday!
KNEAD TO KNOW
The head of the Wagner private military company ordered his troops to march on Moscow before abruptly reversing course. Wagner commander Yevgeny Prigozhin struck a deal with the Kremlin and reportedly won’t face any punishment after being charged with inciting an armed rebellion. The incident represented one of the most significant challenges to Vladimir Putin’s power in his more than two decades as Russia’s leader.
A federal judge struck down the Arkansas law banning gender-affirming care for minors. “Rather than protecting children or safeguarding medical ethics, the evidence showed that the prohibited medical care improves the mental health and well-being of patients and that, by prohibiting it, the State undermined the interests it claims to be advancing,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. “The testimony of well-credentialed experts, doctors who provide gender-affirming medical care in Arkansas, and families that rely on that care directly refutes any claim by the State that the Act advances an interest in protecting children.”
The story of a private submersible that imploded during an ocean expedition to the Titanic dominated this week’s news cycle. Advocates and people on social media noted the nonstop coverage and intense international search for the submersible – including live coverage by several mainstream news outlets – was in stark contrast to the news coverage given to hundreds of migrants who died when their boat sank near Greece the previous week.
Bitcoin had a strong week after an unexpected surge in price. The price of bitcoin gained around 17% (about $4,400) between Monday and Friday, largely due to three financial services giants (BlackRock, Invesco, and WisdomTree) applying for spot ETFs in recent days.
RFK Jr. and How to Deal with Conspiracy Theorists
Where were you when Joe Rogan and Elon Musk sent their fanboys to harass an esteemed vaccine scientist who declined to “debate” RFK Jr. on Rogan’s podcast? Wherever you were, it was better than being on Twitter. Accepting a conspiracy theorist’s demand to “debate” only platforms their nonsense and cheapens the work of real experts, no matter how popular the nonsense has become.
So, what does the research say about why some people trust non-experts over informed opinion? And how should you really deal with a conspiracy theorist?
Dr. Peter Hotez had the misfortune of becoming Twitter’s main character this week, going the worst kind of viral after an ugly encounter with podcast host and noted non-scientist Joe Rogan.
Hotez, an actual scientist who’s spent his career developing vaccines for neglected tropical diseases, waded into the naturally off-putting world of chronically online right-wing men by sharing a Vice article criticizing Spotify, owner of Rogan’s podcast, for no longer attempting to counter the flood of misinformation coming out of Rogan and his guests.
The article came after Rogan’s recent episode featuring “Democratic” presidential “candidate” RFK Jr., the politically dynastic anti-vaccine edgelord currently being propped up by far-right media personalities as a viable alternative to President Joe Biden.
I won’t republish RFK’s dangerous rhetoric, nor Rogan’s unintelligible defense of it, but suffice to say the show was a mess. Here’s a one-sentence summary by Anna Merlan, author of the aforementioned Vice article:
After Hotez shared Merlan’s article, Rogan challenged him to come on the podcast to “debate” RFK about vaccine science, offering Hotez $100,000 to the charity of his choice for the illusory privilege. Hotez didn’t succumb to Rogan’s unearned confidence, nor the additional money offered by hedge fund billionaires and has-been tech bros, who, despite all of their smarts and success, seem to support RFK’s bizarreness and likely doomed “candidacy.”
The drama eventually spilled over from Twitter and landed on Hotez’s front door, with one especially unstable content creator (who fancies himself a “pedophile hunter” on Twitter) stalking and questioning Hotez outside his home on Father’s Day.
Back on the internet, actual experts and well-informed people defended Hotez, including The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, and Science chief editor Holden Thorp, each of whom sent right-wing Twitter accounts into fits.
The reasons why Hotez (and any scientific expert) should never debate an unscientific wannabe politician like RFK might not be readily obvious, since debates can sometimes meaningfully add to public discourse, but they are profound.
First, debates like these between an expert and a pseudoscientific conspiracy theorist only serve to elevate and legitimize the nonsense and delegitimize the science. Why? Because debates are supposed to be about two equally plausible arguments, not one side offering a reasoned opinion and the other saying something like “whales can fly and the government doesn’t want you to know.” Yes, science is meant to be questioned and tested, but not by clearly false notions like Wi-Fi causes cancer (like RFK believes).
Second, a “debate” on Rogan’s podcast wouldn’t be offered to an audience ready and willing to change their minds after being presented with new evidence. It’d be tossing Hotez to the lions in front of a cheering audience of hyenas only waiting for him to finish talking so they could hear RFK fill the air with whatever unscientific nonsense they came predetermined to believe.
Third, not every debate is actually meaningful. Society doesn’t gain anything by Hotez debating RFK since it would do nothing to enlighten the public. If Rogan found a vaccine “scientist” willing to peddle RFK’s nonsense and defend it against scientific rigor, that could be a worthwhile debate for Hotez or someone to take up, but not whatever the mess between Hotez and RFK would be.
