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Why I Left Joe Rogan on My List of Celebrities Promoting Pseudoscience

by Brian Dunning

February 5, 2014

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Donate On January 14, 2014, I went on the Joe Rogan Experienceto call out Joe on what I believed were public disservices done on his show. What followed was a storm of controversy and charges of dishonesty.

You can watch it here (warning: 3 hours).

Before proceeding, I want to be clear that there is (for my part at least) not the slightest bit of bad blood between us. [UPDATE: Unfortunately that didn't last long. Joe's last emails to me after the appearance, and after I wrote this, consisted only of obscenities. -BD] Joe is friendly, funny, cool, and just plain-old the kind of guy you want to hang out with. From beginning to end, he has been fair, straight, and honest with me. After the show, we hung out at his awesome studio for half an hour, had beer and chatted. We came away with some disagreements, and disagreements are exactly the reason that good, productive discussion takes place. Disagreement is undervalued. For what disagreements I have with Joe, I value them, and like him personally at the same time. If the rest of this blog sounds like I’m attacking his views, then consider it to be the productive exploration of disagreement.

In our email exchange before the show, I suggested (and Joe agreed) that a good icebreaker to conversation would be my 2008 inclusion of him in Skeptoid #125 “Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience”. In the science and skepticism communities, Joe has long had a reputation as a publicizer of conspiracy theories, illustrated nowhere better thanhis infamous debate with astronomer Phil Plait on whether or not the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed. I’d heard that Joe had since moved away from his position on the moon landings, and he did a great job contending Roseanne Barr’s chemtrail beliefs, so I wanted to correct the record wherever necessary.

As a standup comedian and live host, Joe is a master of rhetoric. I’m the opposite; I’m terrible on my feet. I don’t do live debates. I’m much more of a writer. I did not expect to do well if I got into a live debate with Joe about conspiracy theories or anything else. Joe even beat up Phil Plait on a subject where Joe was (at the time) dead wrong and Phil was (still) dead right, and Phil is much better on his feet than I am. But I was fine with this prospect; it’s entertainment. So before I went on, I tweeted with my tongue firmly in my cheek:

So how did the show go? I should have had more Russian thugs. I got beat up. The whole show ended up hashing and rehashing what World Trade Center 7’s collapse looked like and the value of dietary supplements. Neither of us would give on either subject, so it was desperately repetitive. The whole time I was on, I was thinking to myself that Rogan’s listeners were going to hate both me and the episode.

The fallout was pretty spectacular -- if tweets can be considered spectacular. Joe has a huge audience, and the vocal minority of any audience that size is correspondingly large. From this vocal minority (probably a bottom 1%), I received hundreds of hostile tweets (at least) over the ensuing weeks. There were death threats, wishes that I would die, and a huge amount of just plain profanities and name calling (they are particularly fond of the "C word"). It’s not surprising -- even my own show has a bottom 1% of fans who send similar feedback to those who disagree with me. I don’t support it, and I’m sure Joe doesn’t either.

There were three common themes to the non-obscene feedback. First, I need to go smoke some weed (which I don’t do because of a life-threatening episode I once suffered). Second, I have a huge ego. Third, I stubbornly insist on always being right. But the feedback changed into charges that I’m dishonest when I posted the following as an update on the original 2008 transcript:
On January 14, 2014, I went onto Joe's showThe Joe Rogan Experienceto discuss this. A blog going into more depth is forthcoming and will be linked here, but Joe did not convince me that he should be removed from this list. Indeed he certified it stronger than ever.

Joe did deny that he ever believed 9/11 was a conspiracy, but then spent half an hour convincing me that it was. He also denied being a moon landing hoax believer and a Roswell believer, and I will give him that.
Let’s see what was dishonest in that update. “Joe did not convince me that he should be removed from this list. Indeed he certified it stronger than ever.” This is a fact. Joe did not convince me. I did not come away from the talk feeling that he should be removed and the remainder of this post will explain why, in detail. I do not claim that he said he should remain on the list, or that he endorsed his position on it.

“Joe did deny that he ever believed 9/11 was a conspiracy, but then spent half an hour convincing me that it was.” This language was so badly chosen on my part that I hereby retract it. I apologize to Joe and to everyone who, understandably, thinks I was lying here. What happened was that Joe denied believing 9/11 was a conspiracy, and then spent a big chunk of the show playing videos of Tower 7 collapsing and saying how much it looked like a controlled demolition, and how people could get that impression. He did not say that it was a controlled demolition. But there is a reason I said this. Following his showing of the videos, I told him on the show that a person who might come in and watch him give that presentation could very easily get the impression that Joe was trying to sell the point that it was a controlled demolition. I felt he was presenting it as if it were a valid alternate explanation. I was not the only one who got this impression.

