An audio recording of this essay is available here.
I didn’t intend on my first post to be about Joe Rogan, but here we are.
A short recap: Joe Rogan has been embroiled in controversy due to podcasts he recorded that are accused of containing “misinformation” about vaccines. Spotify is being pressured by various actors - musicians, healthcare professionals, even politicians - to “do something” about Joe.
Let’s get something clear.
I am not going to defend the views of Joe Rogan, as I do not find them defensible.
In regards to COVID vaccines and Ivermectin - I think he is mistaken. I think it is also likely that at least some people are moved by Joe’s perspectives, and consequently have refused to get vaccinated. This is obviously not a good thing. I myself am vaxxed (and vaxxed and vaxxed), and have essentially lived in my own isolation chamber for much of the pandemic. I believe that the vaccine is a risk worth taking.
The question is: What is, or isn’t, the right way to approach information that is likely to be incorrect - at a time where lives are at stake?
Here is where I am going to defend Joe.
I have two main contentions, which split this essay:
The philosophical case - the relationship between scientific progress and open inquiry
The pragmatic case - what is trust, and how attempts to “deplatform” Joe will backfire, and badly.
For a little while now, I’ve been working on a project to highlight skeptics of religion in Islamic history, like the famed physician Abu Bakr Muhammad Al-Razi.
I initially found this more challenging than expected. Not being familiar with the world these figures were living in, I could not immediately grasp the novelty of what they added to our intellectual heritage.
But novel it was - as their world seemed to be entirely encompassed in what we might now describe as bad thinking at best, absolute lunacy at worst.
Surrounded by entire frameworks built on faulty premises, it was a marvel when some managed to get something right (or even close to being right).
And when they did, they would find opposition everywhere - especially from other thinkers.
When Galileo and his telescopes revealed a new cosmological truth, he was famously opposed by the Catholic Church, but rather less famously by other scientists who noted its clash with how we thought matter moved. The cosmology, inconveniently, had revealed itself before we had the proper physics to make sense of it.
Although hard to intuitively imagine - it is likely that we too are living in an age our descendants will find dark and ignorant, that some of our Galileos will not be understood as such in our lifetimes.
It is important to remember this 1000 year view as this discussion continues, as we are prone to tunnel-vision produced by fleeting but emotionally-loaded culture war disputes.
The default posture is to think of knowledge accumulation as binary - either we have found something true or we have not. But that is not usually the way we understand and learn, and we have no way of knowing at the time if we are right. We can, at best, be somewhat confident that we are merely less wrong.
But make no mistake - less wrong is still a great leap forward!
The so-called Islamic Golden age was one of those times where - for a variety of reasons - the Muslim world saw an explosion of novel thinking, insights, and advancements. It was rapidly becoming less wrong - approximating ideas that were closer to what we now know. This was the time of the great polymaths of Persia and Central Asia. And then, just as they had come, the geniuses disappeared, and the Islamic world was again, left in the dark.
Well, a lot of things, but one vital component and the most relevant to this discussion was that the Golden Age was also a time of relative political tolerance for different perspectives. Many of the leaders of the Islamic Golden age were liberal in their approach, even to outright heresies. And then, because the Islamic world was ruled by an absolute leader, the progress died when a less tolerant Caliph came to town.
Dark ages for knowledge haven’t just been times where bad ideas won hearts and minds, but where they were given a tactical advantage - either by favored status among the ruling authorities (like a religion, or a political ideology) or by the suppression of open and free inquiry.
So from the 1000 year perspective, the most important thing is not to merely focus on the many ways we are wrong, but to actively optimize for environments where it is possible to become less wrong.
Here, I will make two claims:
First: We are swimming in a pool of what will eventually be considered obvious mistakes, falsehoods, delusions, and failures of imagination. So it is important to look upon ourselves (and our histories) with a deep sense of humility. We are simply less wrong, and we have a lot farther to go.
Second: In the long run, shutting down bad ideas, at the cost of also shutting down a few good ones, is not a deal worth making. Bad ideas don’t sink us; we are constantly dealing with bad ideas (indeed, as noted before, surrounded by them!). The inability to correct for them does. The inability to find better ones does.
From here, I am contending:
That freedom to be wrong and freedom to find the truth are the same thing, and we can only know for certain which is which in hindsight .
This is why I have a broad level of skepticism and suspicion for any attempts at censorship - especially when the crime is the possibility of being wrong.
In the case of Joe Rogan, defenders of censorship will claim that the presumed “lives saved” will be worth the risk. I disagree.
Not only because I do not think Joe has the cult-like influence over his listeners his detractors think he does (more on this later), but because this same defense has been trotted out hundreds of times by authoritarians. It is well-studied that in times of crisis, the panicked masses all too readily give up freedoms that are not easily won back.
As we cannot know exactly what the balance of the trade-off will be in the end - I choose to optimize for being less wrong in the long-term. That is to say, liberty (and an open window for progress), over temporary safety.
So now that we’ve gotten the philosophical objection out of the way, let’s move on to
Joe Rogan Osama bin Laden…
Follow me, for a moment, to 2011, to a small town in Northern Pakistan.
The town is surrounded by lush natural beauty - emerald green valleys and picturesque mountain ranges. Rather annoying that instead of hiding out in a dreary, damp cave, the world’s most wanted terrorist was regularly enjoying breathtaking views.
The CIA suspects he is here, and is desperate to confirm his location. One scheme was particularly ingenious - find bin Laden by finding his children. Find his children through DNA samples, by coordinating a fake vaccine drive and pretending to be inoculating people against hepatitis B. The CIA managed to recruit a Pakistani doctor of respectable status to direct the plot.
Osama was found out, and so was the ruse.
Unsurprisingly, the news of the deception shook the Pakistani public - which is, at the best of times, already prone to frenzied conspiracy theories, especially so when it comes to Americans.
In the immediate years following the revelations, vaccination rates dropped, and polio rates began spiking after years of encouraging declines. Like wildfire, rumors began to spread that Americans were using vaccines to sterilize Muslim children - resulting in attacks and in some cases, murders of healthcare workers throughout the country.
The CIA pinky-promised never to do it again. But trust, once lost, is tough to recover.
Pakistan, which was considered close to eradicating Polio in 2011, instead took another decade to finally get there.
It isn’t the case that the villagers in Pakistan no longer “trusted the science” in a literal sense, or the expertise of the doctors, or the competency of the American organizations funding the vaccine drives.
On the contrary, they believed that the apparatus supporting the drives was immensely qualified, skilled, and capable.
What they no longer trusted were their motives.
And it is this aspect of trust that is routinely overlooked - to our great folly.
Here, I will make two more claims (both, I hope, obvious):
First: That the loss of trust is incalculable to institutions in general, but particularly in public health as it involves placing the well-being of one’s body in the hands of a stranger.
Second: That trust is a thing that is granted, not owed. It can be gained by honesty, transparency, and mutual - MUTUAL!! - respect.
So at last, we arrive at Joe Rogan.
As others have noted, it is very hard to understand the appeal of Joe Rogan if one does not listen to Joe Rogan.
Mainstream media commentators have wondered aloud why he is trusted, but they are not. The convenient answer, and one many fall for: that he gives voice to the reactionary, racist, ignorant tendencies of America.
Their condemnation of Joe is also a condemnation of his audience - the unwashed, uncultured masses who prefer the ramblings of a meathead over the enlightened analysis of the chattering class.
Let’s make one thing clear: No one trusts Joe Rogan because they think he is an astonishing genius or a subject-matter expert (except perhaps, in comedy or full-contact sports).
They simply think Joe is honest and open and can’t say the same about most media institutions.
They don’t trust Joe for his authority, they trust him for his authenticity. They know he isn’t right all the time (in fact, it would be a sign of unrelatable inauthenticity if he was) - they simply trust him to tell them what he truly thinks, when he thinks it.
It is because Joe’s critics do not understand this at all that they vastly overestimate the influence of his bad ideas. Although of course he has some effect on his audience - the idea that, in the words of Edward Snowden, “people are, like, emerging from their deep caves, eyes blinking against the harshness of a sun whose touch they have never known, on a quest to seek specific medical advice from the glory of a white-robed Rogan is, perhaps, just the slightest bit forced.”
It betrays a total lack of understanding about the relationship Joe has with his audience (and arguably, the relationship nearly any producer has with their audience).
But Joe’s audience, and indeed, the general American public, are not blind followers. And in addition to Joe’s flaws, they see the flaws of the mainstream media too.
But unlike Joe, these institutions are anything but transparent - with blatant double-standards, politicization of general issues, and narrative reversals peppered in coverage throughout the pandemic.
Out of many reversals, the most shocking was reversal on masks. As the CDC, WHO, and various public health officials trotted out the lie that masks do little to protect healthy people, the media establishment unquestioningly parroted. Later, as public health officials pivoted to an entirely reversed guideline - most media institutions loyally followed without missing a beat. (Not to mention the multiple pieces published defending large-scale protests for the sake of social justice - just barely acknowledging that they might lead to spikes in virus spread, too.)
The lesson for those already on the road to mistrust: they will lie to you - put your friends and family in danger, for what they deem to be the greater good.
Meanwhile, many figures have been recorded expressing vaccine skepticism before the 2020 election, after which political allegiance demanded yet another reversal (from both sides). The vaccine-hesitant became the vaccine evangelists, but unlike Joe, little “accountability” has come for them, including Vice President Kamala Harris.
Numerous outlets also claimed the so-called “lab leak” theory was complete quackery - indeed “misinformation” that was actively censored from many social media platforms. As of this writing, it is looking far more plausible, with various respected scientists putting their weight behind the idea and even the President acknowledging it as a real possibility.
While no one can quite remember each and every bit of betrayal, it is in this atmosphere that the general sense of unease and mistrust takes hold.
And it is also in this atmosphere that the hundreds of healthcare workers who wrote to Spotify to demand action for Joe Rogan did public health a huge disservice.
No one who already believed in the efficacy of vaccines was moved in any direction, but the vaccine hesitant will certainly feel vindicated in their belief that they are purposefully being kept in the dark by a shadowy, sinister apparatus, one that has a demonstrated history of political bias and outright deceit.
The campaign to “do something” about Joe is self-destructive, as it will seem to confirm the conspiracies not eliminate them.
And if they succeed and Joe is effectively “deplatformed”, a new figurehead will eventually take his place as the voice of the honest everyman - because that figure is badly desired by the public at large.
And he (or she!) too will find themselves in the bullseye of rage and fear directed by an increasingly impotent media elite.
There is a way for all parties to “win”, or at least, for no one to lose catastrophically. And that is for more public health experts - especially those with large platforms like Anthony Fauci - to go on platforms like those of Joe Rogan.
Long, casual, unrestrained conversations will go a long way to bridging the trust gap, or at least, will be a first step in the right direction.
Hold That Thought is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Excellent essay. I love the context of the 1000 year view. Here's to the next 1000 of becoming less wrong.
Thanks Sarah. I think your take here is spot on. Joe is not as influential as people give him credit for, and to be fair, he isn't trying to be. He just happens to be popular. The same charges used to be levelled at Howard Stern back in the day.