Several people have asked why I haven’t hosted anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus regarding Covid-19 on my Orthodox Conundrum Podcast. Today, one individual argued that since it’s my show, where I can challenge my guests and argue against them as I see fit, there is no reason to keep them off the air. When we teach Gemara, he continued, do we teach only one side of the debate while ignoring the others? Here is my response to this important question.
Yes, I believe that both sides of an argument should be heard. For example, I believe that President Trump should not be celebrated and that his words are very harmful; I was appalled that the National Council of Young Israel hosted a dinner which apparently doubled as a MAGA rally. Nonetheless, I interviewed the rabbi who chaired that very dinner in order to hear his side of the story. And as you said, Gemara consists of listening to different opinions, not only those which are the practical halacha, or with which we agree.
On the other hand, the Gemara does not include those opinions which were outside the pale, which didn’t make it into the Gemara in the first place. We listen to Rishonim and Acharonim; we don’t care about opinions that were stated by people who were not on the level to argue with those Rishonim or Acharonim. In modern terms, I’m interested in listening to a dispute among major halachic authorities, but it would be foolish to allow an individual who is not a halachic scholar to have a voice in that dispute. His opinion is not admissible, for he lacks the knowledge to even understand the issues they’re discussing, or to truly become involved in the deep ins and outs of halachic argument.
You might reasonably ask what harm there is in allowing these opinions to be expressed in a debate or on a podcast. If they’re so obviously false, why not let them be stated publicly? They’ll either be exposed as foolish, or demonstrated as compelling.
The answer is that debates, YouTube videos, and podcasts are very poor vehicles for arriving at the truth. Authentic understanding of serious issues requires extensive investigation using difficult methods of analysis; these in turn require prerequisites of major education and training. On the other hand, simple answers and simplistic discussions – which is what any podcast or debate is – can fool the listener into thinking that falsehood is truth. They sound convincing, but that’s often a result of the listener’s lack of education and understanding of the issues involved.
Imagine a podcast pitting a physicist against a rabbi where they discuss whether the wave-particle duality is a real issue in quantum mechanics. The rabbi claims that logic rejects the idea that photons behave like waves or particles depending upon how they’re measured; that violates everything that we know about the physical world. The physicist will almost inevitably lose the argument, even though he’s correct and his interlocutor is completely wrong. Explaining why the rabbi is wrong requires a course, not an hour-long recording; and if the rabbi comes armed with a few well-timed zingers, the physicist may even be portrayed as a charlatan.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a real-life example of this phenomenon. In a debate with quick and pithy sound bites, the Palestinian argument against Israel is very compelling. You and I both know that the Israeli argument is strong and compelling, as well; but explaining why that is so requires a long and thoughtful discussion, involving everything from history to politics to religion. In a debate, or in any short presentation, we see how people often become convinced that Israel is the oppressor. The reason isn’t that the Palestinian argument is correct, but that serious ideas are seldom able to be summarized in a few sentences.
For this reason, it is foolish and misleading to let people who are not experts air their opinions on an equal footing with actual experts. In a YouTube video or debate or podcast, they may both sound equally compelling, or perhaps the representatives of the incorrect side will even be more convincing. This is not because they’re right, but because the forum is conducive to making falsehood seem as accurate as truth. I repeat: serious issues are generally proven after huge amounts of research. Without that, truth and falsehood can, sadly, appear to be equals. Indeed, falsehood often has the upper hand.
And it gets worse: by giving the agents of falsehood a forum, we are giving credence to their ideas. Even if they lose the debate, the fact that they were on a credible stage and were given a hearing accords them a degree of respectability they do not deserve.
We hear repeatedly from Holocaust deniers that they don’t want to convince everyone that the Holocaust did not happen. Rather, they want to debate the issue in a public forum. This is generally rejected, and rightly so. Giving Holocaust deniers, who are lying anti-Semites arguing against established historical facts, a place on the dais, is a fool’s errand. It admits dangerous ideas into the realm of public discourse. If they win the debate – which is possible, since debates are poor ways of arriving at truth – we lose. And even if they lose the debate, we’ve implied that these ideas are respectable when, in fact, they are not. We have, in other words, given them the fuel of respectability for the next round.
Which brings me to the speakers you recommended. The vast majority of physicians and scientists versed in epidemiology accept that Covid-19 is real, masks are helpful in preventing the spread of disease, and social distancing is crucial. There is a huge consensus among people who have the medical and scientific training to know the truth. Allowing a rabbi from the United States to buck this solid medical consensus on my podcast would be wildly irresponsible of me. Opinions stated by non-experts that go against those of actual experts, and which are quite dangerous in that they recommend putting other people in danger based on their non-expert viewpoints, have no place on my podcast. Permitting them to be aired would give them unearned credibility, even if I successfully demonstrate why they’re wrong. And more importantly, a podcast – as proud as I am of it – cannot be a source of truth. Truth is attained – earned – by extensive research by people who are educated in both the subject at hand, and in the methods of research necessary for that topic. I will host experts who have done just that; I will not provide a platform for guests who give credence to dangerous viewpoints which are not backed by a massive scientific consensus – a consensus, I should add, that includes people I know who are incorruptible, honest, authentic, and unbiased. Ignoring and deriding their expertise, while hailing the thoughts of individuals uneducated in this area who have not done comparable research, is foolish, crude, ugly, and dangerous. I will not fall into that trap, and neither should you.