Misinformation is like pornography — people think they know it when they see it. But I’ve spent more than a year studying medical misinformation as part of a Pulliam Fellowship and have come to find the term isn’t particularly enlightening. The dictionary calls it “false information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.” Much of what’s popularly labelled medical misinformation is really minority opinion — and that can be presented responsibly or in a way that’s misleading.
This distinction applies to star Spotify podcaster Joe Rogan and his controversial interviews with scientists. The most heavily criticized episode, featuring biologist Robert Malone’s non-mainstream concerns over Covid vaccines, was further on the fringe than listeners were led to believe — but there’s no reason to assume Malone was lying rather than expressing wildly overconfident opinions.
In medical matters, airing minority views might cause people to make poor decisions, such as skipping their Covid vaccine, so Spotify’s remedy — to add an advisory to episodes about Covid and direct listeners to more information — is reasonable. What celebrity singers and their fans are flagging as misinformation has a subjective quality that makes it impossible to police in a systematic, scientific way.
There’s a spectrum of minority opinion in science — from the bold and visionary to the crazy and dangerous. The important question for Spotify, and everyone else creating or consuming news about health, is how to tell the difference and present minority views responsibly, in the right context, so viewers get a sense of where the preponderance of evidence lies.
That means demanding those with minority opinions back their arguments with logic and evidence — not with boasts about their connections or accolades.
Both Rogan and I have interviewed science writer Gary Taubes, for example, whose minority viewpoint on higher fat diets has become increasingly accepted. And I have also interviewed vaccine expert Paul Offit — who is well within the mainstream, but has written a book poking holes in a variety of mainstream medical beliefs, from the need for cancer screenings to daily vitamins to the imperative to fight fevers. Lately, he’s taken a contrarian turn by not advocating Covid booster mandates. (Offit does support boosters for high-risk people.)
The problem with the Robert Malone episode was not that he criticized Covid-19 vaccines. It’s important to look at all medical interventions critically. And on the surface, Malone might seem like a reasonable source to discuss the pandemic. He did some clever experiments 30 years ago which contributed to the scientific foundation for mRNA vaccines. The problem with the episode is that Malone’s critique relied on unchecked speculation and baseless assertions.
I listened to Rogan’s whole three-plus hours with Malone, and discovered that it hit on many of the topics I’ve covered in my own podcast, “Follow the Science”: Ivermectin as experimental therapy, side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines including menstrual irregularities in women, the concern that vaccines would make the disease worse, shortcomings in vaccine clinical trials, confusion over the effects of vaccines on transmission, and problems with politicized science. (Disclosure: my podcast is also on Spotify but I have no financial relationship with the company.)
But unlike Malone, my interview subjects mostly spoke within their specific areas of expertise, and offered lots of scientific evidence. They also drew very different conclusions than he did. Some, such as chemist Derek Lowe, used not just data but an understanding of biochemistry to explain why Ivermectin is unlikely to cure Covid-19 (even if it does cure other diseases), and why vaccines are very unlikely to cause enhanced vulnerability to disease (even though that has happened with some other vaccines).
Malone took on a lot by himself, and his arguments were rambling and often rested not on evidence but on his claimed insider status at the Department of Defense and other government agencies. Sometimes there was kernel of real data, but his interpretations were alarmist. While other experts have raised concerns about menstrual irregularities in women who’ve gotten the Covid-19 vaccines, he suggested the shots would cause premature menopause. That point needed rebuttal.
In an apology, Rogan promised to try to bring on guests “with differing opinions.” That’s laudable, but what really matters is making sure listeners know where the scientific consensus lies.
Mavericks will always capture the public’s imagination. In 2012, Rogan interviewed a character very similar to Malone — Peter Duesberg, who had been an acclaimed virologist with a contrarian view that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Colleagues have said Duesberg’s criticism of mainstream science was valuable back in the 1980s, but there’s now overwhelming evidence that HIV does cause AIDS. (At one point in Malone’s interview, he and Rogan sang Duesberg’s praises.)
Plenty of mainstream journalists gave Duesberg airtime because the public loves a good underdog story — the triumph of the rebel nobody believed. It’s also one of the reasons media outlets gave Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes a free pass when she claimed she was changing the world of blood testing. But the burden of proof should be on the maverick to bring powerful evidence. Science writer Gary Taubes did that when it came to debunking low-fat diets. Malone and Holmes instead relied on name-dropping, innuendo and sometimes paranoia.
Sometimes the crowd can be wrong. Dissenting views are worth listening to, as long as those presenting them bring evidence and a rational argument. Asking media companies to censor “misinformation” likely won’t work because it’s not that simple. Most people don’t know it when they see it.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
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• The Rise, Fall, and Curious Revival of Vaseline: Stephen Mihm
(Corrects the name of Rogan’s podcast guest in the sixth paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Follow the Science.” She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.
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