Tyler Cowen warns: Don’t trust Joe Rogan’s public debates! Seek truth through evidence, not spectacle

Tyler Cowen, an economist skeptical of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), cautions against accepting invitations from Joe Rogan to engage in public debates. Cowen emphasises the importance of critically assessing whether such debates will lead us closer to the truth. He points out that debates with MMT advocates or on other topics like crypto or existential risks may not provide a conducive environment for nuanced discussions and rigorous examination of evidence. Instead, Cowen suggests alternative approaches such as formal modelling, peer review, and expert panels to evaluate claims and explore the available evidence. He questions the necessity of throwing scientific questions into the chaotic culture of public debate and suggests considering other means to establish the truth, rather than succumbing to the allure of high-profile debates.

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If Joe Rogan Asks You to Debate, Be Suspicious: Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen

(Bloomberg Opinion) – As an economist who is skeptical of MMT, also known as Modern Monetary Theory, I am often urged to take part in a public debate with its advocates. I routinely decline, in part because I cannot answer “yes” to this question: Will this debate bring us closer to the truth?

It is something everyone should ask themselves before engaging in open discourse of any kind, on any subject.

The most common (and correct) criticism of MMT, presented by Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, is simply that its advocates have never presented a coherent model showing how their arguments fit together. But repeating that basic point is not so effective in a public debate, especially if MMT advocates are making all kinds of specific claims about inflation, interest rates and deficits. A lot of macroeconomics is counterintuitive anyway, so mere verbal sallies do not settle whether a particular set of claims is valid.

Rather than staging a debate, it is better to ask MMT advocates to outline their claims more formally — and then to push those claims through peer review. Then we can see what the evidence indicates.

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Crypto is another area where public debates can be misleading. It is easy to find a long list of frauds and fraudsters associated with crypto, and to present their offenses to a receptive crowd. The skeptic can then challenge whether crypto has any legitimate uses at all. The best rejoinder â€” many innovations end up being useful in ways that are not immediately evident — is not exactly guaranteed to wow the audience, despite its validity.

Existential risk from super-smart artificial general intelligence (AGI) is another topic on which public debate is unlikely to land upon the truth. The most extreme worriers can present a long list of concerns, and then ask their disputants to prove that the risk from AGI is zero or non-zero. In any case, a captive public audience is likely to go away worried. Vivid disaster scenarios are often easier to communicate and more memorable than an explanation of how, through decentralized systems and checks and balances, things might work out fine.

A better approach is to ask AGI worriers to act like climate scientists. That is, they should formally model their arguments, present those models for peer review, and then test those models against incoming data. Just how robust are predictions of doom in a world where most individuals and institutions will invest their resources in cooperative AI?

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Perhaps the AGI worriers will show they have a point. But in the meantime, slinging arguments back and forth will make their doom scenarios look more plausible than they probably are.

Recently, Joe Rogan offered to donate $100,000 to a charity of vaccine scientist Peter Hotez’s choice if he appeared on his podcast to debate presidential candidate and longstanding vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Most scientists consider the major questions settled — and not in Kennedy’s favour.

Of course people should always be open to revising their views. But a public debate is not a sufficiently structured setting for adjudicating right from wrong on these issues. The claims of vaccine skeptics generally have not held up when confronted with data and methodological critiques. Instead, the skeptics tend to rely on unverified anecdotes or misunderstandings of the data.

There is a justifiable argument that the peer review process itself is unfair. Yet scientific rebels, from the late Nobel economics laureate Robert E. Lucas to mRNA vaccine scientists, have managed to use it to persuade others. Despite its faults, the peer review process does help to strengthen arguments.

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As a general rule, one should not debate publicly with conspiracy theorists. Some conspiracies may be true and should not be dismissed out of hand. But any discussion needs to start by demanding the best available documented evidence, and then subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny. This is very often impossible to do in a public debate, where the unverified anecdote is elevated and methodological issues are obscured or unexamined. Furthermore, it takes more time to rebut a charge than to level it, and in the meantime the rebutter has no choice but to repeat some of the other side’s talking points.

So when someone demands a public debate on an issue, be suspicious. Why can’t the supposed truth be established by other means? Is it really helpful to throw so many scientific questions into the boiling cauldron of our delightful but chaotic culture of public debate? It may not be realistic, and it would definitely not be as exciting, but in many cases a better use of public resources would be to spend $100,000 on a panel of experts to summarise the best available evidence.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.