Joe Rogan and the problem of false balance

joe roganThis is going to be a relatively short post because I only have one simple point that I want to make. Namely, “balance” does not mean presenting conspiracy theories and nonsense alongside facts as if they are equivalent. This is a problem that pervades media coverage of scientific topics and seriously damages the public’s perception of scientific results.

To illustrate this, I want to talk briefly about Joe Rogan, because a Facebook post about him is what inspired this article. Full disclosure, I am, to say the least, not a fan of Rogan. In my opinion he is (to quote a friend of mine), “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person” (which to be clear, does not automatically mean that anyone who likes him is dumb). He frequently makes claims that are nonsense, and he uses his podcast to give a voice to all manner of quacks and conspiracy theorists. At this point, you may be expecting one of my lengthy debunks, but that’s not what I’m going to do here. Rather, I want to focus on the way people perceive his podcast, and why it is a problem.

The post that inspired this article (which unfortunately I did not save) pointed out the false claims that he spouts and the fact that he profits from popularizing these “controversial” positions. What interested me, however, was not the post itself, but rather the comments under it. Tons of people jumped to his defense, and the prevailing argument was (paraphrasing),

“Yes, he sometimes has ridiculous guests, but he also has lots of real scientists and experts on his podcast. It’s called balance, and it’s good to hear both sides.”

NO! That is not balance. We have this idea of “two sides” so deeply ingrained into us that we feel like we have to give credence to opposing views, even if one of them is utter nonsense, but that is an absurd and dangerous position to take. On many topics (particularly scientific topics), there aren’t two sides, and the fact that two people disagree doesn’t mean that there are two valid positions that both have to be treated as if they have merit.

Now, I can already hear people objecting that Rogan often doesn’t endorse the views of his guests. He’s just discussing the topics, asking questions, and letting people voice their views. That may sound innocuous or even good, but when those “views” are demonstrably false and, in the case of medical topics, dangerous, it becomes extremely irresponsible for someone with Rogan’s viewership to give a voice to those positions. Again, letting people talk about utter nonsense as if it is scientifically valid is not being balanced. Factually incorrect positions deserve only ridicule, and they should not be discussed as if they have merit.

If, for example, I am running a podcast and I invite a geologist on to discuss why the earth bulges in the middle and is a spheroid rather than a true sphere, it would be insane for me to “balance” that interview by inviting a flat earther to be a guest. That’s not balance or presenting both sides. One of those people is factually correct, and the other is factually wrong to a laughable degree, and it would be irresponsible for me to give the latter a platform from which to spread their half-baked, factually incorrect ideas.

So, no, when people like Joe Rogan treat conspiracy theorists as if they are making rational arguments, they are not displaying “balance” or presenting “both sides.” They are spreading demonstrable nonsense, plain and simple, and you should stop listening to them. Journalistic integrity does not mean giving everyone a voice regardless of the factual accuracy of what they are saying. In fact, good journalism should figure out what is factually correct before reporting it.

This problem is, of course, much broader than Joe Rogan, with the media presentation of climate change probably being the most obvious example. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is utterly overwhelming. Scientific studies to the contrary are almost non-existent, and the handful that do exist are riddled with problems. There is no serious debate among climatologists on this topic. Anthropogenic climate change is a fact that has been verified by numerous different lines of evidence and the media needs to stop pretending that this is an issue with “two sides.” Balance does not mean giving equal weight to climate change deniers. That would be just as absurd as giving equal weight to a flat earther (see note 2).

This post has become a bit more of an unhinged, rambling rant than I had intended, so let me close with a simple request. Please stop supporting people like Joe Rogan and do not delude yourself into thinking that they are giving you “both sides” of a story or presenting you with “balanced” information. They aren’t, and it is dangerous to pretend that they are. We are living in a golden age of misinformation, and listening to people like Rogan only helps to perpetuate the spread of falsehoods.

Note 1: Obviously any scientific result can, in concept, be overturned with future evidence, but that does not automatically mean that two sides exist. If scientists uncover and publish new, valid evidence that the earth is flat or we aren’t causing climate change, then and only then should we treat those as serious propositions.

Note 2: Please read this article before you bring up the fraudulent Oregon Petition or any other standard climate change denier nonsense.

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