Last week Brian Dunning wrote a thoughful piece about the proper way to give constructive feedback to other skeptics when you disagree with them. His post resulted in a hot debate in the comments section – a discussion I thought deserved a longer response than I could cram into a comment, so I am responding here.
What I found most interesting reading through the comments was that most people had legitimate points to make, even when they disagreed. In my opinion this is because we are dealing with a situation in which there are cross purposes or competing, although legitimate, interests.
Specifically, Brian was making the point that as a movement with common goals (promoting science education, counteracting misinformation from ideologues and charlatans, for example) it is in our best interest to be constructive and discrete in our internal criticism, rather than showboating for apparent attention.
On the other hand, science and intellectual honesty are among our core values, and these require transparent and open criticism. Open self-criticism strengthens the movement, it does not weaken it.
I find myself simultaneously agreeing with both points of view, not because I am wishy-washy and don’t like taking firm positions (I hope my reputation has established that much) but because both points of view are valid. It seems the only option is to seek a thoughtful and nuanced compromise – which is difficult to do, and harder to communicate.
There is no wonder that Michael Shermer has characterized organizing skeptics as akin to “herding cats.” We as a group are like Groucho Marx who quipped that he would not join any group that would have him as a member. The skeptical movement, as we loosely call it, is made of people who generally don’t like belonging to groups or being tagged with labels, and certainly don’t like being told what to think, say, or write. We are rugged individualists of intellectualism, and proud of it. (In fact, some skeptics have even objected to calling what we do a “movement” or who bristle at any suggestion of organization.)
In fact, I sometimes get a bit nervous when I find myself in the majority of public opinion on any issue (not scientific or expert consensus, but mass opinion). This makes me wonder if I am adequately informed and have thought through my opinions, or just absorbed them from the culture. I’m not saying the public is always wrong, but rather admitting the tendency to take pride in having a minority opinion that was earned through careful study and consideration.
Before anyone bothers to accuse me of it – yes, this is intellectual elitism, but in a good way – valuing intellect and hard work. This is no different than valuing athletic or artistic achievements earned through skill and hard work.
The point of this is to paint the context of the debate prompted by Brian’s post – skeptics value their intellectual independence. We also recognize that constructive criticism is vital to science and any open intellectual pursuit.
All Together Now
But at the same time we are not just sitting around in our virtual drawing rooms contemplating abstract concepts. We are trying to change the world, to make it a better place, to raise the level of scientific understanding and appreciation among the public, and to counter anti-scientific agendas from ideologues and the purveyors of pseudoscience. We are trying to do stuff, together.
In my opinion this makes us colleagues. Obviously this is a continuum, and not everyone who reads a skeptical blog is engaged in the skeptical movement. But, if you have a skeptical blog, a podcast, run local meetings, post you-tube videos, or whatever – to some extent, you are a colleague in the skeptical movement.
In my opinion, it is appropriate for colleagues to extend to each other a certain amount of courtesy. It is certainly not “required” (whatever that could mean in this context) but does reflect a certain amount of savvy and maturity.
I will tell you specifically how I typically extend courtesy to my skeptical colleagues. When the Bill Maher-AAI controversy reared its ugly head, I did not immediately fire off a scathing criticism of the AAI (who I actually consider a tangential colleague, as they are an atheist and not strictly skeptical group, but in any case). I had a discussion with some other colleagues about how to respond. And prior to any public response we wrote to Richard Dawkins and the AAI to get their side of the story and give them a chance to respond.
I then publicly come out against the AAI for giving Maher a “science” award only after they had a chance to respond to our privately expressed concerns.
As a general rule I will always try to give constructive feedback to my fellow skeptics before going public with criticism. Venue also plays a role – if we are having a public conversation (on a forum, in blog comments) I won’t censor the dynamic back and forth.
Another aspect of courtesy is to give each other a little benefit of the doubt. I won’t immediately assume the worst about a colleague simply because they get something wrong and start accusing them of not being skeptical. I admit, I find those accusations the most counterproductive. I will simply assume that they are reasonable and open, and present them with evidence or arguments of which they might not be aware. I treat them as I would want to be treated – not publicly swat them down the moment they step over some imaginary line.
Others have extended this courtesy to me also – and it can be public, as long as it’s polite and not an attack. I frequently make factual errors in my blog, and have had colleagues point out these errors in the comments section – to which I respond – thanks, I have made the appropriate fixes. It’s all good.
But I would have been pissed if they instead wrote an attacking blog accusing me of deliberately omitting information in order to promote my ideology, or of generally being a bad skeptic. That has happened to me also, but not by anyone I respect. That is what the jerks over at the Discovery Institute or Age of Autism do – not us.
Further I try to have the humility to consider that maybe I am wrong. And so my initial contact with my skeptical colleague is more to ask questions and gather information, to discuss the question with them to see what is correct, not just assume I am right and they are wrong.
I am also not pretending to be perfect in this regard. I am sure I stepped on some toes over the years – I produce so much unscripted content that it’s bound to happen. But these are the ideals of courtesy I strive for.
Some of the commenters to Brian’s blog pointed out that they don’t feel like colleagues – like those of us who are more prominent in the skeptical movement are inaccessible. I can understand why someone might assume this perspective. It is a natural default perspective to take. I certainly don’t feel as if I can shoot off an e-mail to Bill Maher and expect that he will read it and respond.
But I will say that the skeptical movement is small and intimate as movements go. I know we all try to be as accessible as possible. I read every e-mail I get and make a priority of responding to polite constructive criticism.
So partly my answer is – you are a colleague if you act and behave like one, and we are likely to treat you accordingly. Yes, I am overloaded with e-mails and comments to monitor, so don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately respond to an e-mail. Have some patience. But generally the skeptics I know are engaged in activist skepticism because they like communicating, and they genuinely want to be open and accessible.
But on the other hand
But while we are being polite to each other, we should also be uncompromising when it comes to factual accuracy. No one is suggesting otherwise, and Brian was explicit on this point. Open discussion, even conflict and disagreement, is a good thing. It is part of science and skepticism, and it makes our movement intellectually healthy.
I also think it is OK to show this to the public, and perhaps I differ a bit from Brian here. I don’t think a united front is as important as a collegial front. It might even be to our advantage to show that we happily and openly disagree and correct each other.
Rather, I think colleagues should not attack each other in public without fair warning. There may be a fuzzy line there, but one worth contemplating.
This is a complex issue and I welcome the discussion that Brian’s post has prompted. It reflects the mixed feedback I have received over the years. To summarize what I think are the main points:
- Scientific skeptics are an intellectually diverse group. This diversity is welcome and a sign of the intellectual health and openness of skepticism as a philosophy.
- Generally we welcome open self-criticism in the spirit of scientific methodology, honesty, transparency, and valuing truth over conformity.
- Individual skeptics have a variety of relationships and attitudes toward organized skepticism.
- Like it or not, there is a skeptical movement. Humans are political and social animals and we instinctively organize ourselves as a way to pursue common goals and promote (or at least defend) a common world view.
- If you want to function as a member of the skeptical movement, your colleagues will likely expect a certain amount of common courtesy (just like in any social construct). This means exercising some maturity and humility and keeping criticism constructive. It does not mean censoring legitimate criticism or alternate or even minority viewpoints.
Of course, this is just my opinion.