So let’s get started by looking at why I originally included him in my 2008 episode Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience. Here is the entirety of what I said on the show:
Comedian Joe Rogan does what he can to promote virtually any conspiracy theory that he stumbles onto, apparently accepting them all uncritically with a wholesale embrace. He believes the Apollo astronauts did not land on the moon. He believes the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He believes the Oliver Stone version of the Kennedy assassination. He believes aliens crashed at Roswell in 1947 and the government is covering it up. He thinks Men in Black from Project Blue Book stole his friend's camera, even though Project Blue Book ended over 38 years ago. The worst part is that he promotes these ideas to the public at every interview opportunity, but gives himself the intellectual "Get out of jail free" card of not needing any evidence by hiding behind the childish debate technique of saying "Hey, I'm just the guy asking questions." Joe, if you're going to put so much effort into promoting conspiracy theories and eroding what little rationality the public has left, at least have the courage to come forward with a cogent argument and well-sourced evidence, instead of the lameness of "I'm just the guy asking questions." Take the responsibility.
That’s what I said in 2008. When I read this on his show, I started by apologizing that back in 2008, when Skeptoid was still a part-time hobby, I did not keep great records of my sources. So to answer some who charged that I made these up, here are sources for each of them.

He believes the Apollo astronauts did not land on the moon.

Joe has been totally up-front that he used to believe this, and that he has since moved away from this (he said as much in his 2013 conversation with Neil Degrasse Tyson). Compare this to his comments in the 2007 debate with Phil Plait on Penn Jillette's radio show, linked above.

He believes the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He tells me today that he does not believe this, and I'm sure that's true. But listen to what he said as recently as 2011.On hisepisode #160, at about the 2:07:00 mark, when prompted to bet whether WTC was a controlled demolition or not, yes or no, black or white, Joe thought out loud about it and said:
…I’ve got to go with controlled demolition, if I had to, one way or the other. I absolutely don’t know. But I would not be surprised if it was proven that it was a controlled demolition.
It would be very difficult to reconcile Tower 7 being a controlled demolition with any version of 9/11 that was not an inside job.

He believes the Oliver Stone version of the Kennedy assassination.

In 2012, in his episode #206, they were discussing Oliver Stone's assertion that CIA agent E. Howard Hunt was involved. Rogan was asked "So you believe he was assassinated by the CIA?" and he answered:
Yes. For sure. I think. If I had to guess, yeah.
I believe this adequately supports my 2008 assertion. He was still stating it publicly four years later on his own program.

He believes aliens crashed at Roswell in 1947 and the government is covering it up.

Joe also told me on his show, in no uncertain terms, that he does not believe this at all. I fully accept that he does not believe it now, if he tells me so. So where did I get the idea? From this 2001 interview, for one; the same place he also talked about the moon landings being faked based on how compelling a particular shockumentary was. Asked "Does it ever strike you as odd that we come up with new technology so fast sometimes? How computers and the Internet have changed and evolved in such little time?" He answered:
Well, I believe what happened at Roswell, New Mexico played a hand in that.
...and then proceeded to discuss what he perceived as inconsistencies in the official accounts of what happened in 1947. I am open to any alternative suggestions, but I cannot see any way to read this as anything other than an assertion that part of our current technology came from aliens at Roswell that were covered up by the government. Call me crazy.

He thinks Men in Black from Project Blue Book stole his friend's camera, even though Project Blue Book ended over 38 years ago.

This one I'm going to fully retract from inclusion. I believe this probably happened just as Joe says-- and if it didn't, it's perfectly consistent with what Blue Book did. Collecting evidence of UFOs was their whole purpose. Theirs was a national security mandate. In 2008 I misinterpreted Joe's story, and assumed it was a current event. But no, it was the story of someone who was of the correct age at the time Blue Book was operating, identified only as Steve. But I don't re-record old episodes when there are errors. If I was wrong, let the record show that I was wrong. Instead I compile errors into special corrections episodes on Skeptoid, and I will include this one in the next such episode. My apologies to Joe for misinterpreting this claim.

So then we come to the big question. Why am I not taking Joe Rogan off of my list?

There are two reasons. First, and most simply, it was a 2008 episode, and within the context of 2008 I am satisfied that (with the exceptions noted above) it was true enough. There was no suggestion that the celebrities included were deliberately harmful. I don't think Joe has ever been deliberately harmful.

