Originally posted January 19, 2014
Joe Rogan would make a superb trial attorney.
Dead lawyer jokes aside, this is not a knock against him. Rogan is an impressive communicator as a popular stand-up comedian, television personality, and podcast host. He has a well honed persona and delivery. On a recent episode of the Joe Rogan Experience Brian Dunning got behind the microphone (or took the stand) with Rogan for a wide ranging discussion on Skepticism.
I am an avid listener of Dunning’s popular podcast Skeptoid, and from time to time read his blog posts and follow him on Twitter. A few months ago Rogan put out a call, I believe on Twitter, to have a skeptic as a guest on his show. Dunning took up the offer, and was given seat. Dunning has been behind the microphone himself for the past eight years with his podcast and gives presentations to audiences. Dunning is not without some communication skill himself. Unfortunately, Dunning did not make the case for Scientific Skepticism as positively as I had hoped. In fact, it was a bit difficult to listen to the three hour show uninterrupted. I mentally and emotionally took take a few breaks while listening to the episode. (Normally, I can listen to three hours of content without breaking sweat.)
The episode started off roughly for Dunning with Rogan stating that Dunning was wrong in naming Rogan a top ten celebrity for peddling misinformation in regard to 9/11. Rogan then conceded that he was wrong about the Moon Landing being a Hoax. Rogan did note that he would enjoy it more and that it would be more impressive to him if the landing were a faked rather than real. Here, Dunning was on the defensive from the get go, and the episode from there on out was rather rocky.
In Dunning's defense he was in a difficult spot. He is a guest on a conversational show with a skilled ad lib communicator. Rogan was in control of the timing and the pacing of the episode as the topics ebbed and flowed from 9/11 to the Kennedy assassination to dietary supplements among others. I have only ever listened to bits and pieces of Rogan’s show before this episode, but while the format of the show is a conversational talk show Rogan was in cross examination mode much of the time. Dunning was never able to gain control of the situation, and he kept getting painted into corners and allowed Rogan to define the topics being discussed. It would take a tremendous personality and off-the-cuff wit to overcome such as situation as the guest. I am not exactly sure who could have done better. There are a few that may have risen to the challenge, but I short of a late Christopher Hitchens' type I am not sure. Sure as hell would not be me.
On top of this Dunning’s human fallible memory was turned against him a few times during the discussion. The one that stuck out was Dunning discussing a previous episode of Rogan's show where a physician guest was discussion a supplement that allegedly prevented intoxication from alcohol consumption. Dunning noted that the doctor was trying to sell this product, but from the clip of the episode that Rogan played back it is fairly evident the doctor was not selling anything. The doctor was however making some rather bold claims of the amino acid supplement in question. Now, Dunning and Rogan agreed that alleged claims of the supplement were dubious, but instead of focusing on this aspect of agreement in all turned into a circular argument on the delivery of supplements to the body which made Dunning look more the fool. As Dunning was just show to be incorrect that the doctor was selling this item, Dunning I fear to a non-skeptical listener lost credibility. I understood what Dunning was trying to point out, but Dunning did not come across all that well. If this were a trial testimony the first thing I would be wondering is who prepped Dunning? They did not do a good job.
I still have a lot of respect for Dunning, and will continue to enjoy and learn from his work. Nearly anyone in the studio with Rogan would have a had a hard time of it, although it is possible that some MAY have done a better job . . . maybe. The one thing Dunning never got across clearly was the idea of skeptics following the consensus of experts either run a scientific or professional field over the lone wolf whistle blower or the vocal small minority. He touched upon it during some of his 9/11 discussion especially in regard to the collapse of Tower 7, and at the end of the discussion. However, at this point it was too late. Rogan was slippery when it came to having an opinion on anything. It was not quite the “I am just asking questions” ploy that skeptics often face in discussions with conspiracy types and other pseudo science proponents, but it was close. Dunning never called him out on it. Rogan was also very good at tossing out studies found on the internet supporting this position or that, and Dunning was never able to get ahead of the curve and just say "I don't know that study. I can't comment. Let me look into it." Dunning did indicate that he had an enjoyable time on the show. I take him at his word. I would have been a frustrated wreck.
Rogan is an engaging host, and he is not nearly as off the wall as I thought he might be. He is kind of a hyper skeptic whose evidence filter is just a bit off. All in all this episode ought to be required listening for Skeptics. At the very least it will make one think how to best to communicate one’s position and learn how others might twist your words against you. It is a lot like preparing for cross examination at trial. A handy skill if one can learn it.