Peter Hotez, a professor of molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine, said he was “stalked” at his Texas home Sunday by a pair of individuals espousing antivaccine views after an online conflict with controversial podcaster Joe Rogan over vaccine misinformation.
The heated exchanges — now a war of words involving billionaires and prominent scientists — began on Saturday with Hotez, a respected COVID-19 vaccine expert, debunking claims that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an antivaccine crusader, made in an interview with Rogan.
Hotez, a physician and the dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine who has long pushed back against anti-science sentiments, retweeted a Vice article critical of Spotify for allowing the three-hour conversation between Rogan and Kennedy to go unchecked on its platform. The interview, which was rife with misinformation, took place on “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Hotez dismissed the podcast as “absurd” and called the conspiracy theories and vaccine misinformation pushed by Kennedy, who in April launched a longshot presidential bid for the Democratic nomination, “nonsense.”
Kennedy, the son of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, has long been a controversial figure even within his family. Once known for his work as an environmental lawyer, he now makes headlines for his antivaccine rhetoric and embrace of dangerous conspiracies.
After Hotez called out Rogan and Kennedy, Rogan and his listeners targeted Hotez online and tried to goad him into debating Kennedy on the podcast. Soon billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Ackman were further stoking the clash on Twitter.
Hotez countered with scientific data from the pandemic.
“Too many Texans and Americans needlessly died during the pandemic because they fell victim to antivaccine disinformation,” he tweeted at Musk. Hotez also offered invitations to discuss vaccines and medical misinformation.
By Sunday, the situation escalated when Hotez was accosted by antivaccine activists at his home. One person posted a video showing himself confronting and following Hotez, prompting the scientist to say, “Don’t come to my house” and labeling it “harassment.” A woman could also be heard shouting in the background.
Scientists and physicians rallied around Hotez, calling the online abuse and threats directed toward him “despicable.” New York magazine columnist Errol Louis denounced Rogan, Kennedy, and Musk in particular for reducing serious issues “to entertainment for conspiracy cranks and the idle rich.”
“People need to understand that these attacks are driven by far-right, anti-democracy, white supremacist organizations and politicians,” she said. “It has very little to do with actual vaccines.”
In his own thread, Hotez said that “science is not something that is typically debated” but is assessed through “peer-review,” a point echoed by others who came to his defense. Science is decided slowly, typically through writing, and performed with heavily scrutinized data, tweeted Kristen Panthagani, an emergency resident at Yale University. But podcasters and politicians, she said, reach their audience with carefully prepared speeches and lines.
Fellow physician Jonathan Howard, a neurologist at NYU Langone, referred to people like Rogan as “sheltered talkers” who have largely treated the “pandemic as a spectacle.” Rogan’s debate demand demonstrated that his priorities lie with “theater and performance,” he said.
“For antivaccine activists, doesn’t matter if they lose debate, they still win by virtue of getting false legitimacy & amplifying their message,” tweeted Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher and physicist.
In a lengthy post, billionaire Mark Cuban also came to the defense of Hotez, saying that Rogan and Kennedy were not interested in evidence about vaccines but in voicing their own views.
On Sunday, Hotez appeared on “The Mehdi Hasan Show” on MSNBC, where he explained the problems with debating science with Kennedy.
“Anti-vaccine disinformation ... now is a lethal force in the United States,” he told Hasan. “I offered to go on Joe Rogan but not to turn it into the Jerry Springer show with having RFK Jr. on.”