Second -- and this is what I meant when I said "he certified [my position] stronger than ever" -- the debate tactics and argument framing that he demonstrated with me on his show are precisely the type that give misinformation and pseudoscience the energy it needs to permeate popular consciousness. To wit:

Promoting a conspiracy theory is not the same as believing a conspiracy theory. Whether Jesse Ventura or Alex Jones believes a conspiracy personally has nothing to do with whether they put the belief out there and promote it. It’s not relevant whether Joe personally believes that WTC7 was a controlled demolition; if he spends a big chunk of time on his show running the tape and telling people that it has all the characteristics of a controlled demolition, that’s promoting the conspiracy theory. At worst, it encourages faulty thought processes; and at best, it suggests that unsupported ideas are as worthy of consideration as are supported ideas.

In 2001, the FOX network notoriously ran the documentary Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? This was a public disservice, as it was presented as legitimate theory without proper context. It was a public disservice regardless of the personal beliefs of those who worked on the show. Presenting bad or discredited information as a viable alternative to supported theory or proven history is what we call “false balance” in the media. Isn’t it fair to show “both sides” to a question? Only when it’s really a question.

Shows like FindingBigfootperpetuate this false balance. Bigfoot advocates are presented as maverick researchers, bravely pursuing a quarry, the reality of which they are given an unchallenged platform to promote. A viewer who knows little about the subject is offered scarce reasons to suspect that the entire theme is faulty -- absurdly so. Yet I strongly doubt the Finding Bigfootproducers are believers. Their job is to engage viewers, not to educate or to care about the accuracy of their product. That they pursue their job without regard to the consequences upon the viewing public’s intellect is unfortunate. It is a public disservice. Moreover, it can easily be done better: The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty also portrays believing Bigfoot hunters in an engaging reality-television format, but gives them each a science-based smackdown at the end of each episode. This leaves the audience better educated, not worse.

But these examples are people who knowingly put out misinformation without caring. Joe cares. Joe has never knowingly put out misinformation, to my knowledge; and from having met him, I'm satisfied that he never would. He is good people. But let's look specifically at this snippet from my 2008 piece:
...[Joe] gives himself the intellectual "Get out of jail free" card of not needing any evidence by hiding behind the childish debate technique of saying "Hey, I'm just the guy asking questions."
It's great to ask questions -- when it's the right question. Many questions are those which, by their very nature, encourage us to look for only useless answers. An example from my episode 297 on reasoning errors:
The producers of ghost hunting TV shows know that they need to produce a program that yields positive results. They also know that they're not going to happen to run into any ghosts or catch anything unexpected on camera. So instead, they frame their program around asking the wrong questions: Can we get interesting readings on our electrical and temperature meters? By structuring their show around the wrong questions, they commit a deliberate Type IV error in order to produce the desired answers.
A Type IV reasoning error is asking the wrong question. We shouldn't ask "Is [US military research facility] HAARP is a weather-controlling superweapon?" Instead we should ask why people might believe such a miraculously bizarre idea; or at least the interesting science-based reasons why we know it can't be.

I don't think Joe has ever deliberately asked the wrong question, or asked any question that he hoped might provoke adoption of an invalid idea. But the questioner's intent is not relevant to the effects he creates.

Joe showed the Tower 7 videos and asked (paraphrased) "Doesn't this look like a controlled demolition?" But he knows/believes that it's not, so is there a better question he could have asked that would not have encouraged his listeners to consider an invalid possibility? Yes. Perhaps "What's a good way to encourage people not to misinterpret this video?" or even "Why are some people so powerfully motivated to assign a hidden agenda to ordinary events?" These are questions that we learn from.

Briefly on the show, we alluded to the (then) upcoming debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over whether the Earth is as science shows it to be, or whether all natural sciences are wrong and it's actually only a few thousand years old. This seems, to most of us, to be an absurd question; and by any reasonable scientific measure, it is. It is as basic a question as "Did we go to the moon as all available physical and documentary evidence shows, or could some insanely implausible alternative scenario be shoehorned into fitting a few skewed observations?"

I'm just asking questions.

During our talk, Joe gave me a direct answer to a direct question: Yes, he does consider himself to be a science advocate. I applaud the intent but not the method. Being the one "just asking questions" is fraught with pitfalls. Debating the wrong questions in a popular, public forum is no more likely to give the right impression than it is the wrong one; indeed it will often suggest the wrong impression where none necessarily existed before. Engaging all listeners with the right questions, however, confers upon them the tools to better analyze and understand their world; not just for the current question, but for any they might ponder in the future. And that's effective science communication.

by Brian Dunning

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