Finally, unscientific liars peddling demonstrably false notions have no inherent right to be debated. They’re free to shout their ideas as loud as they want on whichever podcasts they want while the rest of us ignore them and go about our lives here in the real world. Hotez owes no obligation to RFK or any other person shouting “debate me!”
MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan put it more simply:
Still, the whole saga makes you wonder: why are some people so ready and willing to accept the vaccine opinions of an ex-comedian podcast host and a non-scientist political “candidate” over the opinion of a legitimate doctor who’s spent his whole career studying vaccines?
What is it about Rogan, RFK Jr., and other charlatans that make their followers so ready to accept whatever they say as truth? Why do they seem so eager to trust the opinions of non-experts over experts?
It sounds like an easy enough thing to do: trust the medical opinion of a doctor over the medical opinions of a podcast host and political “candidate.” But it’s not, at least not for some people.
So, let’s go over what the research says about why certain people are so drawn to non-expert opinions, and the best strategies for dealing with conspiracy theorists.
What the research says:
The above-mentioned Atlantic writer Tom Nichols actually wrote a book on why people trust non-experts, called The Death of Expertise.
According to Nichols, society’s “collapse of faith in experts” boils down to America’s narcissistic society. A society in which people without medical expertise think nothing of it to march into their doctor’s office and explain how cancer works because they saw a video on TikTok and “did their own research.”
Nichols says today’s total rejection of experts by some is different than just distrusting experts, which is normal. If you hear something from an expert that confuses you, it’s natural to want that expert to explain more before you decide to trust them. That’s different, Nichols says, than some people feeling they’re smarter on every subject than the experts trying to help them.
It also becomes harder to defeat nonsense when people can band together online and tell themselves they’re right despite all evidence to the contrary. Here’s what Nichols told PBS in 2020:
University of Waterloo researcher Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, author of On Expertise, suggests people’s growing distrust of experts also stems from the evolving concept of what actually counts as expertise today, since experts now come from many different backgrounds, academic or otherwise. Mehlenbacher also believes today’s rampant online misinformation and bad faith discrediting of real experts helps drive the distrust.
Why it matters:
So, how do you handle conspiracy theorists? It’s best to get to them early.
A recent study by researchers at University College Cork in Ireland systematically reviewed the literature on how to best counteract conspiracy beliefs, finding most traditional methods, like fact-checking and counterarguments, are the least effective.
Instead, the team found the most effective method for countering conspiracies is drawing the person’s attention to the factual inaccuracies of the conspiracy before they’re actually exposed to its message. Another effective method involved a 3-month educational course on differentiating between scientific and pseudoscientific practices.
In his book, Foolproof, Cambridge University professor Sander van der Linden takes early exposure a step further, describing a pre-exposure method called “prebunking.”
van der Linden likens misinformation’s spread to a virus, taking hold quickly and becoming hard to shake. In a series of experiments, van der Linden and his team found warning a person about a conspiracy’s attempt to manipulate their opinion before they actually hear the conspiracy helps the person “inoculate” themselves and build “immunity” to the false claims.
Essentially, the researchers found warning someone about an incoming attempt to deceive them helps make the person more alert to the attempt and less susceptible to the false information.
So, what does this mean for us?
Well, regarding the COVID vaccines, we’ve probably missed our chance to “prebunk” online right wingers dead set on believing the vaccines are dangerous.
When it comes to your personal life, however, the research seems to indicate it helps to point out the conspiracy’s attempt to deceive someone. It also indicates it doesn’t really help to fact-check or make counterarguments, so save your breath. Instead, try to show the person they’re being deceived and why pseudoscientific methods are false. If that doesn’t work, move on and live your life.
It’s sad that people like RFK and Rogan are willing and able to manipulate people with false scientific opinions, but we live in an era of misinformation, so it’s not exactly a surprise.
Truthfully, I don’t like even having to pretend to take RFK seriously (his own family doesn’t). He’s a joke candidate who thinks he talks to dead people and has no real shot at winning, so why does the media even care?
The ugly truth is that Rogan and RFK’s claims have legs, and some people take what they say seriously.
A study published last year on social media and vaccine hesitancy found Rogan’s audience was extremely distrustful of vaccines and one of the least likely to be vaccinated, as were the audiences of several other prominent right-wing media personalities, like Candace Owens (her audience was the least likely to be vaccinated), Kayleigh McEnany, Dan Bongino, and Ben Shapiro. So, the messaging clearly works.
Setting aside the sadistic rush we’re all guilty of feeling when someone we disagree with gets hammered on social media, the reality is that the whole thing really is just sad.
It’s sad that swarms of people rush to attack legitimate experts at the whims of podcast hosts and political “candidates” so willing to lie to them. It’s sad that platforms like Spotify have given up on countering COVID misinformation. And it’s sad that right-wing media personalities use their positions of trust to deceive their audiences about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID vaccines in exchange for money and fame.
Saddest of all? The personalities telling their audiences the vaccines are dangerous are probably all vaccinated themselves.
