Dr. Peter Hotez is a respected vaccine scientist, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, who has devoted his career to improving global public health. He is also the author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad, a book that draws on his experience as a doctor and the father of an autistic daughter. Podcaster and conspiracy theorist Joe Rogan and profoundly unfunny Twitter CEO Elon Musk spent the weekend trying to bully him into debating Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the efficacy of vaccines.
The saga started on Saturday, when Hotez shared a Vice article about how Spotify—which signed Rogan to a multiyear exclusive contract in 2021 that is rumored to be worth $200 million—has stopped “even trying to stem” the podcast host’s “vaccine misinformation,” which was focused on Rogan’s three-hour-long interview with Kennedy. “Peter, if you claim what RFKjr is saying is ‘misinformation’ I am offering you $100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you’re willing to debate him on my show with no time limit,” Rogan tweeted. Musk quickly backed him up, writing, “He’s afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong.”
Hotez has offered to appear on Rogan’s podcast but has rightfully refused to debate Kennedy on the issue. Given the popularity and influence of Rogan’s show, there are persuasive arguments for appearing, if only to correct the wild statements that are frequently shared about not just the Covid-19 vaccine but all vaccines. But appearing with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would likely only legitimize those views. Kennedy has spent more than a decade spouting conspiracy theories with no basis in fact about vaccines. As Hotez noted to MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan, “Anti-vaccine disinformation … is now a lethal force in the United States. I offered to go on Joe Rogan but not to turn it into the Jerry Springer show with having RFK Jr. on.”
The goal of the “debate” Rogan is trying to host is not to hash out the truth or to finally decide if vaccines are safe and effective or not. Vaccines are safe and effective: This is settled science. The goal is to sow doubt and confusion over both settled science and the value of expertise, both in medicine and in the wider world. Hotez is right to avoid it. But he is already paying a price: He says he was “stalked” on Sunday by anti-vax protesters who were waiting for him outside his Houston home.