In November of 2007, I heard that an alleged energy healer named Adam McLeod (“Adam Dreamhealer”) was scheduled to appear on a popular Canadian Broadcasting Corporation talk show, The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. I was familiar with the Adam Dreamhealer case, and also uncomfortably aware that media outlets usually treat miracle healers as harmless, untestable human interest stories. I was concerned about the ethical implications of promoting Adam’s claims to a national television audience. (Adam claims abilities for “energetically diagnosing illnesses,” and treating cancer “from 3000 miles away.” According to his web site, Adam is “uniquely able to influence the health and healing of large groups of individuals at his workshops by joining the auras of all in attendance.”)
I wrote to the producers of the show in advance to offer my assistance, and to remind them, “When The Hour interviews Adam, there will no doubt be thousands of viewers who are either suffering from cancer or watching a loved one suffer from cancer — all potential customers” of Adam’s lucrative books and healing workshops. (According to ABC News, then-19 year old Adam was already making over a million dollars a year in 2006.)
This, I cautioned the producers, “places a heavy due diligence responsibility on the CBC” to cover these life-or-death medical claims “with exquisitely careful critical scrutiny.”
I never heard back from them. However, I learned later that a more insistent skeptical activist took the matter as far as the CBC Ombudsman. Upon review, the Ombudsman’s decision was that the show’s host bore a lower due diligence burden because
George Stroumboulopoulos is not a front-line, hard news interviewer; he approaches sometimes difficult subjects in a less confrontational manner than investigative journalists might. But his task is different on what is, at base, an entertainment program.
This “entertainment” argument often shields paranormal claimants from critical scrutiny in newspaper “lifestyle” sections and “unsolved mystery” TV segments, but let’s set that aside for the moment. Today I want to dig into a different, though related matter:
Entertainment or Education?
The skeptical community has its factions and schisms. Some of these reflect the growing pains of an academic project trying to come to terms with its new life as a popular movement (what is sometimes called “skepticism 2.0″). Other disputes amount to border clashes between skepticism and parallel rationalist movements (humanism, atheism, Objectivism, and so on).
One of skepticism’s earliest splits occurred right at the birth of the pioneering Skeptical Inquirer magazine, back before it was even called by that name. The Zetetic, as it was then known, was a small journal whose first editor Marcello Truzzi left the magazine almost immediately. At issue was a question that still preoccupies skeptics today:
Is the primary job of the skeptical literature to provide a forum for debate? Or, is skepticism supposed to educate the public about science, pseudoscience, and hoaxes?
Now, this is something of a false dichotomy. Nearly all skeptics agree that the answer is “a little of both.” But skeptics do tend to split along these lines, leaning in one direction more than the other. Some prefer debate and “challenge everything” novelty, which is undoubtedly the most entertaining. Others emphasize a mandate for science literacy outreach and consumer awareness regarding fringe science claims.
I am firmly a member of this latter, more conservative group, as I laid out in the essay “Where Do We Go From Here?”:
In particular, we should renew our focus on the investigation and criticism of paranormal claims. Here’s why:
1. People get hurt.
2. No one else does anything about it.
In my view, consumer protection is the most foundational function of the skeptics movement: we investigate, report on, and promote awareness about products which are generally ineffective, sometimes dangerous, and occasionally deadly — and which no other watchdog group bothers to research.
Due Diligence for Skeptics
The skeptical literature sometimes presents arguments of the form, “Is consensus view X all it’s cracked up to be?” These heterodox articles (sometimes written by unqualified outsiders) offer novel food for thought, challenging widely held views on global warming, second-hand smoke, the validity of psychiatric diagnoses or animal testing, and other such material. Long-time skeptics may enjoy a little frisson when encountering these arguments for the first time: “Ooh, that’s new! I never thought to wonder about that before. Wouldn’t it be interesting if X really were a load of hooey?”
This is fun stuff, but I suggest that the skeptical literature should try to avoid this temptation. It’s not impossible for contrarian articles to be correct, but it’s all too easy for them to be wildly wrong (or badly uninformed). To the degree that contrarian arguments are out of step with the prevailing current of opinion among relevant domain experts, “wrong” is the way to bet.
In either event, such articles are typically misleading in that they give fringe positions undue weight — and lend them the credibility of the wider skeptical movement. (Paired “for and against” pieces imply that both positions are equally plausible, which is rarely true; but most contrarian articles are run without any immediate rebuttal.) This can seriously mislead readers about the actual state of the science — an inversion of the stated goals of all skeptical organizations. In my opinion, that violates a public trust I described recently in the Skeptical Inquirer:
At the core of the skeptical literature is a promise: “If you read this, you will find out what’s really true about weird claim X.” Skeptical magazines can aspire to keep this promise, to accurately deliver the best available science and scholarship, only when they’re able to identify mysteries, set experts to work solving them, and set other experts to work fact-checking the answers.
That is to say: skeptics bear a heavy due diligence burden. The more we present skepticism as “the scientific perspective,” the heavier that burden becomes. People turn to us for reliable information and science-based analysis. That is exactly what they should get.
Nor is it only skeptical magazines who bear this burden. All public skeptics — TV celebrities, podcasters, and bloggers included — have an unrelenting ethical responsibility to do their homework, stay close to their expertise, and get the facts right.
To deal with that burden, here’s the simple rule I propose: No skeptic should ever say anything that isn’t correct.
The Utility of a Preposterous Standard
Is this a reachable goal? No, of course it isn’t. It’s ridiculous. Perfect objectivity and accuracy are forever as far away as the end of the rainbow. But I would argue that there is value in the dogged, doomed pursuit of this aspiration. After all, every step we take toward that goal is a step in the right direction.
What sorts of steps? I’ll tackle that in a more substantial way in future posts, but I think we all know the general outline. I try to consider questions like these:
- Do I have the expertise to express an opinion about this?
- Have my facts been reviewed by anyone who knows what they’re talking about?
- Would those I’m critiquing agree that I’ve described their position accurately?
- Have I given undue weight to fringe positions?
- Have I given enough weight to criticisms of my own position?
- Have I accurately described the uncertainties and assumptions of my position?
- Am I using arguments that science has already considered and debunked?
- Have I sought out the primary sources?
- Can I prove what I’m saying? (Really? Am I sure?)
…and so on. Not exactly rocket science, so to speak, but exactly the sort of good practice that rocket scientists (and all evidence-based researchers) rely upon to advance knowledge.
Do I get things wrong in my own work? Bloody right I do, and it chews me up to know how easily that happens. (I virtually guarantee that there are mistakes in this post, even if only typos. Blogs are especially vulnerable to error: they are published almost as soon as they are written, and rarely vetted by proofers or editors.)
My own mistakes are why I recite that impossible rule to myself so often: “Never say anything that isn’t correct.” It’s a mental exercise (think of the “fear is the mind killer” bit in Dune), a way to at least partially restrain my own temptation to reach beyond the evidence — or speak beyond my expertise.
And I fail, of course. But how can we reach for anything less? Make no mistake: there is a human cost when skeptics get things wrong. It doesn’t matter if your soapbox is as large as CNN or as small as your Twitter feed: if anyone is listening to what you say, then you bear the burden of Spider-Man’s Law: “With great power comes great responsibility.”