The VA Denies Health Benefits for Black Veterans More Often Than White Veterans
The Department of Veterans Affairs is more likely to deny health benefits to Black veterans than their white colleagues, according to internal data compiled by the agency. The data dates back to fiscal year 2017 and shows white veterans had a higher grant rate for every year between then and fiscal year 2023.
In fiscal year 2023, 84.8% of all Black veterans who applied for physical or mental health benefits were given assistance by the VA, compared to 89.4% of white veterans who applied.
The data reinforces reporting earlier this year that found Black veterans were denied benefits for PTSD more often than white veterans.
Scientists Are Sounding the Alarm About an Unprecedented Marine Heatwave in the North Atlantic
Ocean temperatures around the U.K. and much of Europe are 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, the warmest the waters have been at this time of year in more than 170 years. Experts say the extreme temperatures pose a “serious threat” to local ecosystems that have never experienced such high temperatures at this point of the year.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered the event as a Category 4 on its marine heatwave scale, with some areas reaching Category 5, the highest categories on the scale.
The U.K.’s weather forecasting authority said the heatwave is a culmination of a period of rising ocean temperatures in the region that began in April.
Australia Threatened to Fine Twitter Around $470,000 Per Day for Hate Speech
Australia’s online safety regulator has issued a legal notice to Twitter demanding the company explain how it’s handling hate speech on the platform in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover in October 2022. The notice gives Twitter 28 days to respond or face a maximum penalty of up to $700,000 Australian dollars (around $470,000 US dollars at the time of publication) per day for continued breaches.
In a press release, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, who’s also a former senior employee at Twitter, said her agency has received more hate complaints about Twitter in the past 12 months than any other social network, and “an increasing number of reports of serious online abuse since Elon Musk’s takeover of the company.”
The agency specifically referenced Musk’s “general amnesty” for banned accounts announced in November, which reinstated some 62,000 banned or suspended accounts to the platform, including 75 accounts with over 1 million followers.
A Year After Dobbs, Most Americans Think the Decision Has Been Bad for the U.S.
A new survey by CBS News and YouGov found 57% of U.S. adults believe the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade last year was mostly bad for the country, compared to 43% that believe it’s been mostly good.
Among women, 53% believe being pregnant in the U.S. has become more dangerous post-Roe and 52% think the Dobbs decision has been a step backwards for women’s rights.
Wide partisan gaps obviously persist, with 75% of Democrats and 59% of independents viewing the decision to overturn Roe as bad for the country, while 68% of Republicans believe it’s been a good thing.
Drivers Killed More Pedestrians Last Year Than in Any Year Since 1981
A new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found 7,508 pedestrians were struck and killed by drivers on American roads last year, up 77% since 2010 and the most pedestrian deaths in a year since 1981.
The GHSA believes the true total number of pedestrian deaths in 2022 is actually higher than reported, since Oklahoma, which averages 92 pedestrian deaths a year, didn’t submit any data.
“The saddest part is that these crashes are preventable,” said GHSA CEO Jonathan Adkins. “We know what works – better-designed infrastructure, lower speeds, addressing risky driving behaviors that pose a danger to people walking. We must do these things and more to reverse this awful trend and protect people on foot. Enough is enough.”
California’s Largest Study of Homelessness in Decades Revealed a Fundamental Issue: Rents Are Simply Too High
A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco surveyed 3,2000 homeless people in California, finding most entered homelessness because the cost of housing had become too high. The researchers say their study is “the largest representative study of homelessness in the U.S. since the mid-1990s.”
The study found respondents’ median monthly household income in the six months prior to entering homelessness was $960, with 70% believing a monthly rental subsidy of $300 to $500 would have prevented their homelessness. The median monthly income was $1,400 among respondents who held a lease in the six months prior to homelessness. For context, the median monthly rent in California is over $2,800, according to Zillow.
“People are homeless because their rent is too high. And their options are too few. And they have no cushion,” said lead author Margot Kushel. “And it really makes you wonder how different things would look if we could solve that underlying problem.”
$10.3 billion - How much 3M has agreed to pay to settle a host of claims by local governments in the U.S. claiming the company polluted water systems with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also called “forever chemicals.” The settlement allows 3M to not admit actual responsibility for the pollution.
-12.2% - The year-to-date drop in murder rates among 90 large U.S. cities, according to preliminary data reviewed by analyst Jeff Asher. Asher says the U.S. could be experiencing one of the largest annual percent changes in murder rates ever recorded, though the second half of the year may reverse the trend.
13,000 - The approximate number of weddings in the U.S. last year that cost over $1 million, according to data from Think Splendid. For context, the average wedding cost $30,000 in 2022.
Long Video. Why is Disney World in Florida? (10 min)
Short Video. Learn why tap-to-pay is safer than swiping your credit card. (7 min)
Fun Video. Step inside Barbie’s real-life Dreamhouse with Margot Robbie. (7 min)
Good Read. What is “truth”? (1,157 words; 6 min)
Neat List. These National Parks are hosting stargazing festivals this summer.
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Written by Ryan Wittler