They say you need a thick skin if you want to put yourself out there as a science communicator promoting critical thinking. And, it’s true: Trust me, I know. But that thick skin is not necessarily needed to fend off promoters of pseudoscience; just as often, you need it for public attacks launched by those who purport to be your allies.
Recently someone with a skeptical blog wrote an article criticizing me for two different things (both of which were wrong, incidentally; obviously this person didn’t care to check). I didn’t know the person, and browsed around on the blog for a few minutes. It was a generally skeptical blog, but all too often, it seemed the blogger was less interested in attacking the charlatans than in stroking their own ego by going after just about every prominent skeptic: “I’m smart because Novella, Randi, Shermer, Plait, Nickell, Klass, Radford, Dunning, (the list goes on), are wrong.”
I liken the drivers of the critical thinking movement to paddlers in a giant canoe. Some are more influential and paddle hard, others less so. But we’re all paddling. Every little bit helps. We’re paddling because what we’re doing is important and we believe in it. I welcome everyone who comes aboard to help, no matter the size of their paddle.
So it’s frustrating for me when I see people who represent themselves as paddlers, but really all they’re doing is disparaging those who actually do paddle. Oh, occasionally they may stick their paddle into the water and steer or give a little push or two, but every time they stop to lambaste the contributors, they’re dead weight; and when they shout to other boats what horrible paddlers their shipmates are, they are actively counterproductive.
One of our fellow Skeptologists here on SkepticBlog is renowned for his Libertarian politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. Similarly, another is renowned for his Democratic politics, and frequently criticized for mixing that into his science communication. What their critics fail to recognize is that even though one is paddling on the left side of the boat, and the other is paddling on the right side of the boat, both are paddling like hell and have done far more to advance public awareness of science and critical thinking than their critics. They are close allies and work together frequently. Take note that they do not derail their own cause by turning their attentions inward and infighting with one another.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be open to internal criticism of the way we do what we do. We have to be, and we are. But unless you’re trying to communicate to the world that skepticism is falling apart, you don’t trumpet your criticism to the world in your blog, you pick up the phone and make your suggestions appropriately. I had a huge problem with something that happened at The Amazing Meeting 7. I didn’t podcast or blog to the world that TAM is all fucked up; I communicated my concerns in private to the appropriate person. Guess what, my concerns were welcomed, and I also discovered that I didn’t know the whole story. How about that for a shocker? And the world still knows what I want them to know: That I think TAM is an incredibly positive event. We’re still paddling in step.
I invite every skeptical blogger, podcaster, or communicator to stop and consider what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Do you really have no better targets to go after than your best allies? If you feel that I or anyone else have done something counterproductive to science education, you’ll probably find that we welcome your comments if you present them appropriately. If you’re just out there trying to shout “Look how smart I am”, well, we don’t have time for you; but we’ll make time if you want to pick up a paddle and climb on board.