Apologies in advance, there is much inside references in this post. I’m sorry I don’t have the time to write up all the background but for those who follow the Science Based Medicine blog and the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, you can follow along.
A rumor floated about the TAM2012 (The Amazing Meeting, Las Vegas) hallway on Friday that Dr. Steve Novella was debating a anti-vaxxer. It seemed sort of “all of a sudden” and we were excited. I’m sure the spectators would have come streaming out of the TAM main room had we been able to witness such an event. Alas, it was offsite, not close enough for easy access and part of another conference that was not open to spectators. Dr. David Gorski tells us what happened.
Spoiler alert (but no surprise): Novella mopped the floor with the guy.
I[t] turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.
Dr. Whitaker is a supporter of Burzynski clinic as well as claiming to cure diabetes naturally. It turned out that the original debator for Dr. Whitaker became ill and Dr. Steve was a fill-in. Not familiar with Whitaker’s ways, the debate was indeed a slap-dash affair. But, no worries, Gorski notes that Whitaker made profoundly STUPID errors that were seized upon and thrashed to pieces by Novella including hilariously extreme graphs (that went up to 120%) and predicted that all children will eventually be diagnosed as autistic.
Steve basically mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker. There was nothing left, not even a stain on the chair—metaphorically speaking, of course. It was actually rather painful to watch, in the way that it’s painful to watch one baseball team get pummeled by 12 runs, even when it’s a baseball team I really detest, like the New York Yankees. However, there was no “mercy rule” in debate. Basically, Dr. Whitaker trotted out a number of antivaccine “greatest hits,” and Steve pummeled him for it.[…] I expected Dr. Whitaker to be much slicker and harder to handle than he in fact turned out to be, such that in the end the audience might have been left with the impression that there were two scientifically legitimate sides to this issue (exactly the reason why I don’t like “debates” with pseudoscientists). Quite frankly, though, Dr. Whitaker was painfully bad, and I felt really stupid for having so massively overestimated his capabilities at debate and rhetoric. On the other hand, it’s always better to overestimate your opponent than to underestimate him. In any case, Dr. Whitaker made easily rebutted arguments, couldn’t even Gish Gallop very well at all, was ignorant of the science, even bad studies that purport to show a link between vaccines and autism, and appeared completely flummoxed by obvious points that any halfway decent debater would expect his opponent to make. In short, he looked every bit as though he had expected a cakewalk and as though he is used to adoration, not challenge. Steve gave him a challenge, and more, and from the reaction of the audience I’m also pretty sure that Steve got through to at least a few fence sitters. Even in an audience predisposed towards “health freedom,” good arguments can win out over bad. Still, I wonder whether they would have won out if Dr. Whitaker hadn’t been such an atrocious debater.
TAM was full of good news among the usual groans. This was another win even though it took place outside the meeting. It serves as an example that trumped up expertise is full of holes if you just look. And, if we know how to easily shine a light through these holes, you can demolish pathetically bad arguments with relative ease. Now go out and do good.