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Fewer interviews, more debates
I can’t be the only one who’s getting slightly bored of the long-form podcast interview. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great interviewers out there. People like Sam Harris and Joe Rogan are especially good, as reflected in their massive audiences, which exceed the populations of some countries. Kudos to those two gentlemen.
But if we take the podcast “sector” as a whole, I’d say there’s a great oversupply of interviews. When a popular writer publishes a new book, they might end up doing several podcast interviews – a dozen if they’re a big name. And yet after you’ve listened to one, you’ve kind of got the message. There’s little to be gained by listening to others, since the same points just come up again and again. “Why did you write the book? What’s the main argument? How does this change the way we think about X?”
There are a few exceptions. Steven Pinker’s often worth listening to several times over because his command of the English language is so impressive. But there aren’t many Steven Pinkers around; just one, the last time I checked. And some commentators are so verbally maladroit you’d rather they stuck to the written word and left the podcast game to someone else. I’m afraid not everyone has a “voice for podcasts” – especially long-form ones.
Not only is there a lot of redundancy across the ever-growing number of podcasts, but there’s substantially too much agreement. Too often when I listen to an interview, the interlocutors agree on almost everything, and the role of the interviewer seems to be merely prompting the guest to further expound his or her ideas. “Okay, tell us about X… Interesting, tell us about Y… Fascinating, tell us about Z.”
Now, there’s a perfectly good reason for this format. Many viewers may not be familiar with the guest’s ideas; they may not have heard of X, Y or Z. Hence broadcasting those ideas to a wider audience serves an important function. If you’re a podcaster, and you’ve had success with this format, keep doing what you’re doing! I’m not saying there’s no role for the friendly, prompt-led interview.
However, I’d personally like to see more disagreement – more podcasts where two or more people with opposing ideas actually attempt to persuade each other, and the audience, of their point of view.
Of course, corporate media outlets host “debates” all the time, but they’re almost invariably unproductive. They tend to be far too short, while including far too many people. “In the next two and a half minutes, our twelve guests here in the studio will discuss whether Biden was right to withdraw from Afghanistan.” Okay, I’m exaggerating; but you know what I mean. No one can develop a serious argument under these conditions.
What’s more, the set-up encourages guests to regurgitate empty sound bites. “We’ve all seen the shocking images from Kabul airport. Do we need any more proof that Biden made the wrong call?” Alternatively, guests may use their few allotted seconds to play an extremely unedifying game of Gotcha! with their opponents. “Isn’t it true that, fourteen years ago, in a comment left on a now-deleted blog, you used a term that, when translated into the original Pashtun, could be construed as racist?”
Another reason corporate media “debates” are so impoverished is that their goal isn’t generally to enlighten, but to entertain. (A non-trivial subset of the population apparently finds it entertaining to watch people shouting over each other.) Insofar as this is the goal, organisers like to invite participants who they know will be “expressive” on camera. Needles to say, such participants do not always make the most convincing arguments.
Once again, I’m not saying there’s no role for “expressive” debaters. Alex Jones versus Piers Morgan on guns was brilliant TV. (Seriously: watch this clip if you haven’t seen it before.) I’m just saying that debates where people talk over each other are oversupplied, relative to ones where you actually learn something. And unlike Alex Jones – who’s now banned from corporate media – most people aren’t entertaining when they’re screaming in someone’s face.
Long-form podcast discussions were meant to be the alternative to boring, scripted, PC corporate media. And they largely still are: Joe Rogan apparently gets five times as many viewers as Fox News Primetime, and ten times as many as CNN Primetime. But I still think there’s room for improvement.
Take the recent controversy surrounding Rogan’s interview with Doctor Robert Malone – a critic of the mass rollout of Covid vaccines.
To give you a bit of background: Malone is an immunologist who claims to have “invented” mRNA vaccine technology. While this seems like a stretch, he did make important contributions in the early stages of its development. Malone was recently banned from Twitter for spreading “misinformation” about Covid vaccines. (Whatever you think of the man’s views, we all know that “misinformation” policies aren’t applied consistently.)
Though I didn’t watch the full interview, I caught a few highlights on Twitter. From what I saw, Malone made some good points, as well as some bad ones – which is also the impression I got from perusing his Twitter account (before it was suspended). I believe that Malone’s voice should be part of the debate. And while he’s wrong about certain things, many scientists have been wrong about things during the pandemic. Even Malone’s view on the vaccines isn’t that unreasonable. For example, he’s argued in favour of vaccinating the most vulnerable.
However, the reason I didn’t bother to watch the full interview is simple. Rogan is also sceptical of the Covid vaccines, so I assumed that Malone would be preaching to the converted. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have anything interesting to say, but it does mean that his points would go largely unchallenged. Since there’s only so much time in the day, I decided to skip it. (You can let me know if I’m wrong about this characterisation.)
What I would have tuned in for is a debate, hosted by Rogan, between Malone and someone prominent from the “other side” – CNN’s Doctor Sanjay Gupta, say, or one of the many other scientists who supports the mass rollout of Covid vaccines. Each man would have to had bring his A-game, and after the dust had settled, we’d have had a much better sense of which arguments stand up to scrutiny, and which don’t.
There are already some debate channels doing good work, such as Modern-Day Debates and Politically Provoked. However, the participants tend to be obscure internet personalities, rather than big hitters like Malone or Gupta. (No disrespect to those obscure internet personalities, some of whom are very knowledgable indeed.) There are also forums like Intelligence Squared and the Oxford Union, but their debates are too “rhetorical” for my liking. They often feel more like contests in the art of oratory.
I prefer debates where there’s one participant on each side, plus moderator (although that isn’t essential). And the emphasis should be on free-flowing discussion, rather than designated periods for opening statements, rebuttals etc. Another thing that’s important is for participants to be evenly matched, and willing to engage in good-faith. If one of them insists on belabouring irrelevant points, or simply resorts to ad hominem, there’s little to be gained by watching.
For me, the standard for productive and entertaining debates was set by William F. Buckley on his show The Firing Line, which aired over 1,500 times between 1966 and 1999. Some of the best match-ups include Buckley versus Christopher Hitchens and Buckley versus Noam Chomsky. Why don’t we have discussions like these any more?
One reason is the increase in political polarisation, and the rise of wokeness in particular – with its rigid demand for intolerance of those with “problematic” views. My sense is that, these days, right-leaning commentators are more up for a debate than left-leaning ones. But this isn’t necessarily because their arguments are better. It’s because left-leaning commentators don’t want to get in trouble for “legitimising” their opponents through debate.
Even if a left-wing commentator believes in the value of good-faith argument, he may be disinclined to ever have one for fear of the backlash he’d get from his own fans. This tendency was exemplified by the recent decision on the part of leftist YouTuber Ethan Klein to retroactively delete his old conversations with Jordan Peterson. Klein was handsomely rewarded with 37K likes for this brave act of expurgation. Peterson, you see, is a “gateway” to things that are Bad.
Still, there are plenty of arguments to be had on the right: libertarians versus conservatives on immigration; free-marketeers versus protectionists on trade; Christians versus secular rightists on abortion. And there may be scope for getting some of the more disillusioned and financially independent leftists involved too. Just written a book with a fascinating new idea – instead of doing six identical interviews, why not have a debate?
Image: Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first provides additional evidence for the “healthy vaccinee” effect. The second notes that some countries’ post-vaccination waves were as deadly – in terms of excess mortality – as their pre-vaccination waves. The third notes that the New York Times mentioned ‘original antigenic sin’ as a reason why boosters could be counterproductive. The fourth criticises a viral tweet from the German Health Minister, suggesting that Omicron is a threat to